1 Aug

Tss. You think this military mess is inedible?

I once ate survival rations meant for an Imperial. You know, that 12-legged race of insect-lizard critters. I don’t know exactly what was in those compressed, dried foodstuffs, and I’m not sure I want to know. Ever. I mean, what do bugs and lizards eat? Other bugs? Alien bugs?

Are you going to drink that turnip juice? No? May I…? Thank you.

But I didn’t have much choice if I wanted to live. I’d already been marooned a week on a barren planet in an interdiction zone without any food when I found the wreck of a lifeslip. That’s how I recognized the food as coming from the Imperium, by the logo on the side. Imperials have a thick-skin/soft-bone combination, and there was nothing left but his/her/zher atmo-suit. You never can tell gender with an Imperial unless they tell you themselves.

On the left, are you going to eat that beet pudding? No? Thank you!

Anyway, I was extremely hungry. I figured I could starve slowly or I could die quickly if the food proteins/carbs were aligned wrong and it turned my intestines inside out, if you know what I mean.

I thought MREs were disgusting, but this! It was like eating saw grass or nettles, pressed down and wrapped with spiderweb and studded with little bits of protein that felt quite slimy as my saliva rehydrated it. I broke the rest of the ration into little pieces and swallowed it like pills. The texture alone was enough to gag a musk ox.

Corporal? Are you going to eat those mashed kale patties? THANK you!

How did I end up on a barren planet, eating an alien MRE? I’m glad you asked, friend. I was trying to outrun some Galactic enforcers, see, because I had salvaged a derelict ship, as our solar system laws allow. Granted, the derelict was less than a year old, but still – I hadn’t caused the wreck or anything. I didn’t know that Galactic law required all wrecks to be reported and salvage rights filed before beginning salvage. Sheesh. Always paperwork, right?

The salvage was very good, if you get my drift, but maybe I activated an alarm or something, and anyway, some freelance enforcers caught up with me and demanded my cargo.

I’m not sure what’s in that blue protein ball of yours, but may I…? You are very kind, ma’am.

I had to go hyperspace without proper plotting, and I came out too close to a gravity well. My ship and the treasure ended up in the sun, but I got out in my life pod, making it to the only Cinderella world in the system.

How did I escape that world?

Well, I didn’t, rightly. Those enforcers tracked me through hyperspace. I didn’t know you could do that. Then they sent me down the gravity well to retrieve the salvage. I don’t think anyone outside the enforcers and certain high-level galactic government officials know that’s possible. I was just glad they didn’t kill me. At first.

How did I end up here?

I am hungry. So hungry. The enforcers didn’t kill me, but they released me into the gravity well. They left their protective shield around my ship. And they left me with a hold full alien MRE packages. And the packs are labeled in some sort of braille, not in one of the standard galactic languages programmed into my ship’s translator. So, I never know what I’m opening and eating. Some of it feels like it’s coming alive as I eat it. I gagged once, but the food escaped. I hear it sometimes, scurrying around, as I move from sleeping to waking.

I’ve learned enough about the protective shield to project myself onto another ship if it’s close enough. But I can’t stay. As soon as you get pi times the half-life of carbon times the speed of light from my prison, I will be ported back to my ship.

I see your disbelief. I do. That’s OK. I don’t mind. I’m just going to grab your MRE, and yours, and yours before —


Free Falling

2 Apr

When I turned 50, my father got me a gift certificate for a floatation at Flo2s, a sensory-deprivation, floatation-therapy spa in Atlanta which bills their floatation experience as being “like outer space on earth.” I intended to use it right away, but, as so often happens, other demands on my life took priority.

Finally, this past March, I turned the necessity of driving my daughter down to the Atlanta airport into an opportunity to redeem my gift certificate. The experience was so energizing, that I plan on repeating it, but closer to home at Lucidity Spa in downtown Chattanooga.

Because parking in Atlanta can be problematic, I arrived early. Flo2s’ owners were in the middle of remodeling their facility, so the lobby was a little cluttered with paint cans, tiles and tesserae, brushes, and other common renovation ingredients. I think the end result will be very relaxing since the lobby restroom had been retiled in a very calming brown pattern. The building Flo2s is leasing is an older building with odd architectural quirks and almost alien piping, but the tiler somehow brought all those elements together in an organic way.

I had to sign a number of releases and go through a short training, and then the attendant took me to my tank area and showed me how everything worked. He gave me special earplugs for my ears, both to keep the water out and to deaden any sounds. He showed me how the chamber door worked and where the light switch was located. Then he gave me a cloth – in case I needed to scratch my nose. For hygiene reasons, I was not supposed to scratch my nose with wet fingers and place them right back in the water. I thought that was a little odd.

After he left, I showered off, changed into my swimsuit, and got into the tank. I felt odd at first because the tank was so shallow. I wasn’t sure how to hold my head and shoulders. I closed the door, turned off the light, lay back, and tried to relax. It took me a few minutes to get the hang of relaxing into a float because it really does not feel the same as floating in a swimming pool. Even with the extra floatation I carry naturally, I sink much lower in both fresh and salt water than I did in that concentrated bath of Epsom salts.

I closed my eyes and waited. Eventually my body relaxed. After a while I started to feel like I was gently spinning or tumbling through space. When I opened my eyes, I half expected to see stars in the night sky – but the blackness of the chamber was absolute. I used the cloth a few times, and when I reached for it once, I discovered that I had spun somewhat, because it was no longer in reach. Exploration revealed that my head was now where my feet had been, so I readjusted myself, scratched my nose in the approved manner and lay back down.

After a while, I began to wonder if signing up for a full 90-minute float had been a good idea. The air was just a tiny bit cooler than what I preferred, as was the water. I wasn’t chilly, but almost. And absolutely nothing was going on. Aside from a very faint whiff of mold. When I drive with the music off, to be alone with my thoughts, I still have the scenery. No sensory input began to bore me.

I estimated that I’d been in there between 20 and 25 minutes and started considering whether to just get out and stand in a hot shower. Then the music came on: the signal that my 90 minutes was up! Surely not! It couldn’t have been 90 minutes already!

I got out and checked the time on my phone: an hour and a half. Where had the time gone? I didn’t have any recollection of falling asleep or waking up, yet I must have. As I drove back up I-75 to Ringgold, I felt surprisingly energetic for someone who’d only gotten four hours of sleep the night before. The burst of energy lasted until almost 9pm.

In doing more research on floatation therapy, I came across this claim: One hour of rest in the floating theta state is equivalent to approximately four hours of R.E.M. sleep. I’m not sure what a floating theta state is, but I consider that float to be the best maybe-nap of my life.

Thanks, Dad!

“Superhabitable” Worlds

14 Mar

As a science fiction writer, I enjoy coming across science articles that make me a better world builder, so I read with interest Rene’ Heller’s article “Better than Earth” in the January 2015 Scientific American.

In this piece, Heller makes the case that Earth is past its prime and only marginally habitable. He asks us to consider the deserts, polar regions, and deep ocean. They are poorly populated at best. Heller says that the Earth’s prime habitable years occurred during the Carboniferous period. That made me smile because I had the Carboniferous in mind when I designed  First Egg (homeworld of the Imperium). For example, feudal Imperial society had to be very careful with fire (due to the high oxygen content of the atmosphere) and preferred to light their dwellings with luminescent powders.

Heller argues that worlds ideally suited for life would be somewhat larger than Earth – perhaps up to twice Earth’s mass. This could lead to a higher surface gravity and a thicker atmosphere, both of which could cause a flatter topography:  an “archipelago” world with shallower seas and smaller continents or only island chains. I found that an interesting point, since archipelagos and tidal pools are so conducive to a variety of life forms. Another benefit to a larger planet would be a longer-lasting core which could generate a more powerful magnetic field around the planet to better protect any life from destructive cosmic rays.

The author adds that an ideal “nursery” planet would circle a K dwarf star because those stars shine steady for billions more years than our sun, giving life better odds to develop and grow. Sentience is more likely to arise in such conditions.

Heller includes other variables, such as axial tilt, plate tectonics, and habitable surface area. He also discusses one prime possibility found by the Kepler telescope: Kepler-186f.

Perhaps as our sun ages, pushing its habitable zone further out beyond Earth’s orbit, we will discover worlds even better suited for life than the one we started on.


3 Feb

The other day, I was wasting time on Facebook when I came across a wonderful new Awkward Yeti comic strip by Nick Seluk:

This strip rocked me back in my chair. It completely captures my wonder at the universe. In just six panels, the author/artist has caught how science — the asking of questions about ourselves, life, this world, and all of space — inspires both the brain and the heart. I marvel at the things we are learning, discovering, and inventing (as in Discover magazine’s “100 Top Stories of 2014” ). Did anyone else squee when the European Space Agency landed Philae on that comet?

Yet we still know so little. Dark matter? Dark energy? O.o  I think the fact that so much mystery remains is wonderful. I suspect our human pysches need frontiers to explore like our bodies need Vitamin A: frontiers help us to focus, to see better.

One of the smaller mysteries, at least to me, is how Nick Seluk can get so right the disjunct between heart and brain. So many times, when I read an Awkward Yeti strip, I feel like the author is explaining me to myself. This is no small feat.

Take Gardner’s seven forms of intelligence:

  • Visual-Spatial: the ability to think in terms of physical space. Individuals with high visual-spatial IQs are very aware of their environments. They like to draw, do jigsaw puzzles, and read maps. They can be taught through drawings, verbal and physical imagery, models, graphics, charts, photos, and other visual multimedia. I have an average V-S IQ.
  • Bodily-Kinesthetic: the ability to use the body effectively. Individuals with high bodily-kinesthetic IQs have a keen sense of body awareness. They like movement, making things, and touching. They communicate well through body language and learn best through physical activity, hands-on learning, and role playing. My B-K IQ is very low. I can trip over air and have before.
  • Musical: a fine sensitivity to rhythm and sound. Individuals with high musical IQs love music and are sensitive to sounds in their environments. They may study better with music in the background. They can learn better by turning lessons into lyrics, speaking rhythmically, and tapping out time. I’m average in this category, too.
  • Interpersonal: involves understanding and interacting with others. People with high interpersonal IQs learn through interaction: group activities, seminars, dialogues. They tend to have many friends, empathy for others, and street smarts. I like people, but I do not understand them. I am definitely below average in this area.
  • Intrapersonal: involves the ability to understand one’s own interests, goals, and motivations. People with high interpersonal IQs tend to shy away from others. They are in tune with their inner feelings; they have wisdom, intuition and motivation, as well as a strong will, confidence, and opinions. They learn best through independent study and introspection. I absolutely suck at this. My IQ in this area is about a 10 (where 100 is average). Inner goals and motivations? Ummmm…. Me hungry. Me want Doritos. That’s about as deep as I get. Seriously.
  • Linguistic: involves the ability to use words effectively. People with high linguistic IQs have highly developed auditory skills and often think in words (other people don’t?!?). They learn best through words and reading books. Yay!! This is me! I own this one!
  • Logical-Mathematical: involves reasoning and calculating. People with high logical-mathematical IQs think conceptually and abstractly. They can see and explore patterns and relationships. They like to experiment, solve puzzles, and ask cosmic questions (SCIENCE!). They learn best through logic games, investigations, and mysteries. I am above average in this area.

I suspect Seluk must have a high intrapersonal IQ to figure out the inner truths he expresses in his strips. Because my intra IQ is SO low, what Seluk does in his Awkward Yeti strip often appears magical to me. And that is yet another source of wonder: I love it when people use their talents in ways that I cannot. It enriches me.


Stellar Law, Part II

10 Oct

International conventions:

Prior to 2021, no international (or interplanetary) conventions existed concerning stellar trade and commerce. In 2021, the United Nations, aided by the persistent efforts of Pat Hallas, pushed through the first edition of Stellar Law (a revised Maritime Law that reflected, as far as could be predicted, the challenges of space travel and commerce).
Since each body of law needs a court of decision, the United Nations designated the new International Space Station as the seat of the (very limited) solar government.

The newly formed solar government’s main responsibility was safety, and it borrowed heavily from numerous international conventions concerning maritime safety, developing the Guidelines for the Safety of Life in Space , the Standards for Training, Certification, and Watchkeeping, the Regulations for Preventing Collisions in Space, the Stellar Search and Rescue Conventions, and others. The United Nations Convention on Stellar Law also defined planetary boundaries and property rights.


Merchant space vessels transiting areas of increased pirate activity are advised to implement Self-Protective measures in accordance with most recent Best Management Practices agreed upon by the members of the merchant industry.

Individual countries:

Non-space courts assume jurisdiction over vessels in their territorial jurisdictions irrespective of whether the vessel is initially registered in their jurisdiction or not and wherever the residence or domicile or their owners may be. A vessel is usually arrested by the court to retain jurisdiction. Government-owned vessels from other jurisdictions are usually immune from arrest.


There are five types of cases which can only be brought in stellar court:

  • Limitation of Space Ship Owner’s Liability,
  • Vessel Arrests in Rem,
  • Property arrests Quasi in Rem,
  • Salvage cases, and
  • Petitory and Possession Actions.

The common element of those cases is that they require the solar court to exercise jurisdiction over stellar property. For example, in a Petitory and Possession Action, a vessel whose title is in dispute, usually between co-owners, will be put in the possession of the court until the title dispute can be resolved. In a Limitation Action the space ship owner will post a bond reflecting the value of the vessel and her pending freight.

Aside from those five types of cases, all other stellar cases, such as claims for personal injuries, cargo damage, collisions, stellar products liability, and recreational stellar accidents may be brought in either the solar or a divisional court (Earth, Mars, Luna, or Stellar-Commercial).

From a tactical standpoint it is important to consider that in the solar court, there is generally no right to trial by jury in most space cases, although the Jones Act was extended to grant a jury trial to space workers suing their employers.

Stellar law is governed by a uniform five year statute of limitations for personal injury and wrongful death cases. Cargo cases must be brought within three years.

Applicable Law:

A divisional court hearing a space case is required to apply the stellar law, even if it conflicts with the law of the division, under a doctrine known as the “reverse-Erie doctrine”. The “reverse-Erie doctrine” requires lower courts hearing space cases to apply substantive space law. However, these lower courts are allowed to apply their own procedural law. This change can be significant.


Cargo Claims:

Claims for damage to cargo shipped in interplanetary commerce are governed by the Hague Rules. One of its key features is that a space ship owner is liable for cargo damaged from “hook to hook”, meaning from loading to discharge, unless it is exonerated under one of 17 exceptions to liability, such as an “act of God,” the inherent nature of the goods, errors in navigation, and management of the ship.

Personal injuries to space workers:

Space workers injured aboard ship have three possible sources of compensation: the principle of maintenance and cure, the doctrine of unseaworthiness, and the Jones Act. The principle of maintenance and cure requires a space ship owner to both pay for an injured worker’s medical treatment until maximum medical recovery (MMR) is obtained and provide basic living expenses until completion of the voyage, even if the worker is no longer aboard ship.

Stellar Law, Part I

25 Sep

While working on the first draft of an asteroid miner story about a year and a half ago, I started thinking about the kinds of laws we will need for working, traveling, and living in space. A little bit of research led me to Maritime Law, which governs civilized behavior on Earth’s oceans, particularly once people are outside national coastal waters. Maritime Law, due to its nature, is international law; just as stellar law (off planet, yet within our solar system) should grow to be more than just Earth-based, particularly once people begin to live on Mars, on asteroids, or one of the moons.
So I took the Wikipedia article on Maritime Law and fiddled with it a bit. What follows is the first section of a future encyclopedia description of stellar law:


Stellar Law/Solar Law/Space Law

Stellar Law (also referred to as Solar Law/Space Law) is a distinct body of law which governs space questions and offenses. It is heavily based on Admiralty/Maritime Law. Space law is a body of both domestic law governing space-going activities, and private interstellar law governing the relationships between private entities which operate vessels in outer space. It deals with matters including solar system commerce, navigation, shipping, astronauts and other space workers, and the transportation of passengers and goods through space.

Stellar law also deals with navigational rights, mineral rights, jurisdiction over planetary defense zones and interstellar law governing relationships between planets.

Although each legal jurisdiction usually has its own enacted legislation governing astronomical matters, space law is characterized by a significant amount of interplanetary law developed in recent decades, including numerous multilateral treaties.

Features of stellar law

Maintenance and cure

The doctrine of maintenance and cure is rooted in the Article VI of the Rolls of Oleron promulgated in about 1160 A.D. The obligation to “cure” requires a space vessel owner to provide medical care, free of charge, to a person injured in the service of the vessel, until the person has reached “maximum medical cure”. The concept of “maximum medical cure” is more extensive than the concept “maximum medical improvement”. The obligation to “cure” a person includes the obligation to provide him or her with medications and medical devices which improve his or her ability to function, even if they don’t “improve” his or her actual condition. They may include long-term treatments that permit the person to continue to function well. Common examples include prostheses, wheelchairs, and pain medications.

The obligation of “maintenance” requires a space vessel owner to provide a worker with basic living expenses while convalescing. Once the injured worker is able to work, he or she is expected to maintain himself or herself. Consequently, an injured worker can lose the right to maintenance, while the obligation to provide cure is ongoing.

A vessel worker who is required to sue a vessel owner to recover maintenance and cure may also recover attorney fees. If a vessel owner’s breach of its obligation to provide maintenance and cure is willful and wanton, the vessel owner may be subject to punitive damages.

Personal injuries to passengers

Space vessel owners owe a duty of reasonable care to passengers (for a broad overview of this theory in law, see negligence). Consequently, passengers who are injured aboard space vessels may bring suit as if they had been injured aplanet through the negligence of a third party. The passenger bears the burden of proving that the vessel owner was negligent. While the statute of limitations is generally three years planetside, suits against space owners, including cruise lines must usually be brought within five years to allow for communication difficulties in the depths of space. Most Earth-based space cruise line passenger tickets have provisions requiring that suit to be brought in the Earth city from which the cruise departed.

Stellar liens

Banks which loan money to purchase space vessels, vendors who supply space vessels with necessaries like fuel and stores, vessel workers who are due wages, and many others may have a lien against the vessel to guarantee payment. To enforce the lien, the vessel must be arrested or seized. An action to enforce a lien against a space vessel must be brought in the court of the planet or authority which licensed the vessel.


When property is lost in space and rescued by another, the rescuer is entitled to claim a salvage award on the salved property. There is no “life salvage”. All spacefarers have a duty to save the lives of others in peril without expectation of reward. Consequently salvage law applies only to the saving of property.

There are two types of salvage: contract salvage and pure salvage, which is sometimes referred to as “merit salvage”. In contract salvage the owner of the property and salvor enter into a salvage contract prior to the commencement of salvage operations and the amount that the salvor is paid is determined by the contract. The most common salvage contract is called a “Lloyd’s Open Form Salvage Contract”.

In pure salvage, there is no contract between the owner of the goods and the salvor. The relationship is one which is implied by law. The salvor of property under pure salvage must bring his claim for salvage in court, which will award salvage based upon the “merit” of the service and the value of the salvaged property.

Pure salvage claims are divided into “high-order” and “low-order” salvage. In high-order salvage, the salvor exposes himself/herself and his/her crew to the risk of injury and loss or damage to equipment to salvage the damaged vessel. Examples of high-order salvage are boarding a tumbling vessel in an asteroid field, boarding a vessel which is on fire, raising a vessel from a comet, or towing an uncontrolled vessel out of a gravity well. Low-order salvage occurs where the salvor is exposed to little or no personal risk. Examples of low-order salvage include towing another vessel in “empty” space, supplying a vessel with fuel, or pulling a vessel off a stellar body which has a non-hazardous orbit. Salvors performing high order salvage receive substantially greater salvage award than those performing low order salvage.

In both high-order and low-order salvage, the amount of the salvage award is based first upon the value of the property saved. If nothing is saved, or if additional damage is done, there will be no award. The other factors to be considered are the skills of the salvor, the peril to which the salvaged property was exposed, the value of the property which was risked in effecting the salvage, the amount of time and money expended in the salvage operation etc.

A pure or merit salvage award will seldom exceed 50 percent of the value of the property salved.

Subatomic Weirdness

18 Sep

As a science fiction writer, I feel ashamed to admit that my understanding of quantum physics is murky at best. I realize that even quantum physicists don’t pretend to know all the answers, but still…. So I when I ran across Dolly Setton’s article “Ghosts of the Universe” in Discover (September 2014), I focused in on her sidebar “Neutrino Mysteries: A Guided Tour of Subatomic Weirdness,” with the hope that the author could increase my limited understanding.

Setton summarizes four basic neutrino properties that quantum physicists still struggle with: flavor, mass, antineutrinos (spin), and mirroring.

The first property we don’t fully understand is flavor: electron, muon, and tau. Somehow, neutrinos can change flavor as they travel. Setton explains, “Because neutrinos are quantum particles, and by definition weird, they are not one single flavor at a time, but rather always a mixture of flavors.” She says we can only discern which flavor is dominant in a neutrino’s final moments. When a neutrino collides with another particle, if the collision produces a muon, we can deduce the neutrino was muon-flavored immediately before the collision. If an electron results, the neutrino must have been electron-flavored, and so on.

The second property we don’t understand is neutrino mass. Some neutrinos mass more than others; perhaps mass depends on their mix of flavors at that specific time. Perhaps. The Heisenberg uncertainty principle also creates difficulty: the more precisely we know one property of a subatomic particle, the less precisely we can know another. Flavor and mass are so linked. The more we know a neutrino’s flavor, the less we can know mass. And vice versa.

The third point of weirdness involves neutrinos’ antimatter counterparts. Normally, the antimatter version of a particle (like an electron) is identical to the normal matter version except that it has the opposite charge. My brain struggles a bit with the concept of a positively charged electron (positron), but I can follow the logic. However, because neutrinos are neutral, their antimatter particles can’t have opposite charges. Instead, their spin is reversed. I’m still following. Then Setton explains that neutrinos don’t physically spin like a top or a planet. She says the term “refers to a property that is in some ways equivalent to spin.” She loses me here. I have no idea what that means. Then Setton adds one theorist’s idea that neutrinos may be their own antiparticles, which apparently satisfies one condition for the existence of the universe. Well. That’s as clear as mud to me.

The final point of weirdness involves the mirror effect: a magnetic field will push on an electron and a positron with exactly the same force but in different directions. Physicists hope neutrinos don’t follow this rule, so they are running experiments in Japan and the US to look for asymmetrical behavior to test certain quantum theories. The results may change our ideas about the dawn of time and the big bang.

I think this sidebar summarizes nicely the key issues surrounding our understanding (or lack thereof) of neutrinos and their properties. At least, I understand better what the difficulties are, and I look forward to reading the results of those ongoing particle experiments.

How Do Black Holes Spew?

11 Sep

One fact about black holes has long puzzled me: I’ve read in a number of articles that black holes will from time to time violently discharge a mix of matter and radiation. How is this possible? Once a black hole sucks anything past its event horizon, that material never gets back out. Hence the term black hole – even light can’t get back out.
Yesterday, I found the answer while reading Steve Nadis’ article in September’s Discover magazine: “To the Edge and Back.” The article mainly describes the Event Horizon Telescope currently under development, a fascinating collaboration between astronomers and observatories around the world. The answer to my long-held question about black hole “emissions” comes in the article’s introduction.
It turns out that the “discharged” material never made it past the event horizon. When a black hole encounters more matter than it can consume, all the matter sucked towards the hole by its huge gravitational pull causes an enormous “traffic jam” that keeps most of the matter from actually making it down into the hole. Excess matter keeps piling up, and the pressure grows.
Atoms and small particles grind against each other, heating to billions of degrees. Boyle’s law lays out the relationship between temperature, pressure, and volume. A rapid increase in the first two will force a change in the third. Volume must expand, but it can’t expand into the black hole due to the clog, so it shoots out into space at close to the speed of light.
At least, that’s the theory. If the Event Horizon Telescope project can come together by the time the black hole in the center of our galaxy encounters gas cloud G2 in the next year or so*, we might be able to watch the process happen and learn more about it.


*Yes, I know the actual event happened light years ago, but we don’t get to watch it until a year or so from now when the light from the event reaches Earth.

Heads Up (& Together)!

4 Sep

The Orlando Science Center is hosting the Orlando Maker Faire on September 13 and 14. This faire celebrates do-it-yourselfer scientists and garage tinkerers. Just the pics of featured makers and their works could spark a number of writing ideas. If nothing else, check out the work of featured maker E-Nable, a team of over 800 volunteers who design and 3-D print prosthetic hands for children — for less than $50!

Here’s the link:

Twirl Wind

4 Apr

A playful breeze swirls

pale pink petals pilfered from

neighbor’s apple tree.