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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.

Wonderful

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:   http://theawkwardyeti.com/comic/stars/

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”  http://discovermagazine.com/2015/jan-feb ). 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.

Wonderful!

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: http://www.makerfaireorlando.com/

Factual Basis for Ahbee’s Universe

6 Nov

As a reader of science fiction, I enjoy authors whose stories are set in a believable universe. I don’t blame them, of course, if they get certain things about the future wrong, as long as their predictions are realistic or based on known science at the time. For example, Larry Niven’s Neutron Star or Ringworld are not less engaging because he writes of characters using outdated technology (data tapes). It’s actually somewhat comforting to a newbie writer; if one of the greats can get a detail wrong and still write some of the best science fiction of the century, I should quit OCDing about all the details in my stories.

Still, that doesn’t excuse me from doing my research. Here are some of the events that have happened in space exploration in the past three years that I am using to guess how we colonize our solar system in the next hundred years.

  1. In an article on July 31, 2010, Elon Musk said, “I’m planning to retire to Mars.” He founded SpaceX to do just that. You can read the full article at
  2. In 2010, SpaceX, though the best funded and furthest along, was not alone. Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, had founded Blue Origin in 2000. John Carmack (the man behind Doom and Quake) founded Armadillo Aerospace. Richard Branson was starting Virgin Galactic. Jeff Greason had started XCOR Aerospace. Steve Bennett owned  Starchaser. Private industry was beginning to sail in waters previously controlled mainly by governments.
  3. Also in 2010, NASA made Commercial Crew Development awards to stimulate the private sector, encouraging them to develop and demonstrate human spaceflight capabilities.
  4. In 2011, a number of companies began making noises about space missions and mining asteroids. The United States retired its space shuttles and contracted out its astronaut and supply runs to the International Space Station (ISS) to private contractors.
  5. On May 31, 2012, SpaceX’s Dragon capsule returned to Earth successfully after its first commercial flight to the ISS.
  6. On July 16, 2012, SpaceX received its first science mission from NASA, launching a NOAA spacecraft.
  7. On August 1, 2012, Eric Anderson announced the formation of Planetary Resources, Inc., to mine asteroids. He laid out his business plan and named some (but not all) of his co-investors: Google bosses Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, Titanic director James Cameron, and Ross Perot, Jr., (son of the former presidential candidate).  [In Captain Tsuvecki’s backstory, she gets her start on Planetary Resources’ refueling stations.]
  8. In 2013, all of SpaceX’s missions can be considered a success. In fact, they have six Dragon rockets in various stages of construction.  Check out their Facebook page for more information: https://www.facebook.com/SpaceX
  9. The icing on the cake, as far as my story line goes, is the 2013 Congress’s current refusal to give NASA any 2014 funding for asteroid retrieval science. Since Congress has not actually passed a budget, that decision isn’t final, but I think some sly person linked climate warming science with asteroid retrieval science in the minds of the US Representatives. That’s what the articles I’ve read suggest, anyway.

So, I predict that Earth governments will not be the ones to colonize our solar system; private industry will do it.

That may be a good thing. Mining asteroids in space or on the moon will hopefully mean we can stop hazardous, environmentally damaging mining operations on Earth.

While asteroid mining and space exploration can be mostly automated, and while automation may be cheaper than human-staffed missions, I think some people underestimate the human psyche’s need to explore: ” to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.”

Those words have resonated with audiences for three generations now, and I find it inconceivable that human beings will settle for exploring our solar system by remote control. Some of us will actually go there.