Posts Tagged ‘Hard Science’

“The Doorway to Extra Time” in Beta Draft

Saturday, August 25th, 2012

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I’ve just finished the beta draft of “The Doorway to Extra Time,” my own contribution to my own anthology DOORWAYS TO EXTRA TIME (see what I did there?) forthcoming from Spencer Hill Press. It ran a bit long, but that’s why I have a co-editor. (Or maybe I should stick to my plan of letting the stories in the anthology be the length they should be). Regardless, here’s an excerpt:

“I know what you’re going to do,” the old woman said, “because I’ve done it.”

Jackson flinched from the sparkling deranger that threatened her. It was as yellowed with time as the crone who held it: twin chambers of glass cracked like the woman’s bared teeth, gas capsule as battered as her top hat, glass sights as dented as her spectracles.

“I—I have no idea what you mean,” Jackson said, voice quavering less from fear the gun would addle her tubes than from the fact her statement was ridiculous: the old woman had barred Jackson’s path just as she was about to step one hour into the past through the Riemann Gate.

The Gate was a thing of beauty, a four meter brass ring as fresh as the century, its Art Nouveau outer hull intricately filligreed, its elaborate Tiffany-style service windows hinting at the movement of the original escapement, eternally spinning within a ring of Tesla magnets.

The shimmering plane of its opening swam with possibilities, tiny fluctuations in the shape of space itself. When it was dark, the doorway sparkled like a sky of twinkling stars—but even though it was night, the view through the Riemann Gate was not dark.

Fading sunlight flickered through the Gate, filtering down through the glass roof of the Curie Center’s containment dome from the surface of Fresh Lake above—because, on the other side of the Gate, almost a full hour in the past, the sun had not yet set.

“The Doorway to Extra Time” is set in the universe of THE CLOCKWORK TIME MACHINE, forthcoming from Bell Bridge Books, and while The Machine doesn’t make an appearance, it does star Doctor Jackson Truthsayer, one of the characters of the related short story “Steampunk Fairy Chick” published earlier in the year in the UNCONVENTIONAL anthology also by Spencer Hill Press.

This was a fun story, though the stack of books you see in the picture is only the thinnest slice of the immense number of time travel, gravitation and wormhole books I read while doing it. Most of that reading ended up on the cutting room floor, or, sometimes, an immense amount of reading changed only one word of my writing. But it’s as accurate as I could make it.

Perhaps I’ll do The Science of the Doorway to Extra Time someday…

Anyway, it’s off to my loyal betas now … may they be insightful!

-the Centaur

Good Parking Karma

Friday, August 17th, 2012


Recently I’ve become more interested in the scientific method, especially after spending a few weeks doing that Prometheus vs the Thing essay. After doing that, I realized that I believe myself to have superior parking skills … without any hard evidence to that effect.

I have plenty of anecdotal evidence, of course, for my supposed superior parking skills. My wife admires my parking skills. She can’t parallel park, whereas I can. Actually, she’s not the only one to have remarked upon it – other friends have too, as have strangers. Once, back when I drove a large SUV, I successfully parallel parked it in a tiny parking space with only inches of clearance front and back. Dissatisfied that I was more than four feet from the curb, I then, with a sequence of back and forths worthy of Austin Powers, slid the car sideways to within four inches of the curb. When I got out, the people watching in the nearby cafe applauded.

There’s other anecdotal evidence. I have spectacularly good “parking karma”. There are at least three different parking lots that my friends avoid that I have no trouble parking at. Part of this is a positive attitude: I believe there are spaces, so that helps me find them. Part of this is patient strategy: I know there’s flux in almost any parking lot, so I don’t get frustrated and drive off just before a space opens. And part of this is again skill: I know certain tricks for parking, like backing into a narrow space so my passenger door aligns with the other car’s passenger door, and I can leave more space for my driver door and the driver next to me. I enjoy finding the space that other people can’t find and don’t want to park in and taking that.

But this is all anecdotal. I’ve never done a scientific survey of parking skills and compared my abilities to the population mean. I’ve never even tried to define the term parking skills in a way that would make a concept of superior parking skills meaningful. It’s just an egotistical little belief I’ve picked up over the years. Just like the “parking karma,” an unscientific concept if there ever was one.

But I do have a good time parking, even today, in a lot so busy my friends often complain that it’s hard to park, I squeezed my car into a tight space today, a narrow, angled space a larger SUV drove past. I had to slide my car in and out of the space three times to align properly enough that I could get out of my car, because the car to the right was angled over the line, into my parking space.

But I parked. And when I got out, I checked. The car to my right could still open his door just fine.

-the Centaur

Pictured: a different parking situation, in which some car far to the right had leaned out of his lane, and all the subsequent cars had to either keep parking at an odd angle, or drive on by. Other cars drove by; I parked just fine. Good parking karma continues.

A Man After My Own Heart

Thursday, August 16th, 2012


I don’t know what it is about people born about the same time as me, like John Scalzi and Warren Ellis and Richard Evans, but ever time one of them creates a groundbreaking game, gets nominated for the Hugo, wins an award or lands on the moon, they always make me feel like I’ve been sitting on my ass.

Well, John Scalzi has beaten me to the punch again, this time by eerily mirroring events from my own life and blogging about them while I’m still digesting the events. He recently found a small stray cat, and blogged that has he decided he’s going to trap it, get it fixed and possibly tame it, because he’d “rather be a sap than have a dead kitten on [his] conscience.”

Boy, do I know this feeling. I also have “cat lover AKA sucker” written on my forehead, and I and my wife have been going through a similar arc. We spent the last three months socializing a little spray monster we’ve taken to calling Loki, and yesterday my wife took him to the vet to get him his shots and fixed. My wife thought it worthwhile to share some of what we’ve learned that made us choose to trap, neuter and release him, even though it might scare him off.


We strongly suspect Loki is the brother or cousin of Gabby, the gold cat above that we adopted about two and a half years ago. While their coloration is starkly different, both are highly vocal longhaired cats with similar tails that seem to know each other. Loki’s tail has thinned alarmingly in the above photo, but they looked even more similar a few months ago.

Loki isn’t a feral cat: he’s a stray—that is, an abandoned cat. Feral means an unsocialized wild cat which wasn’t raised with human contact and won’t approach people willingly. Loki? After some initial skittishness, probably caused by either abuse (he’s afraid of feet) or our initial attempts to chase him off (after another stray cat invaded our home and attacked my wife), Loki’s approach distance rapidly dropped to zero, and he can be petted, picked up and will even lie in your lap. More tellingly, he knows how to claw and bite without ever drawing blood—a sign of early exposure to humans. Loki was someone’s pet, once.

Now he is again. We don’t know if he can ever become an indoor cat—he was a little spray monster, and when we realized he was coming in through our cat door and making our other cats spray, we had to eliminate the door. But clearly he’d come to rely on our home for a food source, and even when he was skittish, he meowed piteously, trying to beg even as he ran.

So, back to John Scalzi’s plan: he’s dead on the money. Even if you don’t want a stray cat in your yard, it does you no good to get rid of it. Not only is it inhumane, all you’re doing is opening a space in the local cat territory map for some other, possibly more annoying cat to come in and take it. The right thing to do is TNR: trap, neuter, return. This preserves the local territory, so no more cats move in, but stops the cats from breeding out of control and taking over the local wildlife.

We just spent several hundred dollars on examinations and shots for our three cats plus examinations, shots and neutering for Loki, but if you’re not planning on keeping the cat, there are probably local animal shelters who will do the neutering for a much more reasonable fee. And unless the cat is a sweetie, there are good reasons not to keep him.


If a cat you’re trying to tame becomes approachable, great; but don’t try to tame one that’s obviously feral and wants nothing to do with people. The cat that attacked my wife, Graycat (pictured above) was so close to feral that only I could handle him, and that was with gloves. I was making progress at it—I could pet him, even play with him with toys outside—but that emboldened him, and he came into our house, fought with our cats, and then tried to attack my wife. She had to fend him off with a broom, not hitting him but trying to push him away—and then he attacked the broom, before running off. Sadly, we can’t deal with cats that attack us, and had to have him put him down.

It’s better to make a judgment call, which John Scalzi is currently doing with his skittish kitten. I wish him the best of luck with that! As for us, we’re hoping Loki comes back. After the neutering, we released him, and he hasn’t yet returned. Sad to say, neutering can permanently change the personality of a cat for the worse; my wife has had two cats “ruined” by bad vet experiences.

Still, our vet is good, and Loki took to it better than our three other little monsters. Here’s hoping he returns, that he stops spraying once the hormones drain out of his system, and that he finds a good life here. But regardless, we’ve done our duty: we’ve made his life better, at least for a while, and cut back on the local cat proliferation, at least for a bit.


Here’s hoping he forgives us for that, and comes back for the love. And the can food.

And the laser tag.

-the Centaur

Pictured: assorted furmonsters. Loki, Loki and Gabby, Graycat, and Loki again.

UPDATE: He came back!


Twice. And he’s more affectionate than ever (though you can’t see that in these photo :-)


I think it’s safe to say he’s here to stay.

Normal science is not for scaredycats

Tuesday, August 14th, 2012

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From my Prometheus vs The Thing article. Someone wanted a poster. :-)

-the Centaur

Prometheus is the movie you show your kids to teach them how not to do science

Monday, August 13th, 2012


Too Diplomatic for My Own Good

I recently watched Ridley Scott’s Prometheus. I wanted to love it, and ultimately didn’t, but this isn’t a post about how smart characters doing dumb things to advance a plot can destroy my appreciation of a movie. Prometheus is a spiritual prequel to Alien, my second favorite movie of all time, and Alien’s characters often had similar afflictions, including numerous violations of the First Rule of Horror Movies: “Don’t Go Down a Dark Passageway Where No One Can Hear You if You Call For Help”. Prometheus is a big, smart movie filled with grand ideas, beautiful imagery, grotesque monsters and terrifying scares. If I’d seen it before seeing a sequence of movies like Alien maybe I would have cut it more slack.

I could also critique its scientific accuracy, but I’m not going to do that. Prometheus is a space opera: very early on in the movie we see a starship boldly plying its way through the deeps, rockets blazing as it shoots towards its distant destination. If you know a lot of science, that’s a big waving flag that says “don’t take the science in this movie too seriously.” If you want hard science, go see Avatar. Yes, I know it’s a mystical tale featuring giant blue people, but the furniture of the movie — the spaceship, the base, the equipment they use — is so well thought out it could have been taken from Hal Clement. Even concepts like the rock-lifting “flux tube,” while highly exaggerated, are based on real scientific ideas. Prometheus is not Avatar. Prometheus is like a darker cousin to Star Trek: you know, the scary cousin from the other branch you only see at the family Halloween party, the one that occasionally forgets to take his medication. He may have flunked college physics, but he can sure spin a hell of a ghost story.

What I want to do is hold up Prometheus as a bad example of how to do science. I’m not saying Ridley Scott or the screenwriters don’t know science, or even that they didn’t think of or even film sequences which showed more science, sequences that unfortunately ended up on the cutting room floor — and with that I’m going to shelve my caveats. What I’m saying is that the released version of Prometheus presents a set of characters who are really poor scientists, and to show just how bad they are I’d like to compare them with the scientists in the 2011 version of The Thing, who, in contrast, do everything just about right.

But Wait … What’s a “Scientist”?

Good question. You can define them by what they do, which I’m going to try to do with this article.

But one thing scientists do is share their preliminary results with their colleagues to smoke out errors before they submit work for publication. While I make a living twiddling bits and juggling words, I was trained as (and still fancy myself as) a scientist, so I shared an early version of this essay with colleagues also trained as a scientist — and one of them, a good friend, pointed out that there’s a whole spectrum of real life scientists, from the careful to the irresponsible to the insane.

He noted “there’s the platonic ideal of the Scientist, there’s real-life science with its dirty little secrets, and then there’s Hollywood science which is often and regrettably neither one of the previous two.” So, to be clear, what I’m talking when I say scientist is the ideal scientist, Scientist-with-a-Capital-S, who does science the right way.

But to understand how the two groups of scientists in the two movies operate … I’m going to have to spoil their plots.

Shh … Spoilers

SPOILERS follow. If you don’t want to know the plots of Prometheus and The Thing, stop reading as there are SPOILERS.

Both Prometheus and The Thing are “prequels” to classic horror movies, but the similarities don’t stop there: both are stories about scientific expeditions to a remote place to study alien artifacts that prove unexpectedly dangerous when virulent, mutagenic alien life is found among the ruins. The Thing even begins with a tractor plowing through snow towards a mysterious, haunting signal, a shot which makes the tractor and its track look like a space probe rocketing towards its target — a shot directly paralleling the early scenes of Prometheus that I mentioned earlier.

Both expeditions launch in secrecy, understandably concerned someone might “scoop” the discovery, and so both feature scientists “thrown off the deep end” with a problem. Because they’re both horror movies challenging humans with existential threats, and not quasi-documentaries about how science might really work, both groups of scientists must first practice science in a “normal” mode, dealing with the expectedly unexpected, and then must shift to “abnormal” mode, dealing with unknown unknowns. “Normal” and “abnormal” science are my own definitions for the purpose of this article, to denote the two different modes in which science seems to get done in oh so many science fiction and horror movies — science in the lab, and science when running screaming from the monster. However, as I’ll explain later, even though abnormal science seems like a feature of horror movies, it’s actually something that real scientists actually have a lot of experience with in the real world.

But even before the scientists in Prometheus shift to “abnormal” mode — heck, even before they get to “normal” mode — they go off the rails: first in how they picked the project in the first place, and second, in how they picked their team.

Why Scientists Pick Projects

You may believe Earth’s Moon is made of cheese, but you’re unlikely to convince NASA to dump millions into an expedition to verify your claims. Pictures of a swiss cheese wheel compared with the Moon’s pockmarked surface won’t get you there. Detailed mathematical models showing the correlations between the distribution of craters and cheese holes are still not likely to get you a probe atop a rocket; at best you’ll get some polite smiles, because that hypothesis contradicts what we already know about the lunar surface. If, on the other hand, you cough up a spectrograph reading showing fragments of casein protein spread across the lunar surface, side by side with replication by an independent lab — well, get packing, you’re going to the Moon. What I’m getting at is that scientists are selective in picking projects — and the more expensive the project, the more selective they get.

In one sense, science is the search for the truth, but if we look at the history of science, it isn’t about proving the correctness of just any old idea: ideas are a dime a dozen. Science isn’t about validating random speculations sparked by why different things look similar – for every alignment between the shoreline of Africa and South America that leads to a discovery like plate tectonics, there’s a spurious match between the shape of the Pacific and the shape of the Moon that leads nowhere. (Believe it or not, this theory, which sounds ridiculous to us now, was a serious contender for the origin of the Moon many years, first proposed in 1881 by Osmond Fisher). Science is about following leads — real evidence that leads to testable predictions, like not just a shape match between continents, but actual rock formations which are mirrored, down to their layering and fossils.

There’s some subtlety to this. Nearly everybody who’s not a scientist thinks that science is about finding evidence that confirms our ideas. Unfortunately, that’s wrong: humans are spectacularly good at latching on evidence that confirms our ideas and spectacularly bad at picking up on evidence that disconfirms them. So we teach budding scientists in school that the scientific method depends on finding disconfirming evidence that proves bad ideas wrong. But experienced scientists funding expeditions follow follow precisely the opposite principle, at least at first: we need to find initial evidence that supports a speculation before we follow it up by looking for disconfirming evidence.

That’s not to say an individual scientist can’t test out even a wild and crazy idea, but even an individual scientist only has one life. In practice, we want to spend our limited resources on likely bets. For example, Einstein spent the entire latter half of his life trying to unify gravitation and quantum mechanics, but he’d probably have been better off spending a decade each on three problems rather than spending thirty years in complete failure. When it gets to a scientific expedition with millions invested and lives on the line, the effect is more pronounced. We can’t simply follow every idea: we need good leads.

Prometheus fails this test, at least in part. The scientists begin with a good lead: in a series of ancient human cultures, none of whom have had prior contact, they find almost identical pictures, all of which depict an odd tall creature pointing to a specific constellation in the sky not visible without a telescope, a constellation with a star harboring an Earthlike planet. As leads go, that’s pretty good: better than mathematical mappings between Swiss cheese holes and lunar crater sizes, but not quite as good as a spectrograph reading. It’s clearly worth conducting astronomical studies or sending a probe to learn more.

But where the scientists fail is they launch a trillion dollar expedition to investigate this distant planet, an expedition which, we learn later, was actually bankrolled not because of the good lead but because of a speculation by Elizabeth, one of the paleontologists, that the tall figure in the ancient illustration is an “Engineer” who is responsible for engineering humanity, thousands of years ago. This speculation is firmly back in the lunar cheese realm because, as one character points out, it contradicts an enormous amount of biological evidence. What makes it worse is that Elizabeth has no mathematical model or analogy or even myth to point to on why she believes it: she says she simply chooses to believe it.

If I was funding the Prometheus expedition, I’d have to ask: why? Simply saying she later proves to be right is no answer: right answers reached the wrong way still aren’t good science. Simply saying she has faith is not an answer; that explains why she continues to hold the belief, but not how she formed it in the first place. Or, more accurately, how she justified her belief: as one of of my colleagues reading this article pointed out, it really doesn’t matter why she came to believe it, only how she came to support it. After all, the chemist Kekulé supposedly figured out benzene’s ring shape after dreaming about a snake biting its tail — but he had a lot of accumulated evidence to support that idea once he had it. So, what evidence led Elizabeth to believe that her intuition was correct?

Was there some feature of the target planet that makes it look like it is the origin of life on Earth? No, from the descriptions, it doesn’t seem Earthlike enough. Was there some feature of the rock painting that makes the tall figures seem like they created humans? No, the figure looks more like a herald. So what sparked this idea in her? We just don’t know. If there was some myth or inscription or pictogram or message or signal or sign or spectrogram or artifact that hinted in that direction, we could understand the genesis of her big idea, but she doesn’t tell us, even though she’s directly asked, and has more than enough time to say why using at least one of those words. Instead, because the filmmakers are playing with big questions without really understanding how those kinds of questions are asked or answered, she just says it’s what she chooses to believe.

But that’s not a good reason to fund a trillion dollar scientific expedition. Too many people choose to believe too many things for us to send spacecraft to every distant star that someone happens to wish upon — we simply don’t have enough scientists, much less trillions. If you want to spend a trillion dollars on your own idea, of course, please knock yourself out.

Now, if we didn’t know the whole story of the movie, we could cut them slack based on their other scientific lead, and I’ll do so because I’m not trying to bash the movie, but to bash the scientists that it depicts. And while for the rest of this article I’m going to be comparing Prometheus with The Thing, that isn’t fair in this case. The team from Prometheus follows up a scientific lead for a combination of reasons, one pretty good, one pretty bad. The team from The Thing finds a fricking alien spacecraft, or, if you want to roll it back further, they find an unexplained radio signal in the middle of a desert which has been dead for millions of years and virtually uninhabited by humans in its whole history. This is one major non-parallel between the two movies: unlike the scientists of Prometheus, who had to work hard for their meager scraps of leads, the scientists in The Thing had their discovery handed to them on a silver platter.

How Scientists Pick Teams

Science is an organized body of knowledge based on the collection and analysis of data, but it isn’t just the product of any old data collection and analysis: it’s based on a method, a method which is based on analyzing empirical data objectively in a way which can be readily duplicated by others. Science is subtle and hard to get right. Even smart, educated, well-meaning people can fool themselves, so it’s important for the people doing it to be well trained so that common mistakes in evidence collection and reasoning can be avoided.

Both movies begin with real research to establish the scientific credibility of the investigators. Early in Prometheus, the scientists Elizabeth and Charlie are shown at an archaeological dig, and later the android David practices some very real linguistics — studying Schleicher’s Fable, a highly speculative but non-fictional attempt to reconstruct early human languages — to prepare for a possible meeting with the Engineers that Elizabeth and Charlie believe they’ve found. Early in The Thing, Edvard’s team is shown carefully following up on a spurious radio signal found near their site, and the paleontologist Kate uses an endoscope to inspect the interior of a specimen extracted from pack ice (just to be clear, one not related to Edvard’s discovery).

But in Prometheus, things almost immediately begin to go wrong. The team which made the initial discovery is marginalized, and the expedition to study their results is run by a corporate executive, Meredith, who selects a crew based on personal loyalty or willingness to accept hazard pay. Later, we find there are good reasons why Meredith picked who she did — within the movie’s logic, well worth the trillion dollars her company spent bankrolling the expedition — but those criteria aren’t scientific, and they produce an uninformed, disorganized crew whose expedition certainly explores a new world, but doesn’t really do science.

The lead scientist of The Thing, Edvard, in contrast, is a scientist in charge of a substantial team on a mission of its own when he makes the discovery that starts the movie. He studies it carefully before calling in help, and when he does call in help, he calls in a close friend — Sander, a dedicated scientist in his own right, so world-renowned that Kate recognizes him on sight. He in turn selects Kate based on another personal recommendation, because he’s trying to select a team of high caliber. Sander clashes with Kate when she questions his judgment, but these are just disagreements and don’t lead to foul consequences.

In short, The Thing picks scientists to do science, and this difference from Prometheus shows up almost immediately in how they choose to attack their problems.

Why Scientists Don’t Bungee Jump Into Random Volcanoes

Normal science is the study of things that aren’t unexpectedly trying to kill you. There may be a hazardous environment, like radiation or vacuum or political unrest, and your subject itself might be able to kill you, like a virus or a bear or a volcano, but in normal science, you know all this going in, and can take adequate precaution. Scaredycats who aren’t willing to study radioactive bears on the surface of Mount Explodo while dodging the rebel soldiers of Remotistan should just stay home and do something safe, like simulate bear populations on their laptops using Mathematica. The rest of us know the risks.

Because risk is known, it’s important to do science the right way. To collect data not just for the purposes of collecting it, but to do so in context. If I’ve seen a dozen bees today, what conclusions can you draw? Nothing. You don’t know if I’m in a jungle or a desert or even if I’m a beekeeper. Even if I told you I was a beekeeper and I’d just visited a hive, you don’t even know if a dozen bees is a low number, a high number, or totally unexpected. Is it a new hive just getting started, or an old hive dying out? Is it summer or winter? Did I record at noon or midnight? Was I counting inside or outside the hive? Even if you knew all that, you can interpret the number better if you know the recent and typical statistics for beehives in that region, plus maybe the weather, plus …

What I’m getting at that it does you no good as a scientist to bungee jump into random volcanoes to snap pictures of bubbling lava, no matter how photogenic that looks on the cover of National Geographic or Scientific American. Science works when we record observations in context, so we can organize the data appropriately and develop models of its patterns, explanations of its origins and theories about its meaning. Once again, there’s a big difference in the kind of normal-science data collection depicted in Prometheus and The Thing. With one or two notable exceptions, the explorers in Prometheus don’t do organized data collection at all – they blunder around almost completely without context.

How (Not) to Do Normal Science

In Prometheus, after spending two whole years approaching the alien world LV223, the crew lands and begins exploring without more than a cursory survey. We know this because the ship arrives on Christmas, breaks orbit, flies around seemingly at random until one of our heroes leaps from his chair because he’s sighted a straight line formation, and then the ship lands, disgorging a crew of explorers eager to open their Christmas presents. We can deduce from this that less than a day has passed from arrival to landing, which is not enough time to do enough orbits to complete a full planetary survey. We can furthermore deduce that the ship had no preplanned route because then the destination would not have been enough of a surprise for our hero to leap out of his chair (despite the seat-belt sign) and redirect the landing. Once the Prometheus lands, the crew performs only a modest atmospheric survey before striking out for the nearest ruin. In true heroic space opera style this ruin just happens to have a full stock of all the interesting things that they might want to encounter, and as a moviegoer, I wasn’t bothered by that. But it’s not science.

Planets are big. Really big. The surface area of the Earth is half a billon square kilometers. The surface area of a smaller world, one possibly more like LV223, is just under a hundred fifty million square kilometers. You’re not likely to find anything interesting just by wandering around for a few hours at roughly the speed of sound. The crew is shown to encounter a nasty storm because they don’t plan ahead, but even an archaeological site is too big to stumble about hoping to find something, much less the mammoth Valley of the Kings style complex the Prometheus lands in. Here the movie both fails and succeeds at showing the protagonists doing science: they blunder out on the surface despite having perfectly good mapping technology (well, speaking as this is one of my actual areas of expertise, really awesome mapping technology), which they later use to map the inside of a structure, enabling one of the movie’s key discoveries. (The other key discovery is made as a result of David spending two years studying ancient languages so he can decipher and act on alien hieroglyphs, and he has his own motives for deliberately keeping the other characters in the dark, so props to the filmmakers there: he’s doing bad science for his team, but shown to be doing good science on his own, for clearly explained motives).

SO ANYWAY, a scientific expedition would have been mapping from the beginning to provide context for observations and to direct explorations. A scientific expedition would have released an army of small satellites to map the surface; left them up to predict weather; launched a probe to assess ground conditions; and, once they landed, launched that awesome flock of mapping drones to guide them to the target. The structure of the movie could have remained the same – and still shown science.

The Thing provides an example of precisely this behavior. The explorers in The Thing don’t stumble across it. They’re in Antarctica on a long geological survey expedition to extract ice cores. They’ve mapped the region so thoroughly that spurious radio transmissions spark their curiosity. Once the ship and alien are found, they survey the area carefully in both horizontal and vertical elevation, build maps, assess the structure of the ice, and set up a careful archeological dig. When the paleontologist Kate arrives, they can tell her where the spacecraft and alien are, roughly how long the spacecraft has been there, and even estimate the fracturability of the ice is like around the specimen based on geological surveys, and already have collected all the necessary equipment. Kate is so impressed she exclaims that the crew of the base doesn’t really need her. And maybe they don’t. But they’re careful scientists on the verge of a momentous discovery, and they don’t want to screw it up.

Real Scientists Don’t Take off Their Helmets

Speaking of screwing up momentous discoveries, here’s a pro tip: don’t take off your helmet on an alien world, even if you think the atmosphere is safe, if you later plan to collect biological samples and compare them with human DNA, as the crew does in Prometheus. Humans are constantly flaking off bits of skin and breathing out droplets of moisture filled with cells and fragments of cells, and taking off a helmet could irrevocably contaminate the environment. The filmmakers can’t even point to the idea that you could tell human from alien DNA because ultimately chemicals are chemicals: the way you tell human from alien DNA is to collect and sequence it, and in an alien environment filled with unknown chemicals, human-deposited samples could quickly break down into something that looked alien. You might get lucky … but you probably won’t. Upon reading this article, one of my colleagues complained to me that this was an unfair criticism because it’s a simply a filmmaker’s convention to let the audience see the faces of the actors, but regardless of whether you buy that for the purpose of making an engaging space opera with great performances by fine actors, it nevertheless portrays these scientists in a very bad light. No crew of careful scientists is going to take off their helmets, even if they think they’ve mysteriously found a breathable atmosphere.

The movie Avatar gets this right when, even in a dense jungle, one character notices another open a sample container with his mouth (to keep his hands free) and points out that he’s contaminated the sample. The Thing also addresses the same issue: one key point of contention between paleontologist Kate and her superior Sander is that Sander wants to take a sample to confirm that their find is alien and that Kate does not because she doesn’t want the sample to be contaminated. Both are right: Kate’s more cautious approach preserves the sample, while Sander’s more experienced approach would have protected the priority of his discovery from other labs if it really was alien, or let them all down early if the sample just was some oddly frozen Earth animal. My sympathy is with Kate, but my money is actually on Sander here: with a discovery as important as finding alien life on Earth, it’s critically important to exclude as soon as possible the chance that what we’ve found is actually a contorted yak. More than enough of the sample remained undisturbed, and likely uncontaminated, to guard against Kate’s fears.

Unfortunately, neither the crew of Prometheus or The Thing get the chance to be proved lucky or right.

How (Not) to Do Abnormal Science

Abnormal science is my term for what scientists do when “everything’s gone to pot” and lives are on the line. This happens more often than you might think: the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill are two recent examples. Strictly speaking, what happens in abnormal science isn’t science, that is, the controlled collection of data designed to enhance the state of human knowledge. Instead, it’s crisis mitigation, a mixture of first responses, disaster management and improvisational engineering designed to blunt the unfolding harm. Even engineering isn’t science; it’s a procedure for tackling a problem by methodically collecting what’s known to set constraints on a library of best practices that are used to develop solutions. The tools of science may get used in the improvisational engineering that happens after a disaster, but it’s rarely a controlled study: instead, what gets used are the collected data, the models, the experimental methods and more importantly the precautions that scientists use to keep themselves from getting hurt.

One scientific precaution often applied in abnormal science which Prometheus and The Thing both get right is quarantine. When dealing with a destructive transmissible condition, like an infectious organism or a poisonous material, the first thing to do is to quarantine it: isolate the destructive force until it’s neutralized, until the vector of spread is stopped, or until the potential targets are hardened or inoculated. After understandable moments of incredulity, both the crew of the Prometheus and The Thing implement quarantines to stop the spread of the biological agent and then decisively up the ante once its full spread is known.

The next scientific precaution applied in abnormal science is putting the health of team members first. So, for goodness’s sake, if you’ve opened your helmet on an alien world, start feeling under the weather, and then see a tentacle poke out of your eye, don’t shrug it off, put your helmet back on and venture out onto a hostile alien world as part of a rescue mission! On scientific expeditions, ill crewmembers do not go on data collection missions, nor do they go on rescue missions. That’s just putting yourself and everyone else around you in danger – and the character in question in Prometheus pays with his life for it. In The Thing, in contrast, when a character gets mildly sick after an initial altercation, the team immediately prepares to medivac him to safety (this is before the need for a quarantine is known).

Another precaution observed in abnormal science is full information sharing. In both the Fukushima Daiishi and Deepwater Horizon disasters, lack of information sharing slowed down the potential response to the disaster – though in the Fukushima case it was a result of the general chaos of a country-rocking earthquake while in the Deepwater Horizon case it was a deliberate and in some cases criminal effort at information hiding in an attempt to create positive spin. The Prometheus crew has even the Deepwater Horizon event beat. On a relatively small ship, there are no less than seven distinct groups, all of whom hide critical information from each other – sometimes when there’s not even a good motivation to. (For the record, these groups are (1) the mission sponsor Weyland who hides himself and the real mission from the crew, (2) the mission leader Meredith who’s working for and against Weyland, (3) the android David who’s both working with and hiding information from Weyland, Meredith, the crew and everyone else, (4) the regular scientific crew trying to do their jobs, (5) the Captain who then directs the crew via a comlink and then hides information for no clear reason, (6) the scientist Charlie who hides information about his illness from the crew and his colleague and lover Elizabeth, and finally (7) Elizabeth, who like the crew is just trying to do her job, but ends up having to hide information about her alien “pregnancy” from them to retain freedom of action). There are good story reasons why everyone ends up being so opposed, but as an example of how to do science or manage a disaster … well, let’s say predictable shenanigans ensue.

In The Thing, in contrast, there are three groups: Kate, who has a conservative approach, Sander, who has a studious approach, and everyone else. Once the shit hits the fan, both Kate and Sander share their views with everyone in multiple all-hands meetings (though Sander does at one point try to have a closed door meeting with Kate to sort things out). Sander pushes for a calm, methodical approach, which Kate initially resists but then participates with, helping her make key discoveries which end up detecting the alien presence relatively early. Then Kate pushes for a quarantine approach, which Sander resists but then participates in, volunteering key ideas which the alien force thinks are good enough to try to sabotage. Only at the end, when Kate suggests a test that the uninfected Sander knows full well will result in a false positive result for him, do they really get at serious loggerheads – but they’re not given a chance to resolve this, as the science ends and the action movie starts at that point.

The Importance of Peer Review

I enjoyed Prometheus. I saw it twice. I’ll buy it on DVD or Blu-Ray or something. I loved its focus on big questions, which it raised and explored and didn’t always answer. It was pretty and gory and pretty gory. It pulled off the fair trick of adding absolute classic scenes to the horror genre, like Elizabeth’s self-administered Ceasarean section, and absolute classic scenes to the scifi genre, like the David in the star map sequence – and perhaps even the crashing alien spacecraft inexorably rolling towards our heroes counts as both classic horror and classic science fiction at the same time.

But as Ridley Scott was quoted as saying, Prometheus was a movie, not a science lesson. The Thing is too. Like Prometheus, the accuracy of the scientific backdrop of The Thing is a full spectrum mixture of dead on correct (the vastness of space) to questionable (where do the biological constructs created by the black goo in Prometheus get their added mass? how can the Thing possibly be so smart that it can simulate whole humans so well that no-one can tell them apart?) to genre tropes (faster than light travel, alien life being compatible with human life) to downright absurd (humanoid aliens creating human life on Earth, hyperintelligent alien monsters expert at imitation screaming and physically assaulting people rather than simply making them coffee laced with Thing cells).

I’m not going to pretend either movie got it right. Neither Prometheus nor The Thing are good sources of scientific facts — both include a great deal of cinematic fantasy.

But one of them can teach you how to do science.

-the Centaur

Pictured: a mashup of The Thing and Prometheus’s movie posters, salsa’d under fair use guidelines.

Thanks to: Jim Davies, Keiko O’Leary, and Gordon Shippey for commenting on early drafts of this article. Many of the good ideas are theirs, but the remaining errors are my own.

STRANDED is on Amazon!

Thursday, July 26th, 2012

Stranded - print.jpg

STRANDED, the new science fiction anthology featuring stories by Anne Bishop, James Alan Gardner, and myself, is now available for preorder on Amazon! From the back cover:

Three Great Authors – Three Great Science Fiction Stories

A Strand In The Web

New York Times Bestselling Fantasy Author Anne Bishop makes her U.S. debut in Science Fiction with this engaging futuristic novella. The Restorers travel the universe fulfilling a purpose handed down through the generations. They live and die aboard city-ships, never knowing the worlds they create and save. What begins as a disastrous training exercise in creating and balancing ecosystems becomes an unexpected fight for survival. The only hope may be the secret project of an untried creation team.

A Host Of Leeches

Award winning author James Alan Gardner pens a wonderfully imaginative tale, in which a young woman wakes to find herself the sole human on an orbiting, mechanical moon. To find a way home, she must navigate the dangerous politics of war between opposing robot leaders.


Popular urban fantasy writer Anthony Francis (Dakota Frost, Skindancer series) explores the clash of ethics and survival when a young, genetically engineered centauress from the super-advanced Alliance lays claim to a rare, strategic garden planet, only to find herself captured by a band of rag-tag Frontier refugees who’ve crashed their vintage ship on her unexpectedly hostile world.

An excerpt of the story:

Serendipity crested a ridge overlooking the wreck—and froze, bewitched.

Climbing from the ship were the most beautiful people she’d ever seen.

They wore armored spacesuits, patched in a thousand places, and painted to look like animals. Helmets folded back revealed inner pressure suits decorated too: one girl in a leopard outersuit had a snakeskin helm, adorned with feathers, over skin painted a pale blue.

Serendipity gasped. These were adventurers. The gravity was clearly punishing their slender frames, but they kept going, crawling out of the smoking ship from every hatch, rappelling down on spacelines, tools jangling on their belts when their boots touched the broken earth. Not one of them looked a day over sixteen.

That should have meant nothing—her grandmother didn’t look a day over sixteen—but as fractured shale dislodged by her slogs crackled down the slope, they turned and stared at her with youthful shock. They had none of the smug poise of ancient souls newly young.

What Serendipity saw instead, and felt keenly, was fear. Her gut churned.

The boys were armed with projectile automatics.

Serendipity now has her own Facebook page over at . Please check it out!

The Science of …

Sunday, June 24th, 2012


I’ve finally put up the presentation for The Science of Airships onto the site. Right now it’s a ginormous PDF presentation linked off that page (no, really, it’s huge, be warned, that’s why I’m sending you to the parent page and not giving out the direct link), but I’m planning to break it apart into pieces that are easier to digest, which I’ll work into the regular flow of the blog.

This is part of a more general The Science of… series I’ll be starting on this blog. The pages are skeletal right now, just HTML, but I’m going to integrate them into the WordPress engine so that I can add to them more rapidly.

The plan (ha! ha! I kill me!) is to first I’ll go through the +500 or so articles in this blog and reblog articles that fit under this description and link them of, then I’ll start adding presentations. I’m thinking the next presentation will either be The Science of Steam or The Science of Rayguns, suitably steampunk titles … though the Science of Spacecraft and The Science of Spacesuits won’t be long in following.

-the Centaur

The Science of Airships at Clockwork Alchemy

Friday, May 18th, 2012

The Science of Airships v2.png

I’ll be giving a presentation on The Science of Airships at the Clockwork Alchemy steampunk conference on Sunday, May 27th at noon. UPDATE: The panel description is now up:

Science of Airships Anthony Francis Steampunk isn’t just brown, boots and buttons – our adventurers need glorious flying machines! This panel will unpack the science of lift, the innovations of Count Zeppelin, how airships went down in flames and how we might still have cruise liners of the air if things had gone a bit differently.

I started researching this topic for THE CLOCKWORK TIME MACHINE and it’s fascinating! Come one, come all and find out how much each of you are buoyant!

The Earth v1 air cubic foot weight.png

-the Centaur

P.S. The first diagram was generated in Mathematica using the following code:

sphere = SphericalPlot3D[1, th, phi, PlotPoints -> 5][[1]];
Zeppelin =
Function[{length, width},
   Scale[Rotate[sphere, 90 Degree, {0, 1, 0}], {length/2, width/2,
   {LightGray, Opacity[0.6], Zeppelin[7, 1]},
Table[Sphere[{i, 0, 0}, 0.2 + (2 - Abs[i])/20], {i, -2.7, 2.5, 1.0}]},
   }, {{2.5, 0, 0}}], Ticks -> Automatic, Axes -> True,
Epilog ->
Inset[Framed[Style["Zeppelin", 20], Background -> LightYellow], {Right,
Bottom}, {Right, Bottom}], ImageSize -> {800, 600},
ViewAngle -> 4 °]

The second diagram was generated in Adobe Illustrator based on calculations done in Microsoft Excel.

P.P.S. And yes I know that it’s a bit weird to do calculations in Excel when I have Mathematica, but (a) I didn’t have Mathematica when I started working on this problem, but someone donated me a free copy of Mathematica Cookbook and that convinced me to give Mathematica a try for some of my diagrams, and (b) after having worked with Mathematica’s notebooks and with Microsoft Excel I’m still using both, each for different things, and have come to the conclusion that an Excel spreadsheet model powered by Mathematica’s symbolic reasoning engine would be thirty-one flavors of awesome!

One day.

Prevail, Victoriana!

Sunday, April 29th, 2012

Screen shot 2012-04-29 at 2.40.50 PM.png

Today I finished the first hundred pages to the screenplay to JEREMIAH WILLSTONE AND THE CLOCKWORK TIME MACHINE, officially winning Script Frenzy 2012! Prevail, Victoriana!


I’m super happy about this, of course, but this has been a very interesting experience. Even though I’ve left out much of the story and many of the nuances, the script is coming in massively long – 100 pages translating to about 150 of a 450 page book, probably resulting in a 300 page script with a four-hour running time.

I’m learning new techniques to cut things out – breaking things into self-contained scenes which could be deleted wholesale, streamlining conversations, recasting thought as action that illustrates the same point. I probably could easily cut this script down from 100 pages to 70 or even 50 … but then I wouldn’t have succeeded at Script Frenzy.

I believe that you can’t really tell what to cut out until you FINISH YOUR WORK (a philosophy shared by many in my writing group). Writing is not editing, and often you can’t tell what a story really needs until you finish it. (If you’re an expert author and have passed this stage in your development, bully for you; above, I’m talking to the not-finishers). For example, can this scene be cut? It might disappear, it might become one offhand line … or it could be expanded to a fullblown argument, if we need to highlight the tension between our heroes:

Jeremiah leans back, her eyes narrowing at her companions.


Let me guess. He lied.



I do love dear Albert, Jeremiah, but the reason I stole your mark was to make a personal appeal.


Einstein was about to rediscover the weapon that ended the Civil War. In the Victoriana, the Peerage suppressed that knowledge.


The point of the mission was not to steal Austrian secrets, but to convince him to keep them secret.

Jeremiah scowls, looking at the both of them.


And you kept this from me.


The mission was … Need to know.


What kind of mad dictator came up with that rule?

(points at Patrick)

And why did he get—


To confirm what he was up to. The Lady Georgiana had to train me to operate the Crookes counter.

Jeremiah is glaring daggers at the two of them…

At my stage in scriptwriting, it’s going to be far easier to tell what to leave out after I’ve put it all in. So, even though I’m going to shift gears back to Dakota Frost #3, LIQUID FIRE and the Science of Airships panel at Clockwork Alchemy, my plan is to finish THE CLOCKWORK TIME MACHINE script in its entirety. Then I’m going to cut it mercilessly until it hits a 2 hour (ish) running time. Then I’m going to hold a reading where a group of friends will read the script aloud so I can see how it sounds (a trick I learned from my friend the playwright Jim Davies). And then I’m going to cut it again.

And then Script Frenzy will probably roll around again, as I’ll have to squeeze all the above in around regular work and writing. But if I keep at it, after a few years of writing scripts I’ll probably have something pretty tight, something that might actually be salable. Not that I won’t try to sell THE CLOCKWORK TIME MACHINE, but I won’t let failure to sell the first script I’ve written in twenty years stop me.

I’m in this for the duration.

Prevail, Victoriana!

-the Centaur

UPDATE: I forgot to mention SCRIVENER. Scrivener, Scrivener, Scrivener: without you I wouldn’t have finished THE CLOCKWORK TIME MACHINE on time. I don’t know if you’ll replace Microsoft Word — I’ve been using THAT for almost a quarter century — but you made the process of producing a script effortless. Thank you.

Screen shot 2012-04-29 at 3.11.50 PM.png

The Future of Warfare

Monday, March 12th, 2012

Every day, a new viral share sparks through the Internet, showing robots and drones and flying robot drones playing tennis while singing the theme to James Bond. At the same time we’ve seen shares of area-denying heat rays and anti-speech guns that disrupt talking … and it all starts to sound a little scary. Vijay Kumar’s TED talk on swarms of flying robots reminded me that I’ve been saying privately to friends for years years that the military applications of flying robots are coming … for the first time, we’ll have a technology that can replace infantry at taking and holding ground.
The four elements of military power are infantry, who take and hold ground, cavalry, which break up infantry, artillery, which softens up positions from a distance, and supply, which moves the first three elements into position. In our current world those are still human infantry, human piloted tanks, human piloted bombers, and human piloted aircraft carriers.
We already have automated drones for human-free (though human-controlled) artillery strikes. Soon we will have the capacity to have webs of armed flying robots acting as human-free infantry holding ground. Autonomous armored vehicles acting as human-free cavalry are farther out, because the ground is a harder problem than the air, but they can’t be too far in the future. Aircraft carriers and home bases we can assume can be manned for a while.

So then soon, into cities that have been softened up by drone strikes, we’ll have large tanks like OGREs trundling in serving as refueling stations for armies of armored flying helicopters who will spread out to control the ground. No longer will we need to throw lives away to hold a city … we’ll be able to do it from a distance with robots. One of the reasons I love The Phantom Menace is that is shows this kind of military force in action.
Once a city is taken, drones can be used for more than surveillance … a drone with the ability to track a person can become a flying assassin, or at least force someone to ditch any networked technology. Perhaps they’ll even be able to loot items or, if they’re large and able enough, even kidnap people.
It would be enormously difficult to fight such a robotic force. A robotic enemy can use a heat ray to deny people access to an area or a noise gun to flush them out. Camera detection technology can be used to flush out anyone trying to deploy countermeasures. Radar flashlights can be used to find hiding humans by their heartbeats, speech jammers can be used to prevent them from coordinating, and face detection you probably have on your phone will work against anyone venturing out in the open. I’ve seen a face detector in the lab combined with a targeting system and a nerf gun almost nail someone … and now a similar system is in the wild. The system could destroy anyone who had a face.
And don’t get me started on terminators and powered armor.
Now, I am a futurist, transhumanist, Ph.D. in artificial intelligence, very interested in promoting a better future … but all too familiar with false prophecies of the field. Critics of futurism are fond of pointing out that many glistening promises of the future have never come to pass. But we don’t need a full success for these technologies to be deployed. Many of the pieces already exist, and even if they’re partially deployed, partially effective mostly controlled by humans … they could be awesome weapons of warfare … or repression.
The future of warfare is coming. And it’s scary. I’d say I don’t think we can stop it, and on one level I don’t … but we’ve had some success in turning back from poison gas, are making progress on land mines, and maybe even nuclear weapons. So it is possible to step back from the brink … but I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater the way we seem to have done with nuclear power (to the climate’s great detriment). As my friend Jim Davies said to me, 99% of the technologies we’d need to build killbots have nothing to do with killbots, and could do great good.
In the Future of Warfare series on this blog, I’m going to monitor developing weapons trends, both military systems and civilian technologies, realistic and unrealistic, in production and under speculation. I’m going to try to apply my science fiction writer’s hat to imagine possible weapons systems, my scientist’s hat to explore the technologies to build them, and my skeptic’s hat to help discard the ones that don’t hold water. Hint: it’s highly likely people will invent new ways to hurt each other … but highly unlikely that Skynet will decide our fate in a millisecond.
A bright future awaits us in the offworld colonies … but if we want to get there, we need to be careful about the building blocks we use.
-the Centaur
Pictured: an OGRE miniature. This blogpost is an expansion of an earlier Google+ post.