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Posts tagged as “Hard Science”

The Science of Airships, Redux

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Once again, I will be giving a talk on The Science of Airships at Clockwork Alchemy this year, this time at 11AM on Monday. I had to suffer doing all the airship research for THE CLOCKWORK TIME MACHINE, so you should too! Seriously, I hope the panel is fun and informative and it was received well at previous presentations. From the online description:

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. Anthony Francis is a science fiction author best known for his Dakota Frost urban fantasy series, beginning with the award winning FROST MOON. His forays into Steampunk include two stories and the forthcoming novel THE CLOCKWORK TIME MACHINE.

Yes, yes, I know THE CLOCKWORK TIME MACHINE is long in forthcoming, but at least it's closer now. I'll also be appearing on two panels, "Facts with Your Fiction" moderated by Sharon Cathcartat 5pm on Saturday and "Multi-cultural Influences in Steampunk" moderated by Madeline Holly at 5pm on Sunday. With that, BayCon and Fanime, looks to be a busy weekend.

-the Centaur

Context-Directed Spreading Activation

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netsphere.png Let me completely up front about my motivation for writing this post: recently, I came across a paper which was similar to the work in my PhD thesis, but applied to a different area. The paper didn’t cite my work – in fact, its survey of related work in the area seemed to indicate that no prior work along the lines of mine existed – and when I alerted the authors to the omission, they informed me they’d cited all relevant work, and claimed “my obscure dissertation probably wasn’t relevant.” Clearly, I haven’t done a good enough job articulating or promoting my work, so I thought I should take a moment to explain what I did for my doctoral dissertation. My research improved computer memory by modeling it after human memory. People remember different things in different contexts based on how different pieces of information are connected to one another. Even a word as simple as ‘ford’ can call different things to mind depending on whether you’ve bought a popular brand of car, watched the credits of an Indiana Jones movie, or tried to cross the shallow part of a river. Based on that human phenomenon, I built a memory retrieval engine that used context to remember relevant things more quickly. My approach was based on a technique I called context directed spreading activation, which I argued was an advance over so-called “traditional” spreading activation. Spreading activation is a technique for finding information in a kind of computer memory called semantic networks, which model relationships in the human mind. A semantic network represents knowledge as a graph, with concepts as nodes and relationships between concepts as links, and traditional spreading activation finds information in that network by starting with a set of “query” nodes and propagating “activation” out on the links, like current in an electric circuit. The current that hits each node in the network determines how highly ranked the node is for a query. (If you understand circuits and spreading activation, and this description caused you to catch on fire, my apologies. I’ll be more precise in future blogposts. Roll with it). The problem is, as semantic networks grow large, there’s a heck of a lot of activation to propagate. My approach, context directed spreading activation (CDSA), cuts this cost dramatically by making activation propagate over fewer types of links. In CDSA, each link has a type, each type has a node, and activation propagates only over links whose nodes are active (to a very rough first approximation, although in my evaluations I tested about every variant of this under the sun). Propagating over active links isn’t just cheaper than spreading activation over every link; it’s smarter: the same “query” nodes can activate different parts of the network, depending on which “context” nodes are active. So, if you design your network right, Harrison Ford is never going to occur to you if you’ve been thinking about cars. I was a typical graduate student, and I thought my approach was so good, it was good for everything—so I built an entire cognitive architecture around the idea. (Cognitive architectures are general reasoning systems, normally built by teams of researchers, and building even a small one is part of the reason my PhD thesis took ten years, but I digress.) My cognitive architecture was called context sensitive asynchronous memory (CSAM), and it automatically collected context while the system was thinking, fed it into the context-directed spreading activation system, and incorporated dynamically remembered information into its ongoing thought processes using patch programs called integration mechanisms. CSAM wasn’t just an idea: I built it out into a computer program called Nicole, and even published a workshop paper on it in 1997 called “Can Your Architecture Do This? A Proposal for Impasse-Driven Asynchronous Memory Retrieval and Integration.” But to get a PhD in artificial intelligence, you need more than a clever idea you’ve written up in a paper or implemented in a computer program. You need to use the program you’ve written to answer a scientific question. You need to show that your system works in the domains you claim it works in, that it can solve the problems that you claim it can solve, and that it’s better than other approaches, if other approaches exist. So I tested Nicole on computer planning systems and showed that integration mechanisms worked. Then I and a colleague tested Nicole on a natural language understanding program and showed that memory retrieval worked. But the most important part was showing that CDSA, the heart of the theory, didn’t just work, but was better than the alternatives. I did a detailed analysis of the theory of CDSA and showed it was better than traditional spreading activation in several ways—but that rightly wasn’t enough for my committee. They wanted an example. There were alternatives to my approach, and they wanted to see that my approach was better than the alternatives for real problems. So I turned Nicole into an information retrieval system called IRIA—the Information Retrieval Intelligent Assistant. By this time, the dot-com boom was in full swing, and my thesis advisor invited me and another graduate student to join him starting a company called Enkia. We tried many different concepts to start with, but the further we went, the more IRIA seemed to have legs. We showed she could recommend useful information to people while browsing the Internet. We showed several people could use her at the same time and get useful feedback. And critically, we showed that by using context-directed spreading activation, IRIA could retrieve better information faster than traditional spreading activation approaches. The first publication on IRIA came out in 2000, shortly before I got my PhD thesis, and at the company things were going gangbusters. We found customers for the idea, my more experienced colleagues and I turned the IRIA program from a typical graduate student mess into a more disciplined and efficient system called the Enkion, a process we documented in a paper in early 2001. We even launched a search site called Search Orbit—and then the whole dot-com disaster happened, and the company essentially imploded. Actually, that’s not fair: the company continued for many years after I left—but I essentially imploded, and if you want to know more about that, read “Approaching 33, as Seen from 44.” Regardless, the upshot is that I didn’t follow up on my thesis work after I finished my PhD. That happens to a lot of PhD students, but for me in particular I felt that it would have been betraying the trust of my colleagues to go publish a sequence of papers on the innards of a program they were trying to use to run their business. Eventually, they moved on to new software, but by that time, so had I. Fast forward to 2012, and while researching an unrelated problem for The Search Engine That Starts With A G, I came across the 2006 paper “Recommending in context: A spreading activation model that is independent of the type of recommender system and its contents” by Alexander Kovács and Haruki Ueno. At Enkia, we’d thought of doing recommender systems on top of the Enkion, and had even started to build a prototype for Emory University, but the idea never took off and we never generated any publications, so at first, I was pleased to see someone doing spreading activation work in recommender systems. Then I was unnerved to see that this approach also involved spreading activation, over a typed network, with nodes representing the types of links, and activation in the type nodes changing the way activation propagated over the links. Then I was unsettled to see that my work, which is based on a similar idea and predates their publication by almost a decade, was not cited in the paper. Then I was actually disturbed when I read: “The details of spreading activation networks in the literature differ considerably. However, they’re all equal with respect to how they handle context … context nodes do not modulate links at all…” If you were to take that at face value, the work that I did over ten years of my life—work which produced four papers, a PhD thesis, and at one point helped employ thirty people—did not exist. Now, I was also surprised by some spooky similarities between their systems and mine—their system is built on a context-directed spreading activation model, mine is a context-directed spreading activation model, theirs is called CASAN, mine is embedded in a system called CSAM—but as far as I can see there’s NO evidence that their work was derivative of mine. As Chris Atkinson said to a friend of mine (paraphrased): “The great beam of intelligence is more like a shotgun: good ideas land on lots of people all over the world—not just on you.” In fact, I’d argue that their work is a real advance to the field. Their model is similar, not identical, and their mathematical formalism uses more contemporary matrix algebra, making the relationship to related approaches like Page Rank more clear (see Google Page Rank and Beyond). Plus, they apparently got their approach to work on recommender systems, which we did not; IRIA did more straight up recommendation of information in traditional information retrieval, which is a similar but not identical problem. So Kovács and Ueno’s “Recommending in Context” paper is a great paper and you should read it if you’re into this kind of stuff. But, to set the record straight, and maybe to be a little bit petty, there are a number of spreading activation systems that do use context to modulate links in the network … most notably mine. -the Centaur Pictured: a tiny chunk of the WordNet online dictionary, which I’m using as a proxy of a semantic network. Data processing by me in Python, graph representation by the GraphViz suite’s dot program, and postprocessing by me in Adobe Photoshop.

Going Gonzo

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It would be hard to adequately describe the story I'm working on now in between gaps of finishing up the anthology Doorways to Extra Time, but from the reading list I have above, you can fairly assume it's going to be gonzo.

Of course, everything that has Jeremiah Willstone in it is a bit gonzo.

-the Centaur

Humans are Good Enough to Live

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I'm a big fan of Ayn Rand and her philosophy of Objectivism. Even though there are many elements of her philosophy which are naive, or oversimplified, or just plain ignorant, the foundation of her thought is good: we live in exactly one shared world which has a definitive nature, and the good is defined by things which promote the life of human individuals.

It's hard to overestimate the importance of this move, this Randian answer to the age old question of how to get from "is" to "ought" - how to go from what we know about the world to be true to deciding what we should do. In Rand's world, ethical judgments are judgments made by humans about human actions - so the ethical good must be things that promote human life.

This may seem like a trivial philosophical point, but there are many theoretically possible definitions of ethics, from the logically absurd "all actions taken on Tuesday are good" to the logically indefensible "things are good because some authority said so." Rand's formulation of ethics echoes Jesus's claim that goodness is not found in the foods you eat, but in the actions you do.

But sometimes it seems like the world's a very depressing place. Jesus taught that everyone is capable of evil. Rand herself thought nothing is given to humans automatically: they must choose their values, and that the average human, because they never think about values, is pretty much a mess of contradictory assumptions which leaves them doing good only through luck.

But, I realized Rand's wrong about that - because her assumptions are wrong, that nothing is given to humans automatically. She's a philosopher, not a scientist, and she wasn't aware of the great strides that have been made in the understanding of how we think - because some of those strides were made in technical fields near the very end of her life.

Rant rails against philosophies like Kant's, who proposes, among many other things, that humans perceive reality unavoidably distorted by filters built into the human conceptual and perceptual apparatus. Rand admitted that human perception and cognition had a nature, but she believed, humans could perceive reality more objectively. Well, in a sense, they're both wrong.

Modern studies of bias in machine learning show that it's impossible - mathematically impossible - to learn any abstract concept without some kind of bias. In brief, if you want to predict something you've never seen before, you have to take some stance towards the data you've seen already - a bias - but there is no logical way to pick a correct bias. Any one you pick may be wrong.

So, like Kant suggested, our human conceptual processes impose unavoidable biases on the kind of concepts we learn, and unlike Rand wanted, those biases may prove distorting. However, we are capable of virtual levels of processing, which means that even if our base reasoning is flawed, we can build a more formal one, like mathematics, that avoids those problems.

But, I realized, there's an even stronger reason to believe that things aren't as bad as Kant or Rand feared, a reason founded in Rand's ideas of ethics. Even human communities that lack a formalized philosophy are nonetheless capable of building and maintaining systems that last for generations - which means the human default bias leads to concepts that are Randian goods.

In a way, this isn't surprising. From an evolutionary perspective, if any creature inherited a set of bad biases, it would learn bad concepts, and be unable to reproduce. From a cognitive science perspective, the human mind is constantly attempting to understand the world and to cache the results as automatic responses - what Rand would call building a philosophy.

So, if we are descendants of creatures that survived, we must have a basic bias for learning that promotes our life, and if we live by being rational creatures constantly attempting to understand the world who persist in communities that have lasted for generations, we must have a basic bias towards a philosophy which is just good enough to prevent our destruction.

That's not to say that the average human being, on their own, without self-examination, will develop a philosophy that Rand or Jesus would approve of. And it's not to say that individual human beings aren't capable of great evil - and that human communities aren't capable of greater evil towards their members.

But it does mean that humans are good enough to live on this Earth.

Just our continued existence shows that even though it seems like we live in a cold and cruel universe, the cards are stacked just enough in humanity's favor for it to be possible for at least some people to thrive, it also shows that while humans are capable of great evil, the bias of humanity is stacked just enough in our favor for human existence to continue.

Rising above the average, of course, is up to you.

-the Centaur

For Sale: Garden Planet. Barely Used.

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Stranded - print.jpg

It's been on preorder for a while, but STRANDED, the anthology featuring stories by me, James Alan Gardner, and headlined by Anne Bishop, is finally out in print and Kindle on Amazon and both print and Nook on Barnes and Noble. Three authors, three stories - one theme: young adults making their own way in space. An excerpt from my story, "Stranded":

“It’s called Halfway Point," Serendipity said, "because they wanted to do what I want to do: set up a port between those two bubbles, which have grown so they almost touch. Shipping routes are still rerouted, but they won’t stay that way. Halfway Point’s even got a black hole—”

“Oh, wonderful,” Tianyu said. “Sounds like a big KEEP OFF sign to me.”

“Hush, love,” Serendipity said. “The orbit’s far enough that the inner planets are stable, but close enough to power heavy industry someday. In all the galaxy, Halfway Point is unique. I have no idea why it was overlooked, but I’m not about to let someone else step up and claim it.”

They stared at the little blue-green moon, that forgotten jewel, curling around the rainbow pastels of its mammoth mother planet.

“I looked up headstrong in the dictionary,” Tianyu said at last, curling up in a huff. “Your name was all over it: synonym, hyponym, see also, properly capitalized and everything.”

“Be a good sport,” Serendipity said, ruffling behind his ears. "Double-check my kit, would you?"

Ah, Serendipity. Best of luck on that new planet. You can check out more of Serendipity the Centaur at her Facebook page, or here, where I'll be filling in details on "Stranded's" sequel, "Conflicted," as I get the story done. The current plan is to collect the first three novellas in the Serendipity story into a single novel titled MAROONED.

-the Centaur

“The Doorway to Extra Time” in Beta Draft

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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

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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

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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.

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

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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!

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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 …

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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

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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!

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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.

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The Future of Warfare

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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.

The Rules Disease at Write to The End

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I've a new essay on writing at the Write to the End blog, called "The Rules Disease." A preview:

Anyone who seriously tackles the craft of writing is likely to have encountered a writing­ rule, like “Show, Don’t Tell,” or “Never Begin a Sentence with a Conjunction.” “Don’t Split Infinitives” and “Never Head Hop” are also popular. The granddaddy of all of them, “Omit Needless Words,” is deliciously self-explanatory … but the ever baffling “Murder Your Darlings” is a rule so confusing it deserves its own essay.

This is part of my ongoing column The Centaur's Pen.

-the Centaur

Scientific Citations in Popular Literature

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Lightly edited from a recent email:
Here's the revised version. Rather than just including linked references [in that middle section as you suggested], I actually expanded that section so that it was clear who I was citing and what I was claiming they said. Citations work for science types but I want to learn (create? promote?) a new way of including references for popular literature in which, rather than saying something like, "Scientists think it's OK to start sentences with a conjunction [Wolfram 2002]." I instead want to say things like, "In the foreword of his mammoth tome A New Kind of Science, computer scientist Stephen Wolfram defends starting sentences with conjunctions, arguing forcefully that it makes long, complex arguments easier to read." Yes, it's longer, but it's more honest, and the [cite] style was aimed at scientific papers with enormously compressed length requirements. Tell me what you think.
What do you think about the use of citations in non-scientific literature? I think we can do better. I'm just not sure what it is yet. Textbooks have generally solved this problem with "info boxes," but that's not always appropriate. -the Centaur

Involves politics, but not really political

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Andrew Breitbart is dead at 43. He was apparently a conservative commentator; I wasn't too familiar with him except for some of the scandals he broke. But the point, as John Scalzi said, is that he was 43. I'm used to hearing about accomplished people who are much younger than I am ... Larry Page, Britney Spears, Christopher Paolini, that last born when I entered high school. Occasionally people in that age bracket die. It's a damn shame, everyone says, they died so young. But when Andrew Breitbart died, while it was clear that he died young - to the point of spawning (what at first appear to be ridiculous) conspiracy theories - no-one is too surprised. Because a male's chance of dying of a heart attack triples when you move up to 35-44 year age bracket, and triples again when you roll over into 45-54. I'd enter some snark about white males like myself being worse off, but it doesn't seem to be the case. So Andrew's about the right age where people should start worrying about dying of a heart attack. So am I. God speed, Andrew. And may God be with us all. -the Centaur Pictured: a memento mori featuring my cat, Caesar, curling up in the lap of luxury next to the skull of one of his less evolutionarily successful distant relatives. Looks like Caesar had an easier time taking down that giraffe than his buddy there.

Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternally Inspiring Tome

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This is the book that got me started on artificial intelligence ... and now has inspired me again to attack my craft with greater vigor. I was writing an essay for The Centaur's Pen column for the Write to The End site and realized it depended on a concept - true, but unprovable theorems - which isn't in wide circulation. So I've started an essay on that topic for this site, and decided to go reread Gödel, Escher, Bach, the book which introduced me to the concept.

At the writing group, the topic of the essay and Gödel, Escher, Bach came up, and we all started discussing how intricate, how rewarding, and how friendly Hofstadter's immense tome is. It's a work of genius that continues to stagger me to this day. And then my writing friends told me that in the new edition there's a foreward with the entire back story of how the book came to be.

I picked it up last night, and reading the new intro I was gratified to learn that I understood his basic thesis - that conscious intelligence arises from bare matter by grounding its symbols in correspondence to reality, then inexorably turning that grounding inward into a spiral of self-reference with no end. Hofstadter and I might disagree about what's sufficient to produce conscious intelligence, but we'd just be quibbling about details, because I think he nailed a necessary component.

But after the intro of the foreword, when I began to read the story of how this 750 page long Pulitzer Prize winning book started its life as a 20 page letter that Hofstadter decided needed to be turned into a pamphlet, I was stunned.

He wrote it in 5 years.

Well, it actually took 6 to complete, because he typeset it himself---through a happy-but-not-at-the-time accident, twice---producing an amazing work that was polished far beyond his original intention. But he wrote it while in graduate school, while teaching classes, while traveling cross-country. He put it down for a bit finishing his PhD thesis itself, but basically the book's a white hot blaze of inspiration polished to pure excellence.

I'm inspired, all over again.

-the Centaur

The Stack is Growing

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FROM THE WRITER'S ANONYMOUS 12-STEP SUPPORT GROUP MEETING: Hi, I'm Anthony Francis, and I'm an author. ("Hi, Anthony!") To feed my addiction, I get stuff published.

My first published novel, the urban fantasy FROST MOON featuring magical tattoo artist Dakota Frost, won an EPIC e-book award. It's out in paperback, Kindle, in German as SKINDANCER, and soon to be audiobook thanks to the wonderful reading skills of Traci Odom. The second book in the series, BLOOD ROCK, came out last year to good reviews, and the third book, LIQUID FIRE, will come out later this year. A spinoff series starring Dakota's daughter Cinnamon Frost, HEX CODE, will come out next year, also part of a planned trilogy.

One of my short stories, "Steampunk Fairy Chick," was recently published in the UnCONventional anthology. The story, featuring steampunk adventurer Jeremiah Willstone, is based on a novel called THE CLOCKWORK TIME MACHINE (again part of a planned trilogy) which I've got in rough draft form with a possible release late this year or early next year. Another of my short stories, "Sibling Rivalry," was published in The Leading Edge magazine in 1995, but is now available on my web site. I also write flash fiction. One of my flash shorts, "If Looks Could Kill", was just published in THE DAILY FLASH 2012 (pictured above) and another, "The Secret of the T-Rex's Arms", was just published in Smashed Cat Magazine.

My nonfiction research papers are largely available on my research page, including my nearly 700-page Ph.D thesis (hork). I and my thesis advisor Ashwin Ram have a chapter on "Multi-Plan Adaptation and Retrieval in an Experience-based Agent" in David Leake's book CASE BASED REASONING: EXPERIENCES, LESSONS AND FUTURE DIRECTIONS, and Ashwin, Manish Mehta and I have a chapter on "Emotional Memory and Adaptive Personalities" in THE HANDBOOK OF RESEARCH ON SYNTHETIC EMOTIONS AND SOCIABLE ROBOTICS.

I have more writing in the works, including a novelette called "Stranded" set in the Dresanian universe from which this blog takes its name, and more writing on the Internet. But what I list above is The Stack At This Time - what you can get in print. Enjoy!

-the Centaur