Astronomy, SETI, science, transparency and wonders!

DragonflightScience fiction is one of the most “American” literary genres, because, like America itself, SF has a relentless fascination with change. In fact, I believe that this trait – rather than technology – is what most distinguishes SF from fantasy.  (It is certainly why Anne MacCaffrey, author of the “Dragonrider” series, proclaims quite firmly that “I am a science fiction author; I don’t do fantasy.”

Societies, families, and individuals have always lived on shifting sands.  When just a few of your comfy assumptions are rocked, you may find wisdom and solace in a closely-focused literary view. But if you want or need a bigger picture — to ride the tsunami that change has become in modern times — then literary science fiction turns the reader from a hapless recipient of change into an explorer.

The “what-if” thought experiment is the purest expression of a courageous mind.  Because authors hurl, and readers accept, the ultimate challenge to empathy —

— not just putting on the shoes of your neighbor, but stretching your empathic power to other places, times, cultures and states of being.  To put aside the comfort food of familiarity, repetition, nostalgia or the myopic here-and-now… and instead reconnoiter the vast range of things that (for better or worse) our children might do and become.

Despite the simplistic banality of Hollywood sci fi, there is more to science fiction than garish, clanking monsters.  It can infect children with the dangerous mental habit of imagining things different than they are. And a surprising majority of scientists, doctors, astronauts, engineers, teachers, diplomats and world-changers all grew up devouring SF.  It can stir discontent with past and current injustice and then go on to warn of dangers on – or just beyond – the horizon.

A habit of questioning all dogmas – even those that your parents taught you – can makes science fiction seem dangerous, even to lit-professors, who cannot force the genre into slots or pigeonholes.  Because an SF author – once slotted – may bend all of his or her energy and considerable imagination to the project of breaking out.

It is the literature of rambunctious questioning.  And to the extent that Americans loved it — we thrived.

==== MORE UPSHOT FROM SETI ====

The Astronomy Now site  has a 6 min piece about the debate that was hel in Britain a few weeks ago, at the Royal Society’s new Kavli Conference Center.  Featured are clips of Dr. James Benford & me on our side (urging that the issue of “messages to aliens” be discussed in more open fora) and Dr. Seth Shostak, of the SETI Institute, on the other.  Of course nothing was resolved.

The most significant outcome? A straw poll of the attendees at the conference overwhelmingly and almost unanimously asked that the Royal Society and the AAAS support our appeal for international symposia on the issue, bringing in the world’s greatest sages from fields like History, anthropology, biology, philosophy etc into a discussion that may ultimately include — and affect — us all.

Oh… and in related news….

Richard Dawkins speculates about extraterrestrial life in this video.

NASA Ames reveals DARPA-funded “Hundred Year Starship” program, with $1 million funding from DARPA. Announced at a Long Now Foundation event, the program is aimed at settling other worlds

==== NEWS OF THIS AND OTHER WORLDS ====

That 90 minute audio interview I gave last month, for Jay Ackroyd’s BlogTalkRadio (in conjunction with an event on Second Life), is now available on podcast.

UK firm crowdsources security camera monitoring so you never know who’s watching:

“Back in 1996, writer and scientist David Brin wrote “The Transparent Society,” a tale of two fundamentally similar yet very different 21st century cities. Both were littered with security cameras monitoring every inch of public space, but in one city the police did the watching, while in the other the citizens monitored the feeds to keep an eye on each other (and the police). These days, many UK police forces monitor their city streets with cameras mounted on every corner. Now, for a fee, a private company is crowdsourcing security surveillance to any citizen willing to watch, fulfilling Brin’s prophecy in a sense.”

Augmented Reality?…. Try diminished reality!

And? Pope Benedict XVI said on Thursday that the media’s increasing reliance on images, fuelled by the endless development of new technologies, risked confusing real life with virtual reality.  (Um… go to the Jesuit church in Rome and see the trompe l’oeil ceilings (fool the eye) that they are so proud of! dang. It was the immersion 3-D mind-blow of it’s day!)

Fascinating possible alternative way to collect solar energy in the stratosphere and deliver it to the ground.

Fun stuff!

A fabulous leap in the use of the Codona Coronagraph to block light from a distant star and see Jupiter-scale planets, as close as 5 au to their sun.

See a great image of the tree of life and evolution in action. Look carefully and see how the tree suddenly THINS at certain extinction times (notice the dinosaurs vanish) but life soon fills in the gaps.  This really is terrific… even if it does prejudice by implying we are the “most evolved.” http://evogeneao.com/images/Evo_large.gif

Cool video: Imagining the tenth dimension

A cartoon comparison of Huxley and Orwell Orwell feared those who would ban books; Huxley feared there would be no reason to ban books, for there would be no one to read them…

Five times we almost nuked ourselves by accident.

Fifty ideas to change science: Artificial life : biologists will make artificial cells, enzymes, stem cells, induce photosynthesis in the lab…you need a subscription to read the whole article.

=== WANT MORE? ===

A test of truthiness: Fascinating to see how memes spread across the web, passed from peer to peer. But how can one tell what ideas are grass roots and which are spread by political campaigns or corporations? Truthy, based at Indiana University’s School of Informatics and Computing attempts to chart the diffusion of information & misinformation on Twitter – by tracking keywords and retweets. http://truthy.indiana.edu/

At Carnegie Mellon, a computer named NELL (Never-Ending Language Learner) is busy uplifting itself: scanning info 24/7, calculating, categorizing – learning language as humans do. A step toward the semantic web and possibly true artificial intelligence? You can watch Nell find correlations via twitter. @cmunell http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/05/science/05compute.html?_r=1

The Lunar X Prize (backed by Google) will grant $30 million to the first privately funded team that lands a robot rover on the moon. The rover must travel more than 500 meters and transmit video and data back to earth. Deadline is 2012 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Google_Lunar_X_Prize

Be sure to see Comet Hartley 2 (discovered in 1986). It should be visible with binoculars, appearing as a greenish smudge near Cassiopeia if you have dark skies. This comet will be targeted by NASA’s Deep Impact probe (EPOXI) for a flyby in November – coming within 435 miles of the comet. http://earthsky.org/astronomy-essentials/comet-hartley-2-might-be-2010s-brightest-comet

Donald Kennedy, former president of Stanford, once issued a challenge to young researchers: Concisely explain your research topic in an “elevator pitch”: Imagine riding an elevator with a friend who is bright but not a scientist. Explain what you do, what it means and why it matters – all before reaching the 15th floor. A worthy challenge in communicating science to the general public – who does pay the bills, after all.

How will technology impact personal liberties? The ACLU is analyzing sci-fi plots to plan its future battles over individual freedom. Its report, Technology, Liberties and the Future, draws upon science fiction for worst-case scenarios to study possible civil liberties violations that may result from advances in technology: omni-surveillance, cloning, gene splicing, nanotech, cyborgs, AI…
http://www.prospect.org/cs/articles?article=humanoid_rights

Is it censorship if the government buys the entire first printing of a book (Anthony Shaffer’s Operation Dark Heart), in return for the publisher’s agreement to destroy ever copy? http://www.utne.com/Great-Writing/government-operation-dark-heart-book-burning.aspx

Kenyan tinkerer builds plane from scratch, using a Toyota engine and a wooden propeller, wings from aluminum siding http://www.popsci.com/diy/article/2010-10/video-kenyan-tinkerer-builds-plane-scratch-aims-fly-next-week

An animated look at Changing Educational Paradigms http://comment.rsablogs.org.uk/2010/10/14/rsa-animate-changing-education-paradigms/

Danny Gold’s new movie: 100 voices A journey Home: the revival of Jewish culture in Poland http://www.100voicesmovie.com/

Check out this assembly of sculptures of human ancestors — ranging from Australopithecus to Homo erectus — amazingly realistic reconstructions created by French artist Elisabeth Daynes, fleshed out from casts of skulls. See her website with details on the reconstructions and methodology: http://www.daynes.com/en/reconstructions.php http://photoblog.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2010/10/15/5296825-a-family-portrait-for-the-ages?chromedomain=cosmiclog

Our most precious resource, water, is increasingly being privatized. Global water consumption is doubling every 20 years, and demand will soon outstrip supply. The rights to divert water are a sellable commodity, but will markets deal with this problem equitably — or pit industry against drought-stricken countries –  water haves against water have-nots…
http://www.newsweek.com/2010/10/08/the-race-to-buy-up-the-world-s-water.html

A Moh’s Scale of Hardness for science fiction: how ‘hard’ is the science – is the story consistent with the laws of physics – and are the fictional extrapolations plausible? Click to expand the categories at the end.  My opinion?  Eh.
http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/MohsScaleOfScienceFictionHardness

1 Comment

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One response to “Astronomy, SETI, science, transparency and wonders!

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