Build me a planet: The map!

May 23rd, 2013

The fictional planet Anubis, 4.3 light years away from Earth. The map is on a Mollweide projection with Earth tropics marked at 23 degrees latitude. Yep, it has ocean currents, which may be overkill, but I struggle with scenery and weather otherwise. Click on the map to get a full-sized version.

The fictional planet Anubis, 4.3 light years away from Earth. The map is on a Mollweide projection with Earth tropics marked at 23 degrees latitude. Yep, it has ocean currents, which may be overkill, but I struggle with scenery and weather otherwise. Click on the map to get a full-sized version.

Categories: Creative writing, Dissertation notes

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Build me a planet: The EPONA world-building process, part 1

May 21st, 2013

This artist's conception illustrates Kepler-22b, a planet known to comfortably circle in the habitable zone of a sun-like star. It is the first planet that NASA's Kepler mission has confirmed to orbit in a star's habitable zone -- the region around a star where liquid water, a requirement for life on Earth, could persist. The planet is 2.4 times the size of Earth, making it the smallest yet found to orbit in the middle of the habitable zone of a star like our sun. Scientists do not yet know if the planet has a predominantly rocky, gaseous or liquid composition. It's possible that the world would have clouds in its atmosphere, as depicted here in the artist's interpretation. AuthorNASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech

This artist’s conception illustrates Kepler-22b, a planet known to comfortably circle in the habitable zone of a sun-like star. It is the first planet that NASA’s Kepler mission has confirmed to orbit in a star’s habitable zone — the region around a star where liquid water, a requirement for life on Earth, could persist. The planet is 2.4 times the size of Earth, making it the smallest yet found to orbit in the middle of the habitable zone of a star like our sun. Scientists do not yet know if the planet has a predominantly rocky, gaseous or liquid composition. It’s possible that the world would have clouds in its atmosphere, as depicted here in the artist’s interpretation.
Author NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech

 

Disclaimer: Below are unedited research notes for a novel. It’s a brain dump. It’s not planned or fact checked. It’s here in case anyone finds it interesting. Use any information at your own risk.

Imagine that you have just landed on a planet twenty-one light years from Earth. You are about to enter a lush world where things are more than just a little different! Evolution has taken exotic paths and a whole new kingdom of life reigns over land, sea and air! You are the leader of a first contact mission on the planet named Epona. The mission you have organized has journeyed here in an interstellar craft that orbits Epona. Your hand-picked crew must provide all the information you will need about Epona from the 21st Century technology available to you. Your objective is to unlock the secret of Epona’s remarkable life-forms and discover if there is intelligent life you can communicate with.

EPONA is a multi-year project to create a scientifically-plausible imaginary planet and its flora and fauna. The website’s worth a visit and of huge interest to an aspiring science fiction author. It gives a step-by-step description of how thirty worldbuilding specialists created the planet EPONA and its life.

My science fiction novel is set on a single planet – an Earth colony - and I’ve been struggling to create plausible climate, geology, and life. The next few blogposts will explain step-by-step how I tried to create my own plausible habitable planet! It’s a bit geeky with loads of numbers, but I like using facts to add quirky details to my writing. Creativity requires constraints and real physics/maths provides them. Sometimes you generate something truly odd and then you think ‘Cool! I could really see how to weave this into my story to make it more interesting…’  Or, ‘wow! I can see how my characters might feel about that.’

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Categories: Creative writing, Dissertation notes

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How long would it take to reach another star?

May 14th, 2013

 

An example of the medieval practice of putting dragons or mythical creatures on unexplored bits of maps. Psalter World Map, 1265:  Considered one of the great medieval world maps. Probably a copy of the map that adorned King Henry III bed chamber. Source: British Library

An example of the medieval practice of putting dragons or mythical creatures on unexplored bits of maps. Psalter World Map, 1265: Considered one of the great medieval world maps. Probably a copy of the map that adorned King Henry III bed chamber. Source: British Library

DISCLAIMER: This blogpost is research notes for my novel. It’s a brain dump, it’s not fact-checked to a professional standard or edited… Use the information here at your own risk. This post is pretty nerdy and mathy so I should add an extra warning: DANGER – contains physics! I just kinda wanted to know if we could REALLY REALLY get to another star, and the numbers added up, or if this was a geek girl’s pipe dream.

The frontier should never lose its allure. We’re all of us born freedom-seeking individuals. To survive, we yield when we must to society, to the pressures of family and friends, of school and custom and the law. At best, the constraints sometimes seem oppressive. We all yearn for escape and find it where we can, in imagination if not in actuality. At heart, we’re all potential pioneers.

Gary Westfahl ‘Space and Beyond’

Space is the last open frontier, which captures the imagination even today. Last summer’s blockbusters included Prometheus, a film about aliens and interstellar travel and there’s a growing interest in returning to space with  serious discussion of a manned mission to Mars. Somewhat less glamorous, two companies have plans to mine asteroids.

Among the dreams of Golden Age science fiction was finding life on another world. Although the idea of alien life seems implausible, improved telescopes are finding numerous Earth-like planets, increasing the possibility that we’re not alone in the universe. The question is – if we detect life on a new Earth, could we go there? ANd, if so, how far could we get?

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Categories: Creative writing, Dissertation notes

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Exploring alien civilisations: A short field guide

May 9th, 2013

The Wanderer above the sea of fog, an oil painting by Caspar David Friedrich. A one-picture description of the human desire for adventure.

The Wanderer above the sea of fog, an oil painting by Caspar David Friedrich. A one-picture description of the human desire for adventure.

DISCLAIMER: This blogpost is research notes for my novel. It’s not fact-checked to a professional standard or edited… Use the information here at your own risk.

Imagine for a moment that you’re a colonist on a distant planet littered with alien ruins. The aliens are gone, extinct, but they’ve left some intact structures behind – strange ‘cities’ riddled with incomprehensible technology. You have many questions. Who lived here? What were their lives like? How did their societies evolve over time? And, importantly, why did they disappear?

Now imagine you’re an aspiring hard science fiction writer. You’ve got to write your colonist searching for plausible answers to his or her questions.

So how would a real-life archaeologist study alien ruins? Here’s some ideas…

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Categories: Creative writing, Dissertation notes

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Myth, legend and archaeology: Where does Indiana Jones come from?

May 9th, 2013

The cover design for Escape: Curse of the Temple by Queen Games showing every archaeologist trope going... Escape is a brilliant real-time board game. If you fancy raiding a temple against the clock alone or with up to four friends, it's available to buy on Amazon.co.uk and comes highly recommended...

The cover design for Escape: Curse of the Temple, a  board game by Queen Games. The cover shows every archaeologist trope going… Escape’s brilliant fun and much better than Monopoly. If you fancy raiding a temple against the clock alone or with up to four friends, it’s available to buy on Amazon.co.uk and comes highly recommended…

DISCLAIMER: This blogpost is research notes for my novel. It’s not fact-checked to a professional standard or edited… Use the information here at your own risk.

Mystery! Adventure! A hunt for hidden treasure! If that sounds exciting, you probably enjoy stories about fictional archaeologists like Lara Croft and Indiana Jones. I love reading adventure stories about explorers discovering lost civilisations and wanted to write adventurous archaeologists into the hard SF novel I’m writing for my creative writing MFA.

It seems like I’m not alone. Archaeologists – it turns out – are a popular trope of hard SF.  Among my favourite books is Alastair Reynold’s Revelation Space, which begins with an archaeological dig on an alien world. Spider Star, another hard SF book, also ‘joins the grand tradition of pairing hard SF with xenoarchaeology’. ‘Xeno’ archaeology, of course, means studying past alien (xeno) civilisations.

The trouble with hard science fiction is that you’ve got to have real science in there. No humanoid aliens with blasters, no sparkly vampires, no slipping through a black hole on your way to the grocery store… The characters need to act as ‘real’ as anyone in literary fiction set in London. Real-life archaeologists spend a small proportion of their time at digs, and most of that time cataloguing, surveying, drawing and cleaning items. According to an introduction to archaeology:

“Because features such as burials are so fragile, every bone must be drawn and recorded before it is removed. Here, an archaeologist takes notes late in the afternoon. Archaeological excavation itself is a careful, painstaking process. The traces of past activity in the soil can be difficult to see, and the features themselves quite delicate. Fieldwork can therefore be a long and tedious process, the excitement of a discovery tempered by the time and care that must be taken to record it. The image of a swashbuckling Indiana Jones, grabbing artifacts from temples and tombs, is far from the reality of scientific research”.

Alastair Reynolds’ archaeologists are pretty realistic. They’re depicted sitting down a trench digging up dead aliens, which posed me a dilemma. Was my image of ‘archaeologists’ as daring adventurers purely a Hollywood construction? Is Indiana Jones in a space suit a cliche with no basis in fact or science? And, if that’s the case, where does the swashbuckling fictional archaeologist come from?  The trope originates – I think – with explorers, geographers and archaeologists in the early 1900s. Their tales of daring-do are as strange as fiction, and much closer to Indiana Jones than digging up pottery in Derbyshire gardens.

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Categories: Dissertation notes, Short walks

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Disclaimer

May 8th, 2013

iStock_000018718655Small

I’m currently finishing an MFA in creative writing at Kingston University, which require me to write a dissertation of 40,000 words of a novel or equivalent. My novel needs a fair bit of worldbuilding and research so I’m going to blog my ‘research notes’ in case they’re of interest to anyone. It helps me to remember my research and keep track of my progress when I’m not writing fiction.

Please do not use my research to help with your term paper, etc. Unlike my journalistic work, I’m using Wikipedia quite heavily and aren’t double-checking my sources. As such, there’s no guarantee of accuracy!

 

Categories: Creative writing

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Talkfest: A confession

July 17th, 2010

Spangly cupcakes

I have an ugly confession to make. Like Shane at Gallomanor‘s blog, I left last Thursday’s UK Science Blogging Talkfest slightly disappointed. I feel bad admitting to this because the people were lovely, I am grateful to the organisers and there were spangly cakes.

Having blogged for a week now, I rocked up at the Talkfest full of practical questions about blogging. How do I share interesting science with my readers more effectively? What’s a good WordPress theme for science blogging? How do I respond if climate skeptics converge en masse on my site?

Cake beforehand and the pub afterwards (sadly, I had to leave early) allowed some opportunity to chat. The business part of the event, however, was a Q&A session with six ‘celebrity’ bloggers. The questions focused on the wider social impact of blogging, something I couldn’t care less about in my role as a blogger.

I’m starting an OU part-time MSc in Science and Society in January and, from an academic science communication perspective, it was an interesting event. But, speaking as a science blogger, I felt getting some of the most widely-read science bloggers in the world to talk about social impacts wasted their talents. I wanted to hear about blogging.

Is this the secret of Not Exactly Rocket Science's success? Sadly, we didn't find out

Ed Yong from Not Exactly Rocket Science – for example – seems a lovely bloke with loads to say about how to build readership, how to entertain readers with science and keep them coming back. Duck penises help, but I’m definite he has much more to say. If I’d known the session was going to be so academic and theoretical, I would have dropped in a few questions. But hindsight ain’t worth a damn.

Categories: Short walks

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The dune that roared

July 17th, 2010

At Thursday’s Science Blogging Talkfest, I got chatting about booming sand dunes – sand that makes sounds like a didgeridoo. I said I’d dig out a video of scientists sliding down booming dunes on their butts. Well, I keep my promises.

You can find more information about research into the dunes on this website run by Professor Melany Hunt from Caltech, one of the scientists on the video. You can also hear dunes that burp, croak and whistle.

Booming dunes are pretty rare, but there are squeaking or whistling dunes in the UK. The aptly-named Whistling Sands in Wales is one famous site. Another is on the Isle of Islay in the Hebrides.

My piece explaining booming dunes will appear in a future issue of How It Works magazine.

Categories: Short walks

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Today outdoors

July 15th, 2010

Guardian blogs: Love trumps loss when it comes to the conservation message. Ed Gillepsie’s blogpost touches on an issue close to my heart. We’d all be overjoyed if we destroyed rubbish heaps or the common cold. Why should we care then about destroying the environment? Environmental writers tell us what we’re destroying, but rarely argue for why it’s worth preserving. Yet most of us gain immeasurable joy from the natural world, even if it’s only picnicking in a city park. Ed argues we need to talk about what humanity could lose rather than just mourning its loss.

The Washington Post: NASA eyeballs glacial melt in Greenland. More on the Jakobsahvn Isbrae glacier, which last week lost a chunk of ice an eighth the size of Manhattan.

The Guardian: Last six months second driest in the UK in 96 years, say scientists. ’nuff said.

EurekAlert: Footloose glaciers crack up. When glaciers that rest on the sea floor ‘lose their grip’ and begin to float in the ocean, they behave erratically, a recent study has found. The study was press released by the American Geophysical Union (AGU) and is on EurekAlert.

Sydney Morning Herald: Prince attacks climate change sceptics. Prince Charles has blasted climate sceptics, according to – funnily enough – an Australian newspaper.

University of Bristol: Honorary degrees awarded. Only included because Professor Paul Valdes is the orator for the ceremony and he’s really good looking.

Categories: The week outdoors

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Car-eating holes explained

July 14th, 2010

Car 'eaten' by sinkhole. WTSP

Look at this image carefully and you can see a car about halfway down the hole. According to newspaper reports, it’s a Toyota Camry. Sadly, there isn’t a record of what the owner said when they returned to their Toyota. I assume it was something like “Oh, s**t!”

The hole is in Tampa, Florida near the University of South Florida. When it opened up on Sunday, it ‘ate’ this car in the process. The car has now disappeared from view and the growing hole is threatening a car park and a block of flats.

This isn’t the first time Tampa residents have unexpectedly stared into the abyss. In January, a whole rash of holes (or maybe a ‘hole rash of wholes’) suddenly appeared, including a 2.5 m wide pit in someone’s back garden. Another hole near the University of South Florida burst a water pipe.

The underlying reason for Tampa’s problem is rock type combined with water use. Perhaps 1000m thick limestone and dolomite rocks lie under most of Florida. These are covered by sands and clays of various thicknesses.

Florida aquifer system (from Tihansky, 1999) and http://water.usgs.gov/ogw/ karst/kigconference/abt_karstfeatures.htm

Limestone and dolomite are mainly made of carbonates – the alkali chemicals used in some indigestion tablets for neutralising stomach acid. As with indigestion tablets, carbonate rocks react with acid water. The products of the chemical reactions are washed away. The water seeps into and widens any rocks that are full of cracks and joints, water seeps into and widens them. Over time, this process forms cavities, underground tunnels and caves.

The carbonate rock under Tampa are riddled with tunnels and cavities. Water has had many opportunities to sculpt the rocks because the sea level around the Florida Peninsula has risen and fallen many times since they were laid down beneath the sea millions of years ago.

Water also gets trapped and stored in the carbonates because they’re holey like Swiss cheese and the surrounding rocks are less permeable. It’s a bit like sandwiching a wet sponge between two glass plates. In fact, the carbonate rocks form an aquifer (a group of rocks that store water) under Florida that holds one-fifth of the water in the US Great Lakes.

Cut forward to the present day and the people of Tampa get their water by drilling into the carbonate rock aquifer and pumping it out. In winter, farmers pump lots of water from the aquifer onto their strawberries to stop them freezing.

The water filling underwater cavities and caves in the carbonates helps support the weight of the cave roof and overlying soil. When the water is pumped out, soil from above moves through cracks in the cavity roof and plugs the gap left by the water.

Sinkholes open up overnight for two main reasons (see a) and d) on the diagram below). First, water flowing downwards to fill the drained cavities eventually washes away the soil plug, causing a sudden slump of soil into the cavity and a hole to open up at the surface (figure d). Alternatively, so much water is removed that it no longer supports the cavity roof and walls. They weaken catastrophically, the cavity roof collapses and a hole opens in the ground (figure a).

Types of sinkhole (after Jennings 1985): http://www3.uakron.edu/geology/ facpages/ids/mdinsmore/

One of these explanations is likely to explain the car-’eating’ sinkhole. As an aside, all this doesn’t explain another giant ‘sinkhole’ that consumed a Guatemala clothing factory and road intersection at the end of May. From what I can gather, Guatemala City is underlain by volcanic deposits that were washed away by rain from tropical storm Agatha.

Categories: Short walks

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