Tags: space




I remember when I was first recommended to read Kim Stanley Robinson. I was chatting with Jon Tan about science fiction, and I was bemoaning the fact that dystopias seem to be the default setting. Asking "what’s the worst that could happen?" is the over-riding pre-occupation of most sci-fi. Black Mirror is the perfect example of this. Mind you, that’s probably why the ambiguous San Junipero is one of my favourites—utopia? dystopia? dystutopia? You decide.

Anyway, Jon told me I should check out Kim Stanley Robinson’s Three Californias; one book describes a dystopia, one book describes a utopia, and the other—his debut, The Wild Shore—is more ambiguous. I liked the sound of that, but I decided that if I were going to read Kim Stanley Robinson, I should start with his most famous work, the Mars trilogy.

So I read Red Mars. I liked it, but I found it tough going. It’s not exactly a light read. I still haven’t read Green Mars or Blue Mars, though I plan to. I can see why Red Mars is regarded as a classic of hard sci-fi, but it left me somewhat cold. Jessica read The Years of Rice and Salt and had a similar reaction—good premise, thoroughly researched, but tough going.

When I heard about 2312, I couldn’t resist its promise of a jaunt around the solar system. Again, I enjoyed it, but the plot—such as it was—didn’t grab me. I loved the ideas presented in the book. Heck, it inspired one of my Science Hack Day projects. Still, I found that its literary conceit wasn’t enough to carry the book—a character from Saturn who’s saturnian in nature meets a character from Mercury who’s mercurial in nature.

So I was kind of bracing myself for Aurora. Again, the subject matter really appealed to me. I’m a sucker for generation starships. Brian Aldiss’s Non-Stop was a fun read, although in typical Aldiss style, it was weird to the point of psychedelia (even if it looks positively tame next to the batshit crazy world of Hothouse). I was looking forward to reading Robinson’s hard science take on the space ark idea, but I was worried about how much of a slog the writing might be. I read some reviews and listened to some podcasts, and my heart sank when I heard about how the story is partly told by the ship’s AI, who is simultaneously trying to work out how to tell a story. It sounded just like one of those ideas that would be fine for a brief period, but which I could imagine Kim Stanley Robinson dragging out for hundreds of page.

Imagine my surprise when Aurora turned out to be an absolute pleasure. Not only does it have the thoroughly-researched hard science angle of Robinson’s other books, it’s also a rip-roaring tale, in my opinion. I had read of misgivings with the structure of the book—complaints that the story climaxes before the book is halfway done—but I think that misses the point of the story. This is not your typical tale of colonisation. Far from it. Kim Stanley Robinson is quite open about the underlying idea here, that there are certain endeavours that are simply beyond our capacity.

I know that sounds like a very pessimistic view, but I found the book to be a real testament to human ingenuity. But it certainly ruffled quite a few feathers. Like I said, the default setting for most sci-fi is to go negative, but for a sci-fi writer to claim outright that something cannot be done is audacious, and flies in the face of sci-fi tradition.

Gregory Benford wrote a review over on one of my favourite blogs, Centauri Dreams. He takes Robinson to task for stacking the deck against the crew of the ship in Aurora—an inversion of the usual deus ex machina plot devices. I find that criticism puzzling when another review, also on Centauri Dreams, by Stephen Baxter, James Benford and Joseph Miller, takes the book to task for being scientifically naïve.

For me, Aurora was perfectly balanced. It simultaneously captured the wonder of scientific exploration and our own insignificance in the universe. Best of all, it featured central characters that I was utterly invested in—one human, and one artificial. Given my previous experiences with Kim Stanley Robinson books, that was perhaps its greatest achievement. Whereas I might have previously recommended something like 2312, I would have certainly caveated the recommendation. But I wholeheartedly recommend Aurora. It’s easily the best Kim Stanley Robinson book I’ve read so far, and one of the finest science fiction books of recent years. It makes a great companion piece to Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves—not only are they both dealing with space arks, they’ve also got some in-depth descriptions of angular momentum in action, and they’re both thoroughly enjoyable stories that stretch beyond a single human lifespan.

I’m looking forward to digging back through Kim Stanley Robinson’s back catalogue, and I’m very intrigued by his newest book, New York 2140. From listening to his Long Now talk at The Interval, it sounds like the book has as much to say about near-future economics as it does about climate change.

It’s ironic though. Kim Stanley Robinson was first recommended to me because he was one of the few sci-fi writers unafraid to depict a utopia. But his writing never clicked with me until I read Aurora, whose central message sounds like the ultimate downer …that some scientific achievements will forever remain out of reach for humanity.

The voice of MOL

The latest issue of Spaceflight—the magazine of the British Interplanetary Society—dropped through my door, adding to my weekend reading list. This issue contains a “whatever happened to” article about the military personnel who were supposed to crew the never-realised MOL project.

Before Salyut, Skylab, Mir, or the ISS, the Manned Orbital Laboratory was the first proposed space station. It would use a Gemini capsule and a Titan propellant tank.

Manned Orbital Laboratory

But this wasn’t to be a scientific endeavour. The plan was to use the MOL as a crewed spy satellite—human eyes in the sky watching the enemy below.

The MOL was cancelled (because uncrewed satellites were getting better at that sort of thing), so that particular orbital panopticon never came to pass.

I remember when I first heard of the MOL and I was looking it up on Wikipedia, that this little nugget of information stood out to me:

The MOL was planned to use a helium-oxygen atmosphere.

That’s right: instead of air (21% oxygen, 79% nitrogen), the spies in the sky would be breathing heliox (21% oxygen, 79% helium). Considering the effect that helium has on the human voice, I can only imagine that the grave nature of the mission would have been somewhat compromised.

Salt of the Earth

It’s Summertime in England so Jessica and I are eating the bounty of the season. Now is the perfect time for lamb. Yesterday we went to the Open Market and picked up half a leg of lamb (butterflied) from Tottington Manor Farm. This evening, we marinated it with rosemary, thyme, garlic, olive oil, and lemon and then threw it on the barbecue.

While we ate, we listened to a podcast episode. This time it was a documentary about salt from my Huffduffer feed. It’s an entertaining listen. As well as covering the science and history of salt, there were some interesting titbits on salt-based folklore. There’s the obvious one of throwing spilt salt over your shoulder (in to the eyes of the devil, apparently) but there was also one that neither of us had heard of: that offering someone salt at the dinner table is bad luck and warrants the rebuttal “pass me salt, pass me sorrow!”

Well, you live and learn.

Then we started thinking about other salt-based traditions. I have something in the back of my mind about a new year’s eve tradition in Ireland involving throwing bread at the door and sprinkling salt in the doorway. Jessica remembered something about a tradition in eastern European countries involving bread and salt as a greeting. Sure enough, a quick web search turned up the Russian tradition: “Хлеб да соль!!” ( “Bread and salt!”).

This traditional greeting has been extended off our planet. During the historic Apollo-Soyuz docking, crackers and salt were used as an easy substitute. But now when cosmonauts arrive at the International Space Station, they are greeted with specially-made portions of bread and salt.

We finished listening to the podcast. We finished eating our lamb—liberally seasoned with Oregonian salt from Jacobson. Then we went outside and looked up at the ISS flying overhead. When Oleg, Gennady, and Mikhail arrive back on Earth, they will be offered the traditional greeting of bread and salt.

100 words 075

Today was a Salter Cane practice day. It was a good one. We tried throwing some old songs at our new drummer, Emily. They stuck surprisingly well. Anomie, Long Gone, John Hope …they all sounded pretty damn good. To be honest, Emily was probably playing them better than the rest of us.

It was an energetic band practice so by the time I got home, I was really tired. I kicked back and relaxed with the latest copy of Spaceflight magazine from the British Interplanetary Society.

Then I went outside and watched the International Space Station fly over my house.

100 words 054

In between publishing the Whole Earth Catalog and spinning up the Long Now Foundation, Stewart Brand wrote an article in Rolling Stone magazine about one of the earliest video games, Spacewar.

Except it isn’t really about Spacewar at all. It’s about the oncoming age of the personal computer.

The article was published in 1972. At the end, there’s an appendix listing some communal places where “one can step in off the street and compute.” One of those places—with 16 terminals available—was run by a certain Bob Kahn.

Together with Vint Cerf he created the Internet’s Transmission Control Protocol.

100 words 023

Twenty minutes after SpaceX mission CRS-6 launched from Florida’s space coast, it passed over England.

Jessica and I were outside, hoping to catch a glimpse of it.

“There it is!” I cried, pointing at a bright fast moving light. In moments, we saw another bright dot, then another and another—the jettisoned solar panel covers travelling along the same trajectory.

Looking up from the surface of my home planet at this new orbital traveller, I was reminded of grainy black and white footage of crowds waving flags at the launch of ocean liners at the turn of the last century.

100 words 022

I spent the day in London. As my train arrived back in Brighton, it was enveloped in a chilly fog. The whole town was bedecked in an eerie seaside mist—not an uncommon Brighton phenomenon.

Fortunately the fog cleared by the time the ISS made its way across the sky this evening. It was a beautiful sight.

I was hoping to also look for a Dragon capsule on its resupply mission shortly afterwards. Alas, the launch was scrubbed. I got lucky with the weather; SpaceX, not so much.

Perhaps tomorrow will bring better fortune. I’ll be looking to the sky.


Science Hack Day San Francisco was held in the Github offices last weekend. It was brilliant!

Hacking begins Hacking Science hacker & grumpy cat enthusiast, Keri Bean Launch pad

This was the fifth Science Hack Day in San Francisco and the 40th worldwide. That’s truly incredible. I mean, I literally can’t believe it. When I organised the very first Science Hack Day back in 2010, I had no idea how far it would go. But Ariel has been indefatigable in making it a truly global event. She is amazing. And at this year’s San Francisco event, she outdid herself in putting together a fantastic cross-section of scientists, designers, and developers: paleontology, marine biology, geology, astronomy, particle physics, and many, many more disciplines were represented in the truly diverse attendees.

Saturday breakfast with the Science Hack Day community! The Science Hack Day girls! Stargazing on GitHub's roof Demos begin!

After an inspiring set of lightning talks on the first day, ideas started getting bounced around and the hacking began to take shape. I had a vague idea for—yet another—space-related hack. What clinched it was picking the brains of NASA’s Keri Bean. She’d help me get hold of the dataset I needed for my silly little hack.

So here’s the background…

There are many possibilities for human habitats in space: Stanford tori, O’Neill cylinders, Bernal spheres. Another idea, explored in science fiction, is hollowing out asteroids (Larry Niven’s bubbleworlds). Kim Stanley Robinson explores this idea in depth in his book 2312, where he describes the process of building an asteroid terrarium. The website of the book has a delightful walkthrough of the engineering processes involved. It’s not entirely implausible.

I wanted to make that idea approachable, so I thought about the kinds of people we might want to have living with us on the interior shell of a rotating hollowed-out asteroid. How about the people you follow on Twitter?

The only question that remains then is: which asteroid is the right one for you and your Twitter friends? Keri tracked down the motherlode of asteroid data and I started hacking the simplest of mashups—Twitter meets space rocks.

Here’s the result…



Give it your Twitter username and it will tell you exactly which one of the asteroids in the main belt is right for you (I considered adding an enterprise option that would tell you where you could store your social network in the cloud …the Oort cloud, that is).

Be default, your asteroid will have the population density of Earth, which is quite generously. But if you want a more sparsely-populated habitat—say, the population density of Australia—or a more densely-populated world—with something like the population density of Japan—then you will be assigned a larger or smaller asteroid accordingly.

You’ll also be told by how much you should increase or decrease the rotation of the asteroid to get one gee of centrifugal force on the interior. Figuring out the equations for calculating centrifugal force almost broke me, but luckily I had help from a rocket scientist and a particle physicist …I’m not even kidding. And I should point out that the calculations take some liberties—I’m assuming a spherical body, which is quite a stretch, given the lumpy nature of most asteroids.

At 13:37 on the second day, the demos began. Keri and I were first up.

Jeremy wants to colonize an asteroid Habitasteroids

Give Habitasteroids a whirl for yourself. It’s a silly little thing, but I quite like how it turned out.

Speaking of silly things …at some point in the proceedings, Keri put the call out for asteroid data to her fellow space enthusiasts on Twitter. They responded with asteroid-related puns.

They have nice asteroids though: @brianwolven, @lukedones, @paix120, @LGalache, @motorbikematt, @brx0.

Oh, and while Habitasteroids might be a silly little hack, WRANGLER just might work.

WRANGLER: Capture and De-Spin of Asteroids and Space Debris

Radio Free Earth

Back at the first San Francisco Science Hack Day I wanted to do some kind of mashup involving the speed of light and the distance of stars:

I wanted to build a visualisation based on Matt’s brilliant light cone idea, but I found it far too daunting to try to find data in a usable format and come up with a way of drawing a customisable geocentric starmap of our corner of the galaxy. So I put that idea on the back burner…

At this year’s San Francisco Science Hack Day, I came back to that idea. I wanted some kind of mashup that demonstrated the connection between the time that light has travelled from distant stars, and the events that would have been happening on this planet at that moment. So, for example, a star would be labelled with “the battle of Hastings” or “the sack of Rome” or “Columbus’s voyage to America”. To do that, I’d need two datasets; the distance of stars, and the dates of historical events (leaving aside any Gregorian/Julian fuzziness).

For wont of a better hack, Chloe agreed to help me out. We set to work finding a good dataset of stellar objects. It turned out that a lot of the best datasets from NASA were either about our local solar neighbourhood, or else really distant galaxies and stars that are emitting prehistoric light.

The best dataset we could find was the Near Star Catalogue from Uranometria but the most distant star in that collection was only 70 or 80 light years away. That meant that we could only mash it up with historical events from the twentieth century. We figured we could maybe choose important scientific dates from the past 70 or 80 years, but to be honest, we really weren’t feeling it.

We had reached this impasse when it was time for the Science Hack Day planetarium show. It was terrific: we were treated to a panoramic tour of space, beginning with low Earth orbit and expanding all the way out to the cosmic microwave background radiation. At one point, the presenter outlined the reach of Earth’s radiosphere. That’s the distance that ionosphere-penetrating radio and television signals from Earth, travelling at the speed of light, have reached. “It extends about 70 light years out”, said the presenter.

This was perfect! That was exactly the dataset of stars that we had. It was a time for a pivot. Instead of the lofty goal of mapping historical events to the night sky, what if we tried to do something more trivial and fun? We could demonstrate how far classic television shows have travelled. Has Star Trek reached Altair? Is Sirius receiving I Love Lucy yet?

No, not TV shows …music! Now we were onto something. We would show how far the songs of planet Earth had travelled through space and which stars were currently receiving which hits.

Chloe remembered there being an API from Billboard, who have collected data on chart-topping songs since the 1940s. But that API appears to be gone, and the Echonest API doesn’t have chart dates. So instead, Chloe set to work screen-scraping Wikipedia for number one hits of the 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s …you get the picture. It was a lot of finding and replacing, but in the end we had a JSON file with every number one for the past 70 years.

Meanwhile, I was putting together the logic. Our list of stars had the distances in parsecs. So I needed to convert the date of a number one hit song into the number of parsecs that song had travelled, and then find the last star that it has passed.

We were tempted—for developer convenience—to just write all the logic in JavaScript, especially as our data was in JSON. But even though it was just a hack, I couldn’t bring myself to write something that relied on JavaScript to render the content. So I wrote some really crappy PHP instead.

By the end of the first day, the functionality was in place: you could enter a date, and find out what was number one on that date, and which star is just now receiving that song.

After the sleepover (more like a wakeover) in the aquarium, we started to style the interface. I say “we” …Chloe wrote the CSS while I made unhelpful remarks.

For the icing on the cake, Chloe used her previous experience with the Rdio API to add playback of short snippets of each song (when it’s available).

Here’s the (more or less) finished hack:

Radio Free Earth.

Basically, it’s a simple mashup of music and space …which is why I spent the whole time thinking “What would Matt do?”

Just keep hitting that button to hear a hit from planet Earth and see which lucky star is currently receiving the signal.*


*I know, I know: the inverse-square law means it’s practically impossible that the signal would be in any state to be received, but hey, it’s a hack.

Space by Botwest

I had a whole day of good talks yesterday at South By Southwest yesterday …and none of them were in the Austin Convention Center. In a very real sense, the good stuff at this event is getting pushed to the periphery.

The day started off in the Driskill Hotel with the New Aesthetic panel that James assembled. It was great, like a mini-conference packed into one hour with wonderfully dense knowledge bombs lobbed from all concerned. Joanne McNeil gave us the literary background, Ben searched for meaning (and humour) in advertising trends, Russell looked at how machines are changing what we read and write, and Aaron …um, talked about the helium-balloon predator drone in the corner of the room.

With our brains primed for the intersections where humans and machines meet, it wasn’t hard to keep pattern-matching for it. In fact, the panel right afterwards on technology and fashion was filled with wonderful wearable expressions of the New Aesthetic.

Alas, I wasn’t able to attend that panel because I had to get to the green room to prepare for my own appearance on Get Excited and Make Things With Science with Ariel and Matt. It was a lot of fun and it was a real pleasure to be on a panel with such smart people.

I basically used the panel as an opportunity to geek out about some of my favourite science-related hacks and websites:

After that I stayed in the Driskill for a panel on robots and AI. One of the panelists was Bina48.

I heard had heard about Bina48 from a Radiolab episode.

Radiolab - Talking to Machines on Huffduffer

Jon Ronson described the strange experience of interviewing her—how the questions always tended to the profound and meaningful rather than trivial and chatty. Sure enough, once Bina was (literally) unveiled on the panel—a move that was wisely left till halfway through because, as the panelists said, “after that, you’re not going to pay attention to a word we say”—people started asking questions like “Do you dream?” and “What is the meaning of life?”

I asked her “Where were you before you were here?” She calmly answered that she was made in Texas. The New Aesthetic panelists would’ve loved her.

I was surprised by how much discussion of digital preservation there was on the robots/AI panel. Then again, the panel was hosted by a researcher from The Digital Beyond.

Bina48’s personality is based on the mind file of a real person containing exactly the kind of data that we are publishing every day to third-party sites. The question of what happens to that data was the subject of the final panel I attended, Saying Goodbye to Your Digital Self, featuring representatives from The Internet Archive, Archive Team, and Google’s Data Liberation Front.

Digital preservation is an incredibly important topic—one close to my heart—but the panel (in the Omni hotel) was, alas, sparsely attended.

Like I said, at this year’s South by Southwest, a lot of the good stuff was at the edges.

The country songs of distant Earth

I flew into Nashville on the weekend for the Breaking Development conference, which is proving to be excellent so far.

The event is taking place within the Gaylord Opryland (stop sniggering). It’s a very unusual environment. At one point it was . Now it’s a complex of hotel buildings, parks and restaurants all contained under a glass and metal ceiling. The whole place feels like it’s hermetically sealed—the ideal place to hole up during a zombie apocalypse.

The outer edge of the Stanford Torus

I’ve been inside this world since Saturday evening. I have memories of the outside world. I remember the feeling of a breeze on my face, the sun on my skin. I remember the cash-based monetary system used by the surface dwellers; so inefficient compared to the unique identifier contained in my room key.

I began to realise that, in the absence of any evidence that I was in fact still in Tennessee, it was entirely possible that this self-contained ecosystem was not necessarily earthbound. What if I’m in an orbital habitat? Or a ?

I’ve been surreptitiously attempting to explore the shape of the complex—without drawing too much attention to myself (I think they’re watching)—trying to figure out if I’m in a or, more likely, a .

The builders have created a near-flawless illusion of the homeworld. The climate control has been consistent and the gravity is a perfect Earth 1. I’m a little nervous about the possibility of a meteor penetrating the shell and causing decompression problems, but I think they must have a phalanx of automated lasers on the outside hull to take care of that eventuality.

There are plenty of , which should ensure a renewable supply of food. Strangely, I haven’t seen any animals (apart from fish) but most of available in the restaurant appears to be meat-based.

I don’t know how long the voyage will last. I don’t even know where lies. But so far there are no hardships to endure. Our hosts are ensuring our psychological wellbeing with a plentiful supply of piped music …though why it is exclusively country music remains a mystery to me. We are, after all, a long, long way from Nashville.


It’s hard to believe that it’s been half a decade since The Show from Ze Frank graced our tubes with its daily updates. Five years ago to the day, he recorded the greatest three minutes of speech ever committed to video.

In the midst of his challenge to find the ugliest MySpace page ever, he received this comment:

Having an ugly Myspace contest is like having a contest to see who can eat the most cheeseburgers in 24 hours… You’re mocking people who, for the most part, have no taste or artistic training.

Ze’s response is a manifesto to the democratic transformative disruptive power of the web. It is magnificent.

In Myspace, millions of people have opted out of pre-made templates that “work” in exchange for ugly. Ugly when compared to pre-existing notions of taste is a bummer. But ugly as a representation of mass experimentation and learning is pretty damn cool.

Regardless of what you might think, the actions you take to make your Myspace page ugly are pretty sophisticated. Over time as consumer-created media engulfs the other kind, it’s possible that completely new norms develop around the notions of talent and artistic ability.

Spot on.

That’s one of the reasons why I dread the inevitable GeoCities-style shutdown of MySpace. Let’s face it, it’s only a matter of time. And when it does get shut down, we will forever lose a treasure trove of self-expression on a scale never seen before in the history of the planet. That’s so much more important than whether it’s ugly or not. As Phil wrote about the ugly and neglected fragments of Geocities:

GeoCities is an awful, ugly, decrepit mess. And this is why it will be sorely missed. It’s not only a fine example of the amateur web vernacular but much of it is an increasingly rare example of a period web vernacular. GeoCities sites show what normal, non-designer, people will create if given the tools available around the turn of the millennium.

Substitute MySpace for GeoCities and you get an idea of the loss we are facing.

Let’s not make the same mistake twice.

Skillful stories

After spending almost a month on the other side of the Atlantic, it was nice to return to Brighton to find it in the first bloom of Spring. Just a day or two after I returned, I was able to enjoy a nice wander around the Spring Harvest food festival sampling the culinary delights and randomly bumping into fellow geeks like Aral, Steve and Mark.

Such is the scenius of Brighton. There’s always plenty of smart folk around to gather together with, as evidenced by the multitude of geek gatherings like Build Brighton, dotBrighton and UX Brighton. Last night it was the turn of Skillswap, expertly organised by James.

Skillswap hasn’t been about swapping skills for quite a while. Instead it has morphed into a curated evening of related short snappy presentations sometimes followed by an ensemble Q and A. Last night’s theme was Skillswap Seeking Stories and it was a humdinger.

Phil Gyford expounded on his wonderful Pepys’ Diary project and how it has been nurtured over time. Gavin O’Carroll spoke about Spacelogone of my favourite sites—and the structure of narratives, games and websites. The marvellous Matthew Sheret, who really impressed me at History Hackday, wrapped it up with a demonstration of the power that each of us has to use the internet to tell stories with our data. “You are Time Lords!” he exclaimed, and illustrated his points with some lovely artwork he commissioned from Tom Humberstone.

It was very generous of Phil, Gavin and Matt to give up their time and travel down from London to deliver such a fantastic evening of thought-provoking entertainment. Seriously, it was better than some paid conferences I’ve been to. And—thanks to the sponsorship from Madgex—there was free beer (“free” as in “free beer” …as in “beer!” …as in “free beer!!”).

Anna was working her podcasting magic, recording the talks. You can subscribe to the Skillswap Huffduffer account if you want to hear them once they’re ready.

Postscript to Space

One of the mailing lists I subscribe to is the Brighton Speculative Fiction group. If I rightly recall, I signed up whilst drunk at a party I had gatecrashed in Kemptown.

What? Like it’s never happened to you. I suppose you’ve never woken up the morning after the night before, clutching your aching head and moaning “Oh man, I hope I didn’t edit any wikis last night!”


The Brighton Speculative Fiction group meets regularly in the excellent Basketmaker’s Arms to talk sci-fi and swap books. My copy of is making the rounds while I’ve snagged a copy of one of ’s earliest works, . It reads like an novel, imagining what it would have been like if the space race had been led from the UK rather than the US.

Early on the book, a character explains that peculiarly British word “”:

Good lord, don’t you know that word? It goes back to the War, and means any long-haired scientific type with a slide-rule in his vest pocket.

That reminded me of the thoroughly enjoyable book Backroom Boys by Francis Spufford, filled with stories of post-war British innovation: everything from “spitfires in space” rocketry ambitions through to the creation of and .

But when Clarke published Prelude To Space in 1953, the idea of Britain leading the charge into space wasn’t a far-fetched flight of fancy. If anything, it was a straightforward linear extrapolation. Before the PR battle of the superpowers kicked off with Sputnik, America had shown no interest in spaceflight, much less putting men on the moon.

I know this, not just because Arthur C. Clarke mentions it in the foreword, but also because of the first episode of the Space Dog podcast which features an interview with Arthur C. Clarke gleaned from The Science Fiction Oral History Association, wherein he talks about Prelude To Space.

Space Dog Podcast Episode One on Huffduffer

In fact, I’ve been huffduffing a host of Arthur C. Clarke-related material lately. The motherlode is this three-way discussion with Clarke, and on , technology, and the future of mankind. They discuss the idea of without explicitly calling it that—this was recorded long before coined the term.

Arthur C. Clarke, Alvin Toffler, and Margaret Mead on Man’s Future on Huffduffer

Listening to this on my iPod on my walk into work, I had a pleasant tingle of recognition when Alvin Toffler, author of , was introduced as a consultant to the Institute For The Future …the organisation that provided the location for a latter-day gathering of web-enabled boffins: Science Hack Day San Francisco.


When I was gushing enthusiastically about Old Weather, I tried (and failed) to explain what it is that makes it so damn brilliant. I’ve just experienced some of that same brilliance. This time the source is Spacelog:

Read the stories of early space exploration from the original NASA transcripts. Now open to the public in a searchable, linkable format.

You can now read the transcripts from the Apollo 13 and Mercury 6 missions, and every single utterance has a permalink. For example:

Houston, we’ve had a problem.

The beauty of the idea is matched in the execution. Everything about the visual design helps to turn something that was previously simply information into an immersive, emotional experience. It’s one thing to know that these incredible events took place, it’s another to really feel it.

Spacelog shares the spirit of Science Hack Day. It’s a /dev/fort creation, put together in an incredibly short period of time; Norm! has the low-down.

Apollo 13 and Mercury 6 are just the start. If you want to help turn more transcripts into an emotionally engaging work of hypertext, everything is available under a public domain license and all the code is available on Github. Transcripts are available for Gemini 6, Apollo 8, and Apollo 11.

I can’t wait to read Charlie Duke as hypertext.


My sojourn up the western seaboard of the United States has come to an end. It began in San Diego with the final An Event Apart of the year, which was superb as always. From there, I travelled up to San Francisco for Cindy and Matt’s wedding celebration, followed by a few days in Seattle. The whole trip was rounded out back in California at the wonderfully titled Institute For The Future in Palo Alto. For that was the location of Science Hack Day San Francisco.

It was an amazing event. Ariel did a fantastic job—she put so much effort into making sure that everything was just right. I suspected it was going to be a lot of fun, but once again, I was blown away by the levels of ingenuity, enthusiasm and sheer brilliance on display.

In just 24 hours, the ingenious science hackers had created particle wind chime which converts particle collisions into music that Brian Eno would be proud of, grassroots aerial mapping with balloons which produced astonishing results (including an iPad app), as well as robots and LEDs a-plenty. The list of hacks is on the wiki.

Science Hack Day San Francisco Science Hack Day San Francisco Science Hack Day San Francisco Science Hack Day San Francisco

My own hack was modest in scope. Initially, I wanted to build a visualisation based on Matt’s brilliant idea, but I found it far too daunting to try to find data in a usable format and come up with a way of drawing a customisable geocentric starmap of our corner of the galaxy. So I put that idea on the back burner and decided to build something around my favourite piece of not-yet-existing technology: the .

The idea

Spacelift compares the cost efficiency of getting payloads into geosynchronous orbit using a space elevator compared to traditional rocketry. Basically, it’s a table. But I’ve tried to make it a pretty table with a bit of data visualisation to show at a glance how much more efficient a space elevator would be.

The payloads I’ve chosen are spacecraft. Beginning with the modest Voyager 1, it gets more and more ambitious with craft like an X-Wing or the Millennium Falcon before getting crazy with the USS Enterprise and the Battlestar Galactica.

So, for example, while you could get a TIE-fighter into the Clarke belt using a single , two , or three , it would cost considerably more than using a space elevator, where you’re basically just paying for the electricity.

If you click on the dollar amount for each transport mechanism, you’ll see the price calculated as a tower of pennies. Using a , for example, will cost you a tower of pennies 22 times larger than a space elevator, assuming a space elevator is at least 38,000 kilometres tall/long. Using a space elevator, on the other hand, requires spending a tower of pennies about the same height as itself. I don’t even bother trying to visualise the relative height differences for getting anything bigger than the Tantive IV into orbit as it would require close to infinite scrolling.

I’m fairly confident of the cost-per-kilogram values for the rockets while the is necessarily fuzzy, given that the mechanism doesn’t exist yet. But by far the trickiest info to track down was the mass of fictional spacecraft. There’s plenty of information on dimensions, speed and armaments, but very little on weight. Mathias saved the day with some diligent research that uncovered the motherlode.

Having such smart, helpful people around made the whole exercise a joy. It was quite a pleasure to walk over to a group of hackers, ask Is anyone here a rocket scientist? and have at least one person raise their hand. The constant presence of Cosmos playing on a loop just added to the atmosphere of exploration and fun.


I’ve put the code on GitHub, ‘cause that’s what a real hacker would do. It’s my first GitHub repository. Be gentle with me.

There’s CSS3 and HTML5 a-plenty. I deliberately don’t use the IE shim to enable styling of HTML5 structural elements in lesser versions of Internet Explorer; there wouldn’t be much point delivering RGBa, opacity and text-shadow styles to a browser that can’t handle ‘em.

The background colour changes depending on the payload. I’m using a variation of the MD5 colour encoding popularised by Dopplr and documented by Brian in his excellent new book, Designing With Data.

I’m using League Gothic by The League Of Movable Type for the type—ya gotta have a condensed font for data visualisations, right?

There’s also a google-o-meter image from the Google chart API.

Needless to say, the layout is responsive and adapts to different viewing environments …including print.

Spacelift, printed

Using CSS transforms, each page of table of price comparisons becomes a handy page to print out and stick on the office wall to remind yourself why the human race needs a space elevator.

Spam of the Gods

Stephen Hawking has been quoted recently urging caution about the prospect of first contact with an extra-terrestrial civilisation:

We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet.

This isn’t the first time that such reservations have been raised.

Both of the Voyager spacecraft are carrying ; snapshots and time capsules of our planet’s culture—a project with such a long timeline that it makes the clock of the Long Now look like a disposable gadget in comparison. As well as carrying instructions on how to decode the record—ingeniously using the fundamental transition of a hydrogen atom as the base unit of time—the records also have a map inscribed upon them. This is the same illustration that was included with .

The map consists of fourteen lines converging on a central point. The length and angle of each line corresponds to the position of a pulsar relative to Earth. Those fourteen beacons point to one position in the galaxy: our home planet.

The responsibility for deciding the contents of the golden record fell to Carl Sagan. I highly recommend listening to this account by Sagan’s widow Ann Druyan of how the golden record may just contain the encoded patterns of love itself:

Carl Sagan And Ann Druyan’s Ultimate Mix Tape on Huffduffer

Many people at the time were upset that the pulsar map was included on the Voyager record, for the same reasons that Hawking is giving today: we are effectively hanging a sign around our neck that reads free food here.

I was talking about this with Tantek at South by Southwest this year and he had to admit that, with his Schneier-esque security hat on, those people have a point. What you really want to do, he said, is point to a drop-off box instead: a nearby uninhabited star-system that we can monitor from Earth. That way, if we ascertain that the alien civilisation is friendly, we can go and greet them but if they are hostile, we can simply lay low.

In fact, in Sagan’s book Contact—where the shoe is on the other foot and we are the alien civilisation responding to a message—this is exactly what happens. The origin point we are given is the Vega system, which turns out not to be the home of any alien civilisation but merely a way station: a routing point in the galactic network.

There may well be a galactic RFC for , which the Pioneer and Voyager probes have flagrantly disregarded. What is an alien civilisation to make of a message that effectively states:

Dear Friend,
Although you may be apprehensive as we have not met before, I come to you with great hope. I am a probe from an abundant planet that has recently acquired spacefaring technology. Please contact me at your earliest convenience so that we may transfer knowledge.
I await your response,
Third planet from an insignificant star

It’s clearly a designed to lure in the gullible of the galaxy.

Carl Sagan, my hero, looks like nothing more than a galactic .

To Cape Canaveral… and beyond!

I’ve always been a space geek. Therefore, I’ve always wanted to go to the Kennedy Space Center. There’s a museum there and a bus tour you can go on. The tour stops five miles away from the launch area and while you can’t go into any buildings, the activities within are explained to you.

I fulfilled a fantasy this week. Not only did I go to Cape Canerval but I managed to get an “access all areas” look around the place.

It’s all thanks to an engineer called Benny who listens to Paul Boag’s podcast. In a startling revelation, it turns out that Paul’s listeners are in fact rocket scientists. The NASA “friends and family” day just happened to fall right at the end of Refresh Orlando. Benny invited Paul along. Andy and myself invited ourselves along.

As it turned out, there hadn’t been one of these open days since 2001. We were very, very fortunate and privileged to be allowed behind the scenes at NASA.

In contrast to the regular tour, we drove right up to the launch pads, including launch pad B, which had Discovery rolled out and ready for launch on December 7th. We also got to go inside the Vehicle Assembly Building, something that is normally not allowed. It’s incredibly huge. I mean this is seriously big. Imagine a really big building and then imagine it being bigger.

Best of all, we went inside the orbiter hanger. Endeavour was inside. A space shuttle… a freakin’ space shuttle! That was just so incredibly cool, I can’t even begin to describe it.

I hope I’m not coming across as gloating here: I really just want to share my excitement. It was quite an experience to get so close to the ultimate geek toys. The only way it could have been any better was if Jessica could have been there. Soulmate that she is, I think she might be an even bigger space geek than me.

Clearly, my descriptive powers aren’t up to the task of cataloguing the day’s sights, so I’ll just point you to this photoset on Flickr.

Holy freakin' crap!

Thanks, Benny!