A lovely visualisation of asteroids in our solar system.
Sunday, January 17th, 2021
Saturday, November 14th, 2020
The Correct Material
I’ve been watching The Right Stuff on Disney Plus. It’s a modern remake of the ’80s film of the ’70s Tom Wolfe book of ’60s events.
It’s okay. The main challenge, as a viewer, is keeping track of which of the seven homogenous white guys is which. It’s like Merry, Pippin, Ant, Dec, and then some.
It’s kind of fun watching it after watching For All Mankind which has some of the same characters following a different counterfactual history.
The story being told is interesting enough (although Tom has pointed out that removing the Chuck Yeager angle really diminishes the narrative). But ultimately the tension is manufactured around a single event—the launch of Freedom 7—that was very much in the shadow of Gargarin’s historic Vostok 1 flight.
There are juicier stories to be told, but those stories come from Russia.
Some of these stories have been told in film. The Spacewalker told the amazing story of Alexei Leonov’s mission, though it messes with the truth about what happened with the landing and recovery—a real shame, considering that the true story is remarkable enough.
Imagine an alternative to The Right Stuff that relayed the drama of Soyuz 1—it’s got everything: friendship, rivalries, politics, tragedy…
I’d watch the heck out of that.
Friday, October 16th, 2020
Wednesday, August 12th, 2020
An Orbital Ring System as an alternative to a space elevator.
Representing nothing short of the most ambitious project in the history of space exploration and exploitation, the Orbital Ring System is more or less what you would imagine it to be, a gargantuan metal ring high above the Earth, spanning the length of its 40,000 kilometer-long diameter.
Friday, August 7th, 2020
I too am a member of The British Interplanetary Society and I too recommend it.
(Hey Matt, if you really want to go down the rabbit hole of solar sails, be sure to subscribe to the RSS feed of Centauri Dreams—Paul Gilster is big into solar sails!)
Monday, August 3rd, 2020
This is an epic deep dive into the 1984 sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey.
For all its flaws, I have a soft spot for this film (and book).
Tuesday, July 7th, 2020
Wednesday, June 17th, 2020
A meditative essay on the nature of time.
The simultaneous dimming of Betelgeuse and the global emergence of COVID-19 were curiously rhyming phenomena: disruptions of familiar, reassuring rhythms, both with latent apocalyptic potential.
Time and distance are out of place here.
We will have left a world governed by Chronos, the Greek god of linear, global, objective time measured by clocks, and arrived into a world governed by Kairos, the Greek god of nonlinear, local, subjective time, measured by the ebb and flow of local patterns of risk and opportunity. The Virus Quadrille is not just the concluding act of pandemic time but the opening act of an entire extended future.
Sunday, June 14th, 2020
Sunday, May 17th, 2020
Looking at COVID-19 through the lens of pace layers.
…a citizen could actually play a part that was as important as a vaccine, but instead of preventing transmission of the virus into another cell at the ACE receptor level, it’s preventing transmission of the virus at the social network level. So we’re actually adopting a kind of behavioral vaccine policy, by voluntarily or otherwise self-isolating.
Friday, May 8th, 2020
Beautiful high resolution posters of our planetary neighbourhood.
Friday, April 10th, 2020
It was fifty years ago this weekend. Follow along here, timeshifted by half a century.
Friday, April 3rd, 2020
The return of NASA’s iconic “worm” logo (for some missions).
Monday, March 30th, 2020
Living Through The Future
You can listen to audio version of Living Through The Future.
Usually when we talk about “living in the future”, it’s something to do with technology: smartphones, satellites, jet packs… But I’ve never felt more like I’m living in the future than during The Situation.
On the one hand, there’s nothing particularly futuristic about living through a pandemic. They’ve occurred throughout history and this one could’ve happened at any time. We just happen to have drawn the short straw in 2020. Really, this should feel like living in the past: an outbreak of a disease that disrupts everyone’s daily life? Nothing new about that.
But there’s something dizzyingly disconcerting about the dominance of technology. This is the internet’s time to shine. Think you’re going crazy now? Imagine what it would’ve been like before we had our network-connected devices to keep us company. We can use our screens to get instant updates about technologies of world-shaping importance …like beds and face masks. At the same time as we’re starting to worry about getting hold of fresh vegetables, we can still make sure that whatever meals we end up making, we can share them instantaneously with the entire planet. I think that, despite William Gibson’s famous invocation, I always figured that the future would feel pretty futuristic all ‘round—not lumpy with old school matters rubbing shoulders with technology so advanced that it’s indistinguishable from magic.
When I talk about feeling like I’m living in the future, I guess what I mean is that I feel like I’m living at a time that will become History with a capital H. I start to wonder what we’ll settle on calling this time period. The Covid Point? The Corona Pause? 2020-P?
At some point we settled on “9/11” for the attacks of September 11th, 2001 (being a fan of ISO-8601, I would’ve preferred 2001-09-11, but I’ll concede that it’s a bit of a mouthful). That was another event that, even at the time, clearly felt like part of History with a capital H. People immediately gravitated to using historical comparisons. In the USA, the comparison was Pearl Harbour. Outside of the USA, the comparison was the Cuban missile crisis.
Another comparison between 2001-09-11 and what we’re currently experiencing now is how our points of reference come from fiction. Multiple eyewitnesses in New York described the September 11th attacks as being “like something out of a movie.” For years afterwards, the climactic showdowns in superhero movies that demolished skyscrapers no longer felt like pure escapism.
For The Situation, there’s no shortage of prior art to draw upon for comparison. If anthing, our points of reference should be tales of isolation like Robinson Crusoe. The mundane everyday tedium of The Situation can’t really stand up to comparison with the epic scale of science-fictional scenarios, but that’s our natural inclination. You can go straight to plague novels like Stephen King’s The Stand or Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. Or you can get really grim and cite Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. But you can go the other direction too and compare The Situation with the cozy catastrophes of John Wyndham like Day Of The Triffids (or just be lazy and compare it to any of the multitude of zombie apocalypses—an entirely separate kind of viral dystopia).
In years to come there will be novels set during The Situation. Technically they will be literary fiction—or even historical fiction—but they’ll feel like science fiction.
I remember the Chernobyl disaster having the same feeling. It was really happening, it was on the news, but it felt like scene-setting for a near-future dystopian apocalypse. Years later, I was struck when reading Wolves Eat Dogs by Martin Cruz-Smith. In 2006, I wrote:
Halfway through reading the book, I figured out what it was: Wolves Eat Dogs is a Cyberpunk novel. It happens to be set in present-day reality but the plot reads like a science-fiction story. For the most part, the book is set in the post-apocolyptic landscape of Prypiat, near Chernobyl. This post-apocolyptic scenario just happens to be real.
The protagonist, Arkady Renko, is sent to this frightening hellish place following a somewhat far-fetched murder in Moscow. Killing someone with a minute dose of a highly radioactive material just didn’t seem like a very realistic assassination to me.
Then I saw the news about Alexander Litvinenko, the former Russian spy who died this week, quite probably murdered with a dose of polonium-210.
I’ve got the same tingling feeling about The Situation. Fact and fiction are blurring together. Past, present, and future aren’t so easy to differentiate.
I really felt it last week standing in the back garden, looking up at the International Space Station passing overhead on a beautifully clear and crisp evening. I try to go out and see the ISS whenever its flight path intersects with southern England. Usually I’d look up and try to imagine what life must be like for the astronauts and cosmonauts on board, confined to that habitat with nowhere to go. Now I look up and feel a certain kinship. We’re all experiencing a little dose of what that kind of isolation must feel like. Though, as the always-excellent Marina Koren points out:
The more experts I spoke with for this story, the clearer it became that, actually, we have it worse than the astronauts. Spending months cooped up on the ISS is a childhood dream come true. Self-isolating for an indefinite period of time because of a fast-spreading disease is a nightmare.
Whenever I look up at the ISS passing overhead I feel a great sense of perspective. “Look what we can do!”, I think to myself. “There are people living in space!”
Last week that feeling was still there but it was tempered with humility. Yes, we can put people in space, but here we are with our entire way of life put on pause by something so small and simple that it’s technically not even a form of life. It’s like we’re the martians in H.G. Wells’s War Of The Worlds; all-conquering and formidable, but brought low by a dose of dramatic irony, a Virus Ex Machina.
Tuesday, March 10th, 2020
The best podcast of last year is back for another season, this time on the Apollo 13 mission.
Wednesday, January 1st, 2020
If a human civilization beyond Earth ever comes into being, this will be unprecedented in any historical context we might care to invoke—unprecedented in recorded history, unprecedented in human history, unprecedented in terrestrial history, and so on. There have been many human civilizations, but all of these civilizations have arisen and developed on the surface of Earth, so that a civilization that arises or develops away from the surface of Earth would be unprecedented and in this sense absolutely novel even if the institutional structure of a spacefaring civilization were the same as the institutional structure of every civilization that has existed on Earth. For this civilizational novelty, some human novelty is a prerequisite, and this human novelty will be expressed in the mythology that motivates and sustains a spacefaring civilization.
A deep dive into deep time:
Record-keeping technologies introduce an asymmetry into history. First language, then written language, then printed books, and so and so forth. Should human history extend as far into the deep future as it now extends into the deep past, the documentary evidence of past beliefs will be a daunting archive, but in an archive so vast there would be a superfluity of resources to trace the development of human mythologies in a way that we cannot now trace them in our past. We are today creating that archive by inventing the technologies that allow us to preserve an ever-greater proportion of our activities in a way that can be transmitted to our posterity.
Saturday, November 30th, 2019
Celestial objects ordered by size, covering a scale from one astronaut to the observable universe.
Saturday, November 16th, 2019
I’m really pleased with how this turned out. I wasn’t sure if anybody was going to be interested in the deep dive into history that I took for the first 15 or 20 minutes, but lots of people told me that they really enjoyed that part, so that makes me happy.
Thursday, November 7th, 2019
When I was travelling across the Atlantic ocean on the Queen Mary 2 back in August, I had the pleasure of attending a series of on-board lectures by Charles Barclay from the Royal Astronomical Society.
One of those presentations was on the threat of asteroid impacts—always a fun topic! Charles mentioned Spaceguard, the group that tracks near-Earth objects.
Spaceguard is a pretty cool-sounding name for any organisation. The name comes from a work of (science) fiction. In Arthur C. Clarke’s 1973 book Rendezvous with Rama, Spaceguard is the name of a fictional organisation formed after a devastating asteroid impact on northen Italy—an event which is coincidentally depicted as happening on September 11th. That’s not a spoiler, by the way. The impact happens on the first page of the book.
At 0946 GMT on the morning of September 11 in the exceptionally beautiful summer of the year 2077, most of the inhabitants of Europe saw a dazzling fireball appear in the eastern sky. Within seconds it was brighter than the Sun, and as it moved across the heavens—at first in utter silence—it left behind it a churning column of dust and smoke.
Somewhere above Austria it began to disintegrate, producing a series of concussions so violent that more than a million people had their hearing permanently damaged. They were the lucky ones.
Moving at fifty kilometers a second, a thousand tons of rock and metal impacted on the plains of northern Italy, destroying in a few flaming moments the labor of centuries.
Later in the same lecture, Charles talked about the Torino scale, which is used to classify the likelihood and severity of impacts. Number 10 on the Torino scale means an impact is certain and that it will be an extinction level event.
Torino—Turin—is in northern Italy. “Wait a minute!”, I thought to myself. “Is this something that’s also named for that opening chapter of Rendezvous with Rama?”
I spoke to Charles about it afterwards, hoping that he might know. But he said, “Oh, I just assumed that a group of scientists got together in Turin when they came up with the scale.”
Being at sea, there was no way to easily verify or disprove the origin story of the Torino scale. Looking something up on the internet would have been prohibitively slow and expensive. So I had to wait until we docked in New York.
On our first morning in the city, Jessica and I popped into a bookstore. I picked up a copy of Rendezvous with Rama and re-read the details of that opening impact on northern Italy. Padua, Venice and Verona are named, but there’s no mention of Turin.
Sure enough, when I checked Wikipedia, the history and naming of the Torino scale was exactly what Charles Barclay surmised:
A revised version of the “Hazard Index” was presented at a June 1999 international conference on NEOs held in Torino (Turin), Italy. The conference participants voted to adopt the revised version, where the bestowed name “Torino Scale” recognizes the spirit of international cooperation displayed at that conference toward research efforts to understand the hazards posed by NEOs.