All posts by alexis

Rejection Dejection

In 1996 a science fiction story set in Paris, France, was – finally – published.   It predicted glass-walled skyscrapers, feminism, burglar alarms and email.  These were hardly novel ideas in 1996 or even in 1989 when the manuscript was first circulated.

But the publisher originally approached by the author had rejected the story as being too far-fetched to be believable.

The publisher, a businesslike fellow named Pierre-Jules Hetzel, could be excused for what might appear to us as narrow-mindedness because he’d read the manuscript shortly after it was written: in 1863—at the height of the US Civil War, six years before the golden spike was driven to complete the Transcontinental Railroad and forty years before the Wright Brothers’ first powered flight.  Following this rejection, the manuscript was locked away by its disappointed author. It wasn’t seen again until 1989, when the author’s great-grandson opened the safe.

The author of Paris in the Twentieth Century was Jules Verne.

None of us are immune from rejection letters from hoped-for publishers.  We’re not immune to rejections from friends, lovers, employers, colleges, colleagues, parents, or spouses either. May we be brave enough to write and love and hope again!

 

Eiffel Tower (c) Homemade – Preschool.com

The Shape of Wings to Come

“I have to report that M. Blériot, with his monoplane, crossed the Channel from Calais this morning.  I issued to him a Quarantine Certificate, thereby treating it as a yacht and the aviator as Master and owner.

—The Collector of Customs, Dover
July 25, 1909

1909. Less than 100 years ago, an airplane crossing the English Channel was unprecedented.  What will the future hold?

For my latest of my backlist story collections (until a large and rather complete collection of my backlist of SF stories next year), while making review copies available on BookFunnel, I came up with this tagline:

An imaginary journey from ancient Archaeopteryx to aircraft under distant stars.

SF and Story

 

I tend to write “hard” science fiction, that is, science fiction with some actual science in it. The fantasy elements aren’t allowed to randomly trample what we know about the physical universe.  The boundaries between hard and soft SF are fluid. Truth is, science is just one of the many strands that woven together make us, collectively, who and what we are. It’s an expression of our natural and so very human curiosity. Where it will lead us, we never know in advance.

Consider the Eiffel Tower.

It was built for the International Exposition of 1889. Its winning design was selected in the face of a storm of criticism over its audacious break with tradition. Critics howled at the planned desecration of the Parisian skyline! Twenty years later the exposition concession expired—and the Eiffel Tower was slated for demolition.  But that didn’t happen, and thereon hangs a tale..

In 1864, Cambridge professor James Clerk Maxwell had manipulated the equations that bear his name to predict that electromagnetic energy could travel through space at the speed of light.  This prediction was experimentally verified a quarter-century later by Heinrich Hertz—but only over very short distances. Would it hold true for longer distances? In 1901 Guglielmo Marconi demonstrated that electromagnetic energy could be transmitted and detected at great distances: in a dramatic flourish he sent a signal clear across the Atlantic Ocean!

The received signal was, however, incredibly weak. This meant that equally incredible power had to be poured into a transmitter to reap even a barely detectable signal at the other end. This made communication by radio slow, uncertain, and expensive—but not for long. The triode vacuum tube, invented by Lee De Forest, changed everything overnight: the triode was the first electronic amplifier, able to accept weak signals and multiply them into currents large enough be handled with ease and convenience.This was in 1907, and it was still topical news when the Eiffel Tower’s lease was up.

When built the tower was approximately twice as tall as any other above-ground structure in human history. As such it was virtually made to order as an antenna tower. But would it serve? Would the Eiffel Tower really work as a radio antenna?  It would, and it did—and it was saved. (In fact, eventually 17 meters were added to the top, in the form of a television broadcast antenna. Again, the critics howled.)

Hard science fiction has on occasion worshiped technology at the expense of humanistic or spiritual values. Yet consider how that the Eiffel Tower stands today because of its unforeseen utility in the era of modern electronic communications. And ponder how  you’re reading these words on a screen built into what’s usually known as a “computer.” It may be a dedicated reader platform, or a smartphone, or a laptop device—but whatever it is, you probably use it for communicating, not for computing. You use it to bridge the chasm between yourself and your fellow human beings.

I use electronic impulses to communicate with my readers, to tell stories.  Story is something human beings have done for as long as human beings have existed. The screen at which you’re looking right now, along with the stack of books that are undoubtedly nearby, along with the Eiffel Tower, witness to our mutual need to speak, to listen, to hold, to aspire, and to dream.

And I have a new novel finished – a story with science and humanity, adventure and romance, and many unexpected surprises.  I can hardly wait to transmit it to the world. . . .

 

The Card Catalog

Knowing I’d be on a panel about Libraries of the Future at the Texas Library Association Conference in Dallas this Spring, I read up on libraries of the PAST, and found this book.  Yes, it tells about the evolution of the Card Catalog through history.  The book is richly illustrated with reproductions of cards from the Library of Congress catalog, which  they have NOT done away with.  Hand-written on the old cards are scraps of bibliographic information that never made it into on-line cataloging. Recommended!

“A scholar is just a library’s way of making another library. ” – Daniel Dennett, philosopher, writer, and professor (b. 28 Mar 1942), quoted in A Word A Day.

Snow City

Last month, I flew to Reno for the Soaring Society of America’s biennial convention, and was it ever a change from Houston.  Houston was already in an early (and flat)Texas Gulf Coast Spring.  Reno not so much:  surrounded by mountains etched against the sky in dry clear air, under tangles of lenticular clouds, Reno was winter-brown.

And then it snowed.  A lot.

That was a shock to the system for me and all the Southern Californians, Floridians, and attendees from the Southern Hemisphere.  Some had a tough drive or a delayed flight getting there.  But a good convention was had anyway – with old friends, interesting news, and an exhibit hall full of dream machines. (A non-soaring-pilot friend saw this picture and commented, “I didn’t know gliders are so BIG!”)

And Reno?  The sun came out.  The snow sublimated, melted, or stuck around in (relatively) harmless and picturesque places.

Travel is a cognate to the nowadays more ominous word travail.  The root meaning still works.  Travel is challenging even with cars and jets.  It’s debilitating, as any airline pilot can tell you.  Yet when you travel you meet people and places you wouldn’t at home, and you may see wonders. Or even unexpected reminders of home.

 

 

 

IMAGE

On January 20, 2018, an amateur astronomer by the name of Scott Tilley detected a signal he correctly deduced to have originated from NASA’s IMAGE satellite.  This satellite, launched in early 2000, had fallen silent almost six years later and given up for dead.

Interestingly, the mechanism for rebooting IMAGE involved passing through the shadow of a solar eclipse.  While an eclipse in 2007 didn’t do the trick, speculation is that the eclipse I watched from Wyoming last summer may have done so.   It’s nice to know the universe on occasion does make service calls!

IMAGE, the Imager for Magnetopause-to-Aurora Global Exploration, was intended to spend its two-year operational life imaging charged particles in the plasmasphere that surrounds the Earth, using several new techniques.  As such, it’s a tool to help us investigate the aurorae.  Thanks to IMAGE, you can watch a beautiful timelapse presentation of an aurora over the South Pole here .

While the science is important, our wonder at the exquisite and unexpected interactions between our planetary home and the rest of the universe is equally so.  A sense of wonder about creation and the very human beings dwelling on – or near! – this Earth is why I write the stories I do.

Compassion

A human being is part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. We experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest. A kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from the prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. The true value of a human being is determined by the measure and the sense in which they have obtained liberation from the self. We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if humanity is to survive.
—Albert Einstein

PicSat Takes a Train to Orbit

Artist's conception of PicSat nanosatellite in Earth orbit
Artist’s conception of PicSat in orbit. Image courtesy PicSat.

A couple of days ago, PicSat rocketed into orbit on a mission that will last about a year, thus neatly spanning this new year 2018.

The mission will be to observe the transit of a gas giant exoplanet, Beta Pictoris b, as it passes between us and its sun.  The planet is new in at least two senses:  it was discovered in 2009, orbiting a star just 63 light-years from Earth, and it’s believed to have been formed quite recently.  In fact, its orbit is actually inside the cloud of dust and debris left over from the birth of the planet.

What makes this satellite special is its minuscule size and mass:  PicSat isn’t much larger than a baguette. This comparison is particularly apt, because PicSat was designed and assembled in Paris.  Here it is leaving Paris via the Gare du Nord, the Parisian train station dedicated to generally northbound departures.

Outside the station—taking the train to orbit!rain
Photo courtesy PicSat

If you’re wondering where in the picture the satellite is, it’s in that picnic cooler-size container being carried by PicSat team members Sylvestre Lacour and Maturin Grénot.

PicSat’s train ride to Holland was powered by an electric locomotive, by the way; electric locomotives were first introduced about a hundred and ten years ago—a nice illustration of the old and the new coexisting side by side.

PicSat’s size, mass, and a few other properties were  set by the CubeSat nanosatellite specifications which allow smaller packages to piggyback on launches of other, more complex and expensive payloads so long as they pose little or no risk of jeopardizing the host vehicle.  As an example of this philosophy, once in orbit the host vehicle deploys CubeSat packages by means of a simple spring launcher—like a child’s toy.  In a way, that’s precisely what they are:  CubeSat specifications were originally developed to enable graduate students to design and build their own satellites.

In railroad terms, this corresponds to a less-than-carload (“LCL”) shipment; while most people don’t know it, it’s still possible to ship small parcels in the baggage car on Amtrak trains today.

Here’s PicSat, proudly posing in front of four of its creators:

PicSat nanosatellite standing on table in front of four of the experiemnters who built it.
Photo courtesy PicSat

From left to right, these experimenters are Vincent Lapeyrere, Antoine Crouzier, Mathias Nowak, and Lester David.  Who says science can’t be fun? To learn more about the PicSat project, or help receive telemetered data from the satellite, visit picsat.obspm.fr  Continue reading PicSat Takes a Train to Orbit