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.
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.
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.
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:
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→
When Hurricane/Storm Harvey lashed and flooded Texas, a lot of heroes stepped up – everybody from first responders to the Cajun Navy, bringing over boats from Louisiana, to doctors who used the Nextdoor social media platform to say where they were for neighbors in need, and many more. A California veterinarian heard about the storm and immediately set out for Houston knowing there would be many lost and injured pets.
Today, perched on the brink of a new year with its own unforeseen challenges and disasters, we should acclaim another kind of Harvey hero. These are the people who opened their doors to sodden family, neighbors and friends. I heard about a single man in a well-elevated two-story house who checked on his elderly next-door neighbors, found them shivering in high water, and brought them into his home, where they stayed for weeks. A couple who are friends of mine took refuge with her parents (i.e., his inlaws) for two months while they got their house livable. A first-floor neighbor in my complex moved in with a dear friend for three months while her place was being rehabilitated. A woman I know who has cats took in a colleague with more cats. Fortunately, the cats figured out how to coexist!
A lady I met at a Christmas concert told me that she and her husband have had another couple, neighbors and longtime friends who need to raise their flooded house several feet higher, living with them since Harvey. This nice lady told me she’s very much enjoying these unexpected housemates. For one thing they moved their espresso-maker in with them and the quality of morning coffee has been superb. For another and more important thing, the formerly empty nest (three kids off to school and adulthood) is now lively with friendly people.
I’m sure there have been households full of gritted teeth while overcrowded with incompatible relatives. Still, they did the right thing. Meanwhile I suspect that in more households than we’ll ever know about, people found good fellowship, better neighbors than they knew they had, warmer family ties, or pleasure in not living alone. In a society that tends to atomize everybody, the terrible storm created some new and resilient social molecules. It had a silver lining.
Early in November I attended the World Fantasy Convention in San Antonio. WFC is a professional writers’ event to a significant degree, but even I, with no fantasy books out as of yet, had several attendees ask me for autographs at the Signature Event (with every writer in one big room signing autographs.)
The convention venue was adjacent to San Antonio’s Riverwalk. It’s one of my favorite places, an oasis in that city—though as cities go, San Antonio, with its ancient Hispanic roots, is its own kind of oasis in Texas.
The Riverwalk meanders for miles through downtown San Antonio, though on the river’s level you’d hardly know it. There are some shops and restaurants reaching all the way down to the water’s edge. There are also whimsical bridges and sculptures, birds, and even water taxis: it’s Venice in Texas!
There’s also the aquatic version of street sweepers.
Below the Southwest School of Art & Craft, people who walk or jog by are watched by miniature folk sketched on a wall of rough timbers. Here’s one of the watchers.
No visit to San Antonio, by someone who writes speculative fiction with spiritual angles, would be complete without paying respects to San Fernando Cathedral, or, to use the full name, the Church of Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria y Guadalupe. Portions of this cathedral date to 1738. It is a major anchor in the Mexican-American life of San Antonio.
And then there’s this: the towering mosaic on the facade of Santa Rosa Children’s Hospital. The artist is Jesse Trevino, a native son from the West Side of San Antonio, who when he was young saw a tombstone angel with a broken wing that he never forgot.
The image is fantastic – a kind of sacred fantasy that speaks to the hope of healing in the real world.
For Houstonians, this yard art is a very relatable commentary on how the most unpleasant imaginable Halloween trick came early with Storm Harvey.
Harvey was really bad, including where I live. I rode out the storm in comfort on the third floor and never even lost Internet, but with the bayou about two miles wide, my car was a goner. The condos on the first floor got anywhere from a few inches to a few feet of water.
All across town houses got flooded that had NEVER flooded before. In some cases these were 40-year-old homes that had never even come close to flooding. People had to rip out wet carpet, sheet rock and insulation, baseboards, wood flooring that looked dryable but turned out to have puddles all under it, appliances, furniture, and books. The result was streets lined with dismal debris piles.
Houston and other municipalities are scraping these up as fast as possible, but there’s so much it taking a long time. Before the garbage trucks come the scavengers. People in old pickup trucks drive around collecting appliances, furniture, and flooring to clean, rehabilitate and sell to those who lost what they had and lack flood insurance.
Friends in Bellaire, a self-contained little city surrounded by Houston, say it was a great day when the city debris removal trucks finally came to their street. It was like a parade, with elephantine garbage trucks and people standing out in their yards waving and smiling.
“The reappearance of the crescent moon after the new moon; the return of the Sun after a total eclipse, the rising of the Sun in the morning after its troublesome absence at night were noted by people around the world; these phenomena spoke to our ancestors of the possibility of surviving death. Up there in the skies was also a metaphor of immortality.”
― Carl Sagan, Cosmos
My science fiction and fantasy tends to have theological or spiritual angles, and this post is no different.
But first, meet SOFIA:
This is the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy—a retired jetliner modified to carry an astronomical telescope. Originally built to service what the airline industry calls “long, thin routes”—ultra-long-range segments that attract relatively few passengers per week, the airplane is a specially shortened version of the ubiquitous Boeing 747. It was built for Pan Am and christened Clipper Lindbergh by none other than Anne Lindbergh on the 50th anniversary of Charles Lindbergh’s takeoff, destination Paris.
After service with Pan Am and United Airlines, the future airborne observatory was retired to a desert boneyard to await her date with the scrapper’s torch—but fate intervened. In 2008, after restoration, modification, and the installation of a German-designed and -built infrared telescope, the reborn aircraft was again christened Clipper Lindbergh on the 80th anniversary of Charles Lindbergh’s arrival in Paris, this time by Erik Lindbergh.
SOFIA is jointly funded by NASA and DLR, Germany’s national aeronautical and space research agency.
Here you can see SOFIA in flight with the telescope port fully open.
The reason for lofting the telescope to the base of the stratosphere is that water vapor strongly absorbs the infrared frequencies of greatest interest to astronomers, and by flying at 39,000-45,000 feet above sea level the observatory eliminates 99% of the atmospheric water vapor between the telescope and the celestial objects under study.
At the center of most, perhaps all, galaxies there is a supergiant black hole. Some are quiescent and some are quite active, and observations recently made by SOFIA enabled astronomers for the first time to calculate the median size of the dust particles being drawn into the active black holes; it turns out that they’re about the size of sand grains.
But where do these dust particles come from? Most of the universe consists of hydrogen and helium, not the more complex atoms that fill out the periodic table and make life interesting—and possible. It’s now generally known that the complex atoms are thrown, like grains of rice at a celestial wedding, across the galaxies by novas and supernovas.
Here’s SOFIA’s “before and after” portrait of supernova 2014J, the 10th supernova discovered in 2014, nestled in its galaxy.
At one time supernovas were believed to be simply more dramatic novas, but the more recent understanding is that they result from very different processes; in fact, they’re quite distinct.
Their gifts to the universe are, likewise, quite distinct. Supernovas provide us with the heavier elements that are the building blocks of the cores of rocky planets—and a single supernova can produce enough dust to form 7,000 Earths. Novas, by contrast, provide us with the middleweight atoms—the ones that are essential to all life as we know it.
Belief systems the world over are fond of telling us of one deity or another dying that we may live and be redeemed. We now know they’re almost right about this after all: let us reflect that stars died that we might live and that we might have a world on which to live . . . and that, in a very real sense, we and our Earth are, indeed, heavenly.
Lately two female members of Congress have been in the news quite a bit in connection with the health care insurance debate. This takes us right back to where it all started, with Representative Jeanette Rankin of Montana, first woman elected to Congress.
Neonatal and maternal health was one of Jeannette Rankin’s lifelong interests, and both during, between and after her two terms in Congress she campaigned tirelessly for better healthcare for women and children—so it’s particularly fitting that female officeholders have again made their voices heard across the land.
Several western states (and some western Territories, even prior to statehood) very early granted women the right to fully participate in political life, including voting and holding office, so Representative Rankin’s position was anomalous: she was a member of Congress at a time when most US women weren’t even allowed to vote. She first came to prominence as a suffragette, and a powerfully persuasive one: she spearheaded the successful campaigns to allow women to vote in state elections in Washington (1910) and Montana (1914) before finally winning a seat in Montana’s Congressional delegation, where she continued to fight for universal suffrage (culminating in the 19th Amendment, ratified in 1920).
Jeannette Rankin is most famous for her resolute pacificism, but she herself disagreed with that popular idea: in her own mind, her pacifism arose from her radical feminist convictions.
In a 1972 interview, Jeannette Rankin had this to say:
“If I am remembered for no other act, I want to be remembered as the only woman who ever voted to give women the right to vote.”
I’m driving around in a new (used) car – a silver cream puff that I bought from CarMax. It’s a Hyundai Elantra. (Hyundai is approximately pronounced with the first syllable rhyming with June and the second syllable like the English word day. The word means “modernity” in Korean.)
It replaced my previous car – a noble Accord coupe stricken when the bayou across the street overflowed its banks during Hurricane Harvey’s visit to Houston.
Harvey’s intensity was in part due to the climate disruption brought about by humankind’s profligate consumption of energy, so say the scientists. One of the most significant sources of the atmospheric carbon dioxide is our collective use of automobiles.
So with cars as it is with people and ideas, my old car played a role, however small, in engendering its own destruction—and rebirth.
In celebration of my birthday, I finally visited Enchanted Rock State Natural Area near Llano, Texas. I went with a photographer friend, and we spent a night in the primitive camping area – which you reach by backpacking your stuff in.
When the stars came out in the cloudless night sky, we saw satellites and the Milky Way. It was cold and a bit windy so my friend put the rain fly on the tent the better to keep us (or to be more accurate, me) warm. In the middle of the night, unzipping the rain fly and looking out, I saw how the constellations had moved around the axis of the Pole Star, and a shooting star.
We did have a bit of trouble with the local raccoons. When two of them started snarling over their right to plunder our backpacks, I levitated about three feet out of a sound sleep. My wilderness-rated friend put our trail food into the tent stuff sack and suspended it from a tree. Problem solved. I will say I can now better empathize with those of my characters who spend a long, cold night in a wild place or in a wilderness of stars.
And I have never seen the stars like I did that night.
At dawn the rising sun brought out all of the colors of the landscape. We broke camp, hiked back to the parking area, then hiked to the top of Enchanted Rock—a vast granite batholith. From the top we could see for miles across the Texas Hill Country. After that we hiked around the Rock.
After leaving the park we spent a night at a lovingly restored old railroad hotel in Llano, the Dabbs. It’s a sweet old place, located on a bluff above the Llano River, with a lot of carefully selected, vintage train decor.
The next morning, by old railroad tracks nearby, we found a man and his friends putting an old railroad motor car, or “speeder,” on the rails. He was going to be checking out the track for the safety of another dozen or more fellow enthusiasts who were planning a speeder group excursion the following day. He was happy to talk about his speeder and offer a photo op to an itinerant science fiction writer.
It was a happy birthday and I hope for many happy returns to the Hill Country!
Novels of science fiction with wonder, hope and love