Science Blast! Ice and Snow Gone Wild

We think of snow as tame, but no! It can creep, it can roll, it can even explode!

11 Alarming Weather Flukes That Happen When it Gets Really Cold11 Alarming Weather Flukes That Happen When it Gets Really Cold
Top image: An ice volcano erupts, Michigan Tech Geology Department


It’s been a bit nippy out lately. And by “a bit nippy,” I mean the world we once knew has been replaced by an ice-bound hellscape. On the plus side, this means we get to see some of nature’s weirder responses to extreme cold. Here are 11 strange things that happen when the temperature gets too low — and why they happen.

1) Snowrollers

Science Blast! New Continent Fights for Life!

How often do new (okay, newly defined) land masses fight for their very existence! Another perfect setting for pulp stories: re-emerged Zeelandia.

Earth from space

Lurking beneath New Zealand is a long-hidden continent called Zealandia, geologists say. But since nobody is in charge of officially designating a new continent, individual scientists will ultimately have to judge for themselves.

A team of geologists pitches the scientific case for the new continent in the March/April issue of GSA Today, arguing that Zealandia is a continuous expanse of continental crust covering around 4.9 million square kilometers. That’s about the size of the Indian subcontinent. Unlike the other mostly dry continents, around 94 percent of Zealandia hides beneath the ocean. Only New Zealand, New Caledonia and a few small islands peek above the waves.

“If we could pull the plug on the world’s oceans, it would be quite clear that Zealandia stands out about 3,000 meters above the surrounding ocean crust,” says study coauthor Nick Mortimer, a geologist at GNS Science in Dunedin, New Zealand. “If it wasn’t for the ocean level, long ago we’d have recognized Zealandia for what it was — a continent.”

Read more…

Science Blast! NASA finds seven earth-like planets, perfect for planetary adventures!

With Pulps coming back in fashion, here’s seven new planets upon which to set planetary romances!

This illustration shows the possible surface of TRAPPIST-1f, one of the newly discovered planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system.

At about 40 light-years (235 trillion miles) from Earth, the system of planets is relatively close to us, in the constellation Aquarius. Because they are located outside of our solar system, these planets are scientifically known as exoplanets.

This exoplanet system is called TRAPPIST-1, named for The Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope (TRAPPIST) in Chile. In May 2016, researchers using TRAPPIST announced they had discovered three planets in the system. Assisted by several ground-based telescopes, including the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope, Spitzer confirmed the existence of two of these planets and discovered five additional ones, increasing the number of known planets in the system to seven.

The new results were published Wednesday in the journal Nature, and announced at a news briefing at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

Using Spitzer data, the team precisely measured the sizes of the seven planets and developed first estimates of the masses of six of them, allowing their density to be estimated.

Read more….

Mars One and the legacy of Neil Armstrong

Maybe you are like me, and in 2013 you watched the live webcast of the press conference that launched Mars One, a private not-for-profit initiative that intends to create a human settlement on Mars. But probably not. Because not many people did. The video recording of the press conference is still on the internet, and the first few seconds illustrate why the public had not tuned in. The room was almost empty. Very few journalists bothered to show up. For Mars One to succeed, they need the freely-given support of millions, if not billions, of people. Not many currently know about the project, and few take it seriously. How does that make SF fans feel? Is it sad that the human race lacks the interest or optimism to rally behind this mission? Or should we be glad that most people can distinguish science fact from science fiction?

The first press conference for Mars One - not a typical launch for a multi-billion dollar project

The first press conference for Mars One – not a typical launch for a multi-billion dollar project.

The media does cover Mars One occasionally, though not in a serious way. At best they try to turn Mars One into a human interest story, focusing on the private lives and family of the would-be ‘Marstronauts’. (Previously we might have said these articles are suited to women’s magazines, but that description is probably considered sexist these days.) The marketing strategy of Mars One makes a lot of sense, given that the bulk of the money for the project would seemingly be generated by broadcasting the colonization exploits as a reality TV show.

Mars One reputedly had a deal with Endemol, Dutch producers of the global hit Big Brother show, but that fell through. The date of the first manned mission has already been pushed back from 2023 to 2026, and it appears the project is stalling whilst it tries to find credible sources of income. Now they have launched a series of videos that are clearly designed to reignite media interest. 20,000 original applicants for the mission (many of whom were joking or obviously unsuitable) were whittled down to a hundred likely candidates, and five of them have now been profiled in a series of videos called Citizen Mars. You can watch these webisodes here, and there is bonus content here.

Being a serious person, I realize that whether I personally like an individual should not be a factor in determining their aptitude to be an astronaut. However, Mars One seems to be as much about projecting the personalities of its wannabe Martians, as it is about science, technology, or the first ever colonization of a planet. As a consequence, it seems appropriate to comment on their personalities. In short, they annoy me. I really dislike them.

The Mars One team argues it can generate the money it needs because the Marstronauts will attract as large an audience as the Olympics. Maybe they are right about human beings in general, but I was gritting my teeth and struggling to make it through videos that were less than 10 minutes long. We hear from one candidate about what it was like when his parents died. Another explains how she escaped domestic violence after an arranged marriage. We hear about a drug-induced ‘near death experience’ and some cod philosophy supposedly derived from native Americans. Then they talk about whether they would have sex whilst on Mars, and troubles with existing relationships caused by wanting to leave the planet forever. All of these people may have very fine qualities, but I was appalled. It seemed to me that Mars One was choosing the prospective first inhabitants of Mars not because they would be good at space travel, engineering and colonization, but because they might stimulate the right emotional reactions from a popcorn-chumping low-attention-span YouTube-watching audience.

That was bad enough, but it got worse. The production of the main videos was very slick, combining stirring music and images with bland Twitter-like aphorisms from the Marstronauts in order to solicit empathy from viewers. However, the bonus videos slap together the answers given by Marstronauts to a lot of really trivial questions. They suggested that these people have little idea what they are supposedly committed to doing. For example, when asked if they would return to Earth if the chance arose after years spent living on Mars, these were some of the answers:

…by that point I don’t know if my body’s adjusted to the lower gravity and it would feel like I was lifting thousands of pounds of weight coming back into Earth.

That is one way of looking at it. A more mature analysis would conclude the return would probably kill you, which is even more serious than lifting thousands of pounds of weight.

I’ve always made an effort to visit my friends and family when they’ve moved abroad, so when engine propulsion technology increases to the extent that the trip to Mars becomes shorter, I do hope people will come and visit me.

One difficulty is that she will be dead by then. And did this woman appreciate that Mars One is predicated on slashing costs because there are no return trips, meaning that anybody ‘visiting’ a Marstronaut would also be taking a one-way trip?

Then they were asked what food would be like.

I just love food… I’m not even sure if we’re going to be eating three squares a day… as long as it has potatoes in it, I’m cool… I’m not really sure if we can fry stuff on Mars.

…eventually some fish from the aquarium.

I think it highly unlikely that the Marstronauts will be tucking into fish ‘n’ chips every Friday night.

"I want to go to Mars with a Japanese astronaut because I love Japan and Japanese food" said Mido, one of the top 100 Mars One candidates, a man who loves food so much that he guards the family crockery on a 24/7 basis

“I want to go to Mars with somebody Japanese because I love Japan and Japanese food” said Mido, one of the top candidates for Mars One. Mido loves food so much that he guards the family crockery on a 24/7 basis, and refused to record his interview in a more suitable location.

The most ironic answer came from an Egyptian who discussed why a colony of “twelve guys and twelve girls” would inevitably enjoy some romance. He presumably had not seen the other videos where some of the Marstronauts talk about their gay partners. With that in mind, it seems possible that the first Mars colony could end up like Jean-Paul Satre’s In Camera, a place where “Hell is other people”. That might make for some very interesting television, of a voyeuristic kind. However, the simplistic neo-hippy Californian outlook being touted by these videos is unlikely to gain approval across every culture. Endemol modifies Big Brother to suit different national tastes. Mars One will not be able to tailor its output to different audiences. They will be confronted with the truth that stereotypical Californian values will not be as universally popular as stereotypical Californians think they should be.

Neil Armstrong was the first person to step upon the Moon. The contrast between Armstrong and these Marstronauts could not be more profound. Armstrong was a professional. He did a job, and he did it without fuss. Neither he, nor his family, hankered for the spotlight. After his job was done, he did not strive to remain in the public eye, and he refused many interviews. Whilst Buzz Aldrin pops up everywhere, Armstrong rarely sought or exploited public affection. To my mind, that means Armstrong personifies the type of person who should colonize Mars.

If the travelers reached their destination, those few new Martians would be a long way from the rest of humanity. Even if we were watching, the colonists would hardly be in a position to interact with their audience. These Martians would need to get on with their job, which would involve plenty of arduous toil for the rest of their shortened lives. They will have neither time nor energy to think about cameras. Whatever their motivation, fame should not be one of them, because even if they achieve fame, they will never feel it.

Just as importantly, I want the first Martian colonists to be selfless. They will be sacrificing themselves. The risks are extreme, and even the best possible outcome would lead them to die prematurely, compared to the lifespan they would enjoy on Earth. I do not want the first people on Mars to be attention-seeking egotists, who will use the mission as an excuse to advocate any and every inane belief they hold, whether it relates to religion, love, or what makes us human. Let them be like Neil Armstrong: they go, they do the job, and when the time comes, they die. Let them recognize that, as individuals, they are only one small step in the journey of mankind. That might not be so good for ratings, but if ratings determine the mission parameters, then the mission should remain a fantasy.

Is It Okay to Love Science Fiction but Not Fantasy?

I understand why the genre of science fiction is grouped with fantasy. And I think I understand why some people love both. But the coupling does not work for me. I am drawn to science fiction like a moth to a flame. When it comes to fantasy, I tend to fly straight by. Does that make me odd? Or are there many other SF fans who are polite to our fantasy-loving cousins, but struggle to share their passion?

Part of the problem is hardness. Nobody thinks it wrong that some tastes are harder than others. But if you prefer hard SF, then all fantasy, by definition, must be considered softer than the softest SF. And that discourages me from trying it.

In a way, the distinction is ridiculous. As Arthur Clarke pointed out, any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. So hard SF is problematic, because if it is both hard and advanced, it might as well be fantasy. And yet, despite that problem, we think we can distinguish SF from fantasy. How? I am not sure how. But somehow we know the difference. Maybe we trust our magical intuition.

I wonder if some of the divides in the SF&F community are really just about the differences between the SF and the other F. For example, I did not like any of last year’s Hugo short stories nominees. None of them were science fiction. Most of them were best categorized as fantasy-lite. As I like my science fiction to be hard and heavy, that left me wondering why there were not more nominations for that sort of story. Is it because the hard SF geeks were in a minority that year, or were there no good SF stories? Or are SF fans all surprisingly keen to read stories about singing dinosaurs?

I am not even sure what genre the Hugos are meant to cover. In some places they are described as the most prestigious awards in the field of science fiction. Elsewhere they are described as awards for the best science fiction or fantasy works. It hardly requires a logician to point out that these definitions are inconsistent. To be fair, the individual awards are usually defined as covering works which are science fiction or fantasy. Nevertheless, this seems to invite tension between fans who like one genre, but not the other. I wonder if some of the support for the Sad Puppies came from fans of harder SF, who were keen to promote stories that better suited their tastes.

One criticism I read somewhere recently (sadly, I forget where) was that fantasy tends to be prejudiced because most of it involves white guys wielding swords and talismans in a European medieval setting. This criticism of fantasy left me perplexed. Maybe lots of fantasy is awful, but what discourages me is not the bit about white guys. I am put off by the bit about European medieval history. If I am going to indulge my fantasies, I will always prefer spaceships and ray guns over horses and swords. To understand why, just imagine what would happen if somebody armed with the former battled somebody armed with the latter.

Meanwhile, science fiction has always had plenty of stories where the characters are not from Earth, or are not human. With all those aliens and robots, you might think SF must be exempt from the obsessions that fuel present-day culture wars, whilst fantasy deserves the ire of those pursuing political correctness. But nobody ever argues that.

I may generalize about genres, but outstanding works can be found in every genre. It is good to broaden a palette by sampling other tastes. I may not be a rap fan, but I own albums by Public Enemy and De La Soul. I am not keen on fantasy, but the stories of Jorge Luis Borges are so vivid that I often think of them. However, nobody says they like a genre because they liked its most outstanding examples. Liking a genre means taking pleasure from more meagre contributions to the cannon. It is worth taking a risk on a Borges short story. The 700-page opening installment of another epic saga seems more like a bad bet.

There is so much science fiction, we can easily avoid fantasy. There are enough SF books to occupy an entire lifetime of reading. And for when we are too tired to read, there is enough flop-on-the-sofa SF TV to fill most of a lifetime, if not all of it. There is so much that there is never a need to flick to Game of Thrones, so I never have. Even Doctor Who is too fantastical for my tastes. The screwdriver is a wand and ‘reverse the polarity’ is an incantation. The plot always begins like A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, except we are to The Doctor what King Arthur was to Hank Morgan, a 19th century engineer. If you think The Doctor is using science to defeat his foes, you must have a very advanced understanding of science compared to most scientists.

Even comics lend themselves to a hierarchy. Using the hard SF scale, Iron Man is better than the Hulk, and the Hulk is better than Thor. Thor manages to come full circle on the issue of technology-as-magic, starting as a character who performs all sorts of magic and then pretending there is some fluffy scientific explanation for how he does it. At that rate, we might as well believe that Harry Potter is just a very talented quantum physicist.

To my mind, the best SF forces us to contemplate how individuals with recognizably human characteristics would react to situations that involve hypothetical technology. The fact that they are reacting to technology, and not magic, is important. This is because technology, as distinct from magic, allows for the possibility of a rational response, even if there is some uncertainty about how the technology works. In contrast, if I was confronted with the Wicked Witch of the West, I would never guess that I should throw a bucket of water over her.

Asimov’s robot stories were not driven by the amazing nature of the robots, but by the behavior of the people around them. Arthur Clarke’s stories tended towards more magical elements, but a novel like Rendezvous with Rama still revolves around the way people respond to an encounter with aliens, and their technology. Uncertainty leads to both curiosity and fear, but the uncertainty does not overwhelm them. Neither the technology, nor the aliens, are so different that the people investigating Rama lack any useful frame of reference. Whilst they never meet the Ramans, they find recognizable designs for uniforms, and the natural inference is that these would be worn by creatures not so dissimilar from us.

Or maybe the entirety of this argument is irrational nonsense. It is hard to tell, thanks to Clarke’s connection of magic with technology. But if the distinction is irrational, it is no less real. The more science-y the fiction, the more I tend to like it. And there is a need for the ‘and’ in science fiction and fantasy. Some treat the genres as happily married. In contrast, I could live the life of a singleton. Does that make me a cold, unloving sort? Or is it fair to argue that fantasy could usually be improved by adding some more science?!

Whatever Happened to Laser Guns?

Louis aimed the implement high.

The figurine which was his target jutted from the tower’s roof. It was like a modernized, surrealistic gargoyle. Louis’ thumb moved, and the gargoyle glowed yellow white. His index finger shifted, and the beam narrowed to a pencil of green light. The gargoyle sprouted a white-hot navel.

Larry Niven, Ringworld

Laser weapons used to be the future. They later became old-fashioned. But might these favored objects of science fiction soon feature in modern military arsenals?

The confirmation that lasers had stopped being cool arrived in 2003. Standing in the CIC of Battlestar Galactica, Colonel Tigh advised Commander Adama about the stocks held at Ragnar Anchorage.

Well, the book says that there are fifty pallets of Class-D warheads in storage there. They should also have all the missiles and small-arms munitions we’ll need.

Tigh and Adama are caught in the middle of a surprise Cylon attack, and their first priority is to find some ammo! The old Battlestar Galactica would have never faced that difficulty.

BSG weapons before and after

BSG weapons before and after

Back in the real world, laser weapons have always struggled to overcome one particular challenge. It takes tremendous amounts of energy to generate a beam that could kill someone or destroy a target. US President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative – commonly known as ‘Star Wars’ – experimented with X-ray lasers powered by nuclear explosions. Though the lasers could only be used once, because they would be destroyed by the explosion which powered them, the idea was to provide a blanket screen that would shoot down scores of Soviet ballistic missiles. Physicist and laser advocate Dr. Edward Teller argued that:

…a single X-ray laser module the size of an executive desk which applied this technology could potentially shoot down the entire Soviet land-based missile force, if it were to be launched into the module’s field of view.

However, the viability of the program hinged on firing the lasers in space, where the atmosphere would not absorb their energy. A review committee chaired by a former NASA boss concluded the X-ray lasers would easily be evaded: the Soviets just needed to flatten the arc of their ballistic missiles so they never left the atmosphere.

Whilst the Americans were designing lasers for outer space, the Soviets and the Brits were aiming lower…

In 1982, Astrofizika — a so-called “scientific production association” — built the first full-size prototype of an energy weapon for a ground vehicle. Then Uraltransmash — a weapons manufacturer — strapped the laser to a tracked chassis.

The first laser tank was born.

One of the surviving 1K17 laser tanks. Photograph by Vitaly V. Kuzmin via Wikimedia Commons.

One of the Soviet 1K17 laser tanks. Photograph by Vitaly V. Kuzmin via Wikimedia Commons.

The Soviets did not expect these lasers to destroy the enemy. Their much more realistic goal was to burn out optical equipment at extremely long range, making it impossible for enemies to target their weapons with precision.

Meanwhile, the British Navy were the first to use lasers as a weapon during an actual war. Though classified at the time, it was later revealed that some British Type 22 Frigates deployed in the Falklands War were equipped with lasers to enhance their air defenses. The lasers were pointed at enemy Argentinian pilots during their bombing runs, preventing them from successfully aiming at the ships.

The use of laser weapons designed to blind enemies has since been banned by treaty. And the Soviets only ever built a few prototype laser tanks. Dust, smoke or water vapor would negatively impact the effectiveness of the lasers. Their cost was prohibitive, thanks to the giant artificial rubies that formed their core, so the project was abandoned following the dissolution of that country. However, the Chinese have continued to develop the techniques pioneered by the Soviets. Chinese Type 99 tanks carry laser dazzlers designed to damage the optical targeting equipment of enemies.

Lasers can also be used to discourage behavior that poses risks but may have no hostile intent. Such weapons are legal so long as they only cause temporary blindness. Instead of shooting at misbehaving vehicles when they approach a checkpoint, it is better to use lasers to first alarm, then dazzle oncoming drivers. The Glare Mout is one such laser device; it is designed to be attached to US rifles. Here is a video of the Glare Mout being used in Afghanistan.

And the US military is showing lots of renewed interest in the possibility of lasers that actually destroy things. The benefits of a laser as a defensive weapon are pretty straightforward. If you have to shoot at droves of missiles, swarms of fast moving boats, or any other surge of attackers who are trying to overwhelm your defenses, then the last thing you want is to be in a situation like Colonel Tigh, asking where you can restock your depleted reserves of ammo. Here is a video of the USS Ponce testing a laser system designed to neutralize attackers.

Ship-based defensive laser systems make practical sense because ships are large enough to carry viable power sources, and range is less important when the goal is to defend against attackers.

It will be a while before we see destructive lasers routinely fitted to vehicles as small as a Colonial Viper, but the US Air Force continues to investigate the potential of lasers in air combat. They mounted lasers on a Boeing 747, and experimented with the possibility of using them to shoot down missiles. That project was terminated in 2011 after running up a cost of $5 billion, because the lasers were nowhere near powerful enough to execute their stated mission. Now the US Air Force are looking at installing lasers on their heavy-lifting turboprop AC-130 gunships. This is how Lt. Gen. Bradley Heithold, Chief of US Air Force Special Operations Command, envisaged their possible use:

If we just want to take a comms node out in the middle of the night — nobody hears anything, nobody sees anything. It just quits working because we burn a hole in it.

The ongoing challenge will be to improve the size, weight, power and accuracy of these weapons, so they might be usefully installed on drones and trucks, instead of ships and cargo planes. It will be a long while before anyone melts a statue with a Larry Niven penlight-laser. Like Buck Rogers, we may need to wait until the 25th Century before concealed ray guns become commonplace. But if you thought laser weapons were old-fashioned science fiction, be prepared for science fact to turn that fashion full circle.