Lightyear FM

Want a perspective on what flying through space might actually look like?  Here’s one project to give you an idea.  Working on the knowledge that radio waves travel at the speed of light, this simulation shows you the local neighbourhood near Earth (excluding exoplanets) up to the limit of the first Earth radio broadcasts; up to 110 years ago (as of 2015).

Things I learned from this:

  • In general, stars don’t float randomly by themselves.  They appear in clusters.  We’re part of a pretty little cluster of mostly much tinier, dimmer stars than our own, that might look like the Pleiades with a red-shift in someone else’s perspective.
  • We can infer that most of the stars near us are smaller/dimmer than our own because most of them have alpha-numeric names (more on that in a minute).  Also, stars progress from red to orange to yellow to white to blue in terms of brightness and most of the stars around us are more orange than we are.
  • Every once in a while you do get singular stars just floating in a void, but it’s the exception, not the rule.
  • There are two nebulae relatively near to us.  One’s about 40 light years away and the other is about 80 light years away.  Each is about 10 light years across.

Naming conventions of stars:

  • The oldest stars we know about have proper names.  Those tend to be the brightest from our perspective and are typically the ones visible with the naked eye.  Most such names are derived from the Arabic language.  You’ll see relatively few of them in our local neighbourhood (Sirius, Fomalhaut, Pollux, etc.)
  • Sometimes stars are named for astronomers or the people who discovered them.  You’ll see a couple of those in this simulation.  One of them, Barnard’s Star, which you’ll see right after the Centauri stars that are our closest neighbours, blasted right through the edge of our solar system only 70,000 years ago!  Talk about a near-miss!
  • Some stars are catalogued.  The Bayer Designation names stars by a lower case Greek letter generally representing its corresponding number, plus the constellation it appears in. (ie. Sigma Sagittarii).  Once all 26 Greek letters have been assigned, letters of the Arabic-derived alphabet are used (ie. G Scorpii).  Sometimes when concurrent stars were discovered (like, say the smaller star in the Alpha Centauri binary) it was designated with a superscript.  The Flamsteed Designation is used when no Bayer Designation exists or when the Bayer designation uses numeric superscripts, because it’s less awkward.  (ie. 61 Cygni).  These stars are usually visible with a decent telescope.
  • The most recently discovered stars, visible with ultra high resolution or space telescopes and tracked by computers, are named with an alpha-numeric designation based on their position in the sky.  Over 990 million such objects exist.
  • Special cases: Pulsars are designated by the prefix PSR, with a series of hyphenated numbers in which the first indicates its right ascension and the second its degree of inclination.  Supernovae are designated by the prefix SN, plus the year they were discovered in, and if there was more than one, a letter indicating the order of discovery (ie. SN 1987A.)  A few supernovae are known by the year they occurred in (ie. SN 1604, also known as Kepler’s Star).  Novae are usually given a name according to the naming convention of the General Catalogue of Variable Stars, which includes a number or letter designation and the constellation it’s from (ie. V841 Ophiuchi, SZ Persei, T Bootis.)

Here’s a preview to show you what it looks like: you can find the simulation itself at  Note that if you hover your cursor over each celestial body (save the Earth, the Moon and the Sun) it will tell you what it is and how far away from Earth it is.  Enjoy the simulation! – An interactive journey through space, time, & music from chris baker on Vimeo.

2015 in review

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 19,000 times in 2015. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 7 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Book Review: The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester

The Stars My DestinationThe Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wow! What an intense book!

I started this book for the Science Fiction Masterworks book club I’ve organized, and I waited patiently until the very end of 2015 to start it, especially since I was also working on a reading challenge I wanted to finish by the end of 2015. But once I picked it up, I simply could not put it down. The writing is electric, even pyrotechnic. It starts out with awesome and it just keeps adding more awesome onto awesome.

The book starts with a prologue that explains that someone discovered that when threatened with imminent death people have the ability to “jaunte”; that is to say, to teleport over short distances. Eventually the trick of the ability becomes something that everyone can do and so culture and society must adapt.

Cue our opening scene, in which Gully Foyle, our protagonist, a common labourer, has survived in space for 170 days after his ship, the Nomad, has been blown to smithereens, existing in the one airtight space left — a storage locker the size of a coffin — which requires him to go out every few days to loot an oxygen tank, food and water; the catch being that he has only five minutes of air to breathe, since the attachments for air tanks on his duck-taped spacesuit are damaged.

Have I got your attention yet? Alfred Bester sure got mine! You can’t imagine where this story goes or how it ends from this starting point. The action never stops and all the while the protagonist, and every other significant character be it friend or foe, is realized in such exquisite detail that you never once doubt their motivations and you sympathize with all of them, no matter how cruel they get; and believe me, they can get Game-of-Thrones-cruel!

Bonus points: while I have noted many times that you often have to read 1950s science fiction with a grain of salt in that women generally seem to be present to be sex toys or, at best, love interests for the protagonist, this book does not suffer from that one whit. Bester’s female characters are complex and strong and vulnerable at turns. They are every bit as beautifully human as the men and I love them.

Extra bonus points: no jarring moments of obsolete technology to take you out of the illusion. Not a one.

Every science fiction fan needs to read this book, especially if you love space opera. I want to write like this when I grow up.

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Symphonies of the Planets

Although space is a virtual vacuum, this does not mean that there is no sound in space.  Sound does exist as electromagnetic vibrations.

Through specially designed instruments, the Voyager, INJUN 1, ISEE 1, and HAWKEYE space probes used Plasma Wave antenna to record the vibrations of the planets that they visited that are within the range of human hearing (20 to 20,000 Hz).

To be fair, however, they are often quiet; quiet enough that they are difficult, if not impossible, for the human ear to hear.

The recorded sounds are the complex interactions of charged electromagnetic particles from the Solar Wind, ionospheres, and planetary magnetospheres.  Here’s a sample of some of the recordings released by NASA:

Here is a recording (and photos) of the noise of the Singing Comet, 67P, as recorded by the Rosetta spacecraft (though in this case the volume has been increased by 10,000 times):

And here is a full playlist of the Symphony of the Planets.  These five CDs, which are now out of print, were created from the complex sounds recorded by the Voyager probes.

Yes, really.  This is real world stuff I’m talking about, not just Arcane Space!

So if you’d like to imagine what it sounds like aboard a Spelljamming ship, picture that the closer you got to a planetary body, the more of this kind of sound you would hear.  It would start as faint, water-like popping noises.  Then you would wonder when the wind noise had started.  Then you might notice a high-pitched drone like a wet finger on crystal or a Tibetan singing bowl.  In some cases (Suns, large planetary bodies) you might notice a low droning buzz, like the sound of a WWII airplane.  The closer you got to the planetary body, the louder it would get, and when you reached a planetary gravity plane, it would be a veritable cacophony to ears accustomed only to the creak of the ship, the flap of sails and the quiet of the Void; which would fade again into the background once you hit atmosphere and terrestrial noises began to reach your ears.  Or you might be sailing along in space, likely with continual distant popping sounds that would be more rapid the closer you were to the center of the sphere, and all of a sudden a Solar Gale might whip wind and ringing and high-pitched drones through the air envelope.  In which case, a sargasso might be heralded by a sudden, deafening silence.


Book Review: Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis

Out of the Silent Planet (Space Trilogy, #1)Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have found that in looking at descriptions of this book, it is often “dismissed” as “theology.” I think that does this book a grave disservice. Certainly there are theological themes; it is well known that Lewis was a devout Christian, wrote about it, and his fiction also often focused on Christian themes. But one never hears his classic Chronicles of Narnia being *classified* as “theology,” although of course the main tale is the retelling of Biblical themes in many ways. No one hears that about Lord of the Rings as written by his friend J.R.R. Tolkien either; though literary critics point it out. And in the realm of science fiction, while literary critics, again, do not miss the references, no one *classifies* Ender’s Game or Dune as “theology.” Perhaps this has something to do with the rest of the trilogy, which I have not read, but taken alone I don’t understand this.

Out of the Silent Planet is among the most awesome science fiction books I think I’ve ever had the pleasure to read, and I think the only reason it’s not considered a classic in the field is because of the bias of “pure reason.” Keep in mind that this book was written in 1938, so one cannot expect that it should conform to modern science in the wake of the Space Age. But its science is actually spot on when founded in scientific theories that were, as yet, untested at the time of this book’s writing; much like Frankenstein and War of the Worlds.

The protagonist, a professor of languages named Ransom, finds himself kidnapped in a misadventure to be taken to Mars (called by a different name by its inhabitants) to be offered to those inhabitants as a sacrifice. It turns out that this is not what the inhabitants want him for and a fantastic adventure ensues. I expect that why it’s often interpreted as “theology” is because Lewis uses the Christian mythology as a framework for an extraterrestrial cosmology that involves beings that might possibly be described as “extra-dimensional”. That this extra-dimensional understanding involves godlike beings who are the “lords” of the worlds they inhabit, and that this is fairly consistent as an extraterrestrial interpretation of Christian cosmology, is almost incidental; the moral cautionary tale, however, is not. But if you’re going to not consider a book seriously because there’s a moral cautionary tale hidden in it, you might as well give up on the genre.

Lewis’ Martians are among the most interesting aliens I’ve ever had the pleasure to read about. The cultures he created, and the difficulties in a human trying to understand, and be understood by, an alien culture, is the stuff that we geeks read this genre for. Ransom spends a great deal of time among the Martian cultures and learns their ways and their language (remember that he is a professor of languages) and he develops a close friendship with one member of the three sentient races that inhabit Mars, while in the meantime he is pursued by the two men who brought him to the planet in the first place; one of whom views himself as a man of intelligence and reason who wants to ensure the immortality of humanity — at all costs, including that of the sentient species who inhabit Mars and any others that might exist — and the other of which is interested solely in money. Unlike many other books in which the “peaceful primitives” are overwhelmed by the warlike humans that invade them, thus requiring defense by a violent action-hero protagonist, the Martians find the humans incomprehensible and ultimately silly. This does not make them any less a danger to Ransom, however.

Lewis’ vast alien Martian landscape, as imagined by a man who had only seen a blurry pink image with dark blotches and ice caps on it through a telescope at that point, was an absolute delight. And solar radiation was more potent outside of the Earth’s atmosphere, gravity was minimal and artificially created and air was limited in the spaceship, and Mars was cold, had lesser gravity, and thin oxygen at its higher elevations. Lewis’s low gravity Martian landscape was truly fantastic, more like the crazy surface of comets as we are currently familiar with them. I was taken by its beauty and the scope of its imagination.

In short, read it. It was amazing.

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Book Review: 2001 A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke

2001: A Space Odyssey (Space Odyssey, #1)2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the true heady wine of science fiction crafted by the hand of a master. (Quoting Terry Pratchett, which he was saying in regards to “Cities in Flight” by James Blish, but it fits here).

I saw the movie years ago, when I was almost too young to understand it. As always, the book was much better.

I see no reason to reiterate the plot; everyone knows it by now I’m sure. I want to talk about the craft of the writing. The style. The way he writes with a minimalist hand, like Miyamoto Musashi, doing nothing which is of no use.

The first part of the book reads like a spy novel. The second part reads like a space suspense thriller, with the style of the writing being as stark as the setting. Which is why the lush, vividly detailed conclusion is like suddenly really seeing colour after ingesting hallucinogenics; in addition to being mind-blowing in its scope and concept.

The scene where Dave confronts HAL? It’s even creepier in the book than the movie. I felt terrible for a malfunctioning, murderous computer. How do you even do that? That is just good writing.

So even if you haven’t read it because it’s a cultural icon and a classic, read it because it’s just well written. And don’t be discouraged by the title; it reads just as easily today as it did when it was written.

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Book Review: Cities in Flight by James Blish

Cities in Flight (Cities in Flight, #1-4)Cities in Flight by James Blish
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Cities in Flight is an omnibus edition of four related books written by James Blish in the 1950s and 60s. Each one is a stand-alone story but they interconnect. The essential premise of the plot is that three factors — the Cold War, the discovery of anti-aging drugs, and the invention of anti-gravity technology — results in a mass exodus of entire cities from Earth, who then spread out among the stars as independent city-states. Some colonize planets; others, called “Okies,” wander from planet to planet doing odd jobs for pay, which sustains their civilizations; but just like hobos throughout history, they are routinely harassed by the police and seen as ne’er-do-wells. It is about one such Okie city, New York, New York, that Blish writes.

The first story, “They Shall Have Stars”, is not really about the characters, but it introduces the necessary technology and geopolitical pressures that create his world. “A Life for the Stars” is a twisted bildungsroman in this unique sociopolitical landscape that Blish has created (which is a wonderful thing in and of itself; considering the sociopolitical consequences of new technologies!). “Earthman, Come Home” is arguably the most character driven book of the series. And “The Triumph of Time” is ultimately about how we human beings confront mortality; but, more than that, how we confront inevitable oblivion.

My favourite character is John Amalfi. And I love how utterly ordinary Blish’s characters are. No chiseled jaws and rippling pectorals here; just ordinary people dealing with extraordinary situations in a cavalier, almost Wild West pioneer spirit. That Wild West aspect was intentional on Blish’s part. Reading the appendix you discover that Blish was directly inspired by Spengler’s “Decline of the West.”

However, there were some flaws in the characterization as well, and some characters were better realized than others. Chris, the viewpoint character of “A Life for the Stars,” was terribly undeveloped. He existed for the sole purpose of exposing Blish’s politics and science. I could have taken him or left him. And I do have to say that I find it tiresome that these men writing classic science fiction, who were so progressive in terms of many of their ideas and technology, never seemed to anticipate that women would eventually be just as likely to be in positions of political and military leadership as men. Blish even pointed out how women never end up getting selected to serve as “Mayor” (which in this story is actually a eugenically-democratically elected Emperor of a city-state) by the computers that do that selecting. I guess it was really hard for men in the 1960s to accept that their skills in this department were not genetically superior to those of women. 😉 I have to give that a pass, though, because it is ridiculous to expect works of previous time periods to conform to the standards of the present day.

I like how the events of one book have effects that ripple into the others while, at the same time, being entirely stand-alone works (though “They Shall Have Stars” might have looked better as a story in Analog or Asimov instead of as a book.)

Some of the other readers in my book club were baffled and irritated by some of the science, which reduced their enjoyment of the book. I can see their point. The anti-aging drugs weren’t that terribly well developed and probably drew back to what was cutting edge science when the book was written, which of course is now completely obsolete. And it didn’t seem to make a huge amount of sense to me either; it was just discovered that some chemical compounds prevented come kinds of cellular degeneration, and the ones discovered later were also effective at eliminating mistakes in cellular regeneration because they were able to cure cancer while the earlier ones were not (but the cancer still didn’t kill you, which is interesting.) But I was okay with the McGuffin personally; largely I think because I also read a lot of fantasy. I don’t really care how it works, to be honest. I accept that in this universe that’s the way it works, and on I go.

In the middle of the Space Race there were thought to be two major obstacles to interstellar flight; a way to overcome and/or create gravity, and the amount of time it takes to get between places in such a vast universe. Blish’s solution was people who don’t age and spindizzies. Which also inadvertently solved the radiation problem, which is one of the big concerns that is currently delaying a manned mission to Mars; apparently outside of the Earth and Moon’s magnetic field there’s a whole slew of radiation from the sun that’s really harmful to us. I’m not even sure they were aware of all that in the 1960s, when those two books were written, but that problem is solved at any rate.

I’ve also read some arguments against some other aspects of the technology being obsolete, such as the use of vacuum tubes, but here I don’t agree because there’s some very good arguments for using vacuum tubes in deep space. Consider how computers and satellites malfunction when there’s a major solar flare; do you want that happening to the computers upon which your life depends in deep space? Yeah, didn’t think so.
Still, to some extent I feel we must accept that classic sci-fi is often, by nature, going to have bad science, because our knowledge of how things actually work has increased considerably over the past two hundred years, and in exponential ways. Let’s not forget that Jules Verne, Mary Shelley and H.G. Wells were writing perfectly acceptable science fiction for their time.

However, as I said, I can see why that lack of explanation about the anti-aging drugs could diminish enjoyment of the books and I think that’s perfectly reasonable. Especially when the physics and quantum physics were so excellently done! Blish’s explanation for anti-gravity, and dealing with anti-matter, stands the test of time even today, even after all we’ve discovered about those subjects since.

The conclusion was fascinating, and also how the characters reacted to it was great. Overall, despite some significant literary flaws, mostly I think in the inconsistency in styles between the stories, I really enjoyed these books, and I see why they are considered to be classics of science fiction. Highly recommended!

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Ideas for Adapting Spelljammer for 5th Edition

Here’s a really neat way of making Spelljamming work for 5th Edition, combining elements of classic Spelljammer, Shadow of the Spider Moon, and Dragonstar.  Sounds great!  Thanks, Cosmonomicon!


Modern Space Horror Stories – Astronaut Sights UFO?

Recently I’ve been watching these top 10 and top 15 lists, and some of them led me to some horror stories in the history of our space programs.  It’s worth noting because even with Grubbian physics, some of these dangers are still a potential risk for spelljammers.  And certainly the legacy of surviving those sorts of risks is something we, as fans of space travellers, should remember.  I’ll be posting a series of these over the next few days, so if you have a weak stomach, you may want to avoid this series.

Now this is from one of those conspiracy theory channels — which of course should be mostly sneered at in contempt — but the audio and footage in the clip are real.  In footage released by the European Space Agency, Astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, who is Italy’s first woman in space, can be heard shouting out in shock at something she saw during the docking of the Soyuz spacecraft.  What would cause a professional astronaut to shriek in surprise like that?  What was the UFO in the video image?  I suppose it could have been a meteorite that freaked her out by its closeness . . .



Modern Space Horror Stories – Death of a Cosmonaut

Recently I’ve been watching these top 10 and top 15 lists, and some of them led me to some horror stories in the history of our space programs.  It’s worth noting because even with Grubbian physics, some of these dangers are still a potential risk for spelljammers.  And certainly the legacy of surviving those sorts of risks is something we, as fans of space travellers, should remember.  I’ll be posting a series of these over the next few days, so if you have a weak stomach, you may want to avoid this series.

Vladimir Mikhaylovich Komarov (Russian: Влади́мир Миха́йлович Комаро́в; IPA: [vlɐˈdʲimʲɪr mʲɪˈxaɪləvʲɪtɕ kəmɐˈrof]; 16 March 1927 – 24 April 1967) was a Soviet test pilot, aerospace engineer and cosmonaut in the first group of cosmonauts selected in 1960. He was one of the most highly experienced and well-qualified candidates accepted into “Air Force Group One”. . . . His spaceflight on Soyuz 1 made him the first Soviet cosmonaut to fly into outer space more than once, and he became the first human to die on a space mission—he was killed when the Soyuz 1 space capsule crashed after re-entry on 24 April 1967 due to a parachute failure.[1] However, because he died when the capsule crashed into ground, he is not considered the first human fatality in outer space.  (Source: Wikipedia)

The audio recording in the video above was purportedly recorded by an American observation station in Turkey.  In the recording, Komarov was heard to be cursing in rage at the people who perhaps knowingly “put him inside a botched spaceship” as he crashed towards the earth.  A rather chilling tale is told at Rare Historical Photos about a government desperate to display their power, a bunch of engineers and bureaucrats too scared to point out the design flaws they saw to their superiors, and a man who went on a doomed mission to save a friend; along with this photo of his open casket funeral, which, according to the story, had been his dying wish, so that the people responsible could look at what they had done.

Soviet military officials view the remains of cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov. Courtesy of Rare Historical Photos.