Sunday, July 29, 2007


I went to see the movie Sunshine today with my family. Definitely a mixed bag. Lots of boneheaded science mistakes, of course (more on those below). The first half of the movie is pretty interesting psychological drama, reminiscent of Solaris. Unfortunately, it turns into dumb horror in the second half. All in all, it has some good moments and great visuals, but it would also be a good candidate for Mystery Science Theater 3000, if they ever revived it.

An article in today's Sunday Boston Globe is fairly laudatory about the movie. I really had better things to do, but I couldn't help myself, so I wrote the following letter to the editor:

"About the movie Sunshine, Tom Russo writes (in the Sunday movie section) that "there's nothing as inscrutably mind-bending as 2001 here, but nothing that's Armageddon obtuse, either." Actually, there's plenty of Armageddon-level obtuseness in the film, including the premise that dropping a huge bomb onto the sun would somehow jumpstart the fire if it had gone out. (Bad science! Sit! Stay!) But if you buy that for the sake of enjoying the movie (and I was willing), then Sunshine has a pretty good psycho-drama going for the first half, reminiscent of Solaris. But the cracks start showing when you notice that the spaceship has the obligatory rotating elements, presumably for artificial gravity--but it does not seem to be the living quarters that are rotating, so what's the point? Then when fire strike the greenhouse, source of their oxygen, what do they do? Vent the air to put the fire out? No! Feed it more oxygen to make it burn hotter! (Very bad science! Go lie down!) I probably shouldn't even mention the huge derelict spaceship full of floating sloughed-off human skin--dandruff from a crew of, what, seven people?

Quite apart from the science, the story eventually devolves into silly horror, redeemed somewhat by a nice philosophic moment at the end. It's not that the movie has no good points, because it does--but a film that aspires to have "a very rigorous realism attached to it," as the director is quoted as saying, really could do much better."
Probably won't get printed, but at least I'm trying to give NASA its money's worth back from the astronomy workshop!

On the plus side, there were some projection glitches, and the theater gave us return visit passes on our way out. Maybe we'll go to The Simpsons next, and see how they score on the science. :)

Somewhat relevant to the efforts of the filmmakers:

"I use exotic settings, but the settings are like the function of a Chinese stage. They are intended to lay bare the human mind, to throw torches over the underground lakes of the human soul, to show the chambers wherein the ageless dramas of self-respect, God, courage, sex, love, hope, envy, decency and power go on forever." —Cordwainer Smith


Friday, July 27, 2007

Buckaroo Banzai, Monty Python, and More

Lori White from the Launchpad group pointed out an interesting article to us: guitarist Brian May from the rock band Queen is back in school, finishing his doctorate in astrophysics! Seems he was studying astrophysics in the first place, before he dropped out to form Queen. But he couldn't get rid of the astronomy bug, and now he's nearly completed the studies he began back in the 1970's. (I'll bet he had some catching up to do.)

As Vonda McIntyre pointed out, he's a real-life Buckaroo Banzai!

One of the quirkier memories from last week is our group singalong of The Galaxy Song, from Monty Python:

(If this worked right, you should see a little menu showing some related videos. Check out the updated version of The Galaxy Song. It has a rough beginning, but once it gets going, it's good.)

Me, I've got to get back to the writing board.

"When I write, I feel like an armless legless man with a crayon in his mouth." —Kurt Vonnegut

Labels: ,

Monday, July 23, 2007

And Home Again

I've returned safe and sound from Laramie (two hours late due to our flight crew having been temporarily stranded in another city, but aside from that, a good flight). Great to be home, but I miss the group!

For more comments and other pictures, see Eugie Fosters' blog. She's been covering it, too, and some of her pictures are better than mine.

"I type in one place, but I write all over the house." —Toni Morrison


Saturday, July 21, 2007

Launchpad Finale

The final observing night looked as though it would be a washout, or rather a cloud-out. We drove some distance to get to the WIRO Observatory in the mountains that from Laramie are a part of the horizon. Cloudy, cloudy. A drive up the winding, dirt mountain road made me think I was back at Cedar Point. When we finally reached the top, the conditions looked hopeless for even opening the observatory dome. So we looked at the telescope instead:

And gathered in the control room while our enterprising grad-student operators tried to get the aging computer system to cooperate:

And even posed for a group photo (shot by Jeremiah Tolbert):

Gradually, though, the sky began to clear—just a few stars, at first. Hoping for the best, we opened the dome. By the time the system was up and running, more of the sky was clearing—and within an hour or two, we had a spectacular view of the Milky Way overhead (for those of us who wandered outside to stand in the dark). In the meantime, the telescope was starting to pull in images.

It was instructive to watch the process. Telescopes take photos in black and white, not color. To achieve color images, successive pictures are taken in red, blue, and green, and combined on the computer to produce a final image. And that is exactly what we did in the end. Most of the group had left by midnight, but the few of us remaining watched images come in of the Pelican Nebula. We left with the gray and white images on a CD. In the morning, someone who knew how to do the computer wizardry combined them to produce the photo that we have adopted as our workshop badge: the Pelican Nebula, in glorious color:

We're done with all the sessions now, with only our closing party to look forward to. It's been a great week, and while I look forward to getting home, I'm also sorry to see it end.

I'm going to end with this quote that seems utterly appropriate to me.

"I believe that good questions are more important than answers, and the best children's books ask questions, and make the readers ask questions. And every new question is going to disturb someone's universe." —Madeleine L'Engle

Labels: ,

Friday, July 20, 2007

Midweek at Launchpad

Wednesday started with a hike in a nearby national park. Very cool big rocks, which look as if they were carefully set into place by giants, some rather precariously:

It was a surprisingly lush place, with aspen and junipers (I think) and various evergreens, and at least one beaver dam. Here's another shot:

We hiked for an hour or two, which tested our adaptation to the 7000+ ft. elevation of the Laramie area.

The only time I really noticed the altitude was when a few of us ran, briefly, toward the end of the hike. Then, as I bent over gasping, I wondered why I had done that.

More astronomy during the day: stars and stellar evolution. In the evening we went onto the roof of the astronomy building and did some star-gazing. At home I have a small Meade telescope; here I found its much bigger brothers, a 10 inch reflector and a 16 inch reflector. Plus, Mike had night-vision goggles, which were surprisingly effective at helping us pick out star patterns that were hard to spot with the city lights and scattered clouds. Besides the Moon and Venus and Jupiter, we took in the Ring Nebula and a fuzzy image of the Andromeda Galaxy (which I had never seen in a scope before).

Thursday brought us more on stellar evolution, a visit to the small but charming planetarium in the same building (after looking at star patterns awhile, we watched some laser light shows). Then we learned a bit about the processing of raw astronomical data, and talked about using what we were learning in our writing (which, after all, is the purpose behind this workshop).

Finally we visited the somewhat larger Red Buttes Observatory outside the city. Conditions didn't allow for opening the dome and viewing, but we got a tour of the telescope:

Then we just stood outside awhile, as the clouds cleared some, and enjoyed the dark sky and partial view of the Milky Way.

We're learning a lot, and we're enjoying a fine group camaraderie; it's hard to believe the week is nearly over.

"Truth is a matter of the imagination." —Ursula K. LeGuin

Labels: ,

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Launchpad Workshop, First Two Days

We've been covering some basic astronomy, most of it stuff I already know, but still interesting as a refresher. Three different people are presenting to us, Mike Brotherton covering the basic science, Jerry Oltion on amateur astronomy and simple calculation of orbits. Jim Verley has been covering educational issues, such as how to convey to the public, or to school kids, frequently misunderstood concepts such as the cause of the seasons and the phases of the moon. (Jim showed us a short video in which 23 brand new Harvard grads and faculty members were asked what causes the seasons. Out of 23, 21 answered that summer occurs when the Earth is closer to the sun, and winter when it was further away. Twenty-one students, including some who had studied science, stated this misconception with complete confidence! The correct answer, of course, is that the Earth is tilted on its axis, and when the northern hemisphere is tilted to receive more direct rays from the sun, it's summer there; and when the southern hemisphere is tilted toward the sun, it's summer there. So we talked about why this is so commonly misunderstood, and why kids in school don't get it even when it's taught to them. One thing we learned is that hands-on and kinesthetic ways of showing the Earth's tilt, or the phases of the moon, are much more effective at conveying the concepts than words or even diagrams.)

As a group, we watched the movie Armageddon, and laughed and cried at the astounding number of scientific errors foisted on the viewers by a movie about the Earth being endangered by an approaching asteroid. Tonight we were to be observing from the roof of the astronomy building, but the sky is cloudy, so we've put that off a day. Tomorrow, we hike in some of the local hills in the morning, and then get back to astronomy in the afternoon.

It's a great group of people--some well-established writers like Vonda McIntyre and Josepha Sherman, and some folks whose names you might come to know in the future. (There's a list on the Launchpad website. Click the prematurely-named link for "past attendees.")

Internet access turns out to be iffy, at least for me. I can get online at the astro building, and can do things like post blog updates during breaks, but for some reason I can't send email. I don't know what that's all about.

More in a day or two, I hope.

"Writing is an exploration. You start from nothing and learn as you go." —E. L. Doctorow

Labels: ,

Monday, July 16, 2007

Déjà vu All Over Again

I took wing this morning for Laramie, Wyoming (by way of Denver), and found myself feeling that I was redoing the trip to Ohio. We flew within sight of the south shore of one of the Great Lakes, and for a while, I thought it was Lake Erie. But then I realized I couldn't see any of the islands, so that had me stymied for awhile. Finally I found a map of general routes in the United airline mag, and decided that it was a portion of Lake Huron or possibly Lake Michigan, and that we had passed well to the north of Lake Erie.

Something new for me on this trip was a feature United has added: one of the headset channels was Air Traffic Control piped in from the cockpit, so I could hear everything the pilot was hearing. As a private pilot (even if inactive), I found this fun and illuminating. I was puzzled for a time as I heard plane after plane talking to Cleveland Center, then heard ATC tell the aircraft to "contact Cleveland Center" on 12x.xx frequency. (Cleveland Center is actually a wide-area control center located in Oberlin, Ohio; or at least it was when I toured it as a high school student a long time ago.) Finally I realized they were handing the flights off from one controller to another in the same center, each controller responsible for a different sector on a different frequency.

When we reached Denver, I heard our Boeing 757 pilot announce that he was on right base for the runway (which means the runway's on his right, and he's flying at right angles to the runway heading, to intercept and turn onto the final approach path). Everything from there on in sounded exactly the same as it did when I landed tiny Cessnas at Hanscom Field, including the taxi instructions. Somehow I thought it would sound grander and more arcane. But nope, pretty much the same.

At Denver I met up with the rest of the Launchpad Workshop group, and we all rode together to Laramie by van and car. We settled in, had dinner at a nice brewpub, and will start the workshops tomorrow (Monday). I don't have internet access in the apartment where we're staying, but will at the science center, so I guess I'll be doing email and blog "squirts" during the day, and reading and composing in the evening.

"A blank page is God's way of showing you how hard it is to be God." —Anonymous


Saturday, July 14, 2007

Here Again and Gone Again

We got home in one piece from the Ohio trip, and had a very full week with our energetic young niece and nephew. They've gone home to California. But I'm about to head off myself, to the Launchpad astronomy workshop in Laramie, Wyoming, where I'll be soaking up interesting stuff about the latest in astronomy along with a dozen other writers. I'll try to post from there, if I can, but I'll just have to see if I have the time (and easy internet access) to do that.

I'll wave to you all from the plane as I fly over!


Friday, July 06, 2007

Back on Track

I'm posting this entry from my sister's computer in Ohio. We got the car fixed on Monday morning, thanks to a fine Pakistani gentleman at Meineke Muffler in Rochester, who was honest and competent and said I did not need the $600 part that Pep Boys said I needed. An hour's work and a hundred bucks later, we were back on the road.

We had a great time at Cedar Point (just one day, instead of two, but that was probably enough). My daughters accompanied me on the Millennium Force--the 300+ foot high roller coaster--plus the Magnum, the Mantis, and the brand new Maverick. I didn't have time to ride the Dragster, which was slightly disappointing because it was my chance to ride a genuine railgun; the cars get shot down a straightaway by a linear induction motor (just like the proposed space launchers), then straight up 400+ feet into a near-suborbital loop, and then right back down. Mainly I wanted to ride the railgun. But, come to think of it, the Maverick used a similar but less extreme railgun launch up its first hill, and another in the middle, so I did get to ride one. My young niece and nephew had a ball, the highlight being young Lauren's overcoming her fear to ride the Disaster Transport--and then coming back for more.

After that, we checked into the Kalahari Waterpark Resort, where we were welcomed generously and treated like honored guests, and I held the most successful book signing of my career. Blog-reader Tsmacro came all the way from Michigan with his fiance to say hello, which was great, and many people wandering through the activity center stopped and chatted and bought books. I never would have expected it, but I sold far more books than I ever have at a bookstore or convention signing, and had lots of nice conversations with folks from all over the map. Thanks, Kalahari, and Karen who invited me to come!

We're wrapping up the trip with visits with relatives, and will be beelining back east on Saturday--with a stop, if we can possibly swing it, to see Niagara Falls on the way. We must be home this weekend--and after that we can rest from our vacation!


Sunday, July 01, 2007

On the Road Again (Not)

Well, when I didn't get a blog entry written before we left on our trip, I figured that was it for a week, anyway. I didn't expect to have internet access, because we were to be camping for the first four nights and riding roller coasters at Cedar Point. That was the plan.

On Saturday morning, we hit the highway from Boston, bound for Ohio and relatives and Cedar Point and a book signing (July 4, 3 – 6 p.m., Kalihari Resort, Sandusky, Ohio). I'd gone to great pains to get the car and ancient camping trailer in shape, and it was all paying off. The trailer lights worked, the young nephew and niece had arrived to swell our numbers to 6, and we got off only a few hours late. The weather was mild, temperate, we took it easy, and we made it over the transmission-killing 7-mile hill on the Mass Turnpike. It was all going well. Until we got to Rochester, NY.

That's where we exited the NY Thruway, headed for a campground and a detour to Niagara Falls in the morning. Unfortunately, the exit road from the Thruway had a big fissure which we hit—BAM! I gulped, and then the roar came. Suddenly our car sounded like a Mack truck with a bad muffler. Something had broken in the exhaust system. On a Saturday evening.

We limped along until we found a Pep Boys auto repair center, which had just closed. But the sign said it would open Sunday morning, so we rumbled on a little further, found a hotel, and hunkered down for the night. This morning, I got the news: a broken exhaust crossover pipe, and no replacement available on Sunday. And so, instead of setting up camp at Cedar Point tonight, we're holed up at a Holiday Inn in Rochester, praying that the part can be found tomorrow morning. We're on a very tight schedule, planned to the day, so every day we lose at this end is gone from the trip. If you don't hear from me in the next few days, that probably will mean we got back on our way. So everyone—I hope you don't hear from me in a few days!

Stay tuned!

"All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath." —F. Scott Fitzgerald