Category Archives: Science fiction

Another asteroid mission

Artist's Impression of Dawn in orbit (NASA/JPL)
Artist’s Impression of Dawn in orbit (NASA/JPL)

Readers of this blog will know that I have been very enthusiastic about NASA’s Dawn space probe which spent a long time investigating first Vesta, and then for a rather longer time Ceres, before eventually running out of fuel and being decommissioned. The results from that mission have substantially changed our perception of the asteroid belt, and in particular have confirmed the ubiquity of water ice in all parts of the solar system. Of course, it also raised a lot of questions, such as what was responsible for bright surface markings on Ceres, and how the dwarf planet could apparently have supported both ammonia deposits and a large ocean at various times in its history.

Pallas, as seen from the European Southern Observatory

Anyway, I read this week that NASA is considering a smaller and cheaper mission to the third largest asteroid, Pallas. If approved – and the decision will be made later this month – this would launch in August 2022, which gives it a suitable orbit for a gravity assist from Mars. Unlike Dawn, the low price tag means that this is a flyby mission rather than one that aims to go into orbit, so it will be a case of capturing whatever data can be obtained in a relatively short span of time. Basically, it’s cheaper and easier to just race past somewhere, rather than carry the fuel to slow down and be captured gravitationally. Nevertheless, it should provide another batch of results to extend our knowledge of the diverse objects making up the asteroid belt. And in particular it will give some more solid information that – no doubt – wil one day find its way into my Far from the Spaceports series!

Kindle Cover - Half Sick of Shadows
Kindle Cover – Half Sick of Shadows

And in entirely unrelated news, last Friday I had the pleasure of participating in Helen Hollick’s blog series “Novel Conversations”, which focused on an interview with a character. In my case this was Brendan mab Emrys, who some people will know as the bard in the Arthurian section of Half Sick of Shadows. The interview can be found at Helen’s blog. And if you navigate over that way, you will also find an extract.

Finally, it would be sad to finish this blog post without briefly saying RIP Google+, which until yesterday was a place I shared out blog posts, nature photos, and other similar things.

Artificial Intelligence – Thoughts and News

My science fiction books – Far from the Spaceports and Timing, plus two more titles in preparation – are heavily built around exploring relationships between people and artificial intelligences, which I call personas. So as well as a bit of news about one of our present-day AIs – Alexa – I thought I’d talk today about how I see the trajectory leading from where we are today, to personas such as Slate.

Martian Weather Alexa skill web icon
Martian Weather Alexa skill web icon

Before that, though, some news about a couple of new Alexa skills I have published recently. The first is Martian Weather, providing a summary of recent weather from Elysium Planitia, Mars, courtesy of a public NASA data feed from the Mars Insight Lander. So you can listen to reports of about a week of temperature, wind, and air pressure reports. At the moment the temperature varies through a Martian day between about -95 and -15° Celsius, so it’s not very hospitable. Martian Weather is free to enable on your Alexa device from numerous Alexa skills stores, including UK, US, CA, AU, and IN. The second is Peak District Weather, a companion to my earlier Cumbria Weather skill but – rather obviously – focusing on mountain weather conditions in England’s Peak District rather than Lake District. Find out about weather conditions that matter to walkers, climbers and cyclists. This one is (so far) only available on the UK store, but other international markets will be added in a few days.

Who remembers Clippy?

Current AI research tends to go in one of several directions. We have single-purpose devices which aim to do one thing really well, but have no pretensions outside that. They are basically algorithms rather than intelligences per se – they might be good or bad at their allotted task, but they aren’t going to do well at anything else. We have loads of these around these days – predictive text and autocorrect plugins, autopilots, weather forecasts, and so on. From a coding point of view, it is now comparatively easy to include some intelligence in your application, using modular components, and all you have to do is select some suitable training data to set the system up (actually, that little phrase “suitable training data” conceals a multitude of difficulties, but let’s not go into that today).

Boston Dynamics ‘Atlas’ (Boston Dynamics web site)

Then you get a whole bunch of robots intended to master particular physical tasks, such as car assembly or investigation of burning buildings. Some of these are pretty cute looking, some are seriously impressive in their capabilities, and some have been fashioned to look reasonably humanoid. These – especially the latter group – probably best fit people’s idea of what advanced AI ought to look like. They are also the ones closest to mankind’s long historical enthusiasm for mechanical assistants, dating back at least to Hephaestus, who had a number of automata helping him in his workshop. A contemporary equivalent is Boston Dynamics (originally a spin-off from MIT, later taken over by Google) which has designed and built a number of very impressive robots in this category, and has attracted interest from the US military, while also pursing civilian programmes.

Amazon Dot - Active
Amazon Dot – Active

Then there’s another area entirely, which aims to provide two things: a generalised intelligence rather than one targeted on a specific task, and one which does not come attached to any particular physical trappings. This is the arena of the current crop of digital assistants such as Alexa, Siri, Cortana and so on. It’s also the area that I am both interested in and involved in coding for, and provides a direct ancestry for my fictional personas. Slate and the others are, basically, the offspring – several generations removed – of these digital assistants, but with far more autonomy and general cleverness. Right now, digital assistants are tied to cloud-based sources of information to carry out speech recognition. They give the semblance of being self-contained, but actually are not. So as things stand you couldn’t take an Alexa device out to the asteroid belt and hope to have a decent conversation – there would be a minimum of about half an hour between each line of chat, while communication signals made their way back to Earth, were processed, and then returned to Ceres. So quite apart from things like Alexa needing a much better understanding of human emotions and the subtleties of language, we need a whole lot of technical innovations to do with memory and processing.

As ever, though, I am optimistic about these things. I’ve assumed that we will have personas or their equivalent within about 70 or 80 years from now – far enough away that I probably won’t get to chat with them, but my children might, and my grandchildren will. I don’t subscribe to the theory that says that advanced AIs will be inimical to humankind (in the way popularised by Skynet in the Terminator films, and picked up much more recently in the current Star Trek Discovery series). But that’s a whole big subject, and one to be tackled another day.

Meanwhile, you can enjoy my latest couple of Alexa skills and find out about the weather on Mars or England’s Peak District, while I finish some more skills that are in progress, and also continue to write about their future.

Mars Insight Lander, Artist’s impression (NASA/JPL)

Making things

It seems a very long while since I wrote a blog article – this extraordinarily varied job I now have has kept me busy with all kinds of practical things and left me with little time or head-space to blog. But here after a gap are some thoughts triggered by a recent task.

To cut a long story short, we had to build a cupboard, from scratch with struts and planks rather than an Ikea-style assembly kit. The cupboard was intended to replace a room full of racking and shelves which used to hold a collection of necessary linen and such like, plus a whole lot of dumped bits and pieces which were no longer needed and had to find a new home. (The old linen store room was being reworked for a different purpose, but that’s another story).

An early stage - sides but no doors, and nothing has been painted
An early stage – sides but no doors, and nothing has been painted

Now it struck me, as we worked away with timber purchased online and delivered direct to the house, using power tools of various kinds and (eventually) hefty tins of paint – which again we had not needed to go out and collect – that we are living in a fairly unique period for this kind of work. Back in the Bronze age, say three of four thousand years ago, things would have been very different. The same is true of classical, mediaeval, renaissance, and pretty much all other times right through to very recently. I wonder how many stories presuppose that the heroes of the story are able to simply turn their hands to whatever happens to be the next task on the list, regardless of the practical problems? I know I’ve read some like that.

For a start, I would probably not have been in a position to freely decide that the work needed doing. If I’d wanted timber, I would probably have had to fell and shape it myself, or negotiate with others to do this for me. All the woodworking would need to be done by hand, and even for a simple cupboard that takes a fair level of skill and practice. I wouldn’t have had easy access to several kinds of paint (primer/undercoat and topcoat, at minimum).

Midway - doors now fitted
Midway – doors now fitted

In short, a task which took two of us a couple of days to finish (plus waiting time in between paint coats) would have been a seriously long proposition, and one which would have had a much more debatable outcome.

That’s looking back. But if you look forward, to the prospect of making a cupboard in low or zero gravity, a whole set of different problems presents itself. Let’s suppose that I would have either procured some wood, or else used a three-d printer to turn out something similar enough that I could make it. Then I’d have to manoeuvre it into position. In low gravity, mass and weight mean different things – I would have the muscular strength to shift much larger weights than here on Earth, but their mass, and so their inertia, would be exactly the same, so getting the planks to stop moving might be an issue. Most of my Earth-based tools would not work, since most of them rely heavily on friction to have an effect. A saw works by relying on the fact that you can fix both the wood and yourself in place sufficiently well that the teeth cut through the wood fibres. Shift into micro-gravity, and what tends to happen is that you just can’t get enough opposing force at the blade edge to get anywhere.

An astronaut working on the Hubble Space Telescope – note the cordless drill strapped to his belt (NASA)

Similarly for our dinky electric screwdriver. On Earth it’s great – you hold it steady, the screws turn round and work their way through the layers of wood. In microgravity, it’s hard to avoid you turning the opposite way to the screw. My layers of paint wouldn’t have a tendency to drip downwards – which would be very handy- but they’d also tend to disperse into little globules which would then go into all kinds of places you didn’t expect or want. The various space agencies have had to develop very specific – and very expensive – versions of everyday tools just so they can work in low Earth orbit reasonably well. Even so, tasks take much longer – in 2017 some 12 old batteries on the ISS were replaced with 6 new ones. The task took took separate spacewalks, the first of which lasted over 6 hours. Changing those 12 batteries took nearly as long as we took to build the whole cupboard. Fixing and making things in microgravity is hard work, and slow work.


3D-printed items using fake moon dust, or regolith (ESA)

Now, I’m quite convinced that as and when people will want to build a linen cupboard in low Earth orbit, or on the moon, or on an asteroid somewhere, they will be inventive enough to craft different kinds of tools which don’t make the same assumptions about gravity strength and direction that our current generation does. Maybe in a few decades I would simply download the cupboard template and print myself one, in whatever dimensions and colour scheme seemed good to me. Last year there was an interesting article explaining how ESA are testing the use of moon dust as the raw material for printers (at this stage it’s not actually dust from the moon, owing to a shortage of that, but the regolith they used has broadly the same properties). So you don’t send a bunch of tools and construction materials over to the mon, or Ceres, or Charon, or wherever – you send a printer with some pre-programmed templates, and you gather dust from your local environment.

For us, stuck with our 2019 toolset, there was a happy ending – the cupboard got finished quickly, and we can now move on to renovating the previous linen storeroom. And that would scarcely have been possible even fifty years ago, let alone all the previous years of mankind’s time here on Earth.

The finished article...
The finished article…

Emotions

Far from the Spaceports cover
Far from the Spaceports cover

In my science fiction stories, I write about artificial intelligences called personas. They are not androids, nor robots in the sense that most people recognise – they have no specialised body hardware, are not able to move around by themselves, and don’t look like imitation humans. They are basically – in today’s terminology – computers, but with a level of artificial intelligence substantially beyond what we are used to. Our current crop of virtual assistants, such as Alexa, Cortana, Siri, Bixby, and so on, are a good analogy – it’s the software running on them that matters, not the particular hardware form. They have a certain amount of built-in capability, and can also have custom talents (like Alexa skills) added on to customise them in an individual way. “My” Alexa is broadly the same as “yours”, in that both tap into the same data store for understanding language, but differs in detail because of the particular combination of extra skills you and I have enabled (in my case, there’s also a lot of trial development code installed). So there is a level of individuality, albeit at a very basic level. They are a step towards personas, but are several generations away from them.

Now, one of the main features that distinguishes personas from today’s AI software is an ability to recognise and appropriately respond to emotion – to empathise. (There’s a whole different topic to do with feeling emotion, which I’ll get back to another day). Machine understanding of emotion (often called Sentiment Analysis) is a subject of intense research at the moment, with possible applications ranging from monitoring drivers to alert about emotional states that would compromise road safety, through to medical contexts to provide early warning regarding patients who are in discomfort or pain. Perhaps more disturbingly, it is coming into use during recruitment, and to assess employees’ mood – and in both cases this could be without the subject knowing or consenting to the study. But correctly recognising emotion is a hard problem… and not just for machine learning.

From the article ‘Emotion Science Keeps Getting More Complicated. Can AI Keep Up? ‘ by Dr Rich Firth-Godbehere

Humans also often have problems recognising emotional context. Some people – by nature or training – can get pretty good at it, most people are kind of average, and some people have enormous difficulty understanding and responding to emotions – their own, often, as well as those of other people. There are certain stereotypes we have of this -the cold scientist, the bullish sportsman, the loud bore who dominates a conversation – and we probably all know people whose facility to handle emotions is at best weak. The adjacent picture is taken from an excellent article questioning whether machines will ever be able to detect and respond to emotion – is this man, at the wheel of his car, experiencing road rage, or is he pumped that the sports team he supports has just scored? It’s almost impossible to tell from a still picture.

From a human perspective, we need context – the few seconds running up to that specific image in which we can listen to the person’s words, and observe their various bodily clues to do with posture and so on. If instead of a still picture, I gave you a five second video, I suspect you could give a fairly accurate guess what the person was experiencing. Machine learning is following the same route. One article concerning modern research reads in part, “Automatic emotion recognition is a challenging task… it’s natural to simultaneously utilize audio and visual information“. Basically, the inputs to their system consist of a digitised version of the speech being heard, and four different video feeds focusing on different parts of the person’s face. All five inputs are then combined, and tuned in proprietary ways to focus on details which are sensitive to emotional content. At present, this model is said to do well with “obvious” feelings such as anger or happiness, and struggles with more weakly signalled feelings such as surprise, disgust and so on. But then, much the same is true of many people…

A schematic learning network (from www.neuroelectrics.com)

A fascinating – and unresolved – problem is whether emotions, and especially the physical signs of emotions, are universal human constants, or alternatively can only be defined in a cultural and historical context. Back in the 1970s, psychological work had concluded that emotions were shared in common across the world, but since then this has been called into question. The range of subjects used for the study was – it has been argued – been far too narrow. And when we look into past or future, the questions become more difficult and less answerable. Can we ever know whether people in, say, the Late Bronze Age experienced the same range of emotions as us? And expressed them with the same bodily features and movements? We can see that they used words like love, anger, fear, and so on, but was their inward experience the same as ours today? Personally I lean towards the camp that emotions are indeed universal, but the counter-arguments are persuasive. And if human emotions are mutable over space and time, what does that say about machine recognition of emotions, or even machine experience of emotions?

One way of exploring these issues is via games, and as I was writing this I came across a very early version of such a game. It is called The Vault, and is being prepared by Queen Mary University, London. In its current form it is hard to get the full picture, but it clearly involves a series of scenes from past, present and future. Some of the descriptive blurb reads “The Vault game is a journey into history, an immersion into the experiences and emotions of those whose lives were very different from our own. There, we discover unfamiliar feelings, uncanny characters who are like us and yet unlike.” There is a demo trailer at the above link, which looks interesting but unfinished… I tried giving a direct link to Vimeo of this, but the token appears to expire after a while and the link fails. You can still get to the video via the link above.

Meanwhile, my personas will continue to respond to – and experience – emotions, while I wait for software developments to catch up with them! And, of course, continue to develop my own Alexa skills as a kind of remote ancestor to personas.

Timing Kindle cover
Timing Kindle cover

Future life in space

Two quick bits of space news this week that – all being well – could make their way into a story one day.

Prototype of steam-propelled space probe (University of Central Florida, via Independent.co.uk)

The first was an idea of powering space probes by steam. Now, at first read this sounds very retro, but it deserves some thought. In space, you can’t move along by means of steam pressure turning wheels – there is nothing against which to gain traction. Steam-propelled rockets work like any other rocket – something gets ejected at great speed in one direction, so as to accelerate the rocket in the opposite direction. The steam engine part of the probe is a means of converting the fuel supply into something that can be directed out of the thruster nozzle. The steam, heated as hot as possible to give a high nozzle exit temperature, is the propellant.

The cool thing about pushing steam out of the back, is that it comes from water, and in particular ice. And, as we have been discovering over the last few decades, water ice is extremely common throughout the solar system, and more widely through the universe. So as and when the steam-powered spaceship starts to run low on fuel, it can land on some promising object and collect some more ice. The fuel supply, while not strictly unlimited, is vastly common wherever we’re likely to go. As and when needed, solar panels or (further from the sun) a standard radioactive decay engine can give a boost, but the steam engine would do the grunt work of getting from one refueling station to the next.

Is there wine on Mars? (JPL/Caltech via livescience.com)

Secondly, pursuing my occasional theme of alcohol in space, I read about a firm from Georgia (the country, not the US state) that wants to develop grape varieties that would survive on Mars and, in due course, be convertible into decent wine. This would be a serious challenge, given the low air pressure, high carbon monoxide levels, and wide temperature swings of said planet. As a rough rule of thumb, the air at the Martian surface is about the same as at 20,000′ here on Earth. Apparently, white varieties are reckoned to be more adaptable than red, but I suspect that we are a little way away from resounding success here.

Other attempts to ensure that future space travellers will not have to go without booze include Budweiser sending barley seeds into space to identify the effect of microgravity on germination, steeping and kilning – three steps in the production of malt. See this link. Allegedly, also, a bottle of Scotch Whisky spent three years on the ISS before returning to Earth for analysis… the resulting taste was said to be disappointing. I hope the ISS crew got a few measures out of the bottle before sending it back down again.

That’s it for today, except to wonder again how each of these ideas could be storified. My own near-future science fiction books assume an advanced version of today’s ion drives for propelling spacecraft, but there’s no reason why steam propulsion might not appear as a previous experiment. As to wine in space, well I have already assumed that the problems of fermenting beer in microgravity have been resolved, so again this would have to be a retrospective view of historical developments. Basically, both of these innovations are set between today and my own future world. So I’m looking forward to seeing how they get sorted out in the next decade or two…

Some thoughts on poetry

Neolithic bone flute, China (Wiki)

I thought it was long overdue time that I wrote something on poetry – my historical fiction books lean heavily on poetry, and my various science fiction and fantasy books are regularly built around music and singing – something I reckon will forever be a part of human experience, wherever we end up living. Music has transformed itself many times over since our prehistoric forebears first accompanied their own voices on wind, string or percussion instruments. We have listened to and participated in music played solo or in groups, small and large.

The Muses (greekmythology.com)

But today I am writing about poetry, not music, though the two are very closely related – probably the topic of another blog sometime. Six of the nine Greek muses were explicitly involved with music and poetry, and the focus of the other three was on pursuits which depended heavily on them. In the myths, the muses were not just engaged in fun and celebration – they also turn up to defend their reputation and avenge themselves on mortals who presume to challenge their primacy.

When most people in the modern world think of poetry, we typically imagine lines of regular beats with some sort of rhyme scheme – either adjacent lines rhyming in an AA-BB pattern, or alternating lines sounding like AB-AB, or the looser version AB-CB. For example, the American anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner, uses ABAB for the first four lines of each stanza, and AA-BB for the last four. At the casual end of the scale, Mary had a Little Lamb uses AB-CB. We all know that “real” poetry does not always adhere to these basic patterns, but if asked to come up with a rhyme on the spur of the moment, these basic schemes will probably come to mind.

Musicians from ancient Egypt (British Museum – Wiki)

Most of the earliest poetry that we have, however, is not built around rhyme, nor indeed around a regular pulse or metre. Instead, early poetry from Mesopotamia and Egypt, followed later all around the ancient near east and so also appearing in the Hebrew Bible, was built around the idea of parallelism. (Ages ago I wrote a post about how this pattern also turns up in the much more recent Finnish epic Kalevala) Pairs of lines expressed the same idea in different ways, without special regard for the exact number of syllables or metrical beats, or any rhyming pattern. Something like the start of the Ugaritic epic poem of king Keret:

The clan of Keret died out;
the house of the king was destroyed

Now the advantage of parallelism, from the point of view of other people trying to understand it, is that it is comparatively easy to translate. There will almost certainly be subtleties of the language, word plays and the like, which don’t translate, but the basics certainly do. But poets rapidly wanted to make their work richer and more complex. So variations of parallelism arose – words omitted or added in the basic couplets, changes of word order to invert the second line, triplet forms extending the basic pairs, and so on. The parallelism of words was enhanced by using alliteration of consonants to reinforce the connecting sounds.

Reproduction of an ancient Irish horn from Armagh (
http://www.ancientmusicireland.com)

So the stage was set for end-rhyme to make its appearance in poetry – the pattern that we are most used to today. You can look at end-rhyme as just another form of parallelism – but instead of the line endings being signalled by words with parallel meaning, something opposite is happening. The correspondence of rhyming words at the line ends makes us put them in parallel, and so establishes links between words which otherwise would remain separate in our minds. The more appropriately creative the rhyme, the more striking becomes the connection between words in our minds. William Blake’s Tyger has the following lines, provoking us to make connections between spears and tears

When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears

And again, poets play with our expectations of rhyme in order to jolt us into a different interpretation. Sometimes called a “censored rhyme”, it is often used to suggest politically subversive or sexually risque themes – the actual words themselves are typically innocent, but the expectation aroused in the listener is not. My favourite example is Sweet Violets… almost every line sets the listener up to expect a particular rhyming word, and then diverges away…

There once was a farmer who took a young miss
In back of the barn where he gave her a lecture
On horses and chickens and eggs
And told her that she had such beautiful manners

That suited a girl of her charms
A girl that he wanted to take in his
Washing and ironing and then if she did
They could get married and raise lots of

Sweet violets
Sweeter than all the roses…

An authorised version of these songs (cover image – Caedmon Songs – see https://www.discogs.com/release/1039597)

This all has a lot to do with writing. Some authors want to include real poems in their books, as opposed to saying something along the lines of “then they sang a song”. So then you have to decide how your poem is to be structured in a formal sense, and whether you want that to mirror the conventions of the time of the setting. So a book set in the ancient near east – if it is to be authentic to its era – would not use rhyming couplets, but parallel ones. A story set in Anglo-Saxon times would use the conventions of Germanic poetry, built heavily around word alliteration and stock verbal images with little if any rhyme. A fantasy or science fiction book is free to build up its own conventions as to how poetry in that world is created – but would be enriched by making those fictional conventions fully integrated into the wider world-building . It’s a habit of thought that Tolkien was a master at – he had the advantage of being able to draw on a wide variety of early conventions of song and poetry, and he deployed these conventions so carefully that you can tell almost at first read of one of his poems, which of the various peoples of Middle Earth are in focus (see the Open Culture web site for some readings)

To close, here’s a video of ancient Irish music, found at http://www.ancientmusicireland.com. A wealth of information and live demonstrations, with (to my ears) odd resonances in the music of Bladerunner

Living on Someone else’s land

The finished item…

Many of you know that last week I was heavily involved in getting some refurbishment work done to a bar in Grasmere, Cumbria. It really did get finished on time, albeit needing a couple of long days and late nights. But I’m not going to blog about that. Nor – though I did consider it – an I going to blog about how pretty much every project pushes the envelope on its expected finishing time (even Gandalf apparently suffered from this, judging by his complaint in the film version of Lord of the Rings, “Three hundred lives of men I have walked this earth and now I have no time”).

One of the jackdaws…

Instead, I’m going to talk about something that occupied my mind during several journeys from the bar back to our storage area in some former barns late at night. It is pretty dark in that part of Grasmere, and I didn’t bother with a torch or anything until I was actually poking around trying to find some small-but-essential gizmo to take back. And as I walked down the cul de sac which is Lake View Drive, across the lawn, and down the rough track to the barns, with empty fields on one side going down to the lake, the night was alive with all kinds of animal and bird noises. Of course we have herons and jackdaws as regular visitors – uninvited, but normally welcome – along with a bunch of regular garden birds. Buzzards drift overhead every so often. At this time of year the lake shore is full of geese, swelling the regular swan and duck population. And so on. These are all familiar.

Three badgers playing…

But as well as these, there are the nocturnal creatures that we share the land with, but don’t interact with very much. I’ve mentioned the badgers before, and right now we often get what look to me to be a group of juveniles playing – this night-camera picture shows them beside one of the apple trees, complete with protective fence. A few minutes later they all headed off in a group towards the barns. Maybe they wanted to sample the batch of lager we had just started off?

Why protect the apple trees? Well, that has to do with another of our nocturnal visitors – a small herd of deer. These are very much less welcome. On the night camera I have seen up to half a dozen at a time, led by a rather splendid looking stag. They have been steadily decimating a row of laurel bushes, which we don’t mind so much as they will bounce back, but also various bulbs and small plants which we want for the spring. According to local rumour, several of the local farmers are suffering rather more serious commercial loss from this little bunch.

One of the deer…

Anyway, all this set me thinking that we are only one of the occupants of this piece of the British landscape, and that deer, badgers, rabbits, herons and whatnot have in all likelihood been wandering around the area much longer than we humans have. And this has been true for most of human history. As we spread out, ages ago, from Africa and the Near East, we were perpetually coming into contact with the existing occupants of land which, to us, was unknown. We met predators and prey, and reacted accordingly. We met other hominids – Neanderthals , Denisovans, and others. Sometimes we settled peacefully and mated with them, other times we met in war. But until very recently, we knew that the land we moved across and settled in was not really our own – we were simply a recent arrival, joining others who had lived there for many years already. A lot of that sense of shared occupancy seems to me to have evaporated. We frequently assume these days that we are the sole – or at least the single most important – residents in any particular patch of the planet. That’s a big subject, and one for another day.

Turning now to writing, most novels set in the past should have this as part of the background. Different cultures at different times might express that idea differently – birds and beasts , angels and demons, selkies and spirits – but it should always be there. And it’s kind of regular stock in trade for fantasy literature.

Mars (NASA/JPL)

But, as usually happens, this propelled my thoughts forward into science fiction. How can this sense of shared living be captured in that medium? As and when we move out from this planet into the other worlds of the solar system, and potentially beyond, will we recover that sense of having to share the environment with others? This might, of course, be in the most overt and incontrovertible way – an unequivocal meeting with intelligent aliens. But it might also be something much less obvious, such as microbes living in the sub-surface oceans of some of the larger moons circling the outer planets – Titan, Europa and Enceladus for sure, Ganymede and Callisto possibly. Or maybe forms of bacterial life in underground salty lakes on Mars. Or some manifestation of life that as yet we don’t know how to recognise.

How will it be, I wonder, to recover an everyday sense that we are shared occupants of the universe, not solitary ones?

Preparing to build

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about aluminium smelting. Today’s topic is a little more prosaic, but historically has been a much more frequent part of building projects.

The various bits of wood – house beams in front, oak timbers behind

One part of remodelling the bar at The Good Sport is to replace the bar worktop. The old one was a hybrid affair with some chipboard and some stone – the new one is made of wood taken from various sources. There are former house timbers dating from some time in the mid 19th century. They’re very cool, not least for the history they have witnessed. Then there are frame support pieces made just from builders’ merchants supplies, probably pine or something similarly quick growing. But the best sections are two large pieces of oak, rescued by a local craftsman when the tree was felled. These are cut top to bottom along the trunk, so you cannot count the rings and find out how old they are – but my guess is that they considerably outdate the rest of the installation. (The top-to-bottom orientation means that the grain runs along the counter top).

But the thing I want to talk about today is not the age of the wood, but the preparation that has gone into it. The two pieces had been supplied to us reasonably smooth – but “reasonably smooth” menas “not smooth enough” when it’s a thing that people will be leaning on. So one of my jobs these last few days has been to turn “reasonably smooth” into “really smooth”.

One of the pieces of wood, together with the belt sander

Now, since this is 2019, I used a selection of power tools to effect this change, mostly a belt sander with a number of different grades of sandpaper. Even with that, it took a decent time to go over the top surface multiple times, working from coarser to finer passes. I was extremely happy with the result, but it also led me to consider how things might have been in the many ages of our world before power tools were invented. After all, sanding wood is an activity which lends itself to thinking about other things while you’re working away. How long, I mused, would this have taken me if I was doing it all by hand? And would the final result have been anything like so pleasing? After all, wood-smoothing is not something that I have done much of in my life to date, and I wouldn’t call myself especially skilled at it.

Swimming reindeer, c.13,000 years old (BBC)

Human history is full of exquisitely crafted objects, meeting needs somewhere between religion, art, and practical necessity. This swimming reindeer figure was made around 13,000 years ago – I don’t know how long it took the original artist to fashion it, but I’m guessing that it was rather longer than the time I put into smoothing two essentially flat pieces of wood. Not to mention the huge number of practice hours he or she had put in since childhood.

Now, I only smoothed one side of the wood – the pragmatic nature of today’s world means that I wasn’t motivated to do much to the hidden side except to make sure it was proof against various kinds of wood pests. But back in the day, if the kings or the priests felt it important to take just as much care on the hidden side as the visible one, then you would just have got on with it.

Which brings me to the future. There’s a developmental principle in some games – those in which the time frame of the game is spread out over many years – that items which are available only to the wealthy in one era get diffused more and more widely through the population as a whole as you go forward in time. I guess the standard example is computing power – back in the 1950s and 60s, computers could only be owned by large institutions or extremely wealthy individuals. Now we all have much more powerful machines we carry around in our pockets. Similarly for smooth bits of wood – once upon a time it took real skill and craft to create something smooth and shapely from a rough-hewn piece of timber. Nowadays anyone who wants can go out and buy power tools and achieve something similar by themselves (not necessarily with artistic flair, but certainly with polish).

The world’s first 3d-printed house (BBC – https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-44709534)

Now, as and when we get to build colonies and habitats in various places around the solar system, my bet is that we will use 3d printing as our construction technique. After all, it’s way simpler and cheaper to ship out a large printer to wherever you’re going, and use that to construct tools, equipment, and habitat sections – much cheaper than paying for the fuel to send actual construction materials. That’s very cool, but unless the technology advances in aesthetic ways as well as practical ones, I can’t see 3d-printed building materials having a wood grain that can be sanded and then picked out with oil. On one level it doesn’t really matter – you’d prefer that your house on, say, the asteroid Ceres was airtight and warm, even if that meant not having a wood grain to look at. Or maybe we’ll have a printer add-on that will simulate the grain in whatever direction you want.

After preparation…

Ultima Thule

A very quick blog today, as I have been occupied all day in wood preparation (of which, more another day).

So this is to celebrate the safe passage of the New Horizons space probe past Ultima Thule, a small rock out beyond Pluto, out in the Kuiper Belt. The flyby – at some 44 kilometres per hour – happened around 5:30 am UK time on January 1st, when I suspect most of us were still in bed after the New Year’s Eve celebrations!

The journey from Earth (Johns Hopkins University)

So far all we have had back are a few low-resolution images on the final stages of approach, and a post-flyby signal confirming that the probe had survived. This survival was by no means guaranteed – nobody knew if Ultima Thule was accompanied by clouds of dust or smaller rocks, and hitting them at 44kph would have been fatal.

However, there is something like 7GB of data waiting to be sent home, all to be sent by a transmitter much less powered than the average light bulb, with each signal taking over 6 hours to get home. It’s rather extraordinary that we can pick up the data download at all, and at such a low data rate it will take the better part of two years to get the whole lot back safely.

New Horizons – until now – has been best known for the remarkable pictures of Pluto and Charon, which we enjoyed back in 2015. These have radically reshaped our views of these bodies, and vastly enriched our understanding of them. Not only that, but they inspired large parts of the setting of The Liminal Zone, which could not have existed in its present form without this additional knowledge.

Charon, from New Horizons (NASA/JPL)

So here by way of celebration is a short extract from The Liminal Zone, using geography that would have been pure guesswork before 2015.

In the approach vid, Charon was rapidly changing from a remote celestial body into a diversely coloured and textured terrain. From a bright point of light, to a disk which filled the sky. From a name, to a home, however temporary. She gazed intently at it, trying to fix the setting in her mind. The habitat was situated on the interface between the largely flat expanse of Vulcan Planum on one side, and rugged folds of hills alongside Serenity Chasma on the other. She had briefly skimmed the original surveyors’ reports; so far as she remembered, the location was a compromise between stability and ease of construction.

As yet, I have no plans to set a book out in the Kuiper Belt, but who knows what might happen when the full data set comes back?

Metal Working

Civilisation Box Art (Wiki)

Since I first discovered it – many years ago – I have loved the game of Civilisation. I was introduced to version 1 of the computer game by a work colleague, and since then have played various variants of both the computer and the board game. Of course there are all kinds of opinions about which is best, which I don’t propose to go into. But one of the key features was the technology tree – the very very long series of inventions and ideas you pursued in order to build new stuff and so develop your culture.

Now, one of the very early developments was Bronze Working (which allowed specific kinds of military units and civic wonders). This was a prerequisite for Iron Working and – after a very long time – Metallurgy.

The smelting fire
The smelting fire

So, what has this to do with today’s blog? Well, yesterday, as a small part of a sizeable remodel of The Good Sport bar, we had cause to do some invention ourselves. We weren’t working with Bronze or Iron, but rather Aluminium. Now, a purist will perhaps object that Aluminium is not on the Civ tech tree – at least, not any of the variants I have played – which is true. And also that we were not starting from bauxite or any other naturally occurring raw material, but rather from some handy spare aluminium sheets that were lying around. All that is true: nevertheless we did have to melt said stuff and refashion it for our own purposes.

Now, aluminium melts at just over 660° C, which is well above the temperature of a domestic oven, or camp fire. So our solution was an old beer keg, lined with cement to retain heat and equipped with an air inlet to one side. Inside was a charcoal fire, and a handy air compressor pushed air in through the tube to keep the charcoal burning fiercely. Aluminium was cut into small strips and put in a steel jug – steel having a much higher melting point. And then we waited, entirely unsure whether the whole thing was doomed to failure.

About to pour the liquid aluminium
About to pour the liquid aluminium

But as you can see, it all worked! Slowly but surely the aluminium melted into the rather fine puddle that you see in this picture. It would be nice to say that we had been totally confident in all this, but not so – we were as amazed as anyone when this happened. We felt, just for a few moments, like real discoverers. Yes, all the technical data about melting points is easy to obtain these days, and yes we had those handy aluminium sheets as starting point, but even so the sense of triumph when it turned into liquid was extraordinary!

Pouring the liquid aluminium
Pouring the liquid aluminium

So what did we do with our liquid aluminium? Well, here it is being poured into a surface hole in a piece of wood. Why that destination? Well, that will all become clear – hopefully – over the next few weeks.

Meanwhile, this all set me thinking about metallurgy in general, and how it has affected human society. Of course Civilisation focuses on just a few things – military units that can now be built, particular buildings that facilitate further development, and “wonders” which enhance your prowess (ie score) and make your people happier. But in reality, metal working permeates every aspect of life.

We take it for granted now that a household object is made of whatever material is most suitable – metal, ceramic, fabric or whatever. We have whole fields of study concerning the various properties of these materials, such as their hardness, ability to transmit or suppress noise, colour, safety, electrical conductivity, and so on. But starting way back in the mists of time, and carrying on through all of our history until now, people have had to find these things out by trial and error. What were the properties of those shiny veins in rock layers? Why could I shape one metal easily and not another? Would my camp fire soften them? How must I change my camp fire so I can work with the more intransigent metals? How can my sword edge be sharper, or my armour tougher, or the wheels on my vehicle stronger? In a very small way, we felt something of the same exhilaration that our hugely distant ancestors must have felt, seeing copper melt for the first time, and be shaped into something new – something distinctly human.

Spacehounds of IPC cover (Wiki)

Looking ahead into the future, we generally assume that we will carry the ability to fashion metals (and other useful substances) with us wherever we go. But every so often you get stories where someone is stranded and has to build it up again. This was an especially popular theme in the 1930s and thereabouts – Spacehounds of IPC being a classic example. Our Hero, forced by circumstance onto an uninhabited moon (with breathable atmosphere) has to start from next to nothing except a small tool pack, and build his way up through small camp fires to blast furnaces and ultimately the ability to recharge the power banks on his derelict lifeboat. Until yesterday, I was totally sceptical about this storyline… but having turned an old keg, some charcoal, and a handy air compressor into something that could melt aluminium, I became slightly more convinced!

More of this another time: for now here is a final picture of the “forge” as it died down in the late evening. You can easily imagine us around it, feeling foolishly triumphant…

Around the camp fire
Around the camp fire