Category Archives: Science

Orbits 2

Gravity film release poster (Wiki)

Last time I talked a bit about orbital paths for getting from the Earth to the Moon, and how there are several alternatives, each using different amounts of time and fuel. Today I want to talk a bit about orbits around Earth – the kind of trajectories used by a multitude of satellites today. This post was partly motivated by a conversation in the film Gravity – a film which I quite enjoyed for the human interactions, but was seriously disappointed by the cavalier attitude to orbital mechanics! There’s a point fairly late on where George Clooney’s character points out to Sandra Bullock’s character an orbital space station where she can find additional supplies, and directs her to fire her own capsule engines while keeping the other station central in her forward window.

It sounds good – and it would sort of work on Earth if you translate Sandra Bullock’s plight into moving cars around a car park – but there is absolutely no way that such a strategy would get her to her target up in orbit. Quite apart from the matter of getting the two space vehicles to meet up in space, there’s also the problem of matching speeds so that she could easily move across to the second capsule. Earth orbits simply don’t work like that – it is certainly possible (with sufficient fuel) to transition from one orbit to another, but getting the engine burn right is a difficult task, and one which needs to be carried out by computer program rather than optimistic guesswork.

Hohmann transfer orbit (Wiki)

The most energy-efficient way to transition from one circular orbit to another is by means of what is called a Hohmann transfer orbit – an elliptical path that touches both circles at a tangent. Other transfers can be used, and may well take less time to complete, but they will use more fuel. The simple picture here assumes that both orbits are in the same plane – in a more general case it will be necessary to shift orbital plane from the old angle to the new one. But that aside, just looking at the two objects shows that the engine burn required is not at all directed straight at the target – indeed in this case it is almost diametrically opposite. (Hohmann transfers are also used on a larger scale for trajectories between planets, and exactly the same principles apply).

Now, the great majority of satellites are in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) – not a single trajectory, but a zone of space from about 200 to 2000km altitude, or equivalently with an orbital period of under two hours. LEO is easy to get to, and hence economical of fuel, but especially at the lower end of the range, orbits will slowly decay because of the very tenuous atmosphere still present there – hence either the lifetime is limited, or occasional actions must be taken to lift the orbital height. A consequence of such a low orbit is that the spacecraft transits the sky quickly – or equivalently, any one part of Earth stays in view for only a short time. Satellites providing the various GPS systems orbit much higher, around 20-30000km (12-15 hours). And higher still, a little over 40000km, are the geostationary orbits, in which a satellite takes 24 hours to orbit the planet, and so appears to be stationary over a particular place.

Cover - Far from the Spaceports
Cover – Far from the Spaceports

What does this have to do with writing? Well, maneuvering around a planet in low orbit is a tricky thing to get right, and not something you want to leave to intuition. In Far from the Spaceports, Mitnash gets a shuttle up to his spaceship, The Harbour Porpoise, which the AI persona Slate has been keeping in LEO waiting a decision on where they were heading off for. They end up going off to the asteroid belt, but their first move would be to get out of LEO and leave Earth’s gravity well behind. That’s not something where Mitnash would glance out of the window, push a couple of buttons, and hope for the best – Slate, or possibly the ship’s own onboard controller, would do some real calculations before firing up the main engines. And then off they go…

Next time, a zany idea I just read about concerning moving the orbit of the Earth itself…

Orbits 1

Artist’s impression of Beresheet probe mid-flight (Israel Space Agency)

A few weeks ago now, an Israeli space probe called Beresheet (“Beginning”) reached the moon’s surface – sadly a system glitch in the last few seconds of approach meant that it crashed rather than soft-landed, but nevertheless it was a remarkable achievement. A particularly interesting feature of the trajectory that the ground crew chose is that it is quite unlike the method adopted by pretty much every probe before now, including the Apollo spacecraft.

Successive orbit paths (Israel Space Agency)

The typical way to reach the moon has been in three phases – up to Earth orbit first, then a substantial burn of the main engines to escape Earth orbit and head towards the moon, then another burn to enter lunar orbit. The long leg of this is traversed with no engine activity at all, barring some trivial course corrections. Beresheet, however, adopted quite a different approach, as shown in the accompanying picture. A series of much smaller engine burns shifted the orbital path round Earth into ever-longer ellipses, until the path was close enough to the moon to be captured by the gravity there. The probe never attained escape velocity from Earth, and the trip took rather longer to arrive – a couple of months rather than a few days. However, it used less fuel and had the advantage that the successive changes in orbit allowed for lots of checking and fine-tuning.

Almost all probes to date, including Beresheet, have been driven by chemical rockets. They can exert huge acceleration at need, but have the disadvantage that the fuel tanks empty comparatively quickly. The times when the engines are used have to be rationed and carefully calculated, in order to have enough left over for critical events late on in the spacecraft’s journey. About the only exception to this is the Dawn probe, which visited the asteroid belt and returned remarkable new details about Vesta and Ceres. Dawn used an ion drive, which yields comparatively little acceleration but can be run continuously for weeks or months at a time. It’s a neat way to pile up substantial velocity without using much fuel at a time. It’s also the spaceship drive that I presuppose for Far from the Spaceports and successive books in that series – from a human-traveller point of view it has the huge advantage that you don’t have to put up with long periods of weightless travel, as well as considerably reducing travel times. The fact that the drive runs continually for all that time hugely offsets the fact that the actual propulsive power is much smaller.

That’s it for this week – next week there’ll be a few more thoughts on orbits. Meanwhile, here’s the last picture Beresheet took before crashing into the lunar surface…

Beresheet’s final image (Israel Space Agency)

About a podcast

Absolute Business MIndset podcast logo

A short blog today as I get back into blog writing after a very busy Easter. And it’s something a little bit different for me – a friend and former work colleague interviewed me for his podcast series over the weekend, and it has now gone live.

Now, I’ve never really got into podcasts, and Marks’ normal focus for his series is to do with business (as you can tell from his series title, Absolute Business Mindset), but we both managed to make something of the interaction.

Different people use different podcast software, but this site
https://gopod.me/1340548096 gives you a list of different options through which you can access the interview. Alternatively, search for Mark’s series by its title, Absolute Business Mindset.

In it, you can hear me talking with Mark about all kinds of stuff, largely focused around maths, artificial intelligence, Alexa and so on, ultimately touching on science fiction. The whole thing takes about an hour, and Alexa takes more of a central role in the second half. Enjoy!

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)

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…

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?