Category Archives: Science

The changing view of Venus in storytelling

Before starting, a quick reminder of the giveaway competition currently running for the audio version of Half Sick of Shadows. There are just a few copies left on Audible UK and US available free. Just follow this link, listen to the sample snippet, and get back to me with the answer. Some copies have already gone but others remain to be won! It’s absolutely free – if you don’t currently have Audible membership then you can sign up for a trial month at no cost, then cancel if you don’t like it.

Venus beside the moon, with Jupiter nearby, December 4th 2008 (NASA)
Venus beside the moon, with Jupiter nearby, December 4th 2008 (NASA)

The planet Venus has played an important part in our imaginative view of the solar system. Originally recognised and personified as the Morning or Evening star, visible at certain times of the year as a bright companion to the sun, it came to represent something beautiful but elusive. The logic of orbital movements means that it never rises more than about 36 degrees above the horizon (here in London), and is frequently much lower. It is also easily lost in cloud, haze, or the ambient glow of the sun as it rises and sets. All of which added to its allure and air of secrecy.

The early telescopic age only added to the mystery. Unlike the other planets, Venus revealed no constant surface features, and so allowed no mapmaking. Astronomers knew that Venus was like a sister planet to Earth – the size is about 3/4 of our own, the year is about 2/3, the surface gravity is 90% – but came to realise that the surface was hidden behind a dense veil of clouds. Indeed, the cloud cover is so sustained that Venus is the most reflective body in the entire solar system.

Cover, Lucky Starr and the Oceans of Venus - Paul French was a pen name of Isaac Asimov (Wiki)
Cover, Lucky Starr and the Oceans of Venus – Paul French was a pen name of Isaac Asimov (Wiki)

Many early science fiction authors – including authors such as Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov as late as the 1940s and 50s – envisioned the planet as covered by ocean – in keeping with some scientific models of their day. Others chose a desert planet, or one covered in swamp: all trying to make sense of the perpetual cloud cover.

One example is the second book in the science fiction series by CS Lewis, Perelandra. Lewis trod a middle road regarding accuracy – quite apart from any astronomical input, he wanted the veil of cloud cover as a vivid symbol of the secrets held within. He wanted Perelandra to represent a younger planet than Earth, in contrast to Mars (Malacandra) which he paints as older, more long-suffering. So Perelandra is almost entirely an ocean planet, with almost no fixed land. Perhaps one of the most striking descriptions of the planet is “the queen of those seas views herself continually in the celestial mirror“.

Compositie picture of Venusian atmosphere as seen by Japan's Akatsuki spacecraft (JAXA)
Compositie picture of Venusian atmosphere as seen by Japan’s Akatsuki spacecraft (JAXA)

When space probes like the Soviet Venera and American Mariner series started exploring the solar system, a wholly different picture of Venus started to emerge. The idea of an aquatic world was so prevalent that early Venera probes were designed to splash down in water. However, as data began to arrive, the surface was exposed as vastly inhospitable. Air densities up to 90 times that of Earth, average temperatures over 450°C,  typical wind speeds up to 200 mph, and an atmosphere containing acidic gases like sulphur dioxide all added up to a seriously inhospitable environment. The winds at ground level are sufficiently strong that they cause changes in the day length where they rush over mountain ranges.

This looked like the end of the line for fictional life on Venus… but recently there have been suggestions that although the surface may be uninhabitable, the upper atmosphere might be a suitable habitat. You might imagine rafts of tiny organisms, drifting in sheets well above the rigours of the surface. We don’t yet know, but it’s a sufficiently real possibility that science teams have started thinking how we might detect and recognise life in that floating environment. If we ever decided to colonise Venus, then high above the ground might be a better bet than contending with the surface conditions!

But maybe our better bet for habitats is in orbit anyway. Given that conditions on Venus – or Mars, for that matter – are so difficult as to need major levels of protection, why go to the effort of constructing some sort of protected dome, when we necessarily have such a thing in orbit anyway? I read an interesting statistic the other day. There are at most a few hundred people living in Antarctica. But at any time, there are something like a million people travelling on air flights. The environment outside a plane is even less hospitable than the south pole, but large numbers of us are willing to move about in it, with only the comparatively frail protection of an aircraft. Perhaps – at least until we can pursue exotic solutions like terraforming – orbital stations are the way to go.

Meanwhile, I’m waiting for a story to appear based around finding upper atmosphere life on Venus…

Dunes

With The Liminal Zone foremost in my writing mind just now, I’m always eager to read space news about Pluto. And just recently another paper has been published analysing the surface features as revealed by the New Horizons flyby back in July 2015.

Audiobook cover
Audiobook cover

But before that, a quick reminder of the giveaway competition currently running for the audio version of Half Sick of Shadows. There were 5 copies each on Audible UK and US available free. Just follow this link, listen to the sample snippet, and get back to me with the answer. Some copies have already gone but others remain to be won! It’s absolutely free – if you don’t currently have Audible membership then you can sign up for a trial month at no cost, then cancel if you don’t like it.

Back to Pluto. The specific surface feature that the report found was dunes. Not, of course, sand dunes, but ones made of ice granules, moved about very slowly by the extremely light winds which stir the extremely thin atmosphere there. It’s a remarkable tribute to the way physical phenomena tend to mirror each other. The conditions on Earth and Pluto are radically different in ever so many ways, yet they share the ability for dunes to form on their surfaces. Like everything on Pluto, it all takes place on an immensely slow timescale – I doubt that these dunes move appreciably over a human lifetime. But nevertheless, there they are, adding to the richness and complexity of the surface features of a world which, not so long ago, was assumed to be utterly boring.

Cover - Dune (Goodreads)
Cover – Dune (Goodreads)

A science fiction reader’s first reflex, on hearing of dunes, is naturally to jump to Frank Herbert’s Dune. That world was bakingly hot, dry, and life was absolutely dominated by the survival need for water. The dunes there – sand dunes – covered the vast majority of the desert world’s surface, and concealed both exotic wildlife and a radical human culture. It seems unlikely that much life frequents Pluto, with a surface temperature around -230° Centigrade. But these days, it would be a brave person who would say it’s impossible. And The Liminal Zone is – among other things – about the human settlement on the margins of our solar system.

Finally – and since my main enthusiasm is not so much for Pluto as for its largest moon Charon, here is a video put together by NASA from the New Horizons flyby. It’s partly for fun, and partly because next week – June 22nd – is the 40th anniversary of the discovery of Charon! It’s only short, but quite cool.

After enjoying that, don’t forget the giveaway for Half Sick of Shadows!

Planet 9?

Another space blog post today, complete with some thoughts about life out there, and an extract from my work-in-progress The Liminal Zone.

First, though, the elusive Planet 9. For some time now, astronomers and space scientists have been speculating that an additional planet, of considerable size, lies out beyond Pluto. The evidence is indirect, in that such a planet has not been observed via telescope. Hence the matter is currently unresolved. But a recent paper argues that its presence would solve several unexplained issues, while its absence would create several more.

Orbital resonance in the moons of Jupiter (Wiki)
Orbital resonance in the moons of Jupiter (Wiki)

So what are the problems? Essentially, they come down to the logic of orbital dynamics, which says that you can’t just put a bunch of planets in random orbits around a star and expect them to be stable. Even though the gravitational attraction between two planets is small, it nevertheless exerts a steady regularising influence on the two paths around the sun. So the orbits of our sister planets show all kinds of patterns of ratios which at first sight seem remarkable (they’re still remarkable when you take gravity into account, but in a different way). And the more patterns that you see, the more you can infer about things you can’t see.

This, for example, is how the outer planets beyond Saturn were deduced before they were observed. The planets from Saturn inwards have been known since prehistory. But when careful observations with a telescope could be made, small but noticeable perturbations in their tracks were found. These pointed to the existence of unknown planets further out. The same principle explains why the orbits of Neptune and Pluto are synchronised – two of Pluto’s orbits match 3 of Neptunes. So, although Pluto dips inside Neptune’s orbit for a couple of decades every 248 years (one Pluto year), they are never at risk of colliding. These synchronisations happen all over the place – for example within the moon systems of Jupiter and Saturn, within the asteroid belt, or forming the delicate internal patterns of Saturn’s rings.

Now, Pluto is the first major body in the Kuiper Belt, a disc of space outside Neptune which we now know contains a decent number of small asteroids and similar objects. So it starts around 30AU from the Sun (AU = Astronomical Units, the distance between Earth and Sun). But it then Belt stops, quite abruptly, around 50AU. Why should this be? Why not feather off gradually?

Trans-Neptunian Object orbits (LIve Science / ESO)
Trans-Neptunian Object orbits (LIve Science / ESO)

Additionally, as we have built up a catalogue of these asteroids, a picture is emerging in which a surprising number have orbits around the sun which are aligned with each other. The simplest way to explain this is to suppose that some sizeable, but as yet unknown, object is synchronising them.

So, why has it not yet been found? Well, first of all, as Douglas Adams said, space is “vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big” (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, chapter 8). So although the potential planet is several times larger than the Earth, it is on average 20 times further from the sun than Neptune is – 600AU – with an orbit that is quite noticeably elliptical rather than circular. That means that there is a lot of space to search in, and also that it is dark and cold out there. There is not a lot for optical or infrared telescopes to detect. But each new discovery helps narrow the search window down, and some lucky group of astronomers may well announce a discovery soon.

Or, of course, not. It may be that the apparent alignment we see will be eroded by more observations. Which would be a bit of a shame, in that it is always nice to have unknown things to discover. It would also leave several other problems unresolved. Other things being equal, I’d like Planet 9 to be found!

Artist's impression, Planet 9 (Live Science / JPL-CalTech)
Artist’s impression, Planet 9 (Live Science / JPL-CalTech)

So, what might it be like to live there? For one thing, cold and dark. Our sun is still the nearest and brightest star by a huge margin. But at 20 times further away than Pluto, it gets just 1/400 of the solar radiation of any kind. Or if you like, 0.0003% of what we enjoy on Earth. You’d want to know you had reliable sources of heat and light, if you went there. And it will take a long time to get there. It is not a place for a quick jaunt. For reference, Voyager 1 is a little over 100AU from Earth and has spent about 40 years getting there.

Could there be indigenous life out there? Well, life as we know it depends on liquid water, and the surface of Planet 9 is way too cold for that. But possibly, there could be subsurface heat turning ice into water at some depth? Or perhaps, there might be a moon which would be subject to gravitational flexing, just as happens to the inner moons of Jupiter and Saturn. This could – maybe – provide enough heat to give us water. We’ll have to wait and see.

I haven’t yet written anything going that far out from the sun. In the universe of Far from the Spaceports, an Earth-Mars trip takes a couple of weeks. An Earth-Pluto trip takes a few months. An Earth-Planet 9 trip would take anywhere from seven or eight months up to just over a year, depending on whereabouts in its orbit it happens to be. Not a journey you’d make lightly.

The Liminal Zone (temporary cover)
The Liminal Zone (temporary cover)

The Liminal Zone takes place on Charon, the main moon of Pluto. The New Horizons probe returned some fascinatingly detailed pictures to us of these two, transforming them from hazy blobs to detailed worlds. New Horizons is currently en route to an object further out in the Kuiper Belt, 2014 MU69, popularly known as Ultima Thule, and is due to arrive early next year. Finding a second destination more-or-less on the flight path after Pluto was a remarkable thing in itself, as objects are so exceedingly thinly spread out there. Anyway, The Liminal Zone is not a financial fraud book like Far from the Spaceports or Timing – it’s more of a voyage of discovery, both personally for the main character, Nina, and more generally for the society she is part of. So here is a short extract – Nina is talking to Percy, one of the Charon residents, about events surrounding an emergency several years ago…


Something about his expression made Nina stop.
“But you didn’t actually see anything?”
He drew back a little.
“Seeing’s not everything. Haven’t you ever just known something for sure?”
His eyes held hers, suddenly very intense, and she felt a little internal quaver run through her body. She had hoped it wouldn’t show, but then she saw the trace of a smile cross his eyes.
“I’ve got Welsh blood, you know. It helps me comprehend things which maybe can’t be seen with the naked eye. And what about you, Nina? Where do you come from?”
She went blank.
“I grew up in Lacus Gaudii. On the Moon.”
He shook his head.
“Not that recent. Go back a few generations. Where did your family live? Before they came up to settle in that lunar lake of yours.”
The noise of the kettle was maddening. She withdrew inside herself, trying to escape the pressure.
“I… I don’t know. I suppose I could find out. It’s never mattered.”
He looked away, letting the moment pass.
“Ah, but it just might make a difference here.”
She took a long breath and tried again.
“But did you actually see anything?”


I’ll be posting more on progress into The Liminal Zone as it comes along…

“The eye prefers repetition, the ear prefers variety”

I was at the annual Amazon technical summit here in London last week, and today’s blog post is based on something I heard one of the presenters say. On the whole it was a day of consolidating things already developed, rather than a day of grand new breakthroughs, and I enjoyed myself hearing about enhancements to voice and natural language services, together with an offbeat session on building virtual 3d worlds.

Grid design based on thirds (Interaction Design Foundation)
Grid design based on thirds (Interaction Design Foundation)

But I want to focus on one specific idea, contrasting how we build human-computer interfaces quite differently for the eye and the ear. In short, “the eye prefers repetition, the ear prefers variety“. Look at the appearance of your typical app on computer or phone. We have largely standardised where the key elements go – menu, options, title and so on. They are so standardised that we can tell at a glance if something is “in the wrong place“. The text stays the same every time you open it. The icons stay the same, unless they have a little overlay telling you to do something with them. And so on.

Now in the middle of a technical session I just let that statement drift by, but it stuck with me afterwards, and I kept turning it over. Hence this post. At face value it seemed a bit odd – our eyes are constantly bombarded with hugely diverse information from the world around us. But then I started thinking some more. It’s not just to do with the light falling into our eyes, or the biology of how our visual receptors handle that – our image of the world is the end result of a very complex series of processing steps inside our nervous system.

House By Beach - quick sketch
House By Beach – quick sketch

A child’s picture of a face, or a person, is instantly recognisable as such, even though reduced to a few schematic shapes. A sketch artist will make a few straight lines and a curve, and we know we are looking at a house beside a beach, even though there are no colours or textures to help us. The animal kingdom shows us the same thing. Show a toad a horizontal line moving sideways, and it reacts as though it was a worm. Turn the line vertical and move it in the same way, and the toad ignores it (see this Wikipedia article or this video for details). Arrange a dark circle over a mouse and increase its size, and it reacts with fear and aggression, as though something was looming over it (see this article, in the section headed Visual threat cues).

https://78.media.tumblr.com/d9d3e010a958fbd345007c823d3d6580/tumblr_oojho5wyH31udk21ko1_500.jpg
Toad: Mystery Science Theatre 3000

It’s not difficult to see why – if you think you might be somebody’s prey, you react to the first sign of the predator. If you’re wrong, all you’ve lost is some time and adrenalin. If you ignore the first signs and you’re wrong, it’s game over!

So it makes sense that our visual sense, including nervous system as well as eyes, reduces the world to a few key features. We skim over fine detail at first glance, and only really notice it when we need to – when we deliberately turn our attention to it.

Also,there’s something to be learned from how light and sound work differently for us. At a very fundamental level, light adds up to give a single composite result. We mix red and yellow paint to give orange, or red and green light on a computer screen to give yellow. The colour tints, or the light waves, add up to make a single average colour. Not so with sound. Play the note middle C on a keyboard, then start playing the G above it. You end up with a chordyou don’t end up with a single note which is a blend of the two. So adding visual signals, and adding audible ones, give completely different effects.

Finally, the range of what we can perceive is entirely different. The most extreme violet light that we can see has about twice the frequency of the most extreme red. Doubling frequency gives us an octave change, so that means we can see one octave of visible light out of the entire spectrum. But a keen listener under ideal circumstances can hear a range of seven or eight octaves of sound, from about 12 Hz to nearly 30kHz. Some creatures do a bit better than us in both light and sound detection, but the basic message is the same – we hear a much more varied spectrum than we see.

Amazon Dot - Active
Amazon Dot – Active

Now, the technical message behind that speaker’s statement related to Alexa skills. To retain a user’s interest, the skill has to not sound the same every time. The eye prefers repetition, so our phone apps look the same each time we start them. But the ear prefers variety, so our voice skills have to mirror that, and say something a little bit different each time.

I wonder how that applies to writing?

Where would be a good place to live?

Cover - Perelandra (Goodreads)
Cover – Perelandra (Goodreads)

It’s a question which besets many science fiction writers! Now, in the former days of the 20th century, when not nearly so much was known about other star systems, writers were free and easy with their destinations. C.S. Lewis, who anyway had other motivations in his writing than script scientific accuracy, cheerfully placed parts of his science fiction trilogy on Mars and Venus. E.E. (Doc) Smith had alien habitations all over the solar system, with a wild array of biological adaptations to high gravity, strange atmospheres, or whatever. And when writers got their characters out of the solar system into the galaxy at large, the diversity just kept on growing (except for those authors like Asimov, who for various reasons carefully avoided alien life altogether).

But these days we have a vast amount of data to steer our fiction. In some cases this means that environments get excluded – it would be a brave author indeed who would place a novel like Perelandra on the surface of Venus these days (unless they have a back-story of extensive terraforming). On the other hand, new opportunities for life in previously unconsidered places have emerged – like high up in the Venusian atmosphere, or in liquid oceans underneath the ice coatings of various outer system moons. These are not likely to be, as they say, life as we know it…

Schematic of habitable zone sizes (Penn State University)
Schematic of habitable zone sizes (Penn State University)

On a wider scale, we have a good idea what to look for as regards planets that might support life. Most thinking on the subject supposes that liquid water would be necessary – it’s just too useful a chemical in all kinds of ways to see how it wouldn’t participate in life’s chemistry. So we can plot the Goldilocks Zone for any given star (too close in, and water boils and evaporates… too far out, and it freezes)… but we know from our own solar system that this does not cover all the bases. Close-in planets are probably tidally locked to their sun, and so have a cooler side. Far-out planets may well have orbiting moons with sub-surface water, kept from freezing by a variety of factors.

Back in the day, people used to look for stars relatively similar to our own sun, on the grounds that we kind of knew what we were looking for. But these days, following the extraordinary success of planet-hunting space missions like Kepler (soon to be followed by TESS), we know that many planets circle dim red dwarf stars. For sure, the heat output is much less, but that just means that the Goldilocks Zone huddles close in. And red dwarf stars are immensely long-lived, which gives life time to develop. On the other hand, many red dwarfs also go through erratic flare cycles, potentially blasting their associated planets with X-rays. But for my money, the first place we may find life elsewhere is likely to be circling a red dwarf.

So from the writer’s point of view, it’s a great time to be postulating life elsewhere, but also a rapidly-changing one. New data is pouring in, and new ways of analysing and comprehending that data. It all adds up to a wealth of new ideas and imaginative leads…

Artist's impression, planets discovered by TRAPPIST orbiting a red dwarf star about 40 light years from Earth (NASA/JPL)
Artist’s impression, planets discovered by TRAPPIST orbiting a red dwarf star about 40 light years from Earth (NASA/JPL)

There’s a good story here, I think…

The last few days have been vastly busy for me with outside jobs, and I am way behind on blog matters! But I did come across some recent research about the movements of stars which fascinated me, and which has prompted this post. It also has the seeds of what could be a fine prehistoric story, which one day might get written.

If you do a quick search for “what is the closest star to our sun” then you will get the reply “Alpha Centauri” (or perhaps, more precisely, “Proxima Centauri” – if you ask Alexa she will give you quite a detailed response). This multiple star system is situated just over four light years from us – for comparison, Pluto is under 5 light hours from the sun. But Alpha Centauri is very like our sun in terms of size, energy, and so on, and is easily visible from the right locations, so has appeared several times in stories.

The nearest stars to us (Wikipedia)
The nearest stars to us (Wikipedia)

But what if you then consider the movements of stars over time? All stars near us are involved in a vast circling movement around the galaxy’s centre, but this movement is not regular and orderly in the way that the planets’ movement is around our sun. Stars approach each other and move away, potentially having huge effects on the clusters of planets, comets, etc that accompany them. So what happens if we look forward or backward in time?

So as you can see, Proxima Centauri will get steadily closer to us for the next 30,000 years or so, then lose its role to Ross 248. But none of these stars gets closer to us than about 3 light years, which is comfortably far away and is unlikely to cause any serious issues.

Nearest stars to us changing over time (Wikipedia)
Nearest stars to us changing over time (Wikipedia)

Perhaps you are wondering where the story is in this? We will get there…

Now, these stars are mostly fairly bright, and many of them have been known since antiquity. But in recent years, powerful space-based telescopes like Hubble have discovered that far the most numerous stars in our galaxy are not bright ones like our sun, or super-bright ones like Sirius, but small, dim ones called red or brown dwarfs. These burn extremely slowly, conserving their fuel in a miserly way that means they will hugely outlive our sun. They are invisible to the naked eye even at quite close range (astronomically speaking)… but many of them have planets of their own, and if these planets huddle close enough in, then they could quite easily be habitable. To date, much of our quest for life elsewhere in the universe has looked at stars broadly similar to our own, but maybe we should be looking by preference at these dwarfs?

So… what if we roll back that chart in time to a scale of 70,000 years rather than 20,000, and include the paths of dwarf stars in it (a feat which has only become possible in very recent years). For context, 70,000 years ago anatomically modern humans had already experienced their first large-scale migration out of Africa to other parts of the world, and would soon be doing so a second time. They were sharing the world with Neanderthals and other hominids, and would be for another 30-40,000 years, including various times of interbreeding. They were using stone tools and showing signs of “behavioural modernity” (religious and artistic sensitivity and such like). Slightly earlier, there may have a global crisis involving the Toba supervolcano eruption -some argue that this caused massive population loss, others are not convinced.

70,000 year old tools (http://www.sciencemag.org)
70,000 year old tools (http://www.sciencemag.org)

Whatever the effects of Toba, around 70,000 years ago a binary star system came very close to us – about 3/4 of a light year in fact. It consists of 1 red dwarf with 1 brown dwarf,  both under 100 times the mass of Jupiter. It is called Scholtz’s Star, or WISE J072003.20-084651.2 if you are feeling thoroughly pedantic. Now, 3/4 of a light year is still way outside Pluto’s orbit, but it is inside the region called the Oort Cloud, a loose collection of icy rocks and potential comets that accompany our sun and from time to time journey down into the inner solar system to become visible for a brief time.

Today, Scholtz’s Star can only be viewed in the southern hemisphere, in the constellation Monoceros. It’s about 20 light years away and receding from us. Back then you’d have needed to look in the constellation Gemini (though the shapes would be a bit changed because of stellar movement).

So, would Scholtz’s Star have been visible to our remote ancestors? Well, probably not in its normal state. Even at 3/4 of a light year, it would almost certainly be too dim to be seen with the naked eye. But many red dwarfs are what are called flare stars – their brightness flares up to many times the usual intensity on an irregular basis. And if a flare event happened while it was near to us, then it would have been vivid to our ancestors. Back then, the best time for viewing would have been in the autumn of the northern hemisphere, from the tropics northwards. So my remote European forebears might have stood and wondered at this – although the Europe of 70,000 years ago looked rather different to today’s map!

And here of course is the story – what would these people have made of such a star? Suppose that it had entered our neighbourhood while in quiescent mode – invisible to their naked eyes just as much as ours – and then flared up while close. A new star would have appeared to them, and I wonder what they would have made of it. I don’t expect they had a great deal of time for abstract philosophy back then, but I’m willing to bet they told stories and sang songs – what part would Scholtz’s Star have played in them?

Artist's impression of Scholtz's Star (Astronomy.com)
Artist’s impression of Scholtz’s Star (Astronomy.com)

An interlude – some space news

I thought that this week I would have a quick break from the Inklings, King Arthur, and such like, and report some space news which I came across a few days ago.

Polly Reads Alexa Skill Icon
Polly Reads Alexa Skill Icon

But first, an update on my latest Alexa skill – Polly Reads. This showcases the ability of Alexa’s “big sister”, Polly, to read text in multiple voices and accents. So this skill is a bit like a podcast, letting you step through a series of readings from my novels. Half Sick of Shadows is there, of course, plus some readings from Far from the Spaceports and Timing. So far the skill is available only on the UK Alexa Skills site, but it’s currently going through the approval process for other sites world-wide. **update on Wednesday morning – I just heard that it has gone live world-wide now! ** Here is the Amazon US link ** 

Now the space news, and specifically about the asteroid Ceres (or dwarf planet if you prefer). Quite apart from their general interest, this news affects how we write about the outer solar system, so is particularly relevant to my near future series.

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

Many readers will know that the NASA Dawn spacecraft has been orbiting Ceres for some time now – nearly three years. This has provided us with some fascinating insights into the asteroid, especially the mountains on its surface, and the bright salt deposits found here and there. But the sheer length of time accumulated to date – something like 1500 orbits, at different elevations – means that we can now follow changes as they happen on the surface.

Now the very fact of change is something of a surprise. Not all that long ago, it was assumed that such small objects, made of rock and ice, had long since ceased to evolve. Any internal energy would have leaked away millennia ago, and the only reason for anything to happen would be if there was a collision with some other external object like a meteorite. We knew that the gas giant planets were active, with turbulent storms and hugely powerful prevailing winds, but the swarms of small rocky moons, asteroids, and dwarf planets were considered static.

Ceres - Juling Crater (NASA/JPL)
Ceres – Juling Crater (NASA/JPL)

But what Dawn has shown us is that this is wrong. Repeated views of the same parts of the surface show how areas of exposed ice are constantly growing and shrinking, even over just a few months. This could be because new water vapour is oozing out of surface cracks and then freezing, or alternatively because some layer of dust is slowly settling, and so exposing ice which was previously hidden. At this stage, we can’t tell for sure which of those (or some third explanation) is true.

Composite view of Aruna Mons (NASA/JPL)
Composite view of Aruna Mons (NASA/JPL)

The evidence now suggests that Ceres once had a liquid water ocean – most of this has frozen into a thick crust of ice, with visible mineral deposits scattered here and there.

Certainly Ceres – and presumably many other asteroids – is more active than we had presumed. Such members of our solar system remain chemically and geologically active, rather than being just inert lumps drifting passively around our sun. As and when we get out there to take a look, we’re going to find a great many more surprises. Meanwhile, we can always read about them…

How close are personable AI assistants?

A couple of days ago, a friend sent me an article talking about the present state of the art of chatbots – artificially intelligent assistants, if you like. The article focused on those few bots which are particularly convincing in terms of relationship.

Amazon Dot - Active
Amazon Dot – Active

Now, as regular readers will know, I quite often talk about the Alexa skills I develop. In fact I have also experimented with chatbots, using both Microsoft’s and Amazon’s frameworks. Both the coding style, and the flow of information and logic, are very similar between these two types of coding, so there’s a natural crossover. Alexa, of course, is predominantly a voice platform, whereas chatbots are more diverse. You can speak to, and listen to, bots, but they are more often encountered as part of a web page or mobile app.

Now, beyond the day job and my coding hobby, I also write fiction about artificially intelligent entities – the personas of Far from the Spaceports and related stories (Timing and the in-progress The Liminal Zone). Although I present these as occurring in the “near-future”, by which I mean vaguely some time in the next century or two, they are substantially more capable than what we have now. There’s a lot of marketing hype about AI, but also a lot of genuine excitement and undoubted advancement.

Far from the Spaceports cover
Far from the Spaceports cover

So, what are the main areas where tomorrow’s personas vastly exceed today’s chatbots?

First and foremost, a wide-ranging awareness of the context of a conversation and a relationship. Alexa skills and chatbots retain a modest amount of information during use, called session attributes, or context, depending on the platform you are using. So if the skill or bot doesn’t track through a series of questions, and remember your previous answers, that’s disappointing. The developer’s decision is not whether it is possible to remember, but rather how much to remember, and how to make appropriate use of it later on.

Equally, some things can be remembered from one session to the next. Previous interactions and choices can be carried over into the next time. Again, the questions are not how, but what should be preserved like this.

But… the volume of data you can carry over is limited – it’s fine for everyday purposes, but not when you get to wanting an intelligent and sympathetic individual to converse with. If this other entity is going to persuade, it needs to retain knowledge of a lot more than just some past decisions.

A suitable cartoon (from xkcd.com)
A suitable cartoon (from xkcd.com)

Secondly, a real conversational partner does other things with their time outside of the chat specifically between the two of you. They might tell you about places, people, or things they had seen, or ideas that had occurred to them in the meantime. But currently, almost all skills and chatbots stay entirely dormant until you invoke them. In between times they do essentially nothing. I’m not counting cases where the same skill is activated by different people – “your” instance, meaning the one that holds any record of your personal interactions, simply waits for you to get involved again. The lack of any sense of independent life is a real drawback. Sure, Alexa can give you a “fact of the day” when you say hello, but we all know that this is just fished out of an internet list somewhere, and does not represent actual independent existence and experience.

Finally (for today – there are lots of other things that might be said) today’s skills and bots have a narrow focus. They can typically assist with just one task, or a cluster of closely related tasks. Indeed, at the current state of the art this is almost essential. The algorithms that seek to understand speech can only cope with a limited and quite structured set of options. If you write some code that tries to offer too wide a spectrum of choice, the chances are that the number of misunderstandings gets unacceptably high. To give the impression of talking with a real individual, the success rate needs to be pretty high, and the entity needs to have some way of clarifying and homing in on what it was that you really wanted.

Now, I’m quite optimistic about all this. The capabilities of AI systems have grown dramatically over the last few years, especially in the areas of voice comprehension and production. My own feeling is that some of the above problems are simply software ones, which will get solved with a bit more experience and effort. But others will probably need a creative rethink. I don’t imagine that I will be talking to a persona at Slate’s level in my lifetime, but I do think that I will be having much more interesting conversations with one before too long!

Future Possibilities 3

Today is the third and last post based loosely on upcoming techie stuff I learned about at the recent Microsoft Future Decoded conference here in London. It’s another speculative one this time, focusing on quantum computing, which according to estimates by speakers might be about five years away. But a lot has to happen if that five year figure is at all accurate.

Quantum device - schematic (Microsoft.com)
Quantum device – schematic (Microsoft.com)

It’s a very technical area, both as regards the underlying maths and the physical implementation, and I don’t intend going far into that. Many groups around the world, both in industry and academia, are actively working on this, hoping to crack both theory and practice. So what’s the deal? Why all the effort?

Conventional computers, of the kind we are familiar with, operate essentially in a linear sequential way. Now, there are ways to fudge this and give a semblance of parallel working. Even on a domestic machine you can run lots of programs at the same time, but at the level of a single computing core you are still performing one thing at a time, and some clever scheduling shares resources between several in-progress tasks. A bigger computer will wire up multiple processors and have vastly more elaborate scheduling, to make the most efficient use of what it’s got. But at the end of the day, present-day logic circuits do one thing at a time.

This puts some tasks out of reach. For example, the security layer that protects your online banking transactions (and such like) relies on a complex mathematical problem, which takes an extremely long time to solve. In theory it could be done, but in practice it is impenetrable. Perhaps more interestingly, there are problems in all the sciences which are intractable not only with present-day systems, but also including any credible speed advances using present-day architecture. It actually doesn’t take much complexity to render the task impossible.

Probability models for a water molecule with different energy levels - the atoms are not at fixed places but smeared out over a wider volume (Stoneybrook University)
Probability models for a water molecule with different energy levels – the atoms are not at fixed places but smeared out over a wider volume (Stoneybrook University)

Quantum computing offers a way to actually achieve parallel processing on a massive scale. It relies not on binary true/false logic, but on the probability models which are the foundation of the quantum world. It is as though many different variations of a problem all run simultaneously, each (as it were) in their own little world. It’s a perfect solution for all kinds of problems where you would like to find an optimal solution to a complex situation. So to break our online security systems, a quantum computer would simultaneously pursue many different cracking routes to break in. By doing that, the task becomes solvable. And yes, that is going to need a rethink of how we do internet security. But for today let’s look at a couple of more interesting problems.

Root nodules on a broad bean (Wikipedia)
Root nodules on a broad bean (Wikipedia)

First, there’s one from farming, or biochemistry if you prefer. To feed the world, we need lots of nitrogen to make fertiliser. The chemical process to do this commercially is energy-intensive, and nearly 2% of the world’s power goes on this one thing. But… there is a family of plants, the leguminosae, which fix nitrogen from the air into the soil using nothing more than sunlight and the organic molecules in their roots. They are very varied, from peas and beans down to fodder crops like clover, and up to quite sizeable trees. We don’t yet know exactly how this nitrogen fixing works. We think we know the key biochemical involved, but it’s complicated… too complicated for our best supercomputers to analyse. A quantum computer might solve the problem in short order.

Climate science is another case. There are several computer programs which aim to model what is going on globally. They are fearfully complicated, aiming to include as wide a range as possible of contributing factors, together with their mutual interaction. Once again, the problem is too complicated to solve in a realistic time. So, naturally, each group working on this makes what they regard as appropriate simplifications and approximations. A quantum computer would certainly allow for more factors to be integrated, and would also allow more exploration of the consequences of one action rather than another. We could experiment with what-if models, and find effective ways to deploy limited resources.

Bonding measurement wires to a quantum device (Microsoft.com)
Bonding measurement wires to a quantum device (Microsoft.com)

So that’s a little of what might be achieved with a quantum computer. To finish this blog post off, what impact might one have in science fiction, and my own writing in particular. Well, unlike the previous two weeks, my answer here would be “not very much, I think“. Most writers, including myself, simply assume that future computers will be more powerful, more capable, than those of today. The exact technical architecture is of less literary importance! Right now it looks as if a quantum computer will only work at extremely low temperatures, not far above absolute zero. So you are talking about sizeable, static installations. If we manage to find or make the necessary materials that they could run at room temperature, that could change, but that’s way more than five years away.

Far from the Spaceports cover
Far from the Spaceports cover

So in my stories, Slate would not be a quantum computer, just a regular one running some very sophisticated software. Now, the main information hub down in London, Khufu, could possibly be such a thing – certainly he’s a better candidate, sitting statically in one place, processing and analysing vast quantities of data, making connections between facts that aren’t at all obvious on the surface. But as regards the story, it hardly matters whether he is one or the other.

So, interested as I am in the development of a quantum computer, I don’t think it will feature in an important way in the world of Far from the Spaceports!

That’s it for today, and indeed for this little series… until next year.

Future Possibilities 2

The second part of this quick review of the Future Decoded conference looks at things a little further ahead. This was also going to be the final part, but as there’s a lot of cool stuff to chat about, I’ve decided to add part 3…

Prediction of data demand vs supply (IDC.org)
Prediction of data demand vs supply (IDC.org)

So here’s a problem that is a minor one at the moment, but with the potential to grow into a major one. In short, the world has a memory shortage! Already we are generating more bits and bytes that we would like to store, than we have capacity for. Right now it’s an inconvenience rather than a crisis, but year by year the gap between wish and actuality is growing. If growth in both these areas continues as at present, within a decade we will only be able to store about a third of what we want. A decade or so later that will drop to under one percent.

Think about it on the individual level. You take a short video clip while on holiday. It goes onto your phone. At some stage you back it up in Dropbox, or iCloud, or whatever your favourite provider is. Maybe you keep another copy on your local hard drive. Then you post it to Facebook and Google+. You send it to two different WhatsApp groups and email it to a friend. Maybe you’re really pleased with it and make a YouTube version. You now have ten copies of your 50Mb video… not to mention all the thumbnail images, cached and backup copies saved along the way by these various providers, which you’re almost certainly not aware of and have little control over. Your ten seconds of holiday fun has easily used 1Gb of the world’s supply of memory! For comparison, the entire Bible would fit in about 3 Mb in plain uncompressed text, and taking a wild guess, you would use well under that 1 Gb value to store every last word of the world’s sacred literature. And a lot of us are generating holiday videos these days! Then lots of cyclists wear helmet cameras these days, cars have dash cams… and so on. We are generating prodigious amounts of imagery.

So one solution is that collectively we get more fussy about cleaning things up. You find yourself deleting the phone version when you’ve transferred it to Dropbox. You decide that a lower resolution copy will do for WhatsApp. Your email provider tells you that attachments will be archived or disposed of according to some schedule. Your blog allows you to reference a YouTube video in a link, rather than uploading yet another copy. Some clever people somewhere work out a better compression algorithm. But… even all these workarounds together will still not be enough to make up for the shortfall, if the projections are right.

Amazon Dot - Active
Amazon Dot – Active

Holiday snaps aside, a great deal of this vast growth in memory usage is because of emerging trends in computing. Face and voice recognition, image analysis, and other AI techniques which are now becoming mainstream use a great deal of stored information to train the models ready for use. Regular blog readers will know that I am particularly keen on voice assistants like Alexa. My own Alexa programming doesn’t use much memory, as the skills are quite modest and tolerably well written. But each and every time I make an Alexa request, that call goes off somewhere into the cloud, to convert what I said (the “utterance”) into what I meant (the “intent”). Alexa is pretty good at getting it right, which means that there is a huge amount of voice training data sitting out there being used to build the interpretive models. Exactly the same is true for Siri, Cortana, Google Home, and anyone else’s equivalent. Microsoft call this training area a “data lake”. What’s more, there’s not just one of them, but several, at different global locations to reduce signal lag.

Far from the Spaceports cover
Far from the Spaceports cover

Hopefully that’s given some idea of the problem. Before looking at the idea for a solution that was presented the other day, let’s think what that means for fiction writing.  My AI persona Slate happily flits off to the asteroid belt with her human investigative partner Mitnash in Far from the Spaceports. In Timing, they drop back to Mars, and in the forthcoming Authentication Key they will get out to Saturn, but for now let’s stick to the asteroids. That means they’re anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes away from Earth by signal. Now, Slate does from time to time request specific information from the main hub Khufu in Earth, but necessarily this can only be for some detail not locally available. Slate can’t send a request down to London every time Mit says something, just so she can understand it. Trying to chat with up to an hour lag between statements would be seriously frustrating. So she has to carry with her all of the necessary data and software models that she needs for voice comprehension, speech, and defence against hacking, not to mention analysis, reasoning, and the capacity to feel emotion. Presupposing she has the equivalent of a data lake, she has to carry it with her. And that is simply not feasible with today’s technology.

DNA Schematic (Wikipedia)
DNA Schematic (Wikipedia)

So the research described the other day is exploring the idea of using DNA as the storage medium, rather than a piece of specially constructed silicon. DNA is very efficient at encoding data – after all, a sperm and egg together have all the necessary information to build a person. The problems are how to translate your original data source into the various chemical building blocks along a DNA helix, and conversely how to read it out again at some future time. There’s a publicly available technical paper describing all this. We were shown a short video which had been encoded, stored, and decoded using just this method. But it is fearfully expensive right now, so don’t expect to see a DNA external drive on your computer anytime soon!

Microsoft data centre (ZDNet/Microsoft)
Microsoft data centre (ZDNet/Microsoft)

The benefits purely in terms of physical space are colossal. The largest British data centre covers the equivalent of about eight soccer grounds (or four cricket pitches), using today’s technology. The largest global one is getting on for ten times that size. With DNA encoding, that all shrinks down to about a matchbox. For storytelling purposes that’s fantastic – Slate really is off to the asteroids and beyond, along with her data lake in plenty of local storage, which now takes up less room and weight than a spare set of underwear for Mit. Current data centres also use about the same amount of power as a small town, (though because of judicious choice of technology they are much more ecologically efficient) but we’ll cross the power bridge another time.

However, I suspect that many of us might see ethical issues here. The presenter took great care to tell us that the DNA used was not from anything living, but had been manufactured from scratch for the purpose. No creatures had been harmed in the making of this video. But inevitably you wonder if all researchers would take this stance. Might a future scenario play out that some people are forced to sell – or perhaps donate – their bodies for storage? Putting what might seem a more positive spin on things, wouldn’t it seem convenient to have all your personal data stored, quite literally, on your person, and never entrusted to an external device at all? Right now we are a very long way from either of these possibilities, but it might be good to think about the moral dimensions ahead of time.

Either way, the starting problem – shortage of memory – is a real one, and collectively we need to find some kind of solution…

And for the curious, this is the video which was stored on and retrieved from DNA – regardless of storage method, it’s a fun and clever piece of filming (https://youtu.be/qybUFnY7Y8w)…