The science behind this year’s blood moons

Well, the first ‘blood moon’ of 2014’s come and gone. I missed it – the night sky where I live was socked in with 10/10 overcast at an altitude of about 200 metres.

US Navy photo of a total lunar eclipse in 2004, by Photographer's Mate 2nd Class Scott Taylor. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

US Navy photo of a total lunar eclipse in 2004, by Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class Scott Taylor. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

Still, I’ll have another chance on 8 October. And another on 4 April 2015. And a fourth on 28 September that year.

Although unusual, it’s not a unique occurrence to have four eclipses in quick succession. Technically they’re known as a tetrad.

The reason why eclipses are a bit erratic is interesting. A lunar eclipse is simple enough – the Moon passes through the shadow of the Earth. The reason lunar eclipses don’t happen every 27 days, as the Moon orbits the Earth, is because the Moon doesn’t always pass through the shadow when it’s ‘behind’ the Earth relative to the sun. It would if everything was lined up flat on the same plane – but it isn’t.

In fact, the Moon’s orbit is tilted relative to the ecliptic – the plane in which Earth and Sun orbit. The tilt varies between 4.99 and 5.30 degrees. The two points at which the orbit intersects the ecliptic are known as ‘nodes’, and they move around the Moon’s orbital path – technically, ‘precess’ – at a rate of  19.3549° annually.

For an eclipse to occur, the node (‘ascending’ or ‘descending’) has to coincide with the point where the Moon would pass through Earth’s shadow (which is on the ecliptic). That happens every 173.3 days. An eclipse is possible at that time, though again, the orbital mechanics don’t always mesh exactly.  There are more factors than just ecliptic and orbital angle. Earth’s shadow has a dense part (umbra) and a less dense part (penumbra). Sometimes there is only a partial eclipse. Sometimes it’s total.

Colour photo of the Moon taken by the Galileo probe in 1990 - a view we never see from Earth. The - uh - 'dark side' is to the left, fully illuminated. NASA, JPL, public domain.

Colour photo of the Moon taken by the Galileo probe in 1990 – a view we never see from Earth. The – uh – ‘dark side’ is to the left, fully illuminated. NASA, JPL, public domain.

The interlocking mechanisms of orbital mechanics – the way Earth, Sun and Moon all move in a complex dance of planes, angles and distances – means we end up with circumstance where strings of lunar eclipses – like the current tetrad – cluster. Between 1600 and 1900, for instance, there were no tetrads. But this coming century, there will be 8 of them.

So why red? The answer is one of the reasons why science is so cool. If you were standing on the Moon during a lunar eclipse, you’d see the Earth as a dark circle rimmed with fire – the light of every sunset and sunrise happening on Earth, all at once.

It’s red because of Rayleigh scattering – the way that the atmosphere scatters particular frequencies of light. I won’t repeat the explanation here – check out my earlier post.  Suffice to say, when sunlight passes through a horizontal thickness of atmosphere, the red wavelengths are what emerge – and those red light wavelengths refract into the shadow of Earth, lighting the Moon in blood-red hues.

So when you see a ‘blood moon’, what you’re actually seeing is the reflected light of every sunrise and sunset on Earth, all at once.

And that, my friends, is the really neat thing about those eclipses. Harbingers of doom? To me it’s cool science, on so many levels.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

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Science says we’re all doomed. Neatypoos.

We’re all doomed, apparently. A NASA-backed science study says so.

Artists impression of a GRB. Zhang Whoosley, NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

Apocalypse: if Earth’s hit by that white beam, we’re dead. D-E-A-D. Dead. Artists impression of a GRB. Zhang Whoosley, NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

That’s more credible than stupid ideas about Mayan calendar dates (the world ended on 21 December 2012…didn’t it?) or the teachings of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (world’s end in 2010), or the deranged spoutings of former French pharmacist, Michel de Nostradame (1984 or 1997, depending on how you read it). I could go on…

We don’t have to look far to realise why this happens. Human fear of apocalypse seems universal – and as old as humanity. Stories flow through mythology. It’s cross-cultural; most societies seem to fear sudden destruction of all they know.

Certainly it’s rife today. We have the irrational doom-sayers – the ones who think it’ll happen tomorrow, without warning, let’s say courtesy of four ‘blood moons’ (that’s this year, apparently). Or we have the rational ones, who use mathematics to show that current civilisation is teetering on the edge.

That’s where the NASA-backed study comes in. Drawing on ancient Rome and the Mayan experience – when an apparently robust society suddenly collapsed – they’ve concluded that modern global civilisation is on the same course. The causes, apparently, are to do with iniquitous income distribution and climbing resource usage.

The idea’s not new; Jared Diamond pointed out, in Collapse, that humanity has a habit of exploiting environments to the ragged edge, then destroying them.

Eta Carinae. NASA, public domain. Click to enlarge.

Eta Carinae. NASA, public domain. Click to enlarge.

Couple that with meta-stable systems (systems that look stable, but actually sit in an easily disturbed equilibrium) and you have a recipe for trouble. A lot of the socially mediated systems we create do this, and that, in essence, is the current problem. Apparently. But I wonder.

It seems to me there are two sides to this. First, there’s our apparent common fear, as a species, that doom lies just around the corner. We all seem to think that way – the ‘apocalypse’ keys directly into our psyches in ways that other ideas don’t. Look at the popularity, today, of post-apocalyptic stories. It’s not just built into Western cultural philosophy. Indeed, it seems to be hard-wired into us.

That thinking gives credence to studies like the NASA one. It also cultivates idiot scare-mongering about mystery rogue planets. But where did this sort of thinking come from?

I have my suspicions.

The irony of all the scaremongering silliness is that from the science perspective we are staring down the barrel of a very real apocalypse in the form of another Carrington Event. But it never hits the popular doom radar.

The other issue is the credibility of the argument that we are, in fact, on course for doom by our own mis-doings or constructions. Longer term, I think we are. It’s obvious; humanity can’t keep on expanding without limit, exploiting resources and polluting the planet forever. We have to find another strategy. But I think we’ve already seen this one coming.

However, as for the idea of a catastrophic collapse – the abrupt demise of the social, political and economic systems on which western (and, of course ‘developing’) civilisation pivots? Somehow, I doubt it’s on the cards. Mostly.

Is belief in the apocalypse hard-wired into the human condition? How did that hard-wiring happen? And how can we think reasonably – dare I say ‘rationally’ – about it when we’re apparently hard-wired not to?

Your thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014 

Coming up: Apocalypses galore, writing tips, and more…

The Big Bang theory wins again. So does Einstein.

It’s a great time to be a geek. We’re learning all sorts of extreme stuff. There’s a team led by John Kovac, from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, who’ve been beavering away on one of the fundamental questions of modern cosmology. The secret has demanded some extreme research in an extreme place. Antarctica. There’s a telescope there, BICEP2, that’s been collecting data on the cosmic background temperature. Last week, the team published their initial results.

Timeline of the universe - with the Wilkinson Microwave Antisotropy Probe at the end. Click to enlarge. Public domain, NASA.

Timeline of the universe – with the Wilkinson Microwave Antisotropy Probe at the end. Click to enlarge. Public domain, NASA.

The theory they were testing is as extreme as such things get and goes like this. Straight after the Big Bang, the universe was miniscule and very hot. Then it expanded – unbelievably fast in the first few trillionth trillionths of a second, but then much more slowly. After a while it was cool enough for the particles we know and love today to be formed. This ‘recombination’ epoch occurred perhaps 380,000 years after the Big Bang. One of the outcomes was that photons were released from the plasma fog – physicists call this ‘photon decoupling’.

What couldn’t quite be proven was that the early rate of expansion – ‘inflation’ – had been very high.

But now it has. And the method combines the very best of cool and of geek. This early universe can still be seen, out at the edge of visibility. That initial photon release is called the ‘cosmic microwave background’ (CMB), first predicted in 1948 by Ralph Alpher and others, and observed in 1965 by accident when it interfered with the reception of a radio being built in Bell Laboratories. That started a flurry of research. Its temperature is around 2.725 degrees kelvin, a shade above absolute zero. It’s that temperature because it’s been red-shifted (the wavelengths radiated from it have stretched, because the universe is expanding, and stuff further away gets stretched more). The equation works backwards from today’s CMB temperature, 2.725 degrees Kelvin, thus: Tr = 2.725(1 + z).

The COBE satellite map of the CMB. NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

The COBE anisotropic satellite map of the CMB. NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

The thing is that, way back – we’re talking 13.8 billion years – the universe was a tiny fraction of its current size, and the components were much closer together. Imagine a deflated balloon. Splat paint across the balloon. Now inflate the balloon. See how the paint splats move further apart from each other? But they’re still the original pattern of the splat. In the same sort of way, the CMB background pattern is a snapshot of the way the universe was when ‘photon decoupling’ occurred. It’s crucial to proving the Big Bang theory. It’s long been known that the background is largely homogenous (proving that it was once all in close proximity) but carries tiny irregularities in the pattern (anisotropy). What the BICEP2 team discovered is that the variations are polarised in a swirling pattern, a so-called B-mode.

The reason the radiation is polarised that way is because early inflation was faster than light-speed, and the gravity waves within it were stretched, rippling the fabric of space-time in a particular way and creating the swirls. Discovering the swirls, in short, identifies both the early rate of expansion (which took the universe from a nanometer to 250,000,0000 light years diameter in 0.00000000000000000000000000000001 of a second…I think I counted right…) and gives us an indirect view of gravitational waves for the first time. How cool is that?

Albert Einstein lecturing in 1921 - after he'd published both the Special and General Theories of Relativity. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Albert Einstein lecturing in 1921 – after he’d published both the Special and General Theories of Relativity. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

What’s a ‘gravitational wave’? They were first predicted nearly a century ago by Albert Einstein, whose General Theory of Relativity’of 1917 was actually a theory of gravity. According to Einstein, space and time are an entwined ‘fabric’. Energy and mass (which, themselves, are the same thing) distort that fabric. Think of a thin rubber sheet (space-time), then drop a marble (mass/energy) into it. The marble will sink, stretching the sheet. Gravitational waves? Einstein’s theory made clear that these waves had to exist. They’re ripples in the fabric.

One of the outcomes of last week’s discovery is the implication that ‘multiverses’ exist. Another is that there is not only a particle to transmit gravity, a ‘graviton’, but also an ‘inflaton’ which pushes the universe apart. Theorists suspect that ‘inflatons’ have a half-life and they were prevalent only in the very early universe.

There’s more to come from this, including new questions. But one thing is certain. Einstein’s been proven right. Again.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More geekery, fun writing tips, and more.

All the good Trek stuff was invented by Robert A Heinlein

OK, so ‘Captain James Tiberius Kirk’ got pinged on Monday for drink-driving, here in New Zealand.

supernovaWell, not actually Kirk, he’s fictional. I mean Chris Pine, who plays him in the movie re-boot. According to the reports, Pine was stopped in Methven (of all places), after a wrap party for a movie he’s been shooting here. It’s made major news internationally.

To me the media frenzy underscored the way Star Trek has been entwined into modern culture. In fifty-odd years since the original Shatner-Nimoy-Kelley series it’s gone from fan fodder to mainstream entertainment.

For me the real appeal of Trek has always been Roddenberry’s optimistic vision for society. This really was futuristic. But there’s also been a lot of focus on its supposed anticipation of today’s tech – everything from automatic doors to cellphones. That’s less compelling. The auto-door and cellphone also hit TV at the same time in Get Smart, underscoring the fact that Trek tech was of its time. Much of its gee-whizz stuff actually drew from prevailing mid-twentieth century visions, all of which missed the bulk of the information age revolution and focussed on mega-rockets and star drives. The best of the Trek stuff, as far as I can tell, came from Robert Anson Heinlein – an American literary great. He was also an engineer, and it showed.

Eta Carinae. NASA, public domain. Click to enlarge.

Eta Carinae. NASA, public domain. Why is it in this post? Just because. Click to enlarge.

1. Medical beds
McCoy’s sick bay was the epitome of high-tech in 1965, complete with medical beds that monitored patient vital signs. We have them today thanks to doctors inspired by Trek. However, Heinlein described one nearly a decade earlier in Have Spacesuit, Will Travel (1958).

2. Communicators (cellphones).
The Trek communicator was a radio. No cell networks on alien planets – your signal’s got to punch through to the Enterprise in its 200-mile orbit (I’m glad I don’t have to hold a kilowatt transmitter to my ear). However, these days they’re widely taken to be ‘cellphones’. Setting aside Buck Henry’s ‘shoe phone’ in Get Smart, the first description of an actual cellphone, in everyday use, was in Heinlein’s 1948 novel Space Cadet.

3. Tribbles
My favourite Trek episode is David Gerrold’s ‘Trouble with Tribbles’. Proof that Shatner, McCoy and Nimoy were really a comedy trio with Nimoy as the ‘straight man’ (he can also be very funny, check out ‘The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins‘. But I digress.) In ‘Tribbles’, a space station gets over-run with cute ‘cat’ creatures that reproduce asexually if you feed them. The creature – and plot - so precisely followed Heinlein’s ‘flat cat’ from Space Family Stone (1952) (aka ‘The Rolling Stones’) that the producers apparently asked Heinlein for permission. Heinlein himself, incidentally, apparently drew inspiration for his 1952 tale from a 1905 story by Ellis Parker Butler called ‘Pigs is Pigs‘.

4. Starfleet
This is influenced by Heinlein’s ‘Space Patrol’ from Space Cadet. Explicitly – Roddenberry said so. Again, Heinlein had an antecedent  - Space Cadet was basically ‘US Naval Academy In Space’. (As an aside, he precisely described the physics of space-walking in this book – 17 years before NASA had to re-discover the principles).

Needless to say, Trek wasn’t the only SF tech Heinlein did first. Remember Star Gate? Go read Heinlein’s Tunnel in the Sky (1955). What about Dr Who‘s TARDIS, that can go anywhere in time and space? Try Heinlein’s Have Spacesuit, Will Travel (1958). And the idea that your star-drive also makes a dandy weapon – a key schtik in Larry Niven’s ‘Known Space’ series? That was a throw-away line in Heinlein’s Time for the Stars (1956).

All of which points to one thing – Heinlein was a very great writer, by any measure – and a great engineer and thinker.

Indeed, some of us encounter his ideas every night, in our own homes, whether we’re reading one of his books or not. Guess who devised (and eventually patented) the modern waterbed?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More science, more writing tips, more fun.

The news. Exciting for me. And you too, I hope

A couple of weeks back I promised I’d reveal some exciting news.

I had to share this pic, taken by She Who Must Be Obeyed. We end up in some interesting places, sometimes. Just in case anybody googles "Stockton Mine".

Why was I wearing hard-hat and luminescent jacket somewhere in Mordor? Research, that’s why. More? You’ll find out soon… Click to enlarge.

Last year, print book sales dropped by 15 percent in New Zealand, nailing a down-trend that’s been happening for a while. I watched that start several years ago and decided to do something about it. Downturn apart, writing’s a business, and reinvention is key to longevity. So is adaptation, including embracing new technology. In this I was spurred by Random House who suggested I should join Twitter, get an author platform going and so forth. I did.

I got cracking in other ways – retrieving many of my publishing licenses to avoid losing control of them amidst the flight of big-name houses from New Zealand. I talked to publishers and discussed  future titles. I was offered new contracts despite the downturn. This last couple of weeks I’ve been fielding publishing schedules, including from Random. More soon. But the news is rather good – and yes, you’ll be the first to hear about the releases, on this blog.

Of course, the REALLY exciting news is due within a few weeks…and, I hope, more after that (when I catch my breath).

Meanwhile, here’s my updated author page at Random:

http://www.randomhouse.co.nz/authors/matthew-wright.aspx

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More exciting news. And stuff.

I miss my future. It’s been taken from me.

I miss my future. When I was a kid, 21st-century food was going to be pre-packaged space pap. We would all, inevitably, be eating  paste out of tubes. It was futuristic. It was progress.

On  the way to Mars, concept for 1981 flight,via NASA.

The future of 1970: a Mars mission, 1981 style.

Today? We’re in that future. And I still cook fresh veggies and steak. Some of it from the garden (the veggies, not the steak).

When I was a teenager, plastic cards were going to kill cash. In the 21st century we’d just have cards. It was inevitable. It was the future. Get with the program. Today? We use more cash than ever, but chequebooks died.

When I was in my twenties, video was going to kill the movies. It was inevitable. We just had to accept it. When I last looked, movies were bigger than ever – didn’t The Hobbit, Part 2,889,332 just rake in a billion at the box office?

And, of course, personal computers were going to give us the paperless office. Except that today every office is awash with …yup, paper, generated by what we produce on computer, churning out of giant multi-function copiers that run endlessly, every second the office is open.

Did we fail to adopt all these things hard or fast enough? Is it just that technology hasn’t quite delivered what was expected – but it will, it will? No. The problem is with the way we think – with the faulty way we imagine change occurs over time with technology and people. With the way we assume any novelty will dominate our whole future. With the way we inevitably home in on single-cause reasons for change, when in reality anything to do with human society is going to exist in many more than fifty shades of grey. The problem is a fundamental misunderstanding – driven by the simplistic ‘progressive’ mind-set that has so dominated popular thinking since the Age of Reason.

I know all that. But still…I miss my future.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More writing tips, science, history and more. Watch this space.

Welcome to the weird, weird world of hyper-extreme Sheldon physics

It’s coming up for a century since Albert Einstein explained the entire ‘classical’ universe. Neatly, and in ways that have been tested every which way, without being disproven.

Albert Einstein lecturing in 1921 - after he'd published both the Special and General Theories of Relativity. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Albert Einstein lecturing in 1921 – after he’d published both the Special and General Theories of Relativity. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

He never did manage to reconcile quantum physics with his macro-level rules, but there’s no question that Einstein got it right about the big stuff. General Relativity, remember, is actually a theory of gravity. And everything about it has been checked out. Repeatedly.

Still, there are points where his rules break down. I mean, literally. Points. As in mathematical points. Places that have no diameter.

They’re called ‘singularities’, and they’re inside every black hole. We can’t see them, because the singularity is masked by the event horizon. This is the point where the escape velocity of the object exceeds lightspeed – meaning light doesn’t escape, hence the term ‘black hole’.

Einstein predicted that too. And the fact that the singularity was inside an event horizon was the proverbial Good Thing because, according to theory, all the physics we know and love break down at the singularity. There has been speculation they might act as a gate (‘Einstein-Rosen Bridges’). But to Einstein and most of those who came after, it was academic, because nothing could escape the event horizon.

Enter Stephen Hawking. In 1974 he argued that black holes MUST emit particles under quantum rules. Imagine a particle just inside the event horizon. Thanks to quantum uncertainty, it is both on one side and the other. When the wave function collapses, there is a chance that the black hole has radiated a particle.

Black holes, in short, evaporate thanks to quantum effects. It takes a while for stellar-mass holes (and they’d gain more mass than they lost, via matter spiralling into them). But the particle-size black holes possible in the CERN supercollider have a lifespan of a millionth of a second. Or less.

Hawking radiation, however, doesn’t resolve the other paradox of black holes – which is that they cause loss of ‘information’. It vanishes into an event horizon and is gone, violating energy conservation rules and the conservation of information in the physics sense – unitarianism. Various explanations have been offered, none of them entirely satisfactory because the black hole exists at the intersection between the two incompatible theories – General Relativity and quantum mechanics.

This week, Hawking suggested that the best answer to the paradox is to assume that an event horizon doesn’t exist. It merely appears to; in fact the information is re-radiated, chaotically.

Artists impression of a GRB. Zhang Whoosley, NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

Artists impression of a GRB (which is extreme, but not weird extreme). Zhang Whoosley, NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

All this is weird. But wait, if you extend the theoretical thinking it can get way weirder.

According to Hawking’s early work, the universe – during the early milliseconds of the Big Bang – might have created a ‘naked’ singularity. Later he revised that idea and said it hadn’t.

But imagine if it had. Naked. A singularity unprotected by an event horizon. Anything could happen. In all probability it would emit particles. But it might emit a monkey with a typewriter, tapping out King Lear. Or Sauron. Or The Heart of Gold. Or something so wild and crazy we can’t comprehend it. The laws of physics – which include probability and the order of events – don’t exist in a singularity.

Feel like you’re trapped inside Dr Who?

Could it happen? In theory, the singularity would become a torus outside the event horizon on a black hole that spun fast enough. And there is a theory – ‘loop quantum gravity’ – which postulates that naked singularities could exist anyway. The theory’s unproven.

And as of this week there’s Hawking’s notion of no event horizon anyhow – turning ‘black holes’ into…well, probably rather more than fifty shades of grey.

Wild? Sure. Weird? Absolutely. But that’s extreme physics for you.

Pass me a bunch of fermions. I’m famished.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More writing tips, science geekery, humour and more. Including the awaited lightspeed-with-custard experiment. Watch this space.

Four top questions that sort of defy answers

Today I thought I’d share a few conundrums…

Matthew Wright1. Why is it that for the whole history of humanity, we’ve had no problem surviving on ordinary water. But in the last ten years we’ve only been able to survive with water-and-salt ‘hydration’ mixes sold for absurd prices in designer bottles?

2. Why do we have to buy ‘detox’ products and get pushed to go on ‘detox’ diets when we have functioning liver and kidneys?

3. How do astrologers get by now Pluto’s been demoted from planet status?

4. In 1555, the apothecary (pharmacist) Michel de Nostredam (Nostradamus) predicted the world would end in 1987. Why are we still here?

Thoughts?

 Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More writing tips, science geekery and general blogging mayhem. Watch this space.

Bring me my interositer, pathetic Earthlings!

Anybody remember those cheesy alien movies from the fifties? Aliens with googly eyes and big heads arrive to steal women, steal Earth’s water, or both.

Needless to say, movies such as This Island Earth, I Married a Monster from Outer SpaceIt Came From Outer Space and Brain from Planet Aurus (which was about a brain from planet Aurus) had a good deal of fiction about them. Science? Uh…no…

Yes, I know science isn’t what they were about –  they played on our social fears as a device for lifting money at the box office, and as such were bedded in the human psycho-social framework

I thought I might be fun to run through the science in them anyway. Just for fun.

Anybody see a monolith go by? A picture I made with my trusty Celestia installation - cool, free science software.

Anybody see a monolith go by? A picture I made with my trusty Celestia installation – cool, free science software.

1. Aliens that look like humans
The thing about aliens is they’re alien. All Earth animals are built around the same basic plan, the tetrapod that flourished in the Devonian period – head, body, four limbs and (usually) a tail. But go back to the pre-Cambrian era and you find total weirdos, such as Edicarians. Some were so odd that paleontologists couldn’t even work out which way up they were meant to walk. And that’s just life on this planet. Now imagine life on another. I bet it won’t look like a human with a crustacean glued to its forehead (“yIqIm dude QIp tlhIngan. DaSovrup QuchDu’ lobster?”)

2. Aliens want human women
This trope was mostly about 1950s social fears. But as for the science of it – well, see (1). The chance of an alien being attracted to a human woman is about the same as an alien being attracted to oxalis. Or anything else from Earth. They’re alien. Harry Harrison riffed on it in one of his Stainless Steel Rat novels when his hero dressed up in a suit designed to look like one of the repellently squishy invaders – discovering, the hard way, that this was the height of alien pulchritude.

3. Aliens want Earth’s water
Why? We’re at the bottom of a gravity well. Also, we bite. There’s plenty of water for the taking in the Oort cloud, Kuiper belt and elsewhere. Hey – aliens might have been siphoning it for millions of years. We wouldn’t know. Or care.

4. Aliens are here to show us a better moral path
Laudable but silly. Even animals on Earth have a different moral path than humans – few, for instance, are motivated by conscious malice the way some humans are. Extrapolate that to aliens. The chance of them having world views that correct particular human failings, especially failings culture-specific to the West, is about the same as them wanting Earth’s women. See (2).

Ultimately the key word is alien. Would life on an alien world share our animal-plant split? Would alien evolution lead to a single species becoming intelligent? Would aliens become intelligent at all? Maybe they have many intelligent species. Would we even recognise their intelligence? The answer is ‘we don’t know’. Yet.

Of course that doesn’t stop us enjoying old movies. Or wondering about answers to these questions – which I hope you will. Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: Measuring lightspeed with custard, as soon as I get some photos. More writing tips. Watch this space. 

Why I like ‘Dr Who’ when I usually diss stupid science in SF

I’ve been a huge Dr Who fan ever since I was a kid and had to hide behind the couch when the Yetis appeared.

It’s great. Scientifically hokum – but great. Which sounds odd given that I usually diss bad movie science. What gives?

Eta Carinae. NASA, public domain. Click to enlarge.

Eta Carinae. NASA, public domain. Click to enlarge.

It’s like this. A lot of Hollywood SF is set in the ‘real’ world – then ignores the basic observable realities. Space fighters, sound in space, fake visible lasers that go ‘pew pew’ – all of it is just irritatingly dumb. Destroys the suspension of disbelief.

But not Dr Who.

Dr Who is about concepts we cannot directly see or understand, and which might be true. Maybe. I mean, things bigger on the inside than they are on the outside? That can go anywhere in space and time?

That gets my vote. It’s totally counter-intuitive. Cool. And that sustains the suspension of disbelief. Then there’s the fact that he can go anywhere in space and time. Want to snog Jeanne Antoinette Poisson? No problem. Fly to the far side of the universe? Easy. Couple that with whimsy and tongue firmly in cheek where it needs to be – and you have a winner.

Entertainment, whimsy and maybe science. The BBC got it right. Hey – does anybody remember the BBC version of TrekBlake’s 7?

 Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up: a fun wrap-up for 2013. Regular writing tips, humour, science geekery and other posts start early January. Get ready for the big reveal; the way to measure the speed of light with custard. Seriously.