Reading List: Living Among Giants
Tuesday, March 31, 2015 00:53
Partial Solar Eclipse: 2015-03-20
Friday, March 20, 2015 20:59
Reading List: Rocket Ship Galileo
Wednesday, March 18, 2015 22:30
Reading List: A Force of Nature
Friday, February 20, 2015 21:01
Reading List: Tools for Survival
Wednesday, February 18, 2015 22:14
Tuesday, March 31, 2015 00:53
- Carroll, Michael.
Living Among Giants.
Cham, Switzerland: Springer International, 2015.
In school science classes, we were taught that the solar system, our
home in the galaxy, is a collection of planets circling a star,
along with assorted debris (asteroids, comets,
and interplanetary dust). Rarely did we see a representation of
either the planets or the solar system to scale, which
would allow us to grasp just how different various parts of the solar
system are from another. (For example, Jupiter is more massive than
all the other planets and their moons combined: a proud
Jovian would probably describe the solar system as the Sun, Jupiter,
and other detritus.)
Looking more closely at the solar system, with the aid of what has
been learned from spacecraft exploration in the last half century,
results in a different picture. The solar system is composed of
distinct neighbourhoods, each with its own characteristics. There
are four inner “terrestrial” or rocky planets: Mercury,
Venus, Earth, and Mars. These worlds huddle close to the Sun, bathing
in its lambent rays. The main asteroid belt consists of worlds like
Ceres, Vesta, and Pallas, all the way down to small rocks. Most orbit
between Mars and Jupiter, and the feeble gravity of these bodies and
their orbits makes it relatively easy to travel from one to another
if you're patient.
Outside the asteroid belt is the domain of the giants, which are the subject
of this book. There are two gas giants: Jupiter and Saturn, and two ice
giants: Uranus and Neptune. Distances here are huge compared to the
inner solar system, as are the worlds themselves. Sunlight is dim
(at Saturn, just 1% of its intensity at Earth, at Neptune 1/900 that
at Earth). The outer solar system is not just composed of the four giant
planets: those planets have a retinue of 170 known moons (and doubtless
many more yet to be discovered), which are a collection of worlds as diverse
as anywhere else in the domain of the Sun: there are sulfur-spewing
volcanos, subterranean oceans of salty water, geysers, lakes and rain of
hydrocarbons, and some of the most spectacular terrain and geology known.
Jupiter's moon Ganymede is larger than the planet Mercury, and appears to
have a core of molten iron, like the Earth.
Beyond the giants is the
with Pluto its best known denizen. This belt is home to a
multitude of icy worlds—statistical estimates are that
there may be as many as 700 undiscovered worlds as large or larger
than Pluto in the belt. Far more distant still, extending as far
as two light-years from the Sun, is the
about which we know essentially nothing except what we glean from
the occasional comet which, perturbed by a chance encounter or
passing star, plunges into the inner solar system. With our present
technology, objects in the Oort cloud are utterly impossible
to detect, but based upon extrapolation from comets we've observed,
it may contain trillions of objects larger than one kilometre.
When I was a child, the realm of the outer planets was shrouded
in mystery. While Jupiter, Saturn, and Uranus can be glimpsed by
the unaided eye
just barely, under ideal conditions, if
you know where to look), and Neptune can be spotted with a modest
telescope, the myriad moons of these planets were just specks of
light through the greatest of Earth-based telescopes. It was not until
the era of space missions to these worlds, beginning with the
then the orbiters
that the wonders of these worlds were revealed.
This book, by science writer and space artist Michael Carroll, is a tourist's
and emigrant's guide to the outer solar system. Everything here is on an
extravagant scale, and not always one hospitable to frail humans. Jupiter's magnetic
field is 20,000 times stronger than that of Earth. and traps radiation so
intense that astronauts exploring its innermost large moon Io would
succumb to a lethal dose of radiation in minutes. (One planetary
scientist remarked, “You need to have a good supply of
grad students when you go investigate Io.”) Several of the
moons of the outer planets appear to have oceans of liquid water
beneath their icy crust, kept liquid by tidal flexing as they orbit
their planet and interact with other moons. Some of these oceans
may contain more water than all of the Earth's oceans. Tidal flexing
may create volcanic plumes which inject heat and minerals into these
oceans. On Earth, volcanic vents on the ocean floor provide the
energy and nutrients for a rich ecosystem of life which exists
independent of the Sun's energy. On these moons—who knows?
Perhaps some day we shall explore these oceans in our submarines
and find out.
Titan is an
amazing world. It is larger than Mercury, and has an atmosphere 50%
denser than the Earth's, made up mostly of nitrogen. It has rainfall,
rivers, and lakes of methane and ethane, and at its mean temperature of
93.7°K, water ice is a rock as hard as granite. Unique among worlds
in the solar system, you could venture outside your space ship on Titan
without a space suit. You'd need to dress very warmly, to be sure,
and wear an oxygen mask, but you could explore the shores, lakes, and
dunes of Titan protected only against the cold. With the dense
atmosphere and gravity just 85% of that of the Earth's Moon, you
might be able to fly with suitable wings.
We have had just a glimpse of the moons of Uranus and Neptune as
sped through their systems on its way to the outer darkness. Further
investigation will have to wait for orbiters to visit these planets, which
probably will not happen for nearly two decades. What
Voyager 2 saw was tantalising. On Uranus's moon Miranda,
there are cliffs 14 km high. With the tiny gravity, imagine the extreme
sports you could do there! Neptune's moon
appears to be a Kuiper Belt object captured into orbit around Neptune
and, despite its cryogenic temperature, appears to be geologically
There is no evidence for life on any of these worlds. (Still, one
wonders about those fish in the dark oceans.) If barren,
“all these worlds are ours”, and in the fullness of time
we shall explore, settle, and exploit them to our own ends. The outer
solar system is just so much bigger and more grandiose than the
inner. It's as if we've inhabited a small island for all of our
history and, after making a treacherous ocean voyage, discovered an
enormous empty continent just waiting for us. Perhaps in a few
centuries residents of these remote worlds will look back toward the
Sun, trying to spot that pale blue dot so close to it where their
ancestors lived, and remark to their children, “Once, that's all
Friday, March 20, 2015 20:59
Click image to enlarge.
Here is the solar eclipse of March 20th, 2015, taken at maximum eclipse, around 09:35 UTC. Although this was a total eclipse, from my location (47°4' N 7°3' E) the Sun was only about 70% obscured. The sky was milky/murky, but the Sun was clearly visible through the solar filter.
(Photo taken with a Nikon D600 camera and NIKKOR 300 mm prime lens through a full aperture Orion metal on glass solar filter. Exposure was 1/125 second at f/8.)
Wednesday, March 18, 2015 22:30
- Heinlein, Robert A.
Rocket Ship Galileo.
Seattle: Amazon Digital Services, [1947, 1974, 1988] 2014.
After the end of World War II,
Robert A. Heinlein
put his wartime engineering work behind him and returned to professional
writing. His ambition was to break out of the pulp magazine ghetto
in which science fiction had been largely confined before the war into
the more prestigious (and better paying) markets of novels and
anthologies published by top-tier New York firms and the “slick”
general-interest magazines such as Collier's and
The Saturday Evening Post, which published fiction
in those days. For the novels, he decided to focus initially on a segment
of the market he understood well from his pre-war career:
“juveniles”—books aimed a young audience (in the case
of science fiction, overwhelmingly male), and sold, in large part, in
hardcover to public and school libraries (mass market paperbacks
were just beginning to emerge in the late 1940s, and had not yet become
important to mainstream publishers).
Rocket Ship Galileo was the first of Heinlein's
juveniles, and it was a tour de force which established him
in the market and led to a series which would extend to twelve
volumes. (Heinlein scholars differ on which of his novels are
classified as juveniles. Some include Starship Troopers
as a juvenile, but despite its having been originally written as one
and rejected by his publisher, Heinlein did not classify it thus.)
The plot could not be more engaging to a young person at the dawn
of the atomic and space age. Three high school seniors, self-taught
in the difficult art of rocketry (often, as was the case for their
seniors in the era, by trial and [noisy and dangerous] error), are
recruited by an uncle of one of them, veteran of the wartime
atomic project, who wants to go to the Moon. He's invented a novel
type of nuclear engine which allows a single-stage ship to make the
round trip, and having despaired of getting sclerotic government or
industry involved, decides to do it himself using cast-off parts and
the talent and boundless energy of young people willing to learn
Working in their remote desert location, they become aware that forces
unknown are taking an untoward interest in their work and seem to
want to bring it to a halt, going as far as sabotage and lawfare.
Finally, it's off to the Moon, where they discover the dark secret
on the far side: space Nazis!
The remarkable thing about this novel is how well it holds up, almost
seventy years after publication. While Heinlein was writing for a
young audience, he never condescended to them. The science and
engineering were as accurate as was known at the time, and Heinlein
manages to instill in his audience a basic knowledge of rocket
propulsion, orbital mechanics, and automated guidance systems as
the yarn progresses. Other than three characters
being young people, there is nothing about this story which makes it
“juvenile” fiction: there is a hard edge of adult morality
and the value of courage which forms the young characters as they
live the adventure.
At the moment, only this Kindle edition and an unabridged
audio book edition are available new.
Used copies of earlier paperback editions are readily available.
Friday, February 20, 2015 21:01
- Reeves, Richard.
A Force of Nature.
New York: W. W. Norton, 2008.
In 1851, the
Crystal Palace Exhibition
opened in London. It was a showcase of the wonders of industry and culture of
the greatest empire the world had ever seen and attracted a multitude of
visitors. Unlike present-day “World's Fair” boondoggles, it
made money, and the profits were used to fund good works, including
endowing scholarships for talented students from the far reaches of the
Empire to study in Britain. In 1895, Ernest Rutherford, hailing from
a remote area in New Zealand and recent graduate of Canterbury College in
Christchurch, won a scholarship to study at Cambridge. Upon learning of
the award in a field of his family's farm, he threw his shovel in the
air and exclaimed, “That's the last potato I'll ever dig.” It was.
When he arrived at Cambridge, he could hardly have been more out of place.
He and another scholarship winner were the first and only graduate students
admitted who were not Cambridge graduates. Cambridge, at the end of the
Victorian era, was a clubby, upper-class place, where even those pursuing
mathematics were steeped in the classics, hailed from tony public schools,
and spoke with refined accents. Rutherford, by contrast, was a rough-edged
colonial, bursting with energy and ambition. He spoke with a bizarre
accent (which he retained all his life) which blended the Scottish brogue
of his ancestors with the curious intonations of the antipodes. He
was anything but the ascetic intellectual so common at
Cambridge—he had been a fierce competitor at rugby, spoke
about three times as loud as was necessary (many years later, when the
eminent Rutherford was tapped to make a radio broadcast from
Cambridge, England to Cambridge, Massachusetts, one of his associates
asked, “Why use radio?”), and spoke vehemently on any and
all topics (again, long afterward, when a ceremonial portrait was
unveiled, his wife said she was surprised the artist had caught him with
his mouth shut).
But it quickly became apparent that this burly, loud, New Zealander was
extraordinarily talented, and under the leadership of
he began original research in radio, but soon abandoned the field to
pursue atomic research, which Thomson had pioneered with his
discovery of the electron. In 1898, with Thomson's recommendation,
Rutherford accepted a professorship at McGill University in
Montreal. While North America was considered a scientific backwater in
the era, the generous salary would allow him to marry his fiancée,
who he had left behind in New Zealand until he could find a position which
would support them.
At McGill, he and his collaborator
radioactive decay of thorium, discovered that radioactive decay was
characterised by a unique
was composed of two distinct components which he named
radiation. He later named the most penetrating product of
Rutherford was the first to suggest, in 1902, that radioactivity resulted from
the transformation of one chemical element into another—something
previously thought impossible.
In 1907, Rutherford was offered, and accepted a chair of physics at
the University of Manchester, where, with greater laboratory resources
than he had had in Canada, pursued the nature of the products of
radioactive decay. By 1907, by a clever experiment, he had identified
alpha radiation (or particles, as we now call them) with the
nuclei of helium atoms—nuclear decay was heavy atoms being
spontaneously transformed into a lighter element and a helium nucleus.
Based upon this work, Rutherford won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry
in 1908. As a person who considered himself first and foremost an
experimental physicist and who was famous for remarking, “All
science is either physics or stamp collecting”, winning the
Chemistry Nobel had to feel rather odd. He quipped that while he
had observed the transmutation of elements in his laboratory, no
transmutation was as startling as discovering he had become a
chemist. Still, physicist or chemist, his greatest work was yet to
In 1909, along with
(later to invent the Geiger counter)
he conducted an experiment where high-energy
alpha particles were directed against a very thin sheet of gold foil.
The expectation was that few would be deflected and those only slightly.
To the astonishment of the experimenters, some alpha particles were
found to be deflected through large angles, some bouncing directly back
toward the source. Geiger exclaimed, “It was almost as incredible
as if you fired a 15-inch [battleship] shell at a piece of tissue paper
and it came back and hit you.” It took two years before Rutherford
fully understood and published what was going on, and it forever changed
the concept of the atom. The only way to explain the scattering results
was to replace the early model of the atom with one in which a diffuse
cloud of negatively charged electrons surrounded a tiny, extraordinarily
dense, positively charged nucleus (that word was not used
until 1913). This experimental result fed directly into the development
of quantum theory and the elucidation of the force which bound the
particles in the nucleus together, which was not fully understood until
more than six decades later.
In 1919 Rutherford returned to Cambridge to become the head of the
the most prestigious position in experimental
physics in the world. Continuing his research with alpha emitters, he
discovered that bombarding nitrogen gas with alpha particles would
transmute nitrogen into oxygen, liberating a proton (the nucleus of
hydrogen). Rutherford simultaneously was the first to deliberately
transmute one element into another, and also to discover the proton.
In 1921, he predicted the existence of the neutron, completing the
composition of the nucleus. The neutron was eventually discovered by
Rutherford's discoveries, all made with benchtop apparatus and a
small group of researchers, were the foundation of nuclear physics.
He not only discovered the nucleus, he also found or predicted its
constituents. He was the first to identify natural nuclear transmutation
and the first to produce it on demand in the laboratory. As a teacher
and laboratory director his legacy was enormous: eleven of his students
and research associates went on to win Nobel prizes. His students
and Ernest Walton
first particle accelerator
and ushered in the era of “big science”. Rutherford not
only created the science of nuclear physics, he was the last person to
make major discoveries in the field by himself, alone or with a few
collaborators, and with simple apparatus made in his own laboratory.
In the heady years between the wars, there were, in the public mind,
two great men of physics: Einstein the theoretician and Rutherford
the experimenter. (This perception may have understated the contributions
of the creators of quantum mechanics, but they were many and less known.)
Today, we still revere Einstein, but Rutherford is less remembered (except
in New Zealand, where everybody knows his name and achievements). And
yet there are few experimentalists who have discovered so much in
their lifetimes, with so little funding and the simplest apparatus.
Rutherford, that boisterous, loud, and restless colonial, figured out
much of what we now know about the atom, largely by himself, through a
multitude of tedious experiments which often failed, and he should
rightly be regarded as a pillar of 20th century physics.
This is the thousandth book to appear since I began to keep the
in January 2001.
Wednesday, February 18, 2015 22:14
- Rawles, James Wesley.
Tools for Survival.
New York: Plume, 2014.
Suppose one day the music stops. We all live, more or less, as
part of an intricately-connected web of human society. The water that
comes out of the faucet when we open the tap depends (for the vast majority
of people) on pumps powered by an electrical grid that spans a continent.
So does the removal of sewage when you flush the toilet. The typical
city in developed nations has only about three days' supply of food on hand
in stores and local warehouses and depends upon a transportation
infrastructure as well as computerised inventory and payment systems
to function. This system has been optimised over decades to be
extremely efficient, but at the same time it has become dangerously
fragile against any perturbation. A financial crisis which disrupts
just-in-time payments, a large-scale and protracted power outage due to
a solar flare or EMP attack, disruption of data networks by malicious
attacks, or social unrest can rapidly halt the flow of goods and services
upon which hundreds of millions of people depend and rely upon without
rarely giving a thought to what life might be like if one day they weren't
The author, founder of the essential
site, has addressed such scenarios
in his fiction,
which is highly recommended. Here the focus is less speculative,
and entirely factual and practical. What are the essential skills and
tools one needs to survive in what amounts to a 19th century
homestead? If the grid (in all senses) goes down, those who
wish to survive the massive disruptions and chaos which will result
may find themselves in the position of those on the American frontier
in the 1870s: forced into self-reliance for all of the necessities
of life, and compelled to use the simple, often manual, tools which
their ancestors used—tools which can in many cases be fabricated
and repaired on the homestead.
The author does not assume a total collapse to the nineteenth century.
He envisions that those who have prepared to ride out a discontinuity
in civilisation will have equipped themselves with rudimentary
solar electric power and electronic communication systems. But at
the same time, people will be largely on their own when it comes to
gardening, farming, food preservation, harvesting trees for firewood
and lumber, first aid and dental care, self-defence,
metalworking, and a multitude of other tasks. As always, the
author stresses, it isn't the tools you have but rather the skills
between your ears that determine whether you'll survive. You may
have the most comprehensive medical kit imaginable, but if nobody
knows how to stop the bleeding from a minor injury, disinfect the
wound, and suture it, what today is a short trip to the emergency
room might be life-threatening.
Here is what I took away from this book. Certainly, you want to have
on hand what you need to deal with immediate threats (for example,
firefighting when the fire department does not respond, self-defence
when there is no sheriff, a supply of water and food so you don't become
a refugee if supplies are interrupted, and a knowledge of sanitation
so you don't succumb to disease when the toilet doesn't flush). If you have
skills in a particular area, for example, if you're a doctor, nurse, or
emergency medical technician, by all means lay in a supply of what you
need not just to help yourself and your family, but your neighbours.
The same goes if you're a welder, carpenter, plumber, shoemaker, or smith.
It just isn't reasonable, however, to expect any given family to acquire
all the skills and tools (even if they could afford them, where would they
put them?) to survive on their own. Far more important is to make the
acquaintance of like-minded people in the vicinity who have the diverse
set of skills required to survive together. The ability to build and maintain such
a community may be the most important survival skill of all.
This book contains a wealth of resources available on the Web (most
presented as shortened URLs, not directly linked in the Kindle edition)
and a great deal of wisdom about which I find little or nothing to
disagree. For the most part the author uses quaint units like inches,
pounds, and gallons, but he is writing for a mostly American audience. Please
take to heart the safety warnings: it is very easy to kill or gravely
injure yourself when woodworking, metal fabricating, welding,
doing electrical work, or felling trees and processing lumber. If
your goal is to survive and prosper whatever the future may bring,
it can ruin your whole plan if you kill yourself acquiring the
skills you need to do so.