Fourmilog: None Dare Call It Reason

Transit of Venus: 2004 Updated

Monday, February 20, 2017 23:31

The Web pages for the 2004 Transit of Venus have been updated to HTML5 with improved typography, embedded animations, and stale external links fixed. All pages and CSS style sheets have been validated for correctness.

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Les Quatre Saisons Updated

Sunday, February 19, 2017 15:22

I have just posted an updated version of Les Quatre Saisons, a one-year time lapse video of construction in a field adjacent to Fourmilab in 2005–2006. The new version includes embedded video using the HTML5 video facility. This provides higher resolution than the embedded YouTube video used previously. Some broken links to the tools used to produce the movie have been fixed.

The YouTube version of the video and links for users who wish to download the movie in a variety of formats continue to be available.

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Pitch Drop

Monday, February 13, 2017 00:38

Pitch Drop describes the longest continuously-running scientific experiment, which demonstrates how even the most viscous fluids will eventually flow as the liquids they are. Do it yourself instructions are included for the very patient.

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Reading List: Pale Blue

Sunday, February 12, 2017 00:03

Jenne, Mike. Pale Blue. New York: Yucca Publishing, 2016. ISBN 978-1-63158-084-0.
This is the final novel in the trilogy which began with Blue Gemini (April 2016) and continued in Blue Darker than Black (August 2016). After the harrowing rescue mission which concluded the second book, Drew Carson and Scott Ourecky, astronauts of the U.S. Air Force's covert Blue Gemini project, a manned satellite interceptor based upon NASA's Project Gemini spacecraft, hope for a long stand-down before what is slated to be the final mission in the project, whose future is uncertain due to funding issues, inter-service rivalry, the damage to its Pacific island launch site due to a recent tropical storm, and the upcoming 1972 presidential election.

Meanwhile, in the Soviet Union, progress continues on the Krepost project: a manned space station equipped for surveillance and armed with a nuclear warhead which can be de-orbited and dropped on any target along the station's ground track. General Rustam Abdirov, a survivor of the Nedelin disaster in 1960, is pushing the project to completion through his deputy, Gregor Yohzin, and believes it may hold the key to breaking what Abdirov sees as the stalemate of the Cold War. Yohzin is increasingly worried about Abdirov's stability and the risks posed by the project, and has been covertly passing information to U.S. intelligence.

As information from Yohzin's espionage reaches Blue Gemini headquarters, Carson and Ourecky are summoned back and plans drawn up to intercept the orbital station before a crew can be launched to it, after which destroying it would not only be hazardous, but could provoke a superpower confrontation. On the Soviet side, nothing is proceeding as planned, and the interception mission must twist and turn based upon limited and shifting information.

About half way through the book, and after some big surprises, the Krepost crisis is resolved. The reader might be inclined, then, to wonder “what next?” What follows is a war story, set in the final days of the Vietnam conflict, and for quite a while it seems incongruous and unrelated to all that has gone before. I have remarked in reviews of the earlier books of the trilogy that the author is keeping a large number of characters and sub-plots in the air, and wondered whether and how he was going to bring it all together. Well, in the last five chapters he does it, magnificently, and ties everything up with a bow on the top, ending what has been a rewarding thriller in a moving, human conclusion.

There are a few goofs. Launch windows to inclined Earth orbits occur every day; in case of a launch delay, there is no need for a long wait before the next launch attempt (chapter 4). Attempting to solve a difficult problem, “the variables refused to remain constant”—that's why they're called variables (chapter 10)! Beaujolais is red, not white, wine (chapter 16). A character claims to have seen a hundred stars in the Pleiades from space with the unaided eye. This is impossible: while the cluster contains around 1000 stars, only 14 are bright enough to be seen with the best human vision under the darkest skies. Observing from space is slightly better than from the Earth's surface, but in this case the observer would have been looking through a spacecraft window, which would attenuate light more than the Earth's atmosphere (chapter 25). MIT's Draper Laboratory did not design the Gemini on-board computer; it was developed by the IBM Federal Systems Division (chapter 26).

The trilogy is a big, sprawling techno-thriller with interesting and complicated characters and includes space flight, derring do in remote and dangerous places, military and political intrigue in both the U.S. and Soviet Union, espionage, and a look at how the stresses of military life and participation in black programs make the lives of those involved in them difficult. Although the space program which is the centrepiece of the story is fictional, the attention to detail is exacting: had it existed, this is probably how it would have been done. I have one big quibble with a central part of the premise, which I will discuss behind the curtain.

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
The rationale for the Blue Gemini program which caused it to be funded is largely as a defence against a feared Soviet “orbital bombardment system”: one or more satellites which, placed in orbits which regularly overfly the U.S. and allies, could be commanded to deorbit and deliver nuclear warheads to any location below. It is the development of such a weapon, its deployment, and a mission to respond to the threat which form the core of the plot of this novel.

But an orbital bombardment system isn't a very useful weapon, and doesn't make much sense, especially in the context of the late 1960s to early '70s in which this story is set. The Krepost of the novel was armed with a single high-yield weapon, and operated in a low Earth orbit at an inclination of 51°. The weapon was equipped with only a retrorocket and heat shield, and would have little cross-range (ability to hit targets lateral to its orbital path). This would mean that in order to hit a specific target, the orbital station would have to wait up to a day for the Earth to rotate so the target was aligned with the station's orbital plane. And this would allow bombardment of only a single target with one warhead. Keeping the station ready for use would require a constant series of crew ferry and freighter launches, all to maintain just one bomb on alert. By comparison, by 1972, the Soviet Union had on the order of a thousand warheads mounted on ICBMs, which required no space launch logistics to maintain, and could reach targets anywhere within half an hour of the launch order being given. Finally, a space station in low Earth orbit is pretty much a sitting duck for countermeasures. It is easy to track from the ground, and has limited maneuvering capability. Even guns in space do not much mitigate the threat from a variety of anti-satellite weapons, including Blue Gemini.

While the drawbacks of orbital deployment of nuclear weapons caused the U.S. and Soviet Union to eschew them in favour of more economical and secure platforms such as silo-based missiles and ballistic missile submarines, their appearance here does not make this “what if?” thriller any less effective or thrilling. This was the peak of the Cold War, and both adversaries explored many ideas which, in retrospect, appear to have made little sense. A hypothetical Soviet nuclear-armed orbital battle station is no less crazy than Project Pluto in the U.S.

Spoilers end here.  
This trilogy is one long story which spans three books. The second and third novels begin with brief summaries of prior events, but these are intended mostly for readers who have forgotten where the previous volume left off. If you don't read the three books in order, you'll miss a great deal of the character and plot development which makes the entire story so rewarding. More than 1600 pages may seem a large investment in a fictional account of a Cold War space program that never happened, but the technical authenticity; realistic portrayal of military aerospace projects and the interaction of pilots, managers, engineers, and politicians; and complicated and memorable characters made it more than worthwhile to this reader.

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Le Tour du Monde en Quatre-vingts Jours: Web Edition Updated

Saturday, February 11, 2017 15:01

The Web edition of Jules Verne's 1873 novel Le Tour du Monde en Quatre-vingts Jours was originally posted at Fourmilab in December of 1996. An updated version, with improved typography and confirming to the XHTML 1.0 and CSS 3 standards, has just been posted. All illustrations have been remade from the original scans into greyscale PNG images, adjusted for contrast. All documents have been checked with the W3C Validator.

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