Book Review: Death Wave by Ben Bova

Anyone familiar with Science Fiction knows that Ben Bova is SF royalty. Author of over hundred fiction and non-fiction books Ben Bova has received six Hugo awards, been the editor of both Analog and Omni science fiction magazines as well as a being a former President of the Science Fiction Writers of America. I need to take a breath after all that.

Death Wave is Bova’s latest title; actually he’s so prolific I may already be wrong about that. Death wave is a sequel to his earlier novel New Earth so I’ll have to catch you up on what happened in that story.

Death Wave by Ben Bova (Credit Tor Books)

Jorden Kell is the leader of humanity’s first expedition into interstellar space. The expedition finds the dead remains of alien civilizations, their planets sterilized by a wave of gamma radiation that has erupted out of the black hole at the center of our Galaxy.

Only a race of machine intelligences has managed to survive and they warn Jorden Kell and his crew that the Death Wave will reach Earth in 2000 years. The machine intelligences also give Kell the necessary knowledge to produce a force field type technology that can protect us from the Death Wave. In exchange for this assistance humanity is to send space missions to six nearby intelligent but pre-industrial alien species in order to protect them.

All that is back story to “Death Wave” which begins when Jorden Kell and several other members of his expedition have returned to Earth and try to convince the governments of the World of the danger to Earth and the nearby civilizations. But 200 years have passed since the astronauts departed on their mission and the World is not the one they left.

In particular Anita Halleck, the Chairwoman of the World Council is too busy trying to bring all of the Solar System’s bureaucracies under her control to concern herself with a threat to humanity 2000 years in the future, or any threat to alien civilizations at all. What does concern Halleck is her suspicions that Jorden Kell is trying to use his notoriety to supplant her, something she will prevent at any cost.

Add in terrorists who believe Jorden Kell is actually paving the way for an alien invasion, security personnel who do the Chairwoman’s very dirty work and a trip to an orbiting habitat for 200,000 humans and you get a pretty wild escape story. The problem is that most of the science fiction is actually left over from the first novel leaving “Death Wave” with little more than political machinations and a good chase sequence.

I don’t want to give away too much but I think that even Ben Bova felt that way because the ending comes as a bit of a letdown. The bad guys get the drop on the good guys then good guys turn the tables and it’s over!

I’m not saying “Death Wave” wasn’t good. In fact it was quite exciting. It just wasn’t as interesting as “New Earth”. There is a third novel coming in the series, “Apes and Angels” which may already be available. This third novel is going to follow one of the expeditions to rescue the alien civilizations and I think there will be more SF in it. I’ll be certain to let you know after I read it!


Is an Alien Supercivilization Causing Taby’s Star to Flicker?

Two years ago the star KIC 8462852, also know as Taby’s star created a bit of a sensation in the press and all over the web. The reason for all the excitement was the suggestion that the star’s irregular light curve, the amount of energy generated over time, could be explained by the existence of an ‘Alien Megastructure’ built around the star. Well Taby’s star is acting up again and we still know very little about the cause.

Let’s start with a few things we do know for certain. First of all KIC 8462852 is an F spectral type star in the constellation of Cygnus. Now the F spectral class is the next class bigger and brighter than our Sun, which is spectral class G. Taby’s star is in fact estimated to be about 1.5 times as massive as our Sun and about 5 times brighter. Despite its brightness however, at an estimated distance of 1300 light years Taby’s star cannot be seen with the unaided eye. The picture below shows Taby’s position in our sky.

The Position of Taby’s Star in Cygnus

In many respects KIC 8462852 should be just an average, normal main sequence star, a star as stable and constant as our own Sun. Taby’s star is anything but stable however, its brightness has been observed to drop by as much as 22% and even after years of observations astronomers have been completely unable to find any pattern in the variations of its light. The picture below shows KIC 8462852’s light curve for the 17th of April in 2013 as measured by the Kepler Space Telescope.

Taby’s Light Curve (Credit NASA)

Several possible mechanisms for the variations in KIC 8462852’s brightness have been suggested. A system of one or more planets passing in front of the star can produce small and periodic dips in brightness; in fact this is how the Kepler space telescope has succeeded in discovering hundreds of planets outside our solar. However KIC 8462852 has larger reductions in it’s light output than could be caused by a planet, as much as 22% remember.

Other possible explanations include a swarm of asteroids or giant planets ‘flying in formation’ in highly eccentric orbits that sometimes bring them close to the star and other times take them far away from it. If the idea of three, four or more Jupiter sized planets orbiting as a group seems unlikely, well many astronomers agree with you. Bare in mind though, that astronomers have examined the light curves of millions of stars by now so it’s quite possible that Taby’s star is that one in a million oddball.

A recent suggestion has been made that the fluctuations in the light output from KIC 8462852 may be due to the star’s having swallowed a planet a couple of thousand years ago and in a sense its stomach is still upset.

Finally we have the proposed explanation that has everyone talking. There is a definite possibility that an alien supercivilization is building a structure similar to one described by Physicist Freeman Dyson and known as a Dyson Sphere. The idea of a Dyson Sphere is simple, in fact it’s the ultimate in solar power. By enclosing a star in a sphere an advanced civilization would have access to its entire energy output.

In this scenario the aliens are in the process of building the Dyson sphere around KIC 8462852 so that at present it is only capturing a small portion of the star’s total energy. This would still be more energy than the human race has used in its entire history.

All these possibilities are just that however, possibilities. We need more and more careful observations before we can make any kind of definite statement about the cause of the irregularity of Taby’s star. Since KIC 8462852 is now once again varying in brightness maybe soon we will learn more.

Before I go I do want to say one more thing. While much of what we know about KIC 8462852 comes from the Kepler space telescope or other professional observatories much of it has also come from observations by amateur astronomers. Throughout history these scientific hobbyists have discovered much of what we know about the Universe by their searches for comets or asteroids or by their measurements of the light curves of variable stars like Taby’s star.



Movie Review: Guardians of the Galaxy vol.2

I know, I know, Guardians of the Galaxy is really more of a roller coaster ride than a science fiction movie but it does have spaceships and aliens and while it may just be a distraction from the real world it is a well made distraction.

Guardians of the Galaxy vol.2 (Credit Marvel Studios)

Guardians of the Galaxy is a part of the “Marvel Universe” produced by Disney and which includes Iron Man, Captain America and etc. and which may very well become the most successful movie franchise in history. Disney / Marvel is building this universe by combining individual superhero movies like “Doctor Strange” with ensemble movies like “The Avengers” and now “Guardians of the Galaxy”.

In vol.1 of Guardians we were introduced to our group of heroes as they were introduced to each other. Peter Quill is a Earthling who was kidnapped by alien “ravagers” as a child, the ravagers are a collection of outlaws / pirates. Quill is joined by Gamora, an alien woman who was raised to be an assassin but to wants to escape that life along with Rocket, a genetically engineered intelligent raccoon and his friend Groot, a semi-intelligent tree-man. Rocket and Groot are bounty hunters. The final member of the Guardians is Drax, a powerful fighter.

For a moment can I just stop to ask why our culture at present seems to connect to the idea of pirates and assassins and bounty hunters as being saviors of galaxies??? Seventy to eighty years ago the heroes were like Superman or the Lone Ranger, so perfectly upstanding and morally virtuous that they were boring!

Then, when I was a kid there were superheroes like Spiderman, a typical teenager who didn’t really want to be a hero. Ben Grimm of the Fantastic Four also did not want his superpowers. Nowadays it seems like you had to have been a bad guy before you can become a good guy. This may make for more interesting characters but to my mind it doesn’t make them any more realistic. I’ll stick with the Spiderman type, just a normal person who is a reluctant hero.

Anyway, back to the Guardians of the Galaxy vol.2. In this story Peter Quill meets his mysterious and very powerful father EGO. I don’t want to give away any of the plot but let’s just say that EGO’s desires for his son’s future are not quite paternal.

That’s just the main plot, there are complications aplenty. With a race called the Sovereigns pursuing the Guardians because Rocket stole some of their batteries while Gemora’s sister Nebula is trying to kill her, to say nothing about the mutiny of Yondu the Ravager’s crew there are fights galore. There are several times during the movie when it’s hard to keep track of who’s on who’s side or not but you know that in the end Quill, Gamora, Rocket Groot and Drax will all stick together.

During the fights there are more than a few “Come ‘on” moments, like when Gamora picks up a cannon from a broken spaceship and starts firing it at her sister or when Drax ties a rope around himself and jumps out of the Guardian’s ship to shoot at an enemy.

Despite it’s drawbacks the movie is well made with easy to like characters. Guardians of the Galaxy vol.2 isn’t thought provoking science fiction, it’s a roller coaster, but it is a good one.

Space News for May 2017

I guess the big news in space for this month is NASA’s decision that the Exploratory Mission 1 (EM1) will be unmanned as was originally planned. NASA had been asked by President Trump to consider the possibility of adding a crew to the first launch of the long awaited Space Launch System (SLS) along with the Orion spacecraft.

Space Launch System (Credit NASA)

In the end NASA decided to stick to the original mission plan in part because of the added costs in preparing the spacecraft for a crew (Estimated at between 600 and 900 million). Just as importantly however, was NASA’s desire to push the spacecraft to its limits on this first mission, something they did not feel comfortable doing with a live crew. In announcing their decision NASA also stated that the schedule for the EM1 mission will slip into early 2019!

This delay means that the scheduled first manned launch of the SLS/Orion will now take place no earlier that mid 2021 and you can expect that date to slip as well. If you’d like to read NASA’s official announcement click on the link below.

This decision by NASA means that the return of manned launches to Kennedy Space Center will now undoubtedly be by a commercial space company, either Space X’s Dragon capsule of Boeing’s Starliner. Both of these two companies hope to begin manned missions to the International Space Station  (ISS) late next year but you can expect one or both to slip into 2019.

Speaking of Space X just a couple of days ago Elon Musk’s company successfully launched the fourth satellite in the Inmarsat series. Inmarsat is a network of satellites built by Boeing to provide broadband connections for aircraft, ships at sea and mobile land users. This was Space X’s second successful launch in as many weeks but the notable fact about this launch was that Space X did not try to recover the rocket’s first stage! The Inmarsat satellite is so massive that the Falcon 9 rocket needed every bit of fuel to put it into orbit leaving nothing left for a recovery.

Inmarsat Satellite (Credit Boeing)

This says something of the sophistication of Space X’s technology that a mission where they do not recover the rocket is newsworthy.

In other news the Cassini spacecraft has continued to send back breathtaking images of the planet Saturn and it’s rings. Nothing really dramatic has happened to Cassini I just love those pictures!

Saturn-Mosaic (Credit NASA)

Also there was a bit of amusing news coming from the ISS as astronauts got to enjoy eating some fresh vegetables courtesy of crew member Peggy Whitson. Astronaut Whitson has harvested the first crop of Chinese Cabbage grown in the microgravity of space. This is the fifth vegetable to be grown aboard the ISS and more are planned in the future.

Cabbage in Space (Credit NASA)

These first attempts at farming in space may just be experiments to see what is and what isn’t possible but in the long run our ability to produce food on the Moon or Mars or wherever will determine if humanity actually has a future in space.





Drone Racing

I’ve recently noticed that my posts tend to be pretty serious. Of course Science is usually treated as a serious subject but even my reviews of movies and books seem to be straightforward rather than lighthearted. So today I’m going to talk about something just for the fun of it. Drone Racing!

Drone Racing

Now flying drones have been around for a long time. I had a radio controlled model P-51 Mustang back when I was a kid (It’s still in my basement) But the latest generation of drones with CCD cameras that allow the operator to see what the drone sees and high energy lithium-ion batteries powering high torque electric motors have revolutionized the consumer market for drones.

With more and more people buying and operating drones it was only a matter of time before somebody started competitions for them and the first organized drone races appear to have begun in Australia in 2014. Formally these races are know as First Person View (FPV) Drone Races where the drone operator wears virtual reality glasses showing images from the drone’s camera as they pilot the drone through a set race track, usually with obstacles.

The courses can vary widely, being either indoor or outdoor, with either simple obstacles like a cone to go around to narrow passageways to maneuver through. Some courses are designed purely for speed while others emphasize maneuverability with crashes being a part of the fun.

Drone Racing Course in Phoenix

One of the things I like best about drone racing is that spectators can also put on a pair of virtual reality glasses and get the view from any drone, switching from one contestant to another as they will. I think this technology will soon make it possible for people around the world to “tune in” on any contestant in any race.

This technology could fundamentally change just what it means to be a spectator at a sporting event. Imagine watching a baseball game where a ball is hit into the outfield and you get to watch from the centerfielder’s viewpoint as he chases down the ball through a CCD camera in his cap.

Watching a Drone Race

This new sport of drone racing has already spawned two “professional” leagues, the Drone Racing League (DRL) and MultiGP along with dozens of associations. DRL and MultiGP differ considerably in their rules with DRL actually providing the drones to contestants, thereby making every drone in the race as nearly identical as possible. MultiGP on the other hand has a published set of specifications a drone must meet but allows the contestants to design and use their own drones. They feel this promotes innovation and competition.

If you’d like to check out the Drone Racing League click on the link below.

If you’d like to check out MultiGP click on the link below.

The entertainment side of advancing technology is surely going to be one of the biggest job markets in the coming years. I think Drone Racing will take its place alongside Video Games and Computer Graphics for movies as expanding industries. But there I go getting serious again.


World’s Most Powerful X-ray Laser generates its first Light (and just what is a Laser anyway?)

The European XFEL, a powerful new scientific instrument based at Germany’s nuclear research institute DESY near Hamburg has produced its first light pulses. The light produced by the XFEL (which stands for X-ray Free Electron Laser) has a wavelength of 0.8 billionths of a meter, that’s about 500 times shorter than the wavelength of visible light.

Although the XFEL only produced a single pulse of light as a test of it’s performance, when it is fully operational in September the instrument will produce 27,000 pulses every second. Also, while the X-ray photons produced by the XFEL are only considered “soft” X-rays, with an individual photon energy of around 10,000eV, the intensity of the light, that is the number of photons produced will be greater than any other X-ray source on Earth.

The research planned for the XFEL includes taking photographic images of individual atoms, investigations into just what is going on during chemical reactions, especially bio-chemical reactions, and even studies of conditions existing in the interior of planets

Now a Free Electron Laser (FEL for short) is a very different kind of Laser from the Laser pointers or Gas Lasers people are more familiar with. I happen to know a lot about the differences because I wrote a paper describing those differences for my course in Quantum optics back in grad school. My professor for that course was Lorenzo Narducci, a well known and highly regarded researcher in Quantum Optics. Doctor Narducci adamantly insisted that those differences were such that Free Electron Lasers were not actually Lasers. Which of course begs the question; what is a Laser.

Many people know that the acronym Laser stands for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation and they know that a Laser’s light is special because it is a very narrowly focused beam of only a single frequency or colour. However, the way that a Laser produces that light isn’t commonly understood, so I’m gonna tell ya.

Laser Emission

Looking at the picture above we can see how an atom in its ground state can absorb a photon of light at a certain wavelength (spontaneous absorption) becoming excited in the process. The atom will then emit that photon again at a later time (spontaneous emission).

Funny thing is though, if while the atom is excited by the first photon a second photon comes along similar to the first (same wavelength) the second photon can stimulate the atom to emit its stored photon (hence the Stimulated Emission in Laser) and the two photons will fly off in the same direction together in step with each other, this is called coherence.

Do this with a lot of atoms all at once (something known as a population inversion) and you get the powerful flood of coherent light we call a Laser. It’s kind of like the difference between a lot of people just walking around and an army of men marching in step. A Laser is more powerful just as the army is more powerful.

Now a Free Electron Laser produces its light by a completely different mechanism. A beam of electrons is accelerated to close to the speed of light. This is usually done using what is known as a Linear Particle Accelerator and the Linear Accelerator at DESY for their FEL is 3.4 kilometers in length.

This beam of high energy electrons is then directed through the center of a device called an undulator where thousands of permanent magnets are arranged with alternating magnetic poles, north-south then south-north back to north-south then south-north and on and on. See picture below.

Free Electron Laser Undulator

The charge on the electrons in the beam interacts with the magnets causing the electrons to undulate back and forth, switching direction every time the poles of the magnets flip and this switching back and forth produces a high intensity beam of light whose wavelength is determined by the spacing of the magnets and the velocity of the electron beam.

Now the light from a FEL does have several characteristics in common with the light from a Laser, the output beam is both very narrowly focused and the photons produced are almost exactly the same wavelength. However the light is certainly not produced by Stimulated Emission of Radiation, which is why Professor Narducci refused to consider FELs to be true Lasers.

Whether or not you decide that Free Electron Lasers are real Lasers the world will soon have powerful new instrument for the study of the interaction of matter and light. I look forward to the results that will come from the European FEL. By the way Professor Narducci gave me an A in quantum Optics!


Genius on the Nat Geo Channel – A biography of Albert Einstein

The National Geographic Channel has begun a new series that they’re calling ‘Genius’. The series will be a ten episode biography of Physicist Albert Einstein and stars Johnny Flynn as Einstein in his teens and twenties and Oscar winner Geoffrey Rush as the older Einstein.

Genius on the National Geographic Channel

The series is being shown Tuesdays at 9PM on Nat Geo and the third episode is coming up this week.

The creative team behind ‘Genius’ are Producers Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, the same team that brought us the series “Mars” back last November and December. See my posts of 15Nov16 and 20Dec16 for my reviews. With this cast and behind the camera team you know the series is going to be a first rate production and so far it certainly is.

Now I’m a big fan of Albert Einstein, but I’m not a big fan of biographies. For example, it’s well known that Einstein was not a good student in school. He was the sort of person who learned better on his own, investigating the things that interested him and ignoring anything he found boring. Of course this is true of a lot of us, grammar bored the life out of me and was the bane of my existence back in grade school. This is a common aspect of many person’s schooling, movies and plays have been written about it so why go over it again?

In ‘Genius’ this conflict is the central plot of the first two episodes. Starting school in Germany young Albert finds his instructors to be so stuffy, there’s a quick scene of students memorizing the law of cosines. Transferring to Switzerland he now finds the instructors there refuse to even discuss the latest theories about molecules by Ludwig Boltzmann. We teach facts here, Einstein is told, not theoretical fantasies. Hum, could that be a foreshadowing of some of the conflicts Einstein would have because of his own theories. What do you think? I can’t imagine professors refusing to even allow their students to consider such new ideas.

In my opinion that’s the problem with biographies, the biographer tries to find a coherent theme running through a famous person’s life so they exaggerate details that reinforce the theme and ignore anything that doesn’t. I think a person’s life is too chaotic for that to work.

Then there are the personal details. I didn’t know that Einstein’s family moved to Milan, Italy while Albert was in school and nor in all honesty do I care. I also did not know that Einstein had a girlfriend, whose heart he broke, before meeting his first wife Mileva Maric’, and again, I don’t care. That’s just me, Einstein’s theories are interesting, his love life is not.

There is however, one very controversial part of Einstein’s love life that will probably receive at lot of attention in the next couple of episodes. There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about how much influence did Mileva have on Albert’s groundbreaking papers in 1905. It’s quite possible that Mileva contributed but the evidence and consensus among historians of science is that she listened to Albert’s ideas more than initiating her own. It will be interesting to see how this controversy is handled in ‘Genius’

I will also be interested in seeing how some of the other scientists who contributed to relativity theory are treated. In particular I want to see if Hendrik Lorentz is given credit for his work on electromagnetic theory and it’s influence on the Special Theory. Indeed when you study Relativity Theory the first equations you learn are the ‘Lorentz Transformation’. Einstein did not meet Lorentz until after publishing his theories so will the show even mention Hendrik?

Nevertheless I will keep watching ‘Genius’ and I certainly recommend it. It’s well done and a show about the life of a great scientist is certainly an improvement over 99.9% of what passes for entertainment on TV.

A new Type of Aurora is Discovered and it’s called Steve

Throughout the history of Science there have been many occasions in which amateur scientists have provided the initial discovery or key data related to some new phenomenon. An example of this has occurred recently in Canada and revolves around the discovery of a new type of Aurora.

It all started when University of Calgary Professor Eric Donovan met with a group of amateur aurora scientists who called themselves the ‘Alberta Aurora Chasers’. The aurora chasers believed that they had managed to capture some photographs of a proton aurora, a form of the northern lights produced by protons in the solar wind rather than electrons which produce the well known aurora. Now Professor Donovan was skeptical, protons striking out atmosphere are so quickly slowed down to where they acquire electrons and become neutral atoms that a proton aurora is basically nonexistent.

Still, when Professor Donovan looked at the photos he could see that this was a type of aurora never noticed before. I didn’t say never seen before, because it turns out that this phenomena is actually fairly common but it is usually not noticed because of the more common aurora. The most obvious difference between the two types of aurora is that the better know type are seen as broad, horizontal sheets while this new type appears as a thin vertical pillar or as a complete arc across the sky. See picture below.

Steve – Aurora

Looking at the photo you might ask, how could this go unnoticed but remember the pictures have been digitally enhanced to show the new type of Aurora rather than the more normal kind. In fact the new type is quite faint and only lasts for a few seconds.

The amateur scientists have given the new type of Aurora a temporary name. It’s called Steve after a scene in the movie “Over the Hedge” where an unknown entity is christened Steve because one character says “I’d be a lot less afraid of it if I knew what it was called.” to which another answers “Let’s call it Steve”.

With the help of both the Alberta Aurora Chasers and NASA Satellites scientists have already learned a good bit about Steve. So far we know that Steve is a strip of ionized gas about 20 kilometers wide and can be thousands of kilometers long. The strip of ionized gas has also be measured at move at a velocity in excess of 5 kilometers per second.

The causes of this new type of Aurora are presently unknown. in fact we’re not even certain that it is caused by the solar wind as the common aurora is. Professor Donovan hopes that in the coming months enough will be learned about Steve to publish a paper detailing it’s causes. Maybe then he’ll give the new aurora a more prestigious name, or maybe it will just keep on being Steve.

This discovery highlights the importance of ordinary people getting involved in science and how anyone can contribute. Amateur astronomers measure the light curves of variable stars. Amateur naturalists conduct bird counts. The list of ways you can become an amateur scientist is so long that I’m going to have to make it another post.