Friday, August 14, 2015


...I'm heading out of town for two weeks. Thus, this blog will be going dark until I get back. (Family stuff plus vacation).

Tianjin Explosion

My thoughts are going out to the people of Tianjin, China.

A chemical warehouse in the port, owned by a company called Ruihui Logistics, caught fire. The company was storing chemicals illegally. Apparently the law says that "dangerous chemicals" should be stored at least 1km from "public buildings and transport networks." There were at least three large apartment buildings within that radius.

Because of "lack of communication" firefighters used water on the fire, which reacted with one of the hazardous chemicals that shouldn't have been there to cause a massive explosion. 721 people were injured badly enough to go to the hospital, with 25 in critical condition. 6,000 people have been evacuated from homes close to the fire (which is not fully out) because of concerns about toxic chemicals.

56 people died, including 21 firefighters. (Several more firefighters are missing and the death toll is likely to go up a little).

Oh, and the blast destroyed an entire lot full of cars that were waiting shipment (For some reason, the news agencies are all loving this titbit).

Basically, it's a mess - and a mess which could easily have been avoided. The existing laws were more than sufficient to protect people. If they'd been enforced.


Thursday, August 13, 2015

Naming The Planets

We're discovering a lot of new planets lately.

The organization responsible for naming planets is the International Astronomical Union.

And they're running a contest. First, they allowed astronomy clubs and similar organizations to put together a list of proposals for names for 20 exo planets. Now it's time for the rest of us.

Go to this link to vote on names. I'm putting mine in right now. (Yeah, yeah, I should be working, but how can I resist?)

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Circumbinary Planets

Much of the new Star Wars trailer happens on Tatooine (And I'd love to know who crashed that Star Destroyer).

Until very recently, Tatooine was considered impossible. It's what we call a circumbinary planet - a planet that orbits around two suns. For this to happen, the two suns have to be close together. (If they're further apart, any planets will be non-circumbinary or S-type planets, orbiting only one of the two suns).

We've now discovered a number of circumbinary planets, and the latest, Kepler-453 b, is in the habitable zone (of the 10 circumbinary planets discovered, 3 are in the zone). However, this isn't Tatooine - Kepler-453 b is believed to be a gas giant (It could theoretically have habitable moons, however - and think about that. Living on a moon around a gas giant and having two suns to deal with).

The planet also has a tilted orbit. If we hadn't spotted it now, it would have been 50 years before we could have detected another transit.

As a note, planets have also been found in three and four star systems. We still don't understand how planets can even form in complex solar systems.

Cixin Liu explores the idea of a planet in an unstable multiple system in The Three-Body Problem (probably the best science fiction novel I've read recently - and I just realized it has sequels. Get them translated stat!)

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Space Lettuce?

Apparently, it tastes good. Astronauts on the ISS taste-tested space grown lettuce as part of an experiment to, well, grow lettuce in microgravity for long space voyages. Red romaine, to be precise.

This isn't the first time the system, which includes drip irrigation (the only kind that works in space) has been used to grow lettuce, but it's the first time NASA has let the astronauts and cosmonauts on board actually sample it.

Supposedly, it tastes like arugula. Mmm.

Monday, August 10, 2015


...may want to avoid Rowlett, a suburb in Dallas. It's been taken over by giant spider webs.

Not to worry - the web spinners are harmless. More to the point, they like eating midges and gnats, and build communal webs, which can be huge, to collect gluts of food. In other words, leave them alone, they're eating horrible bitey things.

(Which is why I generally leave spiders alone. Anything that eats horrible bitey things is my friend. Unless it's hourglass shaped, of course).

Friday, August 7, 2015

Review: Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

I almost didn't write this one. Why?

I've been a Stephenson fan for years, and I adored Anathem. I wasn't so keen on Reamde, but everyone has an off day.

I have rarely been so disappointed in a book as I was in this one.

The concept is intriguing. An unknown force blows up the moon (Most likely a wandering singularity). Fortunately, the moon takes an extended time to explode. Humanity launches a massive project to evacuate a small but genetically diverse population to space. Needless to say it doesn't go well.

Then the book (no spoilers, this is in the blurb) leaps forward to the recolonization and reterraforming (it's a word now) of Earth.

Unfortunately, the execution was deeply flawed. In the first two thirds of the book, Stephenson repeatedly stops the story to educate his reader on orbital mechanics - either through straight up exposition, lectures given by a thinly veiled Neil DeGrasse Tyson insert (I'm sure he had permission ;)), or the repeated introduction of new characters to give the experts somebody to explain it to. In fact, there's more exposition about orbital mechanics and space survival than actual story. What could and should (Stephenson has written brilliant thrillers) have been a dramatic apocalyptic story turned into, frankly, a bit of a yawn.

The second part of the book skips through a ton of stuff I actually did want to read about, but is at least more like what I expect from Stephenson. Until it practically stops mid sentence.

I don't know quite what happened here - too tight a deadline? Arguments with his editor? It's still Stephenson, so it doesn't quite cross the line into terrible...but it's not what he's capable of. Nor is it the book I actually was hoping I'd get when I picked it up and read the blurb.

Sorry, Mr. Stephenson. You missed the mark with this one.