Thursday, March 31, 2016

Amateur Astronomer Witnesses Spectacular Splash

John McKeon was studying the moons of Jupiter when he captured this:

That's a pretty sizeable asteroid slamming right into Jupiter.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Deciphering the Etruscans

A five foot stele with 70 characters of a long inscription legible may provide some insights into the culture, religion, or law of the Etruscans. Archaeologists don't believe it's a gravestone (which is pretty much all the Etruscan inscriptions we have) and think it may be part of a sacred text.

Of course, everything's ritual when you don't know what it does... Or, in this case, says. It was found near a temple, though.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016


So, ever hear the theory that the unicorn legend was started by a poor description of a rhino?


There used to be a species of rhinoceros in central Asia with a seven foot long horn. We thought they went extinct a long time ago.


They co-existed with humans.

Six feet tall. Seven foot long horn. If that isn't a unicorn, what is?

Sadly, we likely hunted them to extinction. And they probably didn't go into traps baited with virgins, either.

Still. Unicorns.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Missing Eye...

Scientists have lost contact with the Hitomi space telescope, which was intended to study black holes and other gravitational phenomenon. It appears that it may have broken up in orbit, although the ground crew haven't given up on contacting it yet.

Rather unfortunate...

Friday, March 25, 2016


That's the number of genes in a stripped down artificial bacterium created by J. Craig Venter's lab. They think this might be the minimum to live and reproduce.

And they still can't work out what a third of them do. Biology is the big unknown right now, it seems.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Announcement Regarding "Shadowwalkers"

So, I've been starting preliminary hype on this book - and have gotten some unfortunate feedback.

More than one person has, when hearing the title, thought I was talking about Cassandra Clare's Shadowhunters (Mortal Instruments #1). I have not read this book - but it's in the same genre.

I don't feel it's fair on myself, Ms Clare, or her and my readers to perpetuate the confusion, so I'm doing the only thing I can do.

I'm changing the title.

The new title of the book going forward will be "Falling Dusk." I'm also looking for a new series name, but I haven't finalized that yet.

I'm sorry if this causes any confusion right now, but in the long term I know I've made the right decision.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Watch Out...

...we might be training the birds to take over. Studies indicate that birds that live in urban areas are smarter than those that live in rural ones.

The bird studied was the Barbados bullfinch, which has a reputation for sneaking up and stealing people's lunches. City birds, they found, are bolder, and better at solving problems.

And, interestingly, the urban bullfinches also have a stronger immune system.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Most Eccentric..

...and no I'm not talking about crazy cat ladies. Exoplanet HD 20782 has an orbital eccentricity of 0.96 - an orbit more like a comet's than a planet's. Except it's the size of Jupiter.

Needless to say, no habitability here, probably in the entire system with that going on, but scientists are hoping to study what happens to the atmosphere when it swings by the sun. Giant comet tail, maybe?

Monday, March 21, 2016

Two For...

...the price of one.

Comets, that is. One today, one tomorrow. The unusual double flyby is probably caused by them being parts of a single comet that got broken apart, likely by getting a bit too close to Jupiter. The first one may be bright enough to be seen with the naked eye, but the full moon could interfere.

The comets will be most visible in the southern hemisphere.

Friday, March 18, 2016

And, spring has...

Okay, sort of sprung. The spring equinox this year is at 12:30pm EST on March 20 - the earliest it has been since 1896.

Whether the weather will cooperate depends on where you are.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Fire in space!

Fire on a surface ship is dreaded. Fire on a spaceship? Also dreaded, and it being a very bad thing is a science fiction trope. We're about to find out just how bad.

NASA plans on intentionally setting fire to a used cargo capsule this week to find out just how fast fire spreads in the atmospheric mix we use, how microgravity affects a large fire, etc. The data will help them design better fireproofing for ships.

It might also tell science fiction writers how to accurately portray this particular kind of accident in space. I'm looking forward to the findings.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Burning Sugar To Get...


New battery technology uses sugar and carbon nanotubes to create power by releasing heat. It's non-toxic and renewable. It also has the advantage for some purposes of not losing power when stored for long periods of time - an issue with all existing battery technology.

Of course, it's not rechargeable, but one possible use is to power space probes, which often sit dormant on planned orbits for months or years.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Another Bad Idea?

...putting dinosaur traits on chickens. The goal, of course, is to understand how dinosaurs became birds (And I remember when that was a vague theory not everyone believed).

Fortunately for those of us worried about dinosaur-chicken chimeras, the altered chicks failed to hatch. Otherwise they'd have had big long legs on regular chicken bodies. Which I suppose would be kind of cute.

Other scientists found a T-Rex with a medulla bone. This is a bone female birds literally grow when they conceive, use to help them lay eggs, and then reabsorb. That makes this the first time we have actually sexed a dinosaur...and if we can find more it might tell us things like, say, which sex of certain species grew large crests.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Please don't... your new internet-based personal assistant a "Giant brain in the sky" - because we all know what that translates to.

The person guilty of this gross unfamiliarity with Terminator is Dag Kittlaus, the inventor or Siri. He's calling his cloud-based version Viv.

But also that. Get familiar with science fiction...

Friday, March 11, 2016

Eating Plastic

For a while, tracking down a bacteria that can digest plastic has been a holy grail. The newest, Ideonella sakaiensis, chows down on PET - used in bottles and clothing - by producing a special enzyme that can be isolated and used.

It breaks plastic down into easy to store chemicals that can then be used to...make more plastic. (It produces a higher quality of plastic than traditional recycling).

Gotta love those bugs.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Shout Out: Ragnarok and Roll by Keith DiCandido

Yes, this is shameless cross promotion for Making Fate.

DiCandido's Ragnarok and Roll is a collection of short stories about Cassie Zukav, who discovers she's a Norse goddess incarnate right as she also finds out Loki is trying to trigger Ragnarok through bad rock and roll.

It gets even more entertaining from there. The stories are linked, in continuity, and set in an unusual location for contemporary fantasy - Key West. With diving. DiCandido uses a concept not dissimilar from American Gods - the old trope that gods are empowered by belief and are weak in our modern world. They're very well written. I have one nit - DiCandido falls for a common confusion between Disir (female ancestral spirits that watch over their descendants) and Norns (fate goddesses)...and also forgets both are always female. But this is such a common lore mistake that I can forgive it, and it's not like I'm perfect on the matter ;). (It's always worth remembering these things are works of fiction. Especially when you get to the last story...)

But I still highly recommend it, even if I am shamelessly cross-promoting.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Tiny birds use syntax

The Japanese great tit can actually put their calls together into sentences - and the order matters. The ability to form "phrases" was considered unique to humans.

Yet more proof that what makes us special is not any one factor but the combination of all of them.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

What Dystopian and Utopian Stories Have In Common

Science fiction is full of different societies. We also have a fondness for dystopias and utopias.

On the face of it a story set in a utopia would seem to be very different from one set in a dystopia. In a utopia, society is "perfect" - or at least substantially better than ours. A dystopia is a broken society. (Many writers also create societies that are neither, such as C.J. Cherryh's Cyteen, the libertarian society of Starship Troopers, etc).

But the thing which hit me.

A story about every day life in a utopia is boring. There's really two good ways to go with utopian stories. The first is the Star Trek method - set your stories out on the frontier where society is still rough around the edges and make it about the people who agree life in a utopia is boring. The second is to write the story about the person for whom the utopia, well, isn't. The person who doesn't fit in.

The dystopian story is, by definition, about the person who can't fit in with their twisted society. The difference is that when the person doesn't fit in in a utopia, the fault is in the person (James T. Kirk doesn't fit in on a nice, quiet, tamed Earth - but fortunately they have a frontier to send him to) more than the society. By definition in a dystopia...

Which brings me to the thing they have in common.

A utopian story and a dystopian story both cast society to some degree as the antagonist.


Monday, March 7, 2016

Solar Eclipse Tomorrow

The only total eclipse of 2016 will happen tomorrow. Unfortunately, the track is over the Pacific and parts of south Asia. Folks in Alaska, Hawaii, Guam and American Samoa will get a partial eclipse, the rest of us are completely out of luck.

NASA will be livestreaming the eclipse from a front row seat, though.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Mood Rings, Out Of The Way...

...and be ready for mood robots?

Researchers at Cornell have developed light-up skin for robots, which can stretch (and thus be used on a moving body) and light up in various colors. They're hoping these will be used to help people deal with robots by changing to an appropriate "mood."

Another possible use would be in smart clothing, but I like the idea of mood robots...

Thursday, March 3, 2016


...thought it was here, but apparently not, we're back down to winter temperatures again. Still, it's starting to feel like spring. I like spring.

Summer, on the other hand... Ah well. Back to writing.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Dog Gets Uncanny Valley'd

In the video at the bottom, it takes a terrier a bit to get used to the dog robot Spot, probably because it smells all wrong.

So, does the Uncanny Valley effect also "work" on other animals? Or is the pooch just a tiny bit confused?

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Targeting SETI

Searching for alien signals. It's a hobby. Aside from the basic assumption that somebody out there is sending radio signals to aliens when we haven't done it ourselves yet (I once read a Probability Zero in Analog called "The Ears Have It" in which all the civilizations gave up on SETI...because everyone was listening and nobody was talking) - the galaxy is a big place. Our chances of picking up a random signal are very slim.

What about a signal aimed at us? It would probably be a far more reasonable strategy to pick a star we think has a planet with the right kind of life and send a narrow beam signal just for them.

Which is why some people are now saying we should target SETI to aliens who already know we're here - that is, to systems that are more or less of the right type which would be in the right place to detect Earth using the common, and relatively easy transit method. This narrows the search zone down to about 2,000ths of the sky.

It seems as good an idea as any. And maybe we should start looking at those systems.

Maybe one day we'll work out the best way to call "Hi" across empty space.