Archive for the ‘Astronomy’ Category

Ancient Christian Apologist Tertullian on Human Damage to the Environment

July 15, 2017

Some of the most vocal opponents of environmentalism and climate change in the US are politically Conservative Christians. They object to it, not just on the grounds that they believe it to be wrong scientifically, but also because they are highly suspicious of it on political and religious grounds. It is argued that the Green movement is really a pagan movement, or else a way of sneaking Socialism in through the back door through stressing the need for legislation and the regulation of industry to protect the environment. It’s also denounced as a form of Nazism, because the Nazis were also eager to protect the German environment.

It’s true that Green politics has strongly influenced some contemporary neo-Pagan religious movements, particularly Wicca, whose deities consist of an Earth mother and horned god. However, the scientific evidence on which the Green movement is based is separate and independent from any one particular religious or political group. And modern Green politics began with books such as Silent Spring in the 1960s and the Club of Rome, a gathering of concerned scientists, in the early ’70s, and not with Hitler and the Nazis.

Furthermore, writers and philosophers long before the Nazis were also acutely concerned with the threat of overpopulation and the damage humans were doing to the environment. One of them was the early Christian apologist, Tertullian, who wrote

‘Most convincing as evidence of populousness, we have become a burden to the Earth. The fruits of nature hardly suffice to sustain us, and there is a general pressure of scarcity giving rise to complaints. Need we be astonished that plague and famine, warfare and earthquake, come to be regarded as remedies, serving to prune the superfluity of population?’

This quotation was dug up by Adrian Berry, a fellow of the Interplanetary Society, Royal Astronomical Society and Royal Geographical Society. Berry is very much a man of the right, who used to write for the Torygraph. He used it to argue that people have always had exaggerated fears about the threat to society. Or alternatively, they could also be extremely complacent, such as the 2nd century AD Roman writer Pliny. Pliny wrote of the enduring splendor of the Roman Empire just before it began to collapse. Jonathan Margolis also cites in his chapter on predictions of environmental catastrophe, ‘Global Warning’, in his A Brief History of Tomorrow: The Future, Past and Present (London: Bloomsbury 2000) 89, where he also discusses the possibility that predictions of environmental collapse may be wrong.

At the moment, the majority of the world’s scientists are convinced that climate change and environmental damage caused by humanity are real, and a genuine threat to the planet, its flora and fauna, and ultimately humanity itself. Furthermore, archaeologists become increasingly aware how global changes to the environment have caused civilizations to collapse. The early Viking colonies in Greenland were destroyed in the 14th century, when the environment in the northern hemisphere became colder, making it impossible to practice European-style agriculture so far north.

Similarly, the highly developed Pueblo Indian cultures in the Chaco canyon in what is now the southwestern US collapsed and were abandoned when the climate became hostile in the 13th century. The cultures existed in an arid region of the US, using extensive irrigation canals to water their crops. The area suffered an intense drought, and unable to support themselves, the inhabitants moved away.

As for ancient Rome, one of the causes for the barbarian invasions may well have been climate change. The environment became colder from the 3rd century onwards. Central Asian tribes, such as the Huns, moved west, crossing the steppes into Europe and moving south to attack China. This displaced other tribes, such as Goths, who were settled around the Black Sea. The sea levels began to rise, so that the Frisians and other Germanic tribes settled in what is now the Netherlands, were forced to abandon low-lying farms and villages on the coasts. This may have been one of the causes of the Anglo-Saxon migrations to Britain.

In the Greek-speaking eastern Roman Empire, towns shrank, while in the west there was a movement away from the cities, partly through economic grounds. Historians have argued whether the Roman population was decimated by disease. Certainly in Rome itself, located amidst swampland, malaria was endemic, and the sheer size of the population meant that it was periodically subject to outbreaks of other diseases. And the city depended on a steady influx of new immigrants to replenish its population. And there was a constant threat of starvation. The free Roman masses depended on shipments of grain from Egypt and north Africa, and one of the elected officials in the city was responsible for securing the grain supply. Amongst the graffiti found scrawled on walls in Pompeii are election slogans urging men to vote for a particular candidate because ‘he gets good bread’.

Tertullian may well have been absolutely right about the dangers of overpopulation. And regardless of whether he was or wasn’t, the fact that he, one of the great defenders of Christian faith and doctrine in the Roman Empire, was prepared to accept and argue that overpopulation and environmental damage were a danger, shows that there is nothing inherently anti-Christian in the Green movement. This was shown a few weeks ago when the current pope, Pope Francis, criticized Trump’s government for ignoring science and failing to tackle climate change. There’s an irony here in a religious figure attacking the elected leader of a supposedly secular state for having an anti-scientific attitude. And it remains true that there is nothing fundamentally contrary to Christianity about Green politics regardless of the support for Green politics amongst peoples of other religions or none.

Antique Technology in the Science Museum: Samuel Moreland’s Calculator

July 15, 2017

Looking through one of the secondhand bookshops in Cheltenham yesterday, I found a copy of the Souvenir Guide to the Science Museum. This was a photographic guide to some of the Museum’s exhibits, which include Islamic alchemical apparatus, an iron lung, the wright flier, and a BBC television receiver from the 1920s among many, many others.

One of the early pieces of scientific equipment is a mechanical calculator constructed by the English inventor, Samuel Morland in 1666.

The guide explains

French mathematician Blaise Pascal made the first working mechanical calculator in 1642, and several mathematicians and inventors attempted to emulate or improve on his design. Morland’s device, shown here, could add, multiply and divide; the wheels were operated by a steel pin that was stored in the slot in the machine’s lid. Morland also invented a megaphone – or, as he called it, the ‘Tuba Stentorphonica’ and a water pump for spraying water to put out fires. (p. 40).

The Science Museum is, of course, also the home of the most famous of the historic calculating machines, Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine, which has been hailed as the world’s first programmable computer. It was also the central theme of Bruce Sterling’s and William Gibson’s Steampunk SF novel, The Difference Engine, which imagined an alternative 19th century, in which the Difference Engine had been built and ushered in a steam-powered information age in a Britain governed by a scientific elite under the premiership of Lord Byron.

It seems to me that Babbage’s machine was the culmination of a long process of invention, where mathematicians, scientists and engineers designed and constructed mechanical calculating machines. Pascal’s was the first of these. But I think the ultimate idea actually goes back to the 14th century Spanish poet and mystic, Ramon Llul. Alan Chapman, the astronomer and Christian apologist, says in his book, Slaying the Dragons, that Llul attempted to show that God’s existence was encoded in the structure of mathematics itself, and that this inspired a number of later writers to design calculating machines.

Apollo Astronaut Michael Collins on Sexism, the Fragile Earth and Banning Guns in Space Colonies

July 13, 2017

Last week I put up a post about a clip of Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the Moon, pulling faces at a rambling, incoherent speech made by Donald Trump. Trump was signing into law an act affirming America’s commitment to the space programme. His speech about it was less than inspiring however, and Aldrin, who not only went to the Moon himself, but has also been a staunch supporter of opening the High Frontier up to ordinary women and men, was very definitely less than impressed.

One of the books I’ve been reading recently was Flying to the Moon: An Astronaut’s Story, written by the third member of the Apollo 11 crew, Michael Collins. Collins was the pilot, who flew the Apollo spacecraft to the Moon, and then waited in lunar orbit while Armstrong and Aldrin made their historic landing, before flying back with them on the return journey to Earth. The book is Collin’s account of how he came to be astronaut. Determined to be a pilot after being allowed to hold the joystick of a passenger aircraft on which he and his family were travelling as a child, he joined the USAF and became a test pilot. He then moved on to join NASA’s space programme. He describes the rigorous training required, and his first flight into space with John Young in Gemini 10 in July 1966. He also explains how he came, reluctantly, to leave the astronaut programme for a variety of reasons, not least was the way it was stopping him from spending time with his family. And in his final chapter he, like Aldrin, looks forward to the future spread of humanity throughout the Solar system and beyond, with humans going to Mars and then Titan, a moon of Saturn, which may hold the key to the origin of life.

This isn’t an explicitly political book. Nevertheless, Collins does comment on specific issues as they affect the racial and gender composition of the astronaut programme, his perspective on the importance of the environment and why he believes guns would be banned by the inhabitants of a space colony. These are all issues which Trump, his supporters and donors in the gun manufacturers and lobbyists would strongly oppose.

In the passage where he discusses how he and the other astronauts became part of a panel, whose job was to select a fresh batch of astronauts, makes a point of explaining why only white men were selected. He then goes on to comment that although this was what was done at the time, he believes and hope that this will change, and that Blacks and women are just as capable of flying air- and spacecraft equally well. He points out that the highly technological nature of modern aircraft means that there is absolutely no biological obstacle to women piloting such high performance machines. He writes

Note that I have said “he”, because there were no women in the group, nor where there any blacks. In thinking about that, it seems to me that there were plenty of women and blacks who could get the highest marks in categories 1 and 4 [their intelligence and how badly they wanted to be astronauts], but in 1966 categories 2 and 3 [education and experience] tended to rule them out. There simply did not seem to be aeronautical engineers and experienced test pilots, who were black or women. I think, and hope, that will change in the future. Flying a modern jet aircraft does not require a great deal of strength, for one thing. Hydraulic flight controls, like power steering in a car, prefer a light touch, and women should do as good a job as men. Obviously, an airplane has now way of telling the skin colour of the person flying it. (pp. 72-3. My comments in brackets).

He describes how looking at the Earth from space made him aware how fragile it was, and of the importance of preserving the environment.

I will never forget how beautiful the earth appears from a great distance, floating silently and serenely like a blue and white marble against the pure black of space. For some reason, the tiny earth also appears very fragile, as if a giant hand could suddenly reach out and crush it. Of course, there is no one giant hand, but there are billions of smaller hands on earth, working furiously to change their home. Some of the changes being made are good, and others bad. For example, we are learning more efficient ways of catching fish, and that is good because it means more people can be fed from the oceans. If, on the other hand, these new methods result in the disappearance of species, such as whales, then that is bad. The automobile gives us great mobility, but pollutes our atmosphere. We cook cleanly and efficiently with natural gas, but we are running short of it. Newspapers and books spread knowledge, but require that trees be chopped down. It seems that nearly every advance in our civilisation has some undesirable side effects, Today’s young people are going to have to acquire the wisdom to see that future changes help our planet, not hurt it, so that it truly becomes the beautiful, clean, blue and white pea it seems to be when viewed from the moon. The earth truly is fragile, in the sense that its surface can easily shift from blue and white to black and brown. Is the riverbank a delightful spot to watch diving ducks, or is it lifeless greasy muck littered with bottles and tires? More people should be privileged to fly in space and get the chance to see the fragile earth as it appears from afar.
(p. 146).

Further on in the book, he states that future orbiting settlements would get their power from solar energy, as this would not only be abundant and free, but also clean, unlike coal. (pp. 150-1).

He also remarks on the way the Apollo missions differed from previous historic expeditions in that the explorers were unarmed, and suggests that the future inhabitants of a space colony at one of the libration points where the gravity of the Earth and Moon cancel each other out, and so named ‘Libra’, would similarly see no need for carrying weapons.

Apollo set a precedent for the future in another interesting way. It was probably the only major human expedition in which no weapons were carried. In similar fashion, no weapons would be permitted on Libra and Librans simply would not be able to understand why earth people continued to shoot one another. On Libra, if people felt hostile, they would be urged to put their energies into athletic contests or other competitive events, or simply to let off steam by going flying.

He then describes how the lower or zero gravity in the colony would allow people to fly aircraft power by their own muscles. (pp. 154-5).

Most of this is, or at least should be, non-controversial. Scientists have been warning us about the immense danger to our ecosystem, and the horrific decline in its natural wildlife as more and more habitats are destroyed, and an increasing number of species threatened with extinction, since the early ’70s. Among those warning of the ecological perils to the planet was the inspirational astronomer and NASA scientist, Carl Sagan. And indeed, one of the most powerful images that stimulated ecological awareness and the burgeoning Green movement was that picture of the Earth as a fragile, blue orb hanging in the blackness of space taken from the Moon by the Apollo astronauts. Way back in the mid-1990s the Beeb’s popular science programme, Horizon, devoted an edition, ‘Icon Earth’, to how this photo had influenced politics and culture.

The picture hasn’t just made more people aware of the urgent need to protect the environment. Some of the astronauts have spoken about how it brought home to them how artificial racial and national divisions are. They point out that there are now boundaries visible from space. Helen Sharman, the British astronaut who flew with the Russians to Mir in the 1980s, states in her book about her voyage that space helps to foster international understanding and cooperation. She observes that astronauts are the least nationalistic people.

As for guns, it doesn’t take much imagination to realise that shooting in the enclosed environment of space habitat could have truly disastrous consequences through the damage it could do to the machinery and fabric of the colony itself, and their ability to preserve human life in the harsh environment of space. A bullet through the outer skin of a spacecraft could lead the escape of its air, causing those within to die of suffocation and decompression.

Trump, however, is supported by the racist and misogynist Alt Right, who would like to roll back Black Civil Rights and women’s social and political gains since the 1960s, while the Republican party as a whole is generously funded by the NRA and the gun lobby, and the Koch brothers and other industrial magnates. The Koch brothers own much of the American petrochemical industry, and so, like many of the other multimillionaire businessmen, are very strongly opposed to any kind of environmental protection. The Kochs in particular are responsible for closing down awkward parts of the American meteorology and environmental science laboratories when they dare to issue warnings about the damage industry is causing to the country’s natural beauty and wildlife. They are then replaced with other institutions, also funded by the Kochs and those like them, which then conveniently deny the reality of climate change. The Republicans and their supporters in industry have also set up fake ‘astroturf’ Green movements, like Wise Use, which seek to undermine the genuine environmental movement.

Given the way the experience of looking back at our beautiful planet from space has transformed political, social and cultural perspectives all across the world, you can understand why some astronauts just might feel they have excellent reasons for pulling faces at their president.

Real Warp Physics: Travelling to the Pleiades in a Hyperspace with Imaginary Time in 1.3 Years

June 20, 2017

Now for something a little more optimistic. Don’t worry – I’ll get back to bashing the Tories and their vile policies shortly.

Looking through a few back copies of Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, I found a paper by a Japanese physicist, Yoshinari Minami, ‘Travelling to the Stars: Possibilities Given by a Spacetime Featuring Imaginary Time’ in JBIS vol. 56, no. 5/6, May/June 2003, pp. 205-211. The possibility of Faster Than Light travel is taken seriously by a number of physicists, engineers and space scientists, and a number of papers on the possibility of using warp drive or other advanced systems to travel to the stars have been published since Marcel Alcubierre published his paper showing that warp drive was possible, if only in theory, in the 1990s. Incidentally, one of Alcubierre’s names using the Spanish system was ‘Moya’, which was also the name of the living space ship in the SF TV series, Farscape.

In the article, Minami discusses the physics of hyperspace, using some seriously difficult maths to prove that it is in theory possible to travel to the Pleiades, otherwise known as the Seven Sisters, a star cluster 410 light years away in 1.3 Earth years. Without some form of FTL drive a round trip to the Pleiades in a spacecraft travelling at 0.99999 per cent of the speed of light would take 820 years, although due to time dilation the crew would only experience the journey as 3.6 years long.

Minami acknowledges that imaginary time is a difficult concept, and gives some examples of how contemporary scientists are nevertheless incorporating it into their theories and experiments. For example, Stephen Hawking has used imaginary time as part of his attempt to unite relativity and quantum physics. In real time, the universe has a beginning and an end in singularities in which current physics breaks down. However, no such boundaries exist in imaginary time, and so imaginary time may be far more basic as a fundamental property of the cosmos.

He also discusses the way quantum tunnelling is utilised in a number of electronics components. These are the tunnel diode, the tunnel transistor, the tunnel diode charge transformer logic and other devices. Quantum tunnelling is the phenomenon in which a sub-atomic particle can travel slightly faster than light if it has imaginary momentum.

This is seriously mind-blowing stuff. I can remember the excitement back in the 1990s or perhaps the early part of this century, when a team of physicists showed it was possible to use quantum tunnelling to send information slightly faster than the speed of light, something which was previously thought impossible. For SF fans, this raises the possibility that one day Faster Than Light communication devices – the ansibles of Ursula le Guin and the Dirac Telephone of James Blish, could become a reality.

The paper then discusses the possibility of using wormholes or cosmological theories, which posit that the universe has extra dimensions, such as Kaluza-Klein Theory, Supergravity, Superstrings, M theory and D-brane theory to enter hyperspace. Minami states that one form of wormhole – the Euclidean – is considered to include imaginary time in their topology. However, using such a wormhole would be extremely difficult, as they’re smaller than an attempt, suffer fluctuations and the destination and way back is ultimately unknown.

He therefore does not make any detailed suggestion how a future spacecraft could enter hyperspace. But if a spaceship was able to enter hyperspace after accelerating to with a infinitesimal fraction of the speed of light, a flight which lasted for 100 hours in hyperspace would appear to last only 70 hours to an observer on Earth.

He then considers a mission in which a spaceship leaves Earth at a tenth or a fifth the speed of light. After escaping from the solar system, the ship then accelerates to near-light speed. Such a spacecraft would be able to reach the Pleiades in 1.8 years ship time, which 1.3 years have passed to the scientists waiting back on Earth. This method of transport would not violate the causality principle, and could be used at all times and everywhere back in real space.

I don’t pretend for a single moment to be able to follow the maths. All I can say is that, if a hyperspace with an imaginary time exists, then, as Star Trek’s Captain Jean-Luc Picard would say, ‘Make it so!’

The Sky at Night on the Vatican Observatory

June 14, 2017

Tomorrow evening, Thursday, 15th June 2017 at 11 O’clock on BBC4 the Beeb’s repeating its Sky at Night special on the Vatican, ‘Inside God’s Observatory’. This was first shown on Sunday at 10.00 pm.

The blurb for it for Sunday in the Radio Times runs

Maggie Aderin-Peacock and Chris Lintott have been granted rare access to the Vatican and its little known observatory, the Specola Vaticana, perched on a hill top 30 km outside Rome. They explore the observatory’s rich history, going inside the Vatican walls to visit the Tower of the Winds – a secret antique sundial that helped revolutionise the calendar – and the remains of a nest of telescopes, atop an old medieval church where the science of spectroscopy was born. (57).

A few years ago, New Scientist interviewed the head of the observatory, Guy Consolamano, an American, who is a monk as well as an astronomer. There have also been other programmes on the observatory on the Beeb over the years. I seem to recall there being one in the 1990s on the radio. I’ve got a feeling the Observatory was set up by one of the popes as an attempt to undo some of the damage to the church’s reputation caused by Galileo’s trial for heresy. It was to show that the church wasn’t against science, and I believe that since then the popes have been very careful not to say anything about the scientific validity of scientific theories.

The Observatory’s also interesting because in the 19th century, its mathematical calculations were performed by nuns, who were referred to as ‘computers’. Which is obviously of interest for the history of women in science.

Stephen Hawking and Other Celebs Urge Public to Vote Labour

June 6, 2017

Mike over at Vox Political has put up a piece reporting that Ricky Gervaise, Dr Stephen Hawking and Mark Ruffalo, the actor, who played Dr. Bruce Banner, the alter ego of the Incredible Hulk, have all urged the public to vote Labour on Thursday.

Gervaise issued a Tweet stating he wasn’t telling people which way to vote, but it was a fact that the only way to keep the Tories out was to vote for Jeremy Corbyn.

Mark Ruffalo stated that he humbly endorsed Jeremy Corbyn, as he offers people an alternative to the corporate status quo, which never ends well for people. This prompted John Prescott to Tweet ‘Hulk smash Tories’.

Indeed he would. Banner and the Hulk in the original Marvel comics were profoundly countercultural figures. The Hulk was anger incarnate, born in the radiation blast of an American nuclear test when Banner tried to save teenager Rick. And Rick was very much a ‘rebel without a cause’, a youth, who’d driven into the test zone, heedless of his own safety, because he didn’t feel society had anything for him.

While Banner was very much a square, whose girlfriend was the daughter of the commanding officer in charge of the test, the tenor of the strip was very much anti-militarist. The commanding officer hated the Hulk, and had resolved to destroy him. The Hulk, however, really only wanted to be left alone, and so one constant theme was the running battle between the Hulk and the US army. Ang Lee’s film version of the strip, which unfortunately flopped, got this part of the Hulk’s characterisation absolutely right. And in the 1970s, the anti-militarist message of the strip became stronger. In one story, for example, Banner discovered and did his best to oppose dehumanising military experiments to link soldier’s brains to battle robots, experiments that had resulted in the troopers themselves feeling robotic and mechanical.

The influence of the Vietnam War in dehumanising a generation of American young men, to turn them into ruthless monsters responsible for horrific atrocities, is shown very clearly here.

And one real-life physicist, who has also come out for the Labour party is Cosmologist Dr. Stephen Hawking. Hawking told the Independent and the Mirror that he was voting Labour, because another five years of the Tories would be a disaster for the NHS, the police and other public services.

His endorsement has been welcomed by people like Dr. Alex Gates. Hawking is best known for his book, A Brief History of Time, though his background is in Black Holes. Dr Hawking even has a variety of radiation named after him. Black Holes, or rather the Event Horizons around them, are gradually evaporating, and the radiation they give off is called ‘Hawking Radiation’.

And so Dr. Gates quipped that Hawking had spotted the Black Hole in the Tories’ NHS budget.

One space scientist, who I feel would definitely have supported Jeremy Corbyn over here and Bernie Sanders in his own country, is Dr. Carl Sagan. Older readers of this blog may remember Sagan from his TV blockbuster history of science, Cosmos, and his SF novel, Contact, which was turned into a film with Jodie Foster as the astronomer heroine, who travels through a wormhole to make contact with an alien civilisation.

I very definitely don’t share Sagan’s views on religion. He was a religious sceptic and a founding member of CSICOP. But he was also a man of the Left, who hated imperialism and militarism, and supported the burgeoning Green movement. In the 1980s he warned that a nuclear war would result in a devastating global ‘nuclear winter’ of the type created by the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

It’s since been shown that this wouldn’t actually occur. But Sagan was right to press for nuclear disarmament, and absolutely right to oppose the new Cold War Reagan and Maggie Thatcher were trying to whip up against the Russians.

He was also critical of the design of the space shuttle. This was supposed to be the vehicle that would open space up to just about everyone, provided you were fit enough to stand the three Gs of acceleration into orbit. The Challenger disaster put an end to that.

Sagan informed the public that the original design for the Shuttle had been for a smaller vehicle, which would have been purely civilian and much safer and more effective. However, the American military had stopped this, because they wanted a larger vehicle to carry their spy satellites. The result was the over-engineered machine, which exploded at least twice, and whose launches had to be cancelled because of engineering problems.

Sagan died of prostate cancer in the 1990s. He was a brilliant scientist and visionary, who speculated about life on Mars and Venus, and, like Hawking, was a staunch advocate of the colonisation of space. And he was inspiration to a generation of young people to have an interest in space and science. One of the most obvious examples of this is Dr Brian Cox, who freely acknowledges Sagan’s influence.

One feels that Sagan would have firmly resisted everything Bush, Blair, and now Trump, Cameron and May have done to destroy the environment and spread carnage around the world through their wars in the Middle East, quite apart from the Trump’s administration hatred of mainstream science.

You don’t have to use Sagan’s ‘spaceship of the imagination’ to travel light years to see the immense harm Theresa May and her party have inflicted on the NHS, the public services and our national security.

And you don’t have to be a great scientist to realise that the Tories’ attacks on education – their spending cuts, privatisation of schools, and burdening students with tens of thousands in debts – will stop the country’s young people fulfilling their academic potential, regardless of the bilge they may spout about encouraging the STEM subjects.

And I think Hawking has spoken out about the dangers of May’s cuts to science funding and research.

The only party that is ready to undo all of this is Labour.

So please, vote for Corbyn on June 8th.

Steampunk Car – and the Real Victorian Vehicle that Inspired It?

May 28, 2017

On Friday I put up a post about the Science Fiction sub-genre of Steampunk, and some of the real Victorian inventions that have inspired it, and which even today seem like things from the imagination of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. Steampunk takes its imagination from 19th century Science Fiction writers like Wells and Verne, and pioneering scientists, such as Charles Babbage, the inventor of the first mechanical computer, the Difference Engine. It imagines what might have happened, if the Victorians had developed space travel, time machines and a true information age. William Gibson and Bruce Sterling depicted a Victorian Britain, which had indeed entered a steam-driven, mechanical computer age following the construction of Babbage’s machine in their 1990 book, The Difference Engine.

This week, one of the topical issues programmes on Radio 4 is going to be discussing Britain’s serious lack of engineers, and ask how more young people can be persuaded to take up the subject.

It’s a complex issue, but I suggested in my piece that one way might be to harness the interest in Victorian-style SF hardware that exists amongst the fans of the genre. I also noted that you could possibly combine this with an appeal to the petrolheads, whose hobbies are restoring and working on cars and motorbikes, by getting people interested in the real, steam-driven motor vehicles that were developed during the 19th century on the way to the invention of the modern car.

There are steampunk conventions in Britain, America and other parts of the world. The other year, Phil Jupitus presented a programme on it on Radio 4. The members of the genre wear Victorian-style clothes, weapons, and pseudo-scientific devices inspired by the esoteric technology of this age that never was. And some of them have made their own, steampunk road vehicles. This is a very brief clip of one such car I found on YouTube, which had been lovingly made by a fan of the genre.

The blurb about it on YouTube merely describes Steampunk as a genre, but doesn’t say anything about the car itself. But the metal semicircle arcing over the vehicle suggests that it was partly inspired by a real Victorian invention, the velocipede designed by Richard Hemmings of Connecticutt, in 1869 (below). Hemmings said that his five year old son could propel a similar machine of about 5 feet ‘at a good pace’.

From Jeremy Sumner, ‘How Pedal, Steam and Petrol Put Horse Power Off the Roads’, in John Mortimer, ed., The Engineer: Highlights of 120 Years (London: Morgan-Grampian Ltd 1976) 124.

Looking through this book, which is a glossy, commemorative edition of the magazine, is fascinating for anyone with an interest in the history of technology, and carries a treasure-trove of inspiring ideas for enthusiasts of the genre. There are real life steam carriages and buses, a mid-Victorian mechanical traffic signals, an amphibious paddle steamer, a Zeppelin, and a petrol-driven tractor from 1916, which ran on caterpillar tracks. There are also designs for great towers in London to rival France’s Eiffel Tower, including one which would have been 1,240 feet tall. And instead of the Chunnel, Britain and France would have been linked by a truly colossal bridge.

I intend to post a piece about the book and its astounding and inspiring inventions later. I’ve no doubt that many of the people building vehicles and other gadgets based on their own interest in this particular genre, probably have an interest in science and engineering anyway. But the fact that people are trying to recreate and create science fictional Victorian cars and other machines shows that the steam punk genre does possess the power to inspire people with an interest in science and invention. Just as, no doubts, early generations were drawn to space and astronomy through the adventures of Dan Dare.

Weak and Wobby May Does Massive U-Turn over ‘Dementia Tax’

May 22, 2017

This also shows how much pressure and desperate the Tories are feeling from a resurgent Labour. In her manifesto four days ago, ‘strong and stable’ May said that she intended taking the value of people’s houses into consideration when assessing the amount they would be charged for their social care. This would lead to people having to take out ‘equity release’, in which their houses would be sold and the money used to pay for their care, while allowing them to remain as tenants.

Florence, one of the great commenters to this blog, has pointed out just how nasty this policy is in a comment she posted to an earlier piece I did about it. She wrote

Equity release is not the same as insurance. Using equity release to pay for care is already available and has many times been shown to be the worse possible use of a house for the elderly. They are essentially unpaid mortgages where the interest accrues along with the original debt, so any capital increase in value is eaten up by interest and charges. The resident can be forced out of the house at any time. Instead of banning these deals the May cabal want to force us to use them.

Insurance will only be available to the young and fit or through workplace schemes. No one will insure a retired person.

Not surprisingly, large sections of the population did not welcome having the government force them to sell the homes they saved for throughout their lives. With the result that May has now made a U-Turn so fast, that she’s left skidmarks in the road, if not in her underwear.

It’s a very quick U-Turn indeed, as only this morning various Tory talking heads were appearing on breakfast TV defending it, saying that the Tories were showing resolve in coming to grips with Britain’s aging population. Now she’s telling everyone she’s going to put a cap on the amount they will be expected to pay. Even though her ministers, like Jeremy Hunt, have been saying all week. She’s also gone on the offensive – and to me, she’s always been very offensive – and accused Labour of scaremongering.

But, as various people on social media have noticed, it’s May herself who appears scared. Or ‘frit’, as the former Leaderene used to say in her native Grantham patois.

Mike’s posted up two videos of her speaking, stating that her own fear is evident from her body language and tone of voice.

One person has posted a picture of a backbone, with a note beside it saying ‘Wanted for Theresa May’. Marcus Chown also posted a photograph of a jelly, to show how weak and wobbly May is. Chown’s a scientist and science writer, who’s written for New Scientist, and published a book on the Cosmic Background Radiation, The Afterglow of Creation, far back in the 1990s. But you really don’t need the Hubble Space Telescope or Jodrell Bank to see how desperate May and her fellows now are.

She’s now telling everyone that she’s going to keep her new promise to cap charges for social care. And the Daily Mail, like the Tory lapdog it is, has issued an article hailing her as an ‘honest politician’.

No, no she isn’t. Not remotely.

Among the various promises and pledges she’s broken are her support for ‘Remain’, which has now definitely been ditched in favour of Brexit; her promise to raise National Insurance contributions from the self-employed; she claimed she wanted to put workers in the boardroom – that went very quickly; and her stated resolution not to hold a snap election. Along with a pledge to reduce the sugar content in children’s foods.


As Mike states in his article, it’s not a complete list.

In fact, May’s party lies frequently and shamelessly. Remember when David Cameron, May’s predecessor, was telling everyone that the Tories would ring-fence NHS spending against cuts? How he, IDS and the rest of the Tory faithful claimed they were trying to protect the NHS for New Labour’s closure of hospitals up and down the country? These policies were ditched almost as soon as Cameron got his foot in No. 10. As was his statement that his would be the ‘greenest’ government of all. That was ditched along with the little windmill outside his house, and replaced with a huge support for fracking and other environmentally destructive policies.

And May’s new pledge about capping the Dementia Tax is, in my opinion, another lie, from a party of liars.

The Fantastic Space Art of David A. Hardy

April 22, 2017

This is another couple of videos from the redoubtable Martin Kennedy showcasing the amazing work of yet another space and Science Fiction artist, David A. Hardy. Hardy is one of the longest running space and SF artist working. The entry on him in Stuart Holland’s Sci-Fi Art: A Graphic History, runs:

David Hardy’s introduction to astronomical illustration was a somewhat rushed affair. In 1954, as a mere 18-year-old, he was commissioned to produce eight black and white illustrations for a book by legendary UK astronomer Patrick Moore: Suns, Myths, and Men. He had just five days to create them before British national service-conscription-required him to join the Royal Air Force. The commission was all the more remarkable as Hardy had only painted his first piece of astronomical art four years previously, inspired by the work of Chesley Bonestell.

Since those early days, Hardy (1936-) has garnered numerous awards for artwork that spans the science fiction/hard science divide. Born in Bourneville, Birmingham, in the UK, he honed his talents painting chocolate boxes for Cadbury’s. By 1965 he had become a freelance illustrator, beginning a career that resulted in covers for dozens of books and magazines, both factual, such as New Scientist, Focus, and various astronomical publications, for which he also writes; and SF, including Analog and Fantasy & Science Fiction. 1972 saw the publication of Challenge of the Stars, which Hardy not only illustrated but co-wrote with Patrick Moore (the book was updated in 1978 as New Challenge of the Stars). A bestseller, it joined the select pantheon of book that influenced a new generation of up-and-coming astronomical artists.

By now, Hardy’s work was receiving international recognition, and in 1979 he was nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Professional Artist. Tow years later, another book followed, Galactic Tours, which as the name suggests is a “factitious” guidebook for the interstellar tourist. As a result of the book, travel company Thomas Cook approached Hardy about becoming a consultant on the future of tourism in space-long before Richard Branson had planned Virgin’s conquest of the stars.

Hardy has written an SF novel, Aurora: A Child of Two Worlds; worked on the movie The Neverending Story, and on TV (Cosmos, Horizon, The Sky at Night, Blake’s Seven), and produced record covers for – unsurprisingly – Holst’s The Planets and for bands such as Hawkwind, the Moody Blues, and Pink Floyd.

In 2004, Hardy’s long-standing partnership with Patrick Moore culminated in the award-winning Futures, in which the two explored the changing perceptions of space exploration since they first collaborated in the ’50s, the ’70s (the era of Challenge of the Stars) and into the 21st century. Artistically, Hardy has also embraced the growing digital trend that started in the approach to the new millennium. While still painting in acrylic and oil, he now uses Photoshop as a matter of course.

In March 2003, Hardy was paid perhaps the ultimate accolade an astronomical artist can receive: he had an asteroid [13329] named after him. Discovered ini September, 1998, it was christened Davidhardy=1998 SB32-high praise indeed!
(P. 130).

Several of the paintings in the video come from the Challenge of the Stars and its updated version.

The videos also include his cover illustration for Arthur C. Clarke’s The Snows of Olympus: A Garden on Mars – the History of Man’s Colonisation of Mars, which is another ‘future history’, this time of the terraforming of the Red Planet.

I have to say that I’m really impressed he also worked on Blake’s 7. This was low-budget British SF, but it had some create scripts and a really beautiful spaceship in The Liberator. And I would far rather go into space on something designed by Hardy, and operated by Thomas Cook, than by Branson.

Arthur C. Clarke Book on the Terraforming of Mars

March 18, 2017

Arthur C. Clarke – The Snows of Olympus: A Garden on Mars – The Illustrated History of Man’s Colonization of Mars (London: Victor Gollancz 1994).

A little while ago I put up a number of articles on the possible terraforming of various planets in our solar system. The prime candidate at the moment would be Mars, but people have also suggested ways to terraform Venus and the Moon. I’ve managed to dig out from my bookshelves a copy of Arthur C. Clarke’s book, The Snows of Olympus, which I bought way back in the 1990s. Clarke’s been called ‘The Space Prophet’ because of his article published in a radio hobbyists’ magazine shortly after the War predicting geostationary communications satellites. He has jokingly said in an article ‘How I Lost a Million Dollars in My Spare Time’ that he should have patented the concept, and so made himself a billionaire because of its immense value to the telecommunications industry. This book is no less prophetic in that it uses computer simulations to depict the gradual greening of the Red Planet over a thousand year period from the next few centuries to c. 3000.

The book has a prologue, in which Clarke gives the text of a speech he gave to future Martian colonists as part of the Planetary Society’s ‘Visions of Mars Project’. Launched by the late and much-missed astronomer and space visionary, Carl Sagan, this was a project to send the future colonists the gift of a collection of SF short stories about Mars aboard two probes due to land there. There’s then a short introduction in which Clarke lays out the aims of the book. The first chapter, ‘Prelude to Mars’, discusses the history of the exploration of the Red Planet by terrestrial astronomers and writers, such as Giovanni Schiaparelli, Percival Lowell, H.G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs, C.S. Lewis in Out of the Silent Planet, and the controversy surrounding the supposed ‘face’ on Mars, made by Richard Hoagland and others.

Chapter 2 – ‘The Curtain Rises’ – is on the probes sent to explore Mars, such as the Mariner probes and discussion between himself, Sagan, Ray Bradbury and the JPL’s Bruce Murray at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory on the probes and their findings. He goes on to discuss Viking probes and the debate about American and Russian cooperative ventures in space research. This last ended for a time because of international tensions created by the Solidarity crisis in Poland.

Chapter 3 – ‘Going There’, describes the problems and suggested methods for reaching Mars, establishing crewed bases there, including various types of rocket from the conventional chemical to nuclear-thermal and atomic; solar sails and space elevators, George Bush seniors’ intention to launch a crewed mission to Mars by 2019, and the tasks that would immediately face the astronauts landing there.

Chapter 4- ‘Virtual Explorations’ is on the use of computers and VR to explore and map Mars, and particularly the Vistapro programme used in the generation of many of the images in the book.

Chapter 5 is on the artistic and computer depictions of Olympus Mons, the planet’s highest mountain and the gradual reclamation of its surface by vegetation, beginning with lichens, during the long centuries of terraforming. This culminates in the emergence of liquid water and creation of a sea surrounding the mountain.

Chapter 6 does the same for Eos Chasma, the ‘Chasm of the Dawn’, in the Valles Marineris.

Chapter 7 shows the same process as it would affect the Noctes Labyrinthes – the Labyrinth of Night. This forecasts the growth of forests in this part of Mars, beginning with pines but later including deciduous trees.

Chapter 8 – ‘The Longest Spring’ discusses the various methods that could be used to terraform Mars, such as coating the ice caps with carbon from Mars’ moon, Phobos, the use of orbiting mirrors to melt them, raising its temperature by turning Phobos into a miniature sun for about 40 days using ‘muon resonance’ – a form of nuclear reaction, and bombarding the planet with comets to cover it with water, and ‘Von Neumann’ machines that would gradually terraform the planet automatically.

‘Disneymars’ looks forward to a museum display and audiovisual presentation that would show the colonists what their planet would look like in the future as the terraforming progresses.

Chapter 9 – ‘Concerning Ends and Means’ discusses the moral dimension of terraforming, the immense historical importance of exploration and the need to continue this exploration to the Red Planet in order to preserve human civilisation and progress.

There are two appendices. The first is an extract from a speech, The Mars Project: Journeys beyond the Cold War, by US senator and WWII hero, Spark Matsunaga. The second, ‘So You’re Going to Mars’, is fictional advice given by the immigration authorities to people moving from Earth to Mars.

The quality of the computer graphics is mixed. Many of them, which were without doubt absolutely astonishing for the time, now look rather crude and dated as the technology has improved. Others, however, still stand up very well even today. The quality of the computer simulations of the terraforming process can be seen from this image below of what Eos Chasma might look like in 2500 AD.

There are also plenty of illustrations of Mars, rendered using more traditional artistic methods such as painting, including photos of Percival Lowell’s own drawings of what he believed was the planet’s network of canals.

Although the computer tools may have been superseded and improved in the decades since the book’s publication, I think the science, and the social issues Clarke discusses, are still solidly relevant and contemporary. Certainly there is now a popular movement to send humans to the Red Planet at some point in the coming decades, and prospective future colonists have even come forward to volunteer a few years ago. There is, however, a greater awareness of the medical dangers from radiation and microgravity that would affect – and possibly destroy – a mission to Mars. The dream, however, is still there, as shown by the success of the film The Martian a few years ago.