And the science keeps on rolling in…

12 12 2015

Well, the avalanche of new science just keeps on rolling in…

First off is the news that they’ve run the first test to get nuclear fusion working at Max Planck Institute in Germany. See here for details. This is still at the experimental stages, bit so far so good. Of course there are other hot fusion experiments being done and prepared around the world. It’s now a case of who gets there fast enough to corner the market in the technology. But the bottom line is that the use of fossil fuels will be consigned to history within this century.

Then there’s those bright spots on the dwarf planet, Ceres.The scientists say they are due to salts. Most likely salt is the magnesium sulphate.

 
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Not sure what the implications are of this (except this will disappoint those who were hoping it was an indication that aliens exist).

NASA has put together a visualisation of the space weather that New Horizons had to pass through to get to Pluto. By all accounts it was a stormy ride. See here for details.

The Japanese probe, Akatsuki, has finally made into orbit around the planet, Venus. (Which given other circumstances, is rather appropriate timing, but more about that in a future post.) See here for details.

And finally for this post, comes that news that Tesla’s boss, Elon Musk, along with Linkedin co-founder Reid Hoffman and Paypal Co-founder Peter Thiel, are creating OpenAI, a nonprofit organisation devoted to “[advancing] digital intelligence in the way that is most likely to benefit humanity as a whole, unconstrained by a need to generate financial return.” Of particular interest is the idea that AI should be used to save the world from advanced AI. See here for details. 

Does this last item sound familiar? If not let me give you a clue:

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As you know from my previous post, I’m working on the C.A.T. novel. (C.A.T.’s still purring about the Honourable Mention in the Writers of the Future contest for his 5th C.A.T. story by the way…). And yes, the theme of AI protecting humans from AI is going to developed further in that novel, but it is not the major theme, though if does have significant consequences in the novel… Hey… maybe I ought to… well I’ll leave your imaginations to finish the sentence.

 





A couple of news items

5 12 2015

I’m absolutely delighted that I have got an Honourable Mention in the 4th quarter of the 2014/15 Writers of the Future contest. It’s for my 5th C.A.T. story – Eternal Vigilance.

This is the 2nd Honourable mention, the first being for my 4th C.A.T. story – Space Blind. What this does mean is that the first two major chapters of my C.A.T. novel have received this award! Yes I did say chapters, with their all their lose ends a-dangling, and not the full allowable length so that the imaginative scope was limited. So well pleased.

Over at SFF Chronicles, Kraxon e-magazine is holding a vote for the favourite story of the year. My short story – Flame of Desire – is eligible. You have to be a member of SFF Chronicles to be able to vote. See here for details. Even if you’re not a member, go and read the stories – they’re all something rather special. Enjoy!

 





Vacancy – Science Fiction Role

17 10 2015

The rumblings about the potential dangers of developing technologies has got the attention of the United Nations. The event, organized by Georgia’s UN representatives and the UN Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI), was set up to foster discussion about the national and international security risks posed by new technologies. There was a focus on artificial intelligence. See more about the article here.

This does not come as a surprise to me. You only need to look at my short stories – Agents of Repair (in Jupiter Issue 29 – Thyone) and Neptune’s Angel.

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This is a good example of what I mean about progressive science fiction – pointing out the potential impact of the way science and technology could develop.

But there is far more to the impact of artificial intelligence than I have portrayed in these stories.

  1. I knew the potential dangers of what I was writing about and was very careful to miss out some of the crucial technology bits. This was in part not to scare the knowledgable readers and in part not to encourage the development of artificial intelligence along certain ‘promising’ lines of development that could lead to problems.
  2. I have since been trying to predict how things could go with the ever increasing capabilities of artificial intelligence. It’s not as straightforward as it might at first appear. There are a lot of ifs and buts knocking around. More work needs to be done by the professionals in this area to get a better of handle on the matter. I just know enough to know how complicated and convoluted the debate will become.
  3. A crunch point will come when a fundamental decision about a matter of principle needs to made. Do we continue to develop artificial intelligence or do we curtail its abilities? Experience with other technologies suggest you can’t stop technology being developed that has the capability for being used for nasty purposes. What you can do is ring fence the technology for it being used for beneficial activities.
  4. But that requires the necessary legislation to be put into place.
  5. Whatever happens with artificial intelligence, it is going to affect the way we live. You only need to look at the difference home computers have made since the 1980s and the internet since the 1990s to our lives.

This is where science fiction has a crucial role to play. It can let people know what is coming around the corner with technology and point out what should be done with it to avoid disasters. It’s a kind of education process for the person in the street who does understand technology-speak (I refuse to use the word technobabble here because it is not babble).

Yes there are some science fiction stories being published about various forms of artificial intelligence. A few of them are even in the near future, but they are too few and far between all the other science fiction stories. There is definitely a vacant role within science fiction that is not being satisfied – portraying potential near future artificial intelligence roles in society and their consequences.





Water, water everywhere….

30 09 2015

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The news channels have been full of it – that water occasionally flows on the surface of Mars. The scientists have deduced this is possible by the changing patterns of dark streaks on the planet’s surface over the past 15 years. Even better they have identified salts lying on the surface that induce the water (magnesium perchlorate, chlorate and chloride) to drop the freezing point of water to 80 degrees and the vaporisation by a factor of 10. It is thought these salts actually pull water out of the thin Martian atmosphere. Which all adds to liquid water sticking to the surface. 

But what about the implications that where there’s water there’s likely to be microbial life? Will they not contaminate any humans who happen to drop by? And what us contaminating Mars?

Well here’s the thing…

We have for a long time been receiving meteorites from the Martian surface. Although a lot of material is open to vacuum during flight that would kill off air-breathing microbes, we know some microbes exist that don’t need to breath any air. These microbes could have tucked themselves into the meteoroid’s deep crevices and made the journey to Earth. That means Mars’ ordinary microbes could have found themselves still alive after reaching Earth. Either way cross-contamination will have occurred between Earth and Mars. So there should be no problem with sending humans to Mars.

But how can we find out for sure?

The scientists could re-examine the meteorites known to have come from Mars to Earth for any evidence of the transfer of microbial life. There would know far better than I what evidence to look for.

It’s the obvious next step, so I’m surprised that I haven’t found any announcement to that effect amongst all the fanfare.

The data download from New Horizons continues to amaze. Quite a lot more detail has been identified on Pluto and its biggest moon Charon.

Whilst there are 17 known solid crystalline phases of water, the only one that is likely to found on the surface is Ice XI – An orhtorhombic low-temperature equilibrium form of hexagonal ice. It is ferroelectric i.e. has a spontaneous electric polarisation that can be reversed by the application of an external electric field. Ice XI is considered the most stable configuration of ice Ih

I’d love to know what the electromagnetic interaction between the solar wind and Ice XI is, and how it is affecting Pluto, particularly as it has such an eccentric orbit around the Sun and actually spins on its axis. This is a major difference from Triton, which comprises similar materials, but within Neptune’s magnetosphere.

[I have an interest in Triton because of the C.A.T. series of books, so it’s only natural that I should do a comparison.]

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What this solar wind to Ice XI connection means is there is room for an interesting short story. I’m sure someone somewhere must be writing one…





QED – Quid est dixit!

8 02 2015

I came across an interesting article regarding the question: ‘Is scientific proof a story?’ You can find the article here.

It reports on a discussion panel between Marcus du Sautoy, Ben Okri, Roger Penrose and Laura Marcus.

I must be one of the very few people who has a foot in both the mathematics and writing fiction camps. (I’ve got Master of Arts in both… yes I did say Arts and I did say both!)

The panel came to the consensus was that narrative and proof were not, after all, the same thing. 

I beg to differ. The development of fuzzy logic in mathematics, led by Lotfi Zadeh in the sixties, is a way of describing ideas and concepts that do not have a precise meaning and how they can interrelate to each other. For instance what one person describes as big, another person will describe as medium. The english language is made of hundreds of thousands of works that have such an imprecise meaning, as well as ones that have a precise meaning. It is quite feasible to view the language as one very large system of fuzzy logic.

So a narrative can boil down to a proof by fuzzy logic. And like all proofs they can be right or wrong. It was interesting to note that Ben Okri said that literary creativity is highly rigorous (which in a sense aligns with my point about language being a fuzzy logic). You know what? He’s right. Literary creativity boils down to being right or wrong. (It’s also one of the reasons why it takes me so long to write a story.)

Where does science fiction come into this picture? Science fiction uses science as a basis for its narrative. Science has some of the feel of mathematics with all its proofs to it. It also has a foot in the literary creativity camp. You would think that the disciplines required for both these camps would make it easier to move from one to the other.

Not really. Why? Because the discipline of literary creativity is different from that of mathematics. Or putting it another way, mathematics has not yet come up with the theorems to describe ‘the logic’ behind literary creativity.

C.A.T. jumping in here… why do you people think I can exist? 





It’s that BSFA Awards Time of the Year

9 01 2015

Ho hum… it’s BSFA award nomination time – and will continue to be so until 31st January 2015 for those works published in 2014. So for the record (not that I expect any nominations) those short stories of mine that are eligible are:

  • Under the Red Moon, Nebula Rift, Vol. 2, No. 2, March 2014

[Mrrooooowwww…. you’ve forgotten my C.A.T.-mas 2 short story…. how can my author do such a silly stewpid thing as forget me…I’m going to sulk, you useless lump of meat that considers yourself part of the human race… hhhiiiiiisssssss… change that list now and I mean NOW! ]

Oops… I think I’m in trouble… correction I KNOW I’m in trouble. So I had better add the other short story that I published this year

How to nominate can be found here.

The list of current nominations can be found here.

NEXT YEAR – IT WILL BE A DIFFERENT STORY!

 





So that was 2014 SF-wise

19 12 2014

It’s that time of year when Christmas is upon us and we look back at what we’ve achieved during the past 12 months. As happens with most of us, not as much as we planned or hoped for, but one or two unexpected surprises put into the mix.

The year started out with a lot of promise, having two short stories published in succession. And then nothing until December. The last would have been November, had it not been for the unfortunate SpaceShipTwo crash on 31st October, which killed the co-pilot and badly injured the pilot. At the time it was due to be published there was a lot of speculation that the cause was a fuel leak. My story started out with a potential fuel leak on and experimental spacecraft. So out of respect for the family, friends and work colleagues of the pilots, its publication was delayed until December. You can find Tyrell’s Flight here.

The spring saw a couple of nice surprises. The first was my first semi-pro sale of a short story to Ian Sales’ Aphrodite’s Terra anthology. Hopefully this will now get published next year. The second was C.A.T.’s 4th novelette getting an honourable mention in the Writers of the Future contest. I got a nice little certificate, which I’ve now framed. I suspect for various reasons this will be the only certificate I’ll get from that illustrious organisation.

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Of course I was there at Loncon3 in August – where else would I have been – and I was actually on a panel alongside the more famous writers like Adam Roberts, Hannu R and Elizabeth Moon. For me the highlight was Friday evening’s concert by the symphony orchestra. They played all the expected pieces and of course we heard the first public performance of the piece in memory of Iain M Banks, may he rest in peace.

The other con I attended was of course the local Bristolcon. This year I did not put myself forward for any of the panels etc as I wanted to let others have a chance to do the talking and commenting. Nevertheless, I had a thoroughly enjoyable day catching up with old and new friends.

Other activities included readings at the Bristol Fringe in March and September, the latter being on the theme of The Kraken Rises anthology. I also helped run a Fun Palaces science fiction workshop at the start of October and can only hope that everyone enjoyed their time down at the Watershed in Bristol.

What of next year? Well it looks like it is starting out much the same as 2014 did with two short stoires being published in quick succession. After that, who knows?








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