Stars, Galaxies, and Fiber Optics

The first time I remember learning about fiber optics was in a behind-the-scenes article published in 1980 or so about the making of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The article talked about how they got light to all the buttons on the bridge set and showed them illuminated with bundles of optical fiber. Nowadays, as I’ve mentioned in several earlier posts, I work with instruments that use optical fiber to carry light collected by each of the telescopes I work with to the instrumentation where its analyzed.

On the telescope side, those fibers are attached to an optical assembly that must be placed at just the right spot to catch focused light. If the star or galaxy is out of focus, not all the light goes down the optical fiber. We also have guider cameras that work to keep the object precisely aligned on the fiber so all the light gets to the spectrograph. It’s a lot of complex hardware to work right to precisely measure the the redshift of distant galaxies or look at a star and determine whether or not it has planets in orbit. This past week, we’ve been commissioning both the DESI spectrograph at the Mayall 4-meter and the NEID spectrograph at the WIYN 3.5-meter. One of the most important milestones is to get light from the object you want to measure to the spectrograph and see if you get the flux you expect. Here’s the NEID team at WIYN looking at early test results.

Yes, light leaves a star dozens of light years away, enters our telescope, goes down the optical fiber and is photographed with the spectroscope, then all that data can be viewed and analyzed on a laptop computer. When I filmed the trailer for The Astronomer’s Crypt a couple of years ago, I was asked why we didn’t use a room full of fancy computers and monitors. We just had a couple of computers, one of which was a laptop. The reason is that I’ve seen a lot of control rooms where simple computers are the only ones present!

As you can imagine, it’s quite a relief to see all the work pay off in a spectrum that shows the flux level you expect. All of this is pretty exciting stuff and, as it turns out, my birthday fell during this past week’s tests. Seeing NEID as it nears readiness for scientific use is pretty exciting in its own right, but we had another surprise on the day of my birthday. Ethan Peck, who plays Spock on Star Trek Discovery, was on a road trip and decided to visit the observatory. A tour was arranged and he spent the beginning of the night at the WIYN telescope. For me, it was quite a thrill to have Spock, of all people, wish me a happy birthday! He brought a Polaroid camera with him and we snapped a photo of us standing by my control station. Here we are at WIYN. Ethan Peck is in the center (in white) and I’m to the left.

Meanwhile, across the mountain at the Mayall 4-meter, commissioning has continued on the DESI instrument. The instrument had its official “first light” a couple of weeks ago and a wonderful image was released that, I think, really illustrates the power of DESI.

Image credit: DESI Collaboration, Legacy Surveys; NSF’s National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory/NSF/AURA

Here you see an image of all 5000 DESI fibers superimposed on the sky. At the bottom of the fiber array is M33, the Triangulum Galaxy. Below that is a view of the spectrum from just one of the 5000 fibers showing the light from that little piece of the galaxy. In it, you can see the lines labeled that denote the presence of hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and even sulfur. Now remember that each fiber in that picture gives the same kind of data for the piece of sky its on. You can read the full press release about DESI’s first light at: https://nationalastro.org/news/desis-5000-eyes-open-as-kitt-peak-telescope-prepares-to-map-space-and-time/

All of the robotic positioners moving those fibers at the top of the Mayall telescope get hot and there’s a chiller system to keep them cool. This week, that chiller system will be automated, but last week, we had to monitor it by eye and it requires a person to turn the system on and off by hand. The person doing that remarked how spooky it is to be in the depths of the Mayall with all the lights out and remarked how she kept looking over her shoulder, wondering if someone was there. This is another aspect of my job that definitely helped to inspire The Astronomer’s Crypt. You can learn more about the novel and see the trailer I mentioned earlier at http://www.davidleesummers/Astronomers-Crypt.html.

Fantastic Settings

Today, I’d like to welcome author Deby Fredericks to my blog. I’ve had the honor of editing her novels The Grimhold Wolf and Seven Exalted Orders. I enjoy her writing and she has a new book out called Dancer in the Grove of Ghosts. In today’s post, she discusses the importance of setting in science fiction and fantasy.


One thing that sets fantasy and science fiction apart from other literature is the incredible worlds we set forth in our pages. While stories in other genres will take place in the real world or something close to it, fantasy really takes you away. Whether to dream lands and magic kingdoms, or to domains of our nightmares, we show our readers sights they’ve never seen before.

In creating my high fantasy novella series, Minstrels of Skaythe, I’ve been showing a landscape that is fairly natural, yet nevertheless woven through with magic. Enigmatic, silvery roads criss-cross the dusty plains, leading nowhere. Pockets of gloom linger where nothing should cast a shadow.

During the first novella, The Tower in the Mist, the characters explored the Hornwood, an ancient woodland shrouded in mystery. For the latest novella, they only pass through the Hornwood to reach another legendary site.

One hundred years ago, the evil Dar-Gothull laid a curse on Seofan Holl in the form of a drakanox. This beast was so poisonous that its breath made stone crumble, metal rust, and it killed every living thing, from the magnificent oleya trees down to the fleas in the pelts of dogs. No life has recovered there in all the time since.

My heroine, Tisha, is an extraordinarily gifted healer. She is driven to discover whether the curse is like an illness that she can heal. Here is what she finds in Seofan Holl:

Gray — that was her first and most striking impression. The land formed a shallow bowl, rather oval and slightly curved to the north. This was filled with pale gray, lacy clouds that Tisha quickly recognized weren’t clouds at all. They were the leafless twigs and branches of a vast orchard. Tree trunks stood in orderly rows, spaced just so, a formation stretching as far as she could see.

Beneath those ghostly groves, the soil was pale and dry, covered with ashy dust. Even the least breath of wind raised a thin haze to muffle the sky. Rickety fences stitched between sections of orchard. On the wall above, moss had been growing on every stone. Here was none at all.

I hope you’ll journey along with Tisha to the desolate Seofan Holl, and see if she can restore life to the grove of ghosts.


Dancer in the Grove of Ghosts

“He’s dead. He just doesn’t know it yet.”

Mortally wounded, Cylass is abandoned on the battlefield by comrades who would just as soon have him out of the way. But as he waits for death, a strange savior appears. The dancer, Tisha, heals him with her forbidden magic, but also draws the wrath of his cruel former lord.

Soon guardsman and renegade mage are on the run. Will Cylass help Tisha, as she helped him? Or will he do the smart thing, and turn her over to the vicious Count Ar-Dayne?


Amazon e-book:
https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07ZXLHC62

Other e-book formats:
https://draft2digital.com/book/496360

Author website:
http://www.debyfredericks.com

Author newsletter:
http://eepurl.com/geV_nX

Tesla: Man Out of Time

My brother sent me an early birthday present this year, a copy of Margaret Cheney’s biography of Nikola Tesla called Tesla: Man Out of Time. Nikola Tesla is something of a steampunk icon and his work has fascinated me ever since I saw my first Tesla coil at the Griffith Park Observatory on a family outing when I was a child. I would actually take a crack at building a Tesla coil as an electronics club project in college. The two experiences helped to inspire my story “A Specter in the Light,” which appears in the anthology DeadSteam. The title is a link and will take you to the Amazon page where you can get your own copy of the anthology. I’ve even written a story where I imagine Tesla’s research in Colorado Springs led him to learn more about Mars than is widely known. That story appeared in the All-Martian Spectacular issue of Science Fiction Trails Magazine, which appears to be out of print.

In the real world, Tesla was interested in the propagation of electromagnetic waves. He’s directly responsible for all of our buildings being wired with AC plugs. His patents also led directly to the invention of radio. He pioneered the development of remote control vehicles for defensive purposes. In particular, he experimented on remote-control ships and submarines, but one can easily see how these anticipate the remote-control military aircraft of today. He provided light to the 1893 Columbia Exposition in Chicago, which helped expand the acceptance of electric lighting.

Tesla was also a charismatic visionary who had more ideas than he could possibly test. Because of this, he attracted such luminaries to his circle as Mark Twain and science fiction pioneer, Hugo Gernsback. In her biography, Cheney fills in details of Tesla’s youth in Serbia, his education around Europe, and his immigration to the United States where he briefly worked for Thomas Edison, but found a longtime ally in George Westinghouse. She paints a picture of Tesla as a dapper man who always wore fine clothes and was meticulous in his appearance. She also discusses his love of pigeons, which he fed regularly and kept at his rooms in New York.

Cheney’s book filled in many details I didn’t know about Tesla, such as how he lived much of his adult life in New York City hotel rooms and his friendship with the poet Robert Underwood Johnson and his wife Katharine. Cheney also discusses Tesla’s love of Serbian poetry. I’ve long been fascinated by his brief foray to Colorado Springs where he conducted large-scale experiments he couldn’t conduct in the city and she gives good information about that time period. What’s more, the book pointed out an amusing connection with Tesla and my own writing I hadn’t know about. In my first steampunk story, “The Slayers,” I created a character named Rado, who was meant as a tribute to Ray Douglas Bradbury. However, Tesla had a friend who was a professor at New York University known as Dr. Rado.

As it turns out, not all of Tesla’s ideas seem like good ones. As an astronomer, I found his notion of charging the entire sky so it’s never dark at night to be particularly horrifying. Admittedly, Tesla was thinking about nighttime urban safety, but I’ve long felt that humans need the night and the stars to be able to dream of better futures, including the kind of future Tesla wanted to build.

If you want to know more about Nikola Tesla, I recommend Marget Cheney’s Tesla: A Man Out of Time. There’s a lot of good information and it was a breezy, compelling read.

Making Instruments Work

Today, I’m at the TusCon Science Fiction Convention in Tucson, Arizona. You can get all the details about the event at http://tusconscificon.com. One of the topics I’ll be speaking about is the work we’ve been doing for the last year, installing the DESI Spectrograph on the Mayall 4-meter telescope. At this point, installation is nearing completion and we’re beginning the process of commissioning the instrument. In short, we’re actually making it work with the telescope so we can get the data we hope to obtain.

DESI isn’t the only instrument that we’ve recently installed. We’ve also installed the NEID spectrograph on the WIYN telescope. While DESI has the goal of making a 3D map of about one-third of the sky, NEID has the goal of looking for planets around other stars. I’ve shared quite a bit about the DESI installation because that instrument is of a scale that it required a major refit of the telescope. The NEID spectrograph has involved a similar amount of time in development, but much of that development has happened off site at places such as Penn State University and the University of Wisconsin. NEID, which rhymes with fluid, takes its name from the Tohono O’Odham word meaning “to see.”

Two weeks ago, the port adapter, built by the University of Wisconsin, and the spectrograph, built at Penn State University, both arrived at WIYN and have been installed at the telescope. You can see the port adapter on the side of the telescope in the photo above. It’s job is to capture light coming through the telescope from a distant star and feed it into fiber optics that run downstairs to a high precision spectrograph.

The spectrograph itself lives in a clean room on the WIYN Observatory’s ground floor. To get the kind of precision needed to see planets around other stars, the temperature within the spectrograph must be carefully maintained and the spectrograph elements must be kept in the same relative position. Footsteps nearby could disturb this device. Because of that, the spectrograph itself is built inside a coffin-like housing. Once the Penn State team gets everything set up, they’ll seal up the coffin and, unless there’s a serious problem, no one will look inside again. I got to peak inside the spectrograph a few days ago and it may be my only view.

Now that the instrument is installed at the telescope, we have to make sure everything works as it should and programmers are working to make sure we have software to assure we can efficiently get the data we need. We’re starting with the port adapter itself. I point the telescope at stars and a team of scientists and engineers check the function of the various parts within the adapter to make sure they understand the alignments on the sky, which are necessary for tracking the stars. They check the tip-tilt electronics, which make sure we get as much of the star’s light as possible down the fiber, and make sure all the calibration functions work. After this, work will begin commissioning the spectrograph itself. This is a process which takes a few months to complete to assure we’re getting the performance out of this instrument that we want.

Commissioning nights are very different from normal observing nights at a telescope. On a normal observing night, it’s often me and an observer. Often the observer isn’t even at the telescope, but working from their home institution, controlling a camera on the telescope over the internet and talking to me through computer chat. On a commissioning night, I can have anywhere from five to fifteen people in the control room with me, all working on different elements of the instrument. This marks a busy and exciting time as we get these new instruments ready for service at Kitt Peak National Observatory.

Textual Origami

Back in 1993, when I was first writing my novel, The Pirates of Sufiro, I created a very broad synopsis of each of the novel’s four parts. I wrote one page in a notebook describing what I expected to happen in that part of the book. Then, as I had time, I wrote the scenes that, I hoped, would bring the story to life. When I’m working on a novel, I often have a flash of a moment in a story. Back then, I was good about writing those moments down right when they happened. I would then call it a completed scene, then start thinking about the next “moment.”

Reading the novel now, over 25 years later, I realize many of those moments read more like scene fragments rather than complete scenes in their own right. The scene fragment might describe something significant that happens to a character, but it’s over and done with so fast that we don’t really feel like we spent time with the character or got to know how that fragment fit in the story’s bigger context. So, one of the things I’m doing in the novel’s 25th anniversary edition is identifying fragments that can be folded together into longer scenes, so the reader spends more time with each character getting to know them and understand their motivations a little more before moving on to another scene. I’ve begun to think of the process as textual origami.

As an example, I had a scene fragment where a colonel is watching a holographic display of a space ship. His adjutant arrives and they have a brief conversation. I then move onto another scene fragment with other characters. In the next scene fragment with the colonel, he’s still watching the hologram. Another ship arrives. Then we move onto the next fragment. It occurred to me, there’s no reason at all that the two fragments of the colonel and the hologram couldn’t be combined into one scene. The colonel and his adjutant could be talking when the second ship arrives, adding another layer to the scene.

Over the years, as I grew as a writer, I tended to get better about creating longer scenes all on my own. However, I still occasionally wrote and inserted a scene fragment here or there. I didn’t really think about my tendency to create scene fragments until I wrote my novel Owl Riders just a couple of years ago. The novel’s editor was the first editor to encourage me to combine some of these fragments into longer scenes. Once it was pointed out, it was easier to see my scene fragments in other novels.

Admittedly, not every scene fragment needs to be folded into long, extended scenes. Sometimes a fragment can help to highlight a moment or emphasize a very particular incident. With that in mind, I think the scene fragment is a very powerful tool, but its one that should be wielded carefully.

If you want to see more in-depth posts detailing my process of rewriting The Pirates of Sufiro for its 25th anniversary edition, I encourage you to support my Patreon campaign at http://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers. Also, I should point out that supporting my Patreon campaign is also a way to help support this blog. I took the leap earlier this year to buy paid WordPress hosting for this blog to give readers an ad-free experience. A portion of the money I get at my Patreon site helps to cover the hosting fees.

TusCon 46

Next weekend, I’m delighted to return to TusCon in Tucson, Arizona as a panelist and book dealer. This year, TusCon’s author guest of honor is Jonathan Mayberry. The artist guest of honor is the very talented Chaz Kemp, whose work I’m proud to display in my home. The toastmaster is Weston Ochse. The convention will be held at the Sheraton Tucson Hotel and Suites at 5151 Grant Road. You can get all the details by visiting http://tusconscificon.com.

My schedule at the convention is as follows:

Friday, November 8

Changing Channels: How/Why Do Authors Change Genre? Panel Room 1. 6:00 pm – 7:00 pm. Given how much publishers want writers to stay in their box why deal with the arguments? Are the publishers right? Will your fans follow? Are you just changing things up for fun? On the panel with me are Frankie Robertson, Jill Knowles, Paul Clinco and Thomas Watson

Meet the Guests. Ballroom. 7:00 pm – 9:00 pm. Hobnob and schmooze with our guests, enjoy the cash bar, and laugh it up with Toastmaster Weston Ochse.

Saturday, November 9

What I Know Now, What I Wish I Knew Then: A Writer’s Journey. Panel Room 1. 9:00 am – 10:00 am. Successful writers talk about what they`ve learned along the way. On the panel with me are Eric T. Knight, Gloria McMillan, Ross Lampert

Autograph Session. Autograph Area. 3:00 pm – 4:00 pm. Come get autographs from your favorite folks. Some are even probably selling stuff. Not only can you get my autograph, you can get autographs from Ross Lampert, Tabitha Bradley, and Thomas Watson as well!

Surveying the Universe – Our Five-Year Mission to Create a 3D Map of the Universe. Panel Room 2. 5:00 pm – 6:00 pm. Did you know Kitt Peak was mapping the universe? Come to this presentation to find out about awesome stuff in Tucson’s own backyard.

Sunday, November 10

Southwest Folklore, Urban Legends, and Paranormal Encounters. Panel Room 1. 10:00 am – 11:00 am. A lot of cultures meet here. With a lot of history. How have these combined to build our legends and ghosts? On the panel with me are Chris R. Chavez, Liz Danforth, and Weston Ochse.

Making Light of the Dark: Humor in Horror. Ballroom. 2:00 pm – 3:00 pm. Terror seems like it should preclude amusement. What makes us laugh does not seem like it should be capable of also making us scream. But while seemingly attempting to achieve opposite results, comedy and horror are intricately linked. While playing on different emotions, both are devised to generate specific and extreme reactions from their audiences. Two sides of the same coin, humor and horror are strong on their own, but working together, they can create a marriage of unexpected twists and turns. This panel will explore the rise of the horror comedy and address why the combination works and why it sometimes fails. On the panel with me are James Sabata, William Herr, Wolf Forrest, and K.S. Merbeth.

When I’m not at one of these events, I’ll be at the Hadrosaur Productions table in the dealer’s room. Please come by and shop our fantastic selection of books and I’ll be happy to talk to you more about any of the panel topics, or things that don’t even relate to the panels. Also, be sure to ask about the annual party that we thrown in conjunction with Massoglia Books at TusCon. It’s always a great event and I hear there will be cake.

Literary Cosplay

Before the term “cosplay” came into common use, I always loved Halloween as one of the times I could create a costume and become someone else for a day. Nowadays, pop culture conventions also provide a fun excuse to dress up. Of course, most people who dress up for conventions make costumes based on their favorite television shows, movies, or comic books. A creator has already designed the costume and it’s up to the fan to make their own version. Likewise, most commercial Halloween costumes are also based on these same mass media heroes. However, novels can also be a great source of costume ideas and they often provide a wide latitude of ways to interpret characters. This can be especially useful if you’re looking for materials you can grab from a thrift store or something you can create with some simple make-up effects.

I have been known to dress up in outfits inspired by my novels. Back in 1993, I went to a Halloween party dressed as a Rd’dyggian (pronounced Red-dye-chian) from my Space Pirates’ Legacy novels. The Rd’dyggians are aliens with orange skin and a purple mustache-like array of tentacles under their noses. On top of that, they like to wear long, flowing robes. I was able to create a version using some face paint, hair dye, and some odds and ends from the closet. I didn’t match the Rd’dyggians from my novels perfectly, but I was close enough that my friends who had read the novels understood what I was supposed to be. Those who hadn’t read the novels still understood that I was some kind of alien.

I will note that when I first got into science fiction fandom, costume contests were a big part of conventions. You can still find contests, but an important element several years ago was that most of the people who dressed up created costumes based on favorite novels they’d read, rather than favorite visual media. This allowed them a lot of creativity in how they interpreted their costumes. These days, most of the literary-inspired costumes I see are at steampunk conventions.

As a steampunk author, I often dress up for the conventions I attend. It’s rare that I dress up as a specific character from my novels, but I do like to wear clothing like I describe in my novels. Here I am from an event last week, where I went to Ruidoso to speak about my Clockwork Legion Novels to the Fortuitous Book Club. The club at the recommendation of my dear friend, Margo McKee, read my novel Owl Dance. What’s more, Ruidoso is in Lincoln County, the heart of Billy the Kid Country. So, while I didn’t dress as a specific character from the novels, I did put on an outfit that said Wild West steampunk. Most of the outfit is just western wear, which is easy to find in New Mexico, but topped up with a pair of goggles and a cool steampunk looking watch. Of course, my outfit also evokes the feeling of the old Wild Wild West television series starring Robert Conrad and Ross Martin, which was one of the inspirations for my series.

If you’re looking for an original costume this Halloween, or want to find something new and unique for a pop culture or science fiction convention, I encourage you to look no further than the pages of your favorite novel. See what it inspires you to create. If you want to look at my novels for inspiration, click the links below to learn more about the series: