The Inevitable Cycle Revisited

This past summer, I paid a return visit to one of my favorite places, Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. In light of that visit, I thought I’d revisit a post I originally wrote for my Scarlet Order Journal three years ago on the occasion of another visit and share some new photos. Lowell Observatory is famous as the site where Percival Lowell observed Mars for many years, recording his observations of the canals he—and most mainstream scientists of the day—believed they saw. It’s also the observatory where Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto. Of course, in mythology, Pluto is the Roman god of the underworld and a figure closely associated with the spirits of the dead. Lowell Observatory on Mars Hill is also the site of Percival Lowell’s Crypt. The photo here is from my 2019 visit.

If you look carefully at the tomb, there is an epigraph, to the right of the door. It reads, in part, “Everything around this Earth we see is subject to one inevitable cycle of birth, growth, decay … nothing begins but comes at last to an end … though our own lives are too busy to mark the slow nearing to that eventual goal …” The words on this astronomer’s crypt go a long way to explaining what draws me to horror. Birth, growth, and decay are not only inevitable, but all can be frightening. Horror provides a mechanism for taking a look at the things that frighten us and getting a handle on them.

The epigraph continues: “Today what we already know is helping to comprehension of another world. In a not distant future we shall be repaid with interest and what that other world shall have taught us will redound to a better knowledge of our own and of the cosmos of which the two form a part.” The quote comes from Percival Lowell’s book, The Evolution of Worlds. Horror might be scary, but it reminds me that humans can overcome even the worst terrors to accomplish great things. In fiction that can be defeating a villain or a monster. In real life, we might conquer our fears to expand the borders of human understanding.

Right next to Lowell’s crypt is the telescope where he observed Mars for many years. This year, we arrived on the weekend of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. It was my second opportunity to go in, and see the telescope. I got to ask questions about the building, the original clock drive and whether the original f-stop is still on the telescope. My daughter even had a chance to move the dome around. They had a public night scheduled, but our schedule didn’t allow us to return. Back in 2016, we were able to visit at night and we had a terrific view of Saturn. We could see resolution in the clouds and the rings were sharp and beautiful. If the ghost of Percival Lowell wanders the observatory grounds, I suspect he’s proud of the job the people there do of giving the public a glimpse at the universe, which can be at once scary and beautiful.

I hope my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt scares you when you read it. I also hope you’ll see how people overcome fear and accomplish great things. Even though I hope to show you scary things in that novel, I also hope to show you some of the beauty that this universe and the people who inhabit it possess.

The Astronomer’s Crypt is on sale for just 99 cents this month of October 2019. You can get copies at:

MileHiCon 51

Next weekend, I’ll be a participating author at MileHiCon 51, which will be held at the Hyatt Regency Tech Center in Denver, Colorado. The guests of honor are authors Angela Roquet and Marie Brennan and artist Elizabeth Leggett. The toastmaster is author Carol Berg. You can get more details at the convention’s website: https://milehicon.org. A selection of my books will be available in the Vendor Hall at the table run by Who Else Books. My schedule is below.

Friday, October 18

9-10pm – Mesa Verde B – Group Reading and Discussion: After Dark. Authors James Van Pelt, J.T. Evans, Joseph Paul Haines, and Shannon Lawrence will join me to read selections from and discuss our horror fiction.

Saturday, October 19

10-11am – Mesa Verde C – Put a Gear On It. I will join Meghan Bethards, J. Campbell, Craig Griswold, and Rob Rice to discuss steampunk fiction.

Noon-1pm – Grand Mesa Ballroom – We Named the Dog Indiana. I join Carol Berg, J. Bigelow, V. Calisto, and James Van Pelt to discuss the whys and wherefores of naming characters.

1-2pm – Mesa Verde A – Year in Science. I’ll discuss the topic with J. Campbell, Dan Dvorkin, Courtney Willis, and Ka Chun Yu.

3-4pm – Wind River B – From Kitt Peak to the Universe. I’ll introduce the new DESI spectrograph that’s been installed at Kitt Peak National Observatory and how it will be used to make a three-dimensional map of the northern sky.

4-5pm – Grand Mesa Ballroom – Mass Autographing. I’ll be available during the mass autographing to sign any books you bring along.

Sunday, October 20

3-4pm – Wind River B – Patreon, Kofi, Drip, and other Alternate Funding Sources. I discuss the topic with R. Hayes, Patrick Hester, and Stant Litore.


If you’re in Denver, Colorado next weekend, I hope I’ll see you at MileHiCon!

Cable Wrangling

In previous posts about the DESI spectrograph being installed at Kitt Peak’s Mayall 4-meter telescope, I’ve focused on the 5000 robotic positioners at the telescope’s focal plane, which is up at the top of the telescope, and the ten spectrographs located in a climate controlled room at the telescope’s base. However, I haven’t talked a lot about how the light from the 5000 positioners gets down to those spectrographs. The light travels along optical fibers that run from the telescope’s focal plane down to the room with the spectrographs. The whole distance is roughly 40-meters (or a little less than the length of half a football field).

In the photo to the left, you can see the cables running along the front of the telescope at this angle. They’re draped over the blue horseshoe structure in the foreground. Several of the cables are draped down in the lower left-hand side of the photo. There are ten cables that run from the top of the telescope to the room with the spectrographs. Each cable contains 500 individual optical fibers. Each of these cable bundles feeds one of the spectrographs at the telescope’s base. Since each cable contains 500 optical fibers, they are heavy cables. They’re also very fragile. It would be challenging enough to run these fibers from one point to another if they could be locked down in one position. However, the telescope actually has to move, so we can look at different parts of the sky. This means these heavy, fragile cable bundles have to move too.

Before construction even began on the DESI spectrograph, engineers spent time figuring out the best way to run the cables that minimized how much they had to move. Also, there are devices called e-chains that help assure cables stay nice and neat as the telescope moves. This past week, one of the engineers snapped a photo of me helping to prepare one of the e-chains for installation. He was in a lift up near the telescope’s top and looked down at me and another one of the telescope engineers hard at work. I’m the one in the yellow hard hat.

As I mentioned earlier, these cables are both heavy and fragile. That means there’s been a lot of heavy lifting that requires a great deal of care about where we step and place the cables. We don’t want to bend them too tightly, or they could break. The upshot is that this has been exhausting work. Everyone feels wiped out at the end of the day.

Still, we see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, or perhaps that should be the light at the end of the fiber! Once the cables are run, we only need to install the last three spectrographs, then the system will be complete. How soon we’ll start observing with the DESI spectrograph will depend on the results of preliminary testing which has already commenced and will be finished soon after the installation is complete. That said, I am told there’s a very good chance we’ll be pointing DESI at targets on the sky in less than a month. At that point, we may start to understand more about this mysterious thing that astronomers have dubbed dark energy.

Gaslight Steampunk Expo 2019

Next weekend, from Friday, September 26, 2019 through Sunday, September 28, 2019, I will be giving presentations and I will be on panels at the Gaslight Steampunk Expo in San Diego, California, being held at the Mission Valley Mariott Hotel. The guests of honor are author Gail Carriger, Madame Askew, and the Grand Arbiter. The theme for the weekend is Ancient Egypt Steampunk Style! You can get all the details about the convention at http://www.gaslightexpo.org/. My schedule for the weekend is as follows:

Friday September 26

6:00PM-7:00PM – Salon C Astronomy in the Victorian Age: Many tools of the trade that make modern astronomy possible were developed around the world during the Victorian Era. In this presentation, I will introduce you to many of the women and men who transformed astronomy from simple stargazing to a disciplined scientific pursuit and how their technical and scientific achievements still impact us today.

Saturday, September 27

10:00AM-11:30AM – Salon C Evolution of Steampunk Literature:  Hear how steampunk literature has changed over the last 60 years as both readers and writers look for new definitions. On the panel with me are Gail Carriger and Madeleine Holly-Rosing.

2:00PM-3:00PM – David Lee Summers Autograph Session – Autograph Table in the Vendor Hall

5:00PM-6:00PM – Salon B Mars In the Victorian Age: During the Victorian Era, observations transformed Mars from a reddish light in the sky to an exotic desert planet people might visit one day. At a time the Suez Canal was considered the height of engineering prowess, astronomers saw a planet of canal builders. I look at the observations of Mars in nineteenth century, what we learned, and how careful astronomers were misled by their worldview to see the Martians they wanted to see.

Sunday, September 28

10:00AM-10:45AM – Salon B Reading  of “The Sun Worshippers” by David Lee Summers: A spiritualist is invited to a Victorian mummy unwrapping party hosted by skeptical scientists. What could possibly go wrong when the mummy wakes? I read my story from the anthology After Punk.

11:00AM-12:00PM – Salon B Worldbuilding: As genre writers, we need to create the world that our characters live in. Sometimes it’s similar to our own, while other times it is vastly different. In this panel, we will discuss the nuts and bolts of world building. Does it start with your character or with your story? And does it need a “universal truth” to anchor it and make the unbelievable, believable. On the panel with me are Gail Carriger and Madeleine Holly-Rosing.


If you find yourself in San Diego next weekend, I hope I’ll see you at Gaslight Steampunk Expo!

DESI Naked!

This weekend finds me at Bubonicon 51 in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I’m moderating panels about space cowboys and large scale scientific surveys. If you’re in town, click the link to get the details and drop by. I’d love to see you there. Of course, part of my interest in large scale scientific surveys has to do with the work I’ve been helping with over the last year and a half, installing the DESI Spectrograph at the Mayall 4-meter telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory. During my my recent shift at the observatory, I got a rare look at the new instrument not just “under the hood” but before the hood even went on.

In the photo above, you see DESI on the left, just over the orange platform. Standing on the ground floor in the foreground are just a few of the telescope engineers and technicians who have been installing this new, innovative instrument which will be used to make a 3D map of about a third of the known universe. DESI itself is an array of 5000 fibers mounted on robot positioners that can be precisely centered on targets each time the telescope moves. The light from those objects then travels down fibers two stories below. The fiber bundles are ready to be run along the telescope. You see them coiled up on the white carts to the lower right of the photo above. Each black cable contains 500 fibers. One of my jobs this week was labeling those cables so people can keep it straight which cable is which as they run them along the telescope.

Here are all the DESI fiber positioners mounted to the telescope. You can see each of the ten cables coming up into ten sets of fiber positioner “petals.” Each of these petals was installed into the telescope with great care about a month ago. Light was placed on all the fibers and it was confirmed that in all the transportation and installation, none of the fibers were broken. All of them transmit light as expected! This week, the control electronics are being wired up and routed through the telescope. Once this chore is complete, more testing will happen to assure that the fibers still transmit light and each of the robot positioners moves as expected using the electronics routed through the telescope.

All of those fibers will eventually come into a clean room downstairs to a series of ten spectrographs. Do you begin to sense a pattern? Ten petals, ten cables, ten spectrographs. As it turns out, another job of mine this week was helping to install the seventh spectrograph, which you see in the lower right of the photo above. Western fan that I am, I feel like you can now cue Elmer Bernstein’s score for The Magnificent Seven. Of course, that won’t last long. soon we’ll have an eighth, ninth, and tenth spectrograph.

Each of those spectrographs will be used to examine the light from 500 fibers. To make the map, we’ll be using these spectrographs to see how far characteristic chemical lines in spectra have shifted from where they normally sit within the rainbow toward the red end, which is one measure of how far away those objects are. We’ll compare that to statistics of how far apart they are, which turns out to be another measure of how far away they are. That said, just because we’re mostly looking for the redshifts, there will be all kinds of other spectral data available that can tell astronomers all kinds of information about properties of galaxies all over the sky. One of the most exciting things about the DESI program is that this data will be available to all. In this post, I may be laying DESI bare for all to see, but the whole project will be laying much of the universe bare, and in the process expanding the body of astronomical knowledge.

  • For a fictional and frightening look behind the scenes at an astronomical observatory, read The Astronomer’s Crypt.
  • To take a tour through the wonders of the solar system, read The Solar Sea.
  • To travel back in time to the Old West, check out Owl Dance!

Bubonicon 51

Bubonicon 51 will take place in Albuquerque, New Mexico this coming weekend, Friday August 23 through Sunday August 25. The guests of honor are Allen Steele, author of Arkwright, and Ursula Vernon, artist and author. The toastmaster is Darynda Jones, author of Summoned to the Thirteenth Grave. The guest artist is Greg Spalenka, who designed the logo you see in this post. The science speaker is Dr. Harrison Schmidt, the Apollo 17 astronaut, geologist, and former senator from New Mexico. The convention’s theme is “The Future is Now.” I will be there all weekend as both a guest author and a vendor. Bubonicon 51 will be held at the Albuquerque Marriott Uptown at 2101 Louisiana Boulevard. You can get more information about the convention at http://bubonicon.com.


My schedule is as follows:

Saturday, August 24

11am-noon. Main Room. Space Cowboys: Where Westerns and Space Opera Collide. Malcolm Reynolds hauled cattle on his spaceship. Captain Harlock strode through batwing doors into a few dusty saloons. Captain Kirk’s show was originally described as “Wagon Train to the Stars.” And then there’s the animated BraveStarr. At what point does the hero of a space opera become a space cowboy? How “retro” can you make your space opera before it becomes fantasy or steampunk? I’ll be moderating this panel that includes such luminaries as Robert E. Vardeman, Craig Butler, Susan Matthews, and Allen Steele.

4-5pm. Salon A-D. Surveying the Universe. Traditionally, astronomers made a hypothesis, applied for time on telescopes, took their data and examined it. That model is being replaced by large scale surveys being conducted by organizations such as the Department of Energy and NASA. What are the advantages and disadvantages of doing astronomy, and science in general, by large scale survey as opposed to small teams working on their own questions? I’ll be moderating this panel which includes John Barnes, Loretta Hall, Kathy Kitts, and Cathy Plesko.

5:25-6:40pm. Main Room. Mass Autographing. All the Bubonicon guests will be happy to sign your books, art, or whatever you happen to bring. If it has the property of mass, I’ll do my best to sign it!

Sunday, August 25

2:45-3:30pm. Salon A-D. 45 minutes with David Lee Summers. I will read from my recent work. I’m thinking a sample of the revised version of The Pirates of Sufiro, but I may include a surprise or two if there’s time.


If you’re in Albuquerque this coming weekend, I hope you’ll drop by Bubonicon and check out a few of the many panels going on over the course of the weekend. Please drop into the “flea market” where Hadrosaur Productions will be set up. You can preview our wares, or shop online, at: http://www.hadrosaur.com.

Mars Globes

One of the places my family and I visited during our July travels was Lowell Observatory on Mars Hill in Flagstaff, Arizona. This was where Percival Lowell, a former US ambassador to Korea, set up shop in the late nineteenth century to observe the planet Mars and search for the elusive Planet X. One thing that captivated Lowell about Mars were the linear features crisscrossing the planet. The more he observed them, the more he became convinced they were canals built by intelligent beings. Over the years, Lowell would make many maps of Mars and publish essays detailing how the red planet must be an abode of life. Lowell also made globes.

Martian globe on display at Lowell Observatory

As it turns out, Lowell’s canals do not exist. They seem to be the result of some optical phenomena going on within the telescope itself enhanced by wishful thinking. It’s easy to imagine Lowell gazing up at Mars from his chair in Flagstaff, imagining a dying desert world with intelligent Martians hanging on through their ingenuity, digging canals to bring water from the polar caps to arable farm land in the equatorial regions. These ideas would go on to inspire writers like H.G. Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Ray Bradbury. Even if Lowell’s observations did not prove correct, he succeeded in making Mars a place in people’s imagination that we could visit.

As a young reader, I fell in love with the canal-lined Mars of Ray Bradbury and Edgar Rice Burroughs. When visiting Lowell Observatory, I always thought a Martian canal globe would be a cool souvenir. Unfortunately, they don’t sell them in the gift shop. What’s more, they don’t sell them much of anywhere. Most Mars globes available today show the Mars we’ve mapped via orbiting probes. These are great globes and I’d love one of those, too, but they don’t capture the imagination that stirred me in my earliest days of reading science fiction. I did see that a master globe maker recreated a canal globe a while back and made them available for sale, but I also saw that he charged far more than I could afford. What’s more, when I looked again after visiting Lowell, I couldn’t find them anymore.

Of course, I’m not only a science fiction fan and a professional scientist, I’m a steampunk. If there’s one thing a steampunk knows it’s that when something isn’t available, you just have to go out and make it. My wife and I discussed approaches and I did some searching on the web. I already knew that several images of Lowell’s maps were available online. I found software that would convert rectangular maps to “map gores,” the strips used to make globes. With the power of Adobe Photoshop, I could resize those gores to any ball I wanted. So, I set out to make my own globe. Since this was the first time I’d ever tried something like this, I decided to make a prototype before making a nice one.

Here’s looking at you, kid.

The prototype wasn’t perfect. Despite measuring the ball I used for a form, I sized the gores just a little too small. This could have been a little bit of rounding error from several sources. Also, it took some tries to figure out how to get the gores on smoothly. I mostly figured it out, and I think some better tools would help. Despite that, I think the prototype globe turned out much better than I had any right to expect. In fact, the flaws actually add to the antique look of the globe.

At this point, I’m working on acquiring some better tools and a nice stand for the final globe. Who knows exactly what I’ll do with my new globe-making skills. If a steampunk event shows interest, I’d be happy to share what I’ve learned. Given that the globes aren’t generally available, I might consider making a few for sale, as long as I confirm that I’m not violating any rights by using the old maps and I feel my skills are up to the task.

What I do know is that the globes I make for myself will serve as an inspiration. I look at the globe and dream of Mars as it could have been. When astronauts visit Mars in my novel The Solar Sea, they wax poetic about the old visions of Mars even as they see its real wonders. Of course, Lowell’s crypt next to the dome where he observed Mars was an inspiration for my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt. A part of me would like to think of Lowell’s spirit walking a canal-laced Mars, much as scientists who died did in Camille Flammarion’s novel Urania. As I look around the globe, I see that Lowell named one of the canals, Draco, a name shared with the leader of my Scarlet Order vampires. Maybe there’s a story out there about the Scarlet Order paying a visit to Mars.