The Backbeat of the Universe

This past week, I’ve been helping to re-commission the Mayall 4-meter telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory and commission the first components of the new DESI spectrograph that we’ve been installing. In nautical terms, you can think of this as being like a shakedown cruise. We’re making sure the telescope is primed for taking scientific data and we want to assure we’ve worked out all the kinks from the telescope sitting idle for a year while it was rebuilt. We’re also making sure the components of the new instrument work as expected.

I have mentioned in previous posts that DESI is a spectrograph fed by 5000 optical fibers, each of which can be positioned to sit on a specific target in the sky. Those 5000 fibers have not yet been installed. What we have now is more of an optical camera installed at the top of the telescope in the black “can” at the top of the picture in this post. That allows us to evaluate the image quality through the telescope and make sure the light from objects on the sky will actually fall on those 5000 fibers when they’re installed.

We also have the guider that will be used with DESI. A telescope like the 4-meter is designed to track the sky with great precision, but because it’s such a large real-world machine, imperfections always creep in, so we have a camera that watches the sky and makes fine corrections to the telescope’s pointing as it tracks the sky. The commissioning instrument we have on now, will let us put the guider through its paces.

The goal of the DESI’s five-year mission is to make a three-dimensional map of about one-third of the entire sky, by giving us not only precise positions of every object we can see in that area, but by giving us distance as well. So, how can DESI do this? It takes advantage of something cool that happened in the early universe.

Everywhere you look in the sky, as far away as we can see, which also means as far back in time as we can look, is something called the cosmic microwave background. This is the universe as it looked about 400,000 years after the Big Bang. Given that the universe is 14 billion years old, that’s a long time ago! Before the epoch of the cosmic microwave background, light was bound up and couldn’t escape. At 400,000 years, the universe had expanded enough that that light and heat could escape, but there was enough gravity to try to keep that from happening. These competing forces set up acoustic waves throughout the universe. These acoustic waves were everywhere and they collided, setting up beat frequencies. These beat frequencies helped to set up localized points of gravity which drew material inwards. In the fullness of times, those localized points would become galaxies. Here’s what the universe looked like at that time.

Image courtesy WMAP Science Team

Now here’s the cool part, because we understand acoustic theory, we can predict how far apart these localized points will be and we can look to see if galaxies tend to be distributed as you would predict from looking at these acoustic waves. In fact, they are. Galaxies today tend to be separated by factors of about 500 million light years. Statistically, they’re much more likely to be at some factor of that than say, 400 or 600 million light years.

If you know how far apart galaxies are today and you know how far apart the acoustic beats were in the primordial universe, you can use geometry to look at more distant galaxies. We used to use how far a galaxy’s chemical fingerprint was shifted toward the red end of the spectrum as a way to measure distance to those galaxies. However, that assumes you understand the rate the universe is expanding. The separation between galaxies at the same redshift, will tell you how far away they actually are without making assumptions about the way the universe expands.

I will be speaking more about this and the DESI project at two astronomy club meetings in the next month. The first presentation will be for the Astronomical Society of Las Cruces on Friday, April 26 at 7pm. The meetings are held at the Good Samaritan Village in Las Cruces, New Mexico. More information about the location is available at: https://aslc-nm.org/MonthlyMeeting.html.

My other presentation will be given to the Phoenix Astronomical Society in Phoenix, Arizona on May 9 at 7:30pm. You can find more details about the location at: http://www.pasaz.org/index.php?pageid=meetings.

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When Mars Invaded England

In the twenty years from 1877 until 1897, the planet Mars underwent a dramatic transformation in the public’s consciousness. In 1877, Mars made a particularly close approach to the Earth. The planet’s two moons were discovered and efforts were made to map the planet’s surface in detail. Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli announced the presence of interconnected features that resembled channels. Over the next 20 years, astronomers would continue to study the planet and many, including Schiaparelli, would come to believe those channels were canals engineered by intelligent Martians. In 1897, Pearson’s Magazine serialized The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells.

Wells’ novel captures an image of the Martians very close to that painted by astronomers such as Percival Lowell. He portrayed them as an ancient people using their vast intellect to survive on a desert world. Wells imagined those Martians turning their attention to their lush neighbor, closer to the sun. He then imagines those intelligent, powerful beings pitting themselves against the most powerful nation on Earth at the time. Of course, to Wells, that would be Victorian England. The novel has a timeless quality and it’s not surprising that many people who adapt the story to other media present it in a setting contemporary to the presentation. Orson Welles imagined the Martians landing in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey of 1938 during his radio adaptation. George Pal set his movie in the Cold War of 1953. Steven Spielberg would again update the setting for his 2005 film.

As a fan of steampunk, I’ve always been a little disappointed that none of these mainstream adaptations return to the book’s original Victorian setting. That said, I recently came across an independent film that did just that and it’s pretty good. The movie is War of the Worlds: The True Story directed by Timothy Hines. It presents the story in a form that reminds me of History Channel documentaries and imagines that the Martians really did invade England in the last days of the nineteenth century. The film intercuts stock footage with dramatizations of scenes from the novel and interview segments with “Bertie Wells,” the last survivor of the Martian War. It would be hard to imagine a film adaptation that more faithfully captured the key points of the original novel.

In addition to the faithful adaptation and Victorian setting, I loved Floyd Reichman’s portrayal of the 86-year-old Bertie Wells, supposedly filmed in 1965. I also enjoyed the depiction of the Martian tripods, which you can see in the poster. I thought they were among the coolest versions of the Martian war machines I’ve seen portrayed so far. That noted, the Martians themselves did look like they might be well at home in a 50s B-movie, but they only make a brief appearance. Also, the stock footage did seem to come from a variety of sources over a somewhat longer time period than that covered by the film. Still, as a fan of both the novel and ambitious indie films, I thought the movie did a creditable job.

I gather that this is Timothy Hines’ second attempt to adapt The War of the Worlds. The first attempt was a movie called H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds and it’s a three-hour, word-for-word retelling of the novel. I have not seen this version, but I gather the “historical recreations” from War of the Worlds: The True Story come from the earlier film. Reviews of the earlier film are not kind, but I admire Hines for persevering and recutting the film into a version that, while not perfect, is a lot of fun to watch.

My only complaint about War of the Worlds: The True Story is that I couldn’t obtain a copy of the movie on DVD. I tried to order through the official website. To the credit of the people who run the site, they refunded my money when they couldn’t deliver the DVD. The only way to watch is to stream it from Amazon at: https://www.amazon.com/War-The-Worlds-True-Story/dp/B00HH0VG5E

Podcasting about Astronomy, Steampunk and More

This weekend finds me at Wild Wild West Con, which is being held at Old Tucson Studios just outside Tucson, Arizona. If you’re in the area, I hope you’ll make time to join us. We’re having an amazing time. You can get more information about the convention at https://www.wildwestcon.com/

In the run-up to the convention, I was interviewed on the podcast, Madame Perry’s Salon. Madame Perry is a little like Barbara Eden’s character in I Dream of Jeannie. After a lead in from Captain Kirk and Mr. Sulu, she invited me to sit on the cushions in her genie’s bottle. We discussed how reading Robert A. Heinlein’s Time Enough for Love and John Nichols’ The Magic Journey while thinking about the story of my mom’s family set me on the path to writing my first novel The Pirates of Sufiro. We also talked about how working at an observatory and making discoveries in the late twentieth century using nineteenth century instrumentation was an important inspiration for my steampunk writing. Madame Perry asked some great questions. We also had a listener question and a visit from Wild Wild West Con’s programming director James Breen. You can listen to the entire show at: http://www.blogtalkradio.com/madameperryssalon/2019/02/28/author-and-astronomer-david-lee-summers-visits-madame-perrys-salon

While you’re at the site, be sure to navigate up to Madame Perry’s main page. In other episodes, she interviews several other Wild Wild West Con featured artists as well, including cosplayer Tayliss Forge, maker Tobias McCurry, and musical guest Professor Elemental among others. If you can’t make it to the convention, the podcast is a great way to get to know some of the people attending. If you were able to make it Wild Wild West Con, you can listen and learn even more about those of us in attendance!

As it turns out, Madame Perry’s Salon wasn’t the only podcast I visited recently to speak about Victorian astronomy. A while back Jeff Davis invited me to speak on his show about something called the Carrington Event. In effect this was a massive solar storm in 1859 that resulted in a coronal mass ejection hitting the Earth head on sparking electrical disruption through telegraph lines, triggering auroras and making compasses go crazy. I had to admit that I didn’t know much about the Carrington Event, but Jeff recommended I read a great book called The Sun Kings by Stuart Clark.

The Sun Kings told the story of the Carrington Event and how solar observations in the nineteenth century contributed to the rise of modern astrophysics. Among other things, it discussed the advent of astrophotography and spectroscopy and how astronomers began to notice commonalities between the sun and other stars. This really gets to the root of work I’ve done studying RS CVn stars, which are sun-type binary systems where one or both of the stars have massive spots. It also ties into my work at Kitt Peak where I routinely support spectrographic observations.

Jeff’s show is on the Paranormal UK Radio Network. Despite the network title, we didn’t really get into the paranormal, even though the subject does fascinate me. You can listen to my discussion with Jeff at: http://paranormalukradio.podbean.com/

Explore New Worlds During Read an Ebook Week

I am pleased to announce that several of my books are on sale as part of Smashwords’ Read an Ebook Week promotion. I’ve written books and edited anthologies that imagine travels to distant worlds and this is a great time to join me for the adventure, especially in this week that’s the run-up to Wild Wild West Con with the theme of Galactic Steampunk Federation. The Kepler anthologies I edited with NASA astronomer Steve B. Howell and the novels in my Space Pirates’ Legacy world are all on sale this week.


Kepler Anthologies – 50% Off

Steve Howell and I created the Kepler anthologies as a way to imagine what worlds discovered by NASA’s Kepler space telescope might actually be like. In the way that Mars became a focal point for science fiction writers in the early twentieth century, we see exoplanets as the new frontier in the twenty-first. You can pick up the Kepler Anthologies for 50% off this week.

A Kepler’s Dozen presents thirteen stories about distant worlds that really exist. This anthology of action-packed, mysterious, and humorous stories all based on real planets discovered by the NASA Kepler mission. Whether on a prison colony, in a fast escape from the authorities, or encircling a binary star, thirteen exoplanet stories written by authors such as Mike Brotherton, Laura Givens, and J Alan Erwine will amuse, frighten, and intrigue you while you share fantasy adventures among Kepler’s real-life planets. Each individual story in this book is prefaced by actual scientific data for the particular planet and its host star, based on Kepler discoveries and follow-up. This gives the reader a feel for the type of sun and planets that exist in these alien solar systems. Get the ebook at Smashwords: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/325583


  • NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope has discovered thousands of new planets.
  • Visiting, much less settling, those worlds will provide innumerable challenges.
  • The men and women who make the journey will be those who don’t fear the odds.
  • They’ll be Kepler’s Cowboys.

Saddle up and take an unforgettable journey to distant star systems. Meet new life forms—some willing to be your friend and others who will see you as the invader. Fight for justice in a lawless frontier. Go on a quest for a few dollars more. This exciting, fun, and rollicking anthology of fourteen stories and five poems by such authors as Patrick Thomas, Jaleta Clegg, Anthony R. Cardno, L.J. Bonham, and many more! The book is available at: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/698694


Space Pirates’ Legacy – 75% Off

To celebrate the recent release of the first book of my Space Pirates’ Legacy series, I’m offering the books set in that universe at a deep discount of 75% off as a way to encourage you to discover this universe for yourself.

The Solar Sea sets the stage for the Space Pirates’ Legacy books by telling the story of how humans became citizens of the galaxy. Whales around the world changed their songs the day scientists announced the discovery of powerful new particles around Saturn’s largest moon which could solve Earth’s energy needs. The Quinn Corporation rushes to build a solar sail space craft to unlock the secrets of these strange new particles. They gather the best and brightest to pilot the ship: Jonathan Jefferson, an aging astronaut known as the last man on Mars; Natalie Freeman, a distinguished Navy captain; Myra Lee, a biologist who believes the whales are communicating with Saturn; and John O’Connell, the technician who first discovered the particles. Charting the course is the mysterious Pilot who seems determined to keep secrets from the rest of the crew. Together they make a grand tour of the solar system and discover not only wonders but dangers beyond their imagination. The Solar Sea is available at: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/805692


The Space Pirates’ Legacy itself begins with Firebrandt’s Legacy. In the book, Ellison Firebrandt fights the good fight for Earth. Under a letter of marque, he raids the ships of Earth’s opponents, slowing down their progress and ability to compete with the home system. On the planet Epsilon Indi 2, he rescues a woman named Suki Mori from a drug lord, only to find she isn’t so happy about living a pirate’s life. However, when the captain finds a new engine that will make him the most successful pirate of all, Suki is the only one who can make it work. Now Firebrandt must find a way to keep his crew fed and his ship supplied while relying on a woman who barely trusts him and while every government in the galaxy hunts him to get the engine back! Get Firebrandt’s Legacy at: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/916916

Galactic Steampunk Federation

It’s hard to believe, but Wild Wild West Con 8 is just around the corner. I will be returning to the convention as a panelist and a vendor. The convention is primarily held at Old Tucson Studios outside of Tucson, Arizona. These are the studios where such famous westerns as John Wayne’s Rio Bravo and the original 3:10 to Yuma with Glenn Ford were filmed. Special guests this year include numerous steampunk builders and costumers who will be showing off their craft. Madame Askew and the Grand Arbiter will be holding court over such events as tea dueling and teapot racing. The featured musical guest is Professor Elemental. I am also pleased to note that Hadrosaur Productions authors and artists such as David B. Riley, Laura Givens, and David Drake will also be on hand. You can get more information about the convention at http://wildwestcon.com

I’m also very excited about this year’s theme: The Galactic Steampunk Federation. It encompasses much of my work from my astronomy to my space opera with a space western flavor in addition to my steampunk and you’ll see that reflected in this year’s schedule.

My schedule at the event is as follows. Of course this is subject to change, and I’ll attempt to update this as a result of last-minute shuffling, but, as always, if you’re at the event be sure to check your program books for the official schedule.

Friday, March 8

  • 11am-Noon. Chapel. Drake and McTrowell’s Hot Potato School of Writing. The authors of “The Adventures of Drake & McTrowell” will lead two guest authors and the audience in a madcap improvisational writing game show. Rumor has it, I will be there as a “celebrity” guest contestant.
  • Noon-1pm. Arizona Theater. Victorian Astronomy – How the Universe Changed Through Time. The Victorian age was a time when people were getting to know the planets in our solar system as places and beginning to explore them with telescopes. Astronomers were getting a better idea of what stars were made of and got the first clues that galaxies were made of stars. A look at how our conception of the universe changed.
  • 4pm. Panel Tent. Weird Westerns: The Greatest Genre Nobody Ever Heard Of. David B. Riley will lead this panel discussion introducing weird western fiction and present some recommendations for good stuff to read. I’ll be joining him to contribute my two cents.

Saturday, March 9

  • Noon-1pm. Chapel. Victorian Science and Science Fiction. Paleontology, astronomy, engineering, and biology all made great strides in the Victorian age. How did these sciences influence the rise of writers like Jules Verne and H.G. Wells? What other lesser known authors are worth seeking out? On the panel with me are David B. Riley, CI Erasmus P. Drake and Dr. Sparky McTrowell.

Sunday, March 10

  • 1pm-2pm. Chapel. Space Cowboys! Many steampunks embrace the idea of the space cowboy. Where did the idea come from? How are space opera and steampunk different? How far can we stretch the idea of the space cowboy before it’s no longer “retro” future and just plain future? On the panel with me are CI Erasmus P. Drake and Robert E. Vardeman.
  • 3pm-4pm. Meet and Greet at the Aristocrat’s Lounge. An opportunity to come meet me and join in informal discussion. At this point, the plan is that Drake and McTrowell plan to join in the fun as well. Sock puppets may be involved.

When I’m not at these events, I’ll be at the Hadrosaur Productions Booth in the Stage 2 Vendor’s Barn where we’ll have copies of my books, including my newest, Firebrandt’s Legacy, David B. Riley’s Fallen Angel, and also Legends of the Dragon Cowboys by David B. Riley and Laura Givens. We’re sharing the booth with CI Erasmus P. Drake and Dr. Sparky McTrowell whose own “Adventures of Drake and McTrowell are outstanding and worth reading as well. So, saddle up and head out to Old Tucson next weekend as your first stop to explore the Galactic Steampunk Federation!

Lasers on Telescopes

For me, the phrase “lasers on telescopes” brings to mind super villains capturing top secret astronomical facilities in order to execute a nefarious plan. I think of Mr. Freeze capturing Gotham Observatory to build a giant freeze ray in the movie Batman and Robin. Perhaps a funnier and better example is Chairface Chippendale using a laser in a telescope to deface the moon with his name in the TV series The Tick.

Laser measuring tool (on yellow arm between black mirror covers) over the Mayall primary mirror.

In fact, lasers are used on telescopes. Perhaps the best known real-world examples are telescopes that use laser guide stars. This is a technique where astronomers fire a laser mounted on the telescope into the sky. The laser light is scattered by the atmosphere, but optics in the telescope correct that light back into the proper size beam and also correct the stars seen at the same time. We had a system like that at the 2.1-meter telescope at Kitt Peak run by CalTech. There was also a system like that at the 3.5-meter telescope at New Mexico’s Apache Point Observatory.

Now, these lasers are not ones that are likely to be co-opted for nefarious purposes by super villains. Lasers used for guide stars just aren’t that powerful. That said, they can’t be used with impunity. The artificial guide star laser at Kitt Peak was visible in the ultraviolet band and would interfere with optical telescopes also observing in that band. What’s more, I’ve been told Apache Point Observatory had to clear laser firings with the Air Force, who had a base nearby. The observatory’s laser wasn’t likely to shoot down planes, but we could imagine tragic results if a pilot happened to fly through a laser’s line of sight only to be blinded.

This past week, while working at the Mayall 4-meter telescope, we were also using a laser. In this case, it wasn’t fired at the sky, but the laser was mounted on the telescope’s mirror cell and fired at different surfaces on the telescope to get precise measurements. Now that the refit for DESI is nearing completion, the engineers need to make sure everything went back together as it was designed. They need to make sure all the new parts are placed in just the right place. If not, this is the time to make adjustments. Measurements of telescopes are important because they help to assure that astronomers can focus the telescope properly. Precise measurements are also critical to determine the proper weight distribution of the telescope, which in turn helps it track the sky precisely.

As it turns out, I also spent part of this past week working on an adaptive optics system a little like those laser systems I mentioned. However, the WIYN Tip-Tilt Module doesn’t actually use a laser. Instead, it takes precision measurements of an actual star and uses optics within the instrument to bring that star as close as possible to a precise point. I’ve seen it used to deliver incredible image quality with stars only 0.3 arcsecs across. To put that in perspective, star images with WIYN are typically more like 0.8 arcsec across. The size difference is the result of atmospheric blurring.

This all echoes something I’ve been saying in the past few blog posts. If something isn’t quite right, there are ways to fix it, even when its a multi-million dollar scientific project. By comparison, books are much easier to fix. It’s why beta readers and editors are so important to the writing process. They help us see places where we didn’t express ourselves clearly, made something work in an artificial way, or simply used the wrong word. It’s part of why reviews are so important. Reviews help customers, but they also help writers because they tell them what worked and didn’t work.

Over the years, reviews helped me refine my craft until I could write books like Owl Riders and Firebrandt’s Legacy. And yes, reviews are helping me shape the 25th anniversary edition of The Pirates of Sufiro, which I’m working on right now. I hope you’ll join me on a journey to one of the worlds I’ve created and, if you do, please leave a review to let me and others know what you thought. The titles in this paragraph are links where you can get more information about the books.

Stamp Collecting

One thing astronomers do is attempt to classify the objects they see by common properties. For example, stars that display similar chemical fingerprints in their spectra will be assigned a certain spectral type. Galaxies can be grouped by shape such as spiral, barred spiral, elliptical, and my favorite, irregular. Here’s a chart from NASA showing the numbers of exoplanets discovered as grouped by size of planet.

Back in my college days, we called this “stamp collecting.” It’s a somewhat derogatory term because it’s not necessarily the most exciting work in astronomy and its significance can be somewhat misleading. A great example is the whole “is Pluto a planet” debate which was sparked by classifying Pluto a dwarf planet. To my mind a “dwarf planet” is just a type of planet. After all, we orbit a dwarf star! (A G2V yellow dwarf main sequence star if you want more of the taxonomy.)

That said, this process of stamp collecting does serve an important purpose. By seeing how many of what types of objects are out in the universe, it helps us understand how the universe evolved. It helps us see patterns that show us how particular objects might have changed. For example, when I mentioned that the sun is a G2V main sequence star, that not only tells me what it is, but gives me some idea where the star is in its life cycle.

We do stamp collecting in the writing world as well. We classify books broadly by subject: science fiction, horror, romance, adventure, etc. We often take these individual classifications down even finer. A science fiction book can be described as hard science fiction, space opera, military science fiction and more. Like stamp collecting in astronomy, this can be an important process. It helps readers find what they want to read. However, it can also get overblown.

It’s become a reality in the publishing industry that an author’s name is a sort of brand, and authors often get classified right along with their books. Mary Smith writes military science fiction while John Jones writes space opera. Some writers even go so far as to pick different pseudonyms each time they explore not just a new genre, but a new subgenre.

I’ve been thinking about this lately in terms of my own writing career. For most of the last decade, I’ve been very focused on my Clockwork Legion steampunk novels. Now, I’m turning my focus more to my Space Pirates’ Legacy series. To my mind, the two series actually have a lot in common. There’s a real space cowboy vibe in the Space Pirates series that echoes the retrofuturism of the steampunk. Of course, this does cause some people to ask if I’ve finished the Clockwork Legion series or won’t do more steampunk. The answer to both is absolutely not. I think I have many more steampunk stories to tell and many of those will feature Ramon, Fatemeh, Larissa, and the rest of the gang. However, I also like telling stories about Captain Firebrandt, Roberts, and Manuel Raton.

For what it’s worth, I classify myself as a writer of fantastic tales with a retrofuturistic vibe. That captures my steampunk, my space cowboys, and even my vampires, especially when I write stories set in a historical context.

If you’re in Tucson, I hope you’ll join me tomorrow, Sunday, February 10 at 3:30pm at Antigone Books for the Tucson Steampunk Society’s book club meeting where I’ve been invited to discuss my fourth Clockwork Legion novel, Owl Riders, which recently was a top-ten finisher in the Predators and Editors Reader’s Poll for best steampunk novel of 2018. Copies of the novel are available at Antigone and if you let us know you haven’t read it yet, we’ll try not to give away too many spoilers. Antigone Books is located at 411 N. 4th Avenue in Tucson. If you can’t make it, the book club posts videos of the meeting that will be shared on their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/TucsonSteampunkSociety/