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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El Paso Comic Con 2019

Next weekend, I’ll be at El Paso Comic Con in El Paso, Texas. The event is being held from Friday, April 12 through Sunday, April 14 at the El Paso Convention Center. Special guests for the weekend include LeVar Burton from Star Trek: The Next Generation and Reading Rainbow. Also there will be Jason David Frank, Johnny Yong Bosch, Steve Cardenas, Jason Narvy, and Paul L. Schrier II who all played in incarnations of the Power Rangers TV series. There will also be guests from the comics industry such as writer and illustrator Frank Cho and writer Donny Cates. There will be music by The Library Bards plus cosplay, vendors, and panels all weekend long. You can get more information about the event at: http://elpasocomiccon.com/

Through much of the event, you will be able to find me at booth A15 in the vendor hall. I will have all my books available for sale and I’ll be happy to answer your questions. Also, on Sunday, April 14 at 11am, I’ll join author R.H. Webster for a panel entitled “The Southwest as Inspiration” in the Juarez Panel Room. We’ll talk about the surprising ways the Southwest inspires our science fiction fantasy, and steampunk. Be sure to bring all your questions for us!

I’ll be unveiling Hadrosaur Productions latest novel, Armageddon’s Son at my booth. I edited this terrific novel by Greg Ballan, which tells how the forces of Light and Dark wage war on and above Earth as each side seeks human allies to advance either the destruction or salvation of an ignorant mankind. In one bold, desperate act, an agent of Chaos has stolen the most powerful and coveted holy relic from the very heart of Vatican City, The Ruby Crucifix of Christ. This powerful relic was carved from the very cross where the savior was nailed, and is stained with His blood. This holy relic is said to be the instrument to end Armageddon and herald a new age of Man. Fortunately, Ex-CIA Agent Erik Knight is recruited to assist his mentor, Martin Denton, to discover the identity of the mysterious thief and locate the stolen relic.

Another book that will be new to El Paso Comic Con is David B. Riley’s Fallen Angel. It tells the story of Mabel, an angel from Hell, who accompanies General Grant’s army during the last days of the Civil War only to discover that Martians are watching the Earth with envious eyes and slowly drawing their plans against us. Not only that, but Mabel has to contend with her evil sister, who wants to have humans for dinner. Although Mabel and Grant get the upper hand before the war ends, the battle of good against evil isn’t won so quickly.

Of course, I’ll have my own latest release along as well and I’ll be happy to sign copies of Firebrandt’s Legacy for you. The novel tells the story of Ellison Firebrandt who 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.

I look forward to seeing you in El Paso next weekend!

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/

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!

Fallen Angel

I’m proud to announce the release of Hadrosaur Productions’ latest weird western adventure, Fallen Angel by David B. Riley.

Fallen Angel is the story of Mabel, an angel from Hell, who accompanies General Grant’s army during the last days of the Civil War only to discover that Martians are watching the Earth with envious eyes and slowly drawing their plans against us. Not only that, but Mabel has to contend with her evil sister, who wants to have humans for dinner. Although Mabel and Grant get the upper hand before the war ends, the battle of good against evil isn’t won so quickly. Several years later, in San Francisco, Mabel just wants to have fun with her friend Miles O’Malley, when she discovers her sister and the Martians have joined forces with a college fraternity and humanity may be on the dinner menu.

I have a long history of working with David B. Riley and his characters Mabel and Miles. I first published one of David’s stories all the way back in the second issue of Hadrosaur Tales where he sold me the story “The Brother” about a vampire monk. The first Miles O’Malley story I bought was “The Devil’s Chest” which appeared in Hadrosaur Tales 11 published in 2001. Four years later, that story would become a chapter in his novel The Two Devils which he sold to LBF Books. This was during a brief period when Hadrosaur had joined forces with LBF and acted as an imprint for some of LBF’s titles. Because of the arrangement, I served as the novel’s editor.

In the eighteen years since, LBF Books was acquired by Lachesis Publishing and Hadrosaur Productions is now publishing books independently. Fallen Angel is actually the second of David’s books that we’ve published. The other is “The Venerable Travels of Ling Fung” which is part of the book Legends of the Dragon Cowboys. Ling Fung actually inhabits the same weird western world as Miles O’Malley. Both heroes have fought Ah Puch, the Mayan god of death.

At his blog over the weekend, David reveals that he got the idea for Fallen Angel from a postage stamp commemorating the Civil War’s Battle of Vicksburg. You can read the full story at http://blog.davidbriley.net/2019/02/a-stamp-saucer-some-martians.html.

David and I both will be at Wild Wild West Con in Tucson, Arizona the weekend of March 8-10, 2019 at Old Tucson Studios. I will have copies of the book at the Hadrosaur Productions booth in the vendor area. If you won’t be fortunate enough to join us, or you just don’t want to wait that long, you can pick up the book from Hadrosaur at: http://www.hadrosaur.com/FallenAngel.php. While you’re at the site, be sure to browse the store link for more of David’s titles along with titles by many other great authors.

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street

As the year starts, I have the rare treat of being able to visit the Tucson Steampunk Society’s Book Club two months in a row. This month, I visited as a reader. The club’s selection is the fine novel The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley. I’ll visit next month because the selection is my own novel, Owl Riders. It’s always a pleasure to visit the club and speak to its members about my books. This rare double visit gets to happen because my work schedule at Kitt Peak had start dates the Monday following each of the meetings.

Set in 1883, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street tells the story of Thaniel Steppleton, a telegraph operator in Britain’s Home Office who returns from work one day to find a watch in his rooms. An alarm on the watch saves him from an Irish bomb planted at Scotland Yard. Curious about the origin of the watch, he goes in search of its maker, who he suspects may be tied to the bombing. The maker is a Japanese watchmaker named Keita Mori. Not only does Mori make watches, but he makes amazing automata such as birds and an octopus named Katsu with randomized gears that make him seem almost alive.

Meanwhile, Grace Carrow, an Oxford student who anticipates the Michaelson-Morley experiment and also owns a Mori watch meets Thaniel at a party. She is frustrated by the limitations placed on academic women of her period, but she stands to inherit a house from her aunt if she can find someone to marry. She sets her sights on Thaniel.

The story takes many twists and turns and explores the nature of time, artificial intelligence, and precognition. What’s more, it’s well bounded by actual historical events. The bombing of Scotland Yard actually did happen, as did other significant events in the book. At the steampunk society book club meeting, the question was raised about whether this book was more steampunk or more historical fiction. Using my rough and ready description of steampunk as “Victorian inspired fantasia,” I call it very thoroughly steampunk in its exploration of scientific ideas and even “what ifs” through the lens of a Victorian reality.

Another interesting discussion we had at the book club was about whether or not the novel has an actual villain. Throughout the novel, we’re interested in figuring out who bombed Scotland Yard. Despite that, time itself and the time period are almost presented as greater antagonists than the actual bomber. We also discussed the characters and the characterization in the novel and we came to the insight that at this period of time, many of the people are almost treated as parts of a clockwork machine. All in all, it was a fascinating discussion.

As I say, next month, we’ll be discussing my fourth Clockwork Legion novel, Owl Riders at the Tucson Steampunk Society Book Club. If you’re in Tucson, I encourage you to join us. The club meets on the second Sunday of each month at 3:30pm at Antigone Books, located at 411 N. 4th Avenue in Tucson. The meeting to discuss Owl Riders will be on Sunday, February 10. If you can’t join us, The book club takes video of the meetings and they’re posted to the Society’s Facebook page at: https://www.facebook.com/TucsonSteampunkSociety/. If you want to learn more about the novel and where to order, visit http://www.davidleesummers.com/owl_riders.html.

On the subject of schedules, I have been posting new content to this blog every Monday and Saturday. I’ve decided to make a change and start posting every Tuesday and Saturday. I’m doing this to give more even spacing of the posts each week. Also, because of her schedule, my daughter will start updating her blog every Monday. Even though our audiences aren’t identical, it does allow some more effective cross promotion. You can find my daughter’s blog about her crochet business at http://entropycreations.wordpress.com.

Holiday Owls

Since today is Christmas Eve, I thought it would be fitting to share a short excerpt from my novel Owl Dance. In this scene, Ramon and Fatemeh find themselves on the run with little money in San Francisco. It’s a simple moment that gets to the heart of the season. Keep reading after the segment to learn about a special event later this week.


Ramon returned to the room he shared with Fatemeh late on Christmas Eve. Fatemeh noticed he wore a new pair of glasses. Like his old pair, they were round and gave his face an owlish appearance. He held his hands behind his back. Fatemeh stood and wrapped her arms around Ramon, but was surprised when he didn’t return the embrace. “What’s the matter?”

“Nothing.” Ramon’s voice held a sly edge.

“It looks like you were successful in finding new glasses.”

 Ramon smiled.“Yes, these are even better than the old ones.” He shrugged. “The optometrist thinks my eyes have been getting a little worse.”

“That’s too bad.” Fatemeh returned to her chair.

“However, I did have enough money left over to get you something.” He brought his arms out from behind his back. In his hand was a narrow box, about eight inches long. “Merry Christmas!” Just then he pulled the box back. “Do Bahá’ís celebrate Christmas?”

“Not normally,”said Fatemeh, “but as I’ve said, we respect the teachings of Jesus. I’m happy to celebrate his birth with you, Ramon.” She held out her hand and Ramon handed her the box. She opened it and saw a necklace. Adorning it was a hand-carved wooden bead in the shape of an owl.

“I bought the necklace. I carved the owl myself, though.”

“It’s very sweet.” Fatemeh smiled and put the necklace on. She stood and kissed Ramon, but held his hands as they parted. “How is our money doing?”

“I think I can find a job, but it’s not going to pay much,” admitted Ramon. “We could stay here about six more days and I could keep looking, or we could move on.”

“I like the idea of moving on.” Fatemeh returned to her chair. “I really didn’t like the reception we had on our first day and it’s loud here, even late at night.” She looked out the window at a saloon across the street.

“Where would you like to go?”

She pulled out a map and set it on the small table between the room’s two chairs. “What do you know about Los Angeles?”

“It’s a small town. There’s some farms and some industrial work.” Ramon shrugged.

“What does Los Angeles mean?”

“It means ‘belonging to the angels,’ The name’s short for something like town of the queen of angels.”

“Sounds lovely. Can we leave tomorrow?”

Ramon laughed.“Tomorrow’s Christmas. I doubt the trains are even running. What about the next day?”

“That sounds perfect.” Fatemeh put her hand to the new necklace. “I’m afraid I didn’t get you a present. What else do people do on Christmas?”

“We sing songs.” Ramon sat in the empty chair next to Fatemeh.

“Teach me a Christmas song worthy of the angels, Ramon.”


I hope you enjoyed this little snippet of Owl Dance. On Friday this week, Lynn Moorer of KTAL Radio in Las Cruces will interview me about the fourth book of the series, Owl Riders. If you’re in Las Cruces, you can listen from 12:30-1:00pm mountain standard time by tuning in to 101.5 FM on your radio dial. If you aren’t in Las Cruces, or just don’t listen to shows on the radio, you can stream the show at  https://www.lccommunityradio.org/stream.html. I had a great time earlier this year when I spoke to Lynn about The Brazen Shark. Be sure to mark your calendars so you can catch the show live!