Secret Science

A fictional trope I encounter frequently working at Kitt Peak National Observatory is the idea that I might have access to some top secret information that the general public doesn’t know. For example, I’m often asked whether there’s an asteroid getting ready to pummel the Earth or if aliens exist. I have indeed pointed telescopes at objects expected to pass close to the Earth, and even one that passed between the Earth and Moon. That object had already been on the news before I went to work. As for aliens—I work near the Mexican border. All the aliens I’ve met have perfectly terrestrial origins.

For all I know, this might happen after the aliens leave Kitt Peak.

For all I know, this might happen after the aliens leave Kitt Peak.

The fact of the matter is that science, by its nature, is remarkably open and transparent. We aren’t in the business of keeping secrets. Science progresses by presenting not only results but details of how those results were obtained so others can attempt to duplicate the results. What’s more, scientists actually require independent confirmation of results before they’re presented as discoveries.

This is why the president’s recent actions requiring that press releases and announcements from agencies such as the EPA and the Forest Service be vetted by the White House concerns me. It’s just like the fictional trope of the government deciding what science is fit for the public to hear. Of course, what’s almost worse is the impression that the White House wants all scientific results to match its political objectives.

Admittedly there are times when scientific secrecy is appropriate. A good example would be World War II’s Manhattan Project in which the atomic bomb was developed. That said, here’s a story my graduate advisor, Dr. Stirling Colgate, used to tell. He was a high school student at the Los Alamos Boys School, which was part of the land taken over for the Manhattan Project. He remembers seeing two mysterious strangers called Dr. Smith and Dr. Jones who toured the campus. He met up with some friends and they realized Dr. Smith and Dr. Jones were, in fact Robert Oppenheimer and Enrico Fermi, whose photos were in their physics textbooks. They pondered why Oppenheimer and Fermi were visiting their little out-of-the-way school and realized that they were there to build the atomic bomb. The point of this story is that while the project was secret, the physics used was available to anyone, and even a high school boy in New Mexico could have sufficient theoretical understanding to know what was afoot. Of course, a boy smart enough to understand that scientists were about to build the atomic bomb was smart enough to know he’d get in a lot of trouble if he revealed what he figured out!

An element of secrecy that I deal with on a daily basis is that I avoid discussing results obtained by the astronomers I work with before they’ve had a chance to publish it. This is not because the data itself is necessarily secret, but because the observers need time to analyze their data and feel confident in the results before they announce it to the world. In this case, my role as an observing associate is not unlike my role as a book editor. As an editor, it would be inappropriate for me to post an author’s work without their permission. In much the same way, the data obtained at the telescope isn’t “mine” to share.

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In my novel, The Astronomer’s Crypt, I playfully use the trope of secret science when two characters encounter a creature at the observatory they don’t understand. The joke is that secret science doesn’t really happen and that astronomers don’t grow monsters in their mountaintop laboratories. While not everyone takes the time to understand science, the facilities are generally open and the results are available. Unfortunately, one of the dangers of a government releasing only the science it deems appropriate is that it throws a cloak over the whole process, which is no laughing matter. There suddenly becomes the possibility that results are selectively presented for political aims. This not only has the potential to invalidate scientific results, but also means the public doesn’t get to see what their tax dollars are funding. For all anyone knows, we might be growing monsters, harboring aliens, or keeping the next apocalyptic asteroid a secret for fear it might cause the stock market to plummet.

A Restful(?) Week

As I mentioned in Monday’s post, I have quite a few projects lined up for this year. Also, by “luck” of the draw, I had to drive to work at Kitt Peak National Observatory on Christmas Day and stay through New Years morning. So, I decided to take this first week of the new year as a low-pressure week to unwind from the stress of the holidays before jumping into new projects.

One of my Christmas presents this year was a model of the spaceship Bentenmaru from the anime Bodacious Space Pirates (Click on the title to see my discussion of the series). My wife included a copy of the movie based on the series, Abyss of Hyperspace. The movie was pretty good. It’s essentially an extended episode of the series and doesn’t add much to the bigger story arcs. Still, it was great to see Pirate Captain Marika Kato, the crew of the Bentenmaru, and the Hakuoh Academy Yacht Club back in action.

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The model itself was an import from Japan made by Hasegawa Hobby Kits. I’ve had fun building other anime space ship models from Japan. Most of those were Bandai kits. As with the Bandai kits I’ve built, the actual assembly of the model was smooth and the model includes lots of detail. Unlike the Bandai kits I’ve assembled, this one came with a generous sheet of decals. This is where my week of fun and pleasant diversion morphed into challenging learning experience.

Now as someone who has enjoyed building models since I was in elementary school, I’m no stranger to water-slide decals. So, I didn’t think I needed instructions for applying them—useful since the instructions that came with the kit were in Japanese. However, as I began to apply the decals, I discovered that they were both a bit thicker than the American decals I’ve used and seemed to have less glue. The result was that I found them a challenge to stay in place and several started to peel up again as they dried, instead of remaining stuck to the model!

I ended up going out to the internet to find methods for rescuing the decals. I found one site that recommended sticking them down with a little watered-down white glue. This worked for a few of the smaller decals. I was able to rescue a few of the decals by applying a tiny drop of superglue underneath with a toothpick and pressing the decal back down. The biggest decal was on the base—the series logo. That one went down easily and seemed to stick well, but as it dried, its edges seemed to lift up. My attempt to rescue it led to the worst disaster of all. One forum I read suggested sealing the edges with clear nail polish. I’m sorry to say, clear nail polish melted these decals. Fortunately, I’d only tried on a small area and only did a little damage that I was able to touch up with some paint.

Eventually, I found my way to a forum for Gundam models, another Japanese hobby company focusing on mecha. Their video for decal application suggested that I was applying the decals correctly, but that I should also use a clear liquid called decal set after applying them. I’ve been aware of decal set, but I have never found it all that necessary on the American models I made. I picked up a small bottle and tried it on the last couple of decals on the Bentenmaru and they did indeed seem to stick down better than the ones applied without decal set. In the end, I’m pretty happy with the results, though I’m a little concerned that the model won’t age well if decals peel up and fall off.

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If anyone reading this has built Hasegawa models with decals, I’d be interested in any tips you have. If the model doesn’t hold up to time, I may attempt it again. If so, I want to go in with as much knowledge as possible!

Because of the decals, the model took a lot longer than I expected and wasn’t really as restful as I hoped. Even so, it did clear my mind and gave me a change of pace for a few days before leaping into new projects. As writers, we’re often told we have to write every day and apply every waking hour we’re not writing to marketing our books. I think it’s important for writers to step back from that and realize that they’re self-employed business people. Everyone burns out if they don’t take a break once in a while. If you’re a writer, remember to be a good boss to yourself and give yourself some time to play—whether it’s some time relaxing on a beach, indulging in a hobby, or even taking a class. It’ll pay dividends in your efficiency, and who knows? You might have an experience which could be used in a future story.

2016: A Personal Perspective

2016 has been one wild ride. On the political front, Britain voted to leave the European Union and the United States had the most divisive presidential election I’ve ever seen. We lost a lot of talented people this year ranging from Vera Rubin, the astronomer who discovered dark matter, to entertainers that touched many of us including David Bowie, Carrie Fisher, Gene Wilder, and Anton Yelchin. Despite all that, 2016 has actually been a rather good year, personally.

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This year, I published two novels. In February, Sky Warrior Publishing released the third of my Clockwork Legion series, The Brazen Shark in which a ship captain takes two dear friends on a special honeymoon getaway, only to have it interrupted by samurai air pirates attempting to overthrow the Japanese emperor. In December, Lachesis Publishing released my horror novel The Astronomer’s Crypt, which tells the story of astronomers, ghosts, drug dealers, and a monster from the beginning of time who collide at a remote observatory during a violent thunderstorm. You can learn about both novel on the books page at my website.

In addition to the novels, four of my short stories appeared in anthologies. “Arachne’s Stepchildren” about the potential hazards of discovering new life appeared in The Martian Anthology. “Reckoning at the Alamo” which tells about Marshall Larissa Seaton and Professor Maravilla battling a Lovecraftian entity from across space appeared in Lost Trails 2: Forgotten Tales of the Weird West. “The Jackalope Bandit” which tells about one of Professor Maravilla’s jackalope harvesters being used to rob banks and payrolls appeared in Den of Antiquity. Finally, my retelling of Grimm’s “The Dragon and his Grandmother” appeared in the anthology Gaslight and Grimm which was funded through a very successful Kickstarter campaign. You can learn about all these books at the short story page of my website.

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I feel privileged to continue my work at Kitt Peak National Observatory where I operate the Mayall 4-meter and the WIYN 3.5-meter telescopes. This year, preparations began for the installation of a new cutting-edge instrument at the Mayall. This will be an instrument that will take spectra of 5000 objects at one time. Starting in 2018, the telescope will be used to survey the entire sky in hopes of better understanding the phenomenon known as dark energy. Part of this year’s preparations included deployment of a prototype instrument, the beginning of a new imaging survey to identify targets for the spectrographic survey, and work on a new control system for the Mayall. As it turns out, I’ll be ringing in the new year at the Mayall, helping with a program looking at a sample of galaxies from the early universe.

Over the course of the year, I had the opportunity to make several nice trips. In April, I spent time with two friends at Vermillion Cliffs in Northern Arizona. In May, I traveled to Baltimore for Balticon and the release of the Gaslight and Grimm anthology. In July, I traveled with my family to California for my nephew’s wedding.

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Speaking of family, my oldest daughter started a paid computer internship at Tulane University this year and opened her own Etsy shop. Meanwhile my youngest daughter has embarked on the adventure of high school. I couldn’t be more proud of these two young women.

Perhaps the year’s scariest moment came in November when my wife’s tire blew out on the way home from TusCon in Tucson, Arizona. The car spun on the interstate and went into the mesquite bushes between Texas Canyon and Wilcox on I-10. Fortunately my wife and youngest daughter who were in the car were all right, but the car was totaled. The story had a happy ending when my wife was able to use the insurance money to pay for a nice, albeit used, replacement car.

As I say, this year has been something of a wild ride. Although I am admittedly apprehensive about some things happening on the world and national stages, I have several good things on the horizon as well. Come back on Monday and learn about some things to look forward to in 2017. In the meantime, I wish you a very happy and prosperous New Year.

The Threepenny Opera

About a week ago, I introduced my youngest daughter to one of my favorite musicals: The Threepenny Opera by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. It tells the story of Mack the Knife, a thief in Victorian London who marries Polly, daughter of Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum, who controls the city’s beggars. Peachum goes to the police for help and discovers that Mack is protected by the Chief of Police. threepenny-opera-broadway Even so, the Chief of Police has a price and agrees to hunt Mack. Mack flees into the arms of his longtime lover, a prostitute named Jenny. This really only scratches the surface of the play’s story. A lot goes on in a very compact narrative.

The play was written in 1928 in Germany as Nazis and communists were vying for control of the Weimar Republic. Brecht was a communist and adapted an English play called The Beggar’s Opera into a critique of capitalism. Whenever a character in The Threepenny Opera has a choice, they will always take the one that will bring them the most money or the most personal pleasure, regardless of what it means for those around them. Being a little vague to avoid spoilers, the ending calls up a deliberate deus ex machina that encourages the audience to realize that real life would give no happy ending for characters that behave this way. It also challenges the audience to ask that if it related to the thieves, beggars, and the prostitutes of the story, they should be careful about treating them as sub-human worthy of no sympathy. I believe the lessons of the play are as valuable and relevant today in the United States as they were in 1928 Weimar Germany.

As it turns out, members of the German Communist Party were among Brecht’s harshest critics at the time the play was released. They wanted the play to include a depiction of the proletariat uprising against the bourgeoisie. I suspect it’s precisely because the play didn’t go this direction that it remains relevant today.

The play has been translated into English multiple times with varying degrees of success. The version represented by the poster at the top of the post was translated by Wallace Shawn, famous as Vizzini in The Princess Bride and starred Alan Cumming as Mack and Cyndi Lauper as Jenny. Unfortunately, Shawn’s translation hasn’t been published, nor was there a cast recording of the show. Fortunately, plenty of other recordings exist including the Mannheim and Willet translation of the 1970s, which features Raul Julia as Mack.

As far as I know, the musical has only been made into a movie three times. mack_the_knife_poster Probably the most famous and widely available is the 1931 version. Among the high points, Kurt Weill’s wife, Lotte Lenya reprises her role as the original Jenny in this early version. Unfortunately, this version drops many songs and changes the play’s ending. I’ve never seen the 1960’s version, but haven’t been able to find a recommendation from a fan. My personal favorite is the 1989 film Mack the Knife starring Raul Julia as Mack, Richard Harris as Peachum, Julie Walters (best known as Molly Weasley in the Harry Potter films) as Mrs. Peachum, and Roger Daltry as the street singer. This version is still quite flawed. It also drops songs, is very dark and muddy looking, and has several unnecessary dance numbers. Despite all that, it seems to capture the essence of the play better than the 1931 version. Sadly, the movie was only released on VHS and no DVD version has appeared.

As it turns out, my novel The Pirates of Sufiro takes some inspiration from The Threepenny Opera. Captain Firebrandt’s portrayal as the stylish pirate captain, owes a lot to Mack the Knife, who is called Captain Macheath to his face. Also, Firebrandt’s lover Suki is named for Sukey Tawdry, one of Mack’s lovers in the play. The Pirates of Sufiro is available for free at Amazon and Barnes and Noble. My preferred edition of the ebook is available as a PDF directly from my publisher.

Acting Out a Scam

No one has ever accused me of being a financial analyst, but I once played one on the television series, Unsolved Mysteries. Here’s a somewhat blurry screenshot from the episode. I’m the tall, happy fellow in the yellow hard hat.

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Back in my senior year at New Mexico Tech, while working on my physics degree, I had a few elective hours available and took a class in musical theater. We presented the Lerner and Loewe play, Brigadoon. The musical director was Mike Iaturo, who I gather played accordion on Broadway for Fiddler on the Roof. The play’s director was Carolyn Abbey. Carolyn’s husband, Mike, is the bearded fellow in the photo above.

After graduating, I remained at New Mexico Tech to work on my master’s degree in physics. I also joined a community theater group run by Carolyn and we put on a set of one-act plays collectively entitled The God’s Honest. Working on these plays was good experience for collaborating with editors and artists as a writer and publisher. I learned to listen, be flexible, and take criticism. The collaborative nature of plays taught me the freedom to change lines so they worked best for the scene as played. It helped me to avoid falling so much in love with my own words that I could never change them.

In the fall of 1989, Carolyn called me to say the television series Unsolved Mysteries was holding auditions in Socorro for a segment they would be filming. I went to the hotel where they were holding the auditions and stood in line for a while. The casting director looked me up and down asked if I had a suit and was willing to shave for the part. I answered “yes” to both questions and she called the next person. Since she didn’t ask me to do anything else, I was certain she wasn’t interested. The casting director surprised me a day later when she called up to say I’d been cast as one of the financial analysts who investigated a gold mine scam a few years before in New Mexico.

It was an interesting experience to see behind the scenes of the making of a television series. As I recall, I woke up at 5 in the morning, dressed in my suit and went to the hotel where I auditioned. I met the other actors and extras who were hired and they drove us to a mine just north of Socorro in the small town of Escondida. We were there until about 6pm. All of the extras playing financial analysts hung out together. From time to time, we were called out to play in a scene. When we were not acting, we had access to a trailer full of stuff to eat. As a graduate student, this was like a dream come true.

The segment featured Maurice “Ed” Barbara, who convinced people to invest in his fake cold mine near Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. Among the people he conned was famed attorney Melvin Belli, who played the Friendly Angel in the Star Trek episode, “And the Children Shall Lead.”

The episode finally aired on December 13, 1989. It was episode number 40, which was part of the second season. Here’s the part of the episode I was in. As you can see, twelve hours of filming was condensed down into about two minutes. I have to admit, it’s something of a thrill to have my actions narrated by Robert Stack.

I gather there was a follow up in episode 64, but unfortunately, I never saw that. If anyone has ever heard what happened to Ed Barbara, I’d be interested in hearing the end of the story. At the end of the episode, they said he had fled to Canada.

Hope my readers in the United States are having a good Thanksgiving weekend and staying away from scams on this busy shopping weekend!

Funding Science

This weekend finds me at TusCon in Tucson, Arizona where I’m speaking on panel discussions and giving a reading from my forthcoming novel, The Astronomer’s Crypt. I’m glad to spend time with friends and have a little breath of fresh air after news of this week’s bitter and divisive election.

As I’ve stated in an earlier post, I hesitate to spend a lot of time on political subjects in this blog, but it’s been hard to escape political topics this week. That said, I thought I’d share one of the most interesting articles I read in the run-up to the election, partly because it hits close to my “day” job operating telescopes at Kitt Peak National Observatory. This was Scientific American’s article grading the presidential candidates on science.

Unless something radical and unprecedented happens in the electoral college, we now know Donald Trump will be our next president. He received Scientific American’s lowest grade on science. I won’t give a blow by blow of everything he says in the article. I’ll leave you to read it if you’re interested, but I will take a quick look at two topics near and dear to me: Space and STEM education.

On the subject of Space, Trump is quoted as saying, “Space exploration has given so much to America, including tremendous pride in our scientific and engineering prowess. A strong space program will encourage our children to seek STEM educational outcomes and will bring millions of jobs and trillions of dollars in investment to this country.” He goes on to say, “Observation from space and exploring beyond our own space neighborhood should be priorities.” On the surface, I have no real problem with this.

The potential problem comes when Trump speaks further about priorities. As reported about a year ago in the Washington Post, when asked about space, Trump said: “Right now, we have bigger problems—you understand that? We’ve got to fix our potholes. You know, we don’t exactly have a lot of money.” I think fixing potholes on Interstates—where it seems most federal money for this sort of thing would go—is an important thing, but it’s hard to imagine that it would cost so much as to leave little left over for science.

On the subject of STEM education, Trump says, “There are a host of STEM programs already in existence. What the federal government should do is to make sure that educational opportunities are available for everyone. This means we must allow market influences to bring better, higher quality educational circumstances to more children.” He then goes on to say, “The management of our public education institutions should be done at the state and local level, not at the Department of Education. Until more choices are provided in our cities, those who tout their concern about educational outcomes cannot be taken seriously.” It’s pretty clear from this that Trump believes the federal government should not provide more funding for STEM education. The problem here is that not all state and local governments have access to the kinds of corporate funding he imagines coming in to educate kids. What’s more, not all talented kids come from those places that might benefit from such corporate funding.

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With these things in mind, I’d like to leave you with some food for thought from Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. During John Galt’s speech at the end of the novel, she writes: “You proclaim yourself unable to harness the forces of inanimate matter, yet propose to harness the minds of men who are able to achieve the feats you cannot equal. You proclaim that you cannot survive without us, yet propose to dictate the terms of our survival, asserting your right to rule us by force—and expect that we, who are not afraid of that physical nature which fills you with terror, will cower at the sight of any lout who has talked you into voting him a chance to command us.”

There’s no doubt, science and science education are important to the national interest. What’s more, scientists and science educators deserve to be fairly compensated and adequately funded. It’s not clear a Trump administration will prioritize spending on space or STEM education, which leaves it to the rest of us.

For my part, I’ve given talks at schools along with science fiction and comic conventions—work by the way, which is funded through sales of my books, not the federal government. I’ve encouraged the education of my daughters in all aspects of math, science, and technology. I’m also a member of The Planetary Society which has been doing great work at providing much-needed support for space science. I encourage you to get involved with STEM programs in your area, helping out where you can or even just attending public programs when they’re offered. If those aren’t available, there are exciting citizen science projects offered through Zooniverse.org.

Remembering Houdini

Happy Halloween! I hope everyone dropping by will have a safe and enjoyable celebration. This Halloween finds me operating the Mayall 4-meter telescope instead of trick-or-treating, but I do plan to bring some spooky reading with me to the telescope to celebrate the occasion.

Today also marks the ninetieth anniversary of Harry Houdini’s death. Houdini fascinated me as a kid and the more I’ve learned about him over the years, the more he intrigues me. Not only was he an amazing escape artist and magician, but he was a pioneer in both cinema and aviation. However, what has always fascinated me most was Houdini’s work as a skeptic. The photo below shows Houdini in a “spirit” photograph of him interacting with Abraham Lincoln through the magic of a double exposure.

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Houdini became interested in the occult and spiritualism after his mother died in 1913. He wanted to contact his mother beyond the grave. However, back in his early days as a performer, he masqueraded as a spiritual medium himself and began to recognize that the mediums he contacted had just updated and recycled tricks he himself once used. Ashamed of his own past, he started a crusade to expose fake mediums and show people how they performed their tricks.

By 1925, Houdini’s show went from his familiar routine of escapes and magic tricks to showing how psychics and spiritualists performed their tricks. Houdini chronicled his exploits in a book entitled A Magician Among the Spirits which he co-authored with C.M. Eddy Jr. Reportedly, it’s this book which cost Houdini his friendship with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of Sherlock Holmes.

Doyle himself was a strong believer in spiritualism, though interestingly he’s associated with his own share of intellectual fraud. Probably the most famous case was helping to publicize the Cottingly Fairies. In this case, two young cousins photographed themselves with dancing pixies. However, the cousins later confessed that the “fairies” were illustrations from a popular children’s book of the day called Princess Mary’s Gift Book. I first read about this case in James Randi’s book Flim Flam. Of course, Randi himself was influenced to investigate the paranormal by Houdini. I was honored to meet the Amazing Randi when I was in college, where he did his own demonstration of psychic “magic.”

In 1926, Houdini planned to start a new book about religious miracles with C.M. Eddy Jr. and none other than H.P. Lovecraft. Although an outline and three chapters were written, plans for the book were derailed by Houdini’s untimely death later that year.

Despite Houdini’s efforts to debunk the paranormal, his widow Bess went on to attempt to contact her dead husband through the aid of spiritualists. It’s said her final attempt happened eighty years ago tonight on October 31, 1936. The séance was broadcast on the radio. The medium, Ed Saint, called out on to Houdini to make himself known, but no answer came. After an hour, Bess called an end to the séance. At that point, a very localized, violent storm broke out. Supposedly it was clear over the surrounding area. It only rained over the séance location.

I hope you stay warm and dry this Halloween and may all your encounters with ghosts and spirits prove pleasant ones.