Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans?

On May 19, my daughter graduated from Tulane University in New Orleans. The day’s events included an amazing unified commencement ceremony in the morning where all the graduating students gathered in the Super Dome. That afternoon, we watched her walk across the stage as she received her diploma from the College of Science and Engineering. Honorary doctorates were conveyed to notable people at the unified commencement. Among them were Irma Thomas, the Soul Queen of New Orleans, who sang her song, “It’s Raining.” The unified ceremony also included an inspiring and thoughtful commencement speech by two-time National Book Award winner, Jesmyn Ward.

While my wife and I had visited New Orleans several times on previous trips, visiting the campus and taking our daughter to school, our visits had, for various reasons been limited. This time, we saved up some money cleared our calendars and decided to spend a week in New Orleans, exploring the city and its surroundings. Even a week in New Orleans might have been beyond our means, except that we had a place to stay where we could make many of our own meals. The food in New Orleans is terrific and part of the experience that should not be missed, but it can be expensive.

Among the highlights of our trip were visits to the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum, the Voodoo Museum, and the Audubon Aquarium. One morning we drove down to Jean Lafitte National Park and took a swamp tour, where we saw numerous alligators and turtles. While we were frugal with our food budget, we did splurge on a fine dinner at Muriel’s on Jackson Square. The food was fabulous and I especially appreciated the care the wait staff gave to our daughters and they’re challenging suite of food allergies. They went the extra mile to make sure everyone went away happy. One highlight of Muriel’s is the haunted room upstairs. I took several photos, but never saw any ghosts. There were sarcophagi, which seemed fitting given the release of After Punk the day we dined there.

What makes New Orleans truly special for me is less the touristy stuff and more a magical blend of the people and the overall atmosphere of the city and its surroundings. New Orleans essentially exists in a wetlands environment and life surrounds you. Not just human life like you’d find in a big city like New York or Los Angeles, but magnolia trees and pines, insects and small animals. Of course, you do see a wide variety of the human condition from the desolate, to many people struggling to make a living, to people of privilege throwing cash around at every opportunity. Of course, it’s a city in peril every time a hurricane or even a drenching rain comes through. Global sea level rise could threaten the city. Yet the science fiction writer in me has a hard time imagining the city vanishing forever. It’s versatile and it changes and adapts. There is literal magic in the air. Sometimes it’s just a helping hand from a stranger when you didn’t expect it. Sometimes it’s sitting on a balcony and listening to a trumpeter a block away giving you the gift of his songs. Sometimes the magic comes in walking down the street and seeing a parade break out for no reason that you’ve heard about.

It’s probably fitting that we spent our final evening in New Orleans actually watching a magic show presented by Dr. Joe Dalgo at Potions Lounge. The show captured a lot of what I love about New Orleans. He drew me in with storytelling and history. It felt less like a “show” or an “event” and more like a gathering to appreciate Dr. Dalgo’s talents and knowledge. It was entertaining but I also felt I went away having made new friends.

Speaking of friends, Marita Crandle, who runs Potions Lounge also runs Boutique du Vampyre. She hosted a marvelous signing for me and is one of the people who truly makes me feel at home in New Orleans. If you visit the Crescent City you should visit the Boutique and also pay a visit to Potions. If you can’t make it to New Orleans, you can still shop online at: http://feelthebite.com. Not only will you find signed copies of my vampire novels in the Vampire Library section, but you’ll find my wife’s Monster Eye Bag Charms in the Cabinet of Curiosities.

My daughter has left New Orleans and that makes it hard to say when I’ll be back. I’ve been gone less than a week and yet it beckons me back. I don’t know when the next trip will be, only that there will be a next trip because I have indeed learned what it means to miss New Orleans.

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Returning to the VLA

One of the reasons I decided to attend the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology was its proximity to the Very Large Array, which at the time, was the world’s largest and most powerful radio telescope. In my senior year at Tech, I got my dream job, and spent the year working at the VLA. This past weekend, My wife and I took our daughter out to visit my old stomping grounds.

The VLA was an awesome place to work. As you can see from the photo above, the scenery is dramatic. It’s an alto plano in central New Mexico. In fact, the VLA is at higher altitude than Kitt Peak National Observatory where I currently work. I went out to the VLA site every Friday of my senior year to work. What exciting, groundbreaking science did I do with the world’s largest radio telescope? I observed clouds. Yes, clouds on Earth.

Here’s the thing, at the time the National Radio Astronomy Observatory was looking to build something called the Millimeter Array or MMA. Millimeter Array may not sound very spectacular when you’re talking about the Very Large Array, but the name referred to the frequency of light the telescope would observe. My job was to support the site survey work for the MMA. In other words, we were trying to find the very best place in the world to build the MMA. The reason for observing clouds is because while radio waves can travel through clouds, clouds can cause something called phase instability. With a big telescope like the VLA or the MMA, you can have clouds over one part of the array and not the other. The ideal site is phase stable, meaning you don’t get a lot of variation in the cloud cover across the site.

As it turns out, the MMA was never built. Instead, in 1997, the MMA project in the United States joined forces with the European Southern Observatory’s Large Southern Observatory project. The new project was called ALMA, or the Atacama Large Millimeter Array. In 2003, the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan joined the project. So, my work at the VLA observing clouds was an early step in the development of ALMA, which is now on the air. You can read about it here: http://www.almaobservatory.org/en/home/

One fun display they had set up at the VLA now was a radio receiver. This actually was one of the radio receivers used when the VLA received data from NASA’s Voyager spacecraft at Neptune. I actually watched that data come in at the Array Operations Center in Socorro, New Mexico at the time. On our visit, my daughter and I got to use the receiver to detect radio waves from the sun.

As it turns out, the VLA plays an important role in my novel The Solar Sea. The second edition will be released on the first day of spring. You can learn more and preorder it here: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07BHFS2WV/.

March Madness

No, this isn’t a post about basketball. It’s more a look back at the first two weeks of the month, which have felt more than a little crazy and hectic. I spent the first weekend of the month at Wild Wild West Con at Old Tucson Studios, which was, as always, a great experience. Panels went well and we sold a lot of books. I then went home for a day, unpacked from the convention, and repacked for the Tucson Festival of Books and a shift at Kitt Peak. I spent the next three days at Kitt Peak, then went down to the Tucson Festival of Books where I had more awesome panels, albeit fewer book sales, returned to Kitt Peak for a night and a half of work, then finally returned home.

Since returning home, I’ve been proofreading some projects that I’ll talk about in more detail in the coming weeks, restocking books for El Paso Comic Con, and doing a little work around the house. One nice thing about how my schedule has worked out this month is that I’m off work for the week of my daughter’s spring break. So, we’ll be taking a short trip to spend a little time together, see some sights, and visit friends around New Mexico.

Juggling all these events, projects, and even my two careers in the last two weeks has certainly brought to mind the aphorism “March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb.” I don’t know how lamb-like the end of the month will be, but I hope it’ll be a little quieter than the beginning. Of course, all these projects also make me feel “mad as a March hare” at times.

In keeping with the season, I watched Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon this week. In the movie, Toshiro Mifune turns in a delightfully manic performance which reminded me more than a little of his work in Seven Samurai. It was also a delight to see Takashi Shimura, who would also go on to play in both Seven Samurai and Godzilla. My reason for watching the film is that my friend Eric Schumacher was recently in a film called Tombstone Rashomon which tells the story of the gunfight of O.K. Corral from the eyes of several witnesses, much like the original Rashomon. Eric played Doc Holliday. A picture of him in the role on my wall has been serving as an inspiration for the Doc Holliday scenes in my forthcoming novel Owl Riders.

Although Owl Riders isn’t yet available, the second edition of my novel The Solar Sea is set to release on the first day of spring, March 21. You can get a sneak peak and preorder the ebook today at: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07BHFS2WV/

Thanksgiving at Kitt Peak

For the most part, astronomy doesn’t stop for holidays. At Kitt Peak National Observatory, the only nights we don’t open to observe are Christmas Eve and Christmas. Even then, members of my team are on hand to tend instruments and keep watch over the site so things are ready to go the day after the holiday. This year, my shift happened to fall across the entire Thanksgiving weekend. Fortunately, my wife and daughter were able to come up and spend the holiday with me.

At this time of year, I work long nights. My “day” starts around 3:30pm and I work until about 7am the following morning. On Thanksgiving Day, I walked into work to discover my workstation occupied. If you’ve seen the trailer for my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt you might recognize this as something of a recurring theme in my work life! Al Cabone (the skeleton in the chair) showed up at the telescope a little over a year ago at Halloween time and has become something of a mascot.

We start in the afternoon to allow observers an opportunity to calibrate their data. This Thanksgiving, the early start allowed me a chance to bring my daughter to the telescope. She has a definite interest in the sciences with some thoughts of pursuing astronomy. So, this proved a great opportunity to give her taste of what professional astronomy is like.

During afternoon calibrations, I let her have the operator’s chair to enter some commands and try her hand at moving a 3.5-meter telescope.

After calibrations, we were able to take a break for Thanksgiving dinner. At this time of year, dinner is by necessity brief. We finished calibrations at 4:30pm. I needed to be back before the 5:25pm sunset so we could finish getting the telescope ready for the night. Fortunately, we have a kitchen staff at Kitt Peak and they prepare food for us. So my daughter and I joined my wife at the mountain cafeteria for Thanksgiving dinner.

When I speak to people about my work at the telescope, I sense that people imagine that I get to see numerous awe-inspiring sights in the night sky. In fact, some nights I do. However, some nights, the beauty comes from gaining a deeper understanding than what you see in the usual pretty pictures. On Thanksgiving, our job was to measure the spectra of stars in a couple of clusters to understand their chemical abundances. Now spectra can be very pretty, like this one of the star Arcturus, taken with the Coudé Feed telescope at Kitt Peak.

N.A.Sharp, NOAO/AURA/NSF

In that image, the interesting science is contained in the pattern of dark lines scattered among the rainbow colors. Those dark lines, or absorption lines, serve as a kind of fingerprint that tells us about the composition of the star’s atmosphere. We were using a multi-object spectrograph, which allows us to get up to 100 objects at a time. That sounds awesome, and it is. That said, this is what the raw spectra look like when we take them.

Each one of the gray stripes in the image is the spectrum of a different star in the cluster. They don’t look much like that. They’re more interesting when you use a graphics program to plot them.

That plot may not look much like the rainbow image above, but it actually contains as much information. Plotted left to right, this shows the spectrum of a star from blue to red. The downward spikes correspond to the dark lines in the rainbow images. The depth of the lines gives you information about abundances. The position of the lines relative to the light frequency can tell you such information as how fast the star is rotating, how far away it is, or even whether it has planets, all depending on the specific measurements you take.

So, the pictures we take aren’t always like those you see in the press releases on the web. Nevertheless, they do inspire dreams of faraway places and allow us to ferret out hidden information in the night sky. I’m not certain whether my daughter will ultimately choose a career in astronomy, but I am pretty sure we’ve given her something to dream about.

That Punk, Popeye

About a week and a half ago, I learned that the soundtrack album from the 1980 movie Popeye had been re-released with tracks not included on the original album. I loved this movie when it came out and I bought the soundtrack on vinyl. The movie was one of the few bright spots I remember in the weeks immediately following my father’s death. Listening to the songs over again sent me to my DVD of the movie for a rewatch. As always, I enjoyed this lighthearted Robert Altman romp with its funky island setting and a set crowded with extras who feel like fully realized characters. What struck me this time around were how many steampunk sensibilities appeared in the film.

I’m sure some of the steampunk “feel” of the film is the result of screenwriter Jules Feiffer’s attempt to write a story heavily inspired by E.C. Segar’s original comic strip, Thimble Theatre. The strip, born soon after World War I and very much in the steam era, will celebrate its centennial in 2019. Popeye was introduced as a supporting character ten years after the strip began and soon supplanted most of the regular cast. At the time Popeye was introduced, the strip generally was about the characters going on some zany quest or another in search of riches or to help someone. In the movie, Popeye arrives on a quest to find his lost father—a powerful theme for me at the time. Quests are certainly the narrative basis of a lot of steampunk, though they are by no means exclusive to steampunk.

The first thing that struck me about the film is how much of it is concerned with manners and etiquette. Olive Oyl’s father, Cole, is always asking for an apology for some perceived slight. There’s an early dinner scene where Popeye struggles to be polite among a cacophony of voices and flailing arms and limbs, only to be left with nothing to eat for his trouble. Of course Popeye has always been a defender of the weak and those unable to protect themselves. It’s even in his theme song: “Keep good behavior, that’s your one life saver with Popeye the Sailor Man!”

As I mentioned at the outset, the movie is set in a funky village outside of time. The village, built for the movie, reminds me of Nantucket, except that it’s clinging to rocks of Malta. There are no vehicles except for the rotting ships in the harbor and the tax man’s bicycle. The whole thing feels like it’s set at the time of the original comic, late in the steam era. In fact, there’s even kind of a builder sensibility evident in Poopdeck Pappy’s boat at the end. The whole thing looks like a steamboat cobbled together from odds and ends in someone’s garage. It’s not beautiful, but it might just get a few admiring nods at a seaside steampunk convention because it floats and it works!

The circus is important to many in the steampunk community. After all, it was an important nineteenth century entertainment. Many of the steampunk events I’ve attended have a real love of circus performers. Abney Park even released an album called The Circus at the End of the World. One of the things that’s striking about Popeye is all the circus performers working as extras, showing off their talents in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. The whole movie has a very steampunk-feeling circus atmosphere.

I’d be hard pressed to call Popeye a steampunk film, but Robin Williams’ Popeye is a misfit with a good heart who could easily walk into many steampunk stories I know and feel surprisingly right at home. Some steampunk characters would probably look askance at him in his dingy sailor suit and corncob pipe, but he’d scowl and just tell them, “I yam what I yam!”

The Bionic Woman

Today, my wife goes in for knee-replacement surgery. She essentially has no cartilage in either knee and walking has been quite painful for some time. To do the replacement, doctors have imaged both of her knees and are building custom implants. I’m told the surgery will only take about an hour and recovery time should be relatively fast.

All this brings to mind the 1977 TV series, The Bionic Woman, in which professional tennis player Jamie Sommers is seriously injured in a skydiving accident and has her legs and right arm replaced with mechanical prostheses that effectively give her the super powers of increased strength and speed. It doesn’t sound like Kumie will get super powers beyond those she already possesses, namely sending cancer packing a few years ago and putting up with me, among others.

What truly amazes me is how far medical technology has come in my lifetime. I gather the success rate of this kind of knee surgery is high. When I was a child, the only treatment for people with this kind of damage was pain management. There’s a good chance that if Kumie were born a few decades earlier, she would have been confined to a wheelchair in later life. At this point, there’s a good chance she’ll maintain full mobility for years to come.

By the same token, I’ve seen dramatic improvements in arthritis treatment since I was diagnosed in the early 1990s. At that time, I fully expected the arthritis to progress until I could no longer walk and possibly have serious problems using my hands. Medications developed in the later 2000s not only impeded arthritis, but seem to have sent it into remission. I’m now pain-free without the use of any medication.

Of course, we’re facing this major surgery at a time when the senate is debating federal funding for healthcare. As with most Americans, I’m following this debate with interest. I’m incredibly fortunate to work for a company that provides good health insurance. However, as an astronomer, whose long term job funding is always uncertain and as a writer, whose funding is even more uncertain, this debate takes on even more personal meaning.

As far as I’m concerned, it benefits a country to have a population in good health. I don’t mind the idea of paying an extra tax if it means doctors and researchers get paid, and everyone has access to the benefits of that research and reasonable medical care. It’s apparent the Affordable Care Act has problems. Like many Americans, I’m frustrated by the emotional tirades in Congress. The legitimate issues with the ACA need to be resolved through a thoughtful, careful examination of the system. I just hope our senators and representatives can grow up enough to do that. If not, I hope Americans will hold them accountable at the polls.

In the meantime, especially if you missed it when I first shared it, you can learn more about my wife and I by reading a special feature that appeared in our alumni magazine at: http://www.nmt.edu/images/stories/advancement_office/website/GoldPanSummer-S17.pdf. If you want to take Kumie’s admonition to “Buy Dave’s books” to heart, you can learn more about my fiction at http://www.davidleesummers.com. It’s the kind of thing that helps us save up for the proverbial rainy day, and given the way things are going, we may need it! (And besides, you’ll get some cool reading in the bargain.)

The Biggest Explosions of All

I’ve spent a lot of time in my astronomy career pointing telescopes at some of the biggest explosions of all—type 1a supernovae. This kind of supernova starts with a white dwarf star and another star orbiting each other. White dwarfs are very dense stars at the end of their lives. The only objects more dense are neutron stars and black holes. The white dwarf’s gravity draws material off the companion star until it reaches critical mass and the whole thing explodes. One such star that I had the chance to observe in detail in was Supernova 2011fe in the galaxy M101. Here’s an image from the Mayall 4-meter at Kitt Peak, one of the telescopes I used to observe this object. The supernova is the bright blue star outshining everything else in the upper right-hand part of the image.

Image by T.A. Rector (University of Alaska Anchorage), H. Schweiker & S. Pakzad NOAO/AURA/NSF

These cosmic explosions are pretty interesting in their own right. Our own star is expected to end its life as a white dwarf and these explosions give us a glimpse at the hearts of these stellar corpses. These explosions are also one of the ways heavy elements formed in the cores of stars get distributed out into the universe. Supernova 2011fe was, in fact, one of the closest Type 1a supernovae we’ve ever observed. We caught the explosion soon after it happened, watched the supernova brighten to maximum, then start to fade away.

Type 1a supernovae also have another useful property. Because white dwarfs have a fairly uniform mass, the brightness of the explosion is also uniform. So, if every Type 1a supernova observed were placed at the same distance away from you, they would all, more or less, be the same brightness. This means that by measuring the apparent brightness of the supernova, you can figure out how far away it is. This is a bit of an oversimplification, but there are ways to calibrate that information based on the how fast the explosion brightens and fades.

Back in the 1990s, an astronomer named Saul Perlmutter was granted target-of-opportunity time on Kitt Peak telescopes. In this case, it meant if a type 1a supernova went off, he could ask the telescope to point to it and take an image and calibration data. He and his colleagues hoped to get distances to as many galaxies as possible. I helped acquire some of that data which was combined with a lot of other data from a lot of telescopes to provide evidence that the expansion of the universe is accelerating. Perlmutter would go on to share a Nobel prize with Adam Riess and Brian P. Schmidt for this work.

This is one of those discoveries that shows some of the true fun of science. We learned that the expansion of the universe is accelerating, but that raises an even bigger question. Why is it accelerating? Typically that’s attributed to something called “Dark Energy.” This attribution isn’t meant to be an answer in itself. It’s meant to be a placeholder. It’s “Dark” energy because we don’t know precisely what kind of energy it really is, or even if it’s energy at all! Later this year, a new instrument called DESI will be installed on the Mayall 4-meter which will endeavor to get answers to some of those questions. But like all good science, I expect a veritable explosion of new questions raised for every answer we’re able to get.