Pluto and Las Cruces

This has been an exciting week as the New Horizons Probe has flown by Pluto. The views of this little world and its moon Charon have really made them come alive as places on the distant edge of our solar system. Although I’m not directly involved with the Pluto teams, I know several people who are, including one person on the imaging team who brought us the now famous image of the “heart” on Pluto and a person who was responsible for helping the craft navigate Pluto’s crowded system of five moons. However, perhaps the person connected with Pluto, I was most honored to know was Clyde Tombaugh, the man who made the initial discovery.

This July 13, 2015 image provided by NASA shows Pluto, seen from the New Horizons spacecraft. (NASA via AP)

This July 13, 2015 image provided by NASA shows Pluto, seen from the New Horizons spacecraft. (NASA via AP)

I can’t say I knew Clyde well. He had retired by the time I arrived at New Mexico State University in 1995. Still he regularly attended astronomy department colloquia and maintained an interest in the department’s activities—not surprising, since he founded the NMSU astronomy department. I attended Clyde’s 90th birthday party, hosted by the department and learned a lot about him from the department chair’s address. Sadly, I attended his funeral less than a year later. This week, as New Horizons flew by Pluto, the Albuquerque Journal interviewed me about my recollections of Clyde.

I maintained two of his telescopes—a small solar telescope used for department events and a larger telescope which was in Ecuador in the 1950s and used to search for small, undiscovered bodies orbiting the Earth. The negative result for that study had important ramifications for the next decade’s space program. Two years after Clyde passed away, I was asked to portray him at Las Cruces city events celebrating the 150th anniversary. This video shows a public service announcement which ran on KRWG TV where I portrayed Clyde:

As it turns out, discovering Pluto was only the beginning of Clyde’s career. Afterwards, he went to college and graduate school. That’s right, Clyde only had a high school diploma when he discovered Pluto! He discovered several asteroids. He was one of the first people to notice that the universe had a large scale structure. As I mentioned earlier, he looked for, but didn’t find, objects besides the moon orbiting the Earth, and he founded the astronomy department at New Mexico State University. He also founded the Unitarian Church in Las Cruces. Now, he’s also the first man whose ashes are being carried outside the solar system on the New Horizons probe.

SummersSolarSea

My own explorations of the solar system have been much more humble. I’ve helped look at asteroids that would pass near the Earth and I’ve also helped with programs looking for distant Kuiper Belt objects beyond the orbit of Pluto. Nevertheless, I find the whole process of exploring the solar system exciting and would jump at the chance to do so. I imagined such a voyage in my novel The Solar Sea. You can learn more about the novel, watch a book trailer, read a sample chapter, and see some cool illustrations based on the novel at TheSolarSea.com

A Professor on Stage

This last week, I was surfing the internet when I came across references to a play called Oppenheimer put on by the Royal Shakespeare Company in England. One of the characters in the play was J. Robert Oppenheimer’s young protégé, Giovanni Rossi Lomanitz. Thing is, Ross Lomanitz was one of my professors at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology. Here he is as I knew him.

Lomanitz

Huffington Post UK has a review of the play, which also includes a photo of actor Oliver Johnstone as Ross.

I took Modern Physics from Ross during my sophomore year. Not only that, but I met my wife in his class. A few years later, Ross’s wife Josephine would be one of the musicians at our wedding. Of course Ross was there as well. In addition to that Modern Physics class, I went on to take both undergraduate and graduate level quantum mechanics from Ross. I enjoyed his classes and got A’s in them.

As I mentioned, Ross himself was the student of J. Robert Oppenheimer. After World War II, he was summoned before Joseph McCarthy’s Senate Committee to testify about his ties to the Communist Party. Ross stated his loyalty to the United States and also pleaded his fifth amendment rights. The upshot was that he was blacklisted and could not get a job as a physicist for many years until he was hired at New Mexico Tech in 1962.

The Pirates of Sufiro As it turns out, not only was Ross a beloved physics teacher, he and his wife were also members of the first writer’s group I belonged to. Ross worked on a memoir of his post-McCarthy days. In the meantime, I worked on a story called “A Quiet Burning in the Darkness” which would ultimately become the first chapter of my novel The Pirates of Sufiro. Ross and Jo made comments that helped me shape the novel. What’s more, I’m sure the story of a pirate captain exiled from civilization and forming a society based on his own moral compass owes a lot to Ross.

Sadly, Ross passed away in 2003. I hope the play Oppenheimer will find its way over to the United States. It would be a chance to see Ross again, even if only through the lens of theater.

As for The Pirates of Sufiro, you can pick up a copy at Lachesis Publishing. The eBook is free, but if you want a real treat, pick up the paperback with its illustrations by Laura Givens.

Father’s Day Reflections

This weekend is Father’s Day in the United States. Several things have converged this year to make me feel especially reflective about fatherhood. My oldest daughter is leaving for college soon. In fact, she’s away for orientation and preregistration during Father’s Day itself. What’s more, I find that several of my peers are of an age that they’re starting to lose their fathers. Unfortunately, I lost my own father many years ago, when I was only thirteen.

Dad-and-David

The photo to the left shows me with my dad. My dad worked for the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad. He was proud of the locomotives he worked on and that instilled in me a love of machines and a solid work ethic. When vacation time came along, he loved to travel around the United States. That instilled in me pride in my country and a love of the land’s rich history. My dad loved to hike, which instilled in me a love of the outdoors. Although I never really thought of him as a fan, I remember watching my first horror movies with my dad. I knew my dad for less than a decade and a half, but I still see his influence in my work and the things I choose to write about.

I have tried to pay these lessons forward to my daughters. As my oldest heads off to college, she’ll be tested with new freedoms and responsibilities. At some level, so will I, anxiously watching to see how well she’s applied the life lessons she’s received so far, and being an adviser where needed from a distance.

There’s no doubt that losing my dad so early has influenced my writings on themes of immortality and vampires. In that sense, it’s perhaps fitting that the second edition of the flash fiction collection Blood Sampler has just been released. That said, the book, that I think of when I think of my dad is Heirs of the New Earth, where space pirate captain Ellison Firebrandt comes out of retirement to save the Earth that he loves.

One thing that stands out about my dad was that he always wore a tie to work at the railroad. As a kid, I hated ties, but as I’ve grown older and developed a love for Steampunk, I’ve come to enjoy a good tie. As it turns out, I’ve asked my kids for a tie this Father’s Day. If I get one, not only will I have a nice fashion accessory, it will remind me of my dad, whose lessons I treasure and who I miss to this day.

Remembering Stirling Colgate

My graduate advisor, Stirling A. Colgate, passed away last weekend. He was a colorful character, president of New Mexico Tech from 1965-1974, and physicist at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Here we see him as he appeared in the PBS Nova episode “Death of a Star” which was filmed around the time I worked for him. In the background is the Digitized Astronomy Supernova Search Telescope that he developed and I worked on for two years.

Stirling Colgate

Perhaps Stirling’s most famous contribution to astrophysics was predicting that there would be a neutrino burst during a supernova explosion. This idea was borne out by the explosion of Supernova 1987A. Stirling once told me that the reason he went into physics was that he enjoyed watching things explode. Of course supernovas are the biggest explosions in the universe.

One of Stirling’s other major accomplishments was his attempt to build a supernova search telescope. He started this telescope in the 1960s, during the era when astronomers sat out in the dome with the telescope, often taking photos on glass plates or counting photons with photoelectric photometers. Stirling’s supernova search never worked as hoped, but the papers that came from the project helped to drive further development in robotic and automated astronomy. It paved the way for remote operation of telescopes. This in turn allowed for better image quality, because astronomers didn’t have to be out at the telescope. It allowed for real-time analysis of data, because astronomers could use a computer to collect data and look at it at the same time. What’s more, because of this work, astronomers don’t always have to travel to the telescope that’s collecting their data, they can work over the internet. Among other things, this work allowed for the development of robotic space-based telescopes such as the Hubble Space Telescope and Kepler.

As I said, Stirling was a colorful character. His last name was not coincidence. He was an heir to the Colgate family of Colgate toothpaste fame. There are many stories I could tell that really aren’t appropriate here, but one thing he did tell a friend upon meeting him was, “You’ve no doubt heard many stories about me. Let me assure you that each and every one of them is true, even the contradictory ones!”

While I was working for Stirling in 1989, William Fowler came to give a lecture at New Mexico Tech. In 1983, Fowler won the Nobel Prize in Physics for theoretical and experimental studies of the nuclear reactions of importance in the formation of the chemical elements in the universe. Fowler had also been one of Stirling’s postdoctoral advisors. The three of us, along with Stirling’s wife, Rosie, sat around a table in Socorro’s Capitol Bar, shooting the breeze. I remember Stirling turning to Willy Fowler and asking what he thought about recent studies that showed the possibility of global warming. Fowler said if it bore out, it would have tremendous impact. It’s amazing to me that over twenty years later, we’re just starting to see the scale of the impact.

Unfortunately, over the years, Stirling’s work and mine carried us in different directions. It has been a while since I’ve had a chance to communicate with him, but he still sticks with me as an important and influential teacher. He taught me how to solder electronics, how to read an oscilloscope and how to repair cryogenic systems. He taught me about the physics of exploding stars and he taught me about statistical analysis. He taught me to always ask why things work and not just how they work.

Free of his mortal coil, I picture Stirling in a swimsuit, waiting to dive into a distant supernova and ride the waves of the explosion as far they’ll carry him.

Remembering Gary Hayes

The dedication to my novel Owl Dance reads:

To
Rebecca Petithory-Hayes
and
Gary Hayes
Whether traveling back in time to the Wild West
or forward in time to an optimistic future,
you are great companions to have on the journey.

I was saddened to learn that my friend Gary Hayes passed away suddenly this week at age 60.

Gary Hayes

I first met Gary nearly twenty years ago at TusCon, a science fiction convention held in Tucson, Arizona. He was dressed as a Klingon and working convention security. Gary was tall—around six-foot-six—with thinning hair, thick sideburns and a mustache. He made a good Klingon. I was at a room party that was getting a little loud and he came by to remind us to quiet down so guests elsewhere in the hotel could sleep. He lingered at the party and our conversation soon turned to Klingons, Star Trek, and costuming. I soon learned that Gary was the artist behind many of the illustrations in the program guide.

Over the years, I continued to see Gary at science fiction conventions around Arizona, and particularly at TusCon. He was often jovial and always enthusiastic about costuming and artwork. It was a delight to see what he would come up with for the next event. Gary and his wife Rebecca loved classic science fiction from such masters as H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, and Edgar Rice Burroughs, so it’s not surprising that as the Steampunk movement grew, their interests moved that direction as well. Naturally they also folded in their love of the Wild West.

Festival of Books

In recent years, I often saw Gary at conventions with remarkable devices such as a backpack sporting DaVinci wings or some enormous gun that sported lights. Most recently, I saw Gary at Phoenix Comicon where he had a shoulder mounted Gatling gun that turned. Gary’s enthusiasm for these gadgets helped to inspire such characters as Professor Maravilla and Captain Cisneros in my novel Owl Dance. Enthusiastic as Gary was, he was always willing to lend an ear when I talked about one of my projects.

Although I’m sad to know Gary won’t be there with a gleam in his eye at a future convention, I’m hopeful that he’s now free of the constraints of time and space and that he’s exploring all the possible pasts and delighting in what the future will bring.

Blogger’s Tag! SMACK! You’re it!

On March 15, I was SMACKED by Emily Guido, The Light-Bearer Novelist. She is a wonderful indie author and I enjoy reading the excerpts she posts from her series. Go visit her blog at emilyguido.com and learn more about her.

Now, I know a lot of people don’t like award posts, but this isn’t an award. No one has won anything. You’re not getting this because you did something excellent. You got it because I feel like giving it to you, so there!!!

Are you gonna be a snob, too good to play with the other kids? Or will you join our silly game. If we do it right, every blogger in the cyber world will get tagged! No one is exempt.

Now, the rules. It’s not so awful. You can cut and paste most of it. Stop whining!

Geez!

The Rules:

  1. Post these rules.
  2. Post a photo of yourself and eleven random facts about you.
  3. Answer the questions given to you in the tagger’s post.
  4. Create eleven new questions and tag new people to answer them.
  5. Go to their blog/twitter and let them know they have been tagged.

Photo of me and eleven random factoids:

DLS with Pirate Mug

  1. I took accordion lessons as a kid.
  2. My first job was working at an old-fashioned soda fountain called Heywood’s Ice Cream in San Bernardino, California.
  3. I spent the summer of 1987 on Nantucket Island.
  4. I helped to teach a college astronomy lab course while I was still in high school.
  5. I hated coffee until I went to work for the National Radio Astronomy Observatory during my senior year of college. If I wanted caffeine, the choice was free coffee or a fifty-cent can of soda.
  6. I met Jerome Bixby, one of the original writers for Star Trek, while standing in line for Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan on its first day of release.
  7. I investigated a ghost sighting with three classmates as a final project for a paranormal psychology class in college.
  8. My wife and I had our honeymoon at Chaco Culture National Historical Park.
  9. I traded a print copy of my novel The Solar Sea for my first ereader—a gently used Kindle.
  10. My first car was a 1976 Buick Skylark.
  11. My current car is a 2011 Smart Passion Coupe.

Emily’s 11 Questions

As it turns out, Emily didn’t create a new set of questions for us, so I’m going to answer the same questions she did!

1. What is your favorite literary genre?

I have a wide range of “favorite” genres. Depending on my mood, I might like a good science fiction novel, a rip-roaring steampunk adventure, or a spine-tingling horror story. I’ll lump it all together and say I like speculative fiction.

2. What is your favorite film genre?

Like literary genres, I like films from a lot of different genres, but if I had to be pinned down, I can almost always be counted on to check out a good science fiction movie.

3. Do you read in bed? How? Book? Kindle? Both?

Yes, I read in bed. Book and Kindle are both fair game!

4. How do you take your coffee in the morning? If you don’t drink coffee, how do you survive your day?

I take my coffee black. I don’t do mornings without it!

5. Do you consider yourself fashionable?

I’m quite fashionable in my steampunk attire. Outside of that, give me jeans and a T-shirt most days and I’m good to go. If you want me to dress up, I’ll toss a sport coat on over it!

6. If you could live anywhere on earth, where would it be?

I actually consider myself quite fortunate to live in Las Cruces, New Mexico. It’s a place where I’m very happy and I have no strong desire to move. If I could have ANOTHER home, I would love to have a mountain retreat. There are many places that would do. I also think it would be fun to have a retreat on Nantucket.

7. Have you retained any evil habits? If not, with what will you bargain when you’re marooned at sea in a lifeboat?

Does sitting alone in a darkened room talking to my computer count? I guess I’d be using my stories as a bargaining chip when I’m marooned at sea in a lifeboat. Hope I’m stranded with bibliophiles!

8. What is the worst TV show that you love anyway?

I would probably have to say Lost in Space. It’s terrible, but I have fun watching it and it brings back good memories from my childhood. “Danger! Danger, Will Robinson!”

9. When you vacation, do you want to be in an urban or rural environment?

Rural! I love to get away from the crowds and spend time in nature to recharge my batteries. It doesn’t really matter where. I’m happy in the desert, on mountain trails or on a quiet beach.

10. Where did you go on your all-time favorite vacation?

I think my all-time favorite vacation was a big loop up through Colorado to Dinosaur National Monument and back down through the national parks of Utah. We saw a lot of grand scenery on that trip.

11. Are you a morning person? Has anyone ever punched you for being cheerful before coffee?

I am not a morning person at all. Don’t get between me and the coffee maker in the morning!


Questions for those I’m tagging

OK, here are the questions for those who are tagged below. You’ll find some repeats plus a few that I liked on another blog with this same topic.

  1. What’s the most inspiring book you’ve ever read?
  2. What’s your favorite literary genre?
  3. What’s your favorite Grimm’s Fairy Tale?
  4. Do you read in bed? How? Book? Kindle? Both?
  5. Who is your favorite superhero?
  6. If you could live anywhere on earth, where would it be?
  7. If you could be a movie character, who would you be?
  8. Are you a morning person? Has anyone ever punched you for being cheerful before coffee?
  9. What is your favorite food to make?
  10. Where did you go on your all-time favorite vacation?
  11. What is your most shameful guilty pleasure?

You’ve been SMACKED!

Here are the people I’m tagging. Go visit their blogs and see they’re up to!

Halloween and Dia de los Muertos

This coming week, we celebrate two of my favorite holidays, Halloween and Dia de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead. Below is a calaveras skeleton I bought at the Day of the Dead celebration in Mesilla, New Mexico three years ago.

As a horror writer, it’s perhaps no surprise that I really enjoy the thrills and chills of Halloween. When I was a kid, though, it was a bit of a forbidden thrill. My dad was raised to believe that Halloween was a pagan tradition and I never sensed he was entirely comfortable with it. My mom never had a problem with the holiday and I regularly dressed up and went out trick-or-treating. The first Halloween I can remember, I dressed up as a spooky black cat. Perhaps that explains why some of my vampires transform into cats and why a big mountain cat rounds out my poem “Alone with the Astronomer Ghosts,” which you can listen to here: http://www.sfpoetry.com/halloween.html

The funny part about my dad’s discomfort with Halloween is that I also think of him as the person who really got me thinking about horror. We used to watch old horror movies together. He would regularly throw in Mystery Science Theater 3000-style comments about the movie (years before there was a Mystery Science Theater 3000!) making them fun, but no less haunting.

No doubt the forbidden thrills of Halloween played a big part in the creation of the Scarlet Order vampire series along with much of the other horror I’ve written. I find tapping the emotions of horror is a great way for me to explore the human condition and peer into those dark places that we might not be able to explore through more mainstream fiction. Clicking the cover below, you can learn about the latest Scarlet Order novel and explore some of those forbidden thrills for yourself.

Of course, all these memories get to the root of Dia de los Muertos, which follows on the heels of Halloween. It’s a holiday for remembering those loved ones who have gone before. It’s especially powerful for me personally in that my father died in October 1980 and my mom in November 2009. It’s hard not to think about them this time of year. This year, my daughters and I plan to celebrate their memories by making a loaf of Pan de Muertos, the Bread of the Dead. A few years ago, I wrote a Day of the Dead poem for my dad that was first published in Macabre Magazine. Enjoy!

    Pan de Muerto
    by David Lee Summers

    All Soul’s Day—The Day of the Dead—
    Picnics and parties at the cemetery.
    Gravestones decorated with flowers,
    Pinwheels, photos, favorite toys,
    Candies and pan de muerto—
    The Bread of the Dead.

    My daughter and I make the bread.
    She beats the eggs—even in death,
    There is the memory of new life.
    I add the orange essence – memory
    Of the orange trees Grandpa—
    My dad—loved so much.

    Together, my daughter and I add the
    flour—grown from the soil where
    Grandpa now rests. Together we
    Kneed the dough—making a
    Connection across time.
    Grandfather to father to daughter.

    We set the bread out with a photo,
    Some Halloween candy, and many
    Happy memories. Sleep that night is
    Restless. There is a chill in the air.
    Morning comes and a chunk is gone
    From the Bread of the Dead.