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/

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Explore New Worlds During Read an Ebook Week

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


Kepler Anthologies – 50% Off

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

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


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

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


Space Pirates’ Legacy – 75% Off

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

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


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

Stamp Collecting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Cultures Meet

This week at Kitt Peak National Observatory finds me working with an astronomer logged in and observing from Kyoto, Japan. Meanwhile, on our walkie talkies, we hear French as optical scientists from France work on the new spectrographs at the Mayall Telescope. A favorite memory of working at Kitt Peak involves an astronomer who left the control room at appointed hours to face Mecca and pray. One of the things I enjoy about my “day” job is the way people of different cultures come together to work toward the common goal of understanding the universe around us.

Morning meeting in the Mayall Control Room

At Kitt Peak, our cultural differences allow people to bring different life experiences to the table when solving problems. Language differences can teach us patience as we learn to communicate our goals with members of the same team and who share the same objective. Cultural diversity is also fun as we share our tastes in such things as music, movies, and food.

As someone whose family has lived in the United States since the early days of European colonization, my own culture is defined by a blending of melding of cultural influences from places like Germany, Scotland, and Mexico. Of course, history is replete with examples of people with different cultures having conflicting goals. The results include invasion, forced relocation, and cultural appropriation. There’s more than a little of that in my ancestral background as well on all sides of the issue.

I find the meeting of different cultures inherently fascinating. It forms a big part of my Clockwork Legion books such as The Brazen Shark and Owl Riders. I find it interesting to think what might have been if different cultures met on different terms and perhaps had different perspectives. In science fiction novels such as The Solar Sea, I echo much of what I see at work, people of different cultures coming together for a common goal.

All of this contributed to my excitement when Sheila Hartney proposed assembling an anthology of stories about exchange students to be published by Hadrosaur Productions. There’s a lot of potential for drama as people learn about each other and try to understand each other. Of course, since we publish science fiction and fantasy, Sheila wants to give this anthology a science fictional twist. We want to imagine exchange students coming together from other planets, across time, and across dimensions. Do you have a story of a vampire exchange student staying with a werewolf family? We want to see it? Do you have a story of someone from Earth going to Kepler-22b to study. We want to see it. Do you have a story of an elf studying in dwarven forges? I think you get the idea. The guidelines are at: http://www.hadrosaur.com/ExchangeStudents-gl.html. I hope we’ll see a submission from you.

Exploring Galaxies

This past week, I’ve been working at Kitt Peak National Observatory’s WIYN telescope using one of the workhorse instruments called HexPak to help astronomers better understand how galaxies work. At left is a photo I took of the galaxy M51 with the New Mexico State University 1-meter telescope. While we can learn a lot studying photos like this, wouldn’t it be nice if we could learn more, and understand what chemical elements make up the different parts of a galaxy? The instrument HexPak is designed to do just that.

One of the best tools we have for understanding the chemistry of objects in space is spectroscopy. Back in the nineteenth century, it was discovered that if you looked at heated elements through a spectroscope, you would see a characteristic set of lines in the rainbow-like spectrum. These lines are like a fingerprint for each element. It turns out that stars are really good at heating up elements! Below is a photo of the WIYN telescope with HexPak mounted.

HexPak is the white hose-like thing on the right plugged into side of the telescope. Inside that hose-like unit is a bundle of optical fibers arrayed in a hexagonal pattern. They look like this:

We can then align those fibers with a galaxy like M51 above, so different parts of the galaxy line up with different fibers. When that’s done, it looks something like this:

Now, I should note, this image was created just for illustration purposes. I haven’t tried to match the scale or alignment of my NMSU 1-meter image of M51 with the HexPak fiber array. However, you will see that different parts of the galaxy now line up with different fibers. That light is now sent downstairs to a bench spectrograph where it’s broken into its component parts. Here’s WIYN’s bench spectrograph. You can even see the rainbow like spectra on the grating at left we use to analyze the light from galaxies.

Light from each of the fibers in the array becomes a single spectrum and the image of that spectrum is recorded on a camera, shown at the right of the image above. Each one of those spectra will tell us about the elements present in each of the parts of the galaxy as lined up above. So, for example, you can figure out if the spiral arms have different amounts of a certain element than the bulge in the center. You can see what’s going on in the space between the galactic arms. If you look closely at my photo of M51, you’ll see it has bright regions that line up with parts of the spiral arm. An instrument like HexPak can help an astronomer learn if those parts of the spiral arm are different from other parts of the spiral arm, and maybe see what those regions are made of.

As I’ve mentioned in other blog posts, this work does inspire my writing. Sometimes I look at a galaxy like one we study with HexPak and think what it would be like travel between the different parts of a galaxy. M51 has a lot in common with our own galaxy. What’s it like in the arms? What’s it like between the arms? What’s it like the galaxy’s center? What’s more, working with astronomers in the control room sometimes does feel like being a crewmember on a spaceship exploring uncharted reaches. All of these elements have influenced science fiction stories like Firebrandt’s Legacy and The Pirates of Sufiro. I’m getting ready to release the former and I’m rewriting the latter with help from supporters at my Patreon site.

You can get involved in the fun by becoming a patron. My patrons are the first people who get to read new stories in my science fiction universe and they get to download complete books when they’re available. What’s more, one of my goals at my Patreon site is to make this blog ad free. If you like behind-the-scenes looks into astronomy like this one, but don’t like the ads at the blog, please consider supporting my Patreon site at: http://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers

Reassembling the Mayall

Back in July, I discussed some of the different components that had come in for the DESI instrument being installed at Kitt Peak National Observatory’s Mayall 4-meter telescope. You can read about them in the post, Assembling the Puzzle. The corrector optics and hexapod alignment system have been installed into the telescope’s top end. Here I am, hard at work torquing the bolts that hold it all together.

If all goes according to schedule, the new top end will be lifted to the top of the telescope next week. At that point, the telescope will look more like itself again. Control cables and network boxes for the top end assembly will then be assembled so astronomers working in the control room can talk to the instrument. At that point, the work platforms that are visible in the older post will be disassembled. Here’s a look at the top end, almost ready to lift up to the top of the top of the telescope.

Once the top end is back on the telescope, the primary mirror, which is currently out of the telescope, will need to be re-aluminized. Telescope mirrors are finely polished, curved glass. Over the top surface is a very thin layer of aluminum which is applied in a vacuum chamber. The vacuum chamber for this process is the biggest one in the southwestern United States. I describe a scary scene involving such a chamber in my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt. Fortunately, care is taken to operate the chamber very safely in real life.

One thing to note about the top end in the photos above is that there is no actual instrument mounted yet. Astronomers rarely sit at an eyepiece actually looking through a telescope anymore. Most of the time, there’s a high precision digital camera looking through the telescope. Sometimes that high precision camera is designed to look at a specific wavelength region, such as optical light or infrared light. Sometimes that camera doesn’t look at the sky directly, but at light that’s been reflected off a grating. A grating is just a reflecting surface that breaks up light like a prism. The advantage to a grating is that you lose less light than you do when you shoot it through a chunk of glass. Breaking up light then allows you to see lines in spectra that tell you about the chemistry of the object you’re looking at.

In a nutshell, that’s the kind of instrument DESI is. Astronomers are interested in the chemistry of the objects they’re looking at. However, there’s one other feature you get by studying these spectral lines. When an object moves, the lines shift toward the blue end of the spectrum if the object is moving toward the observer or toward the red end of the spectrum if the object is moving away. That’s what we mean when we talk about blue shift and red shift. What’s more, how far the chemical lines have shifted is a measure of the object’s velocity through space. The goal of DESI is to measure the velocity of some 5000 objects every time the telescope points to a new target. That said, this data will be available to everyone and it contains all the fundamental chemical information about the objects the telescope is pointing at.

Before the final DESI instrument goes on, there will be a commissioning instrument. That will be more like a regular camera—more like looking through an eyepiece. The goal of the commissioning instrument will be to align the telescope on the sky after all this work has been done and assure that the telescope has good pointing so that we can get the best data when we’re using the spectrographs later.

Once the commissioning instrument goes on the telescope, I’ll return to my regular nighttime duties at the Mayall, shaking down the rebuilt telescope and getting it ready for its next five year mission. My novel, The Astronomer’s Crypt, which I mentioned in passing, is not just a horror novel, but it provides a look behind the scenes at an observatory. If you’re interested in seeing what goes on at night at a facility like Kitt Peak, or one of the other observatories where I’ve worked over the years, it’s a great place to start. Just be warned, not only will you encounter astronomers, engineers and technicians, but some ghosts, a monster from Apache lore, and a few other surprises as well. You can get more information about the novel at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/Astronomers-Crypt.html


Short Sleeps

When I tell people I live in Las Cruces, New Mexico, but work at Kitt Peak National Observatory outside Tucson, Arizona, one of the first questions I’m asked is some variation of how that works, especially once they realize the two points are approximately 325 miles apart. The answer is that I have a dorm room at the observatory. Here’s what it looks like.

The room is assigned to me permanently, so as you can see, I’ve added some personal touches. This time of year, I’m afraid I don’t get to spend much time in the comfort of my room. I often think of the period from November through February as the time of the short sleeps. It’s sort of a counterpoint to Clement Moore’s “long winter’s nap” from his famous poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas.”

Of course, the reason this is the time of the short sleeps is because of the long winter night. At optical observatories, we try to maximize the time we’re on the sky and that means data taking starts soon after sunset and finishes just a little before sunrise. To get the telescope ready for observations, I actually have to be at work before sunset. How close to sunrise we work in the morning depends on the scientific requirements of the program, but it’s not uncommon for me to work right up until sunrise. This time of year, it’s not uncommon for me to get six hours of sleep through the day before starting another day of work. Even if I wanted to commute 325 miles each day, it would be impossible.  For that matter, living closer wouldn’t necessarily help. It’s still 50 miles to Tucson.

I’m often asked whether I can write during my long nights at the observatory. The reality is that work takes enough of my attention that I really can’t compose new material while I’m at work. However, sometimes we do get into situations where I’m monitoring a long exposure and just need to look up from time to time to make sure the instrumentation is behaving as expected. During those times, I find I can edit stories. I also sometimes bring a good book to keep me company on a long winter’s night.

A casual observer will likely notice from the photo of my room that I’m a fan of Cowboy Bebop. Of course, followers of this blog will know that I’m generally a fan of space cowboys and space pirates. A closer look at the photo will reveal some badges from past conventions tacked to the bulletin board in the background. My schedule is such that it’s not uncommon for me to go from an event directly to work at the observatory.

My favorite things in this photo, though, are two things made for me by my family. My wife made the crochet jackalope next to my bed, which helped to inspire the jackalope harvesters in my Clockwork Legion novels. My daughter drew the lightning wolf picture which hangs to the right of my bed. The lightning wolf is, of course, the mechanized bicycle designed by bounty hunter Larissa Crimson in the same series. I’ve shown off both of these in more detail in other posts.

Of course, the Clockwork Legion books make good companions through the long, dark nights of winter. You can learn more about the books by visiting the links at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/books.html#clockwork_legion