Making Life Better Through Astronomy #SHaW

The first stirrings of what would become my interest in steampunk happened the year K.W. Jeter coined the word in a letter to Locus Magazine. During the summer of 1987, I worked at Maria Mitchell Observatory on Nantucket, observing pulsating variable stars with an early twentieth-century telescope driven by a wind-up clock drive.

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I would go on to publish those results and present them at Harvard College Observatory. The idea that I could explore the universe with equipment built in the Victorian era stuck with me through the years and eventually blossomed when I started writing steampunk and weird western stories.

When I started attending steampunk events about five years ago, the maker culture reminded me of my introduction to astronomy. A few years before I worked at Maria Mitchell Observatory, I joined an amateur astronomy club and was encouraged to build a Dobsonian telescopes. Designed by amateur astronomer John Dobson, these inexpensive, easy-to-build telescopes allow anyone with an interest to look at planets, stars, and beyond. This history combined with some extra motivation from one of my daughter’s science projects, led us to build a little steampunk Dobsonian telescope.

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The telescope’s tube is, in fact, cardboard, but I gave it a coat of brass paint as a tribute to the Alvan Clarke and Sons telescopes I worked with on Nantucket and which drove so much science through the Victorian era. Having built this telescope, we have since taken it to steampunk and science fiction conventions where we’ve viewed planets and nebulae. Here’s my daughter setting up the telescope on the deck of the Queen Mary at Her Royal Majesty’s Steampunk Symposium in 2015.

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I’ve also conducted workshops, using the steampunk telescope as an example of how easy and satisfying it is to build your own small telescope.

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It’s exciting when people look through a telescope like this and realize they can peer into moon craters, see the rings of Saturn, or the ghostly Orion Nebula. For them, science has left the textbook and become something they can access. There’s even more magic when people realize they can get those kinds of views with something they built themselves. If you’re interested in building a telescope like this for your own enjoyment, I wrote two posts that should help you get started and include links to more detailed information.

This post is part of Steampunk Hands Around the World. Visit the Airship Ambassador for more information and to visit more great posts on the topic!

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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.

Kepler’s Cowboys Available for Pre-order

I’m pleased to announce that the latest anthology from Hadrosaur Productions, Kepler’s Cowboys is now available for pre-order. Ebook copies will be delivered on March 1. The plan is that we will ship the paperbacks by March 1 as well. Here are the details about the book.

keplers-cowboys-display 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. David Lee Summers, author of the popular Clockwork Legion novels, and Steve B. Howell, head of the Space Sciences and Astrobiology Division at NASA Ames Research Center, have edited 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!

Here are the complete list of stories, poems, and authors you’ll find in the anthology:

  • Introduction by Steve B. Howell and David Lee Summers
  • Step Right Up by Louise Webster
  • Pele’s Gift by Gene Mederos
  • Over the Ridge by Terrie Leigh Relf
  • Chasing May by Anthony R. Cardno
  • Aperture Shudder by Jesse Bosh
  • Voyage to the Water World by Livia Finucci
  • The Silent Giants by Simon Bleaken
  • Calamari Rodeo by David Lee Summers
  • Tears for Terra by J.A. Campbell and Rebecca McFarland
  • Kismet Kate by Neal Wilgus
  • Carbon Copies by David L. Drake
  • Assembler by Doug Williams
  • Twin Suns of the Mushroom Kingdom by Jaleta Clegg
  • Point of View by Lauren McBride
  • A Very Public Hanging by L.J. Bonham
  • The Outlaw from Aran by Vaughn Wright
  • The Misery of Gold by Steve B. Howell
  • Backstabbers and Sidewinders by Patrick Thomas
  • Forsaken by the God-Star by Gary W. Davis
  • About the Authors

I’m really excited about this new collection. When we published A Kepler’s Dozen back in 2013, we were just beginning to comprehend the vast array of planets that exist outside our solar system. Four years later, we’ve unleashed a talented group of authors on this literal sandbox of alien worlds to see where they took us. This collection was a real delight to edit. We explore water worlds, terrestrial worlds, and gas giants. Our “cowboys” range from folks who would be at home in a western movie to machines that learn to think for themselves. We travel to alien worlds and even have an alien from a Kepler world travel to Earth in the 1800s.

You can pre-order ebook copies of Kepler’s Cowboys at Amazon and Smashwords.

You can pre-order the paperback of Kepler’s Cowboys at Hadrosaur Productions for a special discounted price of $12.95 until March 1.

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.

Imagining a Haunted Observatory

I’m excited to have a new book out as we go into the holidays at the end of 2016. I thought it would be fun to revisit a couple of posts I wrote at the Scarlet Order Journal when I was writing The Astronomer’s Crypt that discuss the inspirations for the novel. Also, I’m giving away a Kindle copy of the novel. Scroll down to the bottom of the post to find out how to enter! The novel takes much of its inspiration from my work at Kitt Peak National Observatory in Southern Arizona. One of the telescopes I operate is the observatory’s flagship telescope, the Mayall 4-meter shown here.

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Since I wrote my original post, I have heard stories that chairs in the old lounge on the so-called Utility floor could sometimes be seen to be rocking by themselves, as though occupied by ghostly inhabitants. Also, one night back in the 1990s, I once could have sworn I saw a flashlight beam from the catwalk. When I called the telescope operator on the radio though, I was assured no one was outside.

Even without these scary stories, the Mayall is eighteen stories tall. On a typical night, only three or four people inhabit the building. It’s a big space that literally moans in the wind. One night, the power went out and I had to climb the staircase in the dark, accompanied by nothing but the sound of creaking vents and the thudding of my own heart.

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When it was built, the plan was for astronomers to stay in the building. Later, it was found that heating the rooms made for poor images at the telescope. So, the rooms were abandoned. They still exist, and are used for storage, but it can be a little unnerving to walk down an empty hallway that curves around the building, frozen in time from the early 1970s.

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Large as the building is, there are also some rather cavernous spaces. Again, some of these spaces are used for storage. You can find computers from the 70s, 80s and 90s, plus parts from outdated instrumentation. When you walk into a space like this, is it so hard to imagine something lurking in the shadows?

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The 4-meter telescope is a large, sophisticated machine. A lot of power is needed to run it, and pipes carry such fluids as water, glycol, and even oil throughout the building. There are numerous service facilities throughout the structure. Some of the spaces remind me of something from a science fiction film. What could be lurking around the corner in this photo?

4-meter-tunnel

The Mayall 4-meter is an amazing facility. It’s the place where the observations that led to the discovery of dark matter were made. It’s about to undergo a refit that will put it on the forefront of dark energy research. Personally, I’ve seen everything from asteroids to distant supernovae to gravitational lenses at the telescope in this building. However, on some dark and stormy nights, I’ve walked down some of these corridors and wondered if I really was alone!

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The Astronomer’s Crypt is now available as an ebook at the following retailers:

In honor of the season, I’m giving away a copy of The Astronomer’s Crypt for Kindle. Click the following link to see if you’re an instant winner: https://giveaway.amazon.com/p/c1ab0e67aed8c0d9 .

The giveaway ends on January 6, 2017.

On Turning 50

Over the weekend, while at TusCon in Tucson, Arizona, I celebrated my fiftieth birthday. It’s one of those points in life where I find myself looking back to see where I’ve been as well as looking forward to see where I’m going.

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In my first fifty years, I’ve written and published nine novels, eighty-four short stories, and fifty-four poems. I’ve edited three anthologies, plus two magazines for ten years each. I contributed to the commissioning of the WIYN 3.5-meter telescope and the NMSU 1-meter telescope. I’m co-discoverer of two variable stars and I helped take data that contributed to the discovery of dark energy. Most of all, I’m proud to be the father of two incredible young ladies, one in high school, the other in college, who have a wide range of talents in such areas as computer science and mathematics.

Looking ahead, my tenth novel, The Astronomer’s Crypt, is nearing release. I have two anthologies in the publication queue: Kepler’s Cowboys and Maximum Velocity: The Best of the Full-Throttle Space Tales. I have four short stories accepted and awaiting publication. Beyond that, I’m in the early phases of writing a new novel and I have a “fix-up” novel a little over half completed. Plus I have story treatments for four more novels. Presuming no major funding shifts, I expect to be involved in commissioning two new instruments at Kitt Peak in the coming years.

As I reach fifty, I’m arguably in the best health I ever have been. The arthritis that plagued me for years is in remission and I regularly take long walks through my neighborhood. Nevertheless, one specter looms over me. My dad was only fifty-two when he died suddenly of a heart attack. In the plus column, my doctor is helping me watch my heart health and both of my brothers have now outlived my dad by over a decade. I have no immediate reason to fear for my imminent demise. Nevertheless, I find myself grieving for how truly short my dad’s life was cut and watching my health has taken on a new urgency.

In short, as I turn fifty, I feel proud of what I’ve accomplished. My regrets are minimal. While there are some harsh words and rash actions I’d take back if I could and some friends I’ve lost touch with over the years, it’s hard to say I’d have a better life if I’d taken a different path. I have several exciting things to look forward to in the coming months and years, plus plans and goals for the years beyond that.

Thanks to my readers for sharing some of this fifty-year journey with me. I look forward to sharing the coming years with you as well.

The Robots Are Taking Over

I spent this past weekend at Bubonicon in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Yesterday, I moderated a panel called “Are Robots Still Scary? Danger Will Robinson!” As it turns out, I suggested this panel to the event organizers because it occurred to me that I work with a robot quite a bit at Kitt Peak National Observatory and it’s a far cry from the anthropomorphic robots of pulp sci fi and probably more irritating at times than scary. The robot I’ve spent most of my time with is called the Hydra gripper. The reason it can be irritating, is that I’m one of the guys who has to go fix it when it breaks down!

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The gripper is on the right-hand side of the photo above. Its job is to pick up the fibers on the left side and position them on the plate so that they line up with objects on the sky. When the telescope is pointed at the target, light from the objects will go downstairs to a spectrograph, where it will be broken into a spectrum and projected on a camera. Astronomers can take that light and analyze it to understand the chemical composition of the objects they’re studying. These objects can range from stars, to galaxies, to nebulae. Some objects are nearby, others are among the most distant in the universe.

The reason for this post’s title, is that we’re about to get another robotic spectrograph at Kitt Peak. This one is called DESI (which stands for Dark Energy Spectrographic Instrument). Hydra allows us to take spectra of upwards of 200 objects at a time. DESI will let us take spectra of 5000 objects. You can read more about DESI in this press release from the Department of Energy’s Berkeley Lab. The goal of the instrument is to get spectra of all the known galaxies obtainable by the 4-meter in order to understand the phenomenon that’s been dubbed “dark energy.” Along the way, we’ll build an incredible database of spectra available to the entire astronomical community.

This week, I’ll be helping to test a prototype of DESI on the Mayall 4-meter telescope. The fibers of DESI are so closely packed that they aren’t moved around by a system like a gripper. Instead, each fiber is a little robot that turns on its own to optimize its position on the sky. Because of this project and the number of people it takes to get a project like this off the ground, DOE has helped to fund a new, larger control room for the Mayall. You can see the original on the left below. The new control room is on the right.

New-Old Control rooms

As it turns out, ghosts and stories of haunted observatories feature prominently in my forthcoming novel, The Astronomer’s Crypt. Our new control room is one of the “haunted” spaces in the Mayall. It used to be an old lounge and there were two rocking chairs that would sometimes be seen to rock on their own even when no one is in there. It remains to be seen if there are any ghosts, or if this motion was just due to sway of the building. If there are ghosts in the building, I hope they like company, because there’s going to be a lot of it in the coming years!