Weighing Planets

At this month’s meeting of the American Astronomical Society, the team developing the NEID spectrograph at Kitt Peak National Observatory announced the instrument’s first light and released a great, processed image of the first spectrum that illustrates much of what I’ve talked about when giving behind-scenes-glimpses of the work. This is a spectrum of 51 Pegasi, which happens to have been the first star discovered to have an exoplanet back in 1995.

Credit: Guðmundur Kári Stefánsson/Princeton University/Penn State/NSF’s National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory/KPNO/AURA

The rainbow in the image above shows light from the star 51 Pegasi spread out by the spectrograph. To the left, you see the spectrum magnified so you can see more details. In particular, you see dark lines bisecting the rainbow in different places. These lines are caused when elements in the star’s atmosphere absorbs a little bit of the light. The dots above the lines come from a “calibration” image. They serve as a road map to tell you where you are in the spectrum. When a planet pulls the star toward us, those dark lines move a little bit toward the blue end of the spectrum (to the left in the image above). When the planet goes behind the star, those lines move a little toward the red end of the spectrum (to the right, in the image above).

What’s cool about this kind of measurement is that how far the planet moves those lines is directly related to how massive the planet is. If you measure the line movement precisely, you can measure how much the planet weighs. If you then use another telescope and take images of the star and watch for the planet to cross in front of the star, you can measure how much the planet makes the star’s light decrease. That tells you the diameter of the planet. With the diameter and the mass, you can calculate the density, which tells you whether you’re looking at a gas giant, a rocky world, a water world, or an ice giant world.

What’s more, I was on-hand when that first image was taken. We celebrated by pulling out a bottle of sparkling cider and toasting the instrument’s success. Afterwards, we got back to work characterizing and testing the instrument’s behavior. As you can tell from the image below, we have lots of people in the control room on these commissioning nights!

This past week has been especially fun as a science fiction writer and long time fan. We’ve been starting our nights by observing the star Tau Ceti, which appears in many science fiction novels, movies, and TV series. Among the notable novels where Tau Ceti appears are such classics as Isaac Asimov’s The Caves of Steel, Robert A. Heinlein’s Time for the Stars, and Samuel R. Delaney’s Empire Star. In Star Trek, Tau Ceti is known as the home of the doomed cargo ship, Kobayashi Maru. The system is the home of the planet Sea of the Morningstar in Bodacious Space Pirates, a wonderful anime series.

In fact, the star itself is very similar to the sun. It has a similar spectral type and a mass about 0.78 times the mass of the sun. It has four candidate planets in orbit and it’s a little less than 12 light years away, so it seems conceivable these are planet humans could eventually visit. I even gave it a cameo in the new, upcoming edition of my novel, The Pirates of Sufiro.

The Classics and Beyond

Working long nights at Kitt Peak National Observatory, I often get a chance to ask my fellow astronomers about their taste in science fiction. Some of these astronomers are young, just starting their careers. Many are still in grad school. I find the first authors many will name are people like Isaac Asimov, Frank Herbert, Robert A. Heinlein, and Larry Niven—many of the same people I would have named when I was in grad school. Every now and then, someone else will pop up like James S.A. Corey of the Expanse series or Andy Weir, who wrote The Martian.

I find it interesting that so many of my peers in the astronomy world still gravitate to the classics of science fiction. When someone doesn’t mention newer works, I sometimes suggest some. Often I’m met with “I’ll have to look up that author!” It indicates to me that word about newer authors isn’t always spreading outside of writing or fandom circles.

Publishing does face a real challenge. There are many great writers and there are a lot of enthusiastic readers. However, there are limited resources to publish all the best writing and limited shelf space to display it. The internet helps the shelf-space issue, but it doesn’t always make discovering new fiction all that easy. Of course some of that shelf space should go to classics and people will gravitate to what they’ve heard good things about from peers and mentors. Perhaps it’s no surprise that people keep going back to the classics.

This is one of the reasons that I’ve always appreciated magazines and anthologies. They become a way for me to get a sample of what newer authors have done. Magazines, though, are struggling in the Internet age. Numerous magazines have ceased publication. An inherent problem for fiction magazines is that they carry a date, which as time goes by makes the fiction look increasingly dated. Of course, fiction doesn’t always age poorly as evidenced by all the classic authors who still influence young, contemporary scientists.

Good anthologies, though, do have staying power and I’m proud to have contributed to some great anthologies over the years. One of the anthologies I’m most proud of is Maximum Velocity: The Best of the Full-Throttle Space Tales. In that book, I got to work alongside talented editors Carol Hightshoe, Dayton Ward, Jennifer Brozek, and Bryan Thomas Schmidt to choose the very best stories from the Full-Throttle Space Tales originally published about ten years ago. I was especially proud that my fellow editors chose my story “Hijacking the Legacy” as one of the best stories from those books. It meant that I got to have a story alongside such authors as Phyllis Irene Radford, C.J. Henderson, Shannon Page, Mark Ferrari, Jean Johnson and Mike Resnick. I’ll note, Phyllis Irene Radford was also the editor of my novels Lightning Wolves and The Brazen Shark. Sometimes publishing is a small world.

I think Maximum Velocity: The Best of the Full-Throttle Space Tales has the potential to be a classic. I don’t say this out of ego, but out of the fact that I got to spend a lot of time with this volume as it was put together. I really got to appreciate the wide range of stoies that could be explored in a backdrop of space adventure. There’s humor, there’s adventure, there are scares, and there are cautionary tales. I lost track of how many times I read the book on the path to publication and I never got bored. There were many other stories from the original volumes that I wish we could have included, but I think this is a good sample.

I’ve often spoken of my love of classic space opera such as Star Trek, Babylon 5, and Space Battleship Yamato. I find the stories here excite me just as must as the best episodes of those series. If you’re looking to discover some authors, this is a great place to start. You can get a copy today at: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B074FHCJXG/

Mind Your Manners

In recent weeks, my wife and I have been fielding questions from our daughters about the behavior of boys. Without getting too specific and to minimize embarrassment, I’ll just say that it’s reminded me that “boys will be boys” is a phrase that leaves a bad taste in my mouth. It also made me realize that a part of me would have liked to have had a son, just to show that it’s possible for boys to be raised as gentlemen.

My friend, Loretta, and I are here to remind you to mind your manners.

My friend, Loretta, and I are here to remind you to mind your manners.

As my wife and I approach our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, one question I get frequently is, “How have you made your marriage last?” I actually find myself pointing to a quote by Robert A. Heinlein’s character, Lazarus Long: “Formal courtesy between husband and wife is even more important than it is between strangers.” In short, we do our best to always say “please” and “thank you” and try not to interrupt each other. We try to remember to check with each other when making plans. We don’t always succeed. Sometimes we hurt each others’ feelings, but the fact that we try and even succeed much of the time has made for a relationship that has lasted for many years.

To me, manners are less about Emily Post and more about remembering to respect the other party in a relationship—whether it be personal, casual, or business. Really, I could care less what side of my plate the forks are as long as you respect my feelings. In turn, I’ll do my best to respect yours. My wife and I have done our best to convey that lesson to our daughters and encourage them to seek out companions that respect them in turn.

At one point, I was on a convention panel that discussed whether the appeal of Steampunk was a desire to return to an era of more formal manners. I think there is something to that as far as the appeal of Steampunk to me. If you follow me here and on social media, you’ll find that I don’t speak a lot about politics. Part of that has to do with a tendency of people to forget their manners, especially when discussing politics and social issues on line. Rather than disagreeing and giving reasons for their opinions, they’d rather call the person they disagree with an idiot.

In the novel Friday, Robert A. Heinlein writes: “A dying culture invariably exhibits personal rudeness. Bad manners. Lack of consideration for others in minor matters. A loss of politeness, of gentle manners, is more significant than is a riot.” Whether you agree with this sentiment or not, I certainly find the lack of common courtesy in some on-line discussions discourages discussion of many issues for me. Certainly in this case, a loss of gentle manners becomes a way of shutting down political discussion, which of course, is utterly detrimental to our society. I hope this is an issue that will rectify itself with time. In the meantime, if you want to discuss politics with me, I’ll be happy to do so in person. I find people, for the most part, are still more polite when they have to look you in the eye.

The Pirates of Sufiro

As you can probably imagine from the quotes I’ve presented, Robert A. Heinlein has long been an influence on me and my writing. I think that’s most apparent in my Old Star/New Earth series and its first novel, The Pirates of Sufiro. The novel is free from my publisher Lachesis Publishing. Won’t you please give it a try?

Genesis of Sufiro

This week, my publisher made the ebook editions of The Pirates of Sufiro available for free at Amazon.com and BN.com. As a result, I find myself looking back at the history of the book.

The Pirates of Sufiro got its start at a writer’s workshop at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology in 1988. (Has it really been almost 25 years?!) At the workshop, I wrote a short story called “A Quiet Burning in the Darkness” that told the story of a space pirate captain named Ellison Firebrandt who met his comeuppance at the hands of an admiral who had laid a trap for him.

A couple of years later, I wrote a story called “Showdown at Sufiro” that told the story of a lawman who got caught up in a planetary conflict. Part of the back story was that the planet was founded by the pirates of “A Quiet Burning in the Darkness.”

I spent some time trying to sell these two stories without success. I soon came to realize that part of the problem was that the first story really didn’t have a satisfactory ending and the later story had too much back story and also needed a better ending. I realized, in essence, these were two chapters of a novel, but I wasn’t prepared to actually write the novel in 1991.

That changed in 1993. I read The Magic Journey by John Nichols and Time Enough for Love by Robert A. Heinlein back to back. Both novels are fictional histories and I found myself saying, “I could do that!” So, I pulled out my two stories and I began to fill in the blanks, linking the pirate story to the story about the lawman. The result was The Pirates of Sufiro.

Like most new authors, I had no idea what to do with my novel once it was finished. Several friends read it and believed in it. I thought about sending it to publishers, but wasn’t really sure where to begin.

Around that time, my wife was going to graduate school at the University of Arizona and was looking for a final project so she could complete her Masters of Business Administration. She came up with the idea of creating an audio small press and using The Pirates of Sufiro as the first book. My friend William Grother jumped in and gave the book a solid edit. In the meantime, I assembled several friends from Kitt Peak National Observatory and assigned them characters in the book. Once everything was in place, we all gathered around and recorded ourselves reading the book.

I then edited the tapes and we put out the first edition of The Pirates of Sufiro on audio in 1994 with my own artwork on the cover.

As it turns out, our ambitions were ahead of their time. The tapes were expensive for the quality and in 1994 few people seemed interested in buying an audio book that did not exist in print. So, we started looking into making a self-published print edition. About that time, William and I attended a writer’s conference in Tucson and an agent expressed an interest in the book. I tell that part of the story in the post Fifteen Years of Pirates in Print.

So, here we are 24 years after the short story that became chapter one, 18 years after the first audio publication, and 15 years after the first print publication in a whole new world of ebooks. Talk about a science fiction story! Of course, the exciting part is that you can now download the ebook absolutely free!

Fifteen Years of Pirates in Print

Two things happened today to bring my very first novel to the forefront of my mind. First off, the novel’s current publisher announced that the Kindle Edition is now available for a special price of 99 cents. Check out the deal here: http://amzn.com/B00440DQAI. Also, when I went to look at the page, I saw a nice, new review of the novel.

Looking at the page, I realized that this is the fifteenth anniversary of The Pirates of Sufiro’s first appearance in print. The first edition appeared as a mass market paperback in early 1997. (Albris claims a publication date of December 1996, but I didn’t get copies until about a month later). The first publisher went out of business within the year. I brought out a second edition through Hadrosaur Productions in 2001. In that edition, I added some new material and filled in some gaps. Finally, LBF Books acquired the book in 2005 and gave it a new round of edits. Here’s a glance at all three editions:

For those who know me mostly from my steampunk or vampire stories, The Pirates of Sufiro is a space opera about pirates and industrialists who colonize a planet, their conflicts, and how they have to pull together when a power alien presence from outside the galaxy threatens their world. I was inspired to write the novel after reading Robert A. Heinlein’s Time Enough for Love and John Nichols’ The Magic Journey back to back. The former tells the story of Lazarus Long, a space-faring adventurer so in love with life that he refused to die. The latter is the middle novel of the so-called “New Mexico Trilogy” and tells the story of a small New Mexico town from the Great Depression through the early 1980s.

As I look back at The Pirates of Sufiro, there are parts I love and parts that I would do much differently today. I am pleased that fifteen years after the book’s first appearance, it still touches people enough to write reviews on Amazon and that editors have asked for stories about pirate captain Ellison Firebrandt and his crew before they were marooned on the planet Sufiro.

And, yeah, I’ve been given some pretty sound lashings about the book in some reviews, too. There have been good points that I hope I’ve learned from when writing later books and points where I think the reviewer just didn’t “get it.” Still, I appreciate the fact that those reviewers cared enough to share their opinion.

Tonight I lift a mug of rich, Sufiran Ale to the crew of the Legacy, to Espedie Raton and his family, to the brave and true lawman Edmund Ray Swan, and even to the Stones and the McClintlocks. Here’s to the fifteenth anniversary of The Pirates of Sufiro.