How I Botched the Acetylcholine Test

I am a textbook introvert. As many sites on the internet will tell you, this is nothing unusual. All it really means is that much as I find interactions with people necessary and even rewarding, I can also find them draining. This would seem to be true of anywhere from 30-50% of the population. An upshot of being an introvert is the holidays can be especially draining with parties and gatherings. You would think I wouldn’t have found this year as draining given that gatherings have been discouraged. In fact, I didn’t go to any in-person events. While I did go to several online gatherings, as I noted in High Tech New Year’s Eve post, those were all pretty comfortable affairs with people I know well.

As a writer, I’m interested in what motivates people. Over the years, I’ve been fascinated to learn how much our brain chemistry affects who we are. I’ve found several articles that suggest that the neurotransmitters acetylcholine and dopamine play a strong role in who is an introvert and who is an extrovert. Simply put, introverts seem to thrive more on acetylcholine which makes us feel good when we turn inward. We feel gratified by long periods of time focused on a single task. Extroverts thrive more on dopamine, which can get released when you have positive interactions with others, such as a phone call that pushes your career forward or a strong romantic engagement.

A beautiful, quiet moment – the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn as seen from outside the WIYN 3.5-meter Telescope.

Now, I’m an astronomer, not a neurochemist, so I can’t vouch for how accurate this is. For that matter, I’ve come across some articles that suggest that dopamine and acetylcholine are far more intertwined in the brain than my simple description above would suggest. Still, it does mesh with my experience of really enjoying quiet tasks where I work by myself for long periods of time. It probably goes a long way to explaining why I like to write. So, I suspect there is some truth to something about my personality liking acetylcholine.

So, how did I botch the test? First off, I should explain that this post’s title is a reference to the classic Star Trek episode “The Immunity Syndrome.” In the episode, Mr. Spock has to fly a shuttlecraft into a giant space amoeba to save the Enterprise. While he’s there, he’s supposed to conduct some tests. Of course, he saves the day and everyone is happy, but Dr. McCoy points out that Spock didn’t do everything right. He tells Spock, “You botched the acetylcholine test!”

To this day, I’m not sure how Spock botched the test. I “botched the test” at a more personal level. At the moment, my work days at Kitt Peak National Observatory start around 4pm with a Zoom Meeting with various project collaborators. This meeting usually only lasts a few minutes, but then resumes again around 5:30pm with those collaborators who are observing. The Zoom meeting then lasts all the way until sunrise. Now, I’m not talking or interacting with the collaborators the whole night, but they are often interacting with each other and I do have to pay attention to plans for the night. I have no problem with this, but it can keep me from engaging in long, deep periods of concentration.

Also, I had planned a nice quiet period between Christmas and the New Year. I wasn’t scheduled to be at the observatory and I arranged a break from a collaborative creative project I’ve been involved in. As it turns out, I got a call on Christmas Eve from one of my editors, telling me notes on a story would be arriving that night. In short, the week turned into an intensive, albeit productive and gratifying, session whipping a story into shape for publication. I’ll tell you about that story in Saturday’s post. Once that was done, I had the nice New Year’s Eve that I talked about, then went back to work for more long observing nights with their accompanying Zoom sessions. Needless to say, I reached the first break of the new year feeling pretty wiped out.

I was suffering what some people know as an “introvert hangover.” For me, this takes the form of almost every interaction, no matter how benign, getting on my nerves. I try not to get to this point, but it does happen sometimes. Fortunately, we’re a family of introverts and we do our best to take care of each other when this happens. Also, I’ve been able to have some quiet time at the end of this most recent break from the observatory and I’m starting to feel myself again.

I hope your new year is off to a good start and you’re doing your best to stay healthy and well.

Learning from Loss

In 1976, when I was in elementary school, my teacher taught us about elections by having some of the students “run for office.” Of course, we weren’t running for any real political office, but the idea was to make campaign posters, have a debate, and let the class vote on who won. I ran for senator and thought I would be a shoe-in. Of the two people running, I was the one known to be the “smart kid.” I remember making some great posters with great slogans. In the end, I lost that election and I was devastated.

One of my friends came up and presented a hard truth to me. This friend did like me, but couldn’t vote for me because the other kid talked a lot more in the debate. I pointed out that the other kid made promises they couldn’t keep. My friend noted they actually said they would do something while it wasn’t clear I would do anything. Looking back, I realize that part of why I failed on that occasion was my own introverted personality. I wasn’t comfortable speaking to groups, so I didn’t say everything that was on my mind. More to the point, I learned to cope with the loss and move on. I didn’t get bitter. I didn’t say the other kid cheated. I knew I’d lost fair and square and I learned what I would need to do should I ever choose to run for a real elected position.

Losing is a powerful, albeit painful teacher. Whether one loses an election, a sporting event, or a competition of any sort, you can learn from the experience and do better. In fact, it’s such a great teacher that I’m hesitant to trust anyone who tries to tell me they never lost and that they succeed at absolutely everything they ever attempted. What’s more, the older they get without losing, the more I worry because I know the first real loss they face will be all the more difficult.

In the 1990s, I started reading through A. Bertram Chandler’s space opera series about John Grimes. Growing up as a Star Trek fan, I really enjoyed these books. John Grimes was a character much like Captain Kirk. As I read, I came to the novel The Big Black Mark, which is a novel about Grimes screwing up big time. He actually gets booted out of the service and has to find a new career. At that point, Grimes suddenly became a much more interesting character to me than Captain Kirk and it was precisely because he lost and had to learn from his mistakes and become better. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still a Star Trek fan, but I find Grimes’s journey a bit more interesting.

I took this to heart when I wrote my Space Pirates’ Legacy series. The Pirates of Sufiro is about Ellison Firebrandt coping with losing his life of being a successful pirate. In the next book, Children of the Old Stars, his grandson makes a blunder when attempting to communicate with an alien race invading the galaxy and must start his quest all over again outside the military. I wrote these books when I was young and I hadn’t experienced as many losses as I have at this point in my life. One reason I’m revising them for new editions is that I’m better able to tap into the emotions that go with loss and moving on in new ways.

In the end, losing an election or a competition doesn’t make you a “loser.” It’s how you cope with the loss that demonstrates your true nature. I hope you’ll join Ellison Firebrandt and John Mark Ellis on their journey’s of loss and redemption. You can learn more about the Space Pirates’ Legacy series by visiting: http://davidleesummers.com/books.html#pirate_legacy

Revisiting Das Boot

I grew up knowing I had ancestors who came from Germany. What’s more, my uncle married a German woman. I wanted to be a scientist and I knew about a number of German scientists such as Kepler, Einstein, and Heisenberg just to name a few. So when it came to pick a language from my limited high school offerings, I chose German. My high school only offered two years of the language, so when I exhausted those, I was encouraged to take classes at Cal State San Bernardino. During this time, one of the most famous German films was released: Das Boot. The professor of my college German class offered us extra credit if we went to see the movie in German. Several of us went as a group. As with many at the time, I found the movie amazing, stunning, and sad at the end.

My aunt was excited that I had gone to watch a feature-length German film. She contacted one of her relatives in Germany and had them buy a hardcover copy of the original novel and send it to the US. She gave it to me as a Christmas present. It’s still one of my treasured possessions. I’m sorry to say I have not taken the time to wade through and read the whole thing, but I was delighted when I recently picked it up and discovered my German is still good enough to follow the gist of the story.

Writers are often told to “write what you know.” This can be tricky for science fiction writers. That said, we should pull from our experience to make what we imagine as believable as possible. One of the reasons Das Boot was fascinating to me was how real it made serving in a cramped, enclosed ship. Much as I loved the Star Trek-like future of grand, beautiful starships, I couldn’t help but think the reality of military space ships would look more like the U-96 in Das Boot than Captain Picard’s spacious Enterprise. When I started writing the stories that would become the foundation of my Space Pirates’ Legacy series, I made space vessels cramped and claustrophobic with crews who got on each others’ nerves.

Back in the days when I first saw the movie Das Boot, I’d heard rumors of a longer version than the one we saw in the United States. It turns out this was a 5-hour cut broadcast over five nights on British television in 1984. This cut (more or less) was eventually released in the United States as “The Original Uncut Version” shown above. I bought it a few years ago, then promptly moved to a new house where it disappeared under a stack of other videos. I finally found it again and watched the five-hour cut.

I have to say, I was impressed. The longer cut didn’t drag at all. What it gave us were more character moments. The 1980s American theatrical release focused on the captain, the chief engineer, and the war correspondent. The longer release gives us a chance to know the first officer, the third officer, the navigator and the radio operator much better. The crew began to feel even more like a family, albeit a dysfunctional one at times.

I’ve come to realize that space travel would be unsustainable if spaceships were as small and crowded as a World War II-era U-boat, but still, thinking about how they ate, the jobs they were assigned to, the “human” touches that made the sub a little more livable than sterile are all things that help me think about how to design space vessels in my writing. If you want to see how I’ve brought that into play, a good place to start is book one of my Space Pirates’ Legacy series, Firebrandt’s Legacy. You can learn more at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/Firebrandts-Legacy.html

Star Trek: Picard

For staying at home during a pandemic, I feel like I’ve been extremely busy the last six weeks. Some of this has been from documentation work that I’ve discussed here. Some has been because rights to three of my novels revert to me at the end of this month and I’m working to get new editions ready to go when the reversion takes effect. This past Friday, the Tucson Amateur Astronomy Association invited to me to speak to them via Zoom about Kitt Peak’s DESI project. The upshot is that I haven’t had as much extra time to read or watch TV as I might even under normal circumstances. Despite that, I decided to take advantage of a CBS All Access offer of a free month to watch a series I’ve been looking forward to, Star Trek: Picard.

The series takes place twenty years after the events of Star Trek: Nemesis. Admiral Picard, played admirably by Patrick Stewart, has retired to his home and vineyards in France. Meanwhile, in Seattle, black-suited agents storm the home of a young woman named Dahj and kill her boyfriend. She reveals extraordinary strength and gets away. Somehow she knows Picard is the one who can help her. Picard then figures out that she was a biological synthetic lifeform created from cells taken from Commander Data’s positronic network. In short, she’s a daughter of Commander Data, who sacrificed himself in Nemesis to save Picard.

Right away in the first episode, those black-suited agents are back and this time, they succeed in killing Dahj. However, Picard has learned that Dahj would have been one of a pair of identical twin synthetic lifeforms. From here, we go across space into Romulan territory and find out that Dahj’s twin sister, Soji, is helping to study a captured Borg ship while engaging in a romance with a Romulan named Narek, who I soon realized was played by Penny Dreadful’s Doctor Frankenstein, Harry Treadaway.

Admiral Picard now goes on a quest to find Dahj’s sister. When Starfleet refuses to help, he engages the help of Raffi Musiker, his first officer after Commander Riker left. They hire the ship, La Sirena, commanded by a former Starfleet officer, Chris Rios. They follow the clues that lead them to the Borg cube and then beyond to the planet where Soji and Dahj were created. Overall, I enjoyed the series. It was an engaging quest story with some nice moments for Star Trek: The Next Generation era characters such as Picard, Riker, Troi, and Seven of Nine.

My main complaint with the series had to do with the ending, and I’ll try to describe it in as spoiler-free a way as possible. When they get to the planet where Dahj and Soji were created, a beacon is built to summon a destructive force. We are then treated to some scenes of a hole opening in the sky and metallic tentacles flailing about. It’s a moment that feels all too much like the ending of modern superhero fare. It’s become tired there and it really had no place in a Star Trek episode. What’s more, Star Trek’s best scary moments have never involved big bad explicit threats, but threats like the Borg or the bug-like invaders in the Next Generation episode, “Conspiracy.” These are the things that feel like they could walk in and dismantle Starfleet and the Federation with ease if our heroes aren’t very careful.

I’m glad to have seen the series and I would recommend it to fellow Star Trek fans. Besides the nostalgia factor, I was also pleased to see the series embrace elements of Star Trek canon that haven’t felt terribly popular with fans such as the Romulan supernova from the 2009 Star Trek movie and the events of Star Trek: Nemesis itself. I will admit these are not among the highlights of the franchise, but I’ve long found it baffling how willing Star Trek fans are to cherry-pick their favorite bits of canon and try to imagine the rest didn’t happen.

I’m still a little on the fence about CBS All Access itself. I’m delighted they made a free month available to people during this difficult time. Still, episodes themselves were plagued by the occasional stutter that would be more upsetting if I had paid for it. While that could be my internet, I was also a little frustrated that the service wouldn’t let me watch the end credits of episodes without getting ready to play the next episode right away. Star Trek features some good music and I like the opportunity to hear it and I like being able to see who was in the guest cast of an episode without necessarily having to look it up later.

Voyage of the Space Beagle

These are the voyages of the Space Beagle. It’s mission: explore new worlds, seek out new life … and kill it!

Wait, what?

Let me step back a moment. When I married my wife, a friend quipped that I was marrying her for her collection of science fiction novels. One of those novels was A.E. van Vogt’s classic science fiction tale, Voyage of the Space Beagle. It’s one of those novels I’ve long meant to read and I came across it the other day on the bookshelf and decided to give it a go.

The novel is a fix-up of four novellas written between 1939 and 1943 that describe a large space ship full of scientists sent out to the galaxy to learn everything they can. The primary point of view character is Elliott Grosvenor, an early practitioner of a science called nexialism which endeavors to take the results of all the sciences and come up with comprehensive results that specialists in those fields can’t achieve alone. This is probably a good thing, since the Space Beagle’s all-male crew consists of a bunch of scientists from different specialties, most of whom don’t seem to work and play well with others. Even Grosvenor felt like something of a know-it-all jerk at times.

In the first part, the Space Beagle lands and takes the cat-like creature from the cover aboard as a specimen. This coeurl turns out to be a lot smarter than anyone anticipated and it goes on a killing rampage through the crew until they figure out how to dispatch it. In the second part, hypnotic suggestions begin flooding the ship and causing the crew to turn against each other. Grosvenor figures out that they’re receiving communications from an alien race. In the third part, they encounter a living creature out in space called an Ixtl and decide to bring it aboard as a specimen. It promptly begins going around the ship and inserting its eggs into the intestinal tracts of the crew. Finally, the Space Beagle leaves the galaxy and encounters a galaxy-spanning entity at M33. It transforms planets into jungle planets with lots of life that it can feed on.

I found it difficult to sympathize with a lot of the characters in this novel. While it was interesting that they had egos and that led to conflict, I just wanted them to get over themselves and work together once in a while as something nasty attacked the ship. What’s more, for a thin novel, it was rather plodding and methodical in its pacing. Despite that, the real importance of this novel is in its influence. The first thing I noticed was the cat-like creature on the cover. He reminded me of one I’d seen on another recent novel.

It turns out that Haruka Takachiho, the author of the Dirty Pair light novels was a fan of A.E. van Vogt and Mughi, the third lovely angel, shown on the cover, is supposed to be a coeurl. There are obvious parallels in this novel with movie and TV space opera that followed, such as Forbidden Planet and Star Trek. When van Vogt mentioned his all-male crew, I immediately thought of the problems the crew of the C-57D had when it’s all-male crew encountered a woman on Altair IV. Although I poke fun at the Star Trek connection in the opening of this blog, it does resemble Star Trek in that the Space Beagle ostensibly is an exploratory ship that finds itself in the position of defending Earth against creatures that would do Earth harm. For that matter, the coeurl feeds on the potassium in human bodies, not unlike the creature that kills people for salt in an early episode of Star Trek.

One thing that’s quite striking in this novel is its resemblance to the plot of 1979’s movie, Alien. Most people point to the obvious parallels of the egg-implanting Ixtl, but the coeurl story also resembled Alien quite a bit. I was especially struck at the end of that story when the biologist, Kent, suggests that a crew should return to the coeurl’s planet and exterminate the species before they become more of a problem, the setup for this universe’s version of Aliens. Apparently van Vogt did sue the producers of Alien and was awarded a settlement.

Although it feels dated, and I’ve read novels from the period that I enjoyed more, I was glad to discover this influential science fiction novel and travel with the crew of the Space Beagle for a little while, and survive the experience.

My Star Trek

Back in 2007, the current actor playing the Doctor in Doctor Who, David Tennant, appeared alongside one of the classic Doctors, Peter Davison in a short film for charity called “Time Crash.” In the short, Tennant has a moment that’s close to breaking the fourth wall. He glances at Davison with admiration, talks about all the things about him that inspired his interpretation of the character and then declares, “You were my Doctor.” Ever since then Doctor Who fans are fond of proclaiming which Doctor was the one that made them a fan of the series. That Doctor is my Doctor.

It’s possible to do almost the same thing with Star Trek. The show is almost as old and existed in numerous incarnations, much like Doctor Who. What’s more, as I talk to people of different ages, I do find that people do remember different Star Trek series with different amounts of fondness, often related to which one they discovered first and really hooked them. Thanks to having older brothers, I have watched and loved Star Trek as long as I remember, but to some degree, the original series is their Star Trek. For me, the series that hooked me was the one that debuted on Saturday morning TV around the time I started the second grade.

The animated Star Trek produced by Filmation Studios and helmed by D.C. Fontana essentially gave us two more seasons of the original series, completing the original five year mission. What’s more, I’d argue most of the episodes were better than the episodes that appeared in the third live action season. We got to see cool new aliens, such as Arex, a new navigator with three arms and three legs, and a Vendorian shapeshifter with tentacles who no doubt stuck in my mind enough to inspire my Alpha Centaurans when I wrote the first chapter of my novel, The Pirates of Sufiro. We also got to see a return of the tribbles and a return to the planet from the episode “Shore Leave.”

I was pleased to see that someone finally devoted a book to the animated series, Star Trek: The Official Guide to the Animated Series by Aaron Harvey and Rich Schepis with an afterward by Dayton Ward, who co-edited the anthology Maximum Velocity with me. It has nice episode summaries plus behind the scenes information. For instance, I didn’t realize that Lou Scheimer of Filmation had been trying to get rights to do an animated Star Trek since before the original went off the air. What’s more, I learned the animated series the only one to win an Emmy in a non-technical category. It won for “Outstanding Children’s Program” in the second season.

The animated Star Trek often suffers from arguments about the series’ canon. In fact, all canon refers to is the collected body of original work produced by the licensed owners. What people really seem to mean when they argue about “canon” is “the consistent internal history of the show.” It doesn’t help that the series creator, Gene Roddenberry, didn’t want to consider the animated series part of that official history. Despite that, several authors in later series have included references to it. Now, to put this kind of debate into perspective, I have a hard enough time maintaining consistency in a multi-book series that I, alone, create. I can’t imagine being absolutely consistent throughout a series that has lasted over 50 years with multiple creators, where history itself has changed some of the backstory. (We all remember Khan Noonien Singh’s reign in the 1990s, right?) I think the best new creators can do is know what came before, do their best to get it right, and maybe even have a little fun when they find contradictions and anachronisms.

If you haven’t seen the animated series, or it’s been a while, I encourage you to take a look. Bringing Harvey and Schepis’s book along for the journey might just add to your appreciation.

Waking up in the 20s

At the start of the new year, I read many social media posts reminding me that we’ve returned to the 20s. As it turns out, 1920 was something of a banner year for science fiction in that it saw the birth of Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, and Frank Herbert. It also saw the birth of Patrick Troughton, the second actor to play the Doctor in Doctor Who and DeForest Kelley who would play the doctor of the Starship Enterprise in Star Trek.

I decided to celebrate the start of the 2020s by continuing the adventures of one of my favorite comic book heroines, Adèle Blanc-Sec. She is probably best known to Americans from the wonderful 2010 film by Luc Besson called The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec. After watching that movie, I was curious about the character and found out she appeared in French comics written by Jacques Tardi whose work also inspired the movie April and the Extraordinary Journey. I found that Fantagraphics had produced nice translated editions of the first four of Adèle’s adventures, which inspired the movie. The problem is, the movie and the translated graphic novels both end on a cliffhanger. Adèle sets sail on the Titanic

As it turns out, Adèle’s story does continue. Volume 5 was translated and published by Dark Horse Comics as “The Secret of the Salamander” and tells what happens to Adèle as a result of the infamous voyage. Unfortunately, none of the comics after volume 5 have been translated. I was pleased to discover, though, that I could buy the French edition of Volume 6, which I translate as “The Drowning of the Two-Headed Man” in digital format from Comixology. This story begins a new chapter of Adèle Blanc-Sec’s adventures after World War I. It’s not precisely the 1920s, but the stage is being set for the roaring decade to come.

There was one challenge. I don’t speak or read French very well. I did have a semester back in middle school. I won’t say how many years ago that is. I also have studied some Spanish over the years and have a very rudimentary Spanish vocabulary, which helps to recognize French words. Still, armed with Google Translate and my limited French skills, I made my best go of reading the comic.

It turns out this actually was a pretty fun exercise. My French was good enough that I could tell when Google’s translation app gave me a wonky result, and I would need to dig deeper to figure out what someone said. I also have no doubt I missed some idioms that would have been clearer to a native speaker. Still, the process of going through very carefully allowed me to appreciate Jacques Tardi’s fine artwork as well as much of his wordplay, much of it making me laugh as I worked through the translation.

In short, the story opens with police finding a drowned two-headed drowned man in a canal. They are soon attacked by a giant octopus. Meanwhile, Adèle Blanc-Sec has awoken to discover a world war was fought. She has nothing but an overcoat. Still, she returns to her apartment and finds its been kept up in her absence. She soon gets embroiled in a mystery involving the French army, circus performers, and the aforementioned giant octopus. As I understand, her adventures continue into the 1920s.

The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec and April and the Extraordinary World are two of the better steampunk films I know. If Adèle’s adventures continued on screen, we could be treated to some fine dieselpunk. Hopefully, we will get some translated copies of her later adventures. If any comic book companies are reading this, I do have all my notes from reading the book! For the rest of you, you can learn about the steampunk adventures I’ve created by visiting http://www.davidleesummers.com/books.html#clockwork_legion

Also, for those seeking out steampunk goodness, I learned this weekend that I will once again be presenting panels at Wild Wild West Con in Tucson, Arizona this March. This is one of the most fun, immersive events I go to. You can learn more at: http://wildwestcon.com.

The Waiting Game

Two weeks ago, I mentioned that I’m about to wrap up three book projects. One is the novel Upstart Mystique by Don Braden, which I’m editing and publishing. One is the anthology Exchange Students edited by Sheila Hartney that I’m publishing. The third is my novel, The Pirates of Sufiro, which I’ve revised for its twenty-fifth anniversary release. Over the last couple of months, each of these projects has involved a lot of time at the computer. I’ve been reading, revising, sending emails and making sure that everything is ready for typesetting and final cover creation. I have completed preliminary typeset copies of Upstart Mystique and Exchange Students and I’m just waiting for the covers to proceed. The Pirates of Sufiro is out with early readers. And so now I wait…

Okay, my cover artist, Laura Givens, works fast enough, I don’t imagine I’ll be waiting long, but finishing the typesetting does depend on having a finished cover. That might surprise some readers, but the reason for this is to assure the book has a cohesive look. I like to make sure the fonts used in the headers and on the chapter titles is a close, if not exact, match for the fonts used on the cover. This is certainly not an absolute requirement for publication, but I think it gives the book a much more polished and professional look.

For me, the transition from being very busy to waiting for stuff I need to complete projects is always a bit of a challenge. I wonder what my early readers are going to think about that stuff I’ve been slaving over for the past year. Are they going to like it or tell me I was wasting my time? I always look forward to seeing the covers Laura comes up with for work. Waiting for those is more akin to waiting for Santa on Christmas Eve. I know good stuff is coming, I just don’t know exactly what it is. Of course, it’s not productive to sit around fidgeting about either of these. I think the very best things a writer can do while waiting to hear back from people is write something or read something. In that spirit, I’ve been catching up with some fun reading and will share some of that over the next couple of posts. I also started working on a model of the Enterprise from Star Trek: Discovery that I received as a Christmas present. You can see the work in progress in the photo.

I spent a day during my first break of the new year making sure I had everything I needed to complete the model. I planned to start it once these projects were all complete as a sort of reward to myself, but I decided to get an early start. It turns out this model is a very simple build, but it has a LOT of decal work. I decided that I really needed to invest in a product I’ve seen recommended to me on several modeling forums and by some friends called “Micro Sol” which really helps the decals settle onto the surface of the model. Of course, this is the one thing I needed I couldn’t find locally, so I had to order it. So, I’m waiting on that project as well! So, I’m back to reading and thinking about what writing projects are next for me. I do a lot of my thinking by walking, so I am getting some exercise in while I wait. If people keep me waiting long enough, who knows? I may just get that next writing project started.

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.

Captain Pike’s Discovery

By coincidence, actor Ethan Peck visited Kitt Peak National Observatory the week Star Trek: Discovery’s second season was released on DVD and Blu-Ray. I enjoyed the first season enough, I had already planned to watch the second second when I could get it on disk. Meeting the actor who played Spock in the series provided even more motivation. When I finished my shift at the observatory, I stopped in Tucson and picked up a copy of the season on Blu-Ray. I finished watching the season earlier this week.

Season one ended on a cliffhanger. The Starship Discovery encountered a badly damaged Starship Enterprise. When the second season opens, Captain Christopher Pike beams over to the Discovery and announces that he’s been given temporary command so that he can investigate the appearance of seven mysterious red signals around the galaxy while the Enterprise continues to dock for repairs. We soon learn that Pike’s science officer, Mr. Spock, has committed himself to a psychiatric hospital for evaluation. Spock’s adopted sister, Michael Burnham, is the series protagonist and serves as Discovery’s science officer.

Soon after the season begins, Spock leaves the psychiatric hospital and goes on the run. He’s accused of killing his doctors and the Discovery goes after him. The ship is then stopped in its tracks by an ancient artificial intelligence at the end of its operational life. They end up downloading all of the AI’s data into their computers. At this point, Section 31, a covert operations division of Starfleet takes a strong interest both in the ancient data and in Spock. Saying much more about the plot will get into spoiler territory, but we do end up with a season of political intrigue and personal drama.

As a long-time Star Trek fan, the most satisfying aspect of this season was getting to know Captain Christopher Pike. Way back when there was only one Star Trek TV series, he appeared in one episode as the grievously wounded former captain of the Enterprise. During the episode called “The Menagerie,” Mr. Spock hijacks the ship to take his former captain to the mysterious world Talos IV. In the process we learn about the first time Pike visited Talos IV. During the episode we learn that Captain Pike, played by Jeffrey Hunter, is conflicted about command. He regrets ordering his crew into dangerous situations and considers a new career.

In the 2009, Star Trek film, we see Captain Pike again. This time he’s played by Bruce Greenwood. The movie portrays Pike as something of a cool father figure. Anson Mount, who plays Captain Pike in Star Trek: Discovery, bridges these two portrayals and shows us a captain who cares deeply about his crew and is willing to sacrifice himself for others. Ethan Peck does a great job of playing a young Lieutenant Spock dealing with inner demons. In the process, we get a good sense of why he was loyal enough to Captain Pike to risk a court martial to help his mentor in the original series. We also see how Spock and Burnham influenced each other growing up and we see a fun brother/sister dynamic between the two characters.

The second season of Discovery includes a lot of action, which I enjoyed and I was glad to get to know the series’ regular characters better. The season-long arc format continues to suit Star Trek. That said, aside from our encounter with the ancient AI, we don’t seem to “explore new worlds” and “seek out new life and new civilizations” as much as we did in the original series or even Star Trek: The Next Generation. That said, the season’s end did set us up to go “where no one has gone before.” At the end of the season, we got a nice taste of Captain Pike’s Enterprise. I think it would be a lot of fun if we saw a spin-off series that gave us more of Captain Pike and Mr. Spock’s adventures before the more famous five-year mission.