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.

2020 Foresight

In the last post, I looked back to the previous decade. Now, I want to take a look forward at what’s coming next. As it turns out, I’m entering the year 2020 with three projects right at the final editing and typesetting stages, so those are occupying much of my attention at the moment and I expect they will all go “live” in the first quarter of this year.

One of the projects that will appear in the next couple of months is the anthology Exchange Students edited by Sheila Hartney. It features twenty-two stories from a diverse group of authors who explore the idea of exchange students in a variety of settings. Some stories imagine interplanetary exchange students, some imagine time traveling exchange students. We have an exchange student from Hell visiting Heaven. There are also stories about exchange students crossing between our world and fantasy worlds. Throughout the book, you’ll hear stories from the perspectives of the teachers, students, and parents who find themselves in these situations. The final edited manuscript has just been delivered to me and I plan to start typesetting the book this week, then I’ll get in touch with the cover artist about finishing the cover, teased in the thumbnail at the head of this paragraph.

I’m also excited to be presenting Don Braden’s first novel. Don is a retired high school teacher who has often used science fiction as a teaching tool in the classroom. Don has also written for Tales of the Talisman Magazine. What’s more, I’ve almost literally known Don my entire life. He was my brother’s English teacher before I was even old enough to go to school.

Don’s novel is called Upstart Mystique. The novel opens with the space vessel Marco P en route to a distant colony world. The ship loses all power and an unknown force convinces the navigator that a distant, dead world is the vessel’s true destination. Commander Malcolm Carpenter orders the crew to abandon ship to protect them and to learn how to defeat whatever force has intercepted his ship. The crew discovers a small group of inhabitants, the only people on the planet who were not uploaded into a vast computer network—a computer network captivated by upstart humans and their imaginations. To free his crew and his navigator from the planetary network’s grip, Commander Carpenter must face a moral dilemma. Can he save his crew without condemning a planet’s inhabitants and their digital ancestors to death?

I’ve finished the first typesetting pass of Upstart Mystique. It needs a cover and a final check by the author, then it’ll be ready to go to press!

The third book I’m working on is the 25th Anniversary edition of my own novel, The Pirates of Sufiro. When the rights to the “Old Star/New Earth” series were returned to me, I wrestled with how much to re-edit these books. They were my early books and I renamed the series “The Space Pirates Legacy” in part because one of the major characters has a vessel named Legacy and in part because I do see it as my “legacy” series. It’s the series where I cut my teeth as a writer, so to speak, and mostly I wanted to bring them back so they were available to fans who wanted my early work. Still, I felt like Pirates had some cool ideas that were buried in awkward writing. Also, the only ebook edition of the book had some problems that made it even more of a challenge to read. If I was going to put this book back on the market, I owed it to readers to improve what I could. I’ve just completed the actual rewriting portion of the project. I have a few more edits to do, then I’ll start typesetting. Again, the actual book should be available for purchase in the very near future. That said, people who support my Patreon at http://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers will get a code to download it for free once it’s released.

After this, it’ll be time to move on to the next wave of projects. While typesetting and finishing these books, I hope to make some decisions about what will be next. Some things are clear. I’ll be revising and re-issuing the rest of the Space Pirates Legacy series: Children of the Old Stars and Heirs of the New Earth. At this point, I don’t expect they’ll take the kind of time I’ve devoted Pirates, but I do need to re-read and evaluate them. I do plan to polish and work on some short stories I have in mind and send them out to editors. Presuming Children and Heirs don’t prove as time consuming as Pirates, I’ll probably start work on the next new novel. You can share your thoughts about what that should be in the comments below, although I’ll also be asking my Patreon supporters and I do give their thoughts more weight.

My novels of the 2010s

In my last post, I mentioned that I had the attitude of being a temporary employee at Kitt Peak National Observatory. Much of the reason I adopted that attitude in the first place is that then and now, I see myself first and foremost as a writer and editor. When I returned to Kitt Peak in 2008, I feared my writing output would fall off because of my job’s demands. I’m pleased to look back at the previous decade and realize that I actually produced more novels than in any previous decade.

In a very real way, the 2010s were the decade of the Clockwork Legion. These are my steampunk novels that chronicle what happens to Earth when a microscopic alien swarm arrives on Earth in 1876 and begins tampering with events in hopes of avoiding a worldwide catastrophe. Instead of averting catastrophe, the alien sets off the Russian invasion of the United States. Fortunately, a healer named Fatemeh Karimi and a disgraced sheriff named Ramon Morales are there to set things right.

The first novel was published in 2011. Although the original publisher changed focus, the series was picked up by Sky Warrior books and a new edition came out in 2014 quickly followed by the second novel, Lightning Wolves. In that novel, our characters find themselves caught between the miners of Southern Arizona, the Apache Nation, and the Clantons, all while the Russians continue their invasion from the first book.

In 2016’s The Brazen Shark, our characters travel to Japan and then to Russia where they bring the story of the alien’s visit to a conclusion. In 2018, I published Owl Riders, which is set ten years later and looks at the world in the aftermath of the alien’s interference and returns to resolve the conflicts set up in the second novel.

At this point, I don’t plan for the Clockwork Legion to be a series limited to the books created in the 2010s. I want to tell more about Ramon and Fatemeh’s adventures, but they are paused while I work on some other projects. In the meantime, you can learn more about the Clockwork Legion novels by visiting http://www.davidleesummers.com/books.html#clockwork_legion

The Clockwork Legion series wasn’t the only one I worked on this past decade. I also wrote a second book in my Scarlet Order vampire series. 2012’s Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order was actually a prequel to Vampires of the Scarlet Order. The Scarlet Order is a band of vampires who use their preternatural powers to fight as mercenaries. Dragon’s Fall tells the story of how the Scarlet Order was formed. We first meet Alexandra, a former Greek slave who becomes a vampire thief. Then we travel to King Arthur’s court where one of his rivals becomes a vampire and initiates the Holy Grail quest in hopes of finding redemption. Draco fails to find redemption through the Grail, but he meets Alexandra in his on-going quest. You can learn more about this novel at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/dragons_fall.html

Dragon’s Fall wasn’t my only excursion into horror. In 2016, I released The Astronomer’s Crypt, which imagines astronomers, drug dealers, ghosts, and Apache demons colliding during a terrible storm at an observatory in Southern New Mexico. Of course, this novel does pull a lot from my job at Kitt Peak National Observatory and I probably wouldn’t have been able to write it if I had not returned to telescope operations. On the surface, The Astronomer’s Crypt is a haunted house story inspired by the very labyrinthine Mayall building at Kitt Peak. However, it also imagines what might happen if different layers of existence hinted at through ancient stories collided with our contemporary and comfortable reality. You can learn more about The Astronomer’s Crypt and watch a cool book trailer at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/Astronomers-Crypt.html

I finished the decade by returning to a series that really had its genesis way back in the 1980s while I was still in graduate school. In the 2000s when the series was with Lachesis Publishing, I was asked to create a name for the series. On the fly, I came up with “The Old Star/New Earth Series.” I never really liked that name because it didn’t really capture what the series was about. I’ve now reinvented the series as “The Space Pirates’ Legacy” and my last book of the 2010s was a new first book in this series, Firebrandt’s Legacy. It tells the story of a space pirate named Ellison Firebrandt and his band of buccaneers as they pillage ships for Earth’s benefit. I’m currently working on rewriting the first book I ever wrote, The Pirates of Sufiro, which is also the second book of this series. I hope to release the new edition in a few weeks. You can learn more about Firebrandt’s Legacy at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/Firebrandts-Legacy.html

Looking back, that’s seven novel in ten years. I spent most of the 2000s as a freelance writer and wrote four novels. So, at some level, I needn’t have worried about about the observatory lessening my output. That said, I do find as the decade ends that I’m writing fewer short stories and poems now than I did at the beginning of the decade. One of my goals for this coming decade will be to spend more time on some of my shorter works again. Also, one of my first goals of the decade is to finish re-releasing the rest of “The Space Pirates Legacy” series. Concurrent with that, I hope to begin work on a new novel. I haven’t decided for certain what that will be. I’d love to visit Ramon and Fatemeh again. Also, The Astronomer’s Crypt was always meant to be the first book in a trilogy, so I may return to that world for a while. Either way, this promises to be another fun and productive decade.

Textual Origami

Back in 1993, when I was first writing my novel, The Pirates of Sufiro, I created a very broad synopsis of each of the novel’s four parts. I wrote one page in a notebook describing what I expected to happen in that part of the book. Then, as I had time, I wrote the scenes that, I hoped, would bring the story to life. When I’m working on a novel, I often have a flash of a moment in a story. Back then, I was good about writing those moments down right when they happened. I would then call it a completed scene, then start thinking about the next “moment.”

Reading the novel now, over 25 years later, I realize many of those moments read more like scene fragments rather than complete scenes in their own right. The scene fragment might describe something significant that happens to a character, but it’s over and done with so fast that we don’t really feel like we spent time with the character or got to know how that fragment fit in the story’s bigger context. So, one of the things I’m doing in the novel’s 25th anniversary edition is identifying fragments that can be folded together into longer scenes, so the reader spends more time with each character getting to know them and understand their motivations a little more before moving on to another scene. I’ve begun to think of the process as textual origami.

As an example, I had a scene fragment where a colonel is watching a holographic display of a space ship. His adjutant arrives and they have a brief conversation. I then move onto another scene fragment with other characters. In the next scene fragment with the colonel, he’s still watching the hologram. Another ship arrives. Then we move onto the next fragment. It occurred to me, there’s no reason at all that the two fragments of the colonel and the hologram couldn’t be combined into one scene. The colonel and his adjutant could be talking when the second ship arrives, adding another layer to the scene.

Over the years, as I grew as a writer, I tended to get better about creating longer scenes all on my own. However, I still occasionally wrote and inserted a scene fragment here or there. I didn’t really think about my tendency to create scene fragments until I wrote my novel Owl Riders just a couple of years ago. The novel’s editor was the first editor to encourage me to combine some of these fragments into longer scenes. Once it was pointed out, it was easier to see my scene fragments in other novels.

Admittedly, not every scene fragment needs to be folded into long, extended scenes. Sometimes a fragment can help to highlight a moment or emphasize a very particular incident. With that in mind, I think the scene fragment is a very powerful tool, but its one that should be wielded carefully.

If you want to see more in-depth posts detailing my process of rewriting The Pirates of Sufiro for its 25th anniversary edition, I encourage you to support my Patreon campaign at http://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers. Also, I should point out that supporting my Patreon campaign is also a way to help support this blog. I took the leap earlier this year to buy paid WordPress hosting for this blog to give readers an ad-free experience. A portion of the money I get at my Patreon site helps to cover the hosting fees.

Visiting Marceline

My family’s story has been an important inspiration for my novels. My first novel, The Pirates of Sufiro, was a science fiction tale inspired by my mom’s family of Texas and New Mexico pioneers. Learning more about their history led me to write more directly about the wild west in my Clockwork Legion steampunk novels.

When people learn about my interest in genealogy, they often ask me if I’ve taken on of the many DNA tests that are currently on the market. While I think that would be interesting and it’s something I’d like to do, it’s a fairly low priority. Some of that is because of I know the limitations of DNA testing. For example, some genes are passed along patriarchal lines and others are only passed along matriarchal lines. What’s more, genetic markers are based on statistical samples. For example, 80% of Scottish people may show a given genetic marker while 70% of people from Africa may have another genetic marker. So these tests are based on statistical samples rather than absolute measurements. Most of all, DNA doesn’t tell me much, if anything, about the day-to-day lives of my ancestors, which is the stuff that makes good story fodder.

In my recent travels, I paid a visit to Marceline, Missouri. The town is probably most famous as the hometown of Walt Disney. However, I went to pay my respects to my great great grandfather, Paul Teter. I knew he was a veteran of the Civil War and I also knew he was Marceline’s first Justice of the Peace. He was also the father of my great grandmother Montana and her sister Arizona, who I wrote about two years ago. While in Marceline, I paid a visit to the Carnegie Library, which has a depository of newspaper articles and genealogy resources. It proved to be a real treasure trove.

The Carnegie Library’s collection is fabulous. They’ve indexed their newspaper collections, which makes searching them easy. I soon found stories about weddings my great great grandfather officiated over, often having the families over at his house. I learned about his career as a “police judge.” Today, most jurisdictions would refer to the position as a “magistrate judge.” I also found two items of note in the “City and Vicinity” column of the Marceline Mirror dated February 9, 1906. The third paragraph reports that “Mrs. Paul Teter fell and sustained a sprained ankle that disabled her for many days.” A sad bit of news indeed. Two paragraphs below that, we learn, “Elias Disney, of Chicago, is in the city with the expectation of locating on a farm near this place.” The farm is the one Walt Disney grew up on and where he lay under the family’s famous dreaming tree. A DNA test wouldn’t have given me that little connection and I never would have seen the town that is said to have inspired Main Street at the Disney parks.

While searching through the genealogy records at the Carnegie Library in Marceline, I also came across a memory shared by Arizona Teter’s son. He noted that Paul Teter owned a book and stationary store located on the street above. One of his most famous customers was young Walt Disney who would choose a book and sit reading in the window seat until the store closed. Arizona remembered that his favorite book was Robinson Crusoe. There’s something pretty amazing to learn that my great great grandparents contributed to Walt Disney’s love of adventure fiction. I don’t know quite where this research will lead me, but I’m sure it will inspire more stories in the future.

The Pointing Dance

This week, I have been engaged in an important, albeit tedious activity at the WIYN 3.5-meter telescope. I have been building pointing maps. Telescopes are large, bulky machines that have to point with extreme precision and track the almost literal clockwork motion of the sky. They are engineered carefully, but like any machine they are subject to wear and tear. What’s more, to keep getting the best science, telescopes have to be upgraded from time to time. This changes the telescope’s behavior with time.

The WIYN Telescope ready for a night of collecting pointing data

Because the Earth turns constantly, the sky overhead appears to move at a constant rate. To keep objects in the telescope’s field of view, the earliest telescopes were literally mounted to clocks that moved at the sky’s rate. To make these work, you have to imagine a line in the sky that’s a projection of the Earth’s equator. Then you have to tilt your tracking axis to be at the same angle as that imaginary line in the sky. Another way to think about it is that here at Kitt Peak National Observatory, we’re at 32 degrees north latitude, so you have to tilt your telescope 32 degrees up from the southern horizon to track the sky.

Now, if you look at the photo of the WIYN Telescope above, you’ll notice that it’s mounted flat to the floor and it’s not tipped to match our latitude. That’s because it’s expensive to engineer big heavy telescopes so they can be tipped up at an angle. So, the WIYN telescope actually has to track the sky in two axes: azimuth and elevation, kind of like a radar mount. To track the sky, we have to use computers to adjust the tracking rates constantly. The computers only know how fast to track in each axis if they know where we’re pointing in the sky. If there’s an error in pointing, there’s also an error in tracking.

When I tell people I’m a writer and an astronomer who operates telescopes, it’s often assumed that I have lots of free time on quiet nights at the telescope to write. That doesn’t happen on nights of pointing maps. Instead, it’s a busy night of pointing to a star, noting how far off it was from where we expected it and then moving on again. We do this for anywhere from 75 to 100 stars with a telescope like WIYN and the exercise takes about half the night.

The way pointing and tracking are interconnected also make me think of how I use outlines as a writer. With the telescope, we can imagine that I point to a star and correct the pointing at one spot, then let the telescope track. If the computer thinks the star will be a different point in an hour than it really will be, it will track toward that different point and it won’t follow the star. You need to know where the star really will be in an hour.

For me, an outline is like a little like a pointing map. It tells me where the plot is at point A and it tells me where I want to be once I reach point B. With the telescope, it better be pointed at the star at both points A and B. An outline is more flexible. It’s more like a guideline. I try to listen to my characters when I write my outlines and make sure that points A and B make sense for them. However, sometimes as I write, I find characters do things I didn’t quite imagine the first time. The beauty of an outline is I can change point B. The challenge is that when I do, I realize I may also have to change points C, D, and E as the plot progresses!

I’ve been having a lot of fun rewriting my novel, The Pirates of Sufiro for its 25th anniversary release. I actually wrote some of the original draft when the WIYN telescope was first being built in the 1990s. Rewriting the book is the ultimate case of writing to an outline, especially since I don’t want to change it so much that people can’t pick up older editions of the sequels and follow them. I’m expanding the story and letting my characters breathe more. I’m letting them guide me and asking if what they did entirely made sense for those characters. I’m taking them from point A to point B. Those points can’t really deviate, but I do allow myself to add points A.1, A.2, and A.3 to better explain how they moved from point A to point B.

You can read chapters from the previous edition and see how I’m following my version of a “pointing map” by following me Patreon. My site is at: http://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers

Fathers in Fact and Fiction

We’re celebrating Father’s Day a day early at my house. Tomorrow, I have to get on the road and drive to Arizona for a shift at Kitt Peak National Observatory. Alas, I didn’t get to sleep in. It’s the first day this break from work I’ve had a chance to catch up some yard work and I want to get that done before the summer heat reaches full intensity. That said, there will be a nice payoff tonight with a family barbecue.

Father’s day feels especially poignant this year since I’m now the same age my dad was when he celebrated his last father’s day. The picture shows him at his desk, working as a General Locomotive Foreman for Santa Fe Railroad and it’s very much how I remember my dad. I don’t remember how we celebrated his last father’s day. I would have been in my last weeks of middle school, or junior high as we called it then. I would have been nervous about end-of-the-year tests. I remember being excited and nervous about going to high school in just three months. I remember dad being a reassuring presence at that time. I remember discussing classes I might take and how that might influence my career. I remember thinking I might want to be a doctor.

In the fairy tale version of that story, his death might have strengthened my resolve to study cardiac medicine. In the real world, I realized I never wanted to be the one to tell people they’d lost a dear family member. It was hard enough telling my brothers he’d had a second heart attack.

Despite that, a lot of what he taught me would live on in my fiction. My best memories of my dad were on long trips we would take during summer vacations, seeing sights around the United States. The story he told me about the Civil War’s Battle of Glorietta Pass in New Mexico influenced the climactic scenes in my first novel, The Pirates of Sufiro. I’ve been revising the novel for its 25th anniversary release and I realize the character Espedie Raton reminds me of my dad. Espedie didn’t get enough time on the page in the earlier editions. I’m giving him some better scenes now.

Last weekend, I had a wonderful opportunity to Skype into the Tucson Steampunk Society’s Book Club meeting where they were discussing the novel The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss, which I recommended. Ironically, it can be seen as a tale about a group of women who had bad fathers. I was complimented on my fine daughters and told I was an example of a good father and was asked what I thought about the fathers in the book. I was horrified at the idea of fathers neglecting their daughters, or even worse, using them as experiments.

After all, one of the things my dad was great about was making time for me. Even when he worked nights, he cut sleep short to take me to school every morning, because he couldn’t be there in the afternoon. By the same token, I have to be gone for stretches of time in my observatory job, but I try to be there when I’m home. On reflection, there’s a truth about fatherhood in Goss’s novel. You can’t be there all the time. What’s more, kids are something of an experiment. You do your best to help them grow and give them what they’ll need to be good adults, but you don’t really know how well it worked until it happens.

My novel Owl Riders is the one where I drew the most on my own experiences of fatherhood. When writing Ramon Morales as a dad, I tried to be as honest as possible about the good parts of being a father and the painful parts. I wanted to show what it’s like to be there for your daughter, but to be pulled away by circumstances you can’t control. If Ramon Morales is a good dad, if I am a good dad, it’s only because I had a great example in my dad.