David M. Kelly

Science Fiction Writer

Here’s a list of scientific achievements for this week (and some rather bad wigs!):

Eclipse585 BC – The first known prediction of a solar eclipse was made in Greece by Thales of Miletus. The eclipse interrupted a battle between the Medes and Lydians who decided it was a sign and signed a truce.
DeMaivre1667 – French mathematician, Abraham De Moivre, was born. He invented De Moivre’s formula that links complex number theory and trigonometry, as well as working on probability theory and the normal distribution.
Scopes1925 – John Scopes was indicted for teaching the Darwinian theory in school. He was convicted and fined, though the conviction was later overturned by the Tennessee High Court.
sallyride1951 – Sally K. Ride was born. Ride joined NASA in 1978 and became the first American female and youngest astronaut  to travel into space on the space shuttle Challenger mission STS-7 in 1983.
Mariner91971 – Mariner 9, the American deep space probe, was launched on its way to Mars. The probe was the first to orbit another planet and studied the atmosphere of Mars while also mapping over eighty percent of the surface.
Discovery1999 – The space shuttle Discovery became the first shuttle to dock with the International Space Station (ISS) on mission STS-96. The mission delivered the spacehab and other supplies for outfitting the  station.
PhoenixLamder2008 – NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander landed in the Arctic plains region near Mars’ north polar cap. The Probe was equipped with instruments designed to find environments suitable for microbial life and search for traces of water. On June 19 2008, NASA announced that lumps of bright material discovered were in fact water ice.

We live in a world where science is all around us, so it’s sometimes easy to forget how far we’ve come in such a short time. Here is a list of scientific achievements for this week:

jupiter1630 – Italian astronomer and physicist Niccolo Zucchi (1586 –  1670))  saw the belts of Jupiter’s surface for the first time. He later went on to see details of the Martian surface and experiment with the first reflecting telescopes. The Moon crater Zucchius is named in honor of his work.
lunar module1969 – A lunar module of Apollo 10 flew within nine miles of the moon’s surface. The mission was a rehearsal for the first lunar landing  a few months later and tested all the equipment , systems and techniques used in the actual landing. The mission was flown by Thomas P. Stafford (Commander), John W. Young (Command Module Pilot) and Eugene A. Cernan (Lunar Module Pilot). It set the record for the highest speed attained by a manned vehicle at 39,897 km/h (11.08 km/s or 24,791 mph).
hubble1990 – The Hubble Space Telescope sent back its first photographs. Named in memory of Edwin Hubble who discovered the universe was expanding, the HST has played a vital part in astronomy since it’s launch and the data it provides has been used in over nine thousand scientific papers.
einstein2003 – The Digital Einstein project made hundreds of Albert Einstein’s scientific papers, personal letters and humanist essays available over the Internet. Einstein originally gave the papers to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in his will. Einstein’s theories have been the mainstay of modern thoughts in physics for over a century.
synthetic life2010 – A research group led by prominent genome researcher, Craig Venter, assembled the entire genome of a small bacterium in a yeast cell, starting with mail-order DNA. The team has since gone on to create a fully functional bacterial cell.

Many of us dream of living on other planets, but are two things we’ll need before it can actually happen: money and raw materials. Now some companies say they have a solution to this problem. They’ll mine asteroids for valuable metal ores, and for basic resources like water that we’ll need once we’re far from Earth.

Source: How Asteroid Mining Could Pay for Our First Space Colony

Recently John Fennick wrote a guest post on the new Sigma Xi blog entitled “A Quick Perspective on ‘The War on Science'” in which he examines the reasons why the public tide of opinion has, to an extent, turned against science and scientists.

Mr. Fennick discusses how scientists used to be almost revered in popular culture and in the public eye. He then talks about how the media changed, developing a voracious appetite for the “latest” most dramatic news going. This, coupled with a squeeze on funding and increasing numbers of people entering science fields, led to research being published hastily and sometimes without being given the correct level of oversight. The combination of these factors lowered public trust in science and ultimately led to the “war” we see today.

All relevant points and Fennick makes a strong case. What the article misses, however, is something that runs alongside those cultural issues and is vital to understanding how science arrived where it is today. That is, not only was the  research rushed, but there were also a number of high visibility events that (rightly or wrongly) were seen by the public as “failures” of science. Scientists were actively engaged in projects and creations that were perceived as morally and ethically dubious and this had a huge impact on how science was viewed.

First of all we had the horrors of nuclear weapons demonstrated after World War Two. That led to the start of doubts about not only the power of these weapons but also a fear of anything “nuclear.” When the Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown occurred in 1979 and later the Chernobyl accident in 1986, the public was justifiably alarmed. Nuclear power (military or otherwise) has always been seen as a “scientific” endeavor and these disasters were undoubtedly viewed by many as failures of science.

The Vietnam War was often seen as a scientific conflict, where technology played a large part. Such developments as White Phosphorous incendiary weapons (still in use today), napalm, “Agent Orange” defoliant, cluster and “daisy cutter” bombs were often seen as part of the “scientific” development of war and that, combined with the fact that Vietnam was the first televised war provided audiences with a shock factor that created an intense reaction.

In 1984, a Union Carbide India Limited pesticide plant leaked thirty-two tons of toxic gases killing between four and sixteen thousand people in the city of Bhopal, India. The chemicals have contaminated water and soil in the area and continue to be a problem today, with long-term health effects including neurological problems, blindness and birth disorders.

In the late fifties and early sixties Thalidomide was heavily marketed and distributed to women to ease the symptoms of morning sickness. Unfortunately the drug also produced horrific birth defects in children and was subsequently banned in most countries.

Fenfluramine/phentermine (Fen-Phen) was a drug aggressively marketed in the early nineties as a solution to weight loss/obesity, and prescribed to people who needed to lose just a few kilos. Later it was found to have deadly side-effects leading to cardiac failures and several deaths.

Rofecoxib (Vioxx) was an anti-inflammatory drug prescribed to treat osteoarthritis and acute pain conditions. Withdrawn from use in 2004 due to concerns about increased risk of heart attacks and strokes. The company producing it, Merck, was found to have fabricated studies on its effectiveness as well as withholding information on risks.

Although the Thalidonide, Fen-Phen and Vioxx problems resulted from pharmaceutical companies hiding or falsifying test results, there have also been several high-profile cases where individual researchers faked results.

In 1981, John Darsee, was caught faking data in a heart study. Later, NIH investigators discovered that data for most of his one hundred published studies had been fabricated. In 1985 Robert Slutsky, a cardiac-radiology specialist, resigned from the San Diego School of Medicine after colleagues grew suspicious of him publishing new research articles every 10 days. Investigators concluded he’d altered data and lied about his methods.

Although not considered a case of deliberate falsification, the “discovery” of “cold nuclear fusion” captured many people’s attention when it was announced by Fleishman and Pons in 1988. Subsequent attempts to reproduce the experiment failed and many flaws were discovered in the original experiments.

Killer bees are a hybrid of European and African honey bees, originally conceived to produce a more robust bee for South America. When the bees escaped into the wild they spread throughout central America and arrived in North America in the mid-1980s. The Africanized bees were much more aggressive than normal bees and displayed excessive defensiveness and swarming. Several people died after attacks by these bees, although the public perception of the risk is far greater than in reality.

Methyl tert-butyl ether (MTBE) was a chemical anti-knock agent introduced into gasoline to replace lead in the 1970s. Although it helps gasoline burn more efficiently and reduces air pollution it is also highly water-soluble. Leaks from underground storage facilities have led to MTBE contaminating water supplies in many areas. The long-term effects of low-dose exposure are “unknown” according to the EPA, though it is likely to be carcinogenic based on what is known about high-dose exposure and there is no effective way to remove it from the water-table.

Science is about discovery and all discoveries have the potential to be abused or have unforeseen consequences. Although many of the instances I’ve listed had no malicious intent, in many cases the outcomes have been horrific. This is a significant factor in the sometimes “bad” reputation of science and the current “war.”

Everything in the world is connected; no individual and no organization stands apart from the consequences of its actions. As such, science and scientists need to ensure that they uphold the highest standards of behavior and ethics. I admire scientists tremendously and support them in their endeavors, but they can’t stand aside from the consequences of their actions. We need them to show they are the very best of us, because they carry all our hopes for a better world.

Let me start with a disclaimer. I was raised on Marvel comics to an extent. They were a little hard to come by when I was a child (in England) so I didn’t always have a steady supply, but I loved them when I got them. I will also state that I really enjoyed the humor, action and fun of the first two “Iron Man” movies with Robert Downey Jr. So I’m a “fan” – not a “fan-boy” – but definitely someone that these types of movies should appeal to.

However, I wasn’t too impressed by the previous “Avengers”movie and found both the Captain America and Thor standalones abysmally dull and ridiculous. Unfortunately, the latest addition “Ultron” very quickly reaches new lows in preposterously boring superhero movies (PBSM™).

The movie starts with the Avengers attacking a Hydra base and the problems start right at the same point. The audience is treated to a twenty odd minute sequence where one set of computer graphics “fights” with another bunch of computer graphics. It’s like watching a computer game – instead of playing it. At least if you were playing you might feel some sense of involvement and investment in the action, but here the experience is entirely passive, with no time wasted on what’s happening, why it’s happening or why we should care.

The Avengers win – of course – and we then have a brief piece of twaddle where Stark and Banner “discuss” things. “mumble mumble artificial intelligence”. “Mumble mumble artificial intelligence mumble mumble…” etc.

Somehow Hydra got their hands on Loki’s staff, which rather than being a weapon apparently contains an AI (yes, I know that doesn’t make ANY sense whatsoever… don’t blame me…). Questions like how or why etc. don’t even come up. No! That might actually make some sense.

This “intelligence” then manages to make itself a body, using Stark’s suit technology and comes “alive”. All this takes place while the Avengers are kicking back sipping Ice Teas and Strawberry milkshakes at a party (it’s Disney after all…). Yep, the greatest force for protecting the world from bad guys just suddenly decides to put its feet up for a while…

Cue more computer graphics fighting with some other computer graphics at the end of which the evil A.I. escapes into the world to become a cyber being. (“Cyber” is so much more threatening than “internet.”) The goal of the A.I. is nothing short of destruction of the entire world. Gasp! Shock!

How entirely original… I think there must be some kind of school for Artificial Intelligences out there with a program that goes something like:

  1. Find evil looking robot/suit/clone body.
  2. Destroy a few things for the hell of it
  3. Review humanity’s history.
  4. Decide humanity must be destroyed.
  5. Destroy some more things for the hell of it.

I mean, Thor is a god, right? He could just wave his big hammer (steady on now!) and magic the A.I. back into DOS 4.0, couldn’t he? Or Tony Stark, tech genius, surely he could figure out a way of just rebooting the homicidal A.I? After all it’s using his technology.

Cue more battles. More computer graphics. Each one bigger and “better,” Throw in an odd snarky comment now and then (mostly obsessed with Captain America’s dislike of “bad” words) In fact that’s the pattern here-

  • Computer graphics “fight” each other.
  • Superhero says something snarky.
  • Rinse and repeat.

In the end everyone is saved by “JARVIS.” Stark’s pet A.I. who they inserted into another superbody. (Hmmm we stuck an AI in a super body and now it’s trying to destroy the world… I know! Let’s do it again!). JARVIS A.I. is amazing, very calm and collected. You know, speaks with that reassuring British accent and everything but now he’s like a super hero, complete with cape to prove he’s a superhero. I mean seriously, why the hell does this A.I. need a cape? Oh of course, because otherwise you wouldn’t be able to tell the computer graphics apart in the fight scenes…

Something else to think about. Why are they constantly loading up the casts with more and more actors? I’ve read several times that this is because the producers don’t think there are actors that can “carry” a film on their own. This is nonsense. The real reason for this is simple, it means more people will go to see the movie. So you don’t like Robert Downey? No worries because Chris Hemsworth is there. Don’t like Pepper? Hey Black Widow is there…

The problem with this approach is that what little efforts there are to produce emotionally fulfilling characters are diluted among all the cast. You never get to connect with them because they’re thrown in scatter-gun. It’s like throwing shit against the wall and just hoping some of it sticks.

In “Ultron”, the Black Widow decides that she’s in love with Bruce Banner. The trouble is you;re never shown why. The romance is just thrown in at a few points when they need a break from the computer graphics fighting each other (wow, those pixels must get tired out after all that…). When the Hulk flies off into the sunset at the end, leaving Widow… well, errr a widow… you simply “don’t give a damn” (I’m copyrighting that one by the way…). And yes, I DID say that the Hulk flies off in a plane.. as in he flies the plane…even though he’s four times the size of a regular human being (except apparently when he sits in Tony’s pilot seat…) and a brainless rage machine than can’t even speak. Speak, no. Fly supersonic jet, yes?

The movie producers have unfortunately lost the plot. I don;t mean that euphemistically, I mean literally. There is no plot. This isn’t something confined to “Ultron”, it seems to be a global problem. For a story to be interesting you need  character, emotion, connection, a somewhat plausibly connected series of events. The problem is NOT the actors, it’s not the computer graphics, it’s how you use these things. Creating a bigger explosion and a bigger battle scene doesn’t achieve anything if you simply don’t care because the characters are cardboard and the plot has more holes in it than a lump of stinky cheese (can’t think why that might come to mind…)

I’m sure that the movie will break all box office records, I’m sure everyone will be wowed by all the smoke and mirrors. For a while… but I think it’s about time Hollywood producers looked at what some of the indies are doing. They’re making good movies, with good stories often beating the crap out of the mainstream and doing it on a fraction of the budget of even a “small” mainstream movie.

Unfortunately this Avengers movie, all 141 minutes of it, should be subtitled “The Age Of Boredom”.

 

This week we saw another SpaceX launch, this time delivering the TurkmenÄlem52E/MonacoSat communications satellite into a geosynchronous transfer orbit. As we’ve become accustomed to, it was another flawless launch and awe-inspiring to see. Whenever I watch these events I find myself holding my breath as the rocket soars up into the sky, the thunder of the engines seems to hit me  right in the chest like the roar of a primal monster escaping its gravitational cage.

Each time I think to myself, one step closer to more routine, affordable space access, one step closer to a real space tourism industry, space hotels, Mars and beyond. I hope it will happen in my lifetime. I hope I’ll one day be one of the people who is able to leave this tiny planet and look back at the cradle of life we call Earth. This is something I’ve dreamed of ever since watching Neil Armstrong, walk on the Moon back when I was six years old.

That this launch takes place just a few days after Earth Day seems to make it somehow more symbiotic, more important, more significant. Down here on Earth we still face countless problems; war, terrorism, mal-distribution of water, food and wealth, disenfranchisement and bigotry, to name just a few… but space offers humanity the chance to start afresh, to leave all of that behind and create a future where everyone is truly equal.

The first space-tourist was Denis Tito, a businessman from California who flew aboard a Russian Soyuz TM-32 spacecraft. He spent several days aboard the International Space Station before returning. This week marks the fourteenth anniversary of that event.

Before that, in 1997, this week saw the first joint U.S. – Russian space walk. When Space Shuttle Atlantis docked with the Mir space station and Jerry Linenger and Vasily Tsibliyev carrying out a five hour EVA operation to attach a scientific instrument to the outside of Mir. All this showed how people from all sides are capable of working together successfully – if they really want to.

Finally, this week is also the anniversary of Isaac Newton’s  “Principia Mathamatic”. Three hundred and twenty nine years ago, Newton laid down all the fundamental mathematical principles including gravity, orbital and celestial mechanics – all the fundamentals necessary to allow us to send vehicles into space and start the process that led us to the point we are today.

Three hundred years might seem a long time from a human perspective. At the time Newton was working on the “Principea,” the United States was still a hundred years from being born. Yet from a historical perspective three-hundred years is the blink of an eye.

Technological progress is moving ever faster, but we need social progress to keep up with the pace of change. If it doesn’t we will lose not only the dream of space, but the Earth itself.

I used to dream
I used to glance beyond the stars
Now I don’t know where we are
Although I know we’ve drifted far.

— Michael Jackson

 

I updated my website to the latest version of WordPress this morning. That’s usually a fairly straightforward process. But not today.

After updating WordPress itself I did the same with the plugins and everything else that reported new versions. I checked the site afterwards as I routinely do and…. BLANK.

An entirely white screen (Firefox) and an entirely black screen (IE).  Neither very useful.

I did what basic checking I could. I tried changing the template and the problem seemed to be related to my custom theme. I built the theme myself and it’s been through a lot of tweaking to get it just how I want, so I wasn’t happy about that. Also, even with one of the base themes installed, not everything was working  correctly.

Luckily my host provider (bluehost.com) has excellent support. With their help the problem was isolated to an incompatible plug-in: the “Simple Follow Me Social Buttons Widget.”

It’s difficult finding the cause of these kinds of problems when all you’re faced with is a blank screen, without even an error message to provide a clue!

It also shows how important it is to use a good hosting company and how critical good support is. Sure there are cheaper hosting companies around, but Bluehost’s rates are very competitive and well worth the extra couple of bucks it costs.

Sometimes though… I really hate technology…

Last summer, TwittSome useer shared their newest version of Twitter Cards. Many people who follow social media news closely have suggested that the launch directly challenges Facebook’s in-app mobile ads. As a media-rich twist in the social media landscape, Twitter Cards are being used by brands like Priceline, Foursquare, and Angry […]

Source: The Definitive Guide To Using Twitter Cards – Forbes

I just put the final touches on my “giveaway” for the Good Reads Writers’ Convention this weekend. All of my currently published books in one special volume with a super secret special bonus never been seen before! This is a once in a lifetime opportunity available only to visitors the conference!

All you have to do is answer a few simple questions about me (clue – the answers are on my website) and you can win a copy of this ultra-rare compilation!

As a teaser, here’s the cover I designed especially for the compilation:

Be there or be somewhere else far less exciting!

IVCover-FullRes2-web

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