Gravity assists and precious encounters
April 19, 2015, 3:20 pm
Filed under: Published stuff, Science fiction

I see from twitter that my latest column for Intelligent Life is now online; it deals with gravity assists — specifically the one that got New Horizons to Pluto at such an impressive speed. Seeing it up prompted me to update the recently neglected home page for those columns which I keep here. There seem now to be over 20 of them – how time flies.

The column led my friend Bronislaw Szerszynski to share with me a poem he had written about the loss of someone close in which he used Jupiter gravity assists and planetary fly-bys as a metaphor. It’s rather lovely, and Bron has kindly given me permission I am posting it below:

(for Patrick)

I have lost count of the times
We plotted our orbit
To bring us close to you,
Our greatest wandering star.

Again and again we matched our pace
With yours along your path,
Then fell towards you,
Looped, quickened around you, by you,
Brief moons in your expansive skies,
Faces shining with your reflected light,
Then departing with course replotted and tales to tell.

Yet in those latter, remaining years,
With each flyby,
We saw you moved less
As we were moved even more:
Which was action, which reaction?
With each whip-crack of your ebbing revolve
We span faster, higher,
In the moment gifted to us by your mass.

Again and again we fell, and wailed –
But then soared, and laughed,
As you turned the talk
From closed, dismal stories to open jest,
From parabolic fall to hyperbolic flight.
By what magic, what alchemy,
Did you thus turn dread weight into light,
Gravity into levity?

We looked out of the port
And knew this was the last time
We would see your shining face.
But we will always recall your name:

— Bronislaw Szerszynski

[Soundtrack, should you wish it]

Cosmic rays, cancer and Iain Banks
September 11, 2013, 3:13 pm
Filed under: Published stuff, Science fiction

My Intelligent Life column on Iain’s fateful cosmic context is up here. Excerpt

Iain Banks lived for 21,662 days—the only number in any of this of which we can be certain. There are a good 10 trillion cells in a human body, maybe more. The number of times his DNA was damaged was thus in the same ballpark as the number of grains of sand on all the beaches of the Earth. It’s a number that outdoes the number of stars in the galaxy by a factor of a billion.

More of my “Music of Science” columns can be found here. And here is me on Iain in a previous century.

And here are some other pieces on Banks, in the contexts of religion, writing and science fiction, by friends of his and mine: Francis Spufford in The New Humanist ; Simon Ings at ArcKen Macleod in The Guardian.

Monocosms. They’re a thing now, apparently
August 21, 2013, 8:00 pm
Filed under: Books, Science fiction

A colleague asked me today if there was a word for planets that only have one landscape — places like Trantor, the city-planet that ruled Isaac Asimov’s Galactic Empire, or Arrakis, the desert-planet of Dune. These are a very widespread feature of science fiction, and frequently look like symptoms of limited imaginative investment: planets as a single type of place photocopied many times over and pasted onto the face of a very large sphere. In other hands, though, they can work rather well; the fact that all of Arrakis is a desert, one richly imagined, actually adds a great deal to the atmosphere of Dune, even if the ecosystem is a little hard to take seriously.

Thinking about it, I realised that, as far as I could tell, there wasn’t. Tvtropes offers “single-biome planet“, but that doesn’t have quite the right feel for a term of art to be used by fans and critics alike. So I asked a few friends by twitter, and the magnificent Roz Kaveney came up trumps with the word “monocosm”.  A monocosm is any big, free-standing thing — often a planet, but possibly something else — based on a single idea or effect. Trantor and Arrakis are planetary monocosms in the most obvious way. See also Hoth and Tatooine.

More subtly (though this may be the only way in which it is subtle), Pyrrus, in Harry Harrison’s Deathworld, is a monocosm of affect rather than landscape, being a planet of danger. The Space Merchants is a monocosm of consumerism. Part of the success of Avatar 2 may lie in the degree to which Pandora is revealed not to be a monocosm. Is Escher’s Print gallery a monocosm? And so on.

It seems to me that this is a word that does something which other words have not, so far, been doing, and thus adds to our abilities to express ourselves. So there it is, a gift to the world, for use in criticism, essays and discussion in convention bars: the monocosm, a Kaveneologism.