Posts tagged ‘Astronomy’

Chernobyl by Frederik Pohl


In 1987, I spent some weeks pushing my (then) new book, Chernobyl. It was an unusual tour mdash; only six states, but a total of four countries mdash; and even more hectic than most of its kind, partly because some of it took place in and around the famous Harmonic Convergence that year.

I’ve said from time to time that the main difference between science fiction, which is supposed to depict things which might actually happen, and reality, which is the sum of the things that do happen, is that reality is a lot less plausible than the author of even the trashiest imaginable science-fiction story would ever dare. I always like it when something I’ve said turns out to be true, so let’s take a look at that implausibility, the 16th of August of ’87, when six hundred thousand people are said to have saved the world by humming in unison.

Let’s start a little way back.

A decade or so before that, a more than ordinarily fuzzy-brained motion-picture producer got hold of a 1974 book called The Jupiter Effect. It went to his head. He decided that he wanted to make it as a feature film. Then, thinking creatively, he realized the book didn’t have any actual story in it that could be filmed, so he decided that he wanted a novel written from which the film could be adapted.

Then, for my sins, they came after me to write the novel.

The thesis of the “Jupiter Effect” was that on a date in the early summer of 1979, all the major planets would be in the same general direction from the Sun. The book said that this could really ruin your day, because the combined gravitational attraction of all those lopsided planets would disturb the core of the Sun. That would somehow accelerate its rate of nuclear fusion and so increase the Sun’s radiation. Then all hell would break loose on the Earth. Among other things, friction between the heated atmosphere and all those mountain tops in the Rockies and Cascades would trigger earthquakes.

As a result, the book said, Southern California would fall into the sea.

(I hope you’re paying enough attention to understand that I’m not describing the plot of a science-fiction story. This was supposed to be real. This interesting prediction didn’t come from somebody’s chance encounter with an alien saucerer from the planet Clarion, but from the work of a couple of — otherwise — pretty reliable physicists.)

So I went and took my meeting, as they say, with the prospective producers and publishers. They explained all this scientific stuff to me, and I knew at once what I had to do. (I have my standards, after all.) I said, “No way, José.”

I said the whole thing was preposterous and definitely was not going to happen; and besides, if they wanted to film that book, the way to do it was to buy the film rights from the authors of the book, and then hire a script writer get to work on a scenario and, above all, leave me alone.

I thought that would end it.

As a matter of fact, I didn’t really understand how this particularly nutty idea had got even that far. Still, I was wholly confident that at some point someone in the producing organization would come to his senses. When this happened they would surely realize, a) that they couldn’t possibly get a film written, cast, produced, cut and released in time for the alleged drowning of Los Angeles and, b) it was a lousy idea anyway. I thought that if I just said no that might end the matter right then. Or, anyway, if it didn’t, at least I’d be out of it.

In the second part of that I was wrong. They kept coming at me.

Continue reading ‘Peddling Books Through the Harmonic Convergence’ »


Illustration of the interior of 55 Cancri e — an extremely hot planet with a surface of mostly graphite surrounding a thick layer of diamond, below which is a layer of silicon-based minerals and a molten iron core at the center. (Image by Haven Giguere)

It’s not surprising that astronomers are discovering new planets almost every day. Almost all of them are the same boring type as our old Earth — wisps of gas and dust orbiting around a star that, under the influence of their mutual gravitation, gradually accrete into planet-sized bodies. But last year, Yale researchers found out that a big planet, twice the size of Earth, is apparently the core left when a great supernova blew most of its gases way.

The remaining core was carbon. Under the influence of ts own brutal gravity it crystallized its entire mass, And what is floating around out there — fortunately for the De Beers company, too far away for anybody to even think of mining it — is a gigantic diamond, the size of the planet Jupiter.

If there is a race of super-huge, super-intelligent aliens out there, what an engagement ring for their emperor to give his fiancee.

Here are the answers to yesterday’s science quiz:

Albert Einstein, 1920.

Albert Einstein, 1920.

  1. You know that light travels at a speed of 1 light-year per year, don’t you? You also know that the universe is 13.5 billion years old? Okay, if you’re so smart, how far away is the farthest object we can see in our telescopes?

    45 billion light years. (13.5 billion years ago it was closer, but then the universe started to expand.)

  2. When Gregor Mendel started experimenting with how organisms inherited characteristics he started with mice. What made him switch from mammals to peas?

    His bishop said (rough translation), “Mice? You want to breed mice and have them copulating all over my monastery? Not a chance! Stick to plants, Gregor!”

  3. In what way did the outbreak of World War I in the summer of 1914 save Albert Einstein’s reputation and clear the way for acceptance of his relativity theories later on?

    Einstein’s theories were scheduled to be put to the test in August 1914, when a crucial total solar eclipse could be observed in the Crimea. The outbreak of war made those observations impossible.

    Then Einstein, regretfully looking over the calculations of the displacement of stars close to the sun that were now useless, realized with horror that he had made a mathematical mistake. His results were all wrong. If the observations had been performed his paper would have predicted false positions for both the stars and his professional credibility.

    He redid the calculations in time for the actual observations, and then the results were just as he had said they would be.

  1. You know that light travels at a speed of 1 light-year per year, don’t you? You also know that the universe is 13.5 billion years old? Okay, if you’re so smart, how far away is the farthest object we can see in our telescopes?

  2. When Gregor Mendel started experimenting with how organisms inherited characteristics he started with mice. What made him switch from mammals to peas?

  3. In what way did the outbreak of World War I in the summer of 1914 save Albert Einstein’s reputation and clear the way for acceptance of his relativity theories later on?

Give me your answers in the comments, and I’ll give you mine next time!


The next total solar eclipse is predicted for 11 July 2010.

The viewable path of the next total solar eclipse, predicted for 11 July 2010.

Remember Omni? It was a wonderful, slick-paper magazine published and edited by Bob Guccione and his gorgeous wife, Kathy Keeton, and I just this minute realized that one of the reasons I liked it so much was that its basic editorial policy was pretty much identical with that of this blog: Its primary interests were science fiction and science, with excursions into anything else that attracted the attention of its editor — in Omni’s case Guccione, in this blog’s case me. We knew that we had interests in common, too, and that’s why I did a lot of writing for Bob’s magazine throughout its all-too-short history.

Pretty much the whole editorial staff of Omni suffered from the same streaks of curiosity as Bob and Kathy and I did, which included not only the policy-makers but the ones that made it happen day by day — that is, Ben Bova, Bob Sheckley and maybe one or two others. And when, in the spring of 1991, we all became aware that one of those splendid sky shows that are called total eclipses of the sun was going to happen later that year it seemed to all of us that someone (preferably me) should cover the event for the magazine.

At the same time, I’ve been looking over some pieces I wrote on various subjects for various periodicals long ago, and wondering how many of you guys would like to see some of them reprinted here. So let’s find out. And to do that, here’s the eclipse of ’91 report, just as Omni published it nearly twenty years ago.

7:27 a.m., July 7, 1991. We’re ninety-six hours from the eclipse, but some of the dedicated eclipse fans are already out on the starboard railings of the S.S. Independence, squinting anxiously at the sun. It’s good and bright, right this minute. That’s pretty much the way you’d expect the sun to be here in these sunny Hawaiian waters, and the good news is that if the moon were going to slide in front of it today instead of four days from now you’d surely say that it was being eclipsed, all right. The bad news is that you wouldn’t be able to make out some of the fainter outer corona because there’s a thin, high fan of cirrus that starts at the horizon and spreads out over the eastern sky. It won’t keep you from getting a sunburn, but it’s just enough to fuzz out the fainter patches of coronal light. Maybe our luck will be better on July 11.

Maybe it won’t, too. Pacific skies are cloudy. I’ve flown over this ocean twice in the last few weeks, fourteen and a half hours from San Francisco to Hong Kong, and there was never a minute when I could look out my window and see no clouds in the sky at all. This morning there are fluffy little clumps of cumulus all over the eastern horizon. Twenty minutes later, while we’re eating our breakfast papaya and omelets on the fantail, a couple of clumps slide right over the sun, and that’s the kind of thing that can really spoil an eclipse for you.

Of course, on the Independence we’ll be a moving target. We should be able to dodge a few cumulus shadows. We’d better do it, too. There are 800 passengers who have booked passage on the Independence for the sole and simple reason that they want to see the sun go out. If they don’t see it with their own eyes some of them are going to be thirsting for blood.

Continue reading ‘Cruising While the Sun Goes Out’ »

For a time in the late 1950s and early 1960s I was picking up a goodly fraction of my annual earnings by talking for pay to almost any audience that cared to hear me. That included groups of all kinds, from colleges to fraternal organizations. I didn’t much care which, although I have to say that talking to, for instance, management groups had some significant advantages.

Not in terms of money, as you might have imagined, though. Some of the biggest and richest management groups were also among the thriftiest when it came time to write a check. That was all right, they explained to me, because what I was really doing was building a career. Every time I spoke to a management audience there would be two or three people among them who had just been told to organize a speaker of their own, so I would have a continuing schedule of dates. That wasn’t untrue, although my new clients knew exactly what I was being paid for my present appearance — because they’d asked their old pal the chairman during the coffee break — and saw no reason to raise it.

Management groups did have one definite advantage over other audiences, though. Management people like to have a little luxury around them when they toil, so they try to make sure their toiling is done in really neat places. My first visits to Hawaii, the Florida Keys and some interesting foreign cities — not to mention any number of pricey resort hotels and country clubs all over the U S of A — were all speaking dates.

And what did I talk about to these junior captains of industry? That took a little working out. At first I talked about things that were likely to happen in the future, but I quickly discovered that there were only two kinds of things that brought them cheering to their feet when I was through. One was the scary kind — a hit by a good-sized asteroid, an ice age, a nearby supernova — and the other was the funny.

Continue reading ‘Have Mouth, Will Travel, Part 1: The Lecture Biz’ »