Saturday, 23 April 2016

The Instant Gratification Monkey Staring into the Funhouse Mirror of a Mobile Phone

“There is only now. And look! How rich we are in it.” 
― Vanna Bonta
Have you ever found yourself almost colliding on a pavement with someone walking straight towards you set on a collision course, gaze downturned. It is easy to recognise these victims of the zombie plague that has ravished our planet, because they are the ones with their whole attention locked onto the mobile phone clasped in their hands. If you are lucky, they spot your feet and veer to the side at the last moment, their eyes never leaving their mobile phones during the entire manoeuvre. If you’re really lucky you may get a mumbled apology, before they drop back into the compelling world conjured up within the silicon of their mobile device.

Friday, 15 April 2016

Solar Sail Craft to be the First to Reach Alpha Centauri

“We’re still pioneers, we’ve barely begun. Our greatest accomplishments cannot be behind us, cause our destiny lies above us.”
— Interstellar
Image credit: The Planetary Society
Solar sails used for propelling space ships across the vast distances of space, have always been a firm favourite of science fiction stories. I first heard of the concept back in the 1970’s in Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s book, The Mote in God's Eye. Also, concept images frequently adorned the pages of the science and science fiction magazines back then, such as in the wonderful OMNI (sadly no longer in print).

In September 2016, this technology will take a significant step forward, when a tiny spacecraft, Prox-1, will hitch a ride onboard the new SpaceX orbital lifter, the Falcon Heavy. And this will be a very important moment for the future of space exploration.

Sunday, 10 April 2016

Harry Potter – A Masterclass in World Building

‘It is our choices that show who we truly are, far more than our abilities.’ 
– Albus Dumbledore – J.K. Rowling
Image copyright: Nick Cook
This week, at long last, and having heard so many glowing reviews from friends, especially other authors, I finally got to experience the Harry Potter studio tour in London, for myself. I’m delighted to report back that it really did exceed all my expectations. However, afterwards I also found myself reflecting on the books themselves and the magnitude of what J.K. Rowling succeeded in creating…

Sunday, 3 April 2016

To Travel is to Live

“We travel, some of us forever, to seek other places, other lives, other souls.” 
– Anais Nin
Image copyright: Nick Cook
I have always felt a pull at my heart to travel the world and experience far flung places. In fact I’d go as far as to say part of me lives to travel and always has done so. 

As I write this (in Zimbabwe), we have just visited Victoria Falls, spectacularly huge (the largest falls in the world), incredibly loud, but best of all, poncho or not, that will leave you soaked within moments of being exposed to its dense, monsoon like, water mists. Wonderful. And right there is the joyous nature at the heart of travel, that often throws up life affirming moments like this.

Saturday, 26 March 2016

A New Chapter In Aviation – Airlander 10 – A Hybrid Airship

“When once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned upward, for there you have been,and there you will always long to return.”
– Leonardo da Vinci
Image credit: Hybrid Air-Vehicles
In the 1920s, when commercial aviation was still in its infancy, the main method of crossing the Atlantic Ocean was by steamship and ocean liner. However, there was also a luxurious alternative…the airship.

The mention of airships, for many, will conjure up an image of a Zeppelin, the archetypal airship with its elegant streamlined design. In 1929 the Graf Zeppelin managed to circumnavigate the globe. This wonderfully evocative video captures the end of its journey in New York.

Saturday, 19 March 2016

Fractured Light – A Ten Year Creative Journey

“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.” 
― Ernest Hemingway
Sometimes when you start a journey you never know where you’ll end up. A case in point is when I have a creative writing project – WIP – work in progress, underway.

My writing process has evolved considerably over the years. These days I always start with a clear plan, with my key scenes, story arc events, and major characters, all worked out before I even begin. But there is one story that I have been recently working on, that was born in a very different way. 

Ten years ago, I left my job as an art director at a very successful games studio that I had helped co-found, to pursue a long held dream of becoming a full-time writer. 

It was the bravest decision of my life, but I was partly propelled to take it, by a story that was not so much book whispering into my ear, as screaming at me to be born. Enthusiasm is one thing, but I was a much less experienced writer ten years ago. However, with bright-eyed optimism, I began what was going to be a long creative dance, and  dived straight into writing that first book. No plan to guide me, no thought of the destination, just a burning passion to write… You can probably guess how that worked out...

Saturday, 12 March 2016

A Permanent Moon Base May be Realised Within Ten Years

“We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people.”
John F. Kennedy (Moon Speech - Rice Stadium)
Image credit: ESA/Foster + Partners

When I was growing up during the era of the space race, I clearly remember how it felt at the time that we were heading towards a revolution in space exploration. The film, 2001 – A Space Odyssey, neatly captured that vision...of an orbiting space station that you could take a domestic flight up to (courtesy of Pam Am – there was even an Airfix model of the craft) and then a shuttle from it on towards the moon base. And this really what we believed was just around the corner back then, but subsequent history, since those heady days of the 70s,  had other ideas.

A base on the moon rapidly became the stuff of dreams, the cost too great to be practical. As that dream and other crewed space exploration crashed around it, it wasn't long before some claimed that the moon landings were fake. But of course  there will always be a few who prefer to believe in conspiracies, rather than the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Regardless of the chequered past of human space exploration, we do now at last seem to be heading towards a new dawn. 

Saturday, 5 March 2016

Grid Parity – A Revolution That Will Change Power Generation Forever

“All revolutions are, until they happen, then they are historical inevitabilities.” 
― David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas (image copyright, NASA)
Here’s a date to put in your calendars…2020. Why? Because, based on the more conservative projections, that’s the year that countries like the UK will reach a tipping point in power generation. Slipping under the radar of many people, there has been a quiet revolution that’s been steadily building momentum for many years now. It has everything to do with all those solar panels that have been appearing up on the roofs of many homes, the numbers of which have growing exponentially over the last few years.

In the UK, government feed in tariffs (FITS) have partly helped fuel the rapid deployment of photo voltaic (PV) panels. Unfortunately for an industry that’s just started to hit their stride, the subsidies they have recently been slashed by the UK government, a decision that many believe is very short sighted.

However, things aren’t necessarily as bad as they might as first seem. There is something rushing towards us that will change everything – grid parity – a phrase that we are all going to be hearing a lot more about, over the next few years.

So why all the excitement?

Saturday, 27 February 2016

Book Whispering – When Your Story Starts Speaking to You

“Listen to your inner self, it knows you best.” 
― C. Elizabeth

There’s a phrase I coined a number of years ago – book whisperingthat I use to describe that magical moment when a book you’re working on, takes on a life of its own. But why book whispering? Because sometimes your story will talk to you in a very quiet voice so you have to listen carefully!

As many authors know far too well, writing a book can be a convoluted process. Even if you start with a well thought out plan, often the story will start to strain against its leash, demanding to head off in a completely different direction. This conjures up a lion tamer type mage, with the author battling the book every step of the way and brandishing their metaphorical chair to tame the beast. However, for me at least, the reality is very different to this sort of power struggle and certainly far more nuanced.

Creating a story often requires a degree of subtlety. Yes, when I start, I may have a reasonable idea of the action story arc, but it's actually my characters who tend to come to life during the writing process and start whispering in my ear things like: who am I, what’s my backstory, my motivation, where am I emotionally heading…and most importantly of all…how do you plan to break my heart? 

Thursday, 18 February 2016

Riding a Gravity Wave Across the Universe

“I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.” 
― Albert Einstein
Over the last two weeks you have probably picked up on the considerable excitement in the news over the confirmation of the existence of gravity wave. So why all the fuss?

Gravity waves were first predicted by Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity over a century ago. Einstein postulated that objects like planets and stars, warp space time through their gravitational force. The classic illustration of this is a stretched piece of rubber onto which heavy spheres (representing planets, etc) are placed. The objects deform the rubber sheet into a valley around them, much like gravity warps the space time field. And it this which holds a moon in locked in orbit around its planet, and a planet around its star, all whirling in a never ending celestial dance. However, as predicted by Einstein, time is also being effected. 

Thursday, 11 February 2016

Is There Anybody Out There?

“In very different ways, the possibility that the universe is teeming with life, and the opposite possibility that we are totally alone, are equally exciting. Either way, the urge to know more about the universe seems to me irresistible, and I cannot imagine that anybody of truly poetic sensibility could disagree.” 
― Richard Dawkins

Here’s a question for you…what if we’re all alone in the galaxy? What if there is no one else out there across the vastness of space?

The famous Drake Equation predicts the likelihood of life out there. And that equation tells us that statistically there should be civilisations that have evolved to a technological point that they have a desire to communicate. That equation also tells us there should 50,000 alien intelligent civilisations.

It was the Drake Equation that later evolved into the famous SETI program, which to this day, scans the heavens with radio telescopes looking for any signs of intelligent life. The problem is that so far none have ever been detected. The troubling question is, why?

Sunday, 7 February 2016

To Gaze into the Future

“In science fiction we dream.”
– Ray Bradbury
Science fiction has existed in one form or another in our world for a long time. The history of the genre is contested, but many believe that the fantastical Sumerian poem, Epic of Gilgamesh (2150-2000BC), filled with gods and even the search for eternal life, is one of the earliest examples.

For me though, the modern era of science fiction was heralded in by the stories of H.G. Wells. The Time Machine, The Invisible Man, The First Men on the Moon, War of the Worlds, and many, many others, are testimony to the great imagination of the man. His work transported his readers into an often scary vision of the future, quite literally in the Time Machine. In that story, part of humanity has evolved into Eloi, a simple peace loving people. However, the rest have become the Morlocks, creatures that live underground and farm the Eloi like sheep to feed upon them. The original cinema adaptions of this film caught my young imagination, but it was the original War of the Worlds that scared the bejeebers out of me!

So why is that science fiction has continued to grow in popularity, both in books and in films?

Friday, 29 January 2016

The EmDrive – Next Stop the Stars

"To be the first to enter the cosmos, to engage, single-handed, in an unprecedented duel with nature — could one dream of anything more?"
— Yuri Gagarin, Russian Cosmonaut
(Image Copyright, NASA)

I don’t know about you, but when I watched the film Interstellar, for someone who grew up during the space race, it pulled at my wannabe astronaut’s soul. However, until now, journeying to the stars is something that we have only be able to do in science fiction. However, thanks to NASA’s Eagleworks team’s work, there’s a chance that one day we may be able to achieve this long held dream. Enter stage left, the EmDrive.

As we all all know, light speed is meant to be the speed limit. After all Einstein told us it was impossible to exceed. However, someone needs to tell the scientists working on the EmDrive, this.

The EmDrive, invented by English researcher Roger Shawye, is a microwave chamber that bounces waves back and forth to produce thrust. However, a strange thing is that it appears to produce more thrust that it should. But how can that be possible?

Saturday, 23 January 2016

Beam Splitters and Vampires

“The window of life is mirrored. And tinted. And shattered. And borrowed.” 
― Jarod Kintz

At night in a room with the light on, if you gaze out of the window, you will see your own reflection gazing back at you…unless maybe you are a vampire!

You have probably never given this a second thought. After all the window is a partly reflective surface, bouncing the light back at you. Simple. This works fine in principle if one intuitively think of light as rays…some get through the glass, some bounce back. And it was this exactly this idea that gave Sir Isaac Newton, who thought light was made of particles, a severe headache.

Newton grappled with this concept, trying to explain why a particular particle was reflected or travelled on through the glass. His best explanation was that it was to do with flaws in the glass itself. And in this he was wrong. The actual explanation has everything to do with the far weirder world of quantum mechanics…

It turns out that the glass is in fact a sophisticated quantum device called a beam splitter. And of course at the quantum level, the world as we know it, behaves very, very strangely.

Photons of light are in a superposition state (waves). As each photon of light interacts with the atoms of the glass, there is a probability of it passing through…or not. For those photons that are detected, they become entangled with the cloud of atoms that make up the glass. Also, as the glass thickness increases, the greater the chance of entanglement, the greater the probability, i.e. creating a reflection being created as its not just happening on the surface of the glass.

So the next time you gaze out of a window and see you own reflection, remember the glass is actually a sophisticated quantum device called a beam splitter, capturing some of the photons like so many flies in its web of sticky atoms. Unfortunately, I’m not quite sure what the quantum explanation is for a vampire’s lack of a reflection, although would be an interesting discussion in its own right! 


A Cat, a Box and a Riddle – Schrodinger’s Cat: 

Higgs Boson – The Treacle of the Universe

Photo credit: heddaselder via Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC-SA

Friday, 15 January 2016

Farewell Major Tom

"Some people come into our lives, leave footprints on our hearts, and we are never the same."
– Franz Schubert
This week on the 10th January, 2016, a death happened that created ripples right around the world and caused many people, often much to their own surprise, to find in tears their eyes at the news. So how did a lad who grew up in South London, turn into music legend David Bowie that ended up touching so many hearts in this way?

For me Bowie’s music was always in the background during what I would call my formative years. From the end of the 60s and into the 70s, his music was constantly on the radio and TV. But for me it was Goodbye Major Tom, as I suspect for many people who grew up during the Space Race, that really struck a chord. Back when nearly every child dreamt of being an astronaut, Bowie’s genius somehow captured that wonder of space exploration, something that it’s difficult to put into words, and created a song that pulled at our souls about an astronaut who broke free of his bonds with Earth never to return. And of course it is this song that astronaut Chris Hadfield, with Bowie’s blessing, immortalised with a haunting rendition on the International Space Station, a performance that is now bound to take on even more significance with Bowie’s death.

After this song the next time his music really surfaced again in my life was when I was at art school during the early 80s. Back then the album that was played at every party was Let’s Dance...and we did!

But here’s the strange thing. If you had asked me last week what music had meant a lot to me back then, I would have probably singled out prog rock bands like Pink Floyd and Yes. So you see when I heard about his death via a BBC app that flashed up the news on my phone’s screen, I was saddened, shocked even because he was only 69 and deserved so many more years than he had on this planet, but tears, no. That was until today…

During my early mornings I always try to put aside some time to read, a time to get some headspace, a time to breathe. But this morning was different. I put on his album, the Best of Bowie, 69-74. And within three songs I was captured completely by it, doing nothing else, emotions bubbling up through me until I found tears in my own eyes. You see it wasn’t until that moment that I realised just how woven into my own life Bowie’s music had been. And listening to it felt like looking back at my own personal history, my life, and reliving moments long forgotten moments. Maybe that’s the reason that so many people found tears in their eyes on hearing of his death this week. It felt like the loss of friend who's always been there for you.

But for me Bowie represents an artist that truly made the most of his time upon this earth and his work will live on forever in the human collective consciousness. His work has certainly left footprints in the hearts of many, including mine.

And I can think of no better tribute that to listen to Chris Hadfield's haunting cover of Major Tom performed onboard the ISS.

Farewell Major Tom. Gone, but never forgotten.

Article Links:

These Restless Few:

Humanity – The Overview from Space: 

Photo credit: faulty flipflop via / CC BY-NC-SA

Friday, 8 January 2016

The Dawn of a New Era in Space Flight

“Some people see things that are and ask, why? 
Some people dream of things that never were and ask, why not?” 
― George Carlin
(Image copyright SpaceX)

After my last blog in early December, that closing month turned out to be an epic one in space flight. Not only did British school children suddenly have somebody to aspire to be, namely our very own Tim Peake who was launched on a Soyuz rocket on the 15th December for his six month mission onboard the International Space Station, but there was also a major development in rocket technology that month that could have major implications for the future of space exploration.

In November, Blue Origin, the private space company, succeeded in the controlled landing of a rocket vertically. As impressive as this was, what then occurred in December, it could be argued, was even more incredible.

SpaceX succeeded where nobody else ever has before, in landing the first stage of an orbital rocket using its rockets just like they used to all those great old black and white sci-fi films. Not only was this an incredible achievement, it also potentially opens up a new era for humankind. 

Getting into space has always been an expensive business, so much so that our dreams of conquering space were severely hauled in from the heady days of the 60s and 70s. Back then everything seemed around the corner and nearly every child wanted to be an astronaut. But as the thrill of people walking on the moon receded, even to the point that a few claimed the whole thing was a hoax (the film Capricorn One, has a lot to answer for), the stark cost became far too apparent. Excluding the incredible expense of the Apollo research program where each launch cost in 1969 $375 million (you don’t want to know how much that would be in today’s money), the Space Shuttle was meant to be the answer. But it ended up costing $450 million to launch per mission and despite being an astonishing piece of engineering, there were serious reliability issues surrounding it. No wonder our grand space exploration dreams have faded so far.

However, against this background, SpaceX’s achievement is nothing short of astonishing. Their cost per mission of their Falcon 9 rocket is currently $60 million per mission. The other cost is $200,000 for fuel. In other words if SpaceX cracks be able to reuse a rocket there is potentially huge cost savings with just maintenance and fuel costs to consider per launch. Elon Musk has been quoted as saying that travelling into space could become a hundred times cheaper. If that aspiration becomes a reality it’s a huge game changer in every sense and suddenly everything becomes possible.

A manned base on the moon? Why not. The asteroid belt become the new mining frontier? Maybe. And what about a crewed mission to Mars? It’s that particular target that’s Musk has got in his sights and sees reusable rockets as a step towards realising that dream. And right there is what we’ve always needed. The dreamers who dare to try.

Click on the video below to see SpaceX's historic achievement.


Our destiny is among the stars.

Humanity – The Overview from Space: 

Blood Moon: