Nick Cook – A Ramble Through an Oxford Author's Imagination and Inspiration

Book Whispering – When Your Story Starts Speaking to You

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? 

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Riding a Gravity Wave Across the Universe

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. 

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Is There Anybody Out There?

Is There Anybody Out There?

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?

It sounds simple doesn’t it to pick up the radio chatter from an alien civilisation, but it really isn’t. The radio frequency is actually a very wide band, from short wave to long wave. Originally, SETI searched through very narrow radio bands, trying to guess the magic frequency that aliens might be broadcasting on. Today, radio telescopes, thanks to computing developments, can search multiple bands at the same time. But we still haven't heard anything. And it this contradiction between what the Drake Equation and we still haven’t found, that has led to the Fermi Paradox that asks, why? 

Could it be that the hurdles to evolve to intelligent life, often referred to as the great filters are so great as to make it almost impossible to get past? In other words, is Earth a one-off?

The optical search is currently on for Earth-like exoplanets planets, measuring the dip of light as the planet passes in front of its star. This search has thrown up many candidates for planets, like our own, that exist in the goldilocks orbit – not too hot, and not too cold – where the conditions, in theory, are ideal for evolution of life. And this list is growing rapidly every year. 

However, being suitable for life is only the starting point. The point where basic chemistry tips over the line into one where life flourishes, is a tricky one to navigate. So far we haven't been able to simulate this in the lab. But what we do have is the evidence of the planet that we live on that proves this process works. Additionally, Darwin shows us that there was a single common origin for all life on Earth. 

And we aren't this planet's first attempt either. There's new research that points to the fact that life may have actually made several attempts to get going on Earth. 

And all this has positive implications for finding other life out there...

This is why the search for life within our own solar system is so significant. If we can find life on Mars or the moons of Saturn or Jupiter, then it proves that life on our own planet isn’t a one-off fluke.

Another major barrier (filter) is the evolution into an intelligent species. So could it be that humans are just a freak of nature? Or is it that perhaps alien civilisations haven't lasted long enough for their communications to reach us because they wiped themselves out? And does that mean that a similar fate awaits mankind?

Or, on a more positive note, maybe there is a technical reason that alien technology has moved rapidly beyond radio. In other words, we don't have the technology to hear their quantum entangled, or whatever they are using, communications.

But there may be an even simpler explanation... Have we simply not done enough searching yet? If the universe is represented by Earth’s oceans, then so far we have measured a cupful of all those combined seas. This puts our current efforts so far, into sharp perspective.

This is a needle in a haystack search. However, it's also a question that is so fundamental to us as a species, that after fifty years of searching, we still have no real choice but to continue. Who knows what may be waiting around the corner for us, but we won’t know unless we carry on trying.

Photo via Visual Hunt
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To Gaze into the Future

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 a 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?

Science fiction examines the effects of change upon on us, often sweeping in nature, where sometimes the future of humanity hangs in the balance. And if we have ever needed to hear this message it is especially important to hear during this age of rapid technological progress that we currently live in.

I was lucky to grow up during a very rich period of science fiction, where the works of Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, and Philip K Dick, created worlds that flooded my imagination with astonishing visions of the future. And maybe that’s another reason that great science fiction resonates so strongly wth us today because, through it, it’s one way that we can peer into the possible futures that we are already speeding towards.

Authors like Arthur C. Clarke had a seer like ability to gaze into the future. In 1948 he famously predicted the invention of communication satellites. We are still waiting to see whether his predictions made in 2001 come true: that in 2030 artificial intelligence will reach human levels and in 2100 humanity will invent the space drive that will enable us to reach other stars. On that prediction, Clarke wrote, “History begins…”

Of course science fiction is often filled with bleak warnings, from the robots of Terminator to the AIs most famously represented by HAL in 2001 that killed its crew.

But it isn’t all bad news. Sometimes science fiction suggests potential solutions. Isaac Asimov in his I Robot series came up with the three laws of robotics to prevent our creations from doing us harm:

(1) A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

(2) A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

(3) A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

Maybe this same sort of approach could also be applied to artificial intelligence.

Science fiction can also raise philosophical questions. For example in Blade Runner the film based on the book by Philip K Dick (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep), it can be seen as an allegory that holds a mirror up to us, raising the fundamental questions – who are we, why are we here and what does it mean to be human?

Through science fiction we also are able to travel in our imagination to places we have never set foot on. This ties into my own work where I explore the theme of parallel Earths. The Martian by Andy Weir highlights the sort of challenges that we may face when we eventually travel to Mars. In Interstellar, our planet is experiencing a runaway climate change, forcing us to adapt by reaching out for the stars. These stories raise the what if question. They are also stories that tug at our exploring hearts, maybe reminding us of our own pioneering spirit.

To finish this article, I’m going to leave you with a clip with one of my all time favourite science fiction movies, Forbidden Planet. 

Filmed in 1956 and based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, there is something truly special about the feel of Forbidden Planet. It’s a film that’s more than the sum of its parts, from wonderful visuals to the haunting (and first entirely electronic) film score. Whatever the magic is for me there is something unique about this film that’s always captured my imagination. And that’s maybe one of the most special aspects of science fiction, to ignite afresh that sense of wonder that's always waiting to be unlocked within us.

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