The week in review (August 18-24)

Granulation on the surface of the Sun, created by rising bubbles of hot plasma. Fluctuations in these bubbles can be measured on distant stars, which provides a way to calculate the stars' surface gravity. [Credit: Hinode JAXA/NASA/PPARC]

Granulation on the surface of the Sun, created by rising bubbles of hot plasma. Fluctuations in these bubbles can be measured on distant stars, which provides a way to calculate the stars’ surface gravity. [Credit: Hinode JAXA/NASA/PPARC]

I’ve been remiss in blogging at Bowler Hat Science, largely because…well, I’ve been writing too much elsewhere. So, I’m going to try something different: instead of blogging each new article I write in a separate entry, I’ll write a single post summarizing everything in one go.

  • How I learned to stop worrying and love tolerate the multiverse (Galileo’s Pendulum): My explanation of cosmology involving parallel universes is a response to a piece placing the multiverse in the same category as telepathy. While I’m not a fan of the multiverse concept, I reluctantly accept that it could be a correct description of reality.
  • An Arguably Unreal Particle Powers All of Your Electronics (Nautilus): Electrons in solids behave differently than their wild cousins. In some materials, the electronic and magnetic properties act as though they arise from particles that are lighter or heavier than electrons, or multiple types of particles with strange spins or electric charges. Are these quasiparticles real?
  • Kepler finds stars’ flickers reveal the gravity at their surface (Ars Technica): The Kepler observatory’s primary mission was to hunt for exoplanets, but arguably it’s been equally valuable for studying stars. A new study revealed a way to measure a star’s surface gravity by timing short-duration fluctuations — the rippling of hot plasma bubbles on the surface known as granulation (see above image).
  • Destruction and beauty in a distant galaxy (Galileo’s Pendulum): The giant galaxy M87 has a correspondingly huge black hole at its heart. That black hole in turn generates an enormous jet of matter extending 5,000 light-years, which fluctuates in a way we can see with telescopes. In that way, an engine of destruction shapes its environment and produces a thing of beauty.
  • The Freaky Celestial Events We See—and the Ones We Don’t (Nautilus): In another faraway galaxy, a black hole destroyed a star, producing a burst of gamma rays that lingered for months. This event is the only one of its kind we’ve yet seen, prompting the question: how do we evaluate events that are unique? How can we estimate how likely they truly are, especially if we’re seeing them from a privileged angle?
  • This isn’t writing, but after listing two black hole articles in a row, it seems a good time to advertise my Introduction to Black Holes online class in October! Sign up to learn all* about black holes. *All = what I can cover in four hours of class time.
  • Warp Speed? Not So Fast (Slate): Many articles have appeared over the last year or so profiling a NASA researcher, whose research supposedly could lead to a faster-than-light propulsion system. The problem: very little actual information about his work is known, and what he’s said publicly contradicts what we understand about general relativity and quantum physics.

Speaking of warp drives, I’ll conclude with this wonderful video of Patrick Stewart engaging with some obvious Star Trek fans.

Frequently asked questions about my book-in-progress

Writing a book is one of those brain-consuming things. I swear I mention it to everyone (“Could I get a medium dark roast, please, and did I tell you I’m writing a book?”), but of course nobody could be as obsessed with my book as much as I am, so it’s not always obvious if we’re casual friends or the like. So, here are some answers to questions people frequently ask me, to save some time and advice that (though well meant) can be a little frustrating to me.

  • Q: You’re writing a book? What’s it called/what’s it about?
    The book’s working title is Back Roads, Dark Skies: a Cosmological Journey. I have a webpage devoted to it, but to summarize: it’s a road trip across the United States with stops at a variety of labs and observatories. Those scientific visits and the road trip itself are entry points into the work of modern cosmology, the study of the whole Universe.
  • Q: Do you have a publisher yet?
    Alas, no. I’ve been shopping the book around to potential publishers since last winter without success.
  • Q: Do you have a literary agent?
    Yes, I am working with an agent since I’m fairly clueless about how publishing works. My agent was recommended by a colleague who is a successful author, and she has successfully negotiated publication of other writers’ work (lest anyone suggest I hired her from a Craigslist ad or something).
  • Q: In that case, why not self-publish or publish as an e-book?
    Since I spent a fair amount of my own money traveling around the country for background research, I’d rather not spend any more of my own money to publish the book. Also, despite a few exceptions, traditional publishing houses are still the best way to get a large audience for the book, including public library readers and the like. As for e-publication, I don’t even own an e-reader, so I can hardly expect my readers to. (My own mother and grandmother  wouldn’t read it if it was electronic-only, which is a sad lonely thought.) Since cosmology isn’t remotely as popular as erotic fiction (and I refuse to call my book 50 Shades of Dark Matter), I suspect self-publication wouldn’t repay what I’ve already spent on the book.
  • Q: Weren’t you stupid for taking the road trip without a book advance to pay for it?
    Probably.
  • Q: What happens if you can’t find a publisher?
    That I don’t know yet. I have two other book projects in my head, one which certainly is closer to a “normal” popular science book. If Back Roads, Dark Skies can’t find a publisher, I may set it aside temporarily for the sake of writing a book that will actually get published. I’m not ready to give up just yet, though.

I am a RealScientist!

OK, it’s not quite like Pinocchio‘s “I’m a real boy” transformation, but I will be handling the RealScientists Twitter feed this week, talking about what I do as a professional science writer and (of course) physics, astronomy, cosmology, music, comics, or whatever I usually talk about. If you’re on Twitter, follow along, and make sure you stick around: that feed hosts many excellent people from all over the world in a variety of disciplines. (The official introduction is at the RealScientists site.)

Thanks to Upulie DeNovo who invited me to participate in this project, and to the other RealScientists administrators.

The business end of a Rocketdyne F-1 rocket engine, used in the first stage of the Saturn V rockets. Five of these engines were used to launch the Apollo missions into space. Note the picnic tables at left for scale comparison.

For the next two weeks, I am on the move, traveling to various observatories in the American south and southwest, as part of the research for my book-in-progress Back Roads, Dark Skies: A Cosmological Journey. This morning, I will be visiting the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) near Livingston, Louisiana, before heading west to other observatories in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. My full itinerary is over at Galileo’s Pendulum:

Being a travel book, though, I am also seeking a new way to see through travel and exploration. Cosmology is a very familiar field to me, but often the person closest to a subject is the worst to try to explain it to a lay audience. By going to particle physics labs and astronomical observatories, I am learning to see my own discipline in a new way, in hopes that it will help me bring it to my readers. As you can tell, this book is different from most cosmology books (A Brief History of Time is perhaps the best example), where the focus is on highly speculative ideas and Big Theories. While theory will always inform the research I discuss—and, being a theorist myself, I can’t help but discuss theory—the primary emphasis of Back Roads, Dark Skies is on experiment and observation. Without these things, theory is nothing but the ramblings of creative people, unconnected to reality. [Read more...]

While the scientific part of the agenda begins today, I haven’t been idly driving without keeping an eye out for interesting things. To wit: yesterday, I saw a wild alligator and one of the engines from the Saturn V rockets, which were used to launch the Apollo missions and the Skylab space station.

The Bowler Hat is on the move