Archive for the ‘science’ Category

Writing on Climate: My Other Blog

July 31, 2015

Just a note to say I have revived my sabbatical blog, which has to do with my other life (inextricable from this one).  I took a sabbatical last year to learn something about Arctic climate change.  Since then climate change has only got worse, carbon dioxide emissions are increasing, and as the world burns, the powers-that-be are focusing their energies on finding more fossil fuels to burn, such as in the until-now pristine Arctic.  (See the breaking news about Shell’s drilling, which has just commenced). I can’t just stand on the sidelines and wring my hands in despair.  I continue to learn, and investigate creative ways to communicate on the issue and to act in ways that make meaningful change.  The revived and updated blog is one small step in that direction.  It is a repository of thoughts, comments and updates on climate, and also includes my scientific-travelogue-style account of my Arctic trip in April 2014.

A Love Song to Pluto – with reservations

July 31, 2015

Note: I wrote this just after the fabulous photos came back from the Pluto New Horizons mission but only had a chance to post it now.

Once it was a round dot in the night sky, distant, cold, too small to be a planet, too far to be on one’s mind. It was a dead rock in space, accompanied only by a moon almost as large as itself, with whom it danced about their common center of mass. Discovered by American astronomer Clyde Tombaugh in 1930, Pluto was far less interesting than the nearer planets. It famously lost planetary status in 2006, being demoted to ‘dwarf planet’ after the discovery of similar-sized objects in the Kuiper belt. Science fiction writers dreamed up fantastic scenarios, such as Stephen Baxter’s lovely “Gossamer” (1995).

Pluto, By New Horizons, Courtesy NASA

Pluto, By New Horizons, Courtesy NASA

I was never all that interested in Pluto, which paled quite literally before the mysteries and gorgeousness of such glamorous rivals as Jupiter and Saturn and their moons. Then in 2005 two little moons of Pluto were discovered, Nyx and Hydra, and in 2012 Kerberos and Styx joined their numbers. Pluto had courtiers! I had the chance to let my non-science students infer the presence of these moons on their own from a series of photos, much as Galileo did with the Jovian system. A great teaching moment, especially in the absence of much press coverage (combined with the general lack of interest American students exhibit in keeping up with the news) but it didn’t really turn me on to the Plutonian system, which was, after all, still blurry and distant. Now, in 2015, I am grateful to have seen, along with millions of other people, the face of Pluto in gorgeous detail. And I’m in love!


Shattering it to bits: Women and the Destruction of Science Fiction

August 9, 2014

“…Would we not shatter it to bits and then

Remould it closer to the heart’s desire…”

(Omar Khayyam, as translated by Fitzgerald)

The June 2014 issue of Lightspeed is a special issue called “Women Destroy Science Fiction.”  With an all female guest editorial team and an impressive roster of women writers, the issue is a great start toward a newer, richer science fiction.  I have not finished reading all the stories, but the ones I’ve read achieve a fine balance of style and substance.  There is of course no doubt in my mind that women can write science fiction, being one of those women myself.  But in many ways I feel we are still at the start of the journey.  The journey began with Mary Shelley, with Rokeya Sukhawat Hussain, later it got a fresh start with Joanna RussUrsula Le Guin, Eleanor Arnason, Octavia Butler among others, and even later with a new crop of women writers, increasingly international and diverse, among whom I feel privileged to count myself.  Each start was from a different place, and each part of the journey carried all of us women writers, and indeed science fiction itself, into new and strange places.  It is in this sense that I refer to the special issue as a ‘start.’

So what does it mean to ‘destroy science fiction?’  The guest editor, Christie Yant, says this:

Why “Women Destroy Science Fiction”? Are we really trying to destroy it? As you read the stories in this issue, you may very well think so. Here you’ll find galactic gastronomy and alternate astronomy, far-future courtship and a near-future food court—right alongside alien invasion and deep-space salvage missions. My hope is that one or more of these stories will reach a reader who never realized that kind of story is science fiction, too, and will seek out more like it. And I hope that one or more will convince those writers—the fantasists, the poets, the ones more comfortable in Middle Earth or the Midwest than on Mars—that they, too, can create science fiction stories and participate in the expansion of the field.


Why People Don’t Like Science: some links

May 17, 2013

A long while ago I wrote a piece called “Why People Don’t like Science, Especially Physics” in which I speculated as to the answer to that question.  About two years ago I decided to delve more deeply into that and related questions, and ended up writing three columns for Strange Horizons.  The columns involved interviews and email exchanges with scientists, a historian, and anthropologists, and revealed some very interesting things about the culture of science.  So I thought it would be worthwhile to post the links here.

So here goes.

1)  Diffractions: On Science, Emotions, and Culture, Part 1, where I pose the question as to why so many scientists are embarrassed by emotions.

2) Part 2, where a mere physicist discovers the explorations of anthropologists in… physics labs

3) Part 3, where I start with a poetic quote from Richard Feynman and end by growling at Descartes.  Actually I end with a quote from Bell on new ways of seeing.  And hoping for a new way or ways to thinking about, doing, teaching and learning science.

More soon!

Why KSR’s 2312 is a Fail on Many Counts

March 19, 2013

First I want to say that this is not a review, but my personal feelings about some aspects of the novel 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson.  I’m not going to discuss plot points and language and story arc except where they speak to the points I do want to make.  And there are spoilers galore.  STOP HERE if you want to read the book first.   (more…)


November 13, 2011

I am wondering whether writing short, frequent posts will keep this blog alive, since long essays or ramblings don’t seem to do it.  I am having the busiest semester ever.  But I still want to keep a sort of record, incomplete though it may be, of my random thoughts.  Let’s see how long this experiment will last.

I’ve been grading papers, although not enough to make more than a scratch in the backlog, giving a large public talk where I teach, in which I “came out” as a science fictionwriter, working on a new version of a course that involves field trips, a very strange and fascinating experience for this theoretical physics person, wading through acres of legal papers for other stuff, and attending to child, dog and household in general.  Not necessarily in that order.  In fact, definitely not in that order.

So, random thought #1: I really want to go visit Occupy Boston and support them, but can only do so if I warp spacetime, which does not seem feasible at present.  My institution held a teach-in that was atended  by at least a hundred students and was very inspiring.  I am wondering if I dare to hope (since environmentalists have also joined the bandwagon) that ultimately this movement will take up climate change as well.

An interesting critique that came up was that the movement was too unfocused and didn’t have a few main issues to fight for.  I don’t know if this is a valid criticism but I do know that when you are fighting against an entire system and not just a certain manifestation of it, you might have to be multi-pronged.  If the mini-movements that constitute Occupy feed off and reinforce each other with positive feedback loops, we may yet get a tipping point toward the future we want.  The complex, multifaceted and systemic problems we face are very modern problems and I doubt that we can confront them with the old, tired, linear mindsets.  Or so it seems to me at this juncture.

Randon thought #2: I’m thinking of Ettore Majorana’s disappearance and wonder what really happened to him.  I hope that he stayed alive and ended up living the way he wanted to, as elusive as the neutrinos he studied.  Somebody needs to write a play about him.

So much for a short post!  This is at least short-ish.  Let’s see if I can write something soon.

Vegetative Musings

June 4, 2011

Contrary to what non-academics think, those of the professorial persuasion rarely have the summers off in any but the most mundane sense of the term.  Being off from teaching generally means that this is your one chance to a) recover from semester burn-out, b) breathe, c) do research or other scholarly work so that you can keep your brain alive and keep your job, d) read about and think about interesting stuff.  The 9-to-5-ers of the world may not understand that those of my ilk cannot draw a clear boundary between work and non-work. 

So I’ve been reading, among other things.  What I’m reading could affect what and how I teach next semester, the essays and other non-fiction I write, and of course my fiction.  No real distinction between work and play for me.  Not being one of those whose life can be divided into neat, waterproof compartments, I rejoice in leaping over divisions, boundaries and walls.

Apparently, so do plants.


Peering Out at the World: Quick Notes & Links

March 27, 2010

I am peering out from behind a huge pile of undergraduate papers to see if the world is still there.  Looks like it is, for now.  So I’d like to take a few minutes to post some links.

This past week the American Association of University Women came out with a report called Why So Few?

“Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics presents in-depth yet accessible profiles of eight key research findings that point to environmental and social barriers – including stereotypes, gender bias and the climate of science and engineering departments in colleges and universities – that continue to block women’s participation and progress in science, technology, engineering, and math. The report also includes up to date statistics on girls’ and women’s achievement and participation in these areas and offers new ideas for what each of us can do to more fully open scientific and engineering fields to girls and women.”

When pondering this question, which is close to my heart, I’ve always felt that we not only need to change how society views girls in relation to science and science careers but we have to address the internal culture of science in research labs and universities and colleges.   This internal culture seems to be to be oriented toward certain personality types while putting others at a disadvantage — at its extreme there can be cutthroat competition, a confrontational style of dealing not only with people but with Nature, and a narrow, blind, disconnected approach to the problem at hand.  Not everyone thrives under such conditions.  I’ll have a lot more to say about all this in a future post.

And in news from our favourite satellite, it appears that the Moon might have more water than we thought.  600 million metric tons distributed over 40 craters near the lunar north pole.  What this makes possible is: stations on the moon, and a place from which to launch space exploration vehicles — a stepping stone to Mars and beyond!  Water means life resource and rocket fuel.

Somebody needs to write a poem about this.  I mean, all that water on the moon!

All of our spacely adventures can only happen if we have the sense to save the planet by slowing and reversing global warming.  Tomorrow, Saturday March 27, is Earth Hour, the annual momentum-building, consciousness-raising event that is growing hugely every year.  I plan to be one of the millions around the globe participating by turning of my lights for an hour, 8:30 to 9:30 pm.  Last year’s participation was around a billion people and hundreds of cities, organizations and institutions.

This reminds me that I started this blog about a year ago, so this is an anniversary of sorts.  I’ve posted only sparsely but have somehow managed to maintain the pace, however slow, of inflicting my thoughts upon the world.

In personal news, I am surprised and pleased to note that one of my novellas, Distances, published by the good and brave folks at Aqueduct Press, is a Tiptree honor book for 2009, as announced here.  Congratulations to the Tiptree winners (Hi Greer!) and honor list authors, and to L. Timmel Duchamp (Hi Timmi!) who gets special recognition for her tremendous Marq’ssan Cycle.

Also, I have a story coming out soon in Strange Horizons.  It is vaguely related to the first story I published there a long time ago, one called Three Tales from Sky River.  When I first wrote that story, years ago, I imagined a woman who went from planet to planet in a far future starfaring age collecting stories like the three tales of the title.  I wanted to write a story about her, but when I finally managed to write it last year, it turned out that it wasn’t just about her, and she needed a teller as well, and somehow events in 11th century C.E. India became important.  In short, it got complicated, hopefully in a good way.

Gender, Writing, Science

January 12, 2010

While I get ready for the new semester (and before I disappear from the world for a bit) I want to point to a great post on Jeff VanderMeer’s site on Gender and Writing.   It has been discussed at length elsewhere * that the problems now facing women writers are less of the overt editorial bias kind, and more to do with women not submitting as much as their male counterparts do (which latter has, I suspect, been true historically).  Part of it seems to be that women are not writing as much as men seem to do, although I wish someone would do a Ph.D. thesis on this and give us some data.  I speculate that women writers not writing very much is a consequence of the fact that we live in a gender-biased society, as Jeff’s article and the various responses, including a blog post by Rachel Swirsky, seem to agree.  

 Thank goodness somebody is talking about the dreaded second shift in the context of women writers!  I think women writers need to have a conversation amongst themselves about this, and whatever else is holding them back.  And I suspect that the reason why there are fewer female scientists than male might be rather similar.

Following that train of thought…


Magnetic Musings

January 8, 2010

I love astronomers.

Here’s one reason why.  Currently the solar system is passing through an interstellar cloud.  It is called the Local Interstellar Cloud, which is amusing enough considering its scale — but do you know what astronomers have nicknamed it?  The Local Fluff.

All right, so I’m easily amused.  But here’s the interesting thing about it.  According to this report from NASA, this cloud shouldn’t exist. 

The reason being that where it is right now there used to be supernovas.  Those supernovas did what stars of their type eventually do: ten million years ago they exploded, leaving behind a giant bubble of million-degree gas that should have ripped through the Local Fluff and destroyed/dispersed it. 

And yet the Local Fluff lives long enough to have been named a cutesy name by cheeky astronomers.