Good to See

Jon Stewart, and the 215,000 ± 10% people who came with him, make me very happy for America.

This clip was a desperately needed break from the political cycle that has been going on since the 2008 election season.

These are hard times – not end times.

If we amplify everything, we hear nothing. There are terrorists, and racists, and Stalinists, and theocrats – but those are titles that must be earned.

– Jon Stewart

Embedded in his comedy shtick, Stewart has made a tremendous point: that Americans do not fit the description of the polarized picture of “Americans” that we’ve seen on TV – because, of course, reasonable Americans do not make for good TV ratings.

This is a country that has come together to do tremendous things. Thirteen completely different states, founded on different principles, banded together in a revolution that founded a country we called a “Great Experiment.” The American people have united to accomplish the defeat of fascism. They have founded institutions and established conventions that govern the way the world operates today. They have united to put human beings on other worlds.

Our differences enrich us and empower us to do great things. And our enemies are not those different from ourselves – they are those who would exploit those differences in order to divide us.

Remember that.

World-Building and the Real Universe

(Pardon me for the hiatus. Had to fly to Houston to do some flight testing at NASA.)

I spent a pretty good weekend doing some world-building. Since discovering the maps in the first pages of The Lord of the Rings, Redwall, and the like, I have really enjoyed sketching out maps of imaginary worlds and outlining details of the cultures and histories that play out over those maps. My maps started as knockoffs of Tolkien’s (with the bad guys sequestered in a nice, rectangular wall of mountains around some barren lands) or parallel-universe versions of the terrain around my house. Since then, though, I’ve started to inject a lot more realism into the worlds I create. Want to know where the tectonic plates and prevailing winds are on my map of Oghura? I could show you!

The Barovin Mountains are this world's ancient Himalayas. The desert is in the rain shadow of the Red Mountains - though it wasn't always, which explains some of the Oghuran-Kalatchali history!
Map of Oghura

Beyond the maps, some of my imagined cultures have fully fleshed-out languages, religions, and customs. Slowly, slowly, I’ve been compiling reference documentation on the Oghuran desert and people, the fantastical Cathedral Galaxy, and the future-universe of the Four Colonies. This weekend I was spending my time in the Cathedral Galaxy, putting together a master list of the major galactic regions and polities, along with distinguishing characteristics. Now I know a bit more about why the Imperium of the Triumvirate is split in three, how the far-from-galactic-center Traders’ Rim came to be populated by merchants and entrepreneurs, and the tumultuous history of conflict between Amseile and Shobah. I’ve also got the beginning of a couple more stories – one concerning an Imperium gladiator’s bid for freedom and another describing the Waygehn people, who evolved to sentience near the death of their star and outlived the event, leaving them homeless in the galaxy. That’s one of the most fun things about deciding to build a universe purely for short stories: I get to invent worlds, and then immediately show them off with snippets of detail!

Though the Cathedral Galaxy has some distinctly space-fantasy elements, I decided early on that it would be a universe based on hard science – though not necessarily our hard science. My short story “Conference” illustrates the point, as it shows that there are technical concepts built upon technical concepts – but at the level that Arthur C. Clarke would have described as “indistinguishable from magic.” I have no idea how the Channel Network could be set up, and building planet-size structures is clearly fantastical. (And none of you know yet what’s in The Cathedral!) But I made sure that the story was relevant to us Earthdwellers, and I lean strongly on plausible concepts to describe things like astronomical bodies or planetary orbits.

Great Galactic Map, showing major markers and the Channel Network

For example, take Heliast, the resort world on which much of “Conference” takes place. Here’s the description that conference-goers got of the world:

The tour guide explains how Heliast is an ancient world with a single moon nearly half its own size, and how that has dominated the history of the planet and made it ideal for resort paradises. A billion or so years ago, the planet spun many times under one orbit of the moon, and the energy input of ocean tides among all the planet’s archipelagoes – Heliast is over eighty percent water – gave rise to life. But nowadays, the moon orbits in tidal lockstep with one Heliast day, the prime factor contributing to the perpetual calm of its seas. The small radius of Heliast’s solar orbit leaves the planet with a reasonable day length, while the dimness of its sun places it in the liquid-water zone. Without tides, with a massive moon helping to protect the planet from asteroid impacts, and with barely any eccentricity in its orbit to create seasons, there have been few selective pressures on Heliast’s life forms. Life on the planet thus failed to diversify much, and after millions of years of evolution with few external stressors, there are now only a few ecological niches on the world. Three or four avian species, eight or ten surface-level swimmers, two or three land animals, and about six land plants are all most tourists have the chance to interact with. The rest of the planet is geological beauty for visitors to enjoy.

So, the planet’s “month” equals its “day,” but there are still many days per year and there is much liquid water on the surface. The dynamics shaped the world’s evolution. That was fun to think of! But, more and more, I am completely amazed by the strange worlds that actually exist in our own universe. Many Earth- and space-based observatories keep returning data on new exoplanet candidates, and in the last few years, the galaxy seems a lot more planet-populous than it has in the past.

This past Monday, I went to a fascinating astronomy seminar on the potential climates of Gliese 581g given by Dr. Raymond Pierrehumbert from the University of Chicago. (He’s preparing these climate models for an arXiv preprint.) Besides tying the Gleise 581 system with 55 Cancri for most number of known exoplanets around the same star (5), this planet is interesting because it falls right smack in the middle of the traditional “habitable zone,” the range of orbital radii necessary for planet surface temperatures that could support liquid surface water. Now, of course, the discovery of Gliese 581g has to be confirmed to become official – and there’s some doubt about that! – but it’s at least got scientists thinking about these dwarf-star systems in interesting ways. Continue reading World-Building and the Real Universe