Research update: Multibody Dynamics Simulator

When I’m not doing silly things like constructing languages, writing science fiction, or biking through the Great Smokey Mountains, I have a research job in a Cornell spacecraft engineering lab to maintain. Mostly, that stuff doesn’t go on my blog because it ends up on our research group web site or in published journal articles and conference papers. But I’ve hit a milestone, and I think it’s pretty cool.

I hand-coded, from scratch, a multibody dynamics simulation package for Matlab. Continue reading Research update: Multibody Dynamics Simulator

Planetary Geology: A Detective Game

…full of unsolved yet soluble mysteries!

Mysterious craters on Mars

I’m shamelessly bouncing all you readers over to the Bad Astronomy blog for this post, which is a great outline of the detective process that is planetary geology. It’s also a great illustration of how much context matters and how leaping to conclusions is…bad. AND it’s a good demonstration that, when there are several hypotheses in consideration, elements of each could be synthesized into the proper conclusion.

All things for us to keep in mind, in science and in everyday life!

(Also, way cool pictures that are reminders of TOTALLY AWESOME events in the past!)

Projecting Space Battle Physics

When I wrote my original article on the physics of space battles, and the accompanying short story, I made the creative decision to speculate on how space battle technologies and tactics would play out if we built from the present day – or, at least, the very near future. The obvious thing to look at next is what a more distant future might hold – so, I’ll embrace my status as That Space Battle Physics Guy!

A possible near-future space fighter radiating excess heat between battles

I think that extrapolating or projecting space battle technologies forward in time is a difficult thing to do, even for the cleverest science fiction geeks. I say this for two reasons: first, aside from some general trends, it’s hard to predict exactly where technology will go in the next ten or twenty or fifty years; second, nobody gets to play this game against a live opponent – and that’s really how combat tactics and technology develop. Still, given the trends, it’s fun to speculate! Physics won’t change radically for quite some time, so we have some direction in which to proceed.

I’m going to proceed from the assumption that “spacecraft” are different from launch and reentry vehicles. Let’s take some possible combat spacecraft systems, think about the related problems that spacecraft engineers try to solve, and see what might (!) happen if the aliens wait till we have some operational space colonies before they invade…

Continue reading Projecting Space Battle Physics

I like this “cinematic” trend in video games

I’ve been a fan of Blizzard Entertainment since their WarCraft II days. I must admit that I’m unusual in that respect – because the thing I liked most was Blizzard’s storylines. Don’t get me wrong, the gameplay was great – I loved sneaking those ghosts into Terran Confederacy bases, blasting my way through enemy defenses with a Protoss carrier group, or overrunning the towns of Azeroth with necromancers and skeletons. But I really appreciated the time Blizzard put into the single-player campaigns and the storylines behind them.  Even with a standard real-time strategy-game God’s-eye view of the battlefield, I would imagine what the Terran frontier towns on Mar Sara were like, imagine Kerrigan making her last stand against the Zerg onslaught, or picture Tassadar on the bridge of his command carrier, surrounded by his most trusted warriors as he led them to their heroic end.

Blizzard isn’t alone in this, of course. For all its repetitive gameplay, Assassin’s Creed tried to be as much like playing inside a movie as it could (it’s only a matter of time until someone takes a similar engine to make the Bourne Identity video game, and that will be awesome). The Star Wars universe became an interactive movie with The Force Unleashed, especially on the Wii, which let players wave their hands through the air to control the Force (at least, in a rudimentary way). But besides the gameplay elements, The Force Unleashed is a great example for having production values right up there with movies – that game had some of the best concept art I’ve ever seen, the story was clearly thought out and compelling, and the acting was very well done. Speaking of acting, video games were once the realm of C-list voiceovers, but now we now have the likes of Martin Sheen voicing characters in Mass Effect 2 – which had a tremendous cinematic trailer, enough to make me wish for an XBox.

I really like this trend. It makes video games into – gasp – a reputable medium for storytelling. I don’t think this format will ever replace books or movies, but it can certainly come up right beside them as a way to tell an interesting tale, describe compelling characters, teach us something about human interactions, and make the audience think.

Oh – what prompted this sudden post, you ask? Easy:

Not only is this an insanely high-production-value cinematic trailer, but it is clearly investing the StarCraft II story with a great deal of emotional content. Yeah, sure, it’s emotional content I’ve seen in movies/books/TV before – what is important to my point here is that the last time we saw this stuff, in the original StarCraft, it was from a standard RTS top-down perspective with voiceovers on little moving head-and-shoulders portraits of Kerrigan and Raynor. Now we see it as if it’s got a film director behind it. And now all the gamers get immersed in not only the plot but the characters’ experiences and sensations. Exciting stuff for storytellers!

Smoky Mountains Report

I spent the week of the Fourth of July with my girlfriend’s family in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, right next to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I have driven through the southeastern United States twice, but never had a chance to get out of the car and look around much, so I was very happy to add a new area of the country to the places I’ve visited and go take a look at my 7th National Park. (Everglades, Zion, Grand Canyon, Mesa Verde, Bryce Canyon, and Petrified Forest were the previous six.) We landed in Nashville Airport, made a valiant attempt to dodge all the country music, picked up our rental car, and then drove though the countryside for four hours before coming in to Gatlinburg, driving up a mountain, and arriving at her family’s swanky rental cabin. (I shall skip over describing the übercheesiness that is Gatlinburg itself.) An impressive view greeted us out the back porch…


They don’t call them the Smoky Mountains for nothing. It was pretty hazy most of the time I was there, so we got a lot of views of faded ridgelines marching off into the distance, covered by lush deciduous forests. Of course, as this was a family event, we spent most of our time in that cabin and generally had a great time. But my girlfriend and I managed to make two highly successful jaunts into Smoky Mountains NP.

The first was a bike around the 11-mile Cades Cove Loop Road. This loop starts at a visitor center an hour’s drive into the park and circumnavigates a flat expanse of farmland in the middle of the mountains. Even the drive in was fun – it reminded me quite a bit of the drive from my home to Williams on Rt. 2, on the part around the Mohawk Trail. Makes sense – the Berkshires and Appalachians formed in similar orogenies, though the scales were far different. Anyway, a farming community has existed in Cades Cove since the first settlers made it that far west and persists today. The loop road winds along what were – to an Ithaca biker – gentle hills and afforded us a lot of panoramic views as well as some brief visits to historic buildings. (The Park Service calls the Loop Road a “moderately difficult” bike. That was definitely on account of the condition of the rental bikes, and that they tell you not to use the front derailleur – I think the one on my girlfriend’s bike was actually disabled. Fortunately, I had my multitool….)

View from the Cades Cove Loop Road

There were quite a few panoramic views from the road. Cars and cyclists share the road, and despite the many pullouts, traffic was slow as the people in cars paused to take photos. I was happy to be a bit more mobile and flexible!

Cades Cove panorama

At the far end of the loop was another visitor center built near the old farming community’s mill – which looked very picturesque among all the trees! I had a fun time playing with the CDHK high-dynamic-range script on my little Canon point-and-shoot to get a picture of the half-shaded, half-sunlit mill building:

Cades Cove mill

Inside the mill, they sell corn meal ground at the site. Of course, we weren’t going to hump any of that out the remaining 5 miles on our clunker rental bikes! After pausing awhile for lunch – which gave us an opportunity to improve my blood sugar, the water level in our bottles, and the worst of the derailleur problems on our bikes – we set off again. I was most interested in the scenery of Cades Cove, as after seeing one or two of the historic old houses, you’ve pretty much seen ’em all. However, there were still interesting historical tidbits to be had. Here’s a pretty cool grave we found in the cemetery around the Primitive Baptist Church:

Murdered by Rebs!

Our bike tour finished with a close encounter. On the way back, all the cars on the road suddenly jammed up, with occasional people pointing out of rolled-down windows. I cast a look off to one side and spotted a BEAR. I skidded to a stop, and it turned out to be a mother black bear with two cubs, rooting around in the shrubbery. They had warned us about bears at the visitor center, but I took those warning in the same way I take any warning about animals in parks – yeah, yeah, okay, if I see a bear I’ll be sure to keep that stuff in mind! Little did I know that they give these warning in the Smoky Mountains because you will probably run into bears. I took some grainy movies before they got too close for us to do anything but get back on the bikes and get going. We had no windows to roll up!

After the Cades Cove bike, we collapsed at the lodge. The next day, though, we were feeling intrepid enough to be looking at hikes in the park, and based on the description alone we picked out Chimney Tops trail. This was a big win.

Chimney Tops is a 2-mile trail to the summit of a mountain right next to LeConte Peak, the highest point in the park. The last mile of the two gets steeper and steeper, ending with a bare-rock climb. I, my girlfriend, and her cousin were very excited as we set off.

One of the first things to strike my about this hike was how lush everything was. I’m used to forests that consist large of trees and ground cover, like those in New England. Whenever I see a different forest ecosystem things seem a little funny to me. So far, the weirdest to me has been the ponderosa pine forest around the Grand Canyon, which consists of huge ponderosas and nothing else. Well, Smoky Mountains National Park is at the other extreme: solid green growing things from ground level up to the canopy.

Chimney Tops Trail

(Other great examples here and here.) We even managed to spot a Jordan’s Red-Cheeked Salamander in all that foliage – a salamander species found only in this National Park! Shortly thereafter, we almost had another encounter with a black bear, as we saw some fellow hikers hoof it down the trail to us and tell us that they were doubling back a bit to avoid a bear that had burst out of the undergrowth right in front of them. We didn’t see the bear – only some wet footprints a few minutes later.

Chimney Tops Trail reminded me a little bit of Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park – though the climates, geology, and trails had plenty of differences, of course – in that it ends with hikers climbing out onto a spur of rock that sticks out into a valley. So, as the hike got steeper and steeper, eventually it turned into this!

Scaling the summit

Pausing at a convenient stopping point partway up those rocks, I turned to one side and snapped the following panorama, a preview of what we saw at the very top.

Panorama near the top

Finally, after a bit of exciting scrabbling, we got to wedge ourselves into some crevices at the top and have a good look around. Scenic! (Click to panoramify.)

Chimney Tops summit panorama

Have I mentioned that I love my little Canon SD1000, which fits in my pocket, has a nice panorama mode, and lets me take HDR photos with CHDK? In fact, the HDR tricks I’ve been playing with were wonderful up on Chimney Tops, because they let me combine exposures to get some good shots of the progressively faded mountain ridges staggering off into the distance over the near hills. One such example:

HDR of mountain ridges

And another, capturing the tip of the mountain spur forming the Chimney Tops:

HDR mountain rock spur

Under the shade of the trees it had been nice and cool, but as we came out onto the bare rocks it warmed up. As we snacked, sitting on the mountain, the sun was flirting with the edges of some clouds. Coupled with the haze and humidity, this meant that we got a pretty nice optics show of sunbeams blazing down on the distant mountains. I tried to capture some of that with my camera, too, but found it about as difficult as the one time I was in a position to photograph the aurora borealis. Still, I got a few nice images!

Smoky Mountain sunbeams

I even figured out how to postprocess the living heck out of one panorama to bring out the sunbeams without totally destroying the rest of the image. I quite like the result, below! You’ll want to click on this one.

Smoky Mountains sunbeams

Maybe next time, I’ll have to try and time that hike for sunset or sunrise!

After a good deal of gawking, it was time to head back. Of course, climbing up the rocks and climbing down the rocks are two different problems, and we were a bit slower picking our way down the steep surfaces. This is the best picture I got that gives a real sense of going down. Notice all the deformation in the tilted stratigraphy, with girlfriend and her cousin for scale. (The runner-up is this photo.)

Going down!

I’ve gotta say that the Smoky Mountains were definitely worth a visit, and I’d happily recommend Chimney Tops as a good morning or afternoon hike. I like hiking, and I like our National Parks, so I was happy for the chance to get to see another in an area of the country I haven’t been to.That’s one of the things I like best about the United States: we’ve got so much stuff within our borders, but everyone uses the same money, understands English, and follows the same road signs. And sometimes we even feel like protecting what we have, so we can go into these spectacular places!

Gatlinburg ridges at sunrise

See all my pictures on Picasa – I had fun tweaking them all on the plane back to Ithaca!

NASA, High Technology, and Me

You know why I’m most excited about President Obama’s proposed budget for NASA? High-powered technology research programs. Hey, our space program really ought to be synonymous with high tech!

At an industry forum today hosted by NASA’s Office of the Chief Technologist, several new research programs, open challenges, and collaborative initiatives got rolled out – and my research group’s projects were, literally, a poster child for NASA!

In this presentation on small spacecraft technologies, you can see a picture of Cornell’s CUSat spacecraft on page 5…concept pictures and graphs that I developed for my flux-pinned spacecraft project on pages 7 and 15…a picture of me in front of the Zero-G aircraft in page 15, along with a picture of my labmates with our equipment in microgravity…and the citation slide lists this post on my blog.

I’m thrilled – as a guy who’s passionate about space exploration and passionate about combining weird physics and radical engineering to make sci-fi technologies into reality, I’m really psyched to see innovative programs like NIAC come back from their funding graves and a new NASA focus on enabling technologies that will help make our space exploration dreams into exciting realities.

Time for space enthusiasts to lobby hard for the new budget on Capitol Hill!

Science vs Religion on The Daily Show

Normally, I have great respect for Jon Stewart as an interviewer. On The Daily Show, he knows when to be serious and let his guests say their piece, but he’s also primarily a comedian rather than a journalist and so he has the freedom to call them like he sees them when he feels like it. For a great example of one of his better interviews, I like this wonderful mid-Obama-Administration talk with David Axelrod: 1, 2, and 3. However, Thursday I was rather stymied by his interview with Marilynne Robinson, about her new book on religion vs. science.

First, let me say that I thought Robinson did a terrible job making her thesis clear. It sounded to me like she was trying to say, basically, that Big Science and Big Religion are at each others’ throats when they don’t have to be. (This is, aside from the implied existence of Big Science and Big Religion, a fine idea – though not a very new one.) However, she would say things like,

people on one side of the argument have claimed the authority of science, but they have not construed an argument that satisfies the standards of science.

As soon as I heard her say that, I thought her statement begged the question: What’s “the argument?” Who, representing capital-S Science, had made an Argument to or about capital-R Religion? So far as I know, the scientific method and body of scientific knowledge is not diametrically opposed in any way to religious belief. Certainly, a scientific theory could contradict a religious tenet, but “science” and “religion” themselves are not the mutually exclusive poles of any spectrum I can think of. Nor can I think of any “argument” that the entire scientific community or body of knowledge have with the very idea of religion. I waited with bated breath to hear Stewart immediately voice my thoughts (“And what argument would that be?”), but sat in frustration as he nodded along with her, letting her define this imagined Science vs Religion debate on her own terms.

This struck me as dangerous. Continue reading Science vs Religion on The Daily Show

Constructing Oghuran

Figure in the Desert
Desert Winds

It was many, many years ago when I first read The Lord of the Rings and the Redwall books, and I was always fascinated by the maps in the first few pages of each novel. Ever since then, I have been captivated by the idea of fantasy and science fiction world-building. It started with maps of my own – maps of places that didn’t exist, maps of places near my Massachusetts home as I wished they could have been, permutations of Tolkein’s maps. Eventually, I started to add to the maps notes about the cultures living in those worlds, inventing religions, societies, languages, and technologies. I began to invent prominent characters to populate my worlds, and eventually started to think about the adventures those characters would have.

The desert of Oghura and the Cathedral Galaxy are my latest such world-building exercises. Both of these have gone well beyond the “doodle stage,” as they now have characters and stories to their names. But Oghura stands out as the world that is probably the furthest along, and it is the only one of my invented worlds to have a fully-fleshed-out and fully functional language. And this is no cop-out set of invented fantasy words full of apostrophes, g’s, r’s, and q’s. Oghuran is an “a priori” constructed language that I pieced together carefully, using my knowledge of linguistics, statistics, and programming, with a liberal dose of imagination. Here is how I built Oghuran. Continue reading Constructing Oghuran