Posts Tagged ‘science’

Ra Pulls in the Welcome Mat

Posted: July 3, 2014 by writingsprint in Science fiction
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sunThey say you’re not supposed to look directly at the sun. Lesley couldn’t help it. On the surface of Mercury, the sun covered the entire sky, curving up and away. You had to crane your neck to see the edge of the sun’s horizon. Even with her suit on maximum light filtering, Lesley had to hold up her hand to look at it. Solar flares scudded across the surface like clouds floating over Earth. Lesley turned her back to it. The sun was the whole reason for this mess.

James said, “Meteorology says the flares are going to last a week.”

“How bad will the radiation get?”

“Enough to fry every system with lower than grade three shielding in three days.”

“Damn it.” Lesley looked out over a beautiful field of high-intensity solar panels. The panels drank in visible light and turned it into enough energy to charge the life support systems that they used for their base underground. “So we’ll have life support, but all our transmission equipment, all our science instruments, all the civilian tech is going to get cooked.”

“Yeah.”

It was just her imagination, but Lesley could feel the sun’s heat bearing down on the back of her neck. At times like this she thought of it as “old Ra” for the Egyptian sun god. “Well, we’re lucky to be alive. At least the facility is strong enough.”

“I know. Remember what happened to the first colony on the moon?”

“Radiation burns and six months of chemo for everybody. It wasn’t pretty.”

“Earth is going to hold up sending out supplies until the solar flares are over.”

Lesley drew her breath through her teeth. “That’ll be the hard part. We need to start rationing now. Power, food, everything.”

“I’m already on it. Kevin wants to hold a raffle for showers.”

“Is anybody else keeping their sense of humor?”

“No.”

Lesley looked back at the sun as they entered the elevator. “This is the first base that was built just to explore, not to mine or exploit the planet. I think Ra still doesn’t want us here.”

“Just a ball of hydrogren and helium, Lesley.”

Tell that to the sun god.

Today’s post was inspired by the prompt “mercury poisoning” from Inspiration Monday at Be Kind Rewrite.

Photo credit: “A Solar Prominence Erupts in STEREO – NASA APOD” by Temari 09 at Flickr
Photo is unmodified
Shared under Creative Commons license

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Intuition

Posted: October 25, 2013 by writingsprint in Drawing
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electron microscopeLaurie slid the steel sample into the electron microscope. The test started running. She coughed. Her eyes stung, and she coughed again. She imagined the color blue.

“Are you all right?” the lab tech asked.

Laurie cleared her throat. “Yeah, I’m fine.” Rationally, she wanted to ignore it, but she had a feeling like her feet just turned to lead and her whole body went cold. She felt like someone was about to grab her. “I’m going to step out for a second.”

“Take your time.”

Laurie walked out to the hallway. She dodged some of the shop crew. A lift truck went by carrying a pallet of excess computers. Laurie opened her lab coat. She went with her feelings. She imagined sand in the distance. The beach.

Her twin brother Phil was on vacation in Cancun. He liked to snorkel. She found a quiet corner and backed up against it. She pretended to read email on her iPhone. She swiped and tapped the wallpaper picture of her horse, as if she read something fascinating.

She felt chill fear. She could almost taste the salt water.

Ridiculous. She was a scientist, not a psychic. But if this was real, and she could help one inch, she was going to.

Laurie concentrated as hard as she could. “I don’t know if this is legit, but if you’re in a rip current, swim parallel to the shore,” she whispered. “Then pop on your back and kick. Relax. Breathe. I don’t care if you’re fucking tired, you can swim for the rest of your goddamned life. Just start swimming. They’re looking for you. They’ll find you. See you when you get back.”

Laurie took a breath. She went to the nearest vending machine and bought a bottle of water. One of the finance guys walked by. She gave him a pleasant hello.

She had an idea. Laurie dialed Phil’s number. When his answering machine beeped, she said, “Phil, it’s Laurie. Hey, look. Do me a favor. I know you just got back, but when you have a minute, rack your brain and tell me what you were doing at… 1:00 Eastern, March 3rd, while you were on vacation. That would be Wednesday. Probably drinking margaritas, but I just wanted to check. See ya.”

A data point was a data point. She was a scientist, after all.

The Study Workout

Posted: October 14, 2013 by writingsprint in Slice of Life
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Jerry walked into the dining room. Seven-year-old Fran was sitting near the aisle that led to the kitchen, across from ten-year-old Katie. Katie was buzzing along, like she always was. Fran had his head resting on his hand. He was doodling pictures in the beat-up plastic tablecloth that covered the dining room when they didn’t have company.

Jerry put his hand on the back of Fran’s chair. “Hey, bud,” he said casually. Fran looked up. So did Katie. “It looks like you’re having trouble with multiplication. Let’s go study in the kitchen.” Fran’s mouth hung open. He looked like he was about to get punished. “Come on.”

“All right.” Fran took his books and went in.

Katie wondered what was up. “How about you? Do you need help with anything?” Jerry asked.

“Can we go over science later?”

Jerry had been hoping to watch football then. Oh well. “Sure.”

Marie smiled and went back to studying.

Jerry got glasses of water for both of them. Fran took a sip. “I can get it. I just can’t remember all of them. Especially the higher-number ones, like seven and eight.”

“Those ones are tough. Seven’s weird. I had the hardest time remembering eight times eight when I was your age.”

Fran tried remembering. “72?”

Jerry almost told him. “Try again,” he said.

He squinted hard. “I can’t get it.”

“Try again.”

“I don’t know it.”

“Break it down. Remember how we shovel snow? In chunks. We break it down into pieces we can handle.” Fran looked like he’d just spoken to him in Chinese. “Look at this.” He laid out eight eights with plus signs in between them. “Eight, eight times. You add them all up and you get the answer.” Fran shrugged. “Tell me the first couple multiples of eight that you know.”

“Eight. Sixteen. Twenty-four.”

“Okay, good enough.” Jerry pointed at the eights. “Eight, plus this one is sixteen, plus this one is twenty-four.” He put brackets around two sets of three. “This one’s 24. So’s this one. And this one’s 16.”

“I hate it when the teacher starts using those bracket things. I don’t understand why she can put them around one set one of numbers and not another.”

“Well… we don’t have to use them.” I covered the numbers with my hands, so that we could only see three eights at a time. “You get that each of these sets of three eights adds up to 24.”

“Yeah.”

“Okay. So 24 plus 24?”

He did the math. “48.”

“And 16?”

“64.”

“Ta-daaah.”

Fran sipped his water. “That’s weird. But I get it.”

“Now the bad news. Tricks like that help, but you have to memorize the numbers, too.”

“Uggggh…”

“There isn’t a shortcut.”

“I hate this part.”

“I know. We’ll do it until you get the whole eight times table right.”

“That’ll take forever.”

“Every time you get one right, I’m going to do a pushup. How does that sound?”

Katie called in, “If you’re going to do pushups for him, you have to do situps for me!”

Adventures on the Red Planet

Posted: January 29, 2012 by writingsprint in Writing
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Roving Mars

Spend some time inside Mission Control

There’s a bumper sticker on my car with vivid red and gold stripes, the silhouette of a machine, and the bold, giant words, “FREE SPIRIT.” I put it on back in 2009 to show my support for Spirit, the plucky NASA rover that had become bogged down in sand after exploring the red planet for twenty times longer than scientists originally planned. Roving Mars is the story of the Mars Exploration Rover program from its inception to the end of the first nine months of a mission that still continues today.

Roving Mars begins as Steve Squyres is starting his tenure in the Cornell University’s astronomy department. The work doesn’t give him much chance to pursue his childhood dreams of exploring the uncharted parts of a map, or tapping into the geology of another world. While attending an international symposium on space travel, Squyres meets an engineer who can help him develop a camera that could be used to explore Mars. The two men form a team and begin submitting proposals to NASA. The story follows Squyres and his team from the proposal process into the fangs of NASA and government politics and budgeting. The victory of approval to go ahead leads to tightrope walk of developing the rovers, where every wrench turned too tight, every wire frayed, every speck or smudge is a chance to blow millions of dollars of effort. Finally, the rovers are launched into space and land on Mars, and the reader becomes a fly on the wall in the mission control centers.

You get a real feel for how it feels to be a NASA scientist. Pitching a great idea to NASA, for example, feels like pitching a script to a big movie company. Great idea, kid. Better luck next time…. Those six words, “you get a real feel for,” sum up what you come away with from the book. The biggest surprise of the book is how it gives us the personal side of the mission, the scientists, and a feel for the names and faces and political pressures that go into a science mission. Your experience of NASA scientists is probably the same as mine: you saw Apollo 13 and you’ve watched them being interviewed on the evening news. They’re so mind-blowingly smart that you nod politely as you watch, and hope to hear something you might understand. You probably didn’t know one of the team members barely graduated high school, was a new wave rocker and avid surfer, before astronomy caught his eye. Did you know that aluminum on one of the test instruments on the rovers was taken from ground zero in New York, as a tribute to the victims of 9/11? It might also surprise you to know that your best and brightest are flying coach and staying in cheap hotels as they prepare to send America’s hopes and dreams into space.

Free Spirit

Free Spirit!

Squyres is an engaging storyteller and the book is written with a sense of satisfaction and wonder. The dark red cover creates an image of a lonely robot on a deserted world far from home that hangs over the book every time you pick it up. This works in a good way. It sets the human victories against a dark, menacing backdrop, that makes them all the more brave and poignant, like Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot.

Roving Mars is a good book for anyone, a great book for science enthusiasts, and a must read for those who love space exploration and the sense of adventure, courage and wonder that comes with it. My dream is that one day we’ll see a picture of an astronaut standing next to the Spirit rover, like the visit Apollo 12 astronauts made to Surveyor III after their landing on the moon.