Sunday, 16 November 2014

Depressive realist - an interview with Peter Watts

Peter Watts has a special rapport with Polish readers. While German and Russian publishers deemed Starfish to be "too dark", we loved it just as we loved the acclaimed Blindsight (written later, published earlier). Peter Watts stalks us with the help of Google-translate, checking up on what we are saying about him, while we look forward to see his subsequent books. With no little help I managed to reach Peter and ask him a handful of questions.

Would you call yourself a pessimist? Or is title “An Antidote for Optimism” a joke?

"An Antidote for Optimism" is a rejoinder to Ray Bradbury's collection "A Medicine for Melancholy". As far as the term "pessimist" goes, though, I think there's some unwarranted baggage that goes with that term. As a species, we're hard-wired to be delusionally optimistic about our chances— which makes sense Darwinian world where any accurate assessment of one's odds would make most of us just sit down in the middle of the road and wait for a truck to run us over. Only the clinically depressed come close to objectivity when it comes to assessing reality (although I think the politically-correct term these days is "depressive realism").

On a personal level, I think I'm as delusionally upbeat about my prospects as anyone. On a more global level, though, I'm definitely a realist. And you can't be realistic about the state of the world without also being depressed.

Maybe it’s too early with Echopraxia just released, but can you tell us what to expect next? You mentioned techno-thriller about marine biologist in afterword, is that still the plan, also I wonder if you have some theme in mind, like consciousness in Blindsight and hive-mind/mind-hive, workings of the brain in Echopraxia?

The plan at this point is to write Intelligent Design next— which is, yes, my near-future technothriller about a marine biologist. Basically my sellout novel, where I stop pursuing a smart audience and try going for a large one instead. The theme is inherent in the title. I'm also musing about a contemporary thriller based around the idea of clandestine immortality.

A book or two down the road, I intend to write a concluding volume to the Consciousnundrum series begun in Blindsight and Echopraxia. As of about an hour ago, I think I might call it Omniscience. (If it matters, you're only the second person after me to learn that title.)


How important is scientific plausibility to you? Your books end with ever-growing number of references, you went far into details of ╬▓hemoth, vampires, scramblers, and for things from Echopraxia I don’t want to spoil (Portia! Portia!). Is it a habit, way to justify “weird” elements of your fiction, way to encourage curiosity?

If I was pitching myself to some NY Publisher, I'd say that scientific plausibility is very important, and that all those technical appendices are just my way of sharing my excitement and curiosity about this wondrous universe we live in. I'd point out how flattered I am that so many folks have told me they followed up on those citations, and in some cases even wrote theses based on ideas encountered in my novels.

If I was being honest, however, I'd say that scientific rigor is vastly overrated; that some of the most visionary science fiction has been written by people with little or no scientific background (Delany and Gibson, to name but two); that kowtowing slavishly to 21rst Century Science is to deny that there's going to be a 22nd Century Science; and that all those technical references at the end of my book are a defense mechanism dating back to my days in Academia, when people would show up at your Wednesday afternoon seminars for the sole reason of shooting holes in your research. A smokescreen, other words; something to point to when the critics say Oh come on, that's just bullshit. ("Oh yeah? Take it up with the team that published that in Nature, asshole!")

I would also admit that sometimes, all that scientific plausibility stops the plot dead in its tracks. I probably do it too much.

In Starfish you didn’t hesitate to use the term "monster" when describing deep-ocean life - is that just a writer's trick or is that the word that comes to marine biologist head when he studies some of those animals?

Just a trick. To a biologist, a "monster" is something malformed, something that doesn't look the way it's supposed to. Mesopelagic fish may look pretty weird, but they're not monsters in that sense; they look just the way they're supposed to.

Except for their size, around Beebe Station. Those ones are admittedly somewhat larger than a mesopelagic fish has any need to be.

What surprised you most in your study of marine life? Is there something that still boggles your mind when you think about it?

Life boggles my mind. The marine kind is just a bit more alien than what I run into on your average weekday.

The shapeshifting and pattern-matching abilities of your average Pacific octopus still kinda blow me away, though.

It is said that 90% of the oceans remain unexplored. To me it sounds somewhat like number pulled out of one’s ass. Is that some weird, exaggerated statistic, or is it entirely justified?

I suppose it depends on what you mean by "explored". I first heard that claim back in the sixties, and my sense is that the "10%" was basically the continental shelf; they were just saying that the abyss was entirely unexplored. But that hardly means that we were tramping all over the conshelf back then; even today, the actual human presence on the conshelf must be just a fraction of a fraction of a percent. So I think whoever came up with that 10% figure had a really loose definition of "exploration"; if you'd mapped the depth contours, dropped a few salinity probes, and done some sampling trawls you could be said to have "explored" an area.

Even by those standards, I don't believe we've "explored" much of the ocean. But mapped? Sure. I'm pretty sure the militaries of the major nations must have the seabed mapped down to the boulder by now. We may never visit any of those boulders, but at least we know where they are.

Someone does, anyway.

So… Would you say we should study Earth’s ocean not Europa’s ocean?

I would not say that. I would say we should study both— but if I were forced to choose only one for funding in the next fiscal quarter, I'd go for Earthly oceans. It's just good sense to know as much as possible about that thing that we've been using as a combination kitchen/toilet bowl for the past few centuries.

Not that we're likely to do anything useful with the knowledge, mind you.

I'd really like to read more of undersea stories from Peter Watts. Any chances for that?

There'll be some nice underwater Arctic giant-squid porn in Intelligent Design. Also I think that book will probably open with a duel between a SCUBA diver and a lobster.

While we’re at it, I was always fascinated by cephalopods. Can I get super-intelligent, shape-shifting, hive-minded cephalopods in your next book?

Cephalopods, sure. I already told you that much. Even superintelligent ones. Don't push your luck on the shapeshifting hive mind, though.

Do you see any particular mission of Science Fiction? Like education, speculation, commentary? Or maybe entertainment comes first?

Depends on the writer. Personally I like using SF to perform thought experiments about cool stuff— not to "educate" readers so much as to invite them to explore a particular sandbox with me— so I guess I fall into the Speculation camp. But I know people who do explicitly set out to educate through fiction, and still others who aspire to nothing more than the spinning of an exciting tale. These days, SF-as-political-commentary seems to be making a comeback, which is great if you can pull it off without being preachy (Alice Sheldon/James Tiptree, Jr. was really good at that).

It's a big tent; there's plenty of room for all of us.

Do rat neurons on a chip piss you off?

They don't. Actually, I think they're pretty cool.

Do you think there are some technological advancements that are innately bad/evil/wrong.

I suppose anything that's unsustainable over the long term, and which is nonetheless deployed on a long-term basis, is innately bad. Economic models predicated on continual growth in a resource-limited system are wrong. A fossil-fuel economy, used as anything other than a stop-gap en route more sustainable energy technology, is wrong. And so on.

Anything else is morally neutral, as far as I can see. The rightness/wrongness of a hammer depends on whether you use it to build a house or bash in someone's skull. Nuclear weapons can either destroy the world or save it (depending on whether we're aiming them at each other or at an asteroid on a collision course).

Are there new technologies you are excited about?

The ever-widening encroachment of the US surveillance state into our bedrooms and up our rectums. The blanket recording of all our communications, transactions, and movements— and the massive server farms and millions of lines of code to process all that information, so that Obama can check every time I went to at a moment's notice. Armed drones that can kill people without having to go through all that nasty warrant/arrest/trial bullshit.

How can I not be excited by all that?

You have shown us aliens that are very different from us. What are your thoughts on convergent evolution? Life tends to find similar solutions independently on this planet, so if there is a life on somewhat similar one… Maybe there is someone we could understand and relate to.

It's certainly possible. I expect that the rules of natural selection apply throughout the universe— it's hard to see how they couldn't, actually— so similar conditions could give rise to similar biochemistries and trophic webs, at least. There'd be a lot of gross differences: appendages, sense organs, all that stuff that might make alien life look downright batshit insane to earthly eyes— but there'd still be a persistence imperative, whether through replication or the self-repair of an immortal chassis. There'd still be a need to extract matter and energy from the environment for metabolic purposes. Some models suggest that any ecosystem is bound to evolve parasites, so certain ecological niches may be inevitable. Those commonalities, at least, might be enough to bridge the gap a little.

I wouldn't bet on it, though. I mean, we humans aren't even different species, and look how well we get along…

Thank you for your time.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Dawn over dwarf planet

Dawn is a space probe that was launched in 2007 and has already visited protoplanet Vesta, the second-largest body in the asteroid belt. Now it is heading for Ceres - a dwarf planet that constitutes one third of the asteroid belt mass. Believe it or not, but since its discovery in 1801 we couldn’t get a better look at this body than this photo by Hubble Space Telescope you see on the left.

Initially regarded as planet, then demoted to asteroid, Ceres was reclassified as a dwarf planet along with Pluto and few other large (but not large enough) bodies in the solar system. Now, for the first time in history, we will see it in glorious detail.

Christopher T. Russell is Dawn’s Principal Investigator, meaning when NASA has a complaint or praise for the mission, he’s the man they call. Before leading Dawn mission he led an experiment that mapped Earth’s magnetosphere with Polar satellite. He is also the head of the Space Physics Center at UCLA, he has an asteroid named after him,

...and he was kind enough to find time to answer my questions about Dawn Mission.

How will meeting with Ceres be different from rendezvous with Vesta?

From technical standpoint, the mission will not differ that much. The spacecraft trajectory, the instruments and the measurement philosophy will be very similar. When we arrive at Ceres, we will enter a “high altitude survey orbit” and map the entire surface at low resolution and obtain gravity and navigation data necessary for further stages of the mission. We acquire the full coverage of the surface using the visible light and infrared mapping spectrometer to analyse the mineral composition of Ceres’ surface. Then we go closer but but still maintain relatively high altitudes (“high altitude mapping orbit”) and from that vantage point we map the surface in more detail and take data for stereo/altimetric purposes. Finally we enter a “low altitude mapping orbit” to take high resolution gravity data and obtain gamma ray and neutron data on elemental composition.

But while the approach is the same, we expect Ceres to be totally different than Vesta. It has no family member asteroids and it has no meteorites to study, so we know next to nothing.

[Side comment: Let me jump in for a second here. Asteroid family is a group of asteroids that have similar orbital parameters and share origin, meaning they may be parts of a larger body shattered in a collision. Some of them may fall on Earth and give us a chance to learn about the whole family. For example HED meteorites enabled us to learn about Vesta before Dawn reached it.]

Did any unexpected data about Vesta or Ceres emerge after Dawn was launched? We found new moons around Pluto while New Horizons was on its way, anything similar in regards of Vesta and Ceres?

We know of no moons at either Vesta or Ceres. We were learning from meteorites about Vesta all the time before we arrived, but the new knowledge was evolutionary and not revolutionary. Now at Ceres, Hershel [Space Observatory] has made some observations of water in Ceres atmosphere. Still we already had strong indications from earlier observations and from Ceres density that it was a wet body.

Once the primary objectives are met, what's in store for Dawn?

Dawn is expected to stay in orbit around Ceres.

Thank you for your time.

Dawn is now less than 0.03 astronomical units from Ceres. You can track its position on this website. Dawn is expected to reach Ceres in March/April 2015.

Handful of useful links:

Monday, 25 August 2014

Monument for a billion years

Neil Armstrong died 40 years after last manned mission was sent to the Moon and 43 years after he himself set foot on our natural satellite. It is a perfect moment to lament over the state of space exploration. But for that purpose it is much better to watch We Stopped Dreaming video, featuring Neil Tyson. For me the photo of this iconic footprint invokes more positivie thoughts.

Neil Armstrong left a permanent trace in our history. I'm convinced that once most present-day people are gone and forgotten, he will persist in collective memory, just like Gagarin, Columbus, Einstein and Julius Cesar. But his legacy may very well outlive humanity itself. There is no erosion on the Moon. Rain will not wash off that very footprint, wind will not disperse it, it won't be deformed by tectonic movements.

All monuments, plaques or symbols raised in memory of the first man who set his foot on the Moon may not last a tiny fraction of the time that footprint will last. If humanity vanishes this instant, in just a few decades cities will fall. Some structures like pyramids or huge concrete dams will survive much longer, but eventually even those will perish. Plastic may survive longer, but even today we know of organisms that eat plastics. Rushmore monument may last the longest, but in time even that will wither.

Perhaps hundreds of millions years from now, the Earth - with an entirely different set of continents - may be unrecognisable, and that footprint and pile of metal will be all that is left of humanity. The flag is probably white by now from solar radiation, and will eventually crumble into pieces from constant temperature changes (-233'C / -387'F during night, 123'C / 253'F during day). If space tourists from the future don't stomp on it, if a stray meteorite doesn't hit it, the monument Armstrong made himself may last even five billion years, until the Sun changes into a red giant and burns it along with the pale blue dot.

Neil Armstrong (5 VIII 1930 - 25 VIII 2012)

Monday, 21 July 2014

The cosmos is dark and full of surprises

Recently on my fanpage (yep, the Polish one, people don’t think out loud on English one yet, but you are more than welcome to do so) someone expressed doubts whether Pluto will surprise us once New Horizons sends us data in 2015. It may be a blind guess, but I’ll confidently say – yes.

Pretty much every time we got a clear look at astronomical objects, they greeted us with surprises. Uranus turned out to be “the tilted planet”, its poles are where most planets keep their equators. If that’s not enough, its magnetic field seems to ignore the planet’s rotation and its geometric center. The axis of Uranus’ magnetic field is 60’ ajar from its rotational axis and its center is third of its radius away from the planet’s core.

Neptune is ten astronomical units further away than Uranus, it gets 60% less heat from the Sun, yet its internal heat drives the fastest winds in the solar system (over 2000 kph). Composition of both gas giants is similar, so astronomers are still scratching their heads how exactly the more distant planet has more internal heat.

In 2011 Dawn spacecraft reached Vesta, the second largest body in the asteroid belt. This too didn’t go without surprises. Flattened, probably by a giant impact, it turned out to have series of deep ridges around the equator. Its biggest crater is whooping 460 km in diameter. Impressive, given that diameter of Vesta is 570 km.

Moon Mimas surprised us by looking pretty much like the Death Star. That’s thanks to a crater so big that scientists don’t know how it’s possible that Mimas survived such impact. Iapetus, a satellite of Saturn, has a weird equatorial ridge making it look somewhat like a walnut. It also has a very distinct two-tone coloration, one side is dark brown, while other is bright white. Miranda, circling Uranus, looks like it has been shattered into pieces and put back together.

Second and final impulse to write this entry was the set of pictures taken by the Rosetta spacecraft. As it makes its way to comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko it sends us ever sharper images. And the newest one revealed a pretty damn surprising shape. 67P clearly seems to be composed of two pieces and that’s not very comet-like. I personally think 67P should be immediately renamed a “rubber ducky”. Given very turbulent lifestyle comets lead, with extreme temperature changes, tidal forces when moving near the Sun, ice and gas pockets blown by heat… it’s really interesting that it has such a shape.

Bottom line is – I have no doubt that comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko has still much in store for us, and that in 2015 world will be mesmerized and surprised by photos of Pluto, its moons caught by New Horizons, and by photos of Ceres snapped by Dawn.

Upper-left: Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko (Rosetta)
Middle-right: asteroid Vesta (Dawn)
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