Tag Archives: science

Review ~ Where did it Begin?

Origins, A Skeptic’s Guide to the Creation of Life on Earth by Robert Shapiro, less than $10


Science: knowledge about or study of the natural world based on facts learned through experiments and observation. (Merriam Webster)

Seems simple enough. The field of science is something that we know and learn through watching and testing. Predicting things that should happen and then running experiments to see if that is, indeed, what happens. This is why, even though science has its own battles with dogma and conflicting theories, there comes a time when it self-corrects. When the data and the predictability come together and we have what we can call knowledge.

And I love to watch that process. Some of my heroes are physicists, well, maybe a lot of them. People like Michio Kaku, Sean Carrol, Brian Greene, Steven Hawking and so many others that look at the universe as a great big romper room waiting to be discovered. Some evidence hints of faith, some shake their heads with a shrug and a whatever. But they all pursue truth as best they can wherever it leads them. And they don’t get in a twist when questioned. They operate in a field where everything they know may be turned on its head with the next discovery so they research and build and test with whatever tools they have. I have longed for the same kind of dialog in the biological sciences.

One of the reasons I chose this book was because I wanted to know just where we were in the field of evolutionary biology. The book is dated. Copyrighted in 1986 it lacks the progress made for nearly 30 years and that is a lot of time in science. There are many lines of inquiry presented in the book that I would (and probably will) follow up on in order to see what progress we have made. For instance, in 2009 John Sutherland and his team at the University of Manchester were able to synthesize the basic ingredients of RNA. Whether or not the process followed could occur naturally is still, of course, being researched.

The point is that there are as many unsolved issues in the field of evolutionary biology as there are in physics. Maybe more. Who’s to know? The frustrating thing is that questions about this science are often met with derision and comments about myths vs. science. But that isn’t the reason I’m asking.

I liked this book because Shapiro walks through the science of where we have been and where we were as of that time and why some of the things appeared to work and some were, well, just not getting us there. Just to be clear, we do know a great deal about how lifeforms change and modify based on the environment and the needs of everything from climate to culture. We can show how some things evolve and we are deep into research about the story our DNA tells about the past. No, we don’t have all the answers and that’s the point, isn’t it? Science is science when the same, predictable result can be duplicated by someone else with consistency. Self-correcting.

Shapiro steps through the history of our search for that spark that started non-organic chemicals down the path to life. Yes, he discusses the history of conflicts between Creationism and Science on the issue but he does not do it in a manner to disparage faith. He only wants to present what makes science and what is required to test a theory. He was, actually, not all that sold on the ruling paradigm at the time the book was written, leaning more in the direction of a minority opinion on what started the engine. It certainly was interesting reading a text that was looking forward to some of the advances we have made in the past 30 years by visiting Mars with the rovers, as well as the moons of Jupiter and Saturn with our probes.

Is it important that we one day find the scientific roots of our creation? I actually do believe so. Ever since man could think he has sought knowledge about the whys and hows of his existence. He has wondered about his place in the universe from both an egocentric and an insignificant-mite point of view. We are creatures, creations, of reason. Capable of looking out at the place we find ourselves and wondering. There must be a reason, from somewhere or someone, we became so. If you are a believer, in something or someone, most of the ancient scriptures I have seen admonish the faithful to seek knowledge, to learn, to observe the place in which we find ourselves and to grow in wisdom.

Check out Mr. Shapiro. He is not afraid to challenge the science of the day or to ask questions about what we know and why. He may help you put some of those pieces in place.

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Filed under My Bookshelf ~ Current times, Natural Sciences from the Observation Deck

Reviews ~ How Old is This?

Bones, Rocks and Stars by Chris Turney Available for $12 -25.


As I unpack all those books we’ve had for years I find treasures that I meant to read but, well, never got around to. It’s like Christmas in my house these days. This title is one I probably acquired through a book club. It was purchased to answer a question an avid history nut, such as myself, finds perplexing – how do we know how to date things?

This is no easy question in the world of historical and archeological investigation. It gets even touchier when we talk about the age of the earth, the universe, or the advent of man. For instance, you may hear something like, radiocarbon dating is unreliable. Fine, but why, and when? I felt it was time that I read the science and left the media hype to the tabloids and those with specific agendas. This book opened that door, and in an entertaining way. A lot of science, but an easy read.

Before I address the book itself, I would like to posit a thought. I have friends and followers with varying positions on evolution, creationism, and all the emotional baggage on both sides. I’ve been there, and reading up on the science is part of what gave me some sense of clarity.

For those who are more concerned with scriptural interpretations, I’d like to point out a few things that helped me. There are several chapters in Job where God puts forth on the wonders of the natural world. They are introduced with the question, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the world?” Yes, indeed. The message in these passages burned in my heart was – don’t make assumptions. Look to creation for your answers, there is a reason things work the way they do.

Fast forward to New Testament times and the apostle Paul (whatever his reputation may be) and we find in Romans 1:20 “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.” (New American Standard). Again, things evident in nature are meant to tell a story. There are many more similar references.

So, why the mini-sermon? Because if I am to believe that we have some direction, that the ancient holy books of our species have something to say about the place we find ourselves and what we should do about it, then I have to believe that there is value in what is said. My thought is this. If we are admonished to look to nature for the creative power within — if the ancients of many religions tell us to look, to see, to contemplate the marvels before us—then why should we expect something other than truth? Should we expect to find an “appearance of age” to mislead us? Should we find things that are not what they appear to be? Man’s knowledge is not perfect. However, we do have the ability to seek, to find, to follow where the evidence leads. What’s more, I sincerely believe we are commanded to do so.

Thus, we get to the book. How do we date things? Turney leads the reader through a step by step process of what amounts to the history of sorting out just how old things are. Starting with how we date things using calendars, and how we convert ancient historical documents to modern calendars to get a sense of time. He describes the fascinating science of dendrochronology: the use of tree rings to count the years and study climate changes. Comparing these records with journals and legends we can better understand when events occurred and some of the reasons a culture changed or died out.

He carefully explains how we compare the ratios of compounds in samples, check for luminescence, uranium content and even radiocarbon dating. Yes, it is true, radiocarbon dating has it limits. Due to the half-life of the Carbon 14 atom it is only accurate to somewhere near 40,000 years. I also learned that these methods work not because of one test, but because of a series of tests in and around a sample to plot curves in order to reduce the chance of contamination skewing the sample.

The steps taken on specific claims show how the frauds are discovered, and how science corrects itself. He speaks with clarity and provides headline cases and inside adventures to show the reader how the conclusions were constructed. How we learned and how our knowledge is growing.

We live in an incredible universe of unbelievable wonder. Our own history is filled with lessons, information, wisdom that we cannot ignore. If we do not put these events in proper context, we cannot learn, we cannot be all that we are created to be. Check out “the science of when things happened.” I think you will find much to contemplate.

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Filed under My Bookshelf ~ Before Current Era, My Bookshelf ~ Current Era, Natural Sciences from the Observation Deck

The Wave

It was supposed to be a simple book review. Read the book, jot a few notes, and off we go. Of course the book was 563 pages long, but nobody was going to stick around for the encyclopedic version, after all, they could just buy the book. In addition to the text there were 142 pages of notes and index. How does one make that interesting? Well, something happened on the way to solving The God Problem (by Howard Bloom). But, then, that’s what reading is all about.

Book stores are magical places, at least in my opinion. Browsing through the aisles of a well-stocked bookstore, new or used, small or large, is like shopping for the door into summer (bows to Heinlein). You are surrounded by worlds created by the human mind, fantasy, perceptions of reality, scary, comforting, educational, or just plain fun. It is an antechamber to a whole collection of universes real, and imagined. It is my favorite indoor place.

I rarely approach a trip to a real book store with something specific in mind. Shopping for particular titles is something anyone can do with a computer now days; but to browse, to wander, to explore – that must occur with book in hand. And this was such a book. How can one resist such a title? I surely couldn’t. Knowing that the point of view was going to be a lack of faith, I decided to take the plunge. And I found magic. Magic that made sense to me, whether or not I chose to be a person of faith. This then, is my adventure into a magical place, a place where the cosmos creates, invents, grows, becomes.

Since I was quite young I have had the Second Law of Thermodynamics pounded into my head. This is used to explain that evolution can’t happen because things become less organized through the force of entropy. Therefore there has to be a creating hand. Well, I had a problem with that, not for the reason you might think, but because I didn’t see a common slide “downhill” or to “disorganization.” I saw purpose. I saw renewal, I saw great spirally galaxies, star factories, things that grew and reached for the light.

Oh, but wait, you say, dust to dust, erosion, volcanoes, hurricanes, novae. What do you do with that? I see it become new life, feed new plants, replenish failing minerals, creating the elements required for life itself. Out of catastrophe I saw the potential for greater things. I found a kindred spirit. He led me to the heart of the birth of the cosmos and introduced the simplest rules. He redefined the idea of a wave, and I traveled far, far away.

A wave is not really a “thing.” A wave is something that is made up of the “things” that are present at that point, then it moves on. Always made up of different molecules, different floating bits, but still the wave traveling at whatever speed across vast distances.

I am a wave, a wave made up of the atoms, cells and molecules that make up my body today. Fed by what I eat, mentally fed by what I read and learn, discard or add to my own view of the cosmos around us. I exist as a changing flow of thoughts, atoms, cells, bits and pieces. How easy, to be a wave and allow the cosmos to guide me on the path.

If you want to learn why A does not equal A and why 1 plus 1 may not equal 2 – come play, we’ll be waiting.

God Prob


Filed under My Journey with Job, Natural Sciences from the Observation Deck

Alternative History ~ More Than an Adventure, It’s a Mind Expanding Point of View

As my readers know by now, I am a history junkie.  My banner pretty much says it all because I believe there is much we have left behind that could teach us about what we have “yet to find.”  My writing tends to explore both the past and the future and is, consequently, driven by research.  For this reason I like to find fiction writers that do much the same thing because it helps me at least try to share the passion I have for my subjects with my readers.  Learning how people build fictional worlds that attract an audience helps me see the parts that interest readers so I can arrange my factual material in an engaging way.  My current interview target gave me some very interesting ideas.  We will visit my thoughts after we hear from Rob Cerio (www.robcerio.com).

Steampunk World Building and the importance of knowing your history…

One of the trends in science fiction and fantasy literature is toward the rapidly growing genre known as “Steampunk”. For those that are unfamiliar with the genre, it’s a world of steam engines, Victorian sensibilities and fashions, and good old human courage. For those that write Science fiction, it’s also a nice departure from our usual, dreary dystopias and a walk into a brighter world. I have heard it described by many to be the shared universes of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, or by others as visions of the future as envisioned by the 19th century. What most of these definitions fail to realize is that Steampunk at its core is an exercise in alternative history, and the best Steampunk Authors do a lot of research into the Victorian era, and the technology and terminology of the time to give their worlds authenticity.

dgstorecovThe key point of divergence between our real world and the imagined universe that most Steampunk stories use is the inventions of Charles Babbage. In 1822, Babbage proposed a device for completing complicated mathematics that he called a “Difference Engine”. The device was intended to replace error prone humans in the calculation of complex polynomial tables for engineering and science reference material. He later refined this design by the mid 1800s broadening its usage to an “Analytical Engine:” a very basic computer. The tremendous cost of building these intricate machines proved too high for him to continue his research.  If he had it was entirely possible that the Computing Revolution of the mid 1970’s could have happened a hundred years earlier, in the “age of steam”, most notably before the development of the internal combustion engine.

Which leads to a neat question… “If modern computing had been applied to the refinement of the steam engine, would we have ever developed the internal combustion engine?” Somehow, I don’t think my uncle would appreciate his Corvette if he had to shovel coal into it every 300 miles.

Steampunk literature suggests that the great scientists and engineers of the Victorian era would have made tremendous advances with access to Babbage’s Difference engines. We are asked to imagine a world where the Montfoglier Brothers used computers to turn their Ballooning experiments into practical airships… A world where Nikola Tesla was able to figure out the Unified Field theory 60 years before Einstein even got a job as a patent clerk… A world where Captain Nemo’s Nautilus was a practical machine instead of a flight of fancy.

As a result, to write confidently in the steampunk genre, there is a lot of research you have to do, especially since readers of your fiction will absolutely call you on any errors in facts or style. (I had an editor return a story because a character used the term ‘patsy’ when the word wasn’t in popular usage until the 1920’s or so). On your reading list should be at least one of the works of Jules Verne, and of H.G. Wells, as well as some Mark Twain. The first two are to help you establish the conventions of the genre, the third to help you get the tone and jargon of an American of the period set into your mind. Depending on where you set your story, you may need to look into the real-world history of the country in question.

Many Steampunk stories are set in Great Britain and the United states, but the genre has been opening up to include the Far East, Africa, and the moon. This is great for authors that love writing in the genre, but I still cringe every time someone refers to it as “Space: 1899.”

In my case, the post-Civil War America that my short story “The Great Steamship Race” is set in is very much our current reality. Despite my embellishment of ironclad airships, the tensions in the post-war south and animosities that were held onto for generations are still in evidence. The race that takes place between my fictional airships Natchez and Robert E. Lee is based upon a real event and real historical figures that I discovered while researching other works. While some authors might look at the restrictions of using real history to frame an alternative history story as a chain binding them from telling interesting stories, I would say that they haven’t researched thoroughly enough. The Victorian era of both British and American history is rife with vibrant characters that truly shine when handed futuristic technology.

In addition to old fashioned library and internet research, there is quite a bit of real world research you can do to give your locations and Steampunk devices life. I am lucky enough to live in New Orleans, where one of the last steamships operates on the Mississippi River. By asking politely, I was able to get a behind the scenes tour of the engine and boiler rooms of the vessel, as well as a rare look at the wheelhouse. While not everyone has a steamboat in their backyard, there are steam locomotives that still run the rails in most states as tourism ventures. While much of what you learn by observing these machines in action may never make it onto the page, knowing the smell and feel of these amazing machines in action will help give your fictional versions life. I would also recommend trying on some Victorian era clothing… while I have never personally worn a corset, many of my female author friends insist that it was key to bringing a certain perspective to their heroine’s lives.

Me, I just settled for a top hat and a pair of aviator goggles.


So, the ideas that Rob has popped into my head?  If you have ever watched Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series you may remember a segment where he mentions that the Greek renaissance of science and math that started somewhere around 570-495 BCE was squelched by Pythagoras and his mystics.  If not for him then the first ship on the moon may have had a Greek name and it may have been centuries before the Americans made their landing.  Maybe, maybe not.  As a race we tend to fear those things that we do not understand.  We give them the aura of mystery and magic and sometimes call them evil.  Or, we do our best to control them.  Some of those “mystics” Mr. Sagan was so perturbed with became the fathers of a more lasting modern science: Galileo, Copernicus, Newton, Einstein, Kepler, and on and on.  There are several Jesuit priests in the mix as well.  Many men, and women, discovered much about our universe while seeking the mind of God: and shared their passion by showing the world what they found.  Sometimes it is a war between the mystics and the rational thinkers; sometimes it’s a matter of timing.

So, what I learned from a point of view such as Rob’s, is a way of inserting or taking away a concept that could change helicopterhistory in order to better understand the pivots of that history.  For instance, what if Leonardo had gotten his whirly bird off the ground?  It is interesting that Rob mentions Mark Twain as a source since he used this approach himself.  If you haven’t read A Connecticut Yankee in King Author’s Court you should give it a try.  An excellent example of “what if they had this!”

Thinking through the “could have beens” help us better understand the “what is now” and may help us build a better “what will be.”  In the meantime, check out Rob’s website and see what he is up to.  You can also let me know what you would like to learn about as we explore our history, our thoughts, our hopes and dreams.

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Filed under Stuff about Writing ~ Research Tools, Stuff about Writing ~ Tips and Tools

Science Fiction/Fantasy Research ~ What Ingredients Make a Cake Part III

This is a continuation of a series I started about just how science fiction and fantasy writers stay up on the latest to give their tales substance.  This week we have Cindy Koepp, a teacher, an author, a craftsperson and the loving mother of an African Grey parrot.   For Cindy research is a part of the fabric of life as well as an “as needed” exercise in her writing.   From sword fights to aerial (or space) dogfights, seeking that perfect piece of information is what it’s all about.

From Cindy:

remnantResearch for Fiction Writing?

Most days of the year, I teach 3- and 4-footers in 4th grade.  In Texas, that means writing is a huge concern.  Recently, I gave my students an assignment of locating three facts and three opinions in a little reading book they were given.  One of my students lamented that he couldn’t find facts anywhere in his book.  It was, after all, fiction.  When I told the student that I do as much research for my fiction as I do for my nonfiction, he was flabbergasted, but it’s true.  Sometimes the research occurs long before the work on the story ever begins.  Sometimes I don’t go digging for details until I need them.

Real Life as Research

I find it hard to believe that most of twenty years have passed since the first time I put on some loaner armor, borrowed someone’s foil, and tried my hand at Renaissance fencing.  Even at sundown in central Texas I often felt cooked wearing jeans, a T-shirt, a four-layer jacket and hood, gloves, and a fencing mask. Even with all the bulk and temperatures in the nineties, being properly suited up was better than risking a foil or epee up the nose.

During the next few years, I learned two styles of Renaissance fencing: Spanish and Italian.  My studies were as much on the tennis court where the group practiced as in the library reading, and sometimes translating, books about Renaissance culture.  At the time, I had no idea that this information would prove handy in my writing. After all, I was working on science fiction, and the characters were not armed with blades of any sort.

A few years later, I had an idea for a fantasy novel involving a regent who’d rather be training her griffin.  I wrote the original rough – very rough – draft of Lines of Succession, a book currently under contract with Under the Moon Publishing.  Since the main character loves fencing almost as much as she loves her griffin, all that study and practice came in handy.  I ended up with three different styles of fencing in the story, one for each of the fictional countries known for their martial skills.  One group uses a mutation of the Spanish style I’d studied.  Another took on a close approximation of the Italian style.  The last?  I totally made that one up based on things I thought might be possible.

Last summer, I started a serial called The Condemned Courier with JukePop Serials, and that one, too, has had a lot of input from my fencing adventures.  The main character is a fencing instructor who was tasked with discovering a traitor.  For that tale to work, she has to be very competent with a sword.

I have another case of research long before any project was conceived.  I’ve had parrots since I was in high school.  Some have been little shavers like cockatiels.  Now I have a goofy African Grey.  Parrots are a real hoot, literally and figuratively.  They have each had different personalities and their own flair for bizarre antics.  I had a cockatiel who would wolf whistle, and if I either didn’t answer him or if I answered him “incorrectly,” he would repeat the wolf whistle very slowly until I “got it right.”  One of my other cockatiels would have qualified for the parrot version of the X-Games.  She would walk off the side of the cage and fall more than halfway before she started flapping her wings.  At first, I thought she’d just been klutzy, but when I put her back on top of the cage, she did it again and again and again.  She’d also fly to my purse and go exploring, taking everything out one thing at a time and inspecting it carefully.  I had a cockatiel who made spitballs out of whatever bits of paper she could get her beak on.  My dusky pionus beat up his toys.  My white-capped pionus strutted around his cage and gutted jalapeños for snacks.  My African Grey chatters and destroys oatmeal boxes.  She’s also learning all the bird calls from a new clock donated by an interested student at Christmas.

A couple years ago, I came up with a wild idea: tell a whole story from the point of view of a parrot and a dog.  I’ve recently finished the rough draft, and although I really do need to have the human characters tell parts of the tale, especially when the bird and dog are nowhere in the scene, the parrot in the story took on characteristics of each of the loony birds I’ve had over the last couple dozen years.

Research on Purpose

Not all of my research happens years in advance.  Sometimes I’m working on a project and need information on how something works so I can give my stories more realism.

I am not a pilot.  What I know about actually flying an aircraft wouldn’t fill up a sticky note, but when I wrote Remnant in the Stars, one of the main characters was a pilot, and a combat pilot no less.  I had to find out how flight physics works so I could extrapolate for how it would change in space.  While I was at it, I also studied up on dogfighting maneuvers.  I never actually use the term “Immelmann turn” in Remnant, but the pilot executes one a couple times.  She also experiences G-forces in a couple places and has to compensate for it.

Lines of Succession, for a fantasy story, had a lot of research.  In addition to fencing, I needed to know how black powder weapons work.  They were going to be loaded and fired on camera, so I really needed to know what was going on.  Fortunately, I found some sites with videos and descriptions, and my editor and some pals pointed me toward some other videos, and the mission was accomplished.

Another manuscript that took a lot of research was Like Herding Wind.  I needed to find out how old mines of the late 1890s and early 1900s in Michigan were built.  For a scene that has since been cut, I learned about the early cars, especially the Ford Fordor. Then there was medical phenomena.  Boy, did I have to do some digging for all kinds of information on medical phenomena.  The main character is an alien paramedic, and the trouble she doesn’t get into…

Research in Fiction? Oh, Yes, Please!

So, true enough.  I do indeed research very many things that I sometimes don’t use at all, but at some point in the tale, I thought I’d need it, so I paused to go scare it up.  If I do a good job, you shouldn’t be able to tell the research has been done.  In any case, I have almost as much fun learning the new stuff as I do writing the story that initiated the spark to learn.

Check out Cindy’s book, Remnant of the Stars at Amazon.  Kindle is currently available, paperback soon.   You can also visit her website: Cindy Koepp: Writing on the Edge  or her Facebook page .

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Filed under Natural Sciences from the Observation Deck, Stuff about Writing ~ Tips and Tools

Science Fiction/Fantasy Research – What Ingredients Make a Cake Part II

So, in continuation of this miniseries I interviewed a slightly different sort of author, one who writes for children.  Sharon L Norris write children’s books in order to wrap a story around some fun fact from the sciences.  Here are her responses to my areas of interest.  I have left her delightful Australian spelling and usage as written.


Does your research drive your story; or does your story shape your research?

The concept for my children’s early reader book ‘The Blink-off’ was derived from reading a Little Golden Book on ‘cats’. It mentioned that cats did not blink. I then started researching this phenomenon and found that cats do blink, but not very often. They have a third eyelid, a clear one that covers the pupil and keeps out dust and dirt. This means they do not blink as often as humans do. I was fascinated by this concept and developed a story for early readers around it.

Research was paramount in driving my mid-grade novel ‘The Balloonatic’, published by Macmillan Education Australia. This story, about a young boy who loves hot air ballooning and has to land a balloon when the pilot collapses in mid-flight, required significant research on the subject of ballooning. In the research process, where I learned about the dynamics of flight, I found some wonderfully illustrated books that gave me ideas for the landing scenario in this novel.

How do you keep yourself informed of new developments in the scientific fields?

I am currently writing a YA novel set in the future so I am using the internet to find blogs, pages and discussion fora so I can remain up to date with particular things like weaponry, military behaviour and strategy – things I know little about personally. I am also considering a sequel to ‘The Balloonatic!’ and am expanding my knowledge of modern hot air ballooning.

Do you try to shape your stories around hard science; or do you ignore or reach beyond what is known into the possible, probable, or does it matter?

I specialise in writing for educational markets and the success of ‘The Blink-off’ has encouraged me to continue to explore scientific concepts in fiction for early readers. The language that needs to be used for early readers can sometimes limit what you write. Abstract thoughts and concepts are not encouraged in early literacy materials as they are often too difficult for young children to understand.

What sorts of things inspire your interest to seek more information?

As a children’s writer, I’m fascinated by the natural environment and how things work. The smallest thing can be of great interest to young children, but they need to clearly understand and make connections in order to make sense of what you’re trying to tell them. Researching topics young children find fascinating is part of my job as a children’s writer.

What sorts of things tend to spark the idea of a story?

I’m an avid people-watcher. When I’m on a bus or sitting on a park bench I discreetly take note of everything around me and what people are doing. How children interact with each other and with older people. How they speak and what they say. Riding the bus has given me so many ideas just from hearing people’s conversations. I don’t strain to eavesdrop – buses are noisy so passengers will naturally talk louder to be heard. They just don’t realize how far their voices carry!

The media is also another source of story ideas for me. Reports of real life events, people, places and things will spark story ideas that I then elaborate or embellish. My mid-grade novel ‘Finders Keepers’ was sparked by a media report about children who found a dinosaur egg in sand dunes and hid it when the Government tried to take it away from them. In my story, the two child protagonists find and then hide their dinosaur egg when a greedy uncle tries to sell it to the highest bidder. They end up donating the egg to a museum so it would belong to everyone.

Do you often have characters in mind and find yourself in search of a scientific background to suit their character and its development?

I once imagined what the late Crocodile Hunter, Steve Irwin, was like as a boy. He was alive then and I could just imagine him as a little boy running amok on his parents’ wildlife reserve (which later became the iconic Australia Zoo). I developed a boy character I imagined was very like Steve Irwin as a child, and thus was born my short novel for early-fluent readers titled ‘The Croc Shock’. This novel chronicles the adventures of Jack Sherman, who lives on a wildlife reserve and takes a baby saltwater crocodile to school for Show and Tell Day (or Show and Crow Day as it’s called in the book). When fear and ignorance about the crocodile threaten to get Jack into a lot of trouble, he gives his Show and Tell talk to the entire school to educate them. In the process, the reader learns a lot of scientific facts about ‘salties’.

Do you like to teach science with your writing and if so, is it your only goal or do you just have a lot of fun playing with the ideas that scientific theory presents?

I challenge myself to take a concept that interests me and look for an ‘angle’ I can explore, just as journalists look for the angle they will take when they write their stories for newspapers and magazines. There is always a lot of fun in this process.

Do you see correlations between scientific theory as it develops and your own philosophy or world view?

I learn a lot from the research process and from critically evaluating the research. I feel this can only stimulate my development as a writer and mean a better story for the reader.

Does this perspective become part of your characters’ development, or just background?

It’s important that child characters in children’s books solve their problems or dilemmas with as little help from adults as possible. So for me, it is important to ensure that I can suspend disbelief so my child readers know their protagonists can achieve the impossible if that is needed to solve a problem or dilemma.

In ‘The Balloonatic!’, for example, my character Monty is a walking, talking encyclopaedia on hot air ballooning but he has never actually flown in a balloon until he receives a gift certificate on his birthday for a dawn flight. When the pilot collapses in mid-flight, Monty has to use every ounce of knowledge he has to bring the balloon down safely as three lives depend on it.

What is your most favorite, wonder, awe-inspiring thing that you have learned in the last few years?  Something that confirmed or changed your point of view of the world and all that is in it?

I am intrigued by the fact that despite the wide-reaching arm of technology and development across the globe, we continue to hear that there are newly discovered tribes living traditional lives in remote parts of the world. People living in complete harmony with their environment, and damaging it a lot less than many of us living in highly developed, technologically proficient societies in first-world countries. There is a fantastic eco-message in that for all of us.

What is your favorite writing project which involved research into the sciences?

I have completed another mid-grade novel (unpublished at this time), which involved researching magnetism. I found out many interesting things about magnets and magnetism and this helped inform the plot and the development of my character, Eric. It was a lot of fun finding ways to incorporate those things into the story.

Sharon L Norris lives in Brisbane, Australia, and is the author of four books for children published in educational markets in Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, Singapore and the United States. Her motto is ‘take the ordinary within you and make it extraordinary’, and feels this is the perfect inspiration for a children’s writer. You can find out more about Sharon’s work via her website at www.sharonlnorris.com.au, and can follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/SharonLNorrisAuthor

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Filed under Natural Sciences from the Observation Deck, Stuff about Writing ~ Research Tools, Stuff about Writing ~ Tips and Tools

Science Fiction/Fantasy Research – What Ingredients Make a Cake – Part I

My blog often discusses recent scientific discoveries that may have roots in history or philosophy.  It also addresses the art of research, whether you are a writer or not, how does one go about finding things out?  How do you fill that sense of wonder that we have?  How do you feed a voracious appetite for knowledge?

These thoughts inspired me to ask some of my Facebook friends who are very much involved in writing, editing and reviewing books that fall into this genre.  I will be featuring my volunteers over the next few weeks and will introduce you to their writing philosophy and their work.  Some chose the interview format, some will most likely present an article.  Here we go with guest number one:  Angus Day.  He chose the interview format.

having nice thingsDoes your research drive your story; or does your story shape your research?

My story line drives my research.  Whether it be technological, historical or theoretical I will find what is currently thought and consider it.

How do you keep yourself informed of new developments in the scientific fields?

Depends upon the field.  Chemistry, materials and things in that vein I have sources as a professional.  Most anything else I skim BBC, NASA, space news sites.  When I use Wiki is at the beginning to determine if there are any credible sources referenced but I never use anything directly.

Do you try to shape your stories around hard science; or do you ignore or reach beyond what is known into the possible, probable, or does it matter?

I do not shape my stories based on what we think we know today.  How people can make determinations about what is possible when we haven’t effectively left the fish bowl yet is beyond me.  I don’t ignore the doubters, but I may try to spin the story so that they get discredited for having closed off their minds.  Addressing the ‘does it matter’, I dislike the hand wave.  Have some guts and build a world where things are possible.  Weave a story of hope.

What sorts of things inspire your interest to seek more information?

Extrasolar planets, out of the box propulsion schemes, myths of my ancestors proven to have merit within new interpretations and someone egotistical enough to claim something is not possible.

What sorts of things tend to spark the idea of a story?

A breeze, news item or an extraordinary event.

Do you often have characters in mind and find yourself in search of a scientific background to suit their character and its development?

Not all of my characters are scientists.  Sometimes they are military, business people…  The fifth novel will have a main character that is a moron finding his way through one accident at a time without any real redeeming qualities.

Do you like to teach science with your writing and if so, is it your only goal or do you just have a lot of fun playing with the ideas that scientific theory presents?

I try to blend the concept of scientific discovery into the lives of my characters.  There is a way to turn me off from reading a science fiction novel and that is the dreaded ‘info dump’.  I have fun with it.

Do you see correlations between scientific theory as it develops and your own philosophy or world view?

My world view is that there will always be the unknowable in everyone’s lives.  It may be out of our reach during our time which does not make it impossible.  Too often people are ready to declare something impossible because it conflicts with what they think they know scientifically and or theologically.  True scientific method seeks to disprove a statement because if you can not then it is possible.

Does this perspective become part of your characters’ development, or just background?

The perspective becomes integral with the character’s development.

What is your most favorite, wonder, awe-inspiring thing that you have learned in the last few years?  Something that confirmed or changed your point of view of the world and all that is in it?

I don’t believe that I learned it but became more comfortable with the view that one’s belief system is personal.  There is no need to strive for conflict with others that don’t believe the same unless they are trying to oppress you.  I try to write open and accepting protagonists.  Antagonists I try to construct believable character flaws that lead to selfish behavior and decisions.  My spinnings are my view of the current and future worlds we live in.

What is your favorite writing project which involved research into the sciences?

Fictional development of the Vascaran drive in Legacy of Daddy was my favorite because it is representative of the boundaries needing conquering in order to graduate to interstellar civilization.  I’m not done with it yet.

I live in Fort Collins Colorado with my wife and son. My daughter has embarked on her career as a graphics designer. I’ve been an Infantryman, Swine Farmer, smattering of other trades and jobs and now I’m a manufacturing pharmaceutical chemist. What aspect of my life that is devoted to fitness favors swimming in open water which means I spend most of the year working out in a pool then hit the lakes when it warms up a bit. My wife Cheryl safety kayaks for me when we manage to make it work.

Some other places to check Angus out: Facebook Group:  Next You Utopian Estates

And on the web: The Next You Universe


Filed under My Bookshelf ~ Fiction, Natural Sciences from the Observation Deck, Stuff about Writing ~ Research Tools, Stuff about Writing ~ Tips and Tools

Hello? Is there anybody really there? ~ The Question of Consciousness

Admittedly for a person with only elemental understandings of the workings of physics, using science to peer into the realm of the mind can be a risky business.  But, it’s irresistible.  Some of the biggest names in physics have approached the question and they have come up with some truly interesting ideas.  A few of the resources I used to explore this subject include Through the Wormhole (narrated by Morgan Freeman), Dr. Michio Kaku, the “Global Consciousness Project,” and a little research on Dr. Erwin Schrodinger’s cat and Henri-Louis Bergson.  Yep, all of them.  And this probably won’t be my last bit of wandering into this field.  I also have to admit some research into the materialist’s point of view.  Most markedly I would refer the reader to I Am a Strange Loop by Douglas Hofstadter and The Believing Brain by Michael Shermer.  It’s always nice to have a bit of balance.

There was a time when I could sit with my husband and discuss the philosophical application of various developments in physics.  Sometimes things would get a bit wild and he would gently bring me back to some more conservative point of view.  Not because he didn’t think I was “on to something,” but because he felt that the research didn’t support the thought – yet.  Over the past several months we have spent time watching the series mentioned above and some of these old questions came to the fore.  The inspiration for this post was the segment on the sixth sense.  (No teeth grinding from my more materialist friends).


photo by Dian Brandmeyer
Courtesy WANA Commons

In the cut that impressed me the most, Dr. Michio Kaku walks the viewer through Schrodinger’s thought experiment.  Starting with the understanding that in particle physics any particle can be anywhere or everywhere (based on probabilities) until someone looks at it (measures).  The thought experiment with the intrepid kitty in a box is an experiment that puts the cat in a situation where certain events may, or may not, kill the cat.  Until we open the box, we cannot know if the cat is dead or alive and, therefore, it is both.  This is the answer derived from the sum of the probabilities.

Kaku goes on to say that Henri-Louis Bergson took the experiment a bit further and decided that part of the act of measuring, of “looking” is an act of consciousness.  The cat lives (or dies) because a conscience individual looked in the box and made that measurement.  Then he goes to the next step.  The cat and the observer are in the same universe.  So, who is to say that the observer is dead or alive?  Another observer.  Layer upon layer of observers measuring the universe into reality results in a universal consciousness looking back down the chain of observers to the scientist who looks in the box and sees — that the cat is alive.  Confused yet?

NASA image

NASA image

Another part of the same program discussed the Global Conciseness Project.  This, too, fascinated me both because of the reach (global) and the length of time the scientists have collected information.  This project uses random number generators which are located in population centers around the globe.  What the scientists look for is anomalies in the stream of random numbers.  Understanding that no matter how hard we try, no generator is completely random, the system builds in tolerance levels to seek only a certain level of unusual behavior.  The most dramatic result in their records?  September 11, 2001.  Not only did the random generators deviate with the widest margins recorded to date, the change started before the actual event.  Their site is linked above.

There are, however, different points of view that look at the relationship between mind and brain as purely physical.  This would be a “materialist” interpretation.  I mentioned a few references in the opening that are written by men who are perfectly comfortable in a world where our “minds” are nothing more than a construct of the biology and neurology of  our brains.  That whatever it is that is “I” develops from birth by using a feedback loop between our brains and the outside world.  In this case materialism means that there is nothing beyond the physical.  I found much of interest in these books.  I learned a bit about how pattern recognition and symbol making can result in the higher cognitive functions we think of as particularly human.  But I couldn’t quite make that last leap and say “I Are Nothing but the Atoms of Which I Am Made.”

Personally, I find much wonder and awe in the universe in which we live.  I never cease to be amazed at the wonders discovered by science, mathematics, biology, medicine and philosophy.  And I know that there are people who will tell me that all that “wonder” is possible with nothing more than the firing neurons in my head.  However, I cannot look at the stars without yearning; I cannot let go of the feeling that there is “something more.”

What about you?  Without throwing darts from either side of the equation, what do you think about consciousness?  Is it possible that there is some part of our brains that does comprehend the world on levels we have yet to explore?

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Filed under Humanties for the Unbound Mind, My Journey with Job, Natural Sciences from the Observation Deck

Book Review ~ The World of Seen, But Not Seen

QED:  The Strange Theory of Light and Matter by Dr. Richard Feynman.  Available for less than $10.00

A little late this week, but we’re still here!  This week I thought I would review a little book that I have treasured for years, QED.  You might notice, if you spend much time in my little corner of the world, that I love to explore various fields of scientific study.  This is due in part because our universe is so amazing and in part because I feel that what we learn from the natural world tells us many fundamental things about ourselves.   My husband is a physicist.  When I first met him a whole new world of thought was opened up to me.  QED was the first place he sent me to begin my journey into the conceptual study of Quantum Electrodynamics.

The author of this little book, the late Richard Feynman, was a Nobel Prize laureate in physics in 1965.  He was a member of the team that developed the atom bomb and served on the panel that investigated the space shuttle Challenger disaster.  Although one of the world’s most brilliant physicists, he was also a well loved professor at Caltech.  Neil Bohr would seek him out often because of his unassuming nature and ability to play devil’s advocate with any scientific mind of the time.  His immersion in the topics of mathematics and physics gave him the clarity in his teaching that could speak to the uninitiated.  This book is an edited version of his presentation for the Alix G. Mautner Memorial Lecture series given at UCLA.

So, what is so terribly amazing about this particular book?  Well, with little or no mathematics and diagrams that walk you through each and every step, Feynman takes you into the world of quantum mechanics where nothing happens as we expect.  Time travels whatever way it chooses, particles can be here and there at the same time, or nowhere at all.  As a teacher, Feynman does not talk down to his audience, nor develop not-quite-right metaphors to lead the blind into the semi-gray darkness.  The presentation is straightforward and just as applicable to the adventuresome layperson as it is to a physics major.   A delightful way to get introduced to some of the aspects of the strange and wonderful universe we call home.

So, tell me, what kinds of things do you like to explore?  What burning questions do you have that seem like rumors and not real science?  Do you have a favorite series, book or teacher?  Let me know!  Always happy to incorporate things from my audience.


Filed under Natural Sciences from the Observation Deck

Mysticism, Science ~ or Both?

Courtesy of ru.wikipedia.org

My husband and I have recently purchased the first two seasons of an intriguing series entitled, Through the Wormhole narrated by Morgan Freeman.  This series is a wonderful and fascinating collection of some of the most enduring questions in a number of fields of study.  The focus of today’s blog was entitled, “Is There an Edge to the Universe?”

As is not uncommon, the segment really just got me interested and generated more questions than it answered.  In addition to this segment we had also watched the thirteen-episode classic, Cosmos, with Carl Sagan.  In one of his segments he talks about Pythagoras and the dodecahedron.  My sometimes strange mental chemistry began to put some interesting things together.  Keeping in mind I am not a mathematician or a physicist, I still thought two concepts developed some 2 ½ millennium apart somehow resonate.  I am not the only one.

We will start with a Greek fellow named Pythagoras.  He lived somewhere around 582-507 BCE in southern Italy in a town named Croton.  At some point he and his followers got into a lot of trouble with the locals and had to flee.  What we know of the man’s writings come to us almost exclusively through quotes and references  This makes it a tad difficult to be certain what he contributed and what his disciples contributed.  In general, he traveled a great deal when young and when he settled in Croton he formed a philosophical group that studied mathematics as a sacred and esoteric subject that should not be shared with the un-initiated.  In the Cosmos episode (Backbone of the Night), Sagan postulates that the Pythagoreans where a contributing factor to squelching the growing innovative and scientific explorations of the Ionians.  The whole affair appears to represent an ancient form of religious fanaticism suppressing scientific freedom (ala Sagan).

In any case, you may actually recognize the name of this ancient Greek.  He is considered, in many ways, the father of geometry.  Two things we can attribute to him and his followers: the five perfect solids and the golden ratio.  The golden ratio, as it happens, develops mathematically from the formulas used in the formation of the fifth solid: the dodecahedron.  The mathematics involved with the dodecahedron produce all sorts of interesting relationships and correlations.  It really is no wonder that those who came upon it considered it somehow sacred.  The crystal pyrite (fool’s gold) actually forms an imperfect dodecahedron.  The Pythagoreans, believing that mathematics formed the foundation of reality, saw something quite magical in the properties related to this particular shape.

We move forward to 1596 CE and we find the intrepid Kepler attempting to explain the paths of the planets by using Pythagoras’ five solids: tetrahedron, octahedron, icosahedron, hexahedron (cube) and dodecahedron.  Sadly, this didn’t work out.  However, instead of giving up, Kepler used his failure to develop the actual math by which the planetary orbits can be predicted.

Courtesy of en.wikipedia.org

Move forward a bit more to the work of Jules Henri Poincaré (1854 – 1912).  Poincaré was a mathematician, theoretical physicist, engineer and a philosopher of science.  Among the many, many contributions he made to his fields of study was Poincaré’s homology 3-sphere, or dodecahedral space.  I do not have the math to explain what happens in the model; however the work that Poincaré did on the structure led scientists working on the microwave background of the “big bang” to postulate that the universe just might be in the shape of a Poincaré sphere.  This is not an interpretation with a general consensus.  Enter the fellow introduced to me in the “Edge of the Universe” episode, Jean-Pierre Luminet of the Observatoire de Paris.

This scientist set out to see if he could determine whether or not the universe had an edge and if so, what was its shape.  I need to insert something here.  Scientists working on the “edge of the universe” do not envision an “edge” that one might bounce up against or fall off.  What they see is something similar to the world of the old “Space Invaders” video game where if you exit one side of the screen, you would reappear on the opposite side of the screen going in the same direction. Using the model of the dodecahedron, you would exit one of the twelve pentagon-shaped sides and immediately reappear on the opposite side with a bit of a twist.  This reminds me a bit of Arthur C. Clarke’s Wall of Darkness about a three dimensional mobius strip.

Back to Luminet.  He could tell from the readings of the background microwave noise of the early universe (as we know it) that there were certain sound waves that were “missing.”  After much testing he discovered that one particular shape would produce the pattern that we find in those sounds: a common soccer ball, or our ancient friend the dodecahedron.  So, maybe Pythagoras was right: the dodecahedron may be the highest and most sacred solid form.

What is really interesting about all of this is that scientist are now looking for ways to reach past that microwave “background noise” and see just what it is that is out there, if anything.  Can we tell there is an edge?  Are there experiments or astronomical observations that would give us some clues?  Are we stuck on the side of a brane? Do we float in an endless series of bubble universes?  Will we collide with a neighbor and start the whole thing over again?  Is the whole universe composed of singing strings generating all the energy and matter in the universe?  Is there anyone else in the vast cosmos that is as excited about learning about the workings of our amazing home as we are?

If you would like to learn more about the history and application of the dodecahedron I have followed this article with a few links to get you started.  In the meantime, what are your favorite mysteries/fascinations with science and the world around us?  Are you drawn to the incredibly small or the incredibly large?  Do you prefer your science in the form of the visible, tangible world around us?  Or do you revel in the abstract philosophy, mathematics and physics of what makes it all tick?  Let me know what you are interested in.  You never know what lurks on the shelves of our library!  And remember — “Is it something that we’ve left behind….”




Filed under Natural Sciences from the Observation Deck