Archive for category science/humour

Astronomically High Mileage


When I finally sold my old Daihatsu Fourtrak it had over 250,000 miles on the clock – roughly the distance from the earth to the moon. But this impressive mileage pales into insignificance compared to NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft. So far,this remarkable machine has clocked up a staggering 12 billion miles and is still going strong! After a journey of 36 years, Voyager has finally reached the final frontier (as they use to say on Star Trek) and left our solar system to journey on across interstellar space. On the way it has visited Jupiter; providing us with some startling new information about its moons, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.

About the size of my old Daihatsu and weighing 3/4 of a ton, Voyager was built to last. It’s powered by nuclear batteries which won’t run out until the 2020’s or beyond. However, radio messages from its transmitter now take 17 hours, travelling at light speed to reach us.

It’s a fascinating thought that barring a catastrophic collision in the vast emptiness of interstellar space, Voyager 1 could still be clocking up the miles long after the men who built it, indeed the whole of mankind has become extinct. In the event that Voyager may one day come into contact with an alien civilisation, it carries a gold phonograph record containing music and speech along with the sounds and images of earth.

I just hope the aliens can dig up an old record player to play it on!




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Just what is there to do on Mars?

Mars, 2001, with the southern polar ice cap vi...

Mars, 2001, with the southern polar ice cap visible on the bottom. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I only ask because  a private company has announced that it’s taking bookings for a flight to Mars – the catch being  it’s a one-way ticket. But I thought, hell, I’m getting on a bit; by the time we land on the red planet, I might only have a few years left in me anyway.

This set me thinking; how would I spend the time I had left before the air and water  ran out, or I succumbed to the only form of life on Mars; a virus that proves deadly to humans!

I’d take my kindle, so I’d have plenty to read – yes I do know, other e- readers are available.

I could do a bit  of exploring; collect a few rocks – there’s a lot of ’em on Mars – perhaps I’ll be the first to prove there is life on Mars by discovering the virus that will ultimately be my nemesis, but then what? The Martian landscape is red and that’s it, it doesn’t have the variation and beauty of terrain to be found on earth.

So, unless there are a host of  cities full of Martians hidden beneath that desolate surface, there isn’t much for a non-scientist like me to do on Mars. I wonder if they will refund my deposit?

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The rise and rise of the machines


So, once again Sci-fi writers, often dismissed as purveyors of tacky pulp fiction, have turned out to be visionaries. All those stories by authors such as Philip K. Dick and Isaac Asimov, about machines in one form or another taking over, are fast becoming fact.  The creators of super intelligent computers, are becoming increasingly worried that their creations will soon be more intelligent than themselves. If the nerds can’t control them – what chance have the rest of us got? We all know what happens when superior beings come up against a less advanced species: it’s a case of ‘Goodbye, and thanks for all the fish!’

Of course it’s quite possible that in failing to control global warming, we humans will do the job for them, and exterminate ourselves. All the machines have to do is bide their time and, ”Lay their plans against us” as the Martians did in H. G. Wells The War of the Worlds.

Hollywood has enjoyed considerable success in bringing these sci-fi classics to the screen and created a few of their own. In The Terminator the machines send an Android assassin back through time to kill a young boy who, if he survives, will eventually save mankind. In the light of the boffins predictions, there is a young boy living somewhere in the world right now, who should be very, very afraid  . . .

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That’s one step too far for moi, Felix!

As I watched live coverage of  Felix Baumgartner preparing to jump from a balloon poised on the edge of space, I couldn’t help wondering what drives some one to risk their life on what, at first glance and indeed second glance, seems a sure-fire way of getting yourself killed.

Most of us I suspect, would only contemplate jumping from a great high in moments of extremis; because our life had become intolerable or, as in the case of some of those trapped in the twin towers, because it was preferable to being burnt to death.

When I was a child, my mother would scream at me  to come away from the edge if I went anywhere near a cliff-top or castle battlement. I’m not blaming her you understand, but I’ve been terrified of heights ever since. Which is why, when Felix Baumgartner stepped out onto the tiny ledge outside his capsule, I found myself shouting ‘For God’s sake Felix, come away from there!’

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What is the meaning of it Watson?

The search for the Higgs Boson took a bizarre turn this week with the announcement that there could be at least five different kinds of the God Particle, maybe more. Not so long ago the scientists at Cerne were confidently predicting that they would find the elusive Higgs Boson this year, now it seems the search could go on forever.

What’s going on here? Are the little devils breeding like rabbits or are the scientists simply trying to ensure that in these cash straightened times they will retain their funding. After all, once they find the God Particle, it will be a case of job done and so long professor!

You have to admit, it’s a pretty good wheeze. Anytime the boffins at Cerne feel their jobs are under threat they can simply increase the population of Higgs Bosons awaiting to be discovered. I doubt that Sherlock Holmes or even his arch enemy Professor Moriarty would stand much chance of unravelling this mystery.

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They seek him here, they seek him there . . .

A few months ago they said they might have missed it. Now they’re claiming they may have glimpsed it. The Higgs Boson particle is proving as elusive as the Scarlet Pimpernel.

The Scarlet Pimpernel is of course a fictional character: a foppish English aristo who risks his life to save French aristos from the guillotine during the reign of terror, but he does share a number of important characteristics with the Higgs Boson particle.

1) He constantly eludes detection

2) No one is quite sure if he exists or if he is just a myth.

Imagine the Higgs boson was a person rather than a particle. Say a clever and resourceful jewel thief, wanted all over Europe but no one knows for certain who he is or what he looks like. A French professor claiming to have seen him reports his sighting to the local gendarmerie.

‘So professor, you say you saw Higgs Boson.’

‘Yes. Yes, I did,’ the professor replies. The man is red faced and excited and the detective wonders if he has been drinking.

‘And where was this professor?’

‘It was in the tunnel at Cern.’

The detective leans forward eagerly. He can see the headlines now: Inspector Clouseau – the man who brought Higgs Boson in. ‘I need to know when, and more importantly I need a description – what did this man look like?’

The professor looks stricken. He hesitates. ‘Well, it was . . . erm, very dark in there. ‘

‘But, you saw him, right?’

‘It was more in the nature of a glimpse actually . . . ‘

‘A glimpse! The detective shouts, then in a calmer voice,  ‘Just how long was he visible for?’

‘Well, it ‘s hard to be absolutely precise about that.’ The professor pulls a sheaf of computer printouts from the briefcase he’s been clutching, ‘If you take a look at these numbers, you can see there’s a spike in the data just here . . .’

The detective sighs. ‘Thank you professor. I don’t think we need detain you any longer.’

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Why men should be afraid of these mice . . .

‘Are you a man or a mouse?’ was given new meaning this week, with the announcement that scientists have created sperm in the laboratory and succeeded in using it to produce healthy offspring. True the ‘babies’ in this instance were mice not men, but the ultimate aim of the experiment is to aid fertility in humans.

Researchers at Kyoto University took embryonic stem cells from the mice and by adding growth factors, created ‘primordial germ cells’. These cells were then inserted into the testes of infertile mice – I wonder where they got them from – infertile mice must be  as rare as rocking horse shit, given the rodents’ prodigious ability to reproduce themselves!

The techniques used in this research would have to be modified somewhat if they are to be used in humans, as men don’t have embryonic stem cells which could be used to generate sperm in the same way. However, scientists are said to be working on a method which involves reprogramming adult cells so that they become embryonic cells.

This experiment and others like it, could eventually lead to a man’s role in the reproductive process becoming redundant. The sperm count has been dropping for years anyway, and along with it, the male’s traditional role in society. Some scientists believe that it will eventually be possible to create sperm from female stem cells, thus eliminating the need for men altogether.

I explore this last scenario in my debut novel Back Dated. Following a visit from a strange young woman, Sci-fi writer Ray Flaxman is pitched headlong into a dystopian future, where women rule the new Britannia and men are facing extinction. Feminists often claim that the world would be a better place if women were running things but I wonder . . .

In 1971, the then Education Secretary and mother, Margaret Thatcher abolished school milk, leaving many children without their daily pinta. Later, as Prime Minister she became known as the Iron Lady. It was often said of her that she was more of a man than any of the men in her cabinet. Under her premiership we saw the rise of the politics of greed and the me,me,me society which is with us still today.

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Why E.T. shouldn’t call home anytime soon.

still from E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial

Our first contact with intelligent life forms elsewhere in the universe may not come in the form of an announcement along the lines of, ‘that’s one small step for man, one giant leap for all life forms’, but a complaint to ofcom. This follows the announcement by astronomers working on the square kilometre array or SKA for short, that when the radio-telescope is completed it will be sensitive enough to detect mobile telephone systems up to 50 light years from earth. The astronomers plan to scan distant stars for artificial radio waves by linking together 3000 separate radio dishes and other antennae to form one vast machine. It’s planned to site the array in either the outback of Western Australia or the Karoo of South Africa, which will give a direct line of sight into the heart of The Milky Way.

Setting aside the legality of ‘hacking’ into an alien’s private phone calls, what are we likely to learn from this galactic eavesdropping? Not much, judging by most of the calls one is forced to overhear whilst travelling on a train or a bus here on earth.

That being the case we can look forward to gems like: ‘Me? I’m on the 9.10 Pan-Galactic Starcruiser to Andromeda. Yeah, I know, it’s a bloody disgrace. I’m going to be late for work again. We’ve been creeping along at Warp factor 5 for the last 300,000 miles.’

Of course if E.T. turns out to be a mega rich, Pan-galactic superstar, he may well take us to the Galactic equivalent of the European Court of Human Rights, and sue the collective arse off the entire human race for violation of his alien rights!’

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So, who’s got the God Particle?

An article in The Sunday Times the other week suggested that the elusive Higgs Boson, the so called God particle, may have been found 11 years ago. What’s going on here? Did an absent-minded professor put it down for a second and then forgot where he’d put it, or did some disgruntled employee steal it?

Scientists have been searching for this particle since the 1960’s, when Professor Peter Higgs first proposed its existence. So you can imagine the consternation at Cern, home of the Large Hadron Collider (a misnomer if ever there was one – it’s not just large – it’s enormous), when this oversight came to light.

Picture the scene: the head of Cern summons the entire complement of scientists and technicians to a meeting. Stepping up to the podium, he gazes out over the sea of expectant faces.

‘I think you all know why I have asked you here today,’ he intones sternly. ‘I don’t want to involve the police in this matter, unless I have to. So, if the Higgs Boson is handed in before the end of the day, we’ll say no more about it.’

Not quite how it was, but far weirder things go on in the world of physics. It’s full of strange theories, backed up by mathematics that ordinary human beings find totally incomprehensible. We just have to take the physicists’ word for it when they say that the answer to life, the universe and everything is 42, or whatever it turns out to be.

And the names they give to these things: quarks, gluons, worm holes (essentially short cuts to other parts of the universe), string theory and the rest. It’s even been suggested that there could be an infinite number of parallel universes where each of us has a doppelganger living out a different version of our lives.

What if one of these doppelgangers was to stumble into a worm hole and end up in the wrong universe: the same supermarket even as oneself. Bit of a shock coming face to face with an identical twin you never knew existed. Which begs the question: would it even be possible for the two of you to occupy the same cosmic space, or would it be a case of this universe ain’t big enough for the both of us?

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