2013-08-30

08-30-2013: DragonCon Day 2

No pictures today - the internet service here is just too slow. Started off with a very good (but not free) breakfast in the hotel restaurant. We then took the DragonCon bus to the Sheraton where we attended our first panel: "Crossing the Veil". This was a discussion about what happens after death. This was one of my wife's interests but I found it to be rather interesting as well. Next, we split up and I went to a writing seminar, "Careers in the Post-paper Era". I picked up several interesting ideas which I will be applying to my next book. I will probably make changes to my already published novels as well. I walked back to meet up with my wife and sat through a panel on "Paranormal Tech Talk". We split up again and I attended a lecture on "Fun in fusion Research". The presenter works with the International Test Experimental Reactor (ITER) and presented a VERY interesting as well as funny lecture. Finally, we walked through the art dealer's room and then spent some time just hanging around taking pictures of all the costumes.

So what did I like best about today? The lecture on fusion research was very good but I think if I had to chose one thing I did today as having the most value I would say it was the "Careers in the Post-paper Era" lecture. Why? Because I picked up a few tips on how to make my books better. All writers should be continually striving to improve. I want to produce the best possible experience for my readers and the best way to do that it to continually improve my writing skills. I read books on writing as well as attend lectures when I can. I also solicit feedback. If you find an issue such as a spelling mistake or a misused word in one of my novels, please tell me about them. I will correct the error and learn from it.

The parade is tomorrow and then we will be spending time in the dealer's room. I do have one panel to attend but that can change. If the internet connection holds out I will blog again tomorrow.

2013-08-29

08-29-2013: DragonCon day 1

Today started off rather interesting. I have a habit of leaving a few of my business cards on the lunch table at the hotel. This morning, the sales manager for the hotel by my daughter's recognized me and stopped to talk. He son and husband are both science fiction fans. Even though I did not have any books with me, she paid me for two of them, trusting me to mail them to her when I get back home. That's the first time I've made a sale like that.

We left the hotel by my daughter's and headed for the hotel we booked for DragonCon. To be honest, I was very worried because of the number of very negative reviews I had read about the Melia hotel. The trip into Atlanta was made without incident and check in at the hotel was very smooth. The room is a bit dated (no refrigerator and no microwave and the TV is an old CRT model) but it is quite nice and very acceptable. After settling in we took a cab to the Sheraton where we encountered a very large line of people for DragonCon check-in (see below photos). The line moved quickly and it wasn't long before we had our badges in our hands.

We walked from the Sheraton to Max Lagers where we met Jody Lynn Nye and Farah Mendlesohn, two of the Launch Pad 12 attendees. We had a very good time together. My wife and I then returned to our hotel where we spent a considerable amount of time working on our plans for the next few days. It's going to be a very busy next few days - I will try to keep track of my activities and blog in the evening.

Here is a pic of a small part of the line of people we stood in to check into DragonCon:

This is the sea of people winding their way to the check-in counters. It moved pretty fast:

2013-08-25

08-25-2013: BSinSF - Dangers of Space Travel

This post comes to you from South Carolina where I'm visiting my father on the way to Dragon*con. Next week's post might be a bit late because of the convention. Peacekeeper update: My wife is at about the half-way point in her grammatical review of the novel. She's been doing her best to proof during our drive through the mountains.

Space is an incredibly dangerous place and many science fiction stories seem to ignore that fact. The movie 2010 got it right but most other movies and many novels get it wrong. This edition of BSinSF talks about some of the dangers people face in space.

The vast majority of the population have no idea just how well protected they are living on the Earth's surface. They seem to forget that our home planet orbits a monstrous unshielded fusion reactor spewing forth torrential amounts of radiation. The Earth protects us in two ways from this onslaught: it maintains a powerful force field and it has a relatively thick atmosphere. The force field is the Earth's magnetic field which extends for hundreds of kilometers out into space. It deflects high energy particles away from the surface. The atmosphere provides a thick layer of shielding protecting us against many other forms of attack from space.

Radiation is a major concern in space. The international community measures radiation in Sieverts which is abbreviated as Sv. A typical person on Earth receives an annual dose of about .01 milli-Sieverts (mSv). The International Space Station is protected from most of the radiation in space because it orbits within the Earth's magnetic field. If you were to spend an entire year on the station, you could expect to receive a total dose of about 150 mSv. An astronaut on the shortest possible round-trip to Mars would receive a total dose of roughly 0.66 Sv. That's 66,000 times the radiation a person normally expects to receive. If you're on the surface of an airless world (i.e. the moon) you're exposed to this radiation. Mars has a very weak magnetic field and a thin atmosphere so living there will get you more dose than working at a nuclear plant. For comparison purposes, I work at a nuke plant and I have never received more than about 3 mSv of radiation in one year.

Things get even worse around Jupiter. Space probes working in the area have to be equipped with specially hardened electronics because the radiation field in the area would damage them to the point of failure. Biological material would not survive for long. Any ships carrying humans would have to be equipped with sophisticated heavy shielding systems.

But radiation is not the only danger in space. In order to get anywhere within a reasonable amount of time you need to travel very fast. Speeds are measured in kilometers per second and at those velocities hitting something as mundane as a fleck of paint can cause serious damage. The space shuttle has returned with dings in the windshield from hitting things like this. A marble-sized rock would do serious damage. Luckily, space is big—very very big—and the chance of hitting something is quite remote. Still, it's a danger, especially if you're traveling very fast for long periods of time. To prevent the forward section of your ship from being slowly eroded away it had better be protected by thick layers of heavy armor.

There are other things out there that are far more dangerous. Getting in the path of a gamma-ray burst for instance could be instantly fatal even light years from the source. If your ship is capable of faster than light travel, the navigational system had better be able to steer you clear of these deadly beams of radiation. There are also strange objects out there called magnetars with hyper-powerful magnetic fields. Get too close to one of these and they will not only erase all your credit cards but you could also find yourself without any iron in your body.


The bottom line—space is not a safe place to be and all science fiction writers should be aware of them. Your ship needs to be able to avoid the larger hazards as well as protect the occupants from the ever-present radiation field. If you want to keep the science right, then you need to learn about such things.

2013-08-18

08-18-2013: BSinSF - Sublight Propulsion

Quick Peacekeeper update: My wife is about 1/3 of the way through the manuscript making very good change suggestions as she goes.

This week's BSinSF (Bad Science in Science Fiction) post concerns sublight propulsion systems. Faster than light (FTL) propulsion systems don't exist and therefore any novel that uses them is in violation of real science. But, then again, the Star Trek communicator was pure fiction in the 60's—now we have cell phones.

If you think about it, every spacecraft propulsion system in use today is based on Newton's third law which is usually stated as: "For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction." Basically, we throw mass out one side of the spaceship and the ship moves in the other direction. Simple. But this simple concept creates some major problems for the science-minded SciFi writer.

The first has to do with the fact that every spacecraft ever built must carry a supply of mass (correctly referred to as propellant) that will be expelled to produce thrust. This propellant is part of the mass of the ship and must itself be accelerated. It seems like a colossal waste and it severely limits how fast a ship can move. Look at what it takes to put something into an orbit only 230 miles (370 kilometers) above the Earth. Rockets are ridiculously inefficient and it takes about a kilogram of fuel to put each gram of mass into space.

Another problem that is often forgotten is the fact that once you get moving, you will eventually have to slow down again. This at least doubles the amount of propellant you need to carry. Then there's the question of accelerating all this propellant—this is what the fuel does. For chemical rockets, the fuel is the propellant but if your ship is nuclear powered your fuel and propellant are separate items.

The bad science part of all this is illustrated in the following example. Let's say you are writing a story and you have a fleet of ships moving around a star system. Wanting to sound like you know what you're talking about you state that the ship uses a 'fusion thruster' or a 'plasma engine'. Your warships, of course, are large, impressive vessels armed with death-dealing weapons of incomprehensible power. They accelerate out of Earth orbit to meet the incoming fleet of enemy ships that have been detected crossing the orbit of Mars. A few hours later, the battle begins with ships maneuvering around each other to gain the slightest tactical advantage. Sounds great—right?

Let's run some very simplistic numbers: The distance between Mars and Earth varies between 54.6 and 225 million kilometers. Let's assume they are 100 million kilometers apart at this point in time. To make the numbers even simpler I'm going to ignore the relative motions between Mars and Earth as well as other simplifications. Let's assume your fleet accelerates for the entire trip, spinning around at the half-way point so by the time you meet the enemy fleet your relative velocity is zero. That means you're accelerating for 25 million kilometers. Your ships have some really bad-ass engines so they can accelerate your vessel at 1 gravity. The math says it will take you just under 40 hours to meet the enemy, not just a few. But wait, we should figure out how much propellant this will take.

The retired space shuttle masses about 68,500 Kg. Using the above scenario as well as the theoretically best engine possible and some equations available on the web I've determined that the amount of propellant your ship needs is in excess of 1.2 million kilograms! And that's just to get to the scene of the battle. After the fight is over the fleet will be stuck because they forgot to save enough propellant to get back home. Cutting down the acceleration will save on propellant but will lengthen the travel time. If you stick with pure known physics your novel is going to read like the adventures of Columbus.

So what is an author to do? Cheat. I hate to say that because I'm a big fan of getting the numbers right. But if you want to write a futuristic space opera with star-spanning empires and battle scenes, the only alternative is to cheat. If you do, at least don't blatantly violate the known laws of physics. The best way around this is to not explain the workings of your propulsion system at all. It's just there.

In the Galactic Alliance series, I utilize a reactionless drive. It latches on to the fabric of space and moves the ship with pure energy alone. But there are a vast number of problems with reactionless drives. Luckily, unless you're well-versed in relativity and have a firm understanding of the conservation of momentum, you won't know just how bad this idea violates the laws of nature.

If you want to at least try to keep your numbers right, do the research and run the math. Don't say your megaton battle cruiser fires its fusion thrusters to travel 10 billion kilometers to do battle with the enemy without mentioning the fact that it has to slow down and it has consumed a whopping terra-ton of propellant. Sometimes, you have to cheat science by creating your own—just make sure the rules it uses are consistent and don't blatantly violate known science.

Here are some more quick science notes that seem to be always forgotten:
·         Unless you have super-science your ships will have inertia. Once they get moving, they have to expend energy to stop.
·         Traveling for long times at near-light speeds will affect how time passes inside the moving ship.
·         Spaceships are not airplanes and will never fly like one. Forget all about how Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica ships operate in space. There is no up or down—ships can spin on their axis while continuing to travel in a given direction.
·         Orbital dynamics are tricky and you should at least be familiar with how a ship behaves in orbit.


For further reading (and there's a ton of it here that will make your brain hurt) I must recommend the Project Rho website. There is so much information on this one site that you can spend all week going through it. I strongly suggest you do so. I also have an Excel spreadsheet (soon to be a Java program) that does a number of these calculations for you. You can find it at the bottom of my web page at http://www.dougfarren.com/

2013-08-15

08-15-2013: Scrivener

I normally don't generate a blog post in the middle of the week but I just had to get this one out. If you're a writer and you've never heard of Scrivener then you need to give it a try. If you've heard of it, and you've tried it out and found it to be a bit confusing, then you need to revisit it. I've just finished reading a fantastic book on how to use Scrivener. The manual from the developers is okay but is severely lacking in a lot of the "how to" descriptions. This is no reflection on the developer team - it's typical because they work with the program all the time and they understand it's ins and outs. For the rest of us--read a third-party book.

The book I'm talking about is "Scrivener for Dummies". The best news is that it's available free at: IT-ebooks. Why would they give this away for free? Because after reading it I think you'll want to buy a printed copy to have at your fingertips. I know I'm going to. Buy it, read it, and then enjoy writing like you've never imagined. I love this program! Don't have a copy? You can try it for free at by clicking here.

One thing the book doesn't talk about and I think it's a serious omission is how to set up your project files. The information is in there, but it's not exactly obvious. Read the book--carefully--paying particular attention to chapter 12, and then start writing. I believe using the preset project formats is a good place to start but unless you understand how the compiler formatting options work you can easily muck it up. I did. For my own work, I should have used a folder to hold the text documents for each chapter with each scene in that chapter a separate text document. I didn't do this at first but after reading the book it didn't take much to restructure the project to conform to these rules.

I'm surprised that Literature and Latte (the developers of Scrivener) do not recommend this book. They should put a link to it on their website.

And, since I'm here, I'll let you know that my wife is still going through Peacekeeper. Have patience, it will be available soon.

Finally, I will be at Dragon*con at the end of this month. If you want to meet up, drop me an email. I'm sure I can find the time.

2013-08-11

08-11-2013: BSinSF (Bad Science in Science Fiction)

Peacekeeper is still in the hands of my grammatically correct wife. As much as I would like to, I'm not going to rush her. I also read a chapter of the completed novel at the writer's group yesterday and received some good feedback.

Today I've decided to begin a new phase in my blogging. Instead of writing about my writing (which is why I started this blog in the first place) and what's been going on in my life, I've decided to make it more interesting. This post is the first in a series of posts on bad science in science fiction. Getting the numbers right is very important in scifi because if you don't, somebody is going to notice. Even something as mundane as the size of a rotating space station must be checked. I do write scifi that uses questionable science (shields, stardrive, etc) but I strive to keep the technology within limits as well as making the numbers and behavior believable.

In this first post of BSinSF (Bad Science in Science Fiction) I'm going to cover a subject I'm very familiar with – nuclear power. I've been in the nuclear power field for more than 35 years and while that doesn't qualify me as an expert it certainly means I know what I'm talking about. I was a reactor operator for 11 years in the Navy and I now work at a nuclear power plant as a technician.

Contamination vs radiation: This is a common misperception. Radiation is particles or photons (usually gamma rays) that are emitted from a radioactive source. This includes an operating reactor. Contamination is a radioactive source in an undesired location. Think of it like this—contamination is like radioactive dust which emits radiation. Contamination can usually be removed unless you get it inside you and then it is still removed by biological action. Radiation can be stopped by shielding and it does not 'melt' things as I've recently heard on a poor television broadcast. Radiation will also not cause contamination. Neutron radiation can cause non-radioactive materials to become radioactive but other types cannot do so.

Critical reactors: This is actually a good thing! A sub-critical reactor is one in which the power level is dropping. Super-critical means the power level is rising which is also normal because it's how you raise power in a fission reactor. Critical, is simply the definition of a reactor running at a steady power level. For those of you who remember Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea – forget everything you learned in that show concerning nuclear power; it's all wrong! There is another form a criticality called 'prompt critical'. This is virtually impossible to achieve in modern reactors. Prompt criticality will destroy a reactor but will not result in a mushroom cloud nuclear explosion. The primary reason this cannot happen in a power reactor is that the fuel used in the core is not the same as that used in a nuclear bomb and it is not even close to the correct configuration. The explosions at Chernobyl and SL-1 were steam explosions caused by a prompt-criticality event—not a nuclear explosion.

Nuclear reactors: There are two basic types that we know of: fission and fusion. Fission reactors operate by the splitting of heavy atoms. Gross power level is controlled by inserting and removing control rods from inside the core. Fine power level is controlled by a natural feedback process involving the density of water. Basically, the hotter the water gets the less power the reactor produces. This 'negative feedback' allows the reactor to be easily controlled. Fusion reactors generate power by smashing very light elements together. This is how the sun produces power. Fusion reactors require some way of heating the fuel and keeping it confined. This is usually accomplished by magnetic fields or lasers. Neither type of reactor can explode in the nuclear sense of the word. If a fusion reactor is damaged it will simply stop operating. If a fission reactor is damaged and not kept cool the fuel will eventually overheat and melt. The extreme heat of the melting fuel will cause water to be split into oxygen and hydrogen resulting in a hydrogen explosion which is what happened at Fukushima and Three Mile Island.

The bottom line is this: If you use a nuclear reactor to power something in your story and that reactor experiences a problem, you should do the research first to find out if the accident you describe can actually occur. When in doubt, talk to someone who understands nuclear power. There's a lot of people out there who think they know how this stuff works but who really don't. Talk to someone in the industry—most people are glad to talk about it.


Feedback on the contents of this blog are welcome. If you would like additional details or would like to see a specific subject covered please let me know. I can be reached at: author at dougfarren dot com 

2013-08-05

08-05-2013: Peacekeeper editing is done

Today I finished my editing of Peacekeeper (book 4 of the Galactic Alliance series). Now it gets turned over to my wife for her grammatical check. Having worked at a newspaper for 27 years she has a good eye for misspellings and wrongly used words. My friend's wife in Minnesota is working on the cover. If all goes well, the book should be ready for release in about 2 or 3 weeks.

I have received some very good news concerning Launch Pad--the week-long science class given by Professor Brotherton in Laramie, Wyoming. I will be returning again next year. Professor Brotherton is thinking of having me give a lecture on nuclear reactors and possibly one on indie publishing. I'm thrilled!

The old fence was hauled away the other day and everything is now cleaned up. The fence project is done. You can see photos of this project at:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/64567572@N08/sets/72157634940466137/

I've been thinking about the content of my blog of late and I think I should begin writing about other things other than what's been going on in my life. I work at a nuclear power plant as well as being an author so there's lots of stuff there for me to blog about. As an indie author, I've thought about focusing on that. If anyone is out there reading this and has a suggestion for a topic please let me know.

That's it for this entry. I'll keep you informed about Peacekeeper.