In Sputnik’s Orbit

A few thoughts to tide you over…


Meet The Winners 2016 – Matt Dovey

12247064_1681806465389861_7632676903299013661_nWhen I won the L Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future contest, it brought many new experiences into my life. One of the most rewarding has been meeting fellow winners of the contest. So not to deprive you of the same, please join me in welcoming 2015 winner, Matt Dovey, a very tall, very English fellow who has stopped by with a cup of tea.

Stuart: Hi Matt! Welcome to Sputnik’s Orbit, don’t mind the cables, and whatever you do, don’t touch that lever.

Matt: Thanks, I won’t.

Stuart: So tell us a little about yourself.

Matt: Well, I am, predictably, a geek. I work with computers for a living, and the only reason I don’t spend all my time playing computer games anymore is that I’m too busy writing now. I am a proper country boy– a Yellowbelly, in fact–and live in a quiet market town with my amazing wife and three children. The sunrises here are glorious.

Stuart: A yellowbelly eh? I should point out to my American readers that in the UK, that means someone from Lincolnshire, not someone who runs from a fight. So what dragged you away from the sunset and into the writing life?

Matt: I’ve always just felt like a writer, even if I’ve not particularly been writing at the time. I read an awful lot of books as a child, so I suppose it’s based in that. I met my best man at primary school when I saw him misspell Martin the Warrior as “Martian the Warrior” on a book report. Reading is a fundamental part of who I am.

Stuart: Ha ha! That’s me too. I used to write all the time as a kid, just never took it seriously.

Matt: My first fiction was Skies of Arcadia fan fiction. I’m not ashamed (though it is pretty terrible. You could Google it, but you shouldn’t).

What got me started on trying to do it properly? Hilariously enough, because I needed some money, and thought the world would be falling over itself to shower me with praise and money. I have been severely disavowed of both those notions in the three years since.

Stuart. That goodness. You know what’s the last advice Tim Powers gave me at our workshop? Marry into wealth. You did say you have a pretty amazing wife. Does she put up with your writing space?

Matt: I have a man-cave. I’ve got my first Amiga 500, an N64, Gamecube, Dreamcast, Wii and 360–along with my PC, all hooked into a big plasma TV. There’s shelves full of books and DVDs and old Warhammer figures. I am surrounded by all my accumulated nerdery there.

Stuart: Cool. What do you do when your aren’t writing.

Matt: I’ve spent half my life live-roleplaying, which turns out to be marvellously useful for writing. I also homebrew wine and take my SLR with me everywhere I go.

Stuart: Aweseom! You will definitely need it at the workshop. How long have you been entering WotF?

Matt: This was my sixth entry over the course of two years. I’d had two honorable mentions before this. It’s my first sale of any kind, though I’ve just signed a contract with Flash Fiction Online for “This is the Sound of the End of the World”.

Stuart: Well all right! Go man! Tell me this, Star Trek or Star Wars?

Matt: I reject your false dichotomy. Star Trek is science fiction at its best: an examination of humanity, the best and worst of us, our hopes for the future and our fear of ourselves. TNG did it best. Star Wars is fantasy at its best: there has never been another piece of escapism as fine or as successful. Who amongst us has never pretended to be a Jedi? Anyway, the correct answer is “Firefly”.

Stuart: You are correct sir! Have some lovely tea. Do you prefer fantasy or scifi more?

Matt: I love both–and write both–but I am a fantasy geek at heart. Warhammer still occupies a huge part of my imagination, all its gothic spires and overwrought high fantasy.

Stuart: You will probably be meeting Jordan Ellinger, who’s written a lot for Warhammer. He says it has it’s pluses and minuses professionally, but is a great foundation to add to.

Matt: It’s a magpie world, made of stolen shiny bits from a hundred other places, jumbled together and turned up to eleven, and I love it uncritically.

Stuart: There you go. What else?

Matt: Discworld is almost a third parent to me, it’s such a large part of my moral education. I strongly suspect my atheism and humanism was born on the streets of Ankh-Morpork and in the hills of Lancre and the grey plains of Death’s Country.

Stuart: Thanks a lot, Matt. The Texas Talliban will be writing all our great state’s school librarians in the morning.

Matt: Ha ha. Fantasy is so much more than the traditional definition though. It’s the cracks between the pavements that people fall through, it’s the world on the other side of the mirror, it’s the magic you see out of the corner of your eye. I love Gaiman and Miéville and Moorcock, the incredible imagination they bring to bear. I think, even more so than science fiction, fantasy is the one truly unrestrained genre. Laws of physics? Consistent biology? Extrapolated technologies? Such limiting concerns. But magic–magic can take you anywhere.

Stuart: Indeed. Speaking of which, if you had a superpower, what would it be?

Matt: Invisibility. Because I am a writer, and thus an awkward introvert. So long as my SLR could be invisible as well, so I could get some glorious candid portraiture. (Not that kind, you perverts.)

Stuart: Ha ha! Tell us about your winning story

Matt: I can’t say much, because the story is still being blind judged for the Golden Pen award. But it is, objectively, the best thing I’ve written to date: it has characters I like, and characters I dislike but admire, and an actual plot structure to it, and hopefully some cool world-building to it (I think so). It is also a story & setting that has fundamentally grown out of who I am, and it absolutely embodies my politics and my opinions. It’s the sort of story where I looked back on it and thought, “Huh. So that’s what I believe.” Writing really is thinking on paper for me.

Stuart: Are you a pantser or a plotter?

Matt: Mostly plotter. I have to know where I’m headed with a story, else I end up just noodling around going nowhere in the story, and by Dickens does that result in some boring passages of prose, ripe for later deletion. But my plotting comes out in a rush of inspiration and excitement as a core idea sparks off implications and interesting scenes and snatches of conversation and gorgeous visuals. I scribble it all down frantically in no sort of order. If I could type at 2,000wpm I’d be a pantser, but the limitations of this frail corporeal existence require me to be a plotter.

That said, any plot as originally envisioned is never complete, and is never adhered to wholly. It seems that half my brain is in my fingers, and the best ideas come while I’m typing. This half-brain-architecture also has limited capacity, such that I have to write down what I’ve already got in order to make room for the rest of the idea to fill out. This is where the role playing comes in handy–I can feel the shape of where an idea should be when I’m writing, and I can just reach out and grasp something from the aether. Occasionally, it even turns out to be something good.

So as long as I have a reasonable idea of where I’m headed, I can pants along the way. (There’s a quote to confuse non-writers.)

Stuart: I think you have the right idea. Plan the work—then wing it. So aside from the WotF workshop, and Flash Fiction Online, what have you got coming up?

Matt: I’m also shortly to appear on a BBC TV quiz show, Pointless, with my wife sometime early this year. That was a surreal experience to film. As soon as I know an airing date, I’ll shout about it on my website/Twitter.

Stuart: How awesome? Well leave a comment with a link when you have one, and soak it in at the workshop. They put on one hell of a show.

Matt: Thanks, I will!


To watch Matt receive his WotF award live on the Internet the second week of April, Google the Writers of the Future contest as the date approaches. You can also follow Matt at | facebook | twitter










Why Did Apollo Space Suits Have External Hoses?

Someone recently asked: Weren’t the external hoses on the Apollo astronauts’ space suits a risk?

Excellent question. Yes, they were a risk, but an easily managed one with huge benefits.

  1. First, the risk of damage was managed by:
    1. Enclosing the tubes inside braided stainless steel as is done today in better plumbing supply hoses. That, in addition to a multi-layer insulation and abrasion wrap made them pretty snug.
    2. Providing the astronauts with spare hoses.
  2. Second, using the hoses made it easy to:
    1. Decouple the suit and the PLSS–even during an EVA–in case of emergency, or in case of entrapment.
    2. Recharge, clean, and service the suits and life support (PLSS) packs.
    3. Connect the same (multi-million dollar) suits to the space craft interior life support console for use during dangerous maneuvers (like liftoff and reentry).
    4. Buddy breathe off another astronaut’s suit in case of damage or failure of a PLSS.
    5. Use the same (multi-million dollar) spacesuit for tethered EVAs using a long umbilical connected the the life support console inside the spacecraft.

Apollo 17 Command Module Pilot, Ron Evans, performing an EVA to retrieve films shot from an experiment rack. Note that he is wearing the backup emergency life support pack, but no larger primary pack. Instead, both the emergency pack and a long umbilical connect to the suit connectors.

What do you think? Did the gains outweigh the costs? Please rate and leave a comment and let me know. And if you liked this post, you’ll love my upcoming story in Analog Science Fiction and Fact. Pop over to for a free signed e-sampler of award-winning scifi.

What is an orbit, anyway?

What is an orbit, anyway? And what do we mean by freefall, microgravity, and weightlessness?

To answer these questions, first understand the difference between mass and weight. Mass is a property of all (ordinary) matter, and can loosely be thought of as the amount of stuff in that matter. A bucket full of iron nails has a lot more mass than the same bucket full of wooden pegs because there are a lot more electrons, protons and neutrons in every atom of iron than there are in the carbon and other atoms in wood.

All (ordinary) matter has its own gravity, which is just its attraction to all other matter. Weight is what we call the attraction of matter to Earth (or another body like the moon). A bucket of nails weighs more than a bucket of pegs because the earth pulls harder on it–because it has more mass crammed into the same space, and mass is what gravity pulls on.

Crate up the bucket and launch it into space and it still has the same mass, so why does it float around and get nails into everything? It’s still being attracted to the earth, isn’t it? So where did all its weight go?

To understand this, you need to understand inertia. Ever play air hockey ? Or ice hockey? Or knurling? Set the puck flying and it keeps going until it hits something. Give it a tap, and it creeps along until you reach out and hit it again, or till it strikes something, or till the slight friction against the table (or ice or lane) brings it to a stop. And once it stops, it’ll sit there till the cows tip over unless you go get it. Why? Because matter is lazy, that’s why.

No, I don’t mean matter is living in it’s mother’s basement playing video games all night. I mean it likes to keep doing what it’s already doing until something makes it change. If it’s still, it will remain still until pushed. If it’s moving, it will remain moving in a straight line until acted upon. This property of lazyness is called inertia, and it totally makes sense if you think about it. After all, if a bit of rock is hurling through space smoking weed at 82,000 kilometers per second, it’s not just going to stop, put on a tie, and go out for interviews at Starbucks. Why should it?

Inertia makes perfect sense, except in everyday life, we don’t live in a hockey rink or in space. If we roll a cat through the garden, it rubs against the carrots and slows down pretty fast, so we think that’s normal. And it is, in the garden. But toss the same cat out an airlock from the International Space Station, and it will go hurtling off in a straight line in whatever direction you tossed it (you sorry, cat-hating heathen). Except it won’t…because the earth is pulling on it…which brings us to orbits.

Sir Isaac Newton probably never got hit in the head with an Apple, but he was a pretty smart fellow. Three hundred years ago, he understood gravity and inertia and proposed this thought experiment: Say you climb up to the top of Mount Everest with a shiny new cannon. After negotiating the tip with your sherpa, you fire the cannon flat and level toward the horizon. What will happen?

Nothing, right? You fire the ball, it falls and hits some mountaineer on the head, lawyers are called, the usual. But if you pack more powder into the cannon, you can fire the ball further. Fire it far enough, and you can hit base camp. The faster the ball leaves the cannon, the further it will go, until eventually, the curvature of the earth starts to carry the ground away beneath the falling cannon ball.

What if you traded your magic beans for elfin gunpowder that lets you fire the cannon as hard as you like and send your projectile flying without any resistance from the air? Eventually, it would fly so far that the ground was carried perpetually away and the ball would circle the globe–forever.This is what we call an orbit, and we can actually do it in space where the air is so thin it takes months, years, or centuries to slow down our cannon balls, er satellites.

Objects in orbit still have the same mass they do on earth. The earth’s gravity still pulls on them (though not quite as hard, because gravity diminishes with distance). In fact, if you stepped on a bathroom scale while standing atop a tower as high as the International Space Station, you would weigh almost 90% of your normal weight on the ground. And so would all the steel and concrete in the tower, which is why it would collapse, so don’t do that.

But if you jumped off the tower, you would instantly be in free fall (which sounds a lot nicer than “screaming, oh crap! I stepped off the tower”). You would have no weight because the scale that measures weight would be falling along with you and would have nothing to push against but the chewing gum sticking it to your feet. You would not burn up (like a reentering spacecraft). You would fall through the near vacuum, speeding up due to gravity all the time and would eventually exceed the speed of sound before slowing down again in the thickening air. You brought a pressure suit and a parachute, right?

But why would you jump off the tower? It’s not like the ISS is about to crash into your bathroom. Crap! The ISS is about to crash into your bathroom! At 17,500 miles per hour. That’s gonna leave a mark!

Why so fast? Because the ISS is in freefall too. At 88.9% of normal surface gravity, it’s in what NASA likes to call, “microgravity.” It’s falling towards the earth all the time, and to keep from smacking into Disneyland, it’s been set moving in a straight line at 17,500 miles per hour. If the earth weren’t here, it would fly off in a straight line at that speed forever (ignoring a few dozen details that aren’t relevant here). But the earth IS here, and at 17,500 mile per hour, the ISS is flying away in a straight line at precisely the same rate it’s falling toward the earth. Freefalling. Weightless, but still with a lot of mass (the official mass of the ISS is 3.217 crap-tons).

The moon orbits the earth in the same way. The earth orbits the sun, the sun orbits the center of mass of the galaxy, and the galaxy orbits the disembodied mass of Donald Trump’s ego. It’s all the same.

So there you go. Did I leave anything out? Let me know and I’ll try to clear it up. Or jump over to my homepage and request some free scifi and I’ll send you, you know, some free scifi.





The Chicken Or The Egg

This is a repost of a piece I wrote for Informed By Nature a while back:

Which came first, the chicken or the egg? This seeming paradox actually has a clear, specific answer, and that answer reveals as much about how we know what we know as it does about where our breakfast comes from.

To ancient philosophers, the question evoked the deepest mysteries of existence and creation. In popular culture, it’s used to imply the futility of hard reasoning. Both views are wrong—utterly wrong—and it’s easy to see why, even if the actual solution takes a little more effort. The chicken or egg question is an infinite regress, and like division by zero or answers containing infinities, this is usually a sign not of some profound truth but of a poorly framed question.

One famous example is Zeno’s argument that motion is impossible because to move any distance one must first move half way, and before that, half again, and so on. The fact that Zeno—living in ancient Greece—lacked the nineteenth-century mathematics necessary to sum infinite series and calculate geometric limits did not prevent his moving outside to address his neighbors. Another example is Anselm’s attempt to prove the existence of God. He first defined God as the greatest being imaginable, then argued such a being would be greater still if it were real and thus concluded that the greatest imaginable being must therefore necessarily be real. Among the more egregious problems with this argument are that it fails to explain why the whole of reality should be bound by the thoughts of one medieval monk and that it argues with equal force for the abominable snowman.

Clearly, asking the right question is very important.

The correct question here is, how did egg-laying chickens come to exist? To ask “Which came first” implies a false dichotomy—a one or the other choice that isn’t real. It implies that all chickens are the same, that all eggs are the same, and that at some point in the past, one or the other must have popped into existence exactly in its present form. This isn’t true.

The category of birds we call “chickens” is a population of animals that, while very similar to one another, is every one unique. Each chicken is a blend of features from the previous generation, each egg of features from its parent hen. Over time, certain traits may be selected for across the population so that it tends as a whole to drift, from Belgian bantams, say, to Bearded Antwerps. Go back 8,000 years, and you would find red and gray jungle fowl drifting into something recognizable as modern domesticated chickens.

Chickens, like all living things, change along a messy continuum. Any particular chicken came from slightly different parents which in turn arose from even more different ancestors, and so on and so on until at some point in the past, we humans arbitrarily declare the ancestor not to be a chicken at all.

The thing is, there is no such thing—in nature—as species. This is a concept we invented to help categorize and study life. We divide modern chickens into distinct species and breeds, though no genetic barrier prevents their interbreeding. On the other hand, chickens can’t breed with dozens of other kinds of birds in nine modern orders, though countless genetic markers tell us they all descend from a common ancestral population.

The “tree of life” we all learned in elementary school is a useful metaphor, but it’s only a rudimentary approximation of how life actually changes over time. Put aside the nice, flat diagram from the biology book and picture instead a tree that branches in three dimensions and is very, very, blurry—as if viewed through an out of focus camera.

Blurred trees

Blurred tree of life

Zoom in, and distinctions break down between branches. At each fork, blurriness causes overlap between the offshoots. The blurriness represents the variation among individuals. The overlap is the ability of neighboring populations to interbreed. If two branches continue to diverge, the gap between them  grows too wide—they lose the ability to interbreed.

This—more or less—is how species arise. There’s no set line between one species and its neighbor. Polar Bears can breed with Brown bears if we provide the accommodations. Hybrids even occur between more distant branches, such as between jackals and wolves. How is this possible? Because every population is varied—every branch is blurry.

There was never a day when the first chicken appeared. There was only a population that gradually acquired more and more “chicken like” characteristics. The “species” of modern chickens and jungle fowl all overlap. Trace them up the tree and they join up with nine larger branches that once overlapped, but no longer do because they’ve continued to diverge. Far enough, and the branch holding the Rhode Island Red eventually blurs into what once led to certain dinosaurs.

It’s a messy, elegant progression. It never leads from one distinct type to another. It leads instead through diverging groups until time and survival raise a new species from the shadows of its origins. So now when someone asks which came first, the chicken or the egg, you know the correct answer: “Neither. Both come from an evolving population.”

Yes Virginia, We Really Did Land On The Moon

For those genuinely in doubt as to whether we sent twelve men to walk on the moon, some facts.

220px-alsep_as15-85-114681. We left retroreflectors on the moon, just like bicycle reflectors only bigger and not as pretty. Visit the McDonald Observatory or any other with the proper laser range-finding equipment and you can see for yourself that the laser energy returns when the telescope is pointed at the designated landing sites and does not return elsewhere.
2. Two recent survey missions have photographed the landing sites. The LRO has dipped low enough to resolve not just shadows and disturbed soil, but the descent stages and rovers we left behind. No word yet on the poop bags, but they’re here somewhere.584640main_apollo17-right-670

3. We have films of much of the research and testing, and if you know enough about science and engineering to know what you are looking at, it’s all clearly the real thing.

4. We still have much of the hardware. For example, F5 engines from the Saturn-V are currently being disassembled and in some cases fired as part of an effort to develop a cheaper follow-on engine. They clearly are what they claim to be. I’ve personally seen the Saturn-V stack on display in Houston, and it is clearly authentic. Among other things, a  prop would not be made of the same materials, and it would either have phony components or all off the shelf 1960’s hardware. But much of the Apollo hardware was custom developed at great expense, and if you know what you’re looking at, you can see it’s for real. A prop or fake would not have details that only an engineer (or nerd who’s studied the blueprints) would notice.


Workmen at JSC in Houston inside the SLA (the adapter where the LM sat during launch), looking up at the heat shield of a real Service Module without an SPS engine installed. The hole at top (behind the strut) is an access port for fueling, venting, and testing the SPS propellants.

5. We have thousands of pictures taken on the moon, which clearly are what they claim to be. All alleged problems with these materials only demonstrate the ignorance of the conspiracy nuts alleging the problems.

For example: Many conspirators complain that the lander didn’t kick up a lunar dust cloud. Of course it didn’t. Billowing dust can only occur in an atmosphere. In vacuum, each particle—no matter how small–flies off in a straight parabolic arc never to be seen again.

For another example: Motions of the flag claimed to be caused by air currents are—in every case—clearly inertial movements or static electric attraction caused by astronaut movement. The very movements the nutters complain about prove the landings were real. (For many other such examples, visit Bad Astronomy)

6. We have hundreds of pounds of moon rocks. Granted, you need access to them and you need to be a geologist with the right credentials to evaluate them, but at least some, such at the helium-3 impregnated rocks from by Apollo 17, could not have been produced on earth.

7. The Soviets were watching everything we did. They would have ratted us out. They would have LOVED to rat us out.

8. Thousands of people saw it. Not just the spectacular launches and the sailors on the recovery ships, either. Thousands in Hawaii, for example witnessed the Trans-Lunar-Injection burns.

 Others around the world watched the spacecraft on its way to the moon:

Hatfield photo of Apollo 8 fuel dump

Apollo 11 streak in time exposure from SA.

Apollo 11 was observed by thousands in British Columbia, and the streak in this photo from Table Mountain South Africa shows the spacecraft in time exposure, midway through the lunar coast phase.


NASA telescopic photo of Apollo 13 and gas cloud

9. We have documentation in the form of operations manuals for the command and service modules, the LEM, the suits, the rover and much more–all completely authentic and sprinkled across the world including depository libraries like the one at Louisiana Tech where I read them before the conspiracy nuttery had gotten any legs.

10. This guy:

I’ll be posting in more detail soon about specific conspiracy claims and how what they really prove is the ignorance of those making them.

We went to the moon. It was expensive, but like Frosty the Snowman, we’ll be back again some day.

Goodbye To The Goblin King

David Bowie passed away sunday after 69 decidedly not boring years. My daughter, who knows him as the Goblin King for his role in The Labyrinth, came in after hearing the news and said, “Did you know? He had two different colored eyes.”fe608c1bb4bd3590117f95a7e7889c24

No, actually, he didn’t. Both of his eyes were the same color, but the left was permanently dilated, a condition called anisocoria. In his case, it stemmed from a fistfight with a friend over a girl when he was 15 years old.

The girl forgotten, Bowie remained friends with his mate, George Underwood, who he credited for helping build his mistique.

It’s a Miracle

“It’s a miracle!”

We hear it all the time, often from newscasters who want to maximize the emotional impact of some story of survival—the cat in the well, the baby in the twister, the passengers who walk away from an air crash. These are all miraculous—except they aren’t really, and using this hyperbolic term may actually put people at risk.

Consider the humble air crash. Big plane hits the ground, thousands of gallons of Jet-A. Go through a crash and you’re screwed right? You definitely need a miracle.

You might be surprised.

Plane crashes are spectacle—fire, wreckage, flashy lights—it’s easy to expect the worst. But according to an NTSB study of 568 crashes between 1983 and 2000, only five percent of passengers were killed. The remaining 95 percent escaped unharmed or without life-threatening injuries. In another study of more serious crashes, the odds were better than 50/50 that passengers got out alive. And crashes that occur on the ground often have very high survival rates.

This is not a string of miracles. It’s the result of science, engineering, and training. Attributing these survivals to divine intervention ignores nearly a century of NTSB investigation, hard fought regulation, and the bravery, skill, and experience of flight and ground crews across the country.

Maybe there are miracles, but fortune favors the prepared.

Fire in the Deep?

In researching a new story, I learned that Deepsea Challenger, the deep sea submersible James Cameron used to visit the Challenger Deep, was recently damaged by a vehicle fire while being moved by truck.


This is quite a shame. The context of my research was possible exploration of Venus, where surface pressures are around 90 Earth atmospheres.

That’s pretty extreme, but you know how much pressure this baby could take? 1,099 atmospheres! With people inside! And with a window!

The Transcontinental Airway System

Ever see one of these?

Directional marker of the US Transcontinental Airway System

In the 1920s, the US government built a coast-to-coast system of navigational aides to help airplanes deliver airmail day and night, in good weather and bad, across a vast, sparsely inhabited interior without benefit of radio or radar.

The system would have been immediately understood by any engineer in ancient Rome: Some 1,500 concrete arrows pointing the way, generator shacks and fifty-foot towers by which rotating beacon lights helped pilots find the markers, and flashing lights identified each marker by number using Morse code.

It’s the kind of system that calls into doubt the sort of prognostication we often attempt in scifi. It seems absurd today, given than radio navigation beacons were less than a decade away–but they didn’t know what at the time. Nor were they willing to wait. So they did what they could with what they had, and by all reports, it was deemed highly successful by the standards of the day.

But imagine if you will, flying alone in a twine engine biplane, searching for one of these across the barren plains of Nevada, or among the treacherous passes through the Rockies. Oh the stories these forgotten slabs have seen transpire.