September 30, 2006

Blind Lake by Robert Charles Wilson

Telescopes of surpassing power revealed to her the unrevealed depths of the cosmos on polished mirrors of floating mercury. The dead worlds of Sirius, the half-formed worlds of Arcturus, the rich but lifeless worlds whirling around vast Antares and Betelgeuse -- these she studied, without avail.

-- Polton Cross, "Wings Across the Cosmos", 1938

"Blind Lake" is an almost fable-like contemplation about First Contact. One of the basic attributes we give to sentient beings is the need for communication, and in "Blind Lake" the universe itself conspires to provide communication between far-flung sentient beings who otherwise could only passively observe each other.

The "Blind Lake" of the title is an observation station: where scientists of various types observe another sentient race many light years away. The telescopes we use to observe other stars become powerful enough to resolve high levels of detail on a planet light years away. However, there are uncomfortable questions about the technology that makes this happen. The computers that were initially programmed to improve the signal to noise ratio from the massive telescope array in space, seem to be creating data out of thin air: data that has an impossibly higher resolution than should be possible. Some question whether the data is real: but most accept that the complexity of what they are observing has to be real, since it would be unthinkable for the software to be dreaming all this up. But there are skeptics ...

Each section of the novel begins with a quote from a Golden Age (1920s-1930s) science-fiction author (e.g. the one above by John Russell Fearn, under the pseudonym of Polton Cross) that identifies with this concern of being able to observe other sentient beings without any means of communicating with them. The only quote not from a Golden Age author is from Lucian of Samosata (from Icaromenippus c. 150 AD, often cited as being arguably the first science-fiction story) which is similarly a story that is concerned about a journey for the purpose of understanding.

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Posted by anoop at 10:01 AM

September 26, 2006

William Congreve and the Rockets of Mysore

From This New Ocean: The Story of the First Space Age, by William E. Burrows, 1998 (ISBN: 0-3757-5485-7)

The first major battles with rockets that involved Europeans occurred during a revolt against the British which began in 1781 in the Mysore region of southwest India and lasted through 1799. The Indians fired crude but effective rockets against British regulars during battles at Seringapatam in 1792 and 1799. "No hall could be thicker," a young English officer named Bayly lamented in his diary. "Every illumination of blue lights was accompanied by a shower of rockets, some of which entered the head of the column, passing through to the rear, causing death, wounds, and dreadful lacerations from the long bamboos of twenty or thirty feet, which are invariably attached to them."

The Royal Laboratory at Woolwich Arsenal was therefore ordered to design and develop a dependable war rocket that could be produced in large quantities as standard equipment for the artillery. This was done by William Congreve, a Cambridge-educated socialite who was an intimate of the Royal Family and whose father was commandant of the Royal Artillery and Woolwich's comptroller. Congreve had studied law and run a newspaper. As the eighteenth century turned into the nineteenth, and in the aftermath of the battles in India (and in anticipation of others with France), he responded by turning his keen intellect and imagination to inventing a better rocket.

After at least three years of experiments, Congreve published A Concise Account of the Origin and Progress of the Rocket System, in November 1807. Even then there were those who fretted about national security and the danger of leaks, and since Congreve was one of them, he happily "sanitized" his report. "In the following pages I have cautiously avoided any disclosure which might lead to a discovery of the interior structure and combination of the rocket, on which all powers depend, this rule I have observed for obvious reasons," the inventor wrote with evident pride.

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Posted by anoop at 01:57 AM