My Trip into Space

•October 12, 2013 • Leave a Comment

The opening of Gravity

It seems strange to be writing this from the comfort of my sofa, yet only yesterday this was my view: repairing the Hubble Space Telescope in low Earth orbit, from the next generation shuttle, Explorer. And it was breathtaking. I had front row seats for the UK premiere of Alfonso Cuorón’s Gravity at London’s Odeon Leicester Square, as part of the bfi’s London Film Festival.

Where IK catch the boltThe first dozen minutes of the movie are a single, beautiful shot of Earth from space, viewed in glorious 3D. Wow. We dive into the scene and eventually stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are unscrewing a panel on the Hubble Space Telescope, that they’re up there to repair. A bolt spins out of Bullock’s reach and I’m on hand to catch it as it flies past me. Wonderful.

Cuoron & Bullock introduce Gravity

Last year I found myself on the red carpet with George Clooney for The Ideas of March. This year, I entered with Sandra Bullock while Harry Potter producer David Heyman was being interviewed in the doorway. Having taken my seat, Cuorón, Heyman and Bullock took to the stage and introduced the movie.

The visual effects are extraordinary. Tim Webber and his team are surely nailed on for next year’s Oscar, having come up with all manner of new techniques for relatively low costs, to create such a realistic spectacle. Life of Pi had beautiful cinematography and 3D, but I think Gravity is even better, but of course that’s also partly down to the low Earth orbit setting. Make sure you see the film on the biggest screen you can find, and you won’t be disappointed.

Author Keith Mansfield at the Gravity premiereI have experienced being in space, while at the cinema before. When I worked at the Science Museum I was able to slip into their IMAX whenever they were showing Walking on the Moon: 3D. It really was the next best thing to being there, but that used a lot of genuine footage. There are two related jokes about Gravity, such is the realism of the film: one is that NASA is going to sue once it discovers Cuorón’s hidden cameras aboard the International Space Station (ISS); the other is that he actually considered filming it in space (listening to him, they thought about it for at most half a second).

So far so good. I don’t know if I was so blown away with the experience that I didn’t pay much attention to the actual characters, or whether their story wasn’t particularly interesting. But while I’d give the visuals 11 out of 10, the backstory of lead characters Bullock and Clooney only seemed to merit a 4 or 5.

But the premise is good, so don’t let that put you off. Many scientists are becoming increasingly worried about space junk filling the area where most satellites are placed. There is a catastrophic scenario where the collision of two satellites, or one breaking up, could lead to a chain reaction with devastating consequences, where most if not all satellites would be destroyed. The movie opens with that happening and the debris careering towards the vulnerable shuttle. And even once it’s gone by, we and the astronauts know it will return within 90 minutes and none of us still want to be there when that happens.

You will find yourself ducking out of the way of space debris and maybe even longing to feel planet Earth under your feet again. I’ve made it back safely, and can report that Gravity must be seen for the beauty and brilliance of the visuals.

ET and the Astronomy Photographer of the Year awards

•September 22, 2013 • Leave a Comment

When I was young it was my dream to meet aliens. In fact, the idea of being abducted by aliens and taken off round the galaxy was the root for the Johnny Mackintosh stories. But I also had this idea that ET would be as lovely and friendly as in the Spielberg movie of the same name. One of my favourite photographs at the Astronomy Photographer of the Year Awards earlier this week was hi hello by American Ben Canales. It’s a beautiful image that perfectly captures the longing not to be alone in the Universe – the aching to make contact.

The probability is that any aliens we encounter are likely to be vastly superior to us in every way. Even relatively tiny differences in abilities have led to the most dramatic consequences here on Earth. Look at the way the “old world” of Europe quickly dominated and devastated the cultures of the “new world” of the Americas. Or how with a relatively very small difference in brain power compared with our chimpanzee cousins, we dominate the planet while they pick fleas off each other (and we never invite them round for tea).

Of course aliens may not intentionally wish to destroy us, but just going about their business could have terrible consequences that they might not even realize, as we’d likely be so very alien to them. However, if some warlike ones came calling, I couldn’t help thinking it might look something like this submission from David Kingham:

This brilliant image of the Perseid meteor shower (combining 23 separate exposures) looks like an alien missile bombardment.

If you saw the wonderful Visions of the Universe down the hill at the National Maritime Museum, that used many photographs from the first four years of the Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition. “Visions” has just finished, but now you can see the brilliant new APotY exhibition (though without a glass of champagne in hand) at the Royal Observatory until 23rd February 2014.

Should we attempt to communicate with ET? Various attempts have been made over the years, from sending radio telecrope messages to specially targeted star systems and the plaque on the side of the Voyager space probes. But really these are irrelevant and the point is moot. For over a century, Earth has been lit up in the cosmic firmament, like a beacon or lighthouse, brightly beaming our radio and then television programmes into space. Are they a warning or an invitation? When aliens watch Independence Day or Star Wars, or the latest episodes of The Simpsons, what do they think? Are they eagerly awaiting the next instalment of Monty Python’s Flying Circus?

The overall winner of the competition was this Guiding Light to the Stars by Mark Gee. It’s a southern hempisphere Milky Way anchored by a lighthouse on the right-hand side, leading all the way to the Magellanic Clouds:

In the northern hemisphere we can see the Andromeda galaxy, the Milky Way’s twin, but south of the equator are these two smaller galaxies (upper left), probably satellites, possibly just hurtling by. While the distances between stars compared with their sizes are unimaginably vast, the relative distances between galaxies, certainly within our “local” group, are comparatively small.

If aliens came calling to take me I’d still go with them in a heartbeat, whether that was just around the Milky Way, or a little farther afield.

Killing your Babies

•May 7, 2013 • 2 Comments

Nirvana's epic baby album cover for NevermindIt’s often said that an author isn’t well-placed to adapt their books for the big screen. There are various reasons, but one is that we can be very precious about our stories, not wanting to leave the tiniest detail out, and that’s pretty difficult in a 100 minute movie. If you’re going to do it (right) and your name’s not Jo Rowling, you have to “kill your babies” (of course any excuse to show off that Nirvana album cover).

I mentioned over at JohnnyMackintosh.com that I’m working with a production company on a movie and I have to say it’s terrific fun. Happily the script won’t be solely down to me. Also, I’ve written a little for television before and worked for the British Film Institute, so hope I know what makes for a good film. People often think the secret to a good script is the dialogue. If only it were true as I think authentic dialogue is one of my strengths. But when you’re writing for cinema, it’s the images that need to tell the story, not the spoken words.

Oblivion movie poster from official siteI went to see Oblivion the other day and enjoyed it far more than I expected, given some poor reviews, but what surprised me was the opening ten minutes of voice-over explanation by Tom Cruise to set the scene. the golden rule of any storytelling is “show not tell”, yet that movie did exactly the opposite. Buoyed by wondering what the Johnny Mackintosh movie poster would look like, I’m including the very first draft of the opening here. I would never normally make such early material public (and may well regret it), so take a look quickly before I decide it’s rubbish and I should take it down.

Opening scene from the Johnny Mackintosh Movie (draft 1).

You can compare this with the opening of the original book by reading an eBook sample. Or, if you’re reading this post on the day it’s written, the book is actually the Amazon Kindle Daily Deal, so you might as well buy it!

There’s no need for captions or voiceovers. the pictures should tell the whole story, introducing Johnny (and Bentley), his love of fish ‘n chips and football (not necessarily in that order), and that he lives in a children’s home where he’s programmed the computer to search for signals from aliens. While screenwriting guru Syd Field talks about entering a scene as late as possible and leaving as early as you can, here I’ve gone back a couple of minutes before the start of the book in the expectation it makes things clearer and will save a lot of time with the setup later on.

Nowadays I tend to read scripts instead of books. There are plenty of web resources that have them, including the BBC Writers Room which is always a handy place to visit.

Where is Everybody?

•May 5, 2013 • Leave a Comment

alien greyThe most important question facing all of science is finding evidence for intelligent alien life. Before someone who’s chanced upon this webpage dismisses me as a fruitcake (rather than a Cambridge-educated mathematical physicist and currently Science Publisher at Oxford Unversity Press), let me add that the very first conference organized by the Royal Society for its 350th anniversary year was on this very question – and I was there.

The whole of science is founded on what we call the Copernican Principle, after Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus who first proposed that Earth orbited the Sun, rather than the other way around. In doing so, Copernicus was the first person to say humanity has no privileged position in nature when, until this point, Earth had always been the centre of the Universe. Recognizing Earth as simply one of many planets orbiting the Sun, which in turn we came to understand orbits the Milky Way (in turn a part of the Virgo Supercluster and so on), allowed us to talk about the laws of nature as applying equally everywhere, rather than differently on Earth compared with in the heavens.

The Sun is one of a few hundred billion stars in the Milky and, partly through the Kepler Space Telescope, we now understand that most of those stars are accompanied by planets. Then the Milky Way is one of many hundreds of billions of galaxies in the visible Universe.The numbers are so vast as to be almost unimaginable. If intelligent life can come into being here on Earth, it seems inconceivable that it hasn’t happened elsewhere, myriad times across the Galaxy let alone the wider Universe. There’s even a mathematical expression known as the Drake equation that is intended to give the number of intelligent civilizations in the Milky Way:

the Drake equationAccording to Frank Drake, the number N of detectable civilizations in the galaxy is the product of:

R* (the rate of star formation)

fp (the fraction of stars that have planets)

ne (the average number of earth-like planets per star – ie planets capable of supporting life)

fl (the fraction of those Earth-like planets on which life develops)

fi (the fraction of those planets that have life on which intelligent life develops)

fc (the fraction of those planets with intelligent life that create communications technology)

L (the average lifetime of an advanced civilization)

Keith Mansfield at Jodrell BankLet’s make up (and in most cases I do mean invent) some numbers. Say there are 10 new stars in the Galaxy each year (that’s roughly what scientists think); that three-quarters of the stars formed have planets; taking our own solar system as average there’s 1 Earth-like planet per solar system; recognizing life developed very soon on Earth after the planet formed we’ll go with this fraction as 0.8; equally, it took many billions of years for life here to go from single-celled organisms to complex, so let’s call the fraction on which intelligent life develops as 0.001, or one in a thousand; there are various “intelligent” species on Earth, but dolphins are never going to build radio telescopes, so let’s say one in four eventually develop communications technology; finally, once a civilization is able to communicate (perhaps with radio telescopes such as at Jodrell Bank here), I’ll suppose that they remain capable/willing to do this for 100,000 years. Plug those together and we get:

10 x 0.75 x 1 x 0.8 x 0.001 x 0.25 x 100000 = 150

That would suggess there are 150 species spread across the Milky Way who could communicate with us right now (but remember most of my numbers are pure guesswork). Apparently the average of estimates comes out at around 10,000, so I’m possibly being cautious, and one of my estimates that could be considered low is my number here for L. If even a few civilizations find ways not to destroy themselves so they can transcend their original home and spread out into the wider galaxy, that would seriously increase the number for L.

Considering the age of the Milky Way, the Sun is a comparatively young star meaning Earth is a new kid on the block when we think about galactic planet formation. We would expect plenty of civilizations to have formed before ours. If L is large they might still be around, but in this case we would surely see evidence of large-scale engineering projects happening in the galaxy. Yet, when we turn our ever more powerful telescopes skyward, we completely fail to find any evidence of and reorganization of the Galaxy by advanced races.

Some people argue that even if L is small it doesn’t matter. The mathematical physicist John Von Neumann developed the idea of self-replicating machines and this has been applied to autonomous space probes that an advanced alien race could send out into the galaxy to explore/conquer/assist other civilizations. Using this method, the entire Milky Way could be explored within only a few million (yes million, not billion) years, even if the originating civilization had long since died out. But again there is no evidence of  such probes anywhere.

If science cannot find evidence for aliens, then the premise of the Copernican revolution is called into question, and we have to recognize ourselves and our homeworld as special after all, which goes on to call into question our entire view of the Universe and basis for understanding it.

One of the most interesting people investigating this area is the brilliant Serbian astronomer Milan Cirkovic, so check him out if you want to know more. This post is called “Where is everybody?” because that is supposedly a question posed by phyisicist Enrico Fermi over lunch with colleagues at Los Alamos National Laboratory. The conversation had turned to the apparent likelihood of intelligent alien life, yet the total absence of evidence for this. This is nowadays known as the “Fermi paradox”.

I have two very different and equally interesting solutions to the problem, both of which I intend to turn into novels or film scripts, so I shall say no more about them for the time being.

Neil Armstrong and the Gamble of Manned Space Exploration

•August 27, 2012 • Leave a Comment

One giant leap

Like many people, the earliest event (I think) I remember is Neil Armstrong climbing down a ladder, jumping off the end, slightly botching his lines but being the very first human being to set foot on another world. That was more than 43 years ago but the shocking fact remains that only 12 people have walked on ground that wasn’t Earth’s, all of them only went to the Moon and no one has done this for more than four decades.

Neil Armstrong died a couple of days ago. It brings into focus how long ago the Moon landings were. We went from the first powered flight in 1903 to the first flight over the Atlantic in 1927 to the first Moon landing in 1969. And then nothing. The pace of progress in the modern world is often frightening. I look at my android phone and think in many ways the future has arrived early, but there’s a gaping hole in all of this and it’s that we haven’t colonized the solar system.

In the aftermath of Armstrong’s death I was watching a BBC Sky at Night broadcast from not long after the second Moon landing called “1969, the Year of Space”. Presenter Patrick Moore delivers the line,

“The Americans plan to get a man on Mars between 1985 and 1990 and I’m sure they’ll do it.”

Now we’re probably looking at 2050. Does it matter? I want to shout an enormous “YES!” from the rooftops. The very survival of humanity as a species depends on it. That’s a simple statement of fact. There’s a proverb that it’s best not to keep all your eggs in one basket and right now all the humans in the universe are either on or flying around planet Earth. It’s when you view the photos of our world from the Apollo spacecraft that you realize just what a fragile basket we inhabit. If something happens to this one, island Earth, then that could be curtains for us. What sort of thing do I have in mind? Well, I’ve published a book on Global Catastrophic Risks so if you’re interested you can take a look. But if we don’t get off-planet it is a mathematical certainty that humans will one day become extinct.

One of the miracles of the modern world is the connections given us by Twitter. It’s currently the Edinburgh Book Festival whose account I follow, and the book festival tweeted a comment from one time British Labour Party cabinet minister, Michael Meacher:

I don’t know anything about Meacher’s ideas on sustainability but the incorrect assumption in the statement annoyed me – that we are in an “unsustainable bubble”.  Since the Industrial Revolution, gloriously portrayed in Danny Boyle’s recent Olympic Opening Ceremony, we have embarked on a path of economic growth. We have gambled humanity’s future by mining over the course of a few decades, resources that took millions of years to create. Was it a gamble worth taking? I would say yes because we have become immeasurably wealthier as a race. For instance, if you’d given people blueprints for the Space Shuttle in the middle ages, it would have been impossible to build one, not because the plans couldn’t in time have been understood, but because they couldn’t afford it! Similarly for cures for polio or smallpox.

But the resources we greedily consume cannot last for ever, so it might seem on the surface that Meacher is right. If you view the Earth as a closed system in game theory terms then he would be. In what’s known as a “zero-sum game”, not everyone can keep winning – for the upside of what we take from the planet there will be a price to pay – a downside – later on. Stick to Earth and we are living in unsustainable times having already mortaged the future for our descendants. But there is an alternative.

There is vast wealth waiting for us in space, in terms of both energy and materials.  The sum of the game is no longer zero – it is effectively infinite and to reach out and grasp it is a win–win “for all mankind”. The choice before us is clear: (a) we can either continue with space exploration, develop fabulous new technologies and expand  into and exploit the resources of the solar system (and hopefully beyond); or (b) we can turn our back on space for ever, rein in our development and try to live in a sustainable way within the finite means of just this one planet, in a depressing era of ever-diminishing returns.

As a species there can be no standing still, no stable equilibrium: either we progress or we’ll begin to decline. My sense is that we only have one shot at this. We have already used up so much of Earth’s resources that if we were to quit now and decline into some sort of pre-industrial era for a millennium or three, it will be far harder for humans (or whatever was to come after us) to begin again and reach for the stars.

After Apollo was prematurely cancelled, America reined in manned space exploration. I sense that the tide is turning and hope that it’s not already too late. The next flag on the Moon is likely to be Chinese or Indian, but while it is partly a matter of national pride, these nations are trying to go because they realize it is also an economic necessity.

Armstrong’s great legacy was that he inspired a generation of humanity to reach for the stars. Now he’s gone it’s up to those of us he touched to argue the case. As a child after the Apollo landings I didn’t want simply to be an astronaut – I expected to one day command a Moonbase. Now I shall argue all I can for one to be built within my lifetime.

[All the space images in this post are courtesy of NASA]

The Essex Lion & my own big cat sighting

•August 27, 2012 • 3 Comments

The news over this bank holiday weekend has been dominated by the sighting of “The Essex Lion“, a big cat apparently seen by several people in St Osyth near Clacton-on-Sea. Remarkably, it’s almost four years to the day since I also saw a big cat in Britain, on the first day of a holiday in north Staffordshire. I tried to contact a few people about it when I returned home and ended up talking to BBC Radio Stoke about it.

Two of us saw the creature, which was a massive sandy-coloured cat-like animal (maybe 7 feet long?) prowling in a meadow immediately south of Rudyard Lake. You would think the instant reaction would be to pull out a camera and start snapping, but it’s hard to convey how completely shocking it is to see what looks like a lion simply wandering around in a field. We watched it fow a couple of minutes before I finally came to my senses and pulled my (switched-off) phone from my bag. When you’re waiting for something to boot up we’ve probably all scuppered the process by pressing buttons too quickly, and that’s what I did here. So by the time I managed to capture something it was a video of the very last few seconds at the far edge of the field, and no accompanying still images. But here’s the video:

I thought this was pretty important so wrote down as accurate as possible a witness report at the time. I’m reproducing it in unedited form below:

We were walking between the carpark of the Rudyard Steam Railway, alongside the railway track (the trains are very narrow gauge and this is an official footpath) up to the Rudyard Lake dam for a picnic lunch. The railway track is elevated, but tree-lined on either side. Walking north, the actual rails are on the right-hand side so you walk alongside the left line of trees which has gaps from time to time enabling you to look out across a meadow to the left. We’d never been here before and don’t know the area particularly well (it had been recommended as a place to break our journey).

We started walking just after midday (about 12.45 pm). It was a reasonably clear day with good light and visibility. After three or four hundred metres, at an opening in the trees on our left, we simply stopped and stared.

A large cat-like creature (you couldn’t call it a cat as it was as big if not bigger than a large dog) was prowling through the meadow beneath us. From the animal’s perspective, it would have been surrounded by fairly long grass so felt secure in not being seen easily. Because the railway line is elevated we had a crystal clear view of it, perhaps between eighty and a hundred metres away.

It was sandy coloured, with a long tail that curved down and then up. I can’t remember now (sorry) but there may have been a small splash of white on the tail, or it may have been all sandy. I’d have said it was at least six or seven feet long. An adjective I’d use to describe it would be “powerful”. After watching it on the prowl for a minute or so, the animal paused and sat briefly.

It also seemed very assured/confident in its surroundings. That was odd because it was so clearly out of place in North Staffordshire, that the whole thing seemed quite unreal. As it made its steady progress through the meadow, I was wondering what on Earth was going on and looking around for a film crew as I could only assume someone was trying to fake some exotic footage for a movie. Finally, while the creature had briefly paused, I came to my senses, dropped the packed lunch to the ground and rooted around my pockets for my mobile phone to record it. As I’d been driving it was turned off and, for the first time ever, the camera seemed to go wrong when I switched it on (probably opening the lens cover too early before it had booted up). The upshot of that was I sadly didn’t take any stills and I was only able to capture about the final 15 seconds on video (which perhaps foolishly I’d set on maximum zoom) as it moved off. My phone’s a Nokia N95 so reasonably high-spec, but let me down on this occasion. Considering how clearly we could see the animal, the footage doesn’t do it justice at all and looks very distant.

The animal ended up at what looked like a small stream or brook. It stopped there for a few seconds, then jumped down and up the other side and was gone.

I think we were in a state of shock and didn’t know what to make of it. We carried on up to the dam for our lunch and on the way back kept looking through the trees (camera properly at the ready now) to see if the unexpected creature would make a reappearance. Naturally, this time we were disappointed, though we saw a couple of cattle (with horns) that I hadn’t spotted earlier.

Making history on Mars

•August 6, 2012 • Leave a Comment

In case you missed it, Johnny Mackintosh (and Clara and Bentley, and even me) only went and landed on Mars this morning: read all about it!

We’re all here, etched onto the back of the Mars Curiosity rover, in the Gale Crater:

 
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