Sunday, August 17, 2008

Geeking Out in the High Desert!

by Andrea Hairston

Launch Pad was a trip!

Twelve SF and F writers—Alma Deckert, Steven Gould, Laura Mixon, David Levine, David Marusek, Jay Lake, Cheryl Floyd-Miller, Mary Robinette Kowal, Nancy Kress, Deanna Hoak, Christine Stebbins, Paul Witcover, and I—converged on the University of Wyoming campus in Laramie where the host, Mike Brotherton, his co-conspirators—Jerry Oltion, Jim Verley, and Scott Humphries, and other stellar guest lecturers led us boldly through the Universe, which is, as Douglas Adams said, “vastly, hugely, mind- bogglingly big.”

NASA picked up the tab. Their reasoning is simple—if you want to reach a wide audience with astronomy’s great insights, accomplishments, and possibilities, hit the storytellers with everything you’ve got. We twelve SF and F writers were a voracious, knowledgeable, creative bunch, eager to take in what they threw at us. Indeed Mike Brotherton and crew tried to upload a full course of astronomy into us in a week! We writers tried to remember the physics or astronomy we had forgotten while sweeping away the misconceptions that clouded our perceptions. It was truly amazing to discover how many misconceptions were/are “running in the background,” silent but strong! Of course, if we writers hope to challenge our audiences to reconsider conscious and unconscious assumptions, it is critical to know what and how people think—from the causes of the seasons to the significance of black holes at the center of galaxies. Motivation ran very high, and we were not daunted, but inspired by the complexity of the material.

Light was our guide. Astronomers can’t get their hands on test subjects, but we rode the light through vast spaces, contemplating almost fourteen billion years of interstellar dust, white and brown dwarfs, ring nebulae, novas, supernovas, quasars, pulsars, and black holes. We gazed through small telescopes and also drove to the summit of Jelm Mountain, altitude 9656 feet (2943 meters), to visit the 7.5 foot (2.3 meter) telescope at WIRO (Wyoming Infra Red Observatory) as it collected infrared images. We worked the star data from WIRO to clear out noise and dabbled in spectroscopy—trying to read the “fingerprints” of the objects we observed, hunting red shifts in the gassy spectrums.

Listening to Dr. Ruben Gamboa discuss computing in astronomy, we learned that you could send a robot off to Mars and upload its programming later—after you’ve had time to tweak the bugs in the code. This was the fate of the Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, who had to fly “empty headed” to make their launch window. Talk about learning your lines on the fly! Dr. Gamboa also had us pondering Chris Anderson’s suggestion that Google is the end of theory. (You'll find an interesting discussion of the idea here.) Searching and correlating all that data, scientists could dispense with the scientific method, with Tycho Brahe carefully observing planetary motions, Johannes Keplar recognizing a pattern in the motions, and Isaac Newton theorizing the cause of the motions, gravity? Discussing how the search engine might “end science” was a lively exchange.

We considered extra-solar planets and wrote communiqué’s to extra-terrestrial intelligent beings. With Jeffrey Lockwood, we debated what would constitute the best message. Should we send off Fibonacci numbers, poetry, and/or an elegant combination? This sparked debate over our “scientific way of knowing with its mathematical mapping of the Universe.” I don’t subscribe to the romance of numbers. For me, they are not transcendent of our embodied minds, “out there to be discovered,” but cognitive metaphors used in mapping the Universe. The map is not the territory. This is an important question as we consider alien encounters or knowledge produced in non-western societies. I’ll be thinking about this as I write my next book.

Grand and lofty discussions were had throughout the lectures and labs, at mealtimes, over drinks and hikes through the mountains. We writers were relentless questioners, challenging each other and Mike and crew. People who disagree with you make you smarter and certainly inspire wonderful story ideas.

Launch Pad will happen again next year. It’s a great experience. Check this website for updates: or

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