Scientist sees deep meaning in black holes after Event Horizon Telescope’s triumph

M87 black hole

Why are black holes so alluring?

You could cite plenty of reasons: They’re matter-gobbling monsters, making them the perfect plot device for a Disney movie. They warp spacetime, demonstrating weird implications of general relativity. They’re so massive that inside a boundary known as the event horizon, nothing — not even light — can escape its gravitational grip.

But perhaps the most intriguing feature of black holes is their sheer mystery. Because of the rules of relativity, no one can report what happens inside the boundaries of a black hole.

“We could experience all the crazy stuff that’s going on inside a black hole, but we’d never be able to tell anybody,” radio astronomer Heino Falcke said. “We want to know what’s going on there, but we can’t.”

Falcke and his colleagues in the international Event Horizon Telescope project lifted the veil just a bit two years ago when they released the first picture ever taken of a supermassive black hole’s shadow. But the enduring mystery is a major theme in Falcke’s new book about the EHT quest, “Light in the Darkness: Black Holes, the Universe, and Us” — and in the latest installment of the Fiction Science podcast, which focuses on the intersection of fact and science fiction.

Continue reading “Scientist sees deep meaning in black holes after Event Horizon Telescope’s triumph”

Book Review: Cosmology for the Curious

What will Curious George grow up to be? Being curious, then George will ask a lot of questions. And if lucky then physics will be George’s destiny, for physics seems to have so many answers. From the biggest to the smallest, that’s its purview. And for Delia Perlov and Alex Vilenkin in their book “Cosmology for the Curious” aim to answer a great many of those questions. Or at least those questions pertaining to mankind’s place in space.

Cosmology is all about space and time. Which means that this book begins by traveling back in time. Traveling to the time of the Greeks. Hundreds of years b.c.e.  Apparently the Greek philosophers did a lot of pondering about the smallest of things they called atoms. And the largest, they called planetary epicycles. From this baseline the book very quickly progresses through the traditional growth of knowledge with some choice descriptions.

As an example it proposes energy as nature’s ultimate currency. And it allows the reader to wonder. Wonder why the sky is black at night. And ask questions. As in “why is the speed of light the same as the Earth travels about the Sun?”

Most of the descriptions rely on Newtonian mechanics for explanation but it is only a slight passing for the book quickly raises Einstein’s field equations, particularly emphasizing inertial frames of reference. With this, the reader is accorded a pleasant view of Lorentz transforms, a somewhat abstract view of the Sun being flung out of the solar system by a very large golf club and a realization of how the GPS navigation system incorporates gravitational time dilation. Still all this is simply the cosmological baseline for the reader.

Now the neat thing about cosmology is that there is simply no first hand observation. Most everything of interest happened a long time ago and in a somewhat different relative location. And this is the book’s next and most rewarding destination. Through many arguments or thought experiments, it associates the cosmic microwave background with redshifts and the changing spatial dimensions.

Later, postulated dark matter and dark energy refocus the reader’s attention on the very beginning of the universe in a big bang. Or perhaps a multiverse of many shapes and various physical laws. Which of course leads to considerations about what’s next. How will our universe continue? Will it go to a quiet heat death or will we be gobbled up by another bubble universe? We can’t determine from our vantage point on Earth. But this book does provide its own vantage point.

Helping this book along are a number of pleasant additions. For one, often when an accomplished researcher is mentioned, there’s an accompanying, quite complementary photograph. And equations are liberally spread throughout as if teasing the reader to explore more. But the book has very little math. And best of all are the questions at the end of each chapter. Now these questions aren’t your typical textbook questions. For example, consider “Inflation is almost certainly eternal to the future. Is it eternal to the past too? Why/why not?” Isn’t this a great question? And one that you really can’t get wrong.

Which of course begs the question “Why aren’t you as curious as George?” There’s a whole universe out there waiting for us to explore and understand. Let’s not take it for granted. Let’s satisfy our curiosity perhaps with reading the marvellous book “Cosmology for the Curious” by Delia Perlov and Alex Vilenkin. After all you don’t want to be upstaged by George, do you?

Star Ark: A Living, Self-Sustaining Spaceship

Think of the ease. With a simple command of “Make it so” humans travelled from one star to the next in less time than for drinking a cup of coffee. At least that’s what happens in the time-restricted domain of television. In reality it’s not so easy. Nor does Rachel Armstrong misrepresent this point in her book of essays within “Star Ark – A Living Self-Sustaining Spaceship“; a book that brings some fundamental reality to star travel.

Yes, many people want to travel to other stars. We’re not ready for that. We’re still just planning on getting outside Earth’s protective atmosphere (again). Yet making preparations and doing judicious planning is the aim of this book. Wisely though, this book isn’t technical. It has no mention of specific impulse calculations or ion shields. Rather, this book takes a very liberal view of space travel and ponders deep questions such as whether the cosmos is an ecosystem.

Does our species have an appropriate culture for space travel? What exactly is a human? These concerns get raised in some very thought provoking sections. And given that the editor is an architect and one who apparently considers the emotional qualities of a structure as much as functional qualities, then this book’s presentation tends to be a little more on the philosophical side of things.

In particular, it looks at the benefits of living entities. For instance it notes that humans live in symbiotic relationships with a host of internal and external organisms. Most have already gone into space either within people who have traveled in space or possibly upon probes sent to other planets. So we aren’t the only species that’s traveled beyond Earth. But which beings are sufficient and necessary to keep humans alive for the generations needed to travel to another star? That question and many answers come up often.

As well, the essays get into bigger questions such as: What is life? Could the vessel be an organic construct? How might today’s humans evolve to tomorrow’s star travelers? Should humans travel in space and promote/continue panspermia? Yes, these questions and many more are raised in the essays collected within this book. And true to form for any book considering star travel, there aren’t any strict answers. There are however lots of ideas and concepts to better prepare humans.

Much of this book seems to center around the authors’ involvement with the Persephone project of Icarus Interstellar. Yet there’s very little description of either. However, the book does have wonderful descriptions of Biitschli experiments, explanations of living walls and critiques of theatrical productions.

There are a few fictional passages and some poetry. The long list of references indicates a broad knowledge of the technical issues, though the focus is on humanity and the living aspect. This focus flows through the essays, but having a collection of many authors makes for a disjointed flow. The writing styles are unique, the viewpoints are particular and the emphasis specialized for each. One common viewpoint does keep arising though. That is, we are already on a living spaceship; the Earth. Earth gives a unique platform for assessing the ability to travel to other stars. The essays state that it is or at least was a veritable, closed self-sustaining life support system. And, as seems to be the norm these days, the essays acknowledge that solutions for space travel would be just as good for people remaining behind upon Earth or travelling to the Moon or to Mars and so on. This care and concern for living organism keeps the book grounded, so to speak.

The all-encompassing-solution-finder may be a strength or a weakness to Rachel Armstrong’s collection within the book “Star Ark – A Living Self-Sustaining Spaceship”. As the book’s essays describe, humans have an incredible ability to think and act in abstract fashion. Just envisioning an attempt to send sentient beings to another star demonstrates this. But will we be able to enact this idea and what form might a star vessel take? Reading of this is easy. Will taking the necessary steps be just as easy?

The book is available here through Springer.
Learn more about the author, Rachel Armstrong, here.

Time Machine Tales

“Tell me what time is it?” asked the stranger on the street.

A simple enough question that can be answered with a simple enough glance at the watch on your wrist. And so goes the appreciation of time for the average person. But is time simply a notation of events in our life? Or is it a truly robust dimensional attribute? For one answer read Paul Nahin’s book “Time Machine Tales” and you will soon discover that it is the latter. And that time may be much, much more.

If time is a dimension, then Nahin’s book has us believe that we can move along this dimension as easily as we move along a Euclidean spatial dimension. This means that time travel should be possible. Yet, as someone said, “If people can travel in time then why aren’t we seeing time travelers popping up all over?”

And in a sense, this conundrum shapes this book. From very many perspectives, Nahin explores and conjectures. From the viewpoint of ancient Greeks or Catholic scholars long since gone, the book gives rise to, what is time? does the past stop at the Big Bang? and is our future predefined?

This book presents philosophers’ quotes and their views from yesteryear and from today. Now philosophy is fascinating unto itself but throw in large quantiles of technical lore and this book’s perspective on time expands to a much larger knowledge base. That is, the book brings up exotics like Dirac radios, block universes, the bilking paradox, chronons and things smaller than the Planck length.

Intrigued by this?  It gets better as the book takes the reader through the derivation of the Lorentz transformation and on to the backward and forward tilt of light cones. If this doesn’t get your interest up, then also consider that Nahin has liberally strewn quotes and references from science fiction throughout. This leaves the reader pondering if the fiction stories are forerunners to reality or merely offshoots of very active imaginations.

And a lasting question revolves around whether scientific discovery is attained through hard work, through thoughtful imagination or through provisions by a time traveler. That’s just one of the choices that you, as the reader, get to make. Just give yourself the time to decide.

Given the fascinating, current discussions on dimensionality, it’s not difficult to pique a science reader’s interest on time travel. And this book grabs and holds such a reader. However, abrupt swings like from the musings of H.G. Wells to the showcasing of the concerns of John Wheeler make for bumpy reading on occasion. Further, the introduction implies that teachers could use the book; implying that this book is a textbook. Yet where are the courses on time travel? Nevertheless, from the view of simply enjoying science, this book makes for enjoyable reading, homework assignments and all.

Will people travel in time? Will they only travel forward in time? Can they only travel between here and other universes? When will this take place? There are so many questions about time. If nothing else, use the time you have wisely.

Read Paul Nahin’s book “Time Machine Tales – The Science Fiction Adventures and Philosophical Puzzles of Time Travel” and ponder why that stranger on the street asking for the time looked so familiar.

Find out more about the author Paul Nahin here.

Rock Legends – the Asteroids and Their Discoverers

If we are indeed stardust, then what will our future hold? And what happened to all that other dust that isn’t in people or planets? These are pretty heady questions perhaps best left for late at night. Since the age of Galileo and perhaps even beforehand these inquisitive night goers have sought an understanding of “What’s out there?” Paul Murdin in his book “Rock Legends – the Asteroids and Their Discoverers” doesn’t answer the big questions directly but he does shed some capricious light upon what the night time reveals and what the future may hold.


We’re pretty confident that our solar system evolved from a concentration of dust. Let’s leave aside the question about where the dust came from and assume that, at a certain time and place, there was enough free dust that our Sun was made and so too all the planets. In a nice, orderly universe all the dust would have settled out. However, as we’ve discovered since at least the time of Galileo this didn’t happen. There are a plethora of space rocks — asteroids — out wandering through our solar system.

And this is where Murdin’s book steps up. Once people realized that there more than just a few asteroids out there, they took to identifying and classifying them. The book takes a loosely chronological look at this classification and at our increasing knowledge of the orbits, sizes, densities and composition of these space wanderers.

Fortunately this book doesn’t just simply list discovery dates and characteristics. Rather, it includes significant amounts of its contents on the juicy human story that tags along, especially with the naming. It shows that originally these objects were considered special and refined and thus deserved naming with as much aplomb as the planets; i.e. using Greek and Roman deities. Then the number of discovered asteroids outpaced the knowledge of ancient lore, so astronomers began using the names of royalty, friends and eventually pets. Today with well over a million asteroids identified  setting a name to an asteroid doesn’t quite have the same lustre, as the author is quick to point out with his own asteroid (128562) Murdin. Yet perhaps there’s not much else to do while waiting for a computer program to identify a few hundred more accumulations of dust, so naming some of the million nameless asteroids could happily fill in some time.

With the identifying of the early asteroid discoverers and the fun names they chose, this part of the book is quite light and simple. It expands the fun by wandering a bit just like the asteroids. From it you learn of the discovery of palladium, the real spelling of Spock’s name and the meaning of YORP.  Sometimes the wandering is quite far, as with the origins of the Palladium Theatre, the squabbling surrounding the naming of Ceres and the status of the Cubewanos. Yet it is this capriciousness that gives the book its flavour and makes it great for a budding astronomer or a reference for a generalist. The occasional bouts of reflection on the future of various asteroids and even of the Earth add a little seriousness to an otherwise pleasant prose.

So if you’re wondering about the next occultation of Eris or the real background of the name (3512) Eriepa then you’re into asteroids. And perhaps you’re learning how to survive on a few hours of sleep so you can search for one more faint orbiting mote. Whether that’s the case or you’re just interested in how such odd names came to represent these orbiting rocks then Paul Murdin’s book “Rock Legends – the Asteroids and Their Discoverers” will be a treat. Read it and maybe you can use it to place your own curve upon an asteroid’s name.

The book is available on Springer. Find out more about author Paul Murdin here.

How Will We Get to Mars? New Book and TV Series Provide the Details

What is it going to take to really get humans to Mars? A new television series and a companion book take a detailed and hard look at the future of Mars exploration. The six-part documentary series on the National Geographic Channel and the book by veteran, award-winning space journalist Leonard David are both titled, “Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet.”

The TV series debuts on November 14, 2016 and was produced by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Ron Howard (Apollo 13) and NASA scientist Brian Grazer. It combines interviews with some of the prominent ‘movers and shakers’ in the space community along with a scripted drama that portrays a human mission to Mars in the year 2033. Together, the show “tells the story of how we will one day call the Red Planet home through groundbreaking research and innovation.”

Watch the trailer:

Leonard David’s thoroughly researched book contains a wealth of information on the technological and sociological hurdles that need to be surmounted to make humans on Mars a reality, as well as revealing what work is currently being done on the road to the Red Planet. The books is large format, filled with stunning, full-color images throughout that provide a feast for the eye, including actual images from our spacecraft as well as illustrations of what future missions might entail.

While the book includes some portrayals of the television series’ drama of the crew of the Daedalus mission as they land on Mars and set up the first human base, the real drama comes from David’s interviews with real-life experts, the men and women who are fervently working towards the day an actual human mission goes to Mars.

I had the chance to talk with David about his new book, and asked what it was like to write a book in conjunction with a television series.

Author Leonard David speaking at the Mars Society meeting in Washington, DC. Image courtesy Leonard David.
Author Leonard David speaking at the Mars Society meeting in Washington, DC. Image courtesy Leonard David.

“It was a really interesting experience,” he said, “and we had a close-knit team that had telecons every week to try and synchronize the themes we were using. There were a few topics I wanted to make sure I was able to include, and there were several themes that the whole team wanted to make sure was included in both the book and the show.”

For example, the imagery in the book and the premise of the show reflect that a mission to Mars is likely going to be a global endeavor. “I wanted to make sure to emphasize this will not be just a US or NASA enterprise, and also that a lot of other countries are exploring Mars with spacecraft right now,” David said.

And so, the images in the book come from multi-national sources, and several are pictures I had never seen before, including the latest images from spacecraft, unique illustrations, and distinctive maps of potential human landing sites on Mars that are almost impossible to stop looking at.

Destination Mars: a detailed map of Mars from National Geographic. Credit: National Geographic.
Destination Mars: a detailed map of Mars from National Geographic. Credit: National Geographic.

David said that with the book, he didn’t want to take a stand on all the issues but combine as much information as possible to make it all available for people to think about.

He also said he wanted to portray the true realities of a human expedition to Mars.

“I wanted to make sure people understand that it’s not just throwing a bunch of tin cans on the surface of Mars and then jamming people in them,” he said. “There are so many other issues: sociological issues, there are cultural issues, and there are ethics issues particularly on the topic of possibly terraforming Mars. I just wanted to write a book that I haven’t already read, and I hit on themes that I don’t recall other books getting to.”

For example, David interviews Frank White, author of the seminal book “The Overview Effect,” and that title is now used as an evocative term to explain how seeing Earth from space has changed the human perspective and experience. But David asks White to consider what The Overview Effect will mean for human Martians.

“The Martians will soon develop their own culture and seem like true ‘aliens’ to Earthlings,” envisions White, leading ultimately to a “declaration of independence” from Earth by Mars.

Similarly, David’s discussions with Nick Kanas, professor emeritus in the department of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, covers what Kanas calls “Earth out of view,” which means that since Earth is so far away, any future human Martians will have to solve their own problems. Therefore, any physical or mental issues that arise will have to be dealt with locally.

It could highlight a sense of isolation, being distant and away from everything, [Kanas adds]. “It’s a different sort of state. Whether that will produce depression, or psychosis, or extreme homesickness… I don’t know. We have a lot of questions that Mars is going to raise, and we don’t have the answers.”

And there are other realities that need to be considered.

“There will be death,” David said. “Mars is out to kill you to begin with, and there will be accidents and people will likely lose their life in some way. It’s going to call upon the pioneering spirit, and it will challenge us not only technologically, but psychologically and physiologically.”

David looks at the technology that will be required: the potential propulsion systems, how to ramp up current entry, descent and landing (EDL) systems for larger human-sized payloads, and the imperative of using what’s called In Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU).

Future missions to Mars and other locations in the Solar System may depend heavily on the skills of planetary geologists. Credit: NASA Ames Research Center
Future missions to Mars and other locations in the Solar System may depend heavily on the skills of planetary geologists. Credit: NASA Ames Research Center

“If we are going to try to avoid having these missions be just flags and footprints like the Apollo missions, it’s going to require living off the land on Mars,” David said.

Again, the experts David interviewed – called “The Heroes” in the book — provide an incredible depth of insight on all the issues facing a human mission to Mars. The Heroes include people such as historian John Logsdon, policy experts like Marcia Smith, entrepreneurs and innovators like Elon Musk, Mars engineers like JPL’s Rob Manning, planetary scientists such as NASA’s Chris McKay and Planetary Protection Officer Catherine Conley, then astronauts like Stanley Love who have already been on the front lines of long duration spaceflight and veteran Buzz Aldrin whose lifetime of experiences provide a unique perspective on human exploration. Reading the words of these experts was perhaps my favorite part of the book (besides those intriguing maps!)

With NASA and other space agencies now embracing Mars as the ultimate human destination, David said the time is now ripe for looking at all the issues that lie ahead on the path to Mars.

“This is a unique time,” he said. “I believe we are in a period that I call ‘now history.’ Never before in our history have we had the potential for the technology, communications and all the other things we need to go off the planet; we’ve never been here before. I think we have an opportunity to create this ‘now history,’ and what we do here and now is going to be a flagship for the future as far as our ability to not only go to Mars, but to go beyond to other planets as well.”

David said he hadn’t yet seen all the footage from the television series, but he was impressed with what he has watched so far. “Ron Howard is pretty good at this stuff, and so the quality is definitely there.” David also indicated there is a bit of a surprise ending to the show, so make sure to stay tuned.

Leonard David is a long-time contributor to and he writes a column for that site called Space Insider. He is also the coauthor of Buzz Aldrin’s book, “Mission to Mars.” You can find more articles by David at his website, Inside Outer Space.

More information on the book and how to purchase it can be found at the Nat Geo website, or at Amazon, and additional information on the television series can be found here.


Book Review: A History of the Solar System

The value of a good analyst is priceless. They can synthesize data from disparate sources and weave a reasonable story to bring sense out of historical events and to provide guidance to planning for the future. Adding a sense of scale to space analysis so as to make things relevant to people living on the Earth today adds even more to their value. This is what Claudio Vita-Finzi provides in his book “A History of the Solar System.” It’s a collection of analyses of our grand backyard from a variety of perspectives and it offers great value to the reader.


We know so much about our solar system. And at the same time we realize that we know so little. That’s the main story of this book. It notes the common lore: there are planets, asteroids, comets and dust. That’s today. Long, long ago, a great expanse of dust got localised and made the Milky Way, so at least is postulated in the book. The future should see our Sun expand, larger than the orbit of the nearest planets.

But this book also connects lots of current scientific research to these stories. This is where the spirit of the analyst comes into play. For instance, the inner planets have certain ratios of crust to mantle to core while the outer bodies could be awash in oceans that are slightly sealed with solid caps. Why? The book provides some ideas but we’re still just learning to ask the questions.

The book postulates, “Why does water have different Hydrogen/Deuterium ratios throughout the solar system”. Or “What do calcium-aluminium-rich inclusions tell us about the construction of our universe”.  And the book goes on to hypothesize on possible accretion processes for our solar system as based upon observations of other planetary systems. With explanations helped by current events, such as the “record of cosmogenic isotopes … that can be recovered from ice cores and tree rings” we see how the analysis extends to particulars of the heliosphere.

Be warned though, the book expects a deep level of knowledge from the reader, such as with its comparison of our Sun to the star ?01 Uma or the magnetic lineations offsets across Valles Marineris indicating crustal plate interactions. And where might all this knowledge lead the reader? Perhaps the author’s frequent allusions to abiotic and living processes, together with methods to determine the presence of life gives a clue. That is, the reader might realize just how possible yet how difficult would be to detect life elsewhere in our solar system and indeed elsewhere in the universe.

As far as writing styles, this book could be considered tight. In less than a hundred pages it covers a huge amount of the key indicators used to define our solar system. The text is heavily referenced with 20-30 for each of the 8 chapters. A sprinkling of pictures and illustrations amplify its explanations. But, as the author says, this is not a textbook of “one era after another”. Rather the author tries to link how today derives from a long ago cloud of dust which will likely lead to some very interesting times for tomorrow. And this may be indicative of what’s happening throughout the universe. As the reader will learn, humans are gaining the knowledge that can bring some order into the understanding of processes of the universe and we have only to appreciate the connections in order to heighten our understanding.

With a few billion years of formation behind it, our solar system certainly seems special. The obvious is that we know it harbours life. Us! Yet a complex web of processes and interactions bind all substances together and are the baseline to our future. Perhaps by looking at the past then we can better hypothesize what the future will hold. If you want to try this then Claudio Vita-Finzi’s book “A History of the Solar System” is a great place to get ideas and capture some of excitement of the vivacity of our life. Take if for a read and from it free up your imagination to wonder and assess where we stand in time and space.

The book is available through Springer. Learn more about the author, Claudio Vita-Finzi here.

Book Review: The Caloris Network

Thinking of taking a vacation this summer? Maybe you want to distract yourself with a bit of light science fiction fun. How about a deadly alien life form harbored within our solar system? That’s what Nick Kanas presents in his scientific novel “The Caloris Network.” Being placed not too far into the future, this novel lets the reader enjoy a believable taste of first contact that’s hopefully just as good as the contact from their first summer kiss.

caloris network
A pleasant novel has an intriguing plot that’s embellished with the interaction of fun characters. Sometimes it will also carry a somber undertone ringing in the background. So unravels the novel “Caloris Network.” The main character, Sam, is an astrobiologist fresh from looking at multicellular life on Europa. At home, her family suffers serious health concerns but she’s continuing with her efforts. Her research takes her to Mercury where something is raising the concern of the spacefaring military. Her fellow crew members involve a possible Martian secessionist, a cranky commander and a love triangle. All this is pretty typical fare.

Next up you may think there’d be the traditional English speaking alien biped threatening the very existence of the human race. But not this time. Instead Kanas identifies the protagonist as a silicate based lifeform on Mercury. No legs for walking and no lips for speaking. Further, this is the proverbial first contact between the human race and a living, thinking organism from another world. Will it be confrontational? As usual. Will it involve death rays? Kind of. Will it force the reader to ponder how to interact for the first time with an alien? Certainly! This is the best part of the book in that it places the reader not so far into the future so as to make the story readily believable. Being barely over a hundred years away, the reader can connect with the technological advances for an expedition on Mercury, for living on Mars and for the poor environmental state of Earth. With the simple lives of the expedition’s crew, the constrained space travel and the understated alien, Kanas has written a novel that would be fun for that long car ride or a day on the beach.

As a bonus, the author includes a chapter at the end of the book that discusses some of the science presented. It has details on what we’ve discovered of Mercury, particularly with regard to what a human visitor might encounter if standing on its surface; the temperature from searing heat to mind numbing cold, a Sun that changes direction in the sky and effects of a molten interior.

For even more fun when you’re at the beach, there’s an inclusion of how to define life. For instance, “Does it need to move?” “What do we mean by reproduction?” “How do we test for the ability to think?” and most entertaining of all, “How do we communicate with it when we can’t even communicate with dolphins yet?” These and other ideas in the novel may keep you up late discussing our very existence while watching the embers of the cottage campfire settle to a deep dark red.

Certainly something on Europa, Titan and Venus awaits people. Maybe it’s alien life. Maybe the life prefers to exist without humans coming to explore. Maybe they will be exactly as what Nick Kanas writes in his scientific novel “The Caloris Network”. With your imagination, take this novel’s plot as believable and see where it takes you. And maybe by reading this on your vacation, you may think that you’ve waited long enough and it’s time to go find out.

This book is available through Springer.
About the author, Dr. Nick Kanas.

Finding “The Lost Science” of 2001: A Space Odyssey

The film 2001: A Space Odyssey brought space science to the general masses. Today we may consider it as common place, but in 1968 when the film was released, humankind had yet to walk on the Moon. We certainly didn’t have any experience with Jupiter. Yet somehow the producer, Stanley Kubrick, successfully peered into the future and created a believable story. One of his methods was to employ Frederick I. Ordway III as his science consultant. While Ordway has since passed, he left behind a veritable treasure trove of documents detailing his work for Kubrick. Science author and engineer Adam K. Johnson got access to this trove which resulted in the book “2001: The Lost Science – The Scientist, Influences & Designs from the Frederick I. Ordway III Estate Volume 2“. It’s a wonderful summary of Ordway’s contributions and the film’s successes.

What makes a movie? A plethora of ingredients must come together. But most of all, the audience must accept it for what it proclaims to be. For instance, a science fiction show must wander about in space and/or time. And the audience has to believe the wandering. In the 1960s, the general audience had little knowledge of space and could conceivably believe in anything.

Many films used expediency over truth, such as using a gun to shoot a capsule to the Moon. However, to validate his film, Kubrick enlisted Ordway from the Future Projects Office of the Marshall Space Flight Centre. Presumably this alone would have added large amounts of veracity, but Ordway took on the challenge as we see in Johnson’s book and pushed further.


Ordway interviewed many scientists and engineers. Many of these came to the set to provide advice. Ordway acquired drawings as well as made his own schematics. He went to industry, academia and governments. Johnson skillfully brings this all to light. How did the results mesh with this effort? That is the value of Johnson’s book. It gives credit to the breadth and depth of Ordway’s research.

The book’s first section identifies the knowledge sources; people like Willy Ley, books such as Beyond Tomorrow The Next 50 Years in Space, and organizations such as Boeing and its PARSEC project. It identifies the individuals who came to the filming sets to give advice and has many images of the sets as well.

The second section gives credit to preceding films, though it’s not certain from Johnson’s book as to how or if Ordway drew inspiration from them.

Its third and final section is probably the most fun as it provides many figures of the mock-ups, drawings and schematics. It includes a great full page image of Space Station V and a four page pullout section of Discovery X-Ray Delta One. There’s also an interesting note therein that indicates that the sets and props had to be thoroughly believable from every perspective, as they didn’t know where Kubrick may place the camera. Thus, the book gives the reader a taste of the fine detail for some graphics such as for the Moon Bus. With Johnson presenting all this from Ordway’s collection then it’s easy for the reader to understand why there’s a high sense of believability to the film.

Yes, Johnson’s book shows the amount of knowledge that was available in the early 1960s and that Ordway gained access to much of this information. The very large size of this book, about 11in by 14.5in helps show off many great images throughout. However, its size also suggests the style of the book; that is, it is a scrapbook. The book is a wonderful compendium of information relevant to the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. But it doesn’t add to the knowledge base. It’s an excellent repackaging of existing material with only a little suggestive comments on cinematic technique that might be original. And, as with most scrapbooks, the value of this book is the images. While the text is informative, it’s also somewhat dry, so the reader will probably feel much greater reward from feasting on the many print reproductions, drawings and photographs within Johnson’s book.

Perhaps the greatest value of this book is what goes unstated. That is, with enough effort and research people can construct a likely overview of humankind’s progress into the near future.  A future than can be thrilling. The book “2001: The Lost Science – The Scientists, Influences & Designs from the Frederick I. Ordway III Estate Volume 2” by Adam K. Johnson captures some of the excitement and thrill as humankind lay poised upon the edges of travelling into space. Reading it will give you pause at just how far we’ve progressed in the last 50 years. And perhaps get you thinking about what the films of today might be telling us about the next 50 years.

Book Review and Giveaway: Ask the Astronaut

Imagine yourself sitting in front of a veteran astronaut. You are able to ask him or her all the space related questions floating about in your head, with no interruptions and no time limit. While you may think you are channeling the adult version of you with your inquiry list, we all know that curious teen is lurking inside, giddy with the thought that you may grow up to be an astronaut and gleeful that you have a private audience to pick the brain of a real space traveler. Your patient audience of one is a successful, seasoned astronaut. They’ve experienced the countdown clock and ridden several rocket launches; they’ve worked in space, walked in space and thoroughly earned their space wings.

“Exploring Space is Our Destiny” – quote from Astronaut Tom Jones’ website

“Ask the Astronaut,” by 4-time shuttle astronaut Tom Jones, is that virtual astronaut sitting across from you – the answer to your curiosity. Jones brings 25 years of space experience to the table as an astronaut, planetary scientist and space consultant. In “Ask the Astronaut,” Jones ponders over 300 questions, providing thoughtful, honest responses that will surely satisfy any questions about spaceflight.

Thanks to Smithsonian Books, Universe Today has 5 copies of this book to give away. Find out how at the end of this review.

The book is handily divided by topic relating to space. “Training for Space” starts us off then transitions to “Getting to Space”. Within this chapter we learn that a shuttle launch typically took about 8 minutes 30 seconds to reach Earth orbit. Another interesting factoid is that today’s crews are officially designated astronauts when they climb 62 miles above Earth. Did you know that astronaut’s ears do not pop on that ride up? This is due to the continuous cabin pressure, which is unlike the ascent and descent experienced in a regular plane. These snippets barely scratch the surface!

ask the astronaut

Follow along through each chapter and you will be graced with detailed information including subjects such as “Surviving in Space,” “Working in Space,” “Returning to Earth,” and what lies ahead in the future. Curious about EVAs or “Walking in Space”? There’s a chapter dedicated to it.

This book is billed for the ages 10-17, but I believe all ages can benefit from the vast knowledge within, especially that eager inner kid, full of questions, found in all of us. Spaceflight is one of those great endeavors so many dream to be a part of. Tom Jones gives us a glimpse behind the curtain.

The book is published by Smithsonian Books and is available on Amazon on Kindle or paperback.

Tom Jones NASA bio can be seen here, and he also has a website.


The publisher has specified that for this contest, winners need to be from the US.

In order to be entered into the giveaway drawing, just put your email address into the box at the bottom of this post (where it says “Enter the Giveaway”) before Monday, March 28. We’ll send you a confirmation email, so you’ll need to click that to be entered into the drawing. If you’ve entered our giveaways before you should also receive an email with a link on how to enter.