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NASA’s New Horizons probe swept past Pluto and its moons at 17 km per second on 14 July. Even from the few close up images yet beamed back we can say that Pluto’s landscape is amazing. Charon, Pluto’s largest moon, is quite a sight too, and I’m glad that I delayed publication of my forthcoming Very Short Introduction to Moons so that I could include it.
In the same way as a jungle harbours several species of birds and mammals, the stellar (or almost stellar) zoo also offers a variety of objects with different sizes, masses, temperatures, ages, and other physical properties. On the one hand, there are huge massive stars that easily overshadow one as the Sun. On the other, there are less graceful, but still very interesting inhabitants: small low-mass stars or objects that come out of the stellar classification. These last objects are called "brown dwarfs".
Today I drew people as Space Cats, as part of the Galactic Fete at Creation Space London.
I especially enjoyed drawing families - I asked them to do a space pose.
I managed to forget my drawing pen, so I had to hack a writing pen by adding a pipette I happened to have in my brush roll as a reservoir for drawing ink. I also cut a nib from a beer can and used some correction fluid and a toothbrush for stars.
Within a year, we have been able to see our solar system as never before. In November 2014, the Philae Probe of the Rosetta spacecraft landed on the halter-shaped Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. In April 2015, the Dawn spacecraft entered orbit around the largest of the asteroids, Ceres (590 miles in diameter), orbiting between Mars and Jupiter. And in July, the New Horizons mission made the first flyby of the dwarf planet Pluto, making it the most distant solar-system object to be visited. Other spacecraft continue to investigate other planets.
Having watched a few of these, I then undid the “airlock” into our kitchen and they found this:
And the next hour was spent with M and J experimenting with recipes for meals we might be able to eat on the International Space Station. I (with hindsight: foolishly) promised I would eat anything they prepared for tea.
The velcroed packets of dried and / or powdered food available to the space chefs included:
Instant hot chocolate
Strawberry pudding powder (Angel Delight)
Instant porridge with golden syrup flavour
Dried fried onion bits
Dried coconut chips
Dried banana slices
A tube of tomato purée
A tube of garlic purée
A tube of vegetarian pate
Freeze dried strawberries
Basically I went to the supermarket and just chose a selection of dried and/or powdered foodstuffs, and a few interesting things in tubes…. It was quite eye opening to see what’s available. Alsp, as I couldn’t simulate all aspects of the International Space Station, I provided them with hot and cold water on tap to mix into their ingredients if they wished to.
And here are the final dishes they prepared for me:
Clockwise from top left: Golden syrup porridge and custard, pate and tomato paste tortilla with crunchy banana bits, hot chocolate strawberry pudding and tomato and garlic stew. (!!)
The girls loved measuring out and mixing up the ingredients, but most of all they loved making me squirm as I attempted to eat what they had made.
Do I love my children? Perhaps a funny thing to ask in the middle of a post about space travel, but it was a question I had to repeatedly put to myself as I ate their four course meal….
I do love my children, but eating their food was a challenge. There’s no other polite way of phrasing it… I don’t think I’m cut out to be an astronaut.
But at least once I’d had plenty of water to drink and brushed my teeth several times to get rid of the flavours, we had books to put us all to rights again.
100 Facts Space Travel by Sue Becklake, 100 Facts Stars and Galaxies by Clive Gifford and 100 Facts Solar System by Ian Graham recently arrived in our home and have been the spark for many curious conversations since then. “Mum, did you know that there’s an exoplanet which might be just one GIANT diamond, 4000 kilometres wide?”, “Mum, mum, mum, can I watch this film about a mission to Jupiter’s moon called Europa?”, “Mum, did you know you have to tie yourself to the toilet in space?!”….
An excerpt from 100 facts Space Travel
Each book groups facts around sub-themes. For example, in the book about space travel there are collections of facts to do with spacesuits, space tourists, and even space travel in books and films whilst in the book about stars and galaxies there are facts groups around themes such as the birth of a star, black holes, and the search for extraterrestrial life. A wide variety of images are used to illustrate the facts – photos, drawings, comic strips and even images of historic documents and artefacts, helping to create a collage or pin-board feel to the books. Peppered throughout the pages are mini-quizzes and the occasional practical activity, such as using a balloon to illustrate the expansion of the universe.
An excerpt from 100 Facts Solar System
Perfectly pitched to appeal to my 7 and 10 year old, these are great books for dipping in and out of. The short snippets of information make it easy to read “just one more”, and the range of information included plenty of facts which my kids were delighted by and hadn’t come across before, even though we’ve quite a few space books at home. These books would also, no doubt, work really well in primary schools.
An excerpt from 100 Facts Stars and Galaxies
Whilst we experimented with our space food we listened to:
Out in the depths of the Spooniverse Space Dog is getting read to return home following a long mission sorting out planetary problems in the Dairy Quadrant. Just as he starts to unwind a distress call comes through on his Laser Display Screen. Without a moment’s hesitation our super hero, Space Dog, jumps to and rescues the occupant of a flying saucer drowning in an thick ocean of cream on a nearby planet. But what’s this?
It turns out he’s saved his sworn enemy: Astrocat.
Will they be able to put aside their differences as another cry for help comes in over the space ship tannoy? Will teamwork triumph as they face terror together?
Space Dog by Mini Grey is an anarchic, adrenalin-packed adventure of The Highest Order. Utterly and joyously playful, wildly and lavishly imaginative, this dynamic and delightful journey exploring space and friendship is sublime.
Grey’s witty language, from the hilarious exclamations made by Space Dog (“Thundering milkswamps!”, “Shivering Stilton!”) to the deliciously outlandish names of rare alien life forms (the Cruets of West Cutlery, the Fruitons of Crumble Major) has had us all giggling time and again, even on the 15th reading of Space Dog. Her pacing is timed to perfection, with dramatic stretches interspersed with moments of great relief and humour, drawing readers, listeners, grown-ups, children ever more closely in to Grey’s fantastic, phenomenal universe Spooniverse.
Grey’s illustrations are equally packed with panache. From the detailing given to brand labels and packaging (whether on space food or game boxes) to her powerful use of suggestion (look out for what is almost missing off the page on the spread immediately before Space Dog and Astrocat land on Cheesoid 12, or the shadow redolent with threat as they turn to leave the Cheesy planet), Grey’s illustrations richly illuminate the world she has built to share with us, giving enormous pleasure every time they are returned to.
Although there are echoes of super hero comic strips and silent movies with their intertitles, dramatic soundtracks and expressive emotions theatrically mimed, Mini Grey’s visual and verbal style is truly unique. Spirited and inventive, Space Dog is an outstanding book and fortunately you can find it right here right now in our very own universe.
Every single page turn of Space Dog was met with “Mummy, can we do that??!!”, whether it was making a planet out of cereal packets, coming up with a recipe for supper based on the Spaghetti Entity in the Pastaroid Belt, designing our own version of Dogopoly, rustling up Astrocat’s cake, making spewing tomato ketchup volcanoes, or playing with fondue. In the end we settled for making spaceships for the characters in the book, and flying them over our patio.
We dressed up as astronauts ourselves, making space suits from disposable painting overalls, decorated with electrical tape and completed with control panels from cardboard.
Once appropriately attired we were ready to launch our space ships. Unlike Pop Goes the Page we used nylon bead thread rather than wire to make a zip line, partly because this is what we had to hand, but also because it’s extremely smooth and there are no issues with kinking. One end was tied to the bathroom window, the other to the end of the washing line in the garden.
Soon spaceships were zooming all over our patio…
Later we turned our hand to making hats for a fruit and vegetable parade, inspired by the hat competition which Space Dog has to judge:
Other activities you could try inspired by Space Dog include:
Making space ships big enough for kids (and their grownups?) to fit in. A large cardboard box, a roll of tin foil and some plastic lids or moulded plastic from biscuit boxes is all you need to get you started. (Here’s one we made earlier).
Reading the extraordinary graphic novel Laika by Nick Abadzis. This is more for us grown ups than the kids (though my 10 year old has read it) but I can’t resist recommending it whilst I’ve got a chance.
Would you like to go into space if you had the chance?
Disclosure: I was sent a free review copy of Space Dog by the book’s publisher.
This is one of those books where the cover convinces you that you’ll love it. It’s both bright and cozy. Spare and warm.
A teensy giraffe peeks out of this boy’s hiding spot and you can see its smiling face, but only eager anticipation in this boy’s eyes.
This is my kind of kid. It looks like a grownup is over his shoulder, offering an open door and a pair of shoes. But he’s got a tower of bricks, a colander kingdom, and the very best pair of pajamas.
In is best.
Until out is.
And when out is cold and wet, in you go.
Nikki McClure’s paper cuts are intricate and exquisite, but they are also all-embracing. Not common artwork, but a reminder of the universal comforts of childhood and play and home.
A stark black and vibrant yellow are perfect patches of color to explore these opposing wishes. They balance, they tug, and they leave enough room for us to journey with him. By day and until nightfall.
In and out.
A perfect choice to celebrate curiosity, imagination, and the way we explore our world.
Betamori was discovered in the Beta Tolis star cluster after one of Earth’s vessels veered off course attracted by the beautiful triangle clusters surrounding the planet. At first Betamorians welcomed the humans with their kind demeanour, but eventually kept the crew as pets. It is not recommended as a planet to visit unless you mind sleeping on the floor.
Sisson, Stephanie Roth. 2014. Star Stuff: Carl Sagan and the mysteries of the cosmos. New York: Roaring Brook.
In simple text augmented by word bubbles, thought bubbles, and sketches, Stephanie Roth Sisson gives us the highlights of Carl Sagan's life—but more importantly, she offers a sense of his wondrous enthusiasm for the cosmos,
It gave Carl goose bumps to think about what he had learned about the stars, planets, and the beginnings of life. He wanted everyone to understand so that they could feel like a part of the stars as he did. So he went on television.
This is the first book that Stephanie Roth Sisson has both written and illustrated. The fact that she is enthralled with her subject is apparent in the artwork. Painted cartoon images (often in panels with word bubbles), depict a happy Sagan, wide-eyed and curious. While some pages are like panel comics, others are full-bleed, double spreads depicting the vastness of the darkened skies, dotted by planets or stars. One foldout opens vertically, reminding us of our infinitesimal existence in the cosmos. We are so small, yet we are reminded,
The Earth and every living thing are made of star stuff.
Winter nights are undeniably great for cosy reading on the sofa, but they’re also often ideal for star gazing with kids. Early darkness, not long after getting home from school, combined with frosty, clear nights means that we’re able to look up at the moon, stars and planets long before bedtime. There’s nothing like a bit of awe and wonder before your fishfingers for supper, we’ve discovered.
Night Sky Watcher by Raman Prinja is the latest astronomy book we’ve been using to aid our journeys through the night sky. It’s chock full of practical advice, not only on how to find constellations and planets when you tilt your head up to the darkness above, but also how to make your star gazing fun and easy.
Night Sky Watcher has separate sections on observing stars, planets and “unusual sights” such as satellites, meteor showers and eclipses. Richly illustrated with astronomical photos, short boxes and bubbles deliver bite-sized parcels of facts and viewing advice, supplemented by activity ideas ranging from joining up stars to form your own constellation to acting out planetary orbits with friends. I love the book’s emphasis on going out there and doing astronomy, not just reading about it.
One aspect which has worked especially well for us is the star spotting guide; constellations are presented in their stellar context, with Prinja showing us how once we’ve found one set of stars we can use that constellation to navigate to another. “Star-hopping” has been a big hit and has really extended the girls’ previous experience and understanding of looking up at the celestial sky.
The book’s design is rather clever; it comes in a silver edged zipper pouch, which immediately suggests adventurous astronaut gear. The book isn’t “just” a book, it’s part of your night sky watching equipment designed for taking outside and using in situ. The book’s interior feels equally modern and slick with “astrofacts” appearing every few pages on an iPad/tablet screen and glossy paper adding to the sheen and sparkle of the astronomical photos.
Before heading into the dark to look for stars the girls and I boosted our star-pattern recognition skills but making our own bag of indoor magnetic stars which we could move around on the fridge and radiators to form the constellations we’d be looking for once we got outside.
CR2032 3V lithium batteries
Black electrical tape
Once we had a handful of glowing “stars” we set about making the constellations we wanted to look for in the night sky. Alongside Night Sky Watcher we also used this constellation crib sheet to help us place our stars in the right patterns on a radiator in a dark room.
Can you tell which constellation this is meant to be? It’s the central part of Orion, featuring the belt, Betelgeuse (top left) and Rigel (bottom right).
Once we’d made a few constellations the girls got another idea. Recalling the time we “scribbled” with light (using a long shutter release on my camera), M and J wanted to draw the constellations in the air; in Night Sky Watcher (as in standard practice when learning about constellations), the stars are “joined up” by lines to give the constellation’s outline, and it was these outlines that the girls wanted to try and draw.
Can you recognise this constellation?! It’s meant to be Cassiopeia…
Drawing the constellations wasn’t as easy as using the light magnets to lay out the right patterns and soon our “drawing with the light of stars” became rather free-form.
Setting up a google alert for news about space exploration. If your child (or you) wants to keep informed about the latest news regarding spaces research and discoveries, you can set up an alert to send you a news digest at a frequency to suit you. Go to https://www.google.co.uk/alerts and type in the terms you’re interested in eg “space”, “exploration”, “lunar”, “comet”. “astronaut” etc. You can then choose to receive notification (via email) of relevant news items, as it happens, once a day or once a week.
A previous blog post, Patterns in Physics, discussed alternative “representations” in physics as akin to languages; an underlying quantum reality described in either a position or a momentum representation. Both are equally capable of a complete description, the underlying reality itself residing in a complex space with the very concepts of position/momentum or wave/particle only relevant in a “classical limit”. The history of physics has progressively separated such incidentals of our description from what is essential to the physics itself. We will consider this for time itself here.
Thus, consider the simple instance of the motion of a ball from being struck by a bat (A) to being caught later at a catcher’s hand (B). The specific values given for the locations of A and B or the associated time instants are immediately seen as dependent on each person in the stadium being free to choose the origin of his or her coordinate system. Even the direction of motion, whether from left to right or vice versa, is of no significance to the physics, merely dependent on which side of the stadium one is sitting.
All spectators sitting in the stands and using their own “frame of reference” will, however, agree on the distance of separation in space and time of A and B. But, after Einstein, we have come to recognize that these are themselves frame dependent. Already in Galilean and Newtonian relativity for mechanical motion, it was recognized that all frames travelling with uniform velocity, called “inertial frames”, are equivalent for physics so that besides the seated spectators, a rider in a blimp moving overhead with uniform velocity in a straight line, say along the horizontal direction of the ball, is an equally valid observer of the physics.
Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity, in extending the equivalence of all inertial frames also to electromagnetic phenomena, recognized that the spatial separation between A and B or, even more surprisingly to classical intuition, the time interval between them are different in different inertial frames. All will agree on the basics of the motion, that ball and bat were coincident at A and ball and catcher’s hand at B. But one seated in the stands and one on the blimp will differ on the time of travel or the distance travelled.
Even on something simpler, and already in Galilean relativity, observers will differ on the shape of the trajectory of the ball between A and B, all seeing parabolas but of varying “tightness”. In particular, for an observer on the blimp travelling with the same horizontal velocity as that of the ball as seen by the seated, the parabola degenerates into a straight up and down motion, the ball moving purely vertically as the stadium itself and bat and catcher slide by underneath so that one or the other is coincident with the ball when at ground level.
There is no “trajectory of the ball’s motion” without specifying as seen by which observer/inertial frame. There is a motion, but to say that the ball simultaneously executes many parabolic trajectories would be considered as foolishly profligate when that is simply because there are many observers. Every observer does see a trajectory, but asking for “the real trajectory”, “What did the ball really do?”, is seen as an invalid, or incomplete, question without asking “as seen by whom”. Yet what seems so obvious here is the mistake behind posing as quantum mysteries and then proposing as solutions whole worlds and multiple universes(!). What is lost sight of is the distinction between the essential physics of the underlying world and our description of it.
The same simple problem illustrates another feature, that physics works equally well in a local time-dependent or a global, time-independent description. This is already true in classical physics in what is called the Lagrangian formulation. Focusing on the essential aspects of the motion, namely the end points A and B, a single quantity called the action in which time is integrated over (later, in quantum field theory, a Lagrangian density with both space and time integrated over) is considered over all possible paths between A and B. Among all these, the classical motion is the one for which the action takes an extreme (technically, stationary) value. This stationary principle, a global statement over all space and time and paths, turns out to be exactly equivalent to the local Newtonian description from one instant to another at all times in between A and B.
There are many sophisticated aspects and advantages of the Lagrangian picture, including its natural accommodation of basic conservation laws of energy, momentum and angular momentum. But, for our purpose here, it is enough to note that such stationary formulations are possible elsewhere and throughout physics. Quantum scattering phenomena, where it seems natural to think in terms of elapsed time during the collisional process, can be described instead in a “stationary state” picture (fixed energy and standing waves), with phase shifts (of the wave function) that depend on energy, all experimental observables such as scattering cross-sections expressed in terms of them.
“The concept of time has vexed humans for centuries, whether layman, physicist or philosopher”
No explicit invocation of time is necessary although if desired so-called time delays can be calculated as derivatives of the phase shifts with respect to energy. This is because energy and time are quantum-mechanical conjugates, their product having dimensions of action, and Planck’s quantum constant with these same dimensions exists as a fundamental constant of our Universe. Indeed, had physicists encountered quantum physics first, time and energy need never have been invoked as distinct entities, one regarded as just Planck’s constant times the derivative (“gradient” in physics and mathematics parlance) of the other. Equally, position and momentum would have been regarded as Planck’s constant times the gradient in the other.
The concept of time has vexed humans for centuries, whether layman, physicist or philosopher. But, making a distinction between representations and an underlying essence suggests that space and time are not necessary for physics. Together with all the other concepts and words we perforce have to use, including particle, wave, and position, they are all from a classical limit with which we try to describe and understand what is actually a quantum world. As long as that is kept clearly in mind, many mysteries and paradoxes are dispelled, seen as artifacts of our pushing our models and language too far and “identifying” them with the underlying reality that is in principle out of reach.
We know Philip Stead can tell a story. Even his Number Five Bus interview series (with wife and creative partner Erin and ‘potentially interesting interactions with fellow book people’) is like a bowl of chicken noodle soup and a blanket.
Here’s what I love about this book.
That the copyright page tells us the art was made with pastels, oil paints, and pressed charcoal. Those things make your hands dirty and rub all the story off with it. There’s a feeling of grit there that I can’t quite figure out, but somehow these drawings feel loose and messy and full of both turbulence and elegance. The color is both rich and muted, deep and spare.
This red bird, that shows up on every single page. A constant companion to Sebastian’s wandering. A comfort.
That Philip Stead varies his compositions throughout, so that sometimes you are intimate with this cast, and sometimes you are pulling back for a wide shot of their world. That sometimes you are bobbing along with them and that sometimes you are floating free. That you feel the magnitude of this balloon trip, that you go with the wind too.
This leafless tree that gets the lumpiest-in-my-throat moment when it returns in glorious color. It was hard not to show you what I mean, but if you haven’t seen this part, then see this part. I won’t wreck the magic.
That the closest Sebastian comes to a smile is in sharing pickle sandwiches with his friends.
The way this milky gray fog is drawn. Moody and slightly scary and a barrier between the reader and the page. You can’t warn them about the pop because they couldn’t hear you through its thickness. They have to endure the danger.
That each character’s face is solemn and expressionless, but full of understanding. For each other, for pressing on, for seeing something. The tension there is the curiosity and the hope that they are finding comfort in their journey.
These sisters. Because.
This ramshackle roller coaster. Both “the most perfect roller coaster they would ever see” and chipped and faded and bent and broken and overrun with pigeons. And the pigeons, for where they go next.
That Sebastian thought to bring a boat and a ball of yarn.
And that I have a love/hate relationship with Caldecott speculation, but that big moon and patchwork balloon would look especially nice with a third round thing on the cover.
P.S. – Did I tell you about my spin on the Let’s Get Busy podcast with Matthew Winner and Kelly Light? That’s here if you want a listen. This book love guilt thing is no joke, because I keep thinking of other 2014 favorites that didn’t make our list, like this one. Huge thanks to book people for making great things. Don’t slow down. Also, here’s a super conversation between Philip and Jules at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. More art! Not to miss.
Imagine packing up your home, leaving Earth and setting out to travel across space to colonise a new planet.
The journey will take so long you’ll be put into a cryptobiotic state. But there is absolutely nothing to fear: You’re on sleek new spaceship, looked after by a team of well-programmed robots, and everything has been carefully thought through. When you finally arrive at Nova Mundi (it only takes 199 years to get there), you’ll be woken up to a delicious breakfast and the start of a whole new and wonderful life.
It sounds great, doesn’t it?
And so it is in Cakes in Space by Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre. Astra and her family are on their way to their new home but – you’ve guessed it – something goes wrong. Astra wakes from her suspended sleep, and feeling peckish goes off in search of a chocolate biscuit.
The Nom-O-Tron (a highly developed version of Star Trek’s Replicator) satisfies Astra’s request, but when she’s tempted to ask for something a little more outlandish (how many times have you seen the word “Ultimate” used to describe a dish?) something goes awry. Soon Astra is hurtling through space surrounded by cakes which have learned to evolve. Cakes which are fed up of being eaten themselves. Cakes which have developed a killer instinct.
Will Astra be able to save her family from the Ravenous Crispy Slices and Ferocious Fruit Cakes stalking the spaceship’s corridors? How much more complicated will things get when a second front opens up and her spaceship is raided by alien life forms known as Poglites, desperately searching for their holy grail, that technology which they haven’t been able to master: SPOONS.
Yes, this is a totally surreal and deliciously outrageous story of friendship, ingenuity and hundreds and thousands.
It’s fast-moving, exciting, just ever so slightly scary in that enjoyably adrenalin pumping way and above all it’s FUNNY! Add into the mix some genuinely beautiful writing (sometimes young fiction is all about the plot and the language – especially for an adult reading it aloud – can be somewhat unremarkable, but Reeve at times writes sentences which I found myself wanting to copy out), a plot which will enthral both boys and girls of a wide age range, and the subtle inclusion of some philosophically meatier issues (the consequences of greedy desire, the demonisation of that which we don’t know and can’t name) and you’ve got yourself a remarkable book.
Image: Sarah McIntyre. Please click on the image to be taken to the original blog post – well worth reading!
McIntyre’s illustrations are a crazy but perfect mix of 1950s brave new world sleekness and outrageous sponge-and-icing based fantasy. I’m delighted that Astra’s family are mixed race (this isn’t mentioned in the text at all, but how great to see some diversity just as-is, without it being an issue in the book).
The top-notch content of Cakes in Space is matched by a stunningly produced physical book. Like last year’s Reeve and McIntyre production, Oliver and the Seawigs, this is first being published as a small hardback in pleasingly chunky, strokingly hand-holdable format. Everything about the book is appealing.
After indulging in a solo read, I read this book aloud to both girls over a couple of days last week. Before we’d even finished the books my girls were off to raid the cutlery draw in the kitchen for highly prized spoons to create a collection of which any Poglite would be proud.
Carefully curated, they labelled every spoon with where it had been found in the galaxy, its rarity and its monetary value (I can see how this could develop into a Top Trumps game…)
Spoons are one thing, but cake is another, and I couldn’t resist the opportunity to host our own mini Cakes in Space party. We baked a host of fairy cakes and then turned them into KILLER CAKES…
Lollies made great eyes on stalks…
… as did Maltesers and Aero balls.
We had fun making teeth out of snapped white chocolate buttons, tictacs and rice paper snipped to look like rows of sharp teeth.
We also had some Ferocious Florentines and Sinister Swiss Rolls (helped along with edible eyes).
Other characters from the book were also present: The Nameless Horror was a big bowl of wobbly jelly dyed black with food colouring and with licorice shoelaces reaching out across the table, and jars of purple gloop (thinned down Angel Delight, again dyed to give a good purple colour) with gummy snakes in them made perfect Poglite snacks. Alas these were guzzled before I got to take a photo!
Preparing for the party was at least as much fun as the party itself…
SLEEPING PODS! For the grown ups at the party if no-one else… You could use large cardboard boxes painted silver lined with duvets, and with the lids cut out and replaced with something see-through, with bottle tops/lids stuck on for the various buttons… you get the idea!
We’ve all heard of Death by Chocolate, but what’s the nearest you’ve come to being killed by a cake?
Disclosure: I received a free review copy of Cakes in Space from the publishers.
If you share my jealousy of Peter Capaldi and his new guise as the Doctor, then read on to discover how you could become the next Time Lord with a fondness for Earth. However, be warned: you can’t just pick up Matt Smith’s bow-tie from the floor, don Tom Baker’s scarf, and expect to save planet Earth every Saturday at peak viewing time. You’re going to need training. This is where Oxford’s online products can help you. Think of us as your very own Companion guiding you through the dimensions of time, only with a bit more sass. So jump aboard (yes it’s bigger on the inside), press that button over there, pull that lever thingy, and let’s journey through the five things you need to know to become the Doctor.
Being called two-faced may not initially appeal to you. How about twelve-faced? No wait, don’t leave, come back! Part of the appeal of the Doctor is his ability to regenerate and assume many faces. Perhaps the most striking example of regeneration we have on our planet is the Hydra fish which is able to completely re-grow a severed head. Even more striking is its ability to grow more than one head if a small incision is made on its body. I don’t think it’s likely the BBC will commission a Doctor with two heads though so best to not go down that route. Another example of an animal capable of regeneration is Porifera, the sponges commonly seen on rocks under water. These sponge-type creatures are able to regenerate an entire limb which is certainly impressive but are not quite as attractive as The David Tenants or Matt Smiths of this world.
(2) Fighting aliens
Although alien invasion narratives only crossed over to mainstream fiction after World War II, the Doctor has been fighting off alien invasions since the Dalek War and the subsequent destruction of Gallifrey. Alien invasion narratives are tied together by one salient issue: conquer or be conquered. Whether you are battling Weeping Angels or Cybermen, you must first make sure what you are battling is indeed an alien. Yes, that lady you meet every day at the bus-stop with the strange smell may appear to be from another dimension but it’s always better to be sure before you whip out your sonic screwdriver.
(3) Visiting unknown galaxies
The Hubble Ultra Deep Field telescope captures a patch of sky that represents one thirteen-millionth of the area of the whole sky we see from Earth, and this tiny patch of the Universe contains over 10,000 galaxies. One thirteen-millionth of the sky is the equivalent to holding a grain of sand at arm’s length whilst looking up at the sky. When we look at a galaxy ten billion light years away, we are actually only seeing it by the light that left it ten billion years ago. Therefore, telescopes are akin to time machines.
The sheer vastness and mystery of the universe has baffled us for centuries. Doctor Who acts as a gatekeeper to the unknown, helping us imagine fantastical creatures such as the Daleks, all from the comfort of our living rooms.
(4) Operating the T.A.R.D.I.S.
The majority of time-travel narratives avoid the use of a physical time-machine. However, the Tardis, a blue police telephone box, journeys through time dimensions and is as important to the plot of Doctor Who as upgrades are to Cybermen. Although it looks like a plain old police telephone box, it has been known to withstand meteorite bombardment, shield itself from laser gun fire and traverse the time vortex all in one episode. The Tardis’s most striking characteristic, that it is “much bigger on the inside”, is explained by the Fourth Doctor, Tom Baker, by using the analogy of the tesseract.
(5) Looking good
It’s all very well saving the Universe every week but what use is that without a signature look? Tom Baker had the scarf, Peter Davison had the pin-stripes, John Hurt even had the brooding frown, so what will your dress-sense say about you? Perhaps you could be the Doctor with a cravat or the time-traveller with a toupee? Whatever your choice, I’m sure you’ll pull it off, you handsome devil you.
Don’t forget a good sense of humour to compliment your dashing visage. When Doctor Who was created by Donald Wilson and C.E. Webber in November 1963, the target audience of the show was eight-to-thirteen-year-olds watching as part of a family group on Saturday afternoons. In 2014, it has a worldwide general audience of all ages, claiming over 77 million viewers in the UK, Australia, and the United States. This is largely due to the Doctor’s quick quips and mix of adult and childish humour.
You’ve done it! You’ve conquered the cybermen, exterminated the daleks, and saved Earth (we’re eternally grateful of course). Why not take the Tardis for another spin and adventure through more of Oxford’s online products?
Image credit: Doctor Who poster, by Doctor Who Spoilers. CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Flickr.
Over the summer I finished the first draft of my next French YA novel, which, in stark contrast to the ones before, is not grim and dark but comical and light. And while my first two YA books take place entirely in Paris - and in places I know very well, including my old high school - this one narrates a road trip between the city of Bourg-en-Bresse (just a few kilometres from South Burgundy) and Paris. I know Bourg-en-Bresse and Paris well, but not the places in the middle, through which my three heroines were cycling. And that's where Google Street View comes into play.
somewhere in France
Using Google Maps and Google Street View to write books is something I've done for quite some time, and I'm sure that most writers do it, though I hadn't quite realised how weird it sounds to people who aren't writers. My mother told me the other day, quite astonished, that she'd heard a famous writer say on the radio that he'd used it for his own novel, which is entirely set in a place in the US that he's never been to. My own response was a blasé 'Well, yes, of course. What's surprising about that?' Google Street View in one tab, Wikipedia in another, the city/ village website in a third, and more tabs containing blog posts or articles on the places in question: normal set-up for any writing session, no?Surely that's a good enough alternative to an expensive flight for the non-New-York-Time-bestselling author...
Well, sure, most of us would always privilege going to the real-world places, and some writers would not dream of writing about a place they'd never visited. There are obvious issues of cultural sensitivity at stake - 'would I truly respect the place, understand it, if I've only seen it through a 360° camera strapped to a car?'. There's the temptation of information overload, at the risk of ending up sounding like Jules Verne. And of course there are issues about the fact that the material given is exclusively visual, sacrificing the characteristic noises and smells which give life and texture to a place. A lot of writers would thus probably say that Street View should preferably be used only for quick fact-checking after seeing a place IRL (In Real Life).
not the most inspiring portrayal of space
But maybe there's something specific, and not necessarily inferior, to writing about spaces that you know only from Street View, in exactly the same way that doing a painting from a photograph is different, but not necessarily inferior, to painting from life.
Ideally, painters begin with life-drawing; and similarly, as writers, we would already have written about spaces that we know intimately: we've had, so to speak, considerable training in 'life-writing'. In the most restricted sense of 'write what you know', this is the first skill to master as a 'representer' of things, whether verbal or visual. But of course 'write what you know' is underscored by the problematic assumptions that 1) we 'know' things, 2) we 'can' write those things that 'we know' and 3) even if both of the above are true, it makes for good artistic 'representation'.
Enter Google Street View, which presents a relentlessly artificial, 2D, unknowable vision of space. Just as photographs flatten reality and necessarily restrict the painter's visual and sensory navigation of the object to be represented, writing from Street View means subjecting yourself to an already mediated, stiff and alienating representation of space. How could anyone possibly argue that can be a good thing?
Because, in both cases, it alerts the painter or the writer to the fact that the material cannot possibly provide a truthful kind of 'knowledge' about the object at all. Therefore it becomes not just desirable but absolutely imperative for something more to emerge - a stylisation, an appropriation of the object or the place. And this process comes from a source material so limited, so other, that you can't revert back to things you think you know.
In other words, you just can't ignore, when you're writing a place from Street View (or indeed any travel guide book, like Verne used to do), that your vision of it is absolutely untrue. You just know you don't know it enough to write authentically about it; therefore, the only way you can go is towards further imagining that place. You have to make these impersonal snapshots of roads and monuments somehow become part of an authentic-sounding world. What must it smell like, this little pond on the side of the road? What must it feel like, this avenue, in the summer?
This creative distance is necessary anyway to any writing about place, whether or not you've been there, lived there, or not at all. You might feel you know your house, your street, your city, but of course your vision of them will always already be mediated - by yourself. The troubling difference, with Street View, is that someone else (someone totally faceless, nameless and in fact quite uncannily threatening) has done the mediating for you, placing you by necessity in a position to notice your alienation from this place.
Writing place 'from Google Street View' is of course not the only way we should proceed - that would be an absurd claim - but it can be a very refreshing endeavour in its own right - and a welcome process of distance-taking from 'truthfulness' in writing.
Clementine Beauvais's space is split between Britain and France. She writes books in French of all kinds and shapes for all ages, and in English humour/adventure series, the Sesame Seade mysteries, with Hodder, and the Holy-Moly Holiday series with Bloomsbury. She blogs here about children's literature and academia and is on Twitter @blueclementine.
Throughout history, some people have chosen to take huge risks. What can we learn from their experiences?
Extreme activities, such as polar exploration, deep-sea diving, mountaineering, space faring, and long-distance sailing, create extraordinary physical and psychological demands. The physical risks, such as freezing, drowning, suffocating or starving, are usually obvious. But the psychological pressures are what make extreme environments truly daunting.
The ability to deal with fear and anxiety is, of course, essential. But people in extremes may endure days or weeks of monotony between the moments of terror. Solo adventurers face loneliness and the risk of psychological breakdown, while those whose mission involves long-term confinement with a small group may experience stressful interpersonal conflict. All of that is on top of the physical hardships like sleep deprivation, pain, hunger, and squalor.
What can the rest of us learn from those hardy individuals who survive and thrive in extreme places? We believe there are many psychological lessons from hard places that can help us all in everyday life. They include the following.
Focus – the ability to pay attention to the right things and ignore all distractions, for as long as it takes – is a fundamental skill. Laser-like concentration is obviously essential during hazardous moves on a rock face or a spacewalk. Focus also helps when enduring prolonged hardship, such as on punishing polar treks. A good strategy for dealing with hardship is to focus tightly on the next bite-sized action rather than dwelling on the entire daunting mission.
The ability to focus attention is a much-underestimated skill in everyday life. It helps you get things done and tolerate discomfort. And it is rewarding: when someone is utterly absorbed in a demanding and stretching activity, they experience a satisfying psychological state called ‘flow’ (or being ‘in the zone’). A person in flow feels in control, forgets everyday anxieties, and tends to perform well at the task in hand. The good news is that we can all become better at focusing our attention. One scientifically-proven method is through the regular practice of meditation.
Focus helps when tackling difficult tasks, but you also need expertise – high levels of skills and knowledge – to perform those tasks well. Expertise underpins effective planning and preparation and enables informed and measured judgements about risks. In high-risk situations experts make more accurate decisions than novices, who may become paralysed with indecision or take rapid, panicky actions that make things worse.
Expertise also helps people in extreme environments to manage stress. Stress occurs when the demands on you exceed your actual or perceived capacity to cope. An effective way of reducing stress, in everyday life as well as extremes, is by increasing your ability to cope by developing high levels of skills and experience.
Developing expertise requires hard work and persistence. But it’s worth the investment – the dividends include better assessment of risk, better decision-making, and less vulnerability to stress.
Getting enough sleep is often difficult in extreme environments, where the physical demands can deprive people of sleep, disrupt their circadian rhythms, or both.
Bad sleep has a range of adverse effects on mental and physical wellbeing, including impairing alertness, judgment, memory, decision-making, and mood. Unsurprisingly, it makes people much more likely to have accidents.
Many of us are chronically sleep deprived in everyday life: we go to bed late, get up early, and experience low-quality sleep in between. Most of us would feel better if we slept more and slept better. So don’t feel guilty about spending more time in bed.
Experts in extreme environments often make use of tactical napping. Research has shown that napping is an effective way of alleviating the adverse consequences of bad sleep. It’s also enjoyable.
Be tolerant and tolerable.
Adventures in extreme environments often require small groups of people to be trapped together for months at a time. Even the best of friends can get on each other’s nerves under such circumstances. Social conflict can build rapidly over petty issues. Groups split apart, individuals are ostracised, and simmering tensions may even explode into violence.
When forming a team for an extreme mission, as much emphasis should be placed on team members’ interpersonal skills as on their specialist skills or physical capability. Research shows that team-building exercises – though often mocked – can be an effective way of enhancing teamwork.
Effective teams are alert to mounting tensions. Individuals keep the little annoyances in perspective and respect others’ need for privacy. To survive and thrive in demanding situations, people must learn to be tolerant and tolerable. The same is true in everyday life.
Extreme environments are dangerous places where people endure great hardship. They may suffer terrifying accidents or watch others die. Such experiences can be traumatic and, in some cases, cause long-term damage to mental health.
But this is by no means inevitable. Research has shown that many individuals emerge from extreme experiences with greater resilience and a better understanding of their own strengths. By coping with life-threatening situations, they become more self-confident and more appreciative of life.
Resilience is a common quality in everyday life. We tend to underestimate our own ability to cope with stress, and overestimate its adverse consequences. Some stress is good for us and we should not try to avoid it completely.
Featured image credit: Mount Everest, by tpsdave. Public Domain via Pixabay.
The Usborne Big Book of Stars and Planets written by Emily Bone, illustrated by Fabiano Fiorin is a first primer in astronomy, full of simply explained and rather beautifully illustrated facts about the Solar System, different types of stars and how they group together, and space exploration and observation. Four large flaps fold out (a little like the expanding universe), to reveal further facts and some lavish astronomical vistas.
Many Usborne books are characterized by cartoony illustrations, and here, The Usborne Big Book of Stars and Planets does something rather different and really worthwhile in my opinion: Fiorin’s illustrations do justice to the beauty of space, with the use of vivid watercolours, particularly effective in the section on nebulae.
As to the information presented, I have come up against a problem. Whilst I don’t fact-check everything in the non-fiction books I review, I do always check a few “facts”, to get a feel for how the book presents information. Unfortunately with The Usborne Big Book of Stars and Planets I very quickly came across a few statements which made me slightly concerned: the thickness of Saturn’s rings and the length of Uranus’ day don’t match what is stated on NASA’s website (65 ft thick vs 30-300 ft thick, 17 hours and 54 minutes vs 17 hours and 14 minutes). I know that “facts” are often much more complicated than presented, especially in books for the youngest of readers, and that simplification is sometimes necessary (and that my research skills can always be bettered) but it makes me uneasy when with just a little investigation I can find contradictory information from reliable sources.
I love the look and feel of The Usborne Big Book of Stars and Planets but I can’t help feeling unsettled by it too; why doesn’t the information I’ve looked up elsewhere match with some of the information presented in the book? Hmm.
Inspired by the patterns and colours of the planets in the illustrations, and such photos as the one below, where Jupiter appears in pastel colours because the observation was taken in near-infrared light, we decided to make our own set of planets.
Triple Jupiter Eclipse. Photo: NASA on The Commons
We used marbling paint and different sized polystyrene balls to replicate the colours and patterns.
Having created a swirly pattern with a toothpick the girls slowly dipped their “planets” into the paint/water. (In order to hang up the planets to dry, we attached string to them before we dipped them).
The effects were just lovely!
Once dry, we put our planets into orbit in the windowsill:
We shall never have a dull sky at night now.
Whilst marvelling at our marbled planets we listened to:
The Monty Python Universe Song
The Planets suite by Gustav Holst. ‘Mars’ recently featured in the BBC’s 10 Pieces, a project designed to get primary school aged children really excited about classical music. The BBC created a video to go with the music, which you can view here.
Making a scale model of the Solar System down your garden path or along the pavement to school. Here’s how we did it (all measurements included).
Watching some of the experiments carried out by Chris Hadfield when he was in the International Space Station. He’s got his own YouTube channel where you can hear him sing (not just the Bowie song) as well as explore many of the amazing things that happen in space.
When you read reviews of non-fiction books do you expect some commentary on factual accuracy? When can a book still be worth recommending even if it appears to contain errors? I wrote a review of a non-fiction book for a print publication at the start of this year. The book contained an error (double and triple checked by me), but my review was never published, and in all the other reviews I’ve seen of the book, the error has not been mentioned. What do you think of this? Should errors be overlooked because they can be corrected in future editions?
As part of their brilliant science fiction season, last night BFI Southbank saw a special screening of Contact, a movie based on the novel by SETI pioneer, Carl Sagan.
It’s not a short film, but no one in the packed audience minded that the Q&A preceding it, with Professor Brian Cox and Dr Adam Rutherford, took over an hour. Huge credit to my former employers, the British Film Institute, for not making it token, but giving us the chance for a meaty discussion on what many think is the most important question facing science: where is everybody?
This was the question posed to colleagues over lunch one day (in 1950) by physicist Enrico Fermi. It has become known as the “Fermi paradox”. The “everybody” in question are aliens … extraterrestrials.
Why should we care?
Many people think the fundamental moment in the history of Western science was when Copernicus said Earth orbited the Sun rather than the other way around. This wasn’t simply a convenient coordinate shift. It was saying Earth is not the centre of the Universe. We inhabit just one of many planets. We have no privileged position in the cosmos. We are ordinary. The same “laws of nature” that apply on and around Earth apply equally in the rest of the Universe. This has become known as the “Copernican principle” and it is the foundation of scientific thought.
We have a problem. Look out at night – look further through our telescopes (and we can look so very far) and the Universe is vast. There are hundreds of billions of galaxies, like our own Milky Way. Just within ours, there are maybe 400 billion stars, most with planets. Conservative estimates, as Brian Cox told the audience (these are based on Kepler findings) hold that one in ten stars will have habitable planets in orbits that allow liquid water on their surface.
Further, at 4.5 billion years, Earth and our solar system are relatively young. The Milky War is far, far older. inally, mathematical models show it’s perfectly possible to colonize the entire galaxy in a brief time – say, 10 million years. Yet when we look skywards, we see not the slightest evidence if any intelligence in the entire Universe, other than what we find here on Earth. This suggests we are very special indeed – the polar opposite to the fundamental principle of science.
The Arecibo message
Sagan pondered this question long and hard. In his early, pioneering days of SETI, they were actively trying to communicate with extraterrestrials and before the movie, Cox and Rutherford were sitting in front of a radio message intentionally broadcast to the stars.
Sagan also helped designed messages added to the Voyager deep space probes (Voyager 1 is now over 18 light hours away, carrying a gold record with sounds of Earth and a map of how to find its inhabitants). Since those heady days, we think more about “existential risk” – things that potentially threated our survival as a species. One such risk is contact with alien races, so we’ve become more circumspect.
Looking back, I think the novel, Contact, was important for me as both a writer and publisher. I loved the story. It combined so many elements that I’m passionate about and, foolishly at the time I thought I could have told it better! Of course that’s not true, but I would nowadays have been a good editor for Sagan, had he let me. It certainly made me realize I was capable of being a good storyteller, and my current work-in-progress is a novel that revisits this same territory. I find it unfathomable now that I asked Sagan to sign my copy of Cosmos, which he kindly did, but not my copy of Contact – what was I thinking?
The film’s good, but there’s so much more in the book that anyone who likes the movie would get a lot from reading the novel. It was commented that Contact is a little overlooked as a science fiction film. Very true, but with my screenwriting hat on I think that’s because there’s so much to cram in, the narrative is very linear and straightforward. And Sagan’s thoughtful climax may have been unsatistfactory for mainstream audiences used to a different style of alien encounter.
In the movie, scientist Ellie Arroway (played by Jodie Foster and the character Cox and Rutherford said was the best depiction of a scientist on screen) detects a message from aliens, using radio telescopes. This was how Sagan and fellow SETI pioneer Frank Drake expected our first contact with extraterrestrials would go, and the film describes how things might unfold after receipt – the message is written in mathematics, the only universal language. There’s still an old-school SETI community working in this area, but increasingly scientists are thinking of alternative ways to identify evidence of aliens, often in the form of (very) large scale engineering projects such as Dyson spheres or matter-antimatter burners. We’re still looking.
If you’ve not seen the movie, you really should. Here’s the trailer to whet your appetite:
Below is my review of the audiobook Space Case by Stuart Gibbs, read by Gibson Frazier, as it appeared in the December 2014, issue of School Library Journal. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
GIBBS, Stuart. Space Case. 6 CDs. 6:28 hrs. S. & S. Audio. 2014. $29.99. ISBN 9781442376397. digital download.
Gr 3–7— The year is 2040. Dash, his sister, and their scientist parents are inaugural inhabitants of Moon Base Alpha (MBA), Earth's extraterrestrial colony. Housing only a few dozen people and governed by a strict commander, MBA is not exactly a barrel of laughs for a 12-year-old boy. However, when one of MBA's scientists dies suspiciously and a supply ship brings new residents (including a girl his age), life in space becomes much more intriguing. Though the story has many humorous moments—especially involving the insufferable wealthy space tourists—it also has some plausible science. Each chapter is preceded by a reading from "The Official Residents' Guide to Moon Base Alpha," NASA's part propaganda/part instruction manual, containing such riveting topics as "Exercise" and "Food." Narrator Gibson Frazier keeps the story moving at a good pace, conveying suspense without melodrama. Rather than create pitched character voices, he relies on intonation to differentiate among the large cast. His own voice is deep and clear but boyish enough to suit Dash. The narration flows smoothly, broken only by the humorously intended commercial quality of the "Official Resident's Guide." Space Case should appeal to a broad range of listeners but especially space enthusiasts.
You might remember how much I love this pair’s Sparkle and Spin, and this one is just as playful and just as true. That case cover surprise is an a delight, and complementary-colored endpapers start this book with a bang.
Paul Rand’s graphic genius is so well-matched by the simple and spare words of his wife, Ann. The text and the pictures both glide through that magical reality of childhood. Things that might seem daunting to someone bested by time are small and accessible. Things that may seem obvious or forgettable are ripe for play and adventure.
It’s a reminder to slow down, listen, and watch. The world is built of wonderful things. The big picture is as beautiful as the details.
Here, the sentiment is the whole of this person. I’m not sure there’s an ending more perfect, not for kids or their grownups. There’s so much more to know, but what you carry with you can stay.