Science Sidebar 5: NASA Ames

2014/10/24 Leave a comment

I had a chance to visite NASA Ames last Saturday.

Along with about 100,000 other people.  NASA Ames is a big research center which – as you might expect – does a lot of space and aeronautics research, but it’s a bit less well-known than other places like the Jet Propulsion Lab.

It has also been about 15 years since it last opened its doors to the public, which helps explain the truly enormous attendance.  It was quite the zoo.  (And apparently also at full capacity, according to the event announcement.)

So, I’m going to write about a few things that I saw while I was there.  Also, pictures.

That, in the background, is the heat shield for the Orion capsule.  Crowd included for scale.

That, in the background, is (a model of) the heat shield for the Orion capsule, the new human spacecraft in progress. Crowd included for scale.

Could You Do This More Often?

I’m afraid that a large part of my reaction to this event was to think of the popular restaurant that nobody goes to any more because it’s too crowded.

It was very, very crowded.

Like, twice the size of my hometown crowded — they “sold” (at the price of free) at least 100,000 tickets to the event.

NASA Ames is large enough to have enough things for that many people to look at, but it still required an intense effort on the public transit side and staggering when people entered.  The crowds made it difficult to get close to some of the demonstrations, too.  There was some triaging to only the most interesting, or easily visible, displays.

One remedy might be to have events like this more frequently.  After all… this was the 75th anniversary event, and the last time they had an open house was ages ago.  More, smaller events might be more effective at public outreach, too, since some people will be willing to wait for the next time… letting those who do come in a given year get a closer look.

Rovers: Not Just For Mars

JPL has its Mars Yard, but one of the cooler things they let the masses of people see was Ames’ rover yard.  The article I linked was old, but that just shows that they’ve been working on these for a long time.  The most recent version, which I saw, was geared towards a lunar rover.  It looks like this:

I want to do a science, but I don't think I'm actually on the Moon.  What's this fence doing here?

I want to do a science, but I don’t think I’m actually on the Moon. What’s this fence doing here?

Of course, the full set of “things done at Ames” runs the gamut of space science — from Kepler and exoplanets, to rovers, to complex computer simulations, to novel aircraft design.  I should have taken some pictures of the assorted giant wind tunnels… which are essentially entire, multi-story building for testing things like airplanes and the parachutes used to help rovers land on Mars.

Finally, and most entertaining to my mind, was the example of a “soft” robotics design.  This particular design is a joint effort between Ames and UC Berkeley, and has the name Tensegrity.  The idea is that the robot won’t need to do the whole “air bag” thing when being dropped from a height — the robot itself can safely stretch and compress in various ways.  The link earlier shows a video, but here’s the example that visitors could play with a bit at the open house.

This is a Tensegrity robot.  It's basically a bunch of metal sticks held together by a bunch of stretchy strings.  The controller part of the robot (which isn't in the image) would be held safely in the center of all that.

This is a Tensegrity robot. It’s basically a bunch of metal sticks held together by a bunch of stretchy strings. The controller part of the robot (which isn’t included in this demonstration) would be held safely in the center of all that.

Isn’t that awesome?  The whole thing would move by having the central controller adjust the tension in the strings, making the metal rods move back and forth.  I’m not sure how it would climb a significant slope, but I’m sure the folks at Ames are working on it.

Categories: Science Sidebar

Science Fiction Round 37: What If?

2014/10/09 1 comment

Randall Munroe of XKCD wrote a book called What If?, based on the same segment on his website as well as a number of questions not posted on the web.

And it is amazing.

It’s also a little difficult to classify.  It’s being sold as non-fiction, but I’m putting it under our local sci-fi listing, in large part because it has a lot of segments that start with absurd, impossible proposals before attempting to follow them to their logical (and frequently world-ending) conclusions.


Apocalypse How

There are a surprisingly large number of ways for everyone to die horribly.  Munroe focuses on the planetary-level destruction and smaller, for the most part.

The options range from global windstorms to near-lightspeed baseballs to turning off the Sun to draining the oceans using a magic portal between Earth and Mars.

Read more…

Slush Pile 2: Sandbox

2014/10/05 Leave a comment

Here’s the part 2 to my previous slush pile post.  This one is titled Sandbox, and looks at the universe-in-a-box idea from the other side.


Miriam wanted some time to herself.
Read more…

Fantasy Round 29: Dwarf Fortress

2014/10/01 Leave a comment

Dwarf Fortress is a computer game, made mostly by Tarn Adams and his brother Zach.

It is a truly notoriously challenging computer game.  And, once you get past the steep learning curve (which generally requires looking at the extensive wiki) very addictive.

It’s even been notable enough to go on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, in a video game exhibition, right next to SimCity.

So, let’s have a look.

An image from Dwarf Fortress.  You'll note the carpenter's workshop, the mason's shop, the craftsdwarf's shop, and the little smily dwarf wandering through the hallway.

An image from Dwarf Fortress. You’ll note the carpenter’s workshop, the mason’s shop, the craftsdwarf’s shop, and the little smily dwarf wandering through the hallway.  Also the many menus in the middle panel.

What did I just blunder into?

This is not SimCity.
Read more…

Slush Pile 1: The Universe in a Box

2014/09/18 1 comment

This is going to be my first entry into what is likely going to be a long series.  I’ve written a number of sci-fi and fantasy short stories, and I have been putting some effort into getting them published… but at some point, I run out of potential venues to sell them to.

Thus, when I give up on a story, I’ll go ahead and put it up here for your entertainment.  Of course, since these are stories that have been rejected a few times, I’d love to have some feedback on where they have gone awry.


This particular story, “Universe in a Box,” exists in several forms; I’ve also written (and had rejected) a related story called “Sandbox,” which I’ll be posting later.


She was reading a paper on the latest techniques in miniaturization. She was fascinated by the description of improved methods for controlling the dynamics of a solar system compressed to the size of an atom.

But her time of quiet reading did not last. As usual, once she had finally found a moment to catch up on the literature, she was interrupted by a chime at the door. She pushed the holographic text aside and said, “Come in!”

The doors slid into the walls, revealing her newest student. He seemed worried and embarrassed at the same time. He pulled nervously at his whiskers, and a few tufts of his fur stood on end. “Uh, professor? Do you have a few minutes?”

“With that kind of face? I think I have a few more than a few minutes.” She resigned herself to finishing her reading at another time, and gave the command for a seat rest to emerge from its place in the wall.

The student was too nervous to take the rest. Instead, he paced, rattling his fingers against the walls whenever he wandered close enough to reach them. In her small office, this was often. “I, uh, made a mistake with one of the boxes. I set some of the constants wrong. Well, a lot of them wrong.”

Read more…


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