The crackling neon sign said Tokyo bar, I assumed the owner was a depressed Wombats fan who couldn’t make it to Japan. Just like I couldn’t. There was a point of our connection. The air was humid and the usual ‘helper’ robot was guarding the entrance. Helper security robots. Made by TransIndianOcean Robotics (T.IO.R). The marketing guys there had come up with a very stupid slogan. Helper robots, A.I so good they can smell your blood. This was a fat lie. They were specifically made to disable skull guns. Skull guns were a fad among the hipsters and misguided teens.
The hidden weapons could tear a large chunk of flesh from your face as well as roast it to professional chef acceptable levels. If the chef was in to that sort of thing. The robot scanned me and let me in. Few tense minutes. I was testing the new tech of hiding the guns and I had already been in to several bars without any detection. Tokyo was smoky and disorganized. A lone stripper was on the pole dancing melancholically. I couldn’t tell if she was human or a bot from my position but who cares? All of them were the same save for the sometimes overzealous bots who could rip your head off. Bachelor parties had become something of a risk. The lighting in the smoky interior wasn’t helping matters. I think a good minute or so went by before my eyes could become accustomed. It was sparsely populated and most of the patrons looked moderately drunk. They were on the phase where you are trying to keep your dignity tucked on yourself while your drunk self is threatening to kill it. Kind of a bad struggle.
I chose an empty table near a window so that I could get a view of what was happening in the street below. I had to be careful, T.IO.R might be already on the hunt. A floating bot with a naked torso wheezed towards me balancing a drinks tray on one hand. Its legs were absent so instead of projecting the sexy appeal it was intended for it was just outright creepy. The guys at T.IO.R were outdoing themselves every waking moment. The waiter alone was capable of giving a several decades before time traveler a massive heart attack if they dared show up at this era. I chose my usual poison, whisky on the rocks. You can never go wrong with it. The reason I was relaxed enough to drink is that I was done being an alpha tester. It was a shitty job where I was working odd hours and getting paid peanuts for all the risk I went through. Tomorrow I was going to tender my resignation to the MENA Intelligence Consortium human resources office and get done with it. Life was short to spend it in fear of being ripped apart by robots and I did not have enough bit coins to go on a deep space mission and cheat time in the process.
I let the liquid flow and daze my mind, I was loving it. The bar was getting louder and the occasional bottle or chair was smashing the walls at irregular intervals. That is why I was prepared when one came flying my way, I ducked and held my drink tightly. It smashed the window leaving very little damage. I looked for the culprit. Damn MENA IC, after all I was leaving. It couldn’t hurt to hurt some few idiots who thought the skinny guy was somebody to be toyed with. I saw him. The Mohawk, tattooed arms and face, muscles tearing the clothes away and the scar on the back of his neck which signified he was a member of one of the numerous Nairobi underground gangs. He had thrown off the stripper from the lone pole available on the bar and he was drunkenly dancing. I picked him out and with a precision of the sniper who took out JFK those many years ago. I fired my gun……
Couldn’t have put it better.
How do you imagine a life you could never live? Though not really a theme, this problem is at the heart of Netflix’s new original series Sense8, created by the Wachowskis and J. Michael Straczynski, and heavily influenced by Tom Tykwer. Like many fantastical or science fictional premises, Sense8’s premise is a wish fulfillment: not — as is typical of this genre and the Wachowskis’ earlier work — the wish fulfillment of the disempowered middle school nerd stuffed into a locker, but rather the Mary Sue desire of a mature, white American writer/auteur who has discovered that an entire world is “out there,” one that the maker doesn’t know how to imagine.
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You will be inclined to shelve Nnedi Okorafor’s The Book of Phoenix between The X-Menand Frankenstein. A companion to Okorafor’s Who Fears Death, which won the World Fantasy Award in 2011, The Book of Phoenix tells the story of Phoenix, one of the mutant “speciMen” a future government has created for nefarious purposes. SpeciMen—invariably of African descent— are experiments, medical curiosities, living farms for donor organs, or freaks of nature imprisoned in specially designed cells, but Phoenix is different. Phoenix is a weapon. An “accelerated organism” who looks 40 despite being only two years old, she was created in a lab for the purposes of destruction.
It spoils nothing to reveal that Phoenix soon turns her destructive powers against her captors. The Book of Phoenix is the latest in a long tradition of stories about escaped monsters who take revenge on the society that created them, and Phoenix’s journey follows a pattern readers of these stories will recognize. After demolishing her prison, Tower 7, in a spectacular scene reminiscent of the wrath of Dionysus—trees and vines, spurred into bizarre growth by the powerful radiation she emits, overpower the skyscraper and tear it to pieces—Phoenix attempts to live a normal human life, or as normal a life as one can have when one has suddenly sprouted wings. She goes out for Ethiopian food, flies to Africa, and settles in a small village in northern Ghana, where she falls in love. Phoenix’s trip to Ghana is ostensibly motivated by the alien seed she discovers in the wreckage of Tower 7, but this section of the book also functions as an idyll, a brief chance for Phoenix to experience “real life.” The fact that the seed wills her to carry it there and plant it in Ghanian soil only literalizes what would otherwise be a metaphorical attempt to put down roots.
This fusion between the literal and the metaphorical is a defining feature of The Book of Phoenix, which is divided into two parts: the primary plot, an expressionistic fable that more than once relies on mystical explanations, and a frame narrative set even further in the future, when Phoenix’s story is finally discovered. The former is a work of pure, oral storytelling; it is extracted from Phoenix’s own memories and told in her own voice. To quibble about the elements which don’t make sense, or make too much sense—Phoenix, for example, is named not only for the city in Arizona where her surrogate mother lived, but for her ability to emit massive quantities of heat and light; that she also coincidentally sprouts wings in a development which catches everyone by surprise—is to misunderstand the genre of the tale being told. Phoenix’s story operates at the level of myth; here, poetic logic reigns supreme.
When the organization that created Phoenix—a group whose panoptic influence is underscored by their name, “The Big Eye”—catches up to her and murders the man she loves (well, one of them), her Ghanian sojourn is cut short and the novel’s revenge plot kicks into gear. Reunited with two other speciMen from Tower 7, Saeed, who can only digest substances like rust and ashes (imagine the lovechild of Rappaccini’s daughter and Matter-Eater Lad), and Mmuo, who can walk through walls, Phoenix sets out to bring down the Towers.
Her journey brings her to the Library of Congress, to the prison where her mother is dying from the cancer she contracted as a result of carrying Phoenix, and to the Tower where speciMen children are raised for their organs. It’s here that Okorafor makes what may be the book’s boldest move by incorporating a character heavily influenced by the story of Henrietta Lacks, a kind of vampire’s victim who is herself immortal. The suggestion is that Lacks, whose cancer cells were posthumously harvested for scientific research, exists on a continuum with the speciMen, and that the events of The Book of Phoenix are the culmination of centuries of exploitative research practices.
This is a story of vengeance, a fantastic epic battle between good and evil; written as a fable for the future, it doesn’t leave much room for moral complexity. That comes in the frame narrative, in which Sunuteel, an old man in a post-apocalyptic desert, discovers Phoenix’s “book”—the audio file containing her narrated history—in a cave of discarded computers. What Sunuteel does to Phoenix’s monologic narrative fundamentally changes its meaning, and, in the process, shifts the focus of the novel. Is this a book about Phoenix, or is it a book about books?
Okorafor is deeply concerned with what stories can and cannot do. Phoenix is a voracious reader, one who, in the Tower, consumed books at an accelerated rate to match her accelerated growth. Her adventure hinges on a trip to the library; of course some of its most compelling passages would turn out to be meditations on writing and storytelling. The tension between Phoenix’s memories and the book Sunuteel makes of them adds an extra layer of interest to this inventive dystopia.
The universe is expanding and will continue to do so until it is a cold and seemingly empty void. As best as we can tell, this is the destination of all existence—the “where.” But the “why” and the “how” are still somewhat of a mystery to cosmologists, and a new 3D map of the known universe spanning nearly two billion light years could help solve these puzzles.
Edwin Hubble discovered that the universe was expanding in 1929 based on redshift observations of distant stars—the further away a star is, the wavelength of light changes. Holding everything else constant, redshift observations painted a picture of a steadily expanding universe. In the 90s, Hubble’s theory was forwarded by better redshift observations that suggested a universe that was expanding faster and faster.
But the story doesn’t end there. New observations have suggested that the universe isn’t as uniform as we thought, and that it’s expanding more slowly than once calculated. These deviations from the “Hubble flow” are called peculiar velocities, and we’re just beginning to investigate them. To that end, astrophysicists at the University of Waterloo constructed a comprehensive 3D map of the universe using predictions from the 2M++ redshift catalogue.
“The galaxy distribution isn’t uniform and has no pattern,” said Michael Hudson, a professor in the department of physics and astronomy at the University of Waterloo, in a statement. “It has peaks and valleys much like a mountain range.”
Tracking the uneven expansion of celestial bodies will be key for investigating not just peculiar velocities, but also the location and amount of dark matter in the universe. Dark matter is thought to make up 26.8 percent of our universe, and yet we can’t see it. It doesn’t interact with normal matter, and so we can only observe it based on its interactions with other objects that we can detect. A comprehensive model of the universe would allow researchers to better predict where dark matter lies in the void.
But, if you’re not an astrophysicist, you can always just enjoy a peek at what the universe would look like if it was sliced in half like a melon.
More than a decade after it left Earth, the space probe MESSENGER is in the dying days of its exploration of the planet Mercury.
The spacecraft is about to run out of fuel, and after a planned final manoeuvre on April 30, it will plummet into the surface of Mercury out of view of watchers on Earth but will remain in contact until 10 to 15 minutes prior to its demise.
Unlike the other well studied and photographed planets, Mercury has until recent times remained mostly unexplored.
The planet – just 57.9 million km from the sun – was first visited by NASA’s Mariner 10 probe which undertook three flybys of Mercury between March 1974 and March 1975.
The planet had to wait for more than 30 years before MESSENGER (MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry and Ranging) completed its first flyby in January 2008.
Today you can even study its craters and other surface features using the Google Earth interface.
The MESSENGER spacecraft
MESSENGER was launched on August 3, 2004, weighing 507.9kg, 1.42m tall, 1.85m wide, and 1.27m deep. It is powered by two body-mounted gallium arsenide solar panels and a nickel-hydrogen battery.
The probe carries a number of science instruments to map the surface of the planet and its magnetic field, detect atmospheric gases and various elements of Mercury’s crust, and much more.
After its launch, the spacecraft flew by Earth once (in 2005), Venus twice (in 2006 and 2007) and Mercury three times (twice in 2008 and once in 2009).
This multi-flyby process greatly reduced the amount of fuel needed to decelerate, although at the cost of increasing both travel time and distance.
Planets such as Venus and Mars have atmospheres that enable the minimisation of fuel by utilising atmospheric friction to enter orbit.
But Mercury’s atmosphere is far too thin for such manoeuvres. Using gravity assist manoeuvres at Earth, Venus and Mercury provided the necessary reduction in velocity enabling it to use its rocket engine when entering its elliptical orbit around Mercury.
The insertion into a highly elliptical orbit minimised the amount of fuel necessary and allowed time for the probe to cool down after passing between the planet and the sun.
It also allowed measurement of the effects of solar wind and Mercury’s magnetic field at varying distances, as well as capturing close-up measurements and photographs of the surface and exosphere.
After travelling 7.9 billion km and orbiting the sun 15 times MESSENGER entered Mercury’s orbit on March 18, 2011. The science instruments were reactivated on March 24 and the first photo from orbit was returned to Earth a few days later on March 29.
Discoveries and science
The MESSENGER flybys of Mercury in 2008 and 2009 were able to confirm the earlier Mariner 10 results that Mercury had an internal magnetic field and also to show that its magnetic dipole – which is just like a large bar magnet – is aligned to within 5° of the planet’s spin axis.
In an early flyby in 2008 there was a totally unexpected discovery that there were large amounts of water present in Mercury’s thin atmosphere. Visual evidence of past volcanic activity on the surface of Mercury and evidence for a liquid iron planetary core added to the incredible discoveries.
in November 2012, NASA announced, evidence of water iceand carbon-containing tar-like organic compounds molecules at both of Mercury’s poles. In these areas the deepest parts of the craters are always in shadow with temperatures reaching as low as -200C.
This discovery lends weight to the idea that Mercury, like the Earth, was bombarded by water-laden comets and mineral rich asteroids during the early years of the solar system.
The original mission was initially for a year and then extended to allow for observations of the predicted 2012 solar maximum.
The solar maximum is the period during the normal 11 year solar-cycle where the number of sunspots, solar flares and Coronal Mass Ejections are the highest. These are the major indicators of solar activity and MESSENGER was in a prime position to get information about the effects of increased solar activity.
In November 2013, Messenger was one of a number of spacecraft used to observe and photograph both Comet Encke (2P/Encke) and Comet ISON (C/2012 S1).
A second extended mission was scheduled to last through to March this year and has taken advantage of the probe’s orbital decay to obtain highly detailed close-up photographs of ice-filled craters and other landforms at Mercury’s north pole.
And so after a mission lasting almost 11 years the tiny robotic probe MESSENGER will end its mission on 30 April by crashing into the surface of the planet. Even then data will be gathered: the new man made crater the probe crash makes will hopefully provide new information for the NASA scientists. On its final orbit the probe will be only around 250 – 500 m above the surface at around 14,500km/hr.
NASA scientists will continue to gather data from MESSENGER until it finally succumbs to Mercury’s gravity.
A question of ethics?
This raises a question: just as comet and asteroid impactors may have delivered organic matter to their targets, what possible contaminants will this human-made visitor introduce?
Since 1958, with the increasing potential of discovering extraterrestrial life, there have been groups of scientists such as Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) examining the foundational ethical principles involved in the exploration of space.
In 2010, a workshop was convened to consider whether planetary protection measures and practices should be extended to protect planetary environments within an ethical framework that goes beyond “science protection”.
Previous planetary protection policy had been aimed at avoiding the contamination of planetary environments by biological contaminants or terrestrial microbes that could compromise current or future scientific investigations, particularly those searching for indigenous life.
Spacecraft have been crashed into a number of planets as well as our moon. So as we continue to send probes to the very edge of our solar system, perhaps we are seeding these worlds with the basic volatile elements that could in a distant future lead to the evolution of more advanced life forming.
Or perhaps as early settlers to foreign shores on Earth introduced diseases with devastating consequences, what effect could any nasty little hitchhikers have on the destiny of whatever life may already exist.
Mercury – so much known yet so much to learn!
We now have detailed high-resolution maps of Mercury created from the hundreds of thousands of images taken by MESSENGER.
The launch of the European Space Agency’s BepiColomboplanned mission to Mercury is planned to take place during a one-month long window from January 27, 2017.
This is a joint mission with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and should enter Mercury orbit in January 2024 carrying two separate orbiters, the Mercury Planetary Orbiter (MPO) operated by ESA and the JAXA designed Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter (MMO) carried by the Mercury Transfer Module (MTM).
One of its tasks will be to observe the 16m crater made by MESSENGER when it impacts at around 3.9 km/s (about 14,040 km/h). Scientists will be monitoring this fresh crater in order to identify the process of space weathering—the erosive effect of radiation and tiny meteorite strikes—in action.
Audi has begun production of a synthetic diesel fuel made from water, carbon dioxide, and hydrogen. Unlike fossil fuels, which release additional carbon into the atmosphere, Audi’s “e-diesel,” which is being produced at a plant in Dresden in conjunction with the German alternative energy company Sunfire, has a net-zero carbon footprint because it is made with carbon dioxide taken from the air.
Production of Audi e‑diesel involves various steps: First, water heated up to form steam is broken down into hydrogen and oxygen by means of high-temperature electrolysis. This process, involving a temperature in excess of 800 degrees Celsius, is more efficient than conventional techniques because of heat recovery, for example. Another special feature of high-temperature electrolysis is that it can be used dynamically, to stabilize the grid when production of green power peaks.
In two further steps, the hydrogen reacts with the CO2 in synthesis reactors, again under pressure and at high temperature. The reaction product is a liquid made from long‑chain hydrocarbon compounds, known as blue crude. The efficiency of the overall process – from renewable power to liquid hydrocarbon – is very high at around 70 percent. Similarly to a fossil crude oil, blue crude can be refined to yield the end product Audi e‑diesel. This synthetic fuel is free from sulfur and aromatic hydrocarbons, and its high cetane number means it is readily ignitable. As lab tests conducted at Audi have shown, it is suitable for admixing with fossil diesel or, prospectively, for use as a fuel in its own right.
Audi has been active in the development of CO2‑neutral fuels – Audi e‑fuels – since 2009. Audi is also conducting joint research into the synthetic manufacture of Audi e‑gasoline with Global Bioenergies, of France. In a further project, Audi has joined forces with the U.S. company Joule, which uses microorganisms to produce the synthetic fuels Audi e‑diesel and Audi e‑ethanol.means it is readily ignitable.
While this is exciting it is still a tiny drop in the ocean as the production is extremely minimal. The Dresden plant will produce a mere 3,000 liters (794 gallons) of the carbon-neutral fuel over the next few months