Saturday, March 28, 2015

Dr Space Junk's Guide to Voting For Names of Surface Features on Pluto

When the New Horizons mission reaches Pluto and its moons in July 2015, there'll be hundreds of surface features that have never been seen before and which will need new names. The theme for these names is exploration and the underworld.

New Horizons. Image courtesy of NASA
The International Astronomical Union is in charge of allocating names in the solar system. But the New Horizons mission team have got together with the SETI Institute to get the public to contribute to a shortlist for their consideration.

'Pluto belongs to everyone', says New Horizon science team member Mark Showalter, also a senior research scientist at the SETI Institute.  'So we want everyone to be involved in making the map of this distant world'.

You're my kind of guy, Mark Showalter.

But of course, one of the questions that immediately arises, to me anyway, is how many women-type of people will get a look-in in this process. So I went to the list to see what the representation was like. Let's just say, no surprises.

So with this in mind, I've done the hard work so you don't have to! Here is a list of women or female beings who are part of the longlist so far. And yes, you can vote for more than one. I'm also going to include some honourable mentions at the end that are just so cool you couldn't not want them to be the name of something on Pluto or Charon (the largest moon).

Happy voting! And remember to do it before April 24th. Full instructions are here.

History of exploration

Jeanne Baré (or Baret; botanist; first woman to circumnavigate the globe)
Alexandrine Tinné (Dutch explorer of Egypt)
Sacagawea (US Native American - Lewis and Clarke guide)

Fictional Explorers and Travelers

Eleanor Arroway (from Contact - Carl Sagan)
Alice (from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll) VOTE FOR ALICE. As someone who has identified with Alice from earliest childhood, I most certainly will be.
Arthur Dent/Trillian/Zaphod Beeblebrox (from Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy). She was smarter than the rest of them put together.
Candide/Cunegonde/Pangloss (from Voltaire's Candide)
Dorothy Gale & Toto (from Oz books - L. Frank Baum)
Kaguya-hime (Japanese folktale) You get double value with this one, as it's also the nickname of a Japanese lunar orbiter (separately listed).
Kathryn Janeway (from TV's Star Trek: Voyager)
Skywalker/Solo/Leia/Kenobi (from Star Wars films)

Exploration Authors and Artists

Octavia E. Butler (US - author of Xenogenesis trilogy) I've never read Octavia Butler, but I really, really should.
Madeleine L'Engle (US author - A Wrinkle in Time) Now I'm sorry, but I will brook no opposition on this. Vote for Madeleine. If you were not moved to fear, horror, compassion and love by A Wrinkle in Time, you are barely human. If you have not read it, get thee to a library forthwith.
Anne McCaffrey (US-Irish author - Pern and Talents series) Rollicking good science fiction-fantasy yarns that entranced millions. 
Alice Sheldon (US author - A Momentary Taste of Being) AKA James Tiptree Jnr, a wonderful science fiction author. Her family background is also discussed in Donna Haraway's Primate Visions.

Travelers to the Underworld

Proserpina (kidnapped by Hades) I prefer the Greek Persephone but whatever.
Inanna & Dumuzi (from Sumerian mythology)
Orfeo & Euridice (from Greek mythology) Please read this poem about Eurydice by H.D (Hilda Dolittle), but be warned it will break your heart.
Virgil & Beatrice (from Dante's Inferno)

Underworld Beings

Tuoni & Tuonetar (Finnish mythology)
Ereshkigal (Sumerian mythology)
Alecto/Megaera/Tisiphone (Furies or Erinyes - Greek mythology)
Ammit (Devourer of Souls - Egyptian mythology)
Melinoë (Bringer of nightmares - Greek mythology)

Honourable Mentions

Phileas Fogg (from Around the World in 80 days). However, it should really be Passepartout, who did all the hard work anyway.
Tintin (from graphic novels by Hergé)
Gallifrey (Planet of the Time Lords - Dr Who)
Heart of Gold (Infinite Improbability spaceship, from Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy)
Dawn Treader (by C. S. Lewis)
Chesley Bonestell (US space artist)
Hieronymus Bosch (Dutch painter of Hellish scenes) This is so obvious I don't know why it's even a matter of voting.
Stanislaw Lem (Polish science fiction author) Because I love that man's writing so much.
Maurice Sendak (US author - Where the Wild Things Are) Nuff said.
Baralku (Yolngu culture, Australia) Baralku is the Island of the Dead. You must vote for this because it is from the same region of Australia as the Aboriginal music on the Voyager Golden Records.
Sun Wukong (Monkey King - Chinese mythology) MONKEY. Do you hear me? This is Monkey.
Cthulhu (from H. P. Lovecraft)

Notes: on the official website, they mostly link to Wikipedia, but I've linked to other sites where I think there is more interesting or nuanced information. Sometimes, Wikipedia does have the best information online so I've stuck with that.

The longlist is quite long, and it's possible I've missed a few - if so, let me know and I'll add them.

If you think there are women/entities who ought to be on the official longlist but aren't, it's worth checking the Gazetteer to see if they haven't already been used elsewhere in the solar system.

My list here, and the commentary on it, are of course my personal views, and you are free to disagree or ignore them as you wish.

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Congohelium and computronium: the thinking materials of the far future

This is my abstract for the Theoretical Archaeology Group New York University conference in May 2015.

In this paper, I want to explore two materials of the far future and use them to imagine the material worlds they inhabit. In Cordwainer Smith’s classic short story Under Old Earth, congohelium is an unstable material composed of “matter and antimatter laminated apart by a dual magnetic grid” (Smith 1966). The Douglas-Ouyang planets, an artificial cluster of planets with a dull malevolent sentience, communicate with Earth through the music of the congohelium.
Sunboy makes music with the congohelium.
Illustration by Virgil Finlay.
Computronium is the material of a hypothetical giant super-computing Matrioshka Brain, structured as nested Dyson shells of processing elements which employ the entire energy output of the sun. In Robert Bradbury’s conception, an element of computronium consists of a cooling system, a solar power array, a nanoprocessor and vernier thrusters for station-keeping – very like contemporary satellites. In the far future, today’s satellites could be considered equivalent to eoliths, with some resemblance of form, yet barely recognisable as cultural artefacts.
In both cases we have materials which act as the intermediary between an unimaginable entity and the humans who desire to communicate with it. They are the new elements in a periodic table of thinking materials. How would we classify these materials as archaeologists, or use them to infer the behaviour of mega-engineered structures? This is the most extreme anthropocene, where the balance of materials between ‘natural’ and ‘manufactured’ is altered at the nano- and solar-system scale; where prosaic science meets a new poetics of space.