Friday, December 30, 2016

Yearly Science Roundup: 2016

It's that time again. Time to look back at the year and sum up what amazing science happened!

These are my personal five picks for the top science stories of 2016. Three of them are space-related, which is only fitting with my space-themed debut novel coming out next year. Feel free to chime in down in the comment section with your own top picks, if they aren't on this list.

Anyhow, without further ado, here we go!

5. Proxima b

Image by ESO/M. Kornmesser

This past August, the European Southern Observatory reported the discovery of an Earth-like planet orbiting the star nearest to our own. Finding new exoplanets isn't as surprising as it used to be, but it's still super exciting to find one this close to our own place in space!

This planet orbits Proxima Centauri, a star only 4 light-years away. It is in the habitable zone, meaning it could have liquid water on its surface and temperatures within the range of our own here on Earth. It is 1.3 times the size of our planet, and probably rocky. To get there with modern technology would still take us 70,000 years, but folks are already planning ways to do it faster!

4. A Sappy Dino Tail

Credit: R.C. McKellar, Royal Saskatchewan Museum

This wouldn't be a Top 5 list from me without something prehistoric on it. It was hard choosing which paleontology story I was most excited about in 2016, but in the end, I had to go with the dinosaur tail stuck in freaking amber.

This amazing find came from Myanmar, and dates back to 99 million years ago. CT scans of the tail inform its classification as a dinosaur, but the type of feathers suggest it likely was not capable of flight. Also lodged in the amber with the tail was an ant, who unlike the dinosaur, didn't get away.


In a moment I'll never forget, on April 8th, SpaceX successfully landed its reusable Falcon 9 rocket booster on a drone barge in the middle of the Atlantic after launching it from Florida. This is a stunning example of engineering at its finest.

I'm so excited about this, you guys. The destruction of rockets during launch has been an expensive barrier for many missions. If the boosters can be reused, this opens the doors to an easier, more economical future for space travel! What an accomplishment.

(Oh, and also, it just looks really cool to see a rocket land on a flat boat in the middle of the ocean.)

2. Gravitational Waves are Real

Aerial shot of LIGO

In what is topping the list for many other sites, I have decided that this discovery will be my 2nd choice for Top Story of the Year. But it is really freaking awesome, so don't think I don't love it.

Decades ago, Einstein predicted this discovery. The concept is that when two massive objects accelerate around one another, such as during the merger of two black holes, it will cause gravitational ripples in the universe, like a stone dropped in a pond. These ripples will actually expand and compress spacetime itself. But how to test it?

Well, LIGO (the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) had the answer. Have two lasers in equal-lengthed tunnels aimed at a 90 degree angle from one another. Measure them carefully. And wait.

This year, LIGO observed that one tunnel's laser measured a different distance than the other's for a moment in time. One laser registered as shortening, while the other as lengthening. This compression and extension indicated that spacetime was distorted during the measurements. (And this has been replicated!) Gravitational waves have passed through! They're real, and Einstein was right...again!

This has been a discovery 50 years in the making. So why isn't it my #1? Well, let's get to it and find out.

1. The Antarctic Ozone Hole is Healing

Image credit: NASA

My top science story for 2016 is one of hope, in a time when we really, really need it.

The Antarctic Ozone Hole, which forms every year in the spring when a chemical reaction occurs in the atmosphere, is finally getting smaller. This comes nearly 30 years after an international treaty was signed to reduce the use of ozone-destroying compounds in industry.

As a kid, this was the biggest environmental crisis of the time. Years before I learned about global warming, my worries were focused on the hole in our ozone. It seemed impossible to fix it. All we could try to do, from my childhood understanding, was not make it any worse. Even that, however, sounded farfetched.

But we are fixing it. We're doing it! Intense public outreach about this issue, and some serious worldwide cooperation, is to thank for this environmental disaster being reversed. I had to make this my number one story, because it is proof that we can work together to change how we do things and save our planet from catastrophe.

Let's push forward, and fight for similar changes on other environmental fronts in 2017 and beyond. This should be a lesson to all of us, and a beacon of hope. We're succeeding with one major fight. We can succeed with others!

Let's do this, 2017!

Wednesday, December 28, 2016


Carrie Fisher died yesterday.

I don't really know how to put how I feel into words. Others have done posts, trying. It's a tough thing.

Richard Adams died, as well. He's the author of my favorite book.

I've tried writing this blog post several times over. I think the grief is still too new. Few people truly understand what Star Wars means to me. People know I'm a big fan, but most don't quite "get" what I mean when I say I lived and breathed nothing but Star Wars from ages 9-14. Princess Leia was so important to me. Interviews with the incredibly blunt, witty, and fascinating Carrie Fisher were always a major highlight of my Star Wars behind-the-scenes magazines/video/etc, though at that young age I didn't really understand why. I do now.

I'm going to cry again, so I'm going to wrap this up.

My life would be drastically different without Princess Leia and Watership Down, and I'm in mourning. I wish I could do a proper tribute to both Carrie Fisher and Richard Adams on this blog. Instead, I think my tribute is going to have to be writing the best damn novels I can come up with, and never, ever, apologizing for who I am.

Monday, October 17, 2016

The Schiaparelli Mars Lander is on its way!

Mars is about to get another lander!

Yesterday, the European Space Agency's Schiaparelli Mars Lander separated from the Trace Gas Orbiter around Mars and began its descent! This lander is designed mostly with one goal in mind: test out landing technologies that could help in future Mars missions. 

Schiaparelli isn't meant to last long on Mars (a few days of activity at most), but while it is there it will hopefully achieve a couple of small scientific studies to better understand the Martian atmosphere, just as its travel partner, the Trace Gas Orbiter, is doing.

Both the TGO and the lander left Earth back in March of this year. They reached Mars in just about seven months' time. On October 16th, Schiaparelli separated from the TGO and has now started its three-day descent to the Martian surface. The ESA is hoping that its landing will be a demonstration of what works (and possibly, what doesn't) in their suite of landing stage technologies, including heat shield protection, parachute deployment, radar positioning systems, and of course, thrusters.

At first, the ESA couldn't establish contact between the Schiaparelli Lander and the TGO after separation, but contact has since been restored, and all fingers are crossed. With any luck, Wednesday will see a smooth landing.

Go, Schiaparelli, go!

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Cartoons I Love: Steven Universe

Steven Universe. A show unlike anything else on television. An emotional masterpiece. An A+ work in character study. A cartoon that breaks down barriers left and right. I could go on. So I will!

If you're not watching Steven Universe, you need to be. Especially kidlit authors! At the moment, you can watch the first season on Hulu, or you can purchase all of Steven Universe on Cartoon Network's Youtube channel or on Amazon Instant Video. There are nearing 100 episodes, which may sound overwhelming, but the run time of each is short (11 minutes), so in reality 100 episodes is actually more like the length of one season of an hour long network show.

This wonderfully imaginative, heartbreakingly sincere sci-fi fantasy is created by Rebecca Sugar, who originally hit the spotlight because of her fabulous work on Adventure Time. She also is the first independent female creator for a Cartoon Network show. Woo!

For first-time viewers of Steven Universe, this cartoon may seem deceptively simplistic. At the beginning, the animation isn't solidified (it takes the first 15-20 episodes before characters are regularly "on model"), and the show feels episodic (it isn't--you want to watch it all, and in order, to fully grasp and appreciate what is going on).

Me, as Steven (complete with tummy gem!) last Halloween.
Steven Universe is about a boy, Steven (surprise!), and his three guardians, Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl. These characters are known as the Crystal Gems--a group of mysterious alien beings who protect Planet Earth from the Homeworld Gems. They each have a gem on their body, and their gem is the source of their powers and who they actually are (which makes more sense if you watch it, I promise).

Steven is the odd one out of the Crystal Gems--he's half human, half Gem. The first and only of his kind. His dad, Greg, is human, and also plays a significant role in the show, as does Steven's eventual human friend, Connie. An eclectic collection of townspeople that we get to know and love also come into play quite frequently. Steven's mother was Rose Quartz, a Crystal Gem who gave up her life to bring Steven into the world. Steven inherited her gem, but never got to know her himself.

As I said, at first, the adventures are fun, but nothing overly dramatic, and they wrap up neatly. The "slice of life" stories are similarly quaint. For the first 5-10 episodes, you might think that while cute, this show hardly adds up to the award-worthy levels I'm claiming it deserves.

This isn't because the world is simple. This is because we are seeing the world through Steven's experiences. And as he grows, so does the complexity of the setting, plot, and most importantly: the characters.

While I greatly enjoy both the setting and the plot (oh man oh man, does the plot get intense), I'm going to concentrate on the characters for the rest of this post. Because its in the characters that this show stands apart from the rest.

Each of the main characters--Steven, Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl--not only get character development themselves, but get an intense web of relationship development with one another. As Steven grows, he starts to see and learn the backstories behind his guardians. The fact that his mother, their once leader, gave up her life for him, is a crucial piece of information about how the Crystal Gems feel about both him and his father, Greg. And that's just one part of the puzzle. Every character is treated with care and realism, from the main cast to the various townspeople to the villains--a rarity for kids' television. The relationships between them all is a hot mess, reflecting real life so poignantly you forget you're watching an animated show about sentient space rocks. But at the heart of it all is Steven, who believes so firmly in the good in others that you can see why he has the power (perhaps actual power) to bring people together.

I've learned a lot about character development from watching this show. I study it, to be honest. I can't think of another show that can make me feel this much in such a short run time, and it is 100% due to the depth of the characters and the emotional truths they bring to the surface.

Oh, and did I mention the lesbian relationships? On a show actively airing on Cartoon Network? Multiple instances of main characters as lesbian or bisexual? And did I mention how this isn't a big deal in the show? It's just accepted as normal? Beautiful. What a time to be alive.

Finally, Steven Universe isn't Steven Universe without its music. From silly/catchy songs like Do or Do Nut, to powerful emotional pieces, like from this Tuesday's episode. (Video is mildly spoilerish, but honestly this song doesn't reveal any big secrets you couldn't have already figured out from the first few episodes.)

Moral of all of this: GO WATCH STEVEN UNIVERSE. RIGHT NOW. AND BRING TISSUES. You won't regret it.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Juno: July 4th

Something is coming for Jupiter this Independence Day. 

No, that's not a tagline for a summer blockbuster. It's 100% reality! NASA's Juno Mission will reach the biggest planet of our solar system on July 4th of this year.

Artist rendition of Juno at Jupiter. Credit: NASA.

Launched in 2011, Juno has been traveling through space for nearly five years to reach the gas giant. One of it's biggest tasks is to actually reevaluate the "gas" part of Jupiter's "gas giant" status. There may be a (relatively) small solid core somewhere under all those storms!

In addition to determining if Jupiter has a solid core, one of Juno's other main priorities is to study the planet's magnetosphere. A magnetosphere is the region where interaction happens between a planet's magnetic fields and solar winds from our sun. Earth's magnetic fields help protect us from solar winds, and our resulting magnetosphere stretches 40,000 miles off the surface of our planet in the direction of the sun. Away from our sun, the tail direction of our magnetosphere stretches 370,000 miles!

Earth's Magnetosphere. Credit: NASA.

Jupiter's magnetosphere stretches out 2 million miles.

The big question is, how is Jupiter producing its magnetic fields? For Earth, we produce it by the convection of liquid iron in our planet's core. This movement results in flowing electric charges, which induce magnetic fields. But what is it inside Jupiter that accomplishes this same effect?

That question and more will soon be answered! Keep your eyes on space news this summer.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Reinvention: NESCBWI16

This past weekend was NESCBWI's 2016 conference. A lot of wonderful things happened there, including getting to meet writers I've only ever connected with over the web, and getting to reunite with old critique partners who have moved out of state (and other writerly friends who I rarely get to see in real life!). However, what struck me most was the theme:


I am in the process of personal reinvention. Last year I got a new job and my first ever book deal. I have been going through a rapid change in my life, and I can tell a new person is growing out of it. A super cool person. *puts on sunglasses*

However, it is important to note that metamorphosis isn't easy. From the outside perspective, the caterpillar goes into the chrysalis and comes out as a butterfly. In reality, it's much messier.

Science time.

Just give me a minute, guys.
When the caterpillar enters its chrysalis (which it first has to build itself, for the record), its enzymes begin to literally digest its tissues. After that, several sets of cells begin to multiply, much like what happens to an embryo, and new body parts grow. This forms the butterfly that we all know and love.

These special cells that grow into butterfly parts are actually there all along, but they can't begin to change and grow until that caterpillar turns its own body into sloppy goo. Let that sink in. Apply it to your life. Cringe a little at the imagery. Go ahead, I'll wait.

Anyway, to top it off, when the butterfly does emerge, it's in no condition to fly away. I was just in my museum's butterfly garden a few days ago, and got to witness a butterfly break free of its chrysalis. That thing was exhausted. It was still all wet, its wings were all crumpled, and it very obviously took all of its energy just to move to one side of its chrysalis where it could rest.

I stared at it, shaking my head and thinking: Dude. I identify so hard right now. 

Reinvention is powerful, but it has a price. The end result is worth it, but getting there can be a struggle.

I took a walk today around my local pond. All the spring imagery was really hammering home the reinvention theme all over the place, but one image in particular stood out to me:

This family of ducks. It's a dreary day of drizzle and 50 degree weather, with no sun in sight. When I approached these ducklings, they were scattered all over. Upon seeing me, Mom and Dad began regrouping them in a tired flurry. They have their work cut out for them, keeping track of all eight. I could tell they had already had a "day". One of the ducklings was a good dozen feet away when I walked up, and I could hear the exasperation in Mom's quacking.

New life is beautiful. New transformations are beautiful. But gosh darnit, those things take a lot of work. Too often, we only see or think about the happy results. Cute ducklings, following their mother in a neat line. A butterfly soaring to its next flower. Debut novels on shelves, new presentations wowing audiences...


Reinvention. It's great, important, sometimes even necessary...but it is a BEAST to accomplish.

My advice, and the advice echoed by tons of speakers this weekend?

Do it anyway.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Cartoons I Love: Gravity Falls

If you haven't heard of Gravity Falls, I don't know where you've been the past three and a half years. If you've heard of it and haven't watched it--you are missing out.

In two days, the entire series comes to a close in what promises to be the most epic of epic finales. I can't stress enough just how amazing this show is. The twists, the turns, the imagination, the humor...

It's one of the best cartoons of all time. That is not exaggeration. This is just a really well done show.

The show follows Dipper and Mabel Pines, 12 year-old twins who have been sent to spend the summer helping at their Great Uncle's ("Grunkle Stan's") tourist trap Mystery Shack in the town of Gravity Falls, Oregon. There, they quickly discover real supernatural happenings and a mystery that eventually threatens not only their family, but the whole world. Mixed into this grand adventure are hilarious hijinks, unforgettable supporting characters, and far more winking and nudging than you'd ever expect Disney to allow.

The gang from R to L: Soos, Dipper, Stan, Mabel, and Wendy
Alex Hirsch, the creative force behind the show, made the choice to limit it to a two season run to keep it from losing its edge. While disappointing to fans, I personally respect his choice. Many creators fall into the trap of either wanting to stretch their show out for financial or egotistical reasons, or because they love the characters too much to let go. As a writer, I can see that temptation, but when a story is done, it is done. Alex Hirsch recognized this, so as much as I want Dipper and Mabel's crazy summer to never come to a close, I'm accepting it must be so. Just like the characters are learning to do.

No, I'm not crying about it.

Shut up.

...Anyway, unfortunately the show isn't available on full season dvds (why, Disney, why?!), but you can watch it on Amazon

Why should you? If the reasons above weren't enough, this show threads in clues to its future episodes like nobody's business. It's the most elaborate game I've personally every witnessed on television. There are ciphers at the end of the credits and hidden in the background throughout the show. Those change through time, so fans have to be on their toes to figure out the hints for the next pattern. Foreshadowing abounds, and meaningless throwaway jokes come back in big ways. This show spawned easily hundreds if not thousands of youtube analyses--many updating weekly as it aired. And unlike other shows that have had mysterious plots for fans to try and predict, following the hints in this one actually pays off.

Watch this show! Watch it now! And watch out for spoilers online, because the surprises are many, and with its 2-season-only run, they come quick.

Congratulations on being one of the best shows out there, Gravity Falls. I'll miss your antics, and I salute you.

(Please don't hurt my soul on Monday's finale...*whimper*)