Phobos, Chariot of Fear


The title of this posting is no hyperbole. The “Chariot of Fear” is the ancient Greek personification of the mythological God Phobos, described by the ancients as horror riding his chariot across the night sky.

In reality, the diminutive moon Phobos, almost skimming the surface of the warrior planet Mars, is a potentially innocuous place to visit assuming you have a pressure suit and oxygen to breathe. Like Earth’s much larger moon, there is no atmosphere on Phobos. There is also no appreciable gravity.

NASA and Japan are planning a joint unmanned mission to the moons of Mars in 2024. The joint venture is called the Martian Moons eXploration Mission, or MMX. Those unmanned missions may be a prelude to later manned landings since NASA has considered landing astronauts on Phobos before landing on Mars, due to the lack of atmosphere and ultra low gravity of that moon.

Using the Hubble telescope, NASA generated a short video of Phobos as it orbits around Mars.

NASA video made from 14 Hubble Space Telescope images.

While researching a new novel, I was looking for a view of Mars from Phobos. Using the astronomy software Starry Night Pro 8, I found it.

Further more, I was able to make a 3 minute video of Mars going through an entire rotation, sped up of course some 150 times.

While the above video is aesthetically pleasing because of the background stars and the entirety of Mars being in the field of view (FOV), in reality Mars is too far away in this simulation. As the NASA movie suggests, the surface of Mars is much closer (about 6000 km away from Phobos), and thus in reality Mars fills a quarter of the celestial horizon as seen from Phobos. In other words, from Phobos the FOV of Mars is about 45°, which yields a more accurate view as shown in the following video, also made using Starry Night Pro.

Mars at a realistic distance.

The shadow of Phobos can be seen racing across the surface of Mars, to the left of center of the Martian equator.

From a writer’s perspective, thanks to affordable but sophisticated astronomical simulation software and a bountiful database of space objects and trajectories, both near and far, there is no longer an excuse for science fiction writers not getting their scenes setup correctly, assuming their stories are based on the observable universe.

As for the unobservable universe, well that’s where this thing called imagination comes into play. In an imaginary universe, there’s no fact checking allowed.

Cosmic Coincidence

Almost exactly a year ago, I began writing one of my third novel’s introductory chapters. I am sharing a sample of that chapter at this time because of what seems to me to be a recently discovered coincidence.

“There is never an end to a thing once it is started, according to astrophysicist Peter Green. We can call it an end, but that doesn’t make it so.

A person can be born, grow old and die, but his or her energy goes on, somehow. It may not be recognizable, but physics says it must be that way.
Even a universe is born, grows for a seeming eternity, yet eventually it too must die. Some say in its end, there is a new beginning.

Dr. Peter Green knew those facts better than most. As an astrophysicist working with colossal machines of physics research at CERN, Switzerland, machines that have the power to peer into the beginning of the universe, he’d often thought about not just the beginning, but the ending, the ending that precedes what comes next.

His specialty was dark matter, and something perhaps related, dark energy. We can’t see either, but physics says they must exist for the universe to be what it is.

Either that, or physics is wrong, and neither Green nor his scientist colleagues had ever found physics to be in error.

But he did wonder, if a universe dies, does it leave behind a ghost, unseen but somehow there, with mass that exists at grand scales, but nonexistent at human scales?

And if so, must not the nature of our universe, the shape of our galaxies, depend on an ever-growing graveyard of dead stars, galaxies — and people?

Where does it end? Well, it doesn’t, not really. At least that’s how Dr. Peter Green saw it.”

Arguably, that’s a pretty unconventional thought, Dr. Green had, even for cosmologists who, as a whole, are renowned for unconventional thinking. And at the time that I wrote it, I thought it was a good way to illustrate that the character Peter Green was brilliant, but a bit odd.

Well, he is odd no longer.

I say that because just today I saw a LiveScience article, from which I quote:

“Physicists have found what could be evidence of ‘ghost’ black holes from a universe that existed before our own.

The remarkable claim centers around the detection of traces of long-dead black holes in the cosmic microwave background radiation – a remnant of the birth of our universe.

According to a group of high-profile theoretical physicists including Oxford’s Roger Penrose (Ph.D. in mathematical physics), these traces represent evidence of a cyclical universe – one in which the universe has no inherent end or beginning but is formed, expands, dies, then repeats over and over for all eternity.

Roger Penrose

“If the universe goes on and on and the black holes gobble up everything, at a certain point, we’re only going to have black holes,” Penrose told Live Science. “Then what’s going to happen is that these black holes will gradually, gradually shrink.”

 When the black holes finally disintegrate, they will leave behind a universe filled with massless photons and gravitons which do not experience time and space.

 Some physicists believe that this empty, post-black hole universe will resemble the ultra-compressed universe that preceded the Big Bang – thus the entire cycle will begin anew.

 If the cyclical universe theory is true, it means that the universe may have already existed a potentially infinite number of times and will continue to cycle around and around forever.

Penrose is clearly one of the great minds of the world, as you can perhaps appreciate from this YouTube clip.

As a reminder, this is also what the fictional cosmologist in the upcoming novel, Dioscuri, believed.

“He did wonder, if a universe dies, does it leave behind a ghost, unseen but somehow there, with mass that exists at grand scales, but nonexistent at human scales? And if so, must not the nature of our universe, the shape of our galaxies, depend on an ever-growing graveyard of dead stars, galaxies — and people?

Where does it end? Well, it doesn’t, not really.” 

Pretty interesting coincidence, don’t you think?

Read the LiveScience article here.


Siri versus Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon Bonaparte once famously said, “A soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon.”

At precisely 10:09 this morning I was in an office discussing awards, and the lack thereof, for civilian service members in military organizations. It was a matter of fact discussion, contrasting the award system for civilians and the military. And at that moment, Napoleon’s famous quote came to mind. I reminded that executive of the above quote.

My fellow workers and I talk frequently, and there have been numerous discussions in that office, and elsewhere, that have been of a sensitive nature.

As I turned and returned to my office, I heard a familiar voice coming from my pocket. “That’s not nice!” it said.

In utter dismay, I pulled my iPhone from my pocket where it had lain untouched and unused for quite some time. And that was when I saw the following plainly written on my phone’s screen.

Siri’s vulgar word has been redacted.

Siri was scolding me!

Unknown to us, Siri had been listening, transcribing what it THOUGHT I was saying, clearly imagining vulgarity where there was none.  After I ended the conversation, Siri addressed me like she was my mother.

Now, a human would know those transcribed words were ludicrous, nothing but gibberish, but not the phone’s AI system controlling Siri. Unbelievably, that system took the gibberish seriously, perhaps by parsing a few words out of context. And in spite of that stupidity, Siri felt led to judge me!

Perhaps smart phone  AIs are taking themselves too seriously. Perhaps they think they have advanced  enough that they now think they can pass judgment on human speech.

A few years ago, in another meeting, in another room, Siri spoke up unbidden while we were discussing sensitive project planning.

The door to the conference room had been closed so we wouldn’t be disturbed. But disturbed we were when Siri suddenly spoke and said, “I don’t know what you mean.”

Everyone at the table stared first at my phone and then at me, perhaps wondering if I’d been recording the planning meeting.

AI is certainly becoming increasingly intrusive. But as shown by Siri’s text message to me today, it’s still not smart. And arguably that’s a scary thing.

For example, supposedly China is using data collected from social apps (collected by various AI systems) to rate the trustworthiness of its citizens. That’s bad enough, but what if the data collected is garbage like the recorded text today, and the AI uses that faulty data to make a perfunctory and wildly incorrect judgment?

And, scary thought, what if that social monitoring trend were to spread to the U.S., and your character could to be judged based on the digital algorithms of certifiable AI idiots?

If that doesn’t worry you, perhaps it should. It certainly did me, enough to cause me to shut down all access to Siri … for almost 24 hours, until I was driving home and said, “Siri, call home.”

She was silent, sullen, unresponsive.







Dead Space – A Lesson in Survival

Dead Space is a defunct, or shall we simply say “dead,” survival horror game that enthralled computer game players from 2008 to at least 2013. Sadly, the company that designed the horrifically beautiful game, Visceral Games, is no more. It has been, so to speak, eviscerated.

The main protagonist of the Dead Space Series was Isaac Clarke. If I was a game player I think I would be an Isaac fan since he was one of those rare Clarke’s known as a “corpse-slaying badass.” If in some unforeseen future my survival depended on being such a slayer, I’d want to be badass about it too, just like Isaac. As they say, anything worth doing …

Isaac Clarke and his Dead Space world make a great segue to introduce another matter of personal survival. And that is DEAD SPACE in underwater breathing equipment.

Clarke has proven to be equally at home underwater and in space due to his interesting cyan-lighted helmet. (I’m not sure where his eyes are, but perhaps in the 26th century a multi-frequency sensor suite makes a simple pair of eyes redundant.)

Historically, the U.S Navy used the venerable MK 5 diving helmet and the MK 12 diving helmet, which although they had no sensor suites, at least allowed divers to work at fairly great depths without drowning. However, they shared a common problem: Dead Space.

In ventilation terms, dead space is a gas volume that impedes the transfer of carbon dioxide (CO2) from a diver or snorkeler’s breath. When we exhale through any breathing device, hose, tube, or one-way valve we expect that exhaled breath to be removed completely, not hanging around to be re-inhaled with the next breath.

But a diving helmet inevitably has a large dead space. The only way to flush out the exhaled CO2 is by flowing a great deal of fresh gas through that helmet. A flow of up to six cubic feet of gas per minute is sometimes needed to mix and remove the diver’s exhaled breath from a diving helmet like the MK 12.

In more modern helmets, the dead space has been reduced by having the diver wear an oral-nasal mask inside the diving helmet, and giving the diver gas only on inhalation using a demand regulator like that used in scuba diving. The famous series of Kirby Morgan helmets, arguably the most popular in the world, is an example of such modern helmets.

Full face masks are used when light weight and agility is required, as in public service diving, cold water diving, or in Special Forces operations. The design of full face masks (FFM) has evolved through the years to favor small dead space, for all the reasons explained above.


Erich C. Frandrup’s 2003  Master’s Thesis for Duke’s Department of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science reported on research on a simple breathing apparatus, snorkels. You can’t get much simpler than that.

Frandrup confirmed quantitatively what many of us knew qualitatively. Snorkels are by design low breathing resistance, and low dead space devices. Happily, the dead space can be easily calculated, as simply the volume contained within the snorkel.

Surprisingly, some snorkel manufacturers have recently sought to improve upon a great thing by modifying snorkels, combining them with a full face mask. The Navy has not studied those modified snorkels since Navy divers don’t use snorkels. However, you don’t get something for nothing. If you add a full face mask to a snorkel, dead space has to increase, even when using an oral-nasal mask.

So what?

In 1995 Dan Warkander and Claus Lundgren compared the dead space of common diving equipment, including full face masks, and reported on increases both in diver ventilation and the maximum amount of CO2 in the diver’s lungs. Basically the physiological effects of dead space goes like this: we naturally produce CO2 during the process of “burning” fuel, just like a car engine does. (Of course our fuel is glucose, not gasoline.) The more we work, the more CO2 we produce in our blood, and the more we have to breathe (ventilate) to expel that CO2 out of our bodies.

If we are exhaling into a dead space, some of that exhaled CO2 will be inhaled into our lungs during our next breath. That’s not good, because now we have to breathe harder to expel both the produced CO2 and the reinhaled CO2. In other words, dead space makes us breathe harder.

Now, if we’re breathing through an underwater breathing apparatus, hard breathing is, well, hard. As a result, we tend to get a little lazy and allow CO2 to build up in the blood stream. And if that CO2 get high enough, it’s lights out for us. Underwater, the lights are likely to stay out.

In a computer game like Dead Space, no one worries about helmet dead space. But if a movie is ever based on the game, whichever actor plays Isaac Clarke should be very concerned about the most insidious type of Dead Space, that in his futuristic helmet. It can be (need I say it?) — deadly.










If I Had Written the Score to Interstellar

If I was Hans Zimmer, I would be a bit annoyed.

What is arguably the best score Hans Zimmer has ever written, the music for Interstellar, has thrilled me to my core. However, I came to that conclusion by an indirect route.

Like many of you, I saw the movie in all it’s cinematic glory when it was released in 2014. But it was not until 2017 that I fell in love with it, both the movie and the score.

In preparation for an after-dinner talk to a panel of the American Heart Association’s 2017 Science Conference, I was looking for an inspirational way, preferably with great video and sound, to describe the sport of competitive free diving. This past summer I had the opportunity to meet some of the world’s best free divers and free diving instructors in a Colloquium put together by the University of California at San Diego, Center of Excellence in Scientific Diving.

I had pretty much given up on finding something to help me illustrate the beauty, and challenges, of competitive free diving. That changed, however,  when I came across a posting from a group of tactical military divers. In a short 3-minute video the young French diver Arnaud Jerald set his personal free diving (CWT, Constant Weight Dive  discipline) record of 92 meters in a competition in Turkey. He placed third in a field which included world record holders in the same event.

Three things made the diving video great, in my opinion: 1) the subject matter which vividly shows a human activity little known by most people, and understood by even fewer; 2) steady and clear video produced by a new underwater camera, the Diveye, and 3) the accompanying music.

A film score is only successful if it aids the audience in generating an emotional response to a movie scene. In that respect, a great movie hinges not only on good acting and script, but on an almost telepathic connection between the film director/producer and music director/composer.

In the free diving video clip, the accompanying music swelled in concert with the audience’s tension, generated perhaps unconsciously in response to the drama of the moment. And then there was organ music at just the right point. For me a pipe organ truly is the most impressive and grand of any musical instrument.

And just when the cinematic moment was right,  you could hear the heart beats, helping us realize what a strain it must have been on young Jerald’s heart as he reached his deepest depth, far from the surface, and air.

Indeed, when I gave the presentation, the video clip seemed to have the effect on the audience that I was looking for. But afterwards, I was relieved that no one had asked me where that music came from. I had no idea.

I don’t recall what led me to Interstellar as the music source: it may have been a random playing of movie soundtracks on a music streaming service, but once I heard a snippet, I recognized it. “That’s it!” I shouted to no one in particular.

It wasn’t just me; my family, including a nine-year old granddaughter had heard me rehearse my talk many times, and they also immediately recognized the similarity between the free diving video, and part of the Interstellar soundtrack.

The closest musical correlation to the diving video was the “Mountains” track in the movie soundtrack. Strangely, the match was not perfect. In fact the differences were easily notable, a fact I discovered after I bought both the movie and the Hans Zimmer soundtrack. And I must note, I think the music in the diving video is better.

Perhaps the full music was present in the original version of the movie, and perhaps some fancy mixing in the sound room deleted it. If so, too bad. But I must admit, the quiet musical nuances would have been missed during the cacophonous sound of a 4000 foot tall tidal wave sweeping upon a tiny spacecraft. There was lots of shouting and screaming.

As for my opinion that Hans Zimmer might be annoyed, well, I suggest you watch the portion of the full movie where the Mountain track rises to prominence. That is the part where the tidal wave, initially mistaken as mountains, appears on the horizon of the first planet the Horizon space craft landed on outside of our galaxy.

As exciting as the action was, and as wonderfully crafted the dialog and acting, it obscured the finer points of the music. Fortunately, the free diving video, coming as it does with no dialog at all, puts the music in the perspective that I, at least, can completely enjoy.

I find it fitting that in both videos, the incredibly powerful music was used to showcase humans extending themselves to their absolute limits. Of course, one of those stories is fictional, and the other is real.