Category Archives: Science Fiction

The Martian

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As the impending release of the movie based on it makes obvious, this is one of the most prominent science-fiction novels in recent years. It started life as a piece of original fiction freely available on the web and was picked up by a publisher only after it gained popularity. Appropriately enough for our time, the print version of the novel is the last version to become available as both the ebook and audio versions preceded it. Personally I became interested in reading this because it shows up often in lists of recommendations in rationalist fiction circles, a sub-genre that is now burgeoning thanks to Eliezer Yudkowsky’s Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality.

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The Clockwork Rocket

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As I’ve mentioned many times, I still consider Greg Egan to be my favorite science-fiction author though his best work was published in the 1990s and some of the latest novels can be quite boring (I’m looking at you Incandescence and Zendegi.) Still, I’m likely to read everything Egan writes eventually and so here we are at The Clockwork Rocket, the first book of the Orthogonal trilogy that was first published in 2011.

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Halting State

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Embarrassingly for someone who claims to be fan of science-fiction, it’s been a while since I last read a sci-fi novel. Most of my fiction reading these days are on the web, either web-based originals or fanfiction. I picked Charles Stross’s Halting State to read recently both because I’d previously read his Accelerando and thought it interesting and because this particular novel’s tie-in with online gaming worlds seems like a good fit for my own interests.

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Nobel Prizes 2014

Every year at around this time, I make a summary post about the winners of the scientific Nobel Prizes because I feel that insufficient attention is paid to them. I always ignore the Peace Prize and the Literature Prize. Here are the winners for Physics, Chemistry, Physiology / Medicine and Economics categories.

The physics prize seems unexciting to me but I guess it is practical and useful. It goes to Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano and Shuji Nakamura for discovering how to produce blue light beams from semi-conductors. This is what enabled modern LED lamps to be a reality as it is not possible to create white lamps without blue light.

The chemistry prize goes for to Eric Betzig, Stefan W. Hell and William E. Moerner for the invention of nanoscopy. Previously, optical microscopes were limited to a resolution of about half the wavelength of light, or about 200 nanometres. This prize is awarded for two separate developments: STED microscopy which uses two laser beams, one to stimulate fluorescent molecules to glow and another to cancel out all fluorescence except for that within a nanometre-sized volume, and single-molecule microscopy which relies on turning the fluorescence of individual molecules on and off and superimposing all of the images thereby gained into a single super-image. Both techniques bring microscopy into the nano-scale.

The physiology / medicine prize goes to John O´Keefe, May-Britt Moser and Edvard I. Moser for research into the positioning system in the brain. As would be obvious, many animals have a sense of location and an internal map of the locations that they know and how paths lead from one place to another. O´Keefe realized that a specific type of nerve cell in the brain of a rat always activated when in a specific location. The two others discovered another type of nerve cell that together generate a coordinate system that allows for positioning and pathfinding. Together these constitute the essential elements of what is effectively an internal GPS.

The economics prize goes to Jean Tirole. This is for a body of work rather than any single significant discovery so it’s harder to summarize. Apparently his most important work lies in clarifying how to understand and regulate industries that are dominated by a few powerful firms. He also showed that regulation needs to be adapted to the conditions specific to each industry.

Blue Mars

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This last book of the Mars trilogy is the most epic in scope, covering some one hundred years worth of events and extending the saga to the rest of the Solar system and even beyond. At the same time, it feels frustratingly parochial, with its strong focus on the same old set of characters who are forced to deal with new iterations of familiar problems. As much as we readers have grown to love these characters over the course of the previous books, it’s hard to shake off the feeling that this book isn’t just a retread of what has come before with added proviso that many of the characters are now so mature as to leave little room for additional character development.

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Green Mars

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When I first read the second book of the Martian Trilogy, I was immediately struck by the epic sense of history it embodies. Set fifty years after the end of the first novel, it shows how the real Martians are the children of the settlers who have never known Earth. Standing over two meters tall, they move with a grace that those born on Earth can never achieve. Moreover, their profound disinterest of all things Terran and unselfconscious Martianness marked the passing of an era.

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