Classic sci-fi books, reviews, and the best of from a dedicated fan and author!
Matt Williams is a professional writer, science fiction author, and science communicator who currently writes for Universe Today, Interesting Engineering, Stardom Space, and Stellar Amenities. He is also the Director of Media Communications for Mars City Design and a member of Enterprise in Space and Explore Mars. His novels, The Formist Series, are available at Amazon.com and through Castrum Press. He lives with his wife and family on Vancouver Island in beautiful British Columbia.
This week’s episode focuses on the life and times of Nicolaus Copernicus, the famed Renaissance Polish astronomer who proposed the heliocentric model of the Universe. The details of this model were presented in his magnum opus, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, which Copernicus had published in 1543 when he was on his deathbed. While Copernicus is a household name and the basics of his model are well-known, the story of how he came to his grand realization is less well-known.
The heliocentric model was inspired by thousands of years of observations and calculations by astronomers. These included several pre-Socratic Greek texts lost to Europeans (but preserved by Muslim scholars) and scholars from West Asia, Iran, India, and Al-Andalus (Spain before the Reconquista). These sources contradicted the prevailing models of Aristotle and Ptolemy, both of whom were considered canon in Europe and Eurasia.
By synthesizing these observations with his own calculations, Copernicus showed how Earth and the other planets orbited the Sun, how the Moon orbited Earth, and how Earth rotated. In short, he synthesized and crystallized one of the most profound scientific discoveries ever made, one that was thousands of years in the making. And in so doing, he forever revolutionized our understanding of the cosmos and our place in it.
In fact, his observation that the Sun was NOT at the center of the Universe began a long process where humans began to realize that neither they nor Earth were unique in the cosmos. As Sagan put it: “One of the distinctions and triumphs of the advance of science has been the deprovincialization of our worldview.” Because of Copernicus’s role in this, the scientific axiom that states that humanity is NOT in a special or privileged position to view the cosmos is known as the Copernican Principle.
This week, I had the privilege of chatting with famed physicist, author, NASA technologist, and interstellar travel expert Les Johnson. In addition to discussing the challenges of mounting human-rated missions to interstellar space, we talked about his science fiction writing – which includes multiple novels and anthologies. He’s also been a contributor and the chief editor of several collections that combine SF short stories with scientific essays, like Going Interstellar and Stellaris: People of the Stars.
We also talked about the upcoming anthology, The Ross 248 Project, which is available for pre-order through Baen Publishing and Simon & Schuster. This book explores how human beings could one day travel to rocky planets that orbit Red Dwarf suns and how these planets could be terraformed to make them habitable for Earth organisms (including us). I had the honor of contributing an essay to this anthology, “Under a Crimson Sun,” which explores potential terraforming strategies and was inspired by a series I wrote for Universe Today (The Definitive Guide to Terraforming). Follow the links below to check it out!
This week’s episode is a homage to one of the greatest science fiction authors and science communicators of all time: Arthur C. Clarke. In addition to his writing and research, Clarke was a noted futurist who made many famous predictions about the future. His ability to anticipate technological advancements and the effect they would have on society earned him the nickname “Prophet of the Space Age.”
The subject of his predictions and what he got right or wrong is something I’ve been examining since I read the novelization of 2001: A Space Odyssey a few decades ago. While there were many details that he got wrong and had to ret-con in later books, he was eerily right about many things. These included communication satellites, the internet, spaceplanes, commercial spaceflight, and orbital space stations. Follow the links below to hear more!
For this week’s episode, I sat down with Dr. Alex Ellery, a professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Carleton University – which happens to be my alma mater (Go Ravens!) Dr. Ellery has written extensively about a subject that is near and dear to the heart of SETI researchers – Von Neumann Probes! For those unfamiliar, the concept is named in honor of famed scientist and engineer John Von Neumann (1903-1957).
In a series of lectures and his posthumously-published book, Theory of Self Reproducing Automata, he described machines that could harvest raw materials and produce exact copies of themselves. Over time, this notion has merged with ideas like nanotechnology and additive manufacturing (3-D printing) to become an idea for space exploration. And as SETI reminds us, if we can think of it, someone else has likely created it already.
Since the 1970s, Von Neumann probes have become a focal point in the ongoing debate about the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence (aka. the Fermi Paradox). The argument goes like this: if an advanced civilization were out there, we’d see evidence of self-replicating probes by now. This argument has led to all kinds of speculation and theories, and you can bet that Ellery and I got into them with gusto! Follow the links below to have a listen!
This week was a bit of a departure. In honor of Christmas, I decided to dedicate this episode to the life and times (and accomplishments) of Sir Isaac Newton. Why? Simple! Because Sir Isaac Newton was born on December 25th, 1642 (Julian Calendar), which works out to January 3rd, 1643 today (Gregorian Calendar). Also because I am doing an ongoing segment where I talk about the most influential people in the fields of astronomy and the sciences.
And when it comes right down to it, Newton’s contributions to these various fields (according to countless polls) are comparable only to those of Einstein. But what made his contributions so significant was the way he synthesized the work of previous generations and scientists. Or, as Newton himself put it: “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
This week, I sat down with legendary science communicator and educator Janet Ivey. Janet is the Governor of the National Space Society (NSS). the creator and CEO of Explore Mars, a NASA Science Ambassador, a TV/film personality, and the creator and host of Janet’s Planet. We talked about space exploration, its potential to unite and inspire, and what it’s like to bring that to the next generation of spacers!”
\We also got into what it’s like being a woman in what is still a “boy’s club” and how rewarding it is to inspire the next generation of women to pursue a career in space and the STEMs. Check out the episode below:
This week’s guest was astrophysicist, science communicator, and author Ethan Siegel. Ethan has been a professor of astrophysics at multiple universities, a senior contributor to Forbes magazine (ever heard of it?), and their chief science writer. He is also the producer of Starts with a Bang, a podcast and column where he talks about the Big Bang and other big questions related to cosmology.
His books include Trekology, which explores the technical aspects of the famous Star Trek franchise; Beyond the Galaxy, an examination of humanity’s growing awareness of the Universe; and the upcoming Encyclopaedia Cosmologica, a richly-illustrated and plainly-explained origin story about the cosmos.
During our chat, we got into multiple topics, including the greatest mysteries facing astronomers and cosmologists today, the James Webb naming controversy, and what makes astrophysics and science communication so exciting! Take a listen and be sure to check out Ethan’s podcast, articles, and websites.
For this week’s episode, I spoke with Mclee Kerolle, a veteran space lawyer and the Mentorship Coordinator with the Space Court Foundation (SCF). In the course of our chat, we discuss the SCF’s education and outreach programs and how they are focused on mentoring the next generation of space lawyers (with an emphasis on greater inclusion and diversity). We also got into the evolving field of space law and its importance in the current age of human spaceflight.
If I could summarize the episode and everything we spoke of in two bullet points, they would be:
The new space age is defined by growing cooperation and access, and it is important to promote and amplify the voices of those unsung heroes worldwide that are helping make it happen
A legal framework needs to be established TODAY so that we don’t a “Wild West” situation in space tomorrow
We also got into the SCF’s various programs that teach about existing space law and encourage people to think about the kinds of laws that need to be put in place before we being mining asteroids, establishing settlements on the Moon and Mars, conducting space tourism, and create habitats that allow for a permanent human presence in space. Check it out below!
This week’s episode is a special one. Instead of the usual stories from space, I get to talking about stories about space and humanity’s bold future in it. In short, I talked about science fiction, the books that inspired me throughout my life, and how I dreamed of one day writing the kind of books that inspired me. By the time I became a science communicator who writes about this stuff for a living, I finally found my voice.
This journey eventually led me to write the Formist Series, which was published between 2017 and 2020. And frankly, I’m just getting started! Before I put my pen down, there are countless stories I would like to tell. And I am fortunate enough to work in a field that actively inspires me to think about humanity’s future in space and learn the technical aspects involved. I even recount the exact article I’d written in 2015 that made everything click in my mind!
Want to hear more about this journey? Check out the links below:\
The subject of this week’s episode is the science being transforming extraterrestrial planets to make them more “Earth-like” – aka. Terraforming! This is a subject near and dear to my heart and something I wrote about at length a few years ago over at Universe Today, titled “The Definitive Guide to Terraforming.” I also took the opportunity to share some good news: the essay I wrote about terraforming will soon be published in the upcoming The Ross 248 Project!
As I mentioned in a previous post, this is an anthology of SF stories and scientific essays edited by author and NASA scientist Les Johnson and terraforming expert Ken Roy. The topic is how humans could populate rocky planets that orbit red dwarf suns – like Ross 128, Proxima Centauri, or TRAPPIST-1 – in the near future. For the sake of fiction, Johnson and Roy decided to use Ross 248 (a red dwarf over 10 light-years from Earth) as the setting since it is not yet known if it supports a planetary system.
My contribution was an essay titled “Under Crimson Skies” that looked at how these planets could be ecologically engineered to make them into future homes for humanity!