My First Article for Popular Mechanics!

My First Article for Popular Mechanics!

There’s a potentially Earth-like planet around the closest star to Earth—that’s the space headline that captured the world’s imagination this summer. But here’s something that was easy to forget in all that furor over Proxima Centauri. Our neighboring star doesn’t look anything like the Sun.

We humans have known only one life-sustaining planet in the universe: a green-and-blue globe called Earth. So perhaps we can be forgiven for thinking the ideal ingredients for creating life must resemble what we se here: a bunch of planets around a medium-sized yellow star.

Mind-expanding missions like the Kepler Space Observatory, however, have scientists questioning whether a solar system like ours really is the perfect place to hunt for new Earths and the possibility of life beyond our planet. Lately, astronomers have been taking a closer look at red dwarfs—stars with low mass, low temperatures, and slow rates of fusion.These stars don’t look much like our life-giving Sun, but they make up almost 70 percent of the observable stars in the sky and could survive for trillions of years—far longer than our star.

If we’re going to find life beyond our solar system, many scientists believe it will be orbiting a red dwarf. Here’s why.

Artist’s impression of a sunset seen from the super-Earth Gliese 667 Cc. Credit: ESO

The Alien Worlds of Red Dwarfs

In the past, planet-hunters thought the odds of finding potentially habitable worlds around red dwarfs were quite low. Because of their low mass and temperature, red dwarfs emit just 3 percent as much light as our sun. For an orbiting planet not to freeze into an uninhabitable iceball, it would need to be as close to the star as Mercury is to our Sun. Unfortunately, being so close to a star means the planets probably would be tidally locked, where one side is constantly facing the star and the other side always faces away. Not ideal conditions for creating life.

Red dwarfs are also far less stable compared to larger stars, undergoing sudden rises and drops in the amount of light and heat they emit. This creates big variations in temperature, adding yet another challenge for budding life.

If we’re going to find life beyond our solar system, it will likely be orbiting a red dwarf.

It’s not all bad news, though. Red dwarfs have a considerable advantage over other stars in their incredible lifespans. Our Sun has been around for 4.57 billion years, yet humanity has existed for just 200,000 years. Life takes a long time, and complex life even more so.

Time is one thing red dwarfs have plenty of—they can exist for trillions of years because of their low mass and slow rate of nuclear fusion. Since they’re also so common in our cosmos, the odds of finding planets within that habitable Golidlocks zone is statistically high. For astronomers, the pros are starting to outweigh the cons.

Artist's impression of the planet orbiting Proxima Centauri
Artist’s impression of what the surface of Proxima b could look like. Credit: ESO

The Case for Going Red

In 2005, astronomers from around the world converged on Mountain View, California, for a workshop sponsored by The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) where scientists argued the case that red dwarf stars could be the best place to look for aliens. In the end, it comes down to sheer probability. Within 33 light years of Earth there were 240 known red dwarfs at the time, compared to just 21 stars like ours.

Although red dwarfs are hard to find because they’re dim, once they’re spotted it’s much easier to see how many chunks of rock are in orbit. The so-called transit method of finding exoplanets, which the Kepler telescope used to great effect, relies on looking for changes in brightness caused by a planet passing in front of its star. It looks something like this:

Because planets orbiting a red dwarf are likely to hug their stars so tightly, the orbital period is often just a few days long, which makes for pretty good odds of seeing such a transit.

New Worlds Emerge

Since that SETI conference more than a decade ago, oodles of new planets orbiting red dwarfs have been discovered. Between 2005 and 2010, astronomers found six exoplanets orbiting Gliese 581, a red dwarf located about 20 light years from Earth. Two of these planets, Gliese 581-c and -d, lie on the inner and outer edge the star’s habitable zone. Another exoplanet, Gliese 581-g, may also have an orbit fit for habitability (though its existence is still contested).

In 2012, the European Southern Observatory (ESO) published the results of a spectrographic survey that examined 102 red dwarf stars in the Milky Way over the course of six years. They found that red dwarf stars were more likely to have an Earth-like planet orbiting them than a gas giant. Two years later, another ESO study concluded that virtually all red dwarfs in the universe have at least one exoplanet orbiting them. At least a quarter of them have a super-Earth (a planet like ours but slightly bigger) orbiting within their habitable zones.

Artist’s impression of the planet orbiting Proxima Centauri. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

The drumbeat goes on. This past July, researchers from the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) released a study in which the team calculated the likelihood of Earth-like planets forming within our universe over cosmic timescales, starting with the first stars to form, billions of years ago, and continuing into the distant future. They determined that low-mass red dwarf stars would be more likely than giant stars to maintain a system of planets long enough for life to emerge, and that likelihood only increased with time.

“We considered the likelihood of ‘life as we know it’ to form between the appearance of the first stars and the death of the last stars,” Professor Avi Loeb, a science professor at Harvard University and the lead author on the paper, told PM. ” We found that the likelihood peaks in the distant future around low-mass stars, simply because these stars live much longer than the Sun.”

Other discoveries made in the past five years have also bolstered the case for habitable planets around red dwarf stars with exoplanet candidates around Innes Star, Kepler 42, Gliese 832, Gliese 667, Gliese 3293, and most recently Proxima Centauri. All of these star systems are located relatively close to our own, though still impossibly out of reach with only today’s space-faring technology.

In the coming years, as more exoplanet hunters like the James Webb Telescope and the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite look to the sky, it’s probable that scientists and astronomers will focus much of their efforts on nearby red dwarf stars.

“One of the great discoveries made in the past decade or so is that it seems like there are planets all over the place,” TESS project scientist Stephen Rinehart told PM, “even around these small stars so different from our own.”

See it here: Popular Mechanics

Universe Today Stats for January and February


Good news, folks! It seems that the traffic report came in for the previous two months from Universe Today. And in my haste, I forgot to publish them. But luckily, there are no deadlines on a blog, just chances to catch up. How’s everybody doing? Oh, and I should also mention that my stint working with Green Tree Recycling is done for now, so there will be more time in the near future for posts like these. 🙂

In any case, things have changed over at Universe Today lately in terms of format. Basically, the managers wanted to do fewer publications a month overall and focus on those that were likely to draw more of a crowd. This means that the total number of articles I got to do for January/February was less than in previous months, but that didn’t seem to hurt viewership that much.

In fact, February has been my best month so far, with a record-topping 282,176 views! Check out the total stats below:


1/1/2015 2015 Expected to be a Record-Breaking Year for Soyuz-2 Workhorse 1965
1/2/2015 Rogue Star HIP 85605 on Collision Course with our Solar System, but Earthlings Need Not Worry 17554
1/6/2015 Exoplanet-Hunting TESS Satellite to be Launched by SpaceX 1161
1/6/2015 Japan’s Akatsuki Spacecraft to Make Second Attempt to Enter Orbit of Venus in December 2015 2317
1/9/2015 New Mission: DSCOVR Satellite will Monitor the Solar Wind 886
1/13/2015 Faster-Than-Light Lasers Could “Illuminate” the Universe 36082
1/13/2015 One of the Milky Way’s Arms Might Encircle the Entire Galaxy 10543
1/16/2015 Some of the Best Pictures of the Planets in our Solar System 25777
1/16/2015 Elon Musk Releases Dramatic Imagery of Mostly Successful Falcon 9 1st Recovery Attempt, Hard Landing on Drone Ship 9009
1/30/2015 Exploring the Universe with Nuclear Power 21687
Total Views 126981


Which Planets Have Rings?  2/5/2015  8910
What Could Explain the Mysterious Ring in Antarctica?  2/9/2015 239263
How Can Mars Sometimes Be Warmer Than Earth?  2/9/2015  11509
What is Hooke’s Law?  2/13/2015  6229
Here’s a Better Use for Fighter Jets: Launching Satellites  2/13/2015  7937
What is Mars Made Of?  2/25/2015  8328
 Total Views  282176

New Articles and Apologies

solar1Let’s start with the apologies. I’m very sorry for the prolonged absence of late, and I trust that people actually noticed I haven’t been around 😉 But both my day and my side job have both been very busy and have left me mentally and physically taxed by the end of the day. However, I do have things to show for it, mainly in the form of a new list of articles that were recently published on both Universe Today and HeroX.

I’ve taken to posting the new entries on their respective pages (over on the right there). However, if you’re like me, you don’t bother to check these out much and would rather be notified if something new is happening. And the way I see it, a post now and again that contains the links to all the latest is something people won’t mind hearing about (as opposed to being notified every time one does!)

So here they are, in order of publication:

  • Small Spacecraft Ejected from ISS Will Provide Same-Day, On-Demand Delivery – Basically, the ISS is getting a small fleet of return vehicles that will allow them to deliver samples back to Earth in less than 24 hours. This will help research and experiments quite a bit, and could also open the way for commercial use of the ISS’s National Lab.
  • Make a Deal for Land on the Moon – This one was not only fun to write, it contains a cautionary tale worth sharing. No matter what some realtors may tell you, there’s absolutely no way to buy land on the Moon… yet! However, given the way that commercial aerospace and space industries are heating up, this may soon change.
  • HeroX News: The Promise of Solar Power – This is probably the longest article I’ve written for either publication of late. It deals with recent innovations that are causing solar power to break its own the efficiency limits and usher in an age of renewable energy. And none too soon either!

Evidence for the Big Bang

planck-attnotated-580x372The Big Bang Theory has been the dominant cosmological model for over half a century. According to the theory, the universe was created approximately 14 billion years ago from an extremely hot, dense state and then began expanding rapidly. After the initial expansion, the Universe cooled and began to form various subatomic particles and basic elements. Giant clouds of these primordial elements later coalesced through gravity to form stars, galaxies, and eventually planets.

And while it has its detractors, most of whom subscribe to the alternate Steady State Theory – which claims that new matter is continuously created as the universe expands – it has come to represent the scientific consensus as to how the universe came to be. And as usual, my ol’ pal and mentor in all things digital, Fraser Cain, recently released a video with the help of Universe Today discussing the particulars of it.

big_bangAddressing the particulars of the Big Bang Theory, Cain lists the many contributions made over the past century that has led this so-called theory to become the scientific consensus has come to exist. They are, in a nutshell:

  1. Cosmic Expanion: In 1912, astronomer Vesto Slipher calculated the speed and distance of “spiral nebulae” (galaxies) by measuring the light coming from them. He determined most were moving away. In 1924, Edwin Hubble determined that these galaxies were outside the Milky Way. He postulates that the motion of galaxies away from our own indicates a common point of origin.
  2. Abundance of Elements: Immediately after the big bang, only hydrogen existed and compressed into a tiny area of space under incredible heat and pressure. Like a star, this turned hydrogen into helium and other basic elements. Looking out into the universe (and hence back in time) scientists have found that great distances, the ratios of hydrogen to basic elements is consistent with what is found in star’s interiors.
  3. Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) Radiation: In the 1960’s, using a radiotelescope, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson discovered a background radio emission coming from every direction in the sky, day or night. This was consistent with the Big Bang Theory, which predicted that after the Big Bang, there would have been a release of radiation which then expanded billions of light years in all directions and cooled to the point that it shifted to invisible, microwave radiation.
  4. Large Scale Structure: The formation of galaxies and the large-scale structure of the cosmos are very similar. This is consistent with belief that after the initial Big Bang, the matter created would have cooled and began to coalesce into large collections, which is what galaxies, local galactic groups, and super-clusters are.

These are the four pillars of the Big Bang Theory, but they are no means the only points in its favor. In addition, there are numerous observational clues, such as how we have yet to observe a stars in the universe older than 13 billion years old, and fluctuations in the CMB that indicate a lack of uniformity. On top of that, there is the ongoing research into the existence of Dark Matter and Dark Energy, which are sure to bear fruit in the near future if all goes well.

big_bang1In short, scientists have a pretty good idea of how the universe came to be and the evidence all seems to confirm it. And some mysteries remain, we can be relatively confident that ongoing experimentation and research will come up with new and creative ways to shed light on the final unknowns. Little reason then why the Big Bang Theory enjoys such widespread support, much like Evolution, Gravity, and General Relativity.

Be sure to check out the full video, and subscribe to Universe Today for additional informative videos, podcasts, and articles. As someone who used to write for them, I can tell you that it’s a pretty good time, and very enlightening!

The Grand Old Word Count

sb10067155f-001A little while ago, I saw a challenge – not sure where, could have been Goodreads or Facebook – where indie authors were challenged to take all the stories they had written and tabulate a total word count for them. Like a lot of writing exercises, it was clearly designed to put things in perspective.

All too often, writers can get hung up on sales numbers or the total number of books they’ve managed to get out there. Especially for indies, these numbers can seem underwhelming or discouraging at times. So naturally, its fun to take a look at some bigger numbers and see just how much we’ve really shared, because that is what writing is all about right?

So I did my grand total. And just for some added perspective, here’s some other big numbers for comparison. The average person has a vocabulary of between 35,000 – 75,000 words*, depending on their age, level of education, and life experience. And in the course of a day, people speak between 7,000 and 20,000 words, depending on their gender (apparently, women speak more than men)**.

ar_storybookBetween Data Miners, Whiskey Delta, Papa Zulu (yet to be published, but is complete), my Legacies short stories, Source, my Yuva shorts, and other assorted tales I’ve put up on this site, my grand total of words is:

531,944 words published so far!

And that doesn’t include the countless words that are sitting in my Stories folder that haven’t been published yet. I’m telling you, there has to be at least 250,000 words between all those unfinished stories, novellas, and shorts. So I really can’t count those… yet!

word_cloudBut I would be remiss if I didn’t include the roughly 1250 articles I’ve published on this site. God only knows how many words I’ve spewed in those! Obviously, I’m not about to add them all up, but a random sampling of five articles put the average at about 2000 words each. Multiply that by 1250 articles and you’ve got… oh my God… 2.5 million words!

Okay, let’s upgrade that then to roughly 3.000.000 words published so far. So basically, in the two and half years that I’ve been running this blog, I’ve written the equivalent of what an average man speaks in the course 428 days straight, or the average woman does in 150 days. Is it me, or is that nuts?

And now I put it to you indie writers… between your indie published stories, blog, articles, short stories, novellas, full-length novels, and flash fiction, just how many words have you generated and shared with the world?



Dealing with Spam

No-SpamI’ll say it right off the bat, I hate spam. No, let me express that properly: I HATE SPAM! And not the cheap, spiced ham that comes in a can. No, that at least has some comedic value, and the Monty Python troop made such good fun of it that the name has a permanent place in my heart. No, I refer of course to the useless adverts and unwanted solicitations that appear in your comments section whenever you log on to your website to see who’s stopping by.

Seeing as how feedback, especially the kind that lets you know you are reaching people, is so encouraging, is it not the most annoying thing in the world to find yourself beset by these uncaring, fishing, and indifferent messages? Sure, we all have been forced to accept that such garbage is simply the price we pay for using an unregulated internet, where its an open sea and you can expect to find your share of trolls, scammers, pirates and thieves. But lately, it’s becoming a total nuisance for me!

In fact, it’s gotten so bad that I’ve actually had to delete a post just so I would stop getting the free flow of useless comments that its come to attract. It was named “Anatomy of the Xenomorph”, and it contained a simple video clip that explains how the Alien costume designers have tinkered with the concept over the years. Don’t ask me why, but something in this article sends up the green flag for people looking to sell me Gucci, Cartier, glasses, handbags, running shoes, sexcam membership, free credit checks, and no credit check loans.

Because of this, it no longer appears on this site, mainly because I sank it in the hopes that it would take the rats down with it. Weeks of this stuff and I still wonder why these buggers were targeting it specifically. I’m sure many of you have seen the stuff I am referring to,  either on your own site or one you cruise by regularly, so tell me is these ring any bells…

One of the most recurring are ones that come with the name “lista de emails”, and they usually contain some nonsense message that lauds your post in such generalized terms so as not to give away the fact that they don’t have the slightest idea what you wrote in it. Others are less subtle, advertising their product directly in the message, cramming a whole of lot poorly formatted verbiage about deals and discounts and even services you can use to improve your website.

Seriously, do these sound familiar? Is it not just me getting hit up by these desperate bungholes? If so, what are you doing to dissuade these people? More than once, I’ve actually approved a comment from a repeat offender just so I could write back and tell them to F off! And now, I’ve deleted a post so they wouldn’t find that open door when next they come around. Do I need to modify my spam filter settings? Because seriously, far too much garbage is getting through here.

Oh, and if any spammers happen to be reading this, do NOT take this opportunity to solicit me, post how much you love my site with an advert link, or tell me I need to upgrade to some service of yours. Seriously deadbeats, back yer sh*t up! Not interested, don’t care, and trying to run a serious, refuse-free site here. So look for a sucker somewhere else!

Searching for a new name…

KeplerIt was put to me recently that this site was in need of some rebranding. And I had to admit, she had a point. Storiesbywilliams doesn’t exactly paint an accurate picture of all that goes on here does it? It was a fair name back when I first started it, as a humble indie author hoping to showcase his own writing. But this site has evolved since then, so its only fair that the name evolve too.

So then… what to call this site? I’ve been thinking on it for the past day and have been coming up with too many possibilities, and yet none of them seem like a perfect fit. So I thought I’d do something that’s in keeping with the theme of this site and crowdsource it! I have a list of prepared names, but would love some suggestions.

I’m going to something that says science fiction, science and tech, astronomy, current events, fandom, nerdom, geekdom, video games, comic books, movies, literature, history, and the travails of writing. But nothing else! Don’t want to be overstepping my bounds here…