Launchpad Day 1: Space is Big… And So Are Robots

The first official day of Launchpad was a lot of fun. Several early-birds, including myself, Chaz Brenchley and Doug Farren headed over to the university commons, where the wireless connectivity was better, and where, rumor had it, the food and coffee places opened at 7am. The rumor was not quite true. The commons were, indeed, open, but they didn’t start serving until 7:30. We spent most of our time there writing. It is amazing how quiet three professional writers can be when sitting together at the same table, concentrating on their writing.

Our first instruction began at 9:30 am, which happens to be the earliest we’ll be starting all week. This seemed late to me, but astronomers are night owls and early morning is a foreign concept to them, I suppose. Mike Brotherton started with introductions. He talked about how and why Launchpad was conceived, and what goals he had for the program. He introduced our other instructors, including Christian Ready and Andria Schwortz. We learned that Christian worried long years over his career choice: either astronomer or UFOlogist. Ultimately he chose the former. He explained this was because, well, he was worried that he and the aliens might not get along as well as he’d like. Astronomy was therefore safer for the aliens.

Andria introduced herself. She is getting a Ph.D. in astronomer and education and had interesting and amusing things to say about Clan of the Cave Bear and The Dragonriders of Pern.

When Andria was done, the attendees all gave brief introductions. We learned, for instance that Liz Argall is originally from Austrilia, which gave her an unfair advantage when talking about seasons later in the day.

Finally, we took a pre-test, which consisted of 24 questions. Here is one sample:

17. When the sun reaches the end of its life, what will happen to it?

a. It will turn into a black hole
b. It will explode destroying Earth
c. It will lose its outer layers, leaving its core behind
d. It will not die due to its mass
e. It will retire to Florida and consume blue-planet specials each night for dinner1.

The idea here is to provide some analysis to see how well Launchpad improves attendees knowledge of astronomy. We will take this same test again when we finish up Launchpad. I’m a little nervous about this. I don’t want to be the first Launchpad attendee ever to score better on the pre-test than the post-test.

Mike Brotherton gave our first proper lecture which was on the scale of the cosmos. The lecture can be summed up as follows (Mike had this on an introductory slide):

Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it s. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemsist, but that’s just peanuts to space.” — Douglas Adams, Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, 1979

The theme for the day became space is big. This later morphed into robots are big, but we haven’t quite gotten there yet.

Actually, this was a good lecture to set the framework for everything else to come. It gave us a good notion of just how big space is (it’s really big). Mike demonstrated this by going through 12 steps, starting with a 16 x 16m square, and jumped out by a factor of 100 every step. By the time we got to step 3, for instance, we could see the whole damn planet. By step 6 we at about 100 AUs, or the entire solar system. At step 9 we were at 1,700 light years, or the extended solar neighborhood. Finally, at step 12, we were at the entire universe. Christian emphaiszed the point in a lecture later in the day, when he demonstrated that if the sun was a yellow ball on the roof of the Classroom Building (remember the Classroom Building?) the Oort cloud at the edge of the solar system would be as far away as the border of Mexico. And the nearest star would be in Hawaii.

At this point we took a break for lunch, because, as you might imagine, the scale of the universe makes one ravenous. We didn’t just eat lunch, we ate big lunches. Here are some of the Launchpad classmate during a break:


After lunch we continued with a lecture by Andria on the seasons and phases of the moon. This was interesting because it led to the first discussions of how what we were learning might be applied to science fiction. Discussion of the seasons on Earth (caused by the axial tilt and the angle at which light from the sun hits the Earth) led to discussions of astronomical scenarios that might account for the weather conditions in Westeros. This led into further discussions of things like circumbinary star system and all kinds of fascinating configurations.

We moved into the phases of the moon and teamed up to figure out, based on a diagram of 8 positions of the moon relative to the Earth and Sun, what the phase might be. I teamed up with Jeri Smith-Ready and that was fortunately beause this was a more complicated exercise and she remembered a fact about moonrise that I had forgotten (or might not even have known). This allowed us to find a starting point, which was all we needed to methodically complete the worksheet–and it turned out we did it correctly! There were some interesting discussions about the phases of the moon in fiction. Even in fantasy. If you are writing about werewolves, for instance, it is probably important to know when the moon will be full, when that full moon will rise, and when it will set.

Our third and final lecture of the day was given by Christian Ready, and covered pretty much everything else about the solar system. Christian had a great presentation, including some rare pictures from the surface of Mars. One picture was a panorama of the surface, taken by Curiosity. It showed a bleak, rusty landscape–and there, off to one side, was a sandcrawler! Christian covered the formation of the solar system, right up through all of the planets, moon, asteroids, dwarf planets, and into the regions of space at the borders of the solar system. One thing I learned that I never knew about was the “frost line.” Inside the frost line, it is too hot for gases like hydrogen to form ices so the planets are rocky. Outside the frost line, however, they do form ice and this is key to the formation of the larger gas planets.

When that lecture was finished, the official lectures were done for the day, but there was still a very important activity planned for after dinner.

We ate dinner in the dorm cafeteria. It was much more crowded than the previous evening. Indeed, the cafeteria seemed to be filled with high school students, all of whom fell into one of three categories, cheerleaders, football players or baseketball players. They all looked so incredibly young. It was a little disconcerting.

After dinner we gathered for a very important activity. Launchpad attendees walked to the local movie theater to go see a movie, specifically, Pacific Rim.

Regular readers will remember that, while I am a science fiction writer, I am not, nor have a I ever been a fan of science fiction movies. Pacific Rim is not a movie that I would ordinarily have chosen to see on my own. But this was a group thing and I went with the group. We walked to the theater together and we sat through the movie together. So how was it?

Writer though I am, words escape me. I cannot even begin to describe how monumentally awful the movie was. Fifteen minutes into the movie, I began wishing the film would break. Thirty minutes in I began wishing for a power outage. An hour into the movie, I began to hope that work would call me with some problem they needed me to deal with. Ninety minutes into the movie I cursed myself for taking such good care of my teeth, as a root canal would have been infinitely more enjoyable than what was taking place in that theater. After that, death would have come as a blessed release.

I worried through the entire movie that I was going to be the only one in the group that didn’t like the movie. That turned out to be a needless concern. When it was all over, we headed to the local pub to dull the anguish caused by the movie with alcohol. We made fun of the movie. We made fun of the bad science in the movie. We made fun of the bad writing in the movie. We discussed what would have made it a better moive. (Leaving the whole thing on the cutting room floor, for instance.) I think you get the idea. What I can’t understand (perhaps because I am simply not a fan of sci-fi movies) is how so many people said that they liked the movie.

Of course, the movie was about giant robots. I mean, really massively giant robots. We’re talking huge. So big, in fact, that they seemed totally immune to, say, the square-cube law. Ah, never mind. Let’s just say that the movie was a really big blah, and leave it at that.

On the otherhand, I think it made for a really good bonding experience with the group.

We hung out at the bar for a while and around 10pm, headed back to the dorms. I’d already gotten all of my writing done, and I was pretty exhausted so I went right to bed. I was up at 5am this morning with a small to-do list to get through before lectures start up (not until 10am!). And of course, tomorrow, I’ll post all about Day 2.

And if you can’t get enough blogging about what happens at Launchpad, here are a few other attendees that are blogging about it:

  1. Okay, this wasn’t really on the quiz


  1. Jamie, thanks for making the effort to write up your Lauchpad Days.

    I remember reading somewhere how irritated Poul Anderson was when he’d read a story and the author would get the full moon’s rising and/or setting wrong.

    I stumbled across this .jpg and have always kept it handy as a reference–

    Will you be learning how to use software space simulators (such as Celestia) as part of a SF writer’s toolkit?


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