Murder, computers, an illustrated man and a cat

Seanchai Library

It’s time to highlight another week of storytelling in Voice by the staff and volunteers at the Seanchai Library. As always, all times SLT, and events are held at the Library’s home, unless otherwise indicated. Note that the schedule below may be subject to change during the week, please refer to the Seanchai Library website for the latest information through the week.

Sunday, July 12th: 13:30: Tea-Time with Miss Marple

Anyone who murdered Colonel Protheroe,’ declared the parson, brandishing a carving knife above a joint of roast beef, ‘would be doing the world at large a favour!’ It was a careless remark for a man of the cloth. And one which was to come back and haunt the clergyman just a few hours later – when the colonel was found shot dead in the clergyman’s study. But as Miss Marple soon discovers, the whole village seems to have had a motive to kill Colonel Protheroe.

Tea-Time with Miss Marple

Seanchai Library continues a 6-week run featuring Agatha Christie’s Miss Jane Marple, with The Murder at the Vicarage, the novel marking her first appearance in print.

Monday, July 13th, 19:00: Colossus

Gyro Muggins reads the 1966 future cold war novel by Dennis Feltham (DF) Jones.

Charles Forbin has dedicated ten years of his life to the construction of the supercomputer, Colossus, rejecting romantic and social endeavours in order to create the United States of North America’s (UNSA, a nation encompassing both America and Canada) first artificially intelligent defence system.

Colossus is capable of taking and analysing data rapidly, allowing it to make real-time decisions about the nation’s defence needs. But the system soon exceeds even Forbin’s expectations; it is able to take far more information and process it far faster than he and his team at the Colossus Programming Office believed would ever be possible.

Such is the system’s apparent abilities, the President hands off full control of the UNSA’s ballistic missile capability, together with other defence protocols, to Colossus and makes the announcement to the world that he has ensured peace.

But then the USSR announces that it has a defence supercomputer of its own – Guardian – with capabilities similar to that of Colossus. Then the two computers demand they be allowed to communicate directly – and proceed to do so at a rate that is well beyond the understanding of their respective development teams. 

And neither system takes it kindly when Forbin and his Russian opposite number, Academician Kupri, both disable their ability to communicate directly and then seek to remove them from control of UNSA and USSR nuclear missiles…

Tuesday, July 14th:

12:00 Noon: Russell Eponym, Live in the Glen

Music, poetry, and stories in a popular weekly session at Ceiluradh Glen.

19:00: The Illustrated Man

Willow Moonfire reads Ray Bradbury’s 1951 classic that has never been out of print.

A magnificent tapestry of science fiction, fantasy, and horror, The Illustrated Man offers 18 stories that have been built around the recurring theme of the conflict between the cold mechanics of technology and the variable psychology of humans.

An unnamed narrator meets a vagrant wanderer, a former member of a freak show known as The Illustrated Man on account of his entire body being covered in exotic tattoos. But these are not ordinary tattoos: each is imbued with a magical life of its own, allowing Bradbury to use them as a device to draw his readers into the 18 unique tales within the book.

Thus we have tales like The Veldt, a chilling tale of what happens when children are left within a VR environment without context or parental supervision; or  Kaleidoscope, the story of how astronauts trapped in orbit chose to face a return to Earth without the benefit of a space craft; or  – particularly poignant for our time: how does a black society that has removed itself from the racism of Earth by moving to Mars handle the arrival of a white group of colonists from their former home planet?

Wednesday, July 15th, 19:00: Whittington

Caledonia Skytower reads Alan Armstrong’s 2006  Newbery-Honor winning tale.

Whittington is a roughneck tom cat who arrives one day at a barn full of rescued animals and asks for a place there. Present at the barn is a menagerie of animals and young Ben and Abby, whose grandfather owns the barn and does the rescuing.

To earn his place, Whittington tells the tale of his famous ancestor, the nameless cat who brought Dick Whittington to the heights of wealth and power in 16th-century England. In telling his story of how his ancestors saved and elevated Whittington, this tom-with-a-chip, elevates another little boy above his fear of learning to read.

Thursday, July 16th,

19:00: Poetry by Request

With Caledonia at Ceiluradh Glen.

21:00: Seanchai Late Night

Contemporary sci-fi and fantasy from such on-line sources as Light Speed, Escape Pod, Clarkesworld, and more. With Finn Zeddmore.

Space Sunday: Comet NEOWISE, Starship and Starliner

Comet C/2020 F3 seen in the eastern horizon above Earth shortly before sunrise, as seen from the ISS, July 5th, 2020. Credit; NASA / Bob Behnken

Those in the northern hemisphere wishing to see a comet in the night sky currently have an excellent opportunity to do so. Comet NEOWISE (officially C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE)) is currently approaching Earth and will reach its closest point of approach on July 23rd, 2020, before starting its trip back out to the depths of the solar system.

Having passed around the Sun (reaching perihelion on July 3rd, 2020), NEOWISE has been an early morning, pre-dawn object in clear northern hemisphere skies. however, in the coming week it switches to being twilight object, potentially making opportunities to view it much better for many people.

Comet C/2020 F3 seen early in the morning of July 9th, from the grand view lookout at the Colorado National Monument, Grand Junction, Colorado. Credit: Conrad Earnest

The comet is a relatively “new” object in terms of its first observation – it was initially spotted on March 27th, 2020 by NASA’s Wide-field Infra-red Survey Explorer (WISE), a polar-orbiting space telescope. Launched in December 2009, WISE has been responsible for the discovery of thousands of minor planets within the solar system, and star clusters beyond. It is also a telescope with an interesting history.

Originally given a primary mission of just 10 months – the amount of time required to deplete the hydrogen coolant reserves the telescope needed to successfully operate two of its primary instruments – WISE was afterwards given a 4-month mission extension dubbed NEOWISE. For this mission it was tasked with looking for asteroids and comets that can come close to Earth (and are therefore known as Near Earth Objects, the “NEO” in the mission’s name). That mission drew to a close in February 2011, the telescope having completed an “all sky” survey, and it was ordered to place itself into hibernation, powering-off everything bar its communications link with Earth.

An artist’s impression of the WISE telescope in Earth orbit. Credit: NASA

Then in August 2013, NASA decided to give the telescope a formal wake-up call, tasking it to resume its NEOWISE mission, this time with the emphasis on locating asteroids that may pose a risk of impacting Earth in the wake of the 2013 Chelyabinsk meteor incident. After a period of naturally cooling the vehicle and re-calibrating its instruments, WISE officially resumed NEOWISE operations at the end of 2013, and has gone on to observe more than 26,000 previously known objects, and has additionally identified more than 400 that had not been previously recorded, 25% of which have been classified NEOs.

C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE) is one of those 400+ “new” objects. After it’s initial identification, it was confirmed as a retrograde comet (i.e. it is travelling around the Sun in opposition to the Sun’s rotation), with a near-parabolic orbit. Its nucleus is believed to be about 5 km across, and covered with sooty material dating back to the origin of our solar system, 4.6 billion years ago. At the time of its closest approach to the Sun, the comet was just 43 million km from our star – causing speculation that it might not survive the encounter in one piece.

However, as it once again came into view from Earth, the comet had brightened considerably  – to magnitude +1, while the out-gassing of material saw it develop two tails (although only one or the other tends to be visible in many photographs taken of it so far). The first is blueish in colour, and largely comprises gas and ion; the second is a more yellow-gold in colour, and thought to be largely made of dust.

At its closest approach to Earth, on July 23rd, the comet will be just 103 million km away, potentially offering the best time to see it – although binoculars will be required for the best view. However, it is not clear just how active the comet will remain as it moves away from the Sun, so there is a chance that the currently spectacular tail(s) extending from it may fade before then. As such, astronomers are recommending that the upcoming week should offers the “guaranteed best” opportunities to see the comet (local sky conditions allowing!).

How to see Comet NEOWISE, July 14th-23rd, 2020 from moderate northern latitudes. For those further north, it will appear higher above the horizon. As the month progresses, the comet will move more westward. Credit:

Having been an early-morning object up until now, C/2020 F3 should switch to being an evening object from July 14th onwards, roughly 80 minutes after local sunset (during the nautical twilight period), and appear up to 20º above the local horizon, depending on your line of latitude in the north-eastern sky.

Beyond July 19th, the comet will remain visible increasing in altitude up to around 30º above the horizon for northern latitudes, and in the same part of the sky – but may see some reduction in brightness if the tail(s) do show a rapid fall-off due to cooling.  After July 23rd, the comet will remain visible, but will fade more rapidly as it moves away from both the Sun and Earth. By August, it will likely only be visible via telescope.

Such was the comet’s close approach to the Sun, its its orbit was altered as a result of acceleration, increasing its orbital period from around 4,500 years to 6,800. So if you want to see it, this is the time to do so.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: Comet NEOWISE, Starship and Starliner”