Book Review: Exhalation: Stories by Ted Chiang

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One of the top science fiction books of 2019, even reaching the summer reading list of former President Barack Obama, was Exhalation: Stories by Ted Chiang. This collection compiles nine recent short stories by the author of “Story of Your Life,” on which the movie Arrival was based.

I don’t read that many short stories, and I almost never read anthologies. I generally find full-length novels more interesting. But this book came up on my book club’s reading list, so I gave it a shot.

I admit I was underwhelmed by Arrival when it came out, although its worst excesses seem to have been added to the original novella. But I also wasn’t thrilled with the premise. The linguistics part was fun, but the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is long since debunked, and the idea of learning a new language hacking your brain to give you superpowers is just plain silly, and I think Robert Heinlein did it better in Stranger in a Strange Land.

All this means that my expectations weren’t high when I started Exhalation: Stories, but I was pleasantly surprised. These stories, on the whole, are cleverly told and entertaining, and they ask deep questions of the same kind presented in Arrival. I might have wanted to review some of the stories individually, but I feel confident in reviewing the collection as a single unit because of the clear themes running through it. What does it mean to be human, or even just alive? How do we face the concepts of free will and destiny in an incomprehensible universe? Chiang does a good job of making the reader think about these questions while letting them draw their own conclusions.

My rating: 4 out of 5.

I do still want to comment on the individual stories because there are some very interesting and thought-provoking things in there. So, obviously, spoilers below.

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Help Name the Mars 2020 Rover!

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If you remember the summer of 2012, you might recall the landing of the Curiosity rover on Mars. (As a hint, it was right at the end of the London Olympics.) It was a pretty big deal because this was one of the biggest and certainly the most complicated piece of equipment we’d ever landed on Mars, and because of the seemingly insane landing system where it was lowered on a cable from a rocket-powered crane. (I was at The Planetary Society’s Planetfest event for the landing, and I had a great time.)

Well, now, NASA is doing it again.

On July 17 of this year, the Mars 2020 rover will launch on its way to (obviously) Mars. This rover is another car-sized monster, which will also have to land with a sky crane. In fact, Mars 2020 is basically a copy of the Curiosity chassis with some new and better instruments installed. And they are pretty cool. This rover will have ground penetrating radar. It will have a laser spectrometer fancy enough to directly detect signs of life. (NASA rarely says they’re officially looking for life because they don’t want to raise their expectations too high.) It will test an oxygen-production experiment for future human missions. And it will have helicopter, despite the fact that the air on Mars is so thin that it’s equivalent to 30 km (100,000 feet) high on Earth. Oh, and it’ll also cache some rock samples for a future sample return mission.

But the one thing the rover doesn’t have yet is a name.

Curiosity wasn’t always Curiosity. It was originally the Mars Science Laboratory. It was named based on a public poll of names submitted by students around the country, and NASA is doing the same thing for Mars 2020. The name of the new rover will be selected based on the results* of a public poll of names submitted by students. You can read the finalists’ essays and vote in the poll at the Name the Rover Contest.

Voting is open through Monday, January 27. The finalists in the poll are:
Clarity
Courage
Endurance
Fortitude
Ingenuity
Perseverance
Promise
Tenacity
Vision

All of these are fair names, but my vote is for Ingenuity.** And my reason is that continuing the theme is too good to pass up. As I said, Curiosity and Mars 2020 are twins—the same design with different instruments. And not only would Ingenuity be the closest name to the scientific themes of the mission, but naming the pair of rovers Curiosity and Ingenuity would have a poetic symmetry to it.

So go out and vote, and maybe your favorite name will be chosen for the next Mars rover!

* It’s not 100% certain to follow the poll results because of the risk of vote-fixing.

** Full disclosure: I am a postdoc at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. However, this post represents solely my own opinion and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of NASA or the United States Government.

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TV Review: Star Trek: Picard

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The wait is over. Star Trek: Picard is here. Yes, the newest Star Trek series, available exclusively on CBS All Access, brings the long-awaited return of Jean-Luc Picard, the favorite Star Trek captain of many fans, including myself. I just watched the first episode and…yeah, I am excited. In fact, it’s been a long time since I was this excited about a new TV show. I think the last time I was this excited about a show was at the height of Peter Capaldi’s tenure as Doctor Who. It’s not perfect, and the continuity’s kind of screwy, but this was a very promising start.

My rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Star Trek: Picard (naturally) also brings the return of Sir Patrick Stewart, portraying a ninety-four-year-old Admiral Picard, long since resigned from Starfleet and haunted by the ghosts of his past. Those ghosts revolve heavily around the supernova at Romulus, the event that triggered the alternate timeline of the recent trio of reboot movies. Picard, however, is set in the original timeline, thirteen years later.

I don’t want to give any spoilers because even from the beginning, so much of what happens is tied in with the larger plot, and you really need to see it more yourself. I will just say that I called it on Dahj’s identity right away (even though there were still some continuity problems with that).


I do, however, want to talk a little about CBS’s previous Star Trek series, Star Trek: Discovery, and how it relates to the state of television in general. I wanted to contrast the two shows because I reviewed Star Trek: Discovery when it came out in 2017. First off, Star Trek: Picard is much better. Discovery was not as well written, had a lot more continuity problems, and did not hold my interest enough to subscribe to All Access to keep watching after the pilot.

For the record, I strongly disagree with CBS’s decision not to run the pilot of Picard on broadcast like they did for Discovery. It’s generating a lot of hype, but I still don’t think it’s as much as it would be if people could watch it on a physical television.

Apropos of that, two years ago, I complained that the move to a subscription-only service for Discovery would limit the audience and cultural reach of the show. I also speculated that I was fighting a losing battle on that front.

Well, it’s two years later, and the battle is lost. Everything is going subscription-only these days. Star Trek: Picard had me interested enough to buy a subscription to CBS All Access sight-unseen, and I’m glad I did. I previously only had Amazon Prime (because it’s an add-on to Amazon proper), but I never used it. I’ve been considering Netflix for years, but I never felt strongly enough to subscribe. Picard was enough to finally get me on the bandwagon. And who know? Maybe I’ll get that Disney Plus subscription I’ve been thinking about.

Yes, that does mean I skipped The Mandalorian. I didn’t just forget to review it. I considered signing up for Disney Plus when it came out, but I had a lot of stuff going on at the time, and I never got around to it, and then it was over after only eight episodes. I’ve said it before, and I really miss the days when a “season” meant twenty or twenty-five episodes even for a big-budget show like Star Trek. Disney Plus isn’t expensive, but the mental effort of maintaining subscriptions for everything when it would make more sense for me to buy eight episodes a la carte if I could just doesn’t feel like a very good deal to me.

Fine, Star Trek: Picard is only ten episodes, too. I don’t care. Star Trek is better than Star Wars. Yes, I said it!

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A New Potentially Habitable Planet from TESS

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Illustration of the orbits of the planets in the TOI-700 system. Credit: NASA.

This week is what many call the “Super Bowl of Astronomy”: the winter meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS), held this year in Honolulu. I am not there, sadly, but I am involved in one of the big press stories to come out of there.

Extrasolar planets are one of the many fields of astronomy that are announcing discoveries at the AAS, and one of the biggest stories is that NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) has discovered its first “potentially habitable”* planet, TOI-700 d. As it happens, I am one of the coauthors (along with 92 others) on the first of the three papers about this planet that were announced yesterday, which is not something you get to say often about a paper with its own press conference, even at NASA.

This paper is about the discovery of TOI-700’s three planets and a little bit about what we can infer about their atmospheres. For the record, the second paper was about using the Spitzer Space Telescope to observe the planets, both to prove that they’re really there (a fraction of these “detections” are actually binary stars in the background) and to potentially measure some actual data about the atmosphere. (As an aside, Spitzer is being retired on January 30, so this was a really last-minute thing.) And the third paper wasn’t about observing the planet directly, but about making theoretical models for the atmosphere to figure out what it will take to measure the composition of the atmosphere.


TESS is tasked with scanning the half million brightest stars in the sky for transiting planets. These are planets that pass directly in front of their stars. They’re are only a small fraction of all the planets out there, but they are the easiest to study, and by looking at the brightest stars, TESS finds planets that are closer and even easier to study than the ones found by Kepler.

TOI-700 is a red dwarf star—type M2 with a brightness only 2.3% that of our Sun. This is important because TESS mostly looks only at short-period planets, and you need a small, cool star for short-period planets to be cool enough to be habitable. TOI-700 has three planets: b, c, and d, but it’s planet d that everyone is talking about. Planet d orbits its star in 37 days; its size is such that it should have a solid surface, and (if it has a similar atmosphere) its temperature should be very close Earth’s.

Unfortunately, it will be 5-10 years before we can get good enough observations to tell what’s in the atmosphere of this planet. What I think is more interesting is the middle planet, planet c. Planet c orbits in 16 days. At that distance, we would expect it to be a lot like Venus, but it’s not. It’s a mini-Neptune with a radius 2.7 times as large as Earth, which almost certainly means it has a deep hydrogen atmosphere.

This is very interesting because to find a planet with this kind of hydrogen atmosphere in between two planets that don’t have one is unusual. Planets in the same solar system are usually about the same size, like Venus and Earth, and it’s uncommon to see such a large difference in planets that are right next to each other.

I caution that this part is not in the paper, and I didn’t do a detailed analysis because it wasn’t the subject of the paper, but TOI-700 c is close to the boundary where you would expect to see a deep hydrogen atmosphere evaporated away by the starlight. It will take more observations to tell, but there may be something unusual about its atmosphere. Getting good observations of TOI-700 c will be much easier, and it think they could give us valuable information about how planetary atmospheres form and evolve.

One very important measurement is to find the masses of all three planets. This is much easier to do with radial velocities and can probably be done within the year. Once we know the exact masses of the planets, we will be able to estimate the properties of their atmospheres much better. TOI-700 is ongoing proof that it is a very exciting time in the field of exoplanets.


I do want to take some time to explain the name of the star because it confused even me, and I work in this field.

TOI-700 means “TESS Object of Interest #700.” For Kepler, candidate planets were calls KOIs, while confirmed planets got their own Kepler numbers, like Kepler-22. (Like I mentioned, a lot of them were false alarms.) But there’s not much point in doing this for TESS because all of the stars TESS is watching have their own catalog numbers. Most of these are at least semi-memorable, like Pi Mensae or GJ 357. However, we use TOI-700 for this one because its proper catalog number is 2MASS J06282325-6534456. 2MASS stands for the Two-Micron All Sky Survey, the most important infrared survey of the sky, done from 1997-2001. And that long string of numbers are the coordinates of the star in the sky. Usually, they shorten it to something like 2M0628 for quick reference, such as if you’re writing a paper about many 2MASS objects, but TOI-700 is easier to remember and work with.

* To many of us astronomers, “potentially habitable” isn’t very good terminology. It implies more than it really means. What it means is only that the planet has a solid surface and is a temperature where it could have liquid water, but there’s no proof that it does have liquid water, let alone life. I might write more on this later.

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How to Make New Year’s Resolutions that Work

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Okay, I can’t really justify writing a headline like that. My new year’s resolutions for 2019 only sort of worked…But considering most new year’s resolutions fail by mid-February, I guess I’m doing better than most. So what’s my secret? It’s simple.

I make new year’s resolutions every three months.

No, I’m serious. I changed my new year’s resolutions every three months to improve them. I changed them so much that it’s hard to describe exactly how will I did, but here is a quick summary.

Exercising: completion rate 31%.
Reading: completion rate 94%.
Writing: completion rate 84%.
Blog posts: completion rate 83%.
Publishing attempts: completion rate 48%.

That is indeed better than most people do, and changing them as I went definitely helped. So how did I do it? Well, I’m not exactly sure how I arrived at my ideas, but from experience, I have a few pieces of advice that I think will apply generally.

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What’s coming in Astronomy in the 2020s

At this time of year, many news sites, blogs, and others like to post a year in review…I’m not going to do that. It’s been a long, crazy year, much like the four-ish years before that. The news cycle has just gone so crazy that I don’t feel like spending the time to put one together.

Instead, since it’s not just the end of the year, but the end of the 2010s, I thought I would look ahead at what exciting new astronomy and astrophysics stories we’re likely to see in the 2020s. I could talk about science in general for this. Will we eradicate polio? Start cloning humans? Use CRISPR for gene therapy? But I’m not so well versed in those things, so I think I’ll play it safe and stick to astronomy.


New Telescopes

James Webb Space Telescope rendering

Possibly the biggest story in astronomy over the next decade will be the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). This replacement for the Hubble Space Telescope will launch on March 31, 2021* and will tell us more about planets, the early universe, and everything in between than ever before.

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Two New Bible Reading Plans

A Gutenberg Bible. Probably not the most practical version for reading. Credit: Mark Pellegrini.

This is just a quick follow-up to my post from five years ago when I read the Bible in one year and posted my customized reading plan, and from earlier this year when I re-posted it as an essay.

Long story short, I didn’t like the formatting on that essay, so I decided to redo it (with a few corrections). In the process, I decided to also write a second reading plan, covering the Bible in chronological order. (Maybe I’ll read the chronological plan for 2020.) Click here to see the new essay, containing both plans and a brief explanation.

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