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April 9, 2020 58 mins

Daniel and Jorge discuss the book "The Calculating Stars" and interview the author. Mary Robinette Kowal's science fiction debut, 2019 Winner of the Hugo and Nebula Award for best novel, The Calculating Stars, explores the premise behind her award-winning "Lady Astronaut of Mars."

You can find the book here.

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Episode Transcript

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Speaker 1 (00:08):
Hey, or hey, I have an idea for a new
science institute. Look nice, I guess you're going to call
it the White Sun Institute. No, no, no, I'm going
to call it the End of the World Research Institute.
What you want to study new ways to kill everyone?
There's plenty of people doing that already. I want to
study the ways science can help in a disaster. Oh

(00:31):
that's pretty cool. But wait, what if science is what
causes the disaster? We'll have a department for that. Also, Yeah,
who's going to lead that department? Professor Bruce willis, of
course the professor of saving the world. We have him
on standby. Whereas Bruce Willis when you need him. He's
at the End of the World Research Institute. The coronavirus.

(00:52):
Like all celebrities seem to do, Oh no, no, cut cut,

(01:14):
I am more hammad cartoonists and the creator of PhD coms. Hi.
I'm Daniel Whitson. I'm a particle physicist and I'm not
actively working towards the end of actively but you're hoping
inadvertedly or what's your what's your motivation here? I'm not
hoping for the end of the world. I'm not trying
to facilitate the end of the world. I'm not trying
to speed the end times. I just want to get

(01:34):
it out side. Bivalent about the end of the world,
I'm just saying, if it comes, it wasn't because I
made it happen. I'm not saying I won't be at fault,
but should have put more funding into science. That's right,
Maybe particle physics would have saved the world. Well. Welcome
to our podcast Daniel and Jorge Explain the Universe, a
production of I Heart Radio, in which we take you
away from the concerns and worries of the every day

(01:57):
and travel out into the universe and think about all
the crazy, amazing, beautiful, terrifying, extreme, and gorgeous things out there. Yeah,
because you know, we are living in pretty interesting times,
and we figured what better way to get us all
through this than to think about the larger universe, the
fast costumes out there that make us seem like insignificant

(02:17):
little things. That's right. And usually on this podcast we
pick a topic in science. It's at the sort of
the forefront in the brains of scientists. Things people are
wondering about, a problem, they're trying to crack, a question,
that scientists are currently asking, and we share it with
you because, in our opinion, the universe belongs to all
of us, and wondering about the universe is a common

(02:38):
human experience. That's why we are all in this together.
And we're also all made of the same stuff. Right,
That's right, me, You, lava and hamsters were basically all
the same thing. And space bananas. Don't forget the banannas.
I'm not including space banana is in that category. Now,
that's in a separate different categories like dark matter. We
don't know. I've never had one, so I can decide

(02:59):
with Maybe I'll love space bananas. Maybe space bananas will
bring me into the fold of the Church of the
Maybe they turn into dark matter, just like real bananas.
Real bananas do turn into a form of dark matter.
That's true. But now we like to talk about the universe,
all the things in it, and also all of the
ideas that are out there about science and how science
can impact society, and how it can help society, and

(03:23):
how might it even affect if something happens to humanity.
That's right, and we like to think optimistically on this podcast.
We'd like to think that science is one of humanity's
greatest inventions. It's pulled us out of lots of scrapes,
it's provided quality of life, it's brought you this podcast,
and so we hope that in some crazy end of
the world scenario, scientists will pull together and bring us

(03:45):
all through. And it's even cooler when this great invention
of humanity meets another great invention of humanity, which is
the arts and writing and creative that's right, and that's
why on this podcast we've been doing a series of
episodes about the physics of science fiction universe versus. I've
been reading science fiction and talking to authors about how
they constructed their universe, how much physics they put into it,

(04:06):
how it reflects on our universe, and how it reflects
on the human experience. So you can look back through
our archive and find a couple of great book reviews
and author interviews that we've done with several pretty well
known and award winning recent science fiction novels. And so today,
um the program, we are doing another of these series
where we talk about a book that recently won the

(04:27):
Hugo and the Nebula awards, right, which are like the
I Guess, the Oscars and Emmy's of Science Fiction Writing Writing. Yeah,
it's more like the Golden Globes and the Oscars. It's
pretty impressive to even be nominated for one of these,
to win one of these, to win both of them
in the same year is really a monumental agency. And
which one is hosted by Ricky Gervais if you can

(04:48):
believe it. The hosts are even nerdier for these awards.
So what do they do? They dress up? Is there
like a ceremony with the taxes and stuff? Um? I
think they cosplay. I'm not sure. Oh nice, I've never been.
I've never been one of these, and I don't think
they're broadcast on TV. Somebody writes a book about that.
But a lot of these books are wonderful. But we're

(05:09):
not choosing these books because they want awards. We just
for the books we've chosen that are wonderful. We'd like
to mention that, hey, these authors have some deserved acclaim.
And for today's episode, I thought it would be fun
to talk about a dystopian science fiction novel, one in
which science comes to the rescue and saves humanity. Yeah,
because Daniel, you're a big fan of science fiction, and

(05:29):
we are living in interesting times and how did how
did you peec these two things together? And is it
really fiction? At this point? It is fascinating. I started
reading this book and I made plans to read this book,
which is all about how science might rescue humanity in
the face of a huge catastrophe, well before this pandemic started,
and now it's sort of increasingly relevant and you'll hear

(05:50):
about I had a pretty fascinating conversation with the author
about how the current pandemic impacts her thinking about science
and technology and it's interfacing with government and people and
how people feel about this stuff. It's a it's an
important topic. Let's dive into it. So to be on
the program, we'll be asking the question can science save

(06:15):
humanity from a crisis? The science Fitching Universe of Mary
Robin and Cole and her book The Calculating Stars. So
this is a pretty recent book, right. It came out
in two thousand eighteen, two thousand nineteen, Yeah, it came
out around then, and it's in a series of books
about the Lady Astronauts, and it's all about women becoming
astronauts and being on the forefront of exploration, and it's fascinating.

(06:37):
It's a novel she wrote. It's a prequel to a
short story she wrote called The Lady Astronaut many years ago,
which was also wonderful, and she liked this universe she
created so much, and now she's written a series of
books as a prequel to that short story. So there's
The Calculating Stars, then there's The Faded Sky, and she
has a new book coming out next year in this trilogy.

(06:59):
And she has a pretty interesting history for a science
fiction author. She used to be a puppeteer for Jim Henson. Yeah, yeah,
and now she's like officially on the Sesame Street Hall
of Fame. So she is really an artist, you know,
comes from a creative background. She's not one of these
science fiction authors that was once a scientist and then
transitioned into writing. She's always been on the creative, sort

(07:22):
of the non Mathew, you know, artistic inspired side of things.
But I asked her about that. You'll hear her answer.
She feels like being a puppeteer and being a science
fiction author sort of draw from the same inspiration. Really,
I guess you're using your imagination and coming up with
the voices and characters. Is that kind of what she meant. Yeah,
all sciences really just make believe. So you guys just
sit in meetings moving your hands, going blah blah blah

(07:43):
blah blah. Yeah, and this is a really fascinating book.
It's different from a lot of the other stuff that
I read, which tends to be like far future science fiction,
space opera, crazy technology, alternative universe physics. This one is
placed in our universe, and it's sort of alternative history
science fiction. It's like going back in time to do
science fiction. So it's it's pretty fascinating, and she takes

(08:05):
a very different approach to writing and to incorporating the
science into the story than almost anything else I've right, Yeah,
you told me that. It's very realistic about the science,
sort of like the Martian, you know, where they really
sort of don't invent or do anything magical. They just
try to work with what we have right now. Yeah.
One thing about being a scientist is that you never
really know what's going on. You have limited information, and

(08:28):
from that you're trying to figure out what's going on,
what should I do? How do I gather the next
piece of information? And you rarely see that in science
fiction in science fiction, it's usually something happens and then
all of a sudden, the scientists have some like awesome
heads of display with graphics and visuals that shows you
exactly what's going on. And she really got the process
part of this, that the experience of not knowing and

(08:49):
how do you figure it out and those little trickles
of discovery, you know, coming in to change your opinion
about what might be happening. She really nailed it. And
that's so impressive, especially for somebody who hasn't actually done it.
I mean, she doesn't have a science back interesting and
you're telling me that it has sort of an interesting
theme or undercurrent about how governments and societies and scientists

(09:10):
can work together or how they react to a natural
disaster or like a global crisis. Yeah, absolutely, it's I
think people will find it very relevant for today. It
touches on themes of like when the scientists say there's
a huge disaster coming, how do they get the government
to listen? Like if you look at your window and
you don't see the world on fire, but the scientists

(09:32):
are telling you it's going to be on fire in
a week, we better act now, how do you get
the government to believe you. So there's a lot of
really interesting stuff in there that people might have thought,
oh this is really relevant, or its analogy to like
climate change, but now it's much more an analogy to
what we're facing today. Well, but the scenario is a
little bit different, right, So it's not a pandemic, it's
not a virus or anything like that. It's sort of

(09:54):
a little bit more science and spacey. Um, So step
us through this book, Daniel. First of all, before we
get get to the interview, Now, what's the basic idea
of the book and and when is it set. So
it's set on Earth in our universe in around the
nineteen fifties. So you know, modern technology doesn't exist. We
don't have tiny computers and all that stuff, but it

(10:14):
but it was our world when we were in the
in the fifties. It's not like an alternate ninet fifties
where they had hoverboards. It's like the same nineties. It's
the same nineteen fifties, but then it diverges, you know,
it's an alternative history starting from our nineteen fifties. We
still beat the Nazis, right, we still beat the Nazis,
But sometime in the nineteen fifties, an enormous meteorite hits

(10:36):
the Earth and basically wipes out d C in a flash.
What of all places on Earth DC gets hit? I'm
not sure if you mean that it's like, hey, nice
choice meteorite, or like, oh no, I guess I mean
nice choice there. What's the one place it can hit
that would cause the maximum amount of chaos? And the

(10:58):
story takes place from the point of view of a
young woman who's gifted mathematically and she's a pilot. And
one of the things I like about the book is
that when you start out, you don't know what's happened.
It's just she's out with her friends and she ex
sees this huge thing in the sky. She doesn't know
are we being attacked by the Russians or has a
meteorite hit? And she's piecing it together bit by bit

(11:19):
exactly the way that she would And you know, she
doesn't know if her parents have survived. And this this
experience of not knowing what's going on and piecing it together,
he's really really well done because this is pre twitter, right,
how did anybody learn any get any information? You have
to like good thing you stand and um. You know,
of course as immediate impact, which is DC has gone,

(11:42):
our government has decimated all that stuff you have to
react to. But like, how much time did people have
to to react to this? No time at all. There
was no warning, We had no idea what was happening.
It was just all of a sudden boom. All right, well,
we'll talk about the plausibility of the scenario. But but
then that's not all. It gets worse. Yeah, it seems
immediately to just be a big disaster, like, Okay, d

(12:04):
C is gone, we have a lot of rebuilding to do.
But this scientist chief figures out pretty quickly that there's
longer term consequences to this, that what it's going to
happen is that it's going to create a big greenhouse effect.
It's going to heat up the entire earth, and it's
going to make the Earth uninhabitable in a few years,
kind of like what happened to the dinosaurs. Like you know,

(12:25):
it wasn't the impact that killed the dinosaurs, but like
the dust cloud kind of you have the longer term
effects there. And we'll talk about the details of the science.
But when you have a big impact like that, you
can either throw up a bunch of dust and ash
and create like an impact winter, right, because you're blocking
out the sun and the Earth goes into an ice age.
Or you can create a greenhouse effect, which can be

(12:48):
a runaway effect, so you can basically turn the Earth
into an oven. And either way, it's not either way
meteors or not good. I wouldn't recommend ordering a meteor
for delivery, even if it's a no contact de la.
Even then, and as a reaction, Earth has to scramble
and they have to develop space technology and basically start

(13:08):
to colonize Mars because they realize Earth is no longer
going to be a place we can live. In the fifties,
we didn't get to the moon until nineteen sixty nine, right,
that's right. Wow, So this was like way accelerating, and
that was in response to what felt like a disaster
at the time, right, which is like the Russians are
beating us in the space race. And so a lot

(13:29):
of this is about how humanity makes its priorities. You know.
It makes the point that if we had to do this,
could we how would we do this? If we just
you know, gun to our head against the wall, had
to do this or die. Could we put this together,
could we pull it out? What was this before like
the Cold War really kicked in, or because you know,
we just want the war. I'm putting myself in the time,

(13:53):
so we just want the ward second World War. But
this is before kind of the Cold War started kind
of being a big and one angle in her book
is the humanity sort of pulls together and these national
boundaries start to be less important because it's a human
problem and we're all going to solve it in scientists
from the around the world are all working together, and

(14:13):
it's sort of inspiring in that way. And I really
hope that in the event of a huge disaster that
scientists do pull together and work on this. And frankly,
I've seen in the news that people are working together
in labs right now around the world sharing information about
this virus and trying to make a vaccine. And so
it's it's it's a little weird to read about it
in the book. When I was first reading, I thought

(14:34):
this is a little idealistic, But you know, now I
kind of see it happening in reality, not on the
same scale, of course, that science does respond in this
human way, in this personal way to pull together. When
you first read it, you thought it was a little
kind of sickly sweet, maybe like unrealistic that people would
actually pull together. But now, in in such a times,
I wonder if you're you're looking for signs of the opposite,

(14:57):
you know, Yeah, I mean I wouldn't have of science.
I just thought, like, you know, that's on the positive
edge of the potential outcomes, you know, And I admired
that sort of idealism. And I have to actually asked
her about this in the interview you'll hear her reaction.
But that's sort of the angle of it. All right, cool, Well,
let's get into the science of it of a sign
the signs of a meteor hitting the Earth, and then
let's get into the interview with science fiction author Mary

(15:21):
Robinette coal But first let's take a quick break. All right.
We're talking about Mary Robinette Cole's science fiction novel The
Calculating Stars, which is about a meteor hitting the Earth

(15:44):
in the nineteen fifties and it just so happens to
hit the White House, does it? Does it hit the
White House directly? Kind of like in Independence Day, like
like there's a shot at the White house and then
the meter hits right on it or is it in
the suburbs. No, it actually hits in the water in
the bay near the coast, and which is much more devastating.

(16:05):
And she thought really carefully about the science. I was
really impressed, especially for somebody without a science background. She
really thought about what would happen if it hit on land,
or if it's in the deep water, or if it
hit in the shallow water, and you get different outcomes,
and actually the most devastating is a shallow water impact.
I think that's why she put the meteor there. Why
because it creates an explosion and a tsunami at the

(16:26):
same time. Yes, and it throws a lot of water
into the atmosphere. And I'm guessing that's part of the plot.
That is part of the plot, my friend. All right, well,
let's talk about a meteor hitting. And we've talked about
meteors hitting and how there's a group at NASA that
whose only job it is to look at for meteors

(16:47):
hitting the Earth. But this was back in the nineteen fifties, right,
because back then we didn't have the we weren't looking
out for a meteor's where we we were not. And
this is a really fascinating topic, especially to place historically,
because you're right in the fifty we weren't looking at all,
and we totally could have been blindsided by meteor. Like
we might have noticed it, you know, as it approached

(17:08):
a few days in advance, because we had telescopes and
people were looking. But you basically have to get lucky
and spotted. Nobody was on purpose looking for this thing.
People were too busy doing the hula hoops and going
around in er and going to the diner, and then
suddenly it had to be luck for you to look
up and see a meteor coming at you. Yeah, and
we didn't have the sort of telescopes we have now

(17:30):
and the budget for science and all that stuff. You know,
America had just emerged from World War Two and it's
about to enter this era of investing in science and
universities and academics. So we just didn't have the technology,
and even later decades later, we still hadn't really done it.
It wasn't until Shoemaker Levy in the nineties, which is
a comment that hit Jupiter with fantastic fireballs the size

(17:54):
of the Earth, that people woke up and thought a
whole lot of second there could be something out there
that's going to hit us, we better look more carefully. Really,
that was the first time in the eighties that people
started taking this seriously. It was in the nineties, and
so really only in the last twenty or thirty years
has NASA made a serious, dedicated effort to map the
Solar System for anything that might hit us. Interesting, huh.

(18:18):
I didn't know it was that recent. Yeah, And and
that is actually a moment that I got drawn into science.
I was working on a science project that summer where
we had a super fast, high resolution camera and we
saw this comment come into the Solar System and break
into pieces and then slamm in the Jupiter one by one.
And so we hooked up this awesome camera to a
telescope and I watched those things hit Jupiter in real time.

(18:40):
It took these high resolution, high speed videos of the impacts.
It was pretty exhilarating. Yeah. Really wow, And so you
said I'm going into particle physics. At the time, I
actually wanted to be an astronomer um. But it turns
out that you don't get climactic collisions like this very often,
which is you know, a good thing and a bad thing,
depending on your angle you like, I mean ten to

(19:00):
the twenty three collisions per second. This is not enough
one every hundred years anymore. So there's a few angles
on this one. Is it's totally true that in the
fifties we could have been blindsided by a big meteor, right,
totally plausible. Today, however, we have mapped out most of
the stuff in the Solar system, so we know where

(19:21):
most of the big rocks are. In fact, we're pretty
sure we know where all of the big rocks are,
all the planet killers or the extinction event rocks. Pretty
sure we've seen those. We know where they are. We've
seen them for long enough to map out their trajectory
and predict where they're going to be in the next
couple of hundred years. So we have a little bit
of an elite time. But in the book, how big

(19:43):
was this mediaor was it like a how big relative
to Manhattan? That's that seems to be the standard scale
she avoids telling us in the book, And I tried
to ask her about this in the interview, and she
said that she very purposely didn't put the numbers in.
Why is it such a why? Why is it missing. Well,
I think she didn't feel confident about her calculations. Remember

(20:06):
she's not a science person, and she didn't want to
put details in there she wasn't sure of so she
left herself some fuzz room. Interesting. But then as an
extra wrinkle, she made her character super curious about the
size of the meteor that it hit, but never actually
told us the answer. They don't know what they don't know.
I'm curious, you're curious. The character was curious. The author

(20:28):
didn't tell anybody, and on Earth you'll never know the
answer because there is no answer, all right. So then
it hits the Earth and it obliterates DC. So I
guess all of our politicians and representatives they're gone. Yeah.
But I want to say one more thing about the
chances of this happening, which is you should feel comfortable
that NASA and the people around the world have trapped

(20:50):
most of the asteroids which could potentially hit the planet,
and they're not going to hit us in the next
couple of hundred years. So relax. That's fine, but relaxed.
You have more serious things to worry about, like toilet paper.
But there is a big question mark because one of
the most dangerous things that could hit the Earth is
not actually an asteroid. It's a comet like the one

(21:11):
that hit Jupiter. And comets move much faster and they're
harder to predict because they can have like hundreds or
thousands of years long orbits around the Sun. Meaning there
could be one out there, really far away we haven't seen,
and it could be headed on a collision course towards
Earth and we wouldn't get a lot of lead time
before it actually hit us. I think we talked about
this in a previous episode, But do you do you

(21:32):
think maybe there's a young gradsuit in Jupiter with a
telescope going, oh, man, I hope that meteor hits there.
I've been waiting for this, all right, So the meter
hits and it obliterates. At Washington, d C. We have
all of our politicians, I guess we're they were all
in town at the same time. Yeah, all except for one.
So like the you know, one cabinet member ends up
being president designated survivor. Yes, exactly interesting and then um so,

(21:57):
and then it creates a huge I guess whole and
where DC used to be or near where DC used
to be. But you're saying that the real plot twist
is what happens after the meteor hits. Yeah, because it
lands in the water, it shoots up a huge amount
of water into the atmosphere, which becomes vapor and stays
up there as gas and vapor and basically creates a

(22:18):
new blanket around the Earth. And so then when you
get is a big greenhouse. So that cloud like basically clouds,
basically a lot of very high altitude clouds, high altitude clouds,
like they turn into ice crystals, I guess, yeah, And
so they stay up in the atmosphere and this water
vapor actually acts like a big blanket around the Earth,

(22:38):
and so it's transparent to a lot of the Sun's
energy going in but not going out, and so it
the Earth sort of gradually heats up because of the
infrared rays can't get out. Is that the idea they
can get in But now some you know transmission when
you enter the atmosphere and you shift to lower free
your absorbed and shift to a different frequency. But the
point is that it creates a greenhouse effect, and then

(23:00):
the Earth is heating up. And they figure this out
in the book pretty quickly, like things are gonna cool
off quickly, and then they're gonna start heating up, and
then the oceans will boil, which would make more more
of these clouds. Yeah, and as it gets hotter, exactly,
you get more water vapor released, and you get more
of these clouds. And you know, as a fascinating aside,

(23:21):
there's a really interesting theory that this is exactly what
happened to Venus. That Venus used to be a lot
like Earth, used water, with water oceans um on the
surface at you know, basically the same temperature as Earth.
It must have even looked like Earth from space, but
it might have been hit by a huge meteor which
created this runaway greenhouse effect. Now it's hot and totally uninhabitable.

(23:45):
And how much time did they have in the book
before the oceans boiled. Not a whole lot of time.
You know. It's not the kind of thing that's gonna
happen tomorrow or next week or next year. It's going
to sort of gradually increase. So in five years it
will be too hot to live comfortably. End years would
be very difficult to grow anything. And then as the
years go on, the oceans will heat up and heat up,

(24:06):
and so I think, you know, they have order ten years,
decades kinds of things, but not a lot of time
to build a huge space infrastructure. Interesting, and so then
what they have to do then is figure out how
to get off of Earth and colonize like the Moon
and Mars, what's their planet. That's precisely the plan is
um start building space infrastructure, build rockets, you know, get

(24:27):
astronauts up there, start practicing on the Moon. But eventually
the goal is to build colonies on Mars. And what
would they eat? Yeah, that's my continent. It's it's really
tricky and you know, if you go to Mars we
talked about this on the podcast once you have two
basic options. One is like build a lot of bubbles
that you can live inside, or try to terraform the

(24:49):
whole planet. But terraforming is very very hard. Wow. And
so what did they do well in this first book?
There don't get there yet, so it's you know, sort
of series. Oh, it's just a teaser. So the first
book is just about how this they set up, the
problem and how what they start doing and the development
of the space industry and astronaut training. And there's a

(25:11):
fascinating side story there about how in these times of crisis,
the opportunities for like large social change, and so the
main character, who's a woman, pushes herself forward to become
an astronaut. So she sort of breaks this barrier and
is the first lady astronaut. Interesting, and so most of
the rest of the book is about how they developed
this technology and how they slowly build towards taking people

(25:31):
into space. And then you know, the rest of the trilogy,
which I haven't yet had a chance to read, explores
in more detail actually colonizing the moon and Mars. Oh man,
it's kind of sad. That's what it takes. That's what
it would have taken in the fifties for women to
become astronauts. Yeah, meteor hitting the water just the right spot. Yeah,
And it's really well written from that point of view. Also,
there's a lot of these issues of that are that

(25:54):
sort of resonate with similar themes and like hidden figures.
You know, people having the skills, wanting to contribute to
an important problem, but being left on the sidelines because
of their gender, or because of their race, or because
of their background. And so from that point of view,
it's also sort of inspiring in this novel, that they
overcome that and the humanity in the end, let's our
best step forward, regardless of their background and how they

(26:16):
look and contribute to this problem that we were all facing. Interesting,
So it said the Hollywood pitch would be Hidden Figures
meets Armageddon for deep impact, depending on you know, which
flavor of asteroid movie like. Yeah, I think they work
nicely together. I think before Hidden Figures came out, people
didn't really even understand that the concept of a computer

(26:36):
in the fifties was a person somebody who's doing computations
that were necessary to solve these hard problems. Before we
had minturization of technology that we had these computers you
could use on board. So I think that actually helps
people understand sort of the context and the tone the
cultural situation that this book takes place. Wow, it sounds
pretty cool, pretty fascinating, pretty a proposed to our times today.

(26:58):
And so, Daniel, you got a chance to talk to
Mary Robin and Cole about her book and what she
was thinking when she wrote it, and about some of
the signs in it, right, and about puppets and about
puppets all right, And so here is Daniel's interview with
Mary Robin and Cole the author of the science fiction
novel The Calculating Stars. First, thanks very much for joining

(27:19):
us today on the podcast. Would you mind introducing yourself
for our listeners. My name is Mary Robin at Coal.
I write science fiction and fantasy. I'm also an audiobook
narrator and a professional puppeteer. Well, it's not that often
you made a science fiction author who's also a puppeteer.
How did those two careers intersect? Um? They're both all
about theater of the possible. Um, anything is possible when

(27:42):
you step into puppetry or science fiction, So they're both also,
I think, places that tend to naturally explore what if
an imagination? Well that's wonderful. I'd like our listeners to
get a chance to get to know you a little bit,
to hear how you think about science fiction and the universe.
So let me ask you a couple of sort of
standard science fiction questions just to get acquainted. And the

(28:04):
first is a classic question. I'm sure you've heard about
science fiction philosophy, which is about teleporters. Are you in
the camp that believes that when you step into a
Star Trek style teleporter that it actually moves you from
one location to another or in the camp to think
that it disassembles you, in effect killing you and recreating

(28:24):
a clone of you somewhere else. Um extentially, I think
that it moves you from one point to another mechanically,
I think it disassembles you and reassembles a clonic effront.
I see. And so would you be willing, given that understanding,
to step into a Star Trek style teleporter knowing you'd
be disassembled? Absolutely? I mean, it's it is a faster

(28:47):
version of what we do with on a regular basis,
with our actual bodies. These cells that are in my
body right now are not the cells that were in
it seven years ago. For the most part. You know,
we're constantly replenishing your ship selves and changing things. It's
a ship of theseus. Question, right, at what point do
we does it stop being me? And the answer is

(29:08):
doesn't except to some philosophers who like to argue about things.
So it's it's the same thing. It's just of sped
up process. That said, you know, possibility for copying errors again,
a thing that can happen with a natural body, not
on the sped up timeline. All right, So then while

(29:29):
we're talking about science fiction technology. What bit of technology
that you see in science fiction would you like to
see become reality? I mean a teleporter. Uh yeah. Um.
One of these things I will say that is becoming
incredibly apparent to me with the you know, shelter in place, sparkling, isolation, distance,

(29:54):
socializing of life, and a pandemic is how much time
I actually do spend in transit. That's a lot of
time I'm getting back, so and and people that I
would like to be able to visit and see. Uh
and resource allocations suddenly becomes much easier if you don't
have to if you if you aren't dealing with perishability

(30:15):
to the same degree. Uh so. So teleportation and time travel,
those are the two that I would very much like
to have. All Right, it sounds like it would solve
some logistical problems for you. Oh yeah, yeah, a lot
wonderful personally, I'd like to write a book in the
future and then travel back in time to deliver to
me here today, like instant book writing. Yeah yeah. So

(30:39):
then let's talk about your book, The Calculating Stars. First
of all, congratulations on the success and on all of
the awards. Very well. Deserved. Thank you very much. That
was an exciting time. I really enjoyed reading it, And
something that really resonated with me in the book were
the sort of scientific moments of June. Like there's a

(30:59):
scene in the book where they first see these pictures
from the moon and you can feel the scientists like
at the edge of their seat, like, I want to
see it in the photograph, what does that look like?
And you know, as a scientist, you know, I've had
a few of those moments in my career when you're
opening the data from the experiment, when you're asking the
universe a question and it has to respond like you've

(31:21):
cornered it and forced it to reveal something. So congrats
on writing that so effectively. But I have to ask,
how did you do that? I mean, your background is
not as a scientist, unless I've misunderstood, No, it's very
definitely not. How did you capture that so well? Did
you spend a bunch of time with NASA folks. The
sense of wonder is the universal thing. You know that,

(31:42):
and it's the object of the wonder shifts. But having
that sense of wonder, having that sense of discovery and
joy from that, that's something that I think that everybody
can experience and probably has experienced at some point in
their life. So for me it's easy to do is
with seeing the moon because I am not a scientist,

(32:03):
but I'm a huge space nerd. I remember my mom
talked me into a college level astronomy class when I
was in middle school, mostly so that I could go
and do the astronomy labs, uh and use the telescopes,
because you know, it was when it was fantastic. It
is a it's been a lifelong interest. The thing that

(32:27):
I like about writing science fiction is that it gives
me a socially acceptable way to indulge my natural curiosity,
so I'm able to ask people. And then the other
thing that I would say is that in addition to
bringing my own curiosity and joy and interest in this,
I read a lot of autobiographies and memoirs and nonfiction

(32:51):
where there are interviews or discussions with people who are
scientists and seeing seeing the specific things that trigger their
point of joy, that the things that they are excited about.
Like I just got to talk to someone who's a
geologist specializing in mars um and I asked her, you know,

(33:11):
would you go to Mars, and she's like the opportunity
to be able to actually touch the things that I've
spent my entire career studying. And you could hear her
just over the phone. Her entire expression just lit up
at that possibility. And and as a writer, I get
to create those moments basically by extrapolating from my own

(33:33):
experience and mapping it onto the points that someone else
notices and loves. Well, I think you really nailed it.
I was impressed. Thanks. And there's something else to me
that was very unusual to find in science fiction, but
I liked in my experience. Science, real science is about wondering,
and it's about curiosity, of course, but the process of

(33:53):
it is not always so exciting the every day. It's
not like I'm discovering a new particle before lunch and
revealing a secret of the universe, you know, with my coffee.
It's a slow, painstaking process there. And the thing that
I really respect about the depiction in your book is
that you describe that process like they're trying to figure
out what happened and they don't know anything. Their clue

(34:16):
is and it takes a while to figure it out,
And oh, my gosh, this asteroid might be an extinction event.
You know, the realizations come slowly, they're not always at once.
You capture that cluelessness, the frustration, the difficulty. So tell
me why did you decide to make this science process
so integral to the story. You know, it really drives

(34:36):
the plot in a way I haven't seen in other
science fiction. I think that for me, the reason, well,
there's two reasons. Um. One is that I find it
inherently interesting. We we do see a lot of stories
of the loan Savior. But when you anyone who is

(34:56):
interested in space at all knows that, you know, the
astronauts are out there getting all of the the credit
and the glory, but they are supported by this enormous,
enormous body of people who are all experts in their field,
doing top level work as a group. Um and and

(35:17):
at the there at the end of this long, long,
long problem solving thing. But again, I come like, I'm
from a theater background, and it's very similar in a
lot of ways that when you go to see a show,
when you go to see a movie, there's the movie star,
there's the lead on stage who gets all of the glory,
but they're supported by all of these other people, and

(35:39):
hours and hours and hours of work of human labor
leading up to that, the rehearsals and all of these things,
and we tend to not celebrate and valorize all of
that effort, which which is that's where all of the
conflict is. Like by the time you get to the
final product, everything's been solved, you know, and an actual

(36:00):
base walk when you're watching it, you know, should be
boring because there should be nothing that goes wrong. Like
that's that's what you're you're aiming for. My my understanding
from the people who have done it is that it's
not actually boring so much as very very focused. But
but it is digging into the how do we do

(36:22):
these things and and the iterations that I find interesting.
I've also always been interested in process, Like I would
if you offer me the opportunity to see to go
to watch a rehearsal of a show or watch the
finished show, I'm going to pick the rehearsal every time. Well,
I think you got the behind the scenes stuff pretty accurate.
I mean, I see a lot of science fiction movies

(36:42):
with the scientists get like one piece of data and
then dot dot dot they have some amazing idea, complete
with fancy graphics five seconds later and it's just all
figured out. And to me, that's like where most of
the science is. It's in that dot dot dot part,
and it's slow and it's painful, but that's what makes
it science is the gradual realization. Now, having said that, um, I,

(37:06):
having having complimented me on that and said that, I
will also say that the other thing that I do
in this is I very specifically treat mathematics like a
magic system. I established what it is that Alma, my
main character, can do with math. I show you a
couple of hints of her doing the math. There is
not a single point on that in that book where

(37:27):
there is a complete equation, and there is not a
single point where she goes from start to finish on
solving a math thing. Because math is not my happy place.
And basically I figured out that once I, once I
explained to people that Alma can do math in her
head and she's very good at it, that they would
just believe me that she could do that that level

(37:49):
of mathematics in her head, and then I didn't have
to do it. I just had to know that it
was possible to be done mathematically, and it turns out
that you can represent almost any thing mathematically. Well, it
seems like you did some of the math behind the
statements in the book to make sure they are plausible.
So I totally bought it. I did not. I know,
it seems like it. I did not do any of

(38:10):
the math in the book. I cribbed it from Werner
von Brown's Mars, a Technical Tale, which is he describes
as a novel, and it is certainly fiction, but it
also has these tables of appentices in the back. You
wrote it in the nine to try to convince people,
use fiction to convince people to go to to Mars.

(38:30):
So I cribbed his there. I think there's more appendixes
than there is actual novel, so I cribbed from that.
And then I also had a science consultant, Stephen Grenade,
who did most of the rest of the math. And
then I had a bunch of other people, but most
of the actual math and there comes from those two sources.
And I'm just like we played mad lips basically, I

(38:52):
would say, and then Elma did bracket math bracket, Well,
I think that we need to examine the brack it
fancy mass phrase. Bracket. That's wonderful. Hand climate. It's so
much easier. I wish I could do sions that way.
Let's take a quick break. We'll be right back. So,

(39:27):
in my reading of the book, the story essentially revolves
around how humanity responds to a mega crisis, how that
creates opportunities to upend the social order. Is that a
fair description? So then let me ask you what gave
you the idea to use this concept like a meteorite
hitting the Earth. Did you start from that particular science
concept and then think about what would happen? Or did

(39:50):
you have this story you wanted to tell and we're
looking for this sort of mad lib science moment that
would allow you to tell that story. Um, it's a mix.
This particular novel was a little odd from my usual
process in that I had written two stories in this universe.
One of them is The Lady Astronaut of Mars, which

(40:11):
is set about forty years along the timeline from where
Calculating Stars is forty years down the down the line.
So Calculating Stars is a prequel to this and the
backstory for that. And in this other short story that
I have called we interrupt this broadcast. Is that a
meteor head hit d C and that caused everyone to

(40:31):
get off the planet very fast. So I had this
this initial thing, but I also had this future of
international cooperation, which meant that when I went back to
build out the novel, that that I knew that I
was building towards a hopeful future. The reason that I
wanted it to be a meteor strike in the Lady

(40:55):
Astronaut of Mars versus nuclear bomb or anything like that,
any of the other catastrophic things, was that I wanted
something that was absolutely that that could not be blamed
on a single person, you know, it couldn't be blamed
on another country that it was you know, it was
an act of God, because I think that we reacted
differently to those, uh than we do to something that

(41:18):
you know, we're a foreign government. If it had been
someone doing something catastrophic, there would have been you know,
reprisals and all of those other potential things that would
have distracted people. But we do react to to natural
disasters or even like not tre Dame when when that
caught on fire, there was you know, global morning for

(41:39):
something that didn't affect the majority of people who were
witnessing it. The wildfires in Australia. The way we react
to that is very different than the way we react
to to other things that are equal equal number of
lives lost, sorry more lives austin Syria, but we react

(42:01):
we react differently to conflict than we do to disaster.
So I wanted something in the sense that the science
community sort of pulling together and treating it like a
humanity wide problem. Yeah, yeah, I mean just looking at
the way people are different communities are reacting to the
pandemic that we're in right now. So one of the

(42:21):
things that I do with the kind of fiction that
I write, I often I look at historical examples and
patterns from that, and there are there are patterns, one
of which is that in the initial moment of the shock,
the moment right after everyone does pull together, there's like
a natural instinct for most people. And they've actually done

(42:45):
studies on this, but the instinct for most people is
to help, and then the urge to continue helping depends
on who is setting the tone at the top, and
and you you see different patterns for for how that
plays out. Looking at history. One of the things that
I think is is really lovely looking at the way

(43:07):
Italy is handling and they're they're being hit incredibly hard.
But one of the things that they're doing is, you know,
they're they're leaning out the windows and singing together. Um.
And then I believe it's six pm. All of the
church bell's toll and everyone leans out the window and
collapse and applaudse the medical professionals who are working, because
they want them to know how appreciative and supportive they are.

(43:30):
And that's that's lovely, lovely the United States, I understand
that our cell sales of guns and Emma are up,
and we are hoarding toilet paper. Let's talk for a
minute about the problem that they're solving in your novel.
A meteorite strikes the Earth and there's a giant impact.
So how do you rate the chances that humanity is
actually going to face this kind of scenario? I mean,

(43:52):
you're asking me to tell you numbers. Well, I mean,
is this something that you think is a reasonable thing
for us to worry about? Yeah? Yeah, I mean we do, um,
And at the same time, we don't because when it
hits us, we won't see it coming. But there's there
are a lot of earth as had been hit before,
we will be hit again. It's just it's a matter

(44:14):
of time, you know. We think things hit Earth every
day of different sizes. It's just a matter of time
before something hits us. That's a problem. And about the
impact itself, Like in your book, you had the impact
or strike essentially in the water. You create this enormous
tsunami and it throws up a lot of stuff into
the atmosphere, which stimulates climate change. How important was it

(44:37):
to you to like get the sort of physics right
of that part. I mean, did you speak to science
consultants about the details of how it's going to affect
the hurricane season and impact the greenhouse effect? Yeah, so
I talked green greenhouse effect the I talked to a
couple of different people about that. But Purdue University also
has an impact simulator where you can say, this is

(44:59):
where my thing has hit, this is where I'm standing,
and it will tell you when the shock wave will hit.
When you'll you can say, you know what the angle
of impact, the content size of the meteorite. So it
was important to me to get it right in principle.
I am also extraordinarily careful to never tell you how

(45:22):
big that meteor was, or the angle of entry, or
the speed with which it was going, because there are
so many variables in how this plays out. We know
that a water impact behaves differently than a land impact.
The worst case scenario is a shallow water impact, because
then you get, which is what I've done, dropped it

(45:44):
into the bay. My original plan was to drop it
on d C. And then I talked to an astronomer
who Lucy and Walkowitz. She's an astronomer at Adler Planetarium,
and we sat down with coffee and she told me
about the greenhouse effect that can happen, the runaway greenhouse
effect that can happen with a water strike and a
shallow water strike. And then she shared with you her

(46:05):
nightmare scenario scenario. Yeah, all of the all of the
novels where they save the Earth by driving the meteor
into into the ocean. Um. Some of those, sure, Okay,
that's gonna be better. Some of those, actually, it's just
it's just a lingering. It just delays the problem. But basically,
what happens is that when a meteor comes through the atmosphere,

(46:28):
even before it hits the ground, it's tearing a hole
through the atmosphere because of the speed that it's traveling
when it hits the ground. When it becomes a meteorite,
it ejects all of the material it hits through that
hole into the upper atmosphere. Some of it alt goes
past that, but depending on size, so it ejects it
into the upper atmosphere. Now, normally what happens when water

(46:51):
leaves the Earth is that it precipitates back out, but
when it gets ejected into the upper atmosphere, it does
not precipitate out. You'll have um that will but a
lot of it and it again, it depends on the
scale of the meteorite that you carefully do not define,
but a lot of it hangs out and functions as
the greenhouse gas, and you can get a runaway greenhouse

(47:11):
effect where the earth heats up, which causes water to evaporate,
which becomes more of a greenhouse gas, which you know
this cycle. There's some speculation, well you become Venus, but
there is speculation that Venus was earthlike until it was
struck by a meteorite. Yeah. I love that image of
like two earthlike planets. Essentially for billions of years side

(47:33):
by side, and then Venus destroyed fairly recently on cosmological
exactly so, and there are other things that can cause
a runaway greenhouse effect, which is one of the like
there there are scenarios, there's modeling out there, like it's
it's a it's not an immediate common case scenario, but
there there is a scenario in which we don't get

(47:55):
you know, we have taken no ameliorating efforts to deal
with the green effect, and we do wind up with
a runaway greenhouse. Like it is possible actually to to
trigger that a runaway greenhouse effect, which terrifying. But again
that's that's an outlier scenario, but it's it's a possible one. Right. Well,
I'm a big fan of the science of these impacts.
I love that. And I was really curious, like, how

(48:16):
big is this thing that hit the earth in your novel?
What's the angle of entry? And I noticed that your
character was also very curious, which just stimulated my curiosity
even more so. Frankly, it's a little bit of torture
that you didn't tell us. Well, so I can, um,
I can tell you if you're going to marry Robin
at coal dot com, there's a Lady Astronaut ft a
Q and on that you can open up the Purdue

(48:40):
Impact Generator and I tell you the parameters that I
used to figure out when the shock wave would hit
Alma and Nathaniel, so you can you can take a
look at that. I have never run those through a
climatologist to see whether or not it would um cause
the runaway greenhouse effect because mostly because when I was

(49:02):
writing it, I didn't have anyone available to do that.
I tried to find a couple of different people who
could do that math for me. Strangely, it's work, and
it's difficult to find someone. UM that's very specialized, very
very specialized, and it takes a computer doing a lot
of calculations. So which is why I decided not to
include that information in the novel, because I couldn't stand

(49:23):
behind it. What I try to do with the novels
is anything that I put in there, I try to
have as accurate as possible. UM. Anything my character interacts
with directly, I try to have accurate. If they don't,
then I'm willing to hand wave past it. UM And
if it's not a plot point, so I know that
a meteorite hit that was large enough to cause these effects,

(49:47):
and I figured out a meteorite that was big enough
to cause parts of some of them. But I did
not go all the way into figuring out to linking
the two different effects. It's like, I need the runaway
greenhouse effect and I need them to be able to escape,
and I need Washington, d c. To have disappeared. So
I have those two things. I don't know if they

(50:07):
actually played together. We hand, we've passed that. Why Alma
mutters all of those equations instead of saying the entire
thing out loud, it's magic. Well, I'm impressed by how
this society responds to the catastrophe in your novel and
also the efforts to colonize Mars. And I think it's
especially fascinating that you said it's sort of you know,
fifty sixty seventy years ago, which makes their efforts to

(50:30):
get to Mars so much more difficult, But not for
this novel. You must have thought about, like how Mars
colonization would happen now, How different do you think it
would be to colonize Mars now as opposed to the
setting of your novel? Oh, we have so many pieces
of technology that they don't have. So because because of

(50:50):
when I have it's set um, they don't have miniaturization
of computers. As soon as you have that, everything changes
like a lot, a lot the fact, and without miniaturization
of computers, you you don't get three D printing that
you you know, you you don't get institution resource development
through three D printing. We we have that now. So

(51:14):
the things that we can do, we are our ability
to do self guided craft are much greater than they
had in the fifties. So like what I think that
colonization now or I should say human exploration and settlement
or human habitation I'm trying not to use the word
colonization actually, but human habitation of Mars. I think that

(51:39):
what we'll do is we'll send out you know, the
of the plans that I've seen, the one that seems
to make the most sense is to send out ships
unscrewed ships before to set up an advanced base, uh
and then and then get feed on the ground. Um.
The thing about having humans on the ground is that
we can respond more quickly, to be a more responsive

(52:03):
A good example of this is the insight lander that
has been dealing the past year with a stuck probe,
and the reason that it's taking so long to resolve
that is because they have to get all of the
information from Mars, do tests here on Earth, transmit the
information from that test program it, transmit that to Mars,

(52:28):
get the information back, go do other tests here on
Earth before they make another decision, and if you have
someone on the ground, they can go, oh yeah, let
me see, Uh I can I can juggle that without
without breaking anything, because you've got an immediate feedback loop
of judgment. But with that that delay, you don't you
don't get that immediate feedback loop, and you don't have

(52:48):
anyone who can improvise. Humans can improvise. Um, we can.
You know, we are. We are a multi purpose tool.
It's super amazing that we live in this moment of
history where a hundred years ago, if we'd been hit
by meteor, we basically have no chance of getting off
the planet. Right. But now we're in ten years or
fifty years or a hundred years, we're pretty well equipped.

(53:11):
Now you set your novel right at that point where
humanity has like a chance. Maybe it's not totally hopeless,
but it's still really difficult. It's it's a fascinating moment,
so historically in technological yeah, it's fun. Well, and it's
interesting to me that you know how early we had
been thinking about going to the moon in the Mark

(53:31):
and Mars. It's it's something that I think of I
think most people think of it in the modern era
as something that kind of spontaneously arose with Sputnik and
the V two rocket, which horrendous destruction in World War
Two originated because of a rocketry club. Like the technology

(53:52):
from that is descended from a rocketry club in Germany,
and they were trying to get off the planet, you know,
they just wanted to get into space for frenzies. Well,
thank you very much for talking to us. Do you
want to tell our listeners a little bit about any
upcoming project? Sure? Um, So the next thing you can
preorder it. It will be delivered magically to your home

(54:15):
so you never have to leave. Is um The Relentless Moon,
which is the third volume in the Lady Astronauts Universe.
You can read it as a standalone, but basically we're
on the Moon and people who are pushing back. It
takes for people who have read calculating stars and Faded Sky.
It takes place concurrently with Faded Sky. Um, so it's

(54:38):
what's happening on Earth while the rest of the team
is well, there's a team on the way to Mars.
So it's about the pushback. It's about the terrorists who
who decide that they're going to take matters in their
own hands and stop things. And I had planned on
this being a surprise thing in the novel, but I
have a polio outbreak on the moon, so quarantine the Moon.

(55:00):
There's a lot of stuff that's hitting home, Like there's
some research that I've done. It's making me super uncomfortable. Wow, alright,
that's a little bit unexpectedly on the news. Yeah, all right,
thanks very much for answering our nitpicky science questions and
for talking to us about the universe that you created
in your novel. Thank you so much. All Right, that
was pretty interesting, Daniel. She seems like a very optimistic person,

(55:23):
which is great, which is I think maybe what we
need these days. Yeah, for somebody who's thinking about the
end of the world, it's nice that she's idealistic about
how people will come together in a crisis and how
science might actually save humanity. Yeah, and you guys talked
even about how about today, about this pandemic and how
science is playing a role in it. Yeah. She had
some pretty insightful and interesting thoughts about how people feel

(55:44):
about dystopian fiction in these times, and also about how
this current pandemic is affecting people and uh, and how
a lot of people are living in very difficult situations
before this pandemic, and so it sort of makes us
all think about the human experience and how people are
living today. But I was also really impressed with how
detailed she got about about the science. You know, she

(56:06):
not only did a great job of modeling the fun
science moments and the process of doing science, she like
actually ran simulations about what would happen if you hit
this kind of media or that kind of media, and
where should you land it? And that was pretty impressive.
She thought really carefully about the science. Why are you
so impressed, Daniel? You don't think people out there can
do these kinds of things. No, I just I'm just

(56:28):
happy when science fiction authors take the science seriously and
want to make it real, and and in this book
she really accomplishes that. And it's important, especially for her
book because the science, the process of the science is
so important. And she mentioned in the interview an impact
simulator she used on Perdue University's website where you can say,
what if this impact hit in this location, how much

(56:49):
energy would be deposited and how long would it take
to get to me? So if you're interested, you can
go look up that simulator and run a bunch of
end of the world scenarios yourself. We all need a
little distraction these days. Yes, all right, Well, it sounds
like she has a pretty positive view about humanity coming together,
which is great. And hopefully a meter will not strike

(57:10):
us now at this moment in time in d C.
Right now, that's right. Let's hope everybody out there stays
safe and healthy. Um, but it's fun to think about
other universes where humans are facing more difficult problems and
solving them. Yea, And to get us to think about
all the difficulties that other people are. You're having an
our universe, so stay safe, but I also help out

(57:32):
your neighbor and look out for each other. That's right.
And if you're enjoying this series about the science fiction
universes created by these authors, let us know and send
us a message about the books you'd like us to
talk about. We hope you enjoyed that, see you next time.
If you still have a question after listening to all

(57:54):
these explanations, please drop us a line. We'd love to
hear from you. You can find us on Facebook, Twitter,
and Instagram at Daniel and Jorge That's one Word, or
email us at Feedback at Daniel and Jorge dot com.
Thanks for listening and remember that Daniel and Jorge Explain
the Universe is a production of I Heart Radio. For
more podcast from my Heart Radio, visit the I Heart

(58:16):
Radio Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen to your favorite shows.
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Daniel Whiteson

Daniel Whiteson

Jorge Cham

Jorge Cham

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