27 September 2009

Last labor day, Urmi and I trekked out to the Udvar-Hazy center, a branch of the Smithsonian Air and Space museum located near Dulles. Since it's not located on the National Mall, the center has tons of full-size airplanes, satellites, and other cool stuff. I was hoping to see a larger focus on "Space" than on "Air", but the museum is about 70% aerospace and only 30% space. I guess that the National Mall location has more of a space focus. In any case, both parts of the museum were very impressive, including an SR-71 Blackbird, Concorde, the Enola Gay, and even a Space Shuttle. Here are some of our photo highlights:

A picture of me with the Enola Gay, the B-29 Superfortress that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima during World War II. I've also been to the atomic bomb museum in Hiroshima, which is a particularly impressive museum in it's own right.

Another picture of the Enola Gay from above. This plane is much bigger than I expected -- although I suppose that Little Boy, being an early, gun-type fission device, was quite a bit larger than atomic weapons shown in movies nowadays.

Weird story: Can you believe that the atomic bomb design for Little Boy was never tested? The Fat Man bomb detonated at Nagasaki and the Trinity test bomb were completely different designs and even used different fuel (Plutonium rather than U235). Despite the weaker fuel source and untested design, Little Boy is still the worst example of mass destruction in history. Modern fusion weapons are between 1000 and 2000 times more powerful.

Me with a replica of the Wright flyer. There's no way that this thing looks airworthy by today's standards. Actually, most of the planes in the center don't look like something I'd like to fly in -- aerospace engineering has come a long ways in the last fifty/sixty years.

Some stunt planes. Urmi was excited to see that the Oracle flyer was featured quite prominently. The Udvar-Hazy center has quite a few of these little stunt planes, which are impressively small. I wouldn't want to fly in one, at any rate, but they're fun to watch.

A protoype of the NASA Pathfinder solar-powered flyer. This plane is capable of self-powered, indefinite flight by flying high enough that it can get sunlight regardless of the weather. I don't know how it works at night (batteries presumably) but this plane set several altitude records before the program was cut. The plane is abolutely enormous (you can barely see my in the photo), with a 30m wing span, but it didn't move very fast -- about 15-25 mph. These planes were originally suggested as a potential replacement for communications satellites (providing city-wide wifi, for example), but I guess they were decided to be too risky.

A variety of satellites and space probes. The center had quite a few of these, but very little description of what they were. One of the coolest things they had a was a life-size replica of the New Horizons probe, which is presently 1/3 of the way to Pluto. Check out the mission website for some impressive pictures of Jupiter that New Horizons took during its gravity-assist on its way to the outer solar system.

A decommissioned Concorde. Concordes were (are?) an impressive feat of engineering: the only commercial grade jet capable of supersonic flight. There used to be a few dozen of these things operating routes between New York/Dulles and London/Paris, capable of making the trip in only four hours. They flew at nearly Mach 2 (conventional jets are capable of about 90% of Mach 1). Unfortunately, the design proved both uneconomical and somewhat dangerous; the planes were grounded in the early 2000s.

A space shuttle, the Enterprise. The museum was a bit unclear as to why this particular shuttle wasn't being used, but, according to the great and mighty Wikipedia, Enterprise was never intended for orbital space flight and was just used for testing purposes. In either case, the shuttle is huge and quite impressive, well worth seeing.

A hang glider. The museum did not have very many of these, but they had a small exhibit dedicated to unpowered flight. It was pretty cool to see all the different designs that people came up with for either self-powered flight or completely unpowered gliders.

So the Udvar-Hazy center is a pretty cool place. I wish they had more space stuff, but I suppose they keep most of that at the National Mall location since it tends to be smaller than the airplanes and easier to move around. Can you imagine landing a concorde on the national mall? Be sure to check it out if you ever go to Washington, DC -- it's located just a few miles from the Dulles Airport.

26 September 2009

Wheel of Time

So, on a whim, I decided to reread the Wheel of Time series. For those unfamiliar with this series (which is probably, actually, most of the readers of this blog...), this is an epic fantasy series that's been nearly 20 years in the making. Think Lord of the Rings, but big. Huge, in fact, and quite literally; the series is currently projected to complete at over 4 million words, with 3.4 million already published in twelve novels. Most non-Wheel-of-Time novels, mind you, are around 100,000-150,000 words, so these novels are absolutely gigantic. According to Wikipedia, the paperback editions of the series total up to 9600 pages. These paperbacks are so large, in fact, that they tend to fall apart while reading.

So why have I decided to abandon all hope of reading anything else for the next couple months? Not a clue, honestly, and hence the "whim" mentioned above. I'm not normally a fan of epic fantasy, although my tastes in reading material tend to oscillate. However, I read the first five or six (I forget) novels in this series when I was in high school, so they have a sort of nostalgia factor to them. I vaguely remember the plot, but not well enough to reconstruct even a fifth of the story. This project was also somewhat inspired by Tor.com's Wheel of Time Reread, where they're providing a chapter-by-chapter review of the series in the lead-up to the release of the final novel. The first part of the final novel (which has been split into three more mammoth sized books) will be released at the end of October.

This series has an interesting history; it's impossible to write such a huge, bookshelf crushing series over 20 years without picking up some baggage, at least. The Wheel of Time series infamous throughout the fantasy literature for being, well, bloated. Despite the 3.4 million words of fiction here, not a lot seems to happen. In fact, I've been told that there's an entire novel near the end of the series where nothing at all happens -- after some 200,000 words of reading, you're rewarded with everyone in exactly the same dilemmas they were at the beginning. I guess I'll know when I get there. That being said, the books have a lot more action than I remember there being. I remember the dull chapters between the action, it seems, but almost none of the action -- and there's actually quite a bit of it. Mind you, I'm only on the third book in the series, so maybe it'll slow down soon. However, for now, still going strong.

I'd like to write about this series some more once I've read more of it, but that's a quite daunting prospect. Tor.com's reread project is progressing at the rate of 2 or 3 posts per week, each covering a chapter or two, and I doubt it'll get anywhere near done before The Gathering Storm is released. For that matter, I doubt I can catch up with the series before the final novel is released. Condensing 3.4 million words into a single blog post would be ridiculous. I guess we'll see what happens.

News Roundup -- I'm not dead yet

Hey, a news post. I haven't done one of these for a while.
  • Giant Squid: Fear them, reprinted by Slate to honor the fact that U.S. scientists accidently caught a giant squid this week. A humorous look at the scariest creature to live beneath the waves.

  • Incidentally, this article on a new rewrite of a Jane Austen classic (this time with giant crabs and man eating jellyfish!) is worth a read. These things seem to be all the rage, these days. Why is it that Jane Austen novels seem to perk right up with the addition of Vampires, Zombies, or similar monsters? We may never know.

  • EEStor requests UL certification for their Ultracapacitor. This is big news. EEStor has been in the news for a while now, touting a truly monstrous capacitor that could, potentially, give cars 300 miles of driving. With a five minute charge time. And cheaper than batteries. When can I get one of these for my laptop? Check out Wikipedia for some (still unverified) details on EEStor's technology. Fascinating stuff.

  • Ice near equator on Mars and, in the same week, water discovered on the moon. It's been a good week for dihydrogen monoxide discoveries in space. Unfortunately, the moon water is found in such small quantities that it could be from solar wind, which would imply that it's a fairly ephemeral substance on the moon. Mars ice is much more exciting -- and frustrating, since the ice was discovered near the area where Viking-2 landed. The Viking program results indicated that Mars was a dry, dead world, with no water -- how would our image of the planet be different if Viking had dug four inches deeper and encountered ice, thirty some years ago? Hard to say... But it would certainly have changed NASA's direction away from the gas giants towards the inner planets.