the sunport vista:


2020 January 29th:   


Recently I was given for my birthday Eighty Not Out, the autobiography of Patrick Moore, who was and perhaps still is a household name in my country - television's instantly recognizable astronomer, and an inimitable character.  Reading through the book I found a fascinating passage on Nobel laureate Harold Urey (1893-1981), who, Moore informs me, seriously maintained, well into the Space Age, that the primordial lunar "seas"  may really have been watery rather than lava-filled.  I followed this up online and found that in his "Study of the Ranger Pictures of the Moon" (1967), quoted in Arlin Crotts' Water on the Moon, I. Historical Overview), Urey says:

...they (lunar maria) may have been subjected to water at some time in their history...  

Later the evidence from Apollo missions forced Urey to abandon the watery maria, but the point that intrigues me is the longevity of the idea.  Rather than go into his reasons for having held it when he did, I want to issue an appeal here, for a convenient term to denote the... how can I say it... empire of belief, the boundaries of hope, the zone of credibility, marking out the historical limits of real belief in a more old-fashioned life-friendly Solar System.  I'll go on trying to think up a phrase for it, but meanwhile I'd welcome suggestions - reply on the Facebook page or email me at the usual address,

So far as I know, Urey himself never talked about native lunar life.  Still, wow, real seas on the Moon - imagine being able to believe that! 

I presume he must have postulated an early lunar atmosphere, thick enough to stop the water evaporating immediately.  The atmosphere couldn't have lasted long, leaking away as it must have done in the low gravity, but perhaps the leakage was less with heavy gases... I leave it to the more scientifically-minded to comment on that.

Anyhow, all this is an invitation to any writer who feels so inclined, to dust off Urey's temporary reasons for the watery-maria theory, and use them as a veneer of credibility for a really haunting tale of the ancient inhabited Moon.

2020 January 18th:   


The history of opinion fascinates me, and I came across a poignant 1950s gem today while browsing among my old astronautics books.  One of them has a chapter called "Fruitful Mars", in which the author admits that Lowell's ideas have not won wide acceptance, yet believes that the question of a civilized Mars is still open:

The possibility of space flight has stimulated interest in Mars, and many astronomers are trying to develop methods of studying it that are better than visual observation.  One possibility is to take motion pictures of Mars during its next near approach, in 1956.  The Palomar telescope, which gathers four times as much light as its nearest rival, is the only instrument that can do this effectively.  Using the most sensitive photographic film, it can probably take pictures of Mars in about one-fiftieth of a second.  This is approximately as fast as the human eye works.  If a movie is taken of Mars during an entire night of exceptionally good seeing, one or more of the frames, each exposed for only one-fiftieth of a second, may show the planet unblurred by atmospheric turbulence.  Such a picture will be free of the artifacts of human imagination.  It will be permanent and can be analyzed, grain by grain, using the careful microscopic techniques well known to astronomers.

Perhaps it will show a planet elaborately organised by an intelligent race...

J N  Leonard, Flight Into Space (1953)

As things turned out 1956 did not, of course, decide the issue.  Personally I doubt whether the method suggested would have succeeded even if a Martian civilization had existed - I don't suppose Earth's civilization would be visible by means of an instrument on the surface of Mars equivalent to the Hale telescope.  Be that as it may, I value the passage quoted above as a marker in the history of opinion - perhaps a boundary-marker, for 1956 turned out to be the last full year before the Space Age.

2020 January 9th:   


Edwin A Abbott's Flatland (1884) is a memoir of life in a two-dimensional universe; its geography, history and society are described and narrated by a luckless Square who gets into big trouble for his "heretical" talk of a world with three dimensions.

The ways in which it's all worked out are fascinating and provoking of much argument.  Abbott decided that Flatland must have one three-dimensional aspect, namely a light source which illuminates the plane surface from above.  Apart from that, everything is two-dimensional, including the rain which intermittently comes from the North.  North and South refer to the alignment of an attractive force, reminiscent of magnetism; the opposite, in some respects, of the "hard direction" on the neutronium world in R L Forward's Dragon's Egg.

The Flatlanders are severely class-conscious. 

...The birth of a true Equilateral Triangle from Isosceles parents is the subject of rejoicing in our country for many furlongs round.  After a strict examination conducted by the Sanitary and Social Board, the infant, if certified as Regular, is with solemn ceremonial admitted into the class of Equilaterals.  He is then immediately taken from his proud yet sorrowing parents and adopted by some childless Equilateral, who is bound by oath never to permit the child henceforth to enter his former home or so much as to look upon his relations again, for fear lest the freshly developed organism may, by force of unconscious imitation, fall back again into his hereditary level...

Recently re-reading this short and delightful classic I began to think of it as an instance of Earthshimmer, a term I coined some while back to denote the way our unusual world is apt to emanate variant literary versions of itself in other modes of existence.  Being a fan of this sort of thing, I explore its possibilities in my own work, as in the unidirectional gravity of Kroth and the air-bubble-set-in-universal-rock scenario of Man of the World, but up till now my only excuse for including such scenarios on an Old Solar System website was to posit a Terran exceptionalism - that's to say, just as (for example) Jupiter has its Great Red Spot and Mars its canals, so does Earth have its Earthshimmer, which just happens to be a peculiarity of our planet.

But now I wonder, with regard to Flatland - could you extend the "shimmer", could you have a Flat OSS too?

There'd be radical changes needed, of course.  In particular, it's not easy to imagine flat worlds orbiting a flat Sun.  But perhaps orbits can be dispensed with.   Perhaps all you'd need, in order to develop the characters of worlds in isolation from one another, is static distance, without orbital motion.  And such distance need not be of the empty kind, but rather an immense desert, perhaps consisting of a smooth, frictionless glassy plain across which the equivalent of rockets could be launched.

The first trip to Flat-Mars from Flat-Earth would thus require an epic voyage across this smooth space.  And when the explorers reached their destination, they could encounter some echoes of the Marsness of our OSS Mars, translated into 2D terms... 

As to what the characteristics of that setting would be, nothing occurs to me right now, but I dare say it could be done.

2020 January 8th:   


Having just finished the survey of the page-view winners for 2019, I pause to reflect on these results.

As usual I can't resist pretending to guess at meanings.

I notice that, in comparison with 2018, the "hit parade" for last year reveals some slackening in views of the major planet pages, contrasted with a surge in some of those which concern authors, themes and stories.  (Not all of them by any means; Decisive Battles of the Old Solar System has gone down from 94th to 105th place; war-weariness maybe.)

The really big author-page surge in 2019 was by Edgar Rice Burroughs, who zoomed up from 70th place to 7th, and from 748 views to 2,794.  Thus from category "green" (2 or more views a day) it has climbed to category red (over four views a day - well over, in this case).  Success, though less spectacular, also came to the Heinlein page, which joins the basic super-page category (1 or more views per day) for the first time.

Significantly coinciding with 2019's outer-system triumphs in the Interplanetary Knock-Out, the page devoted to the Outermost Reaches has gone up from category black to category green.  Another scrap of evidence: although the Jupiter page hasn't shown an increase in popularity, the more detailed Great Red Spot page has - up from 200th to 143rd place, and Jovian Inferno has likewise gone up from 157th to 104th.  But other examples of successful planetary-feature pages take us back to the inner system: the ancient inhabited Moon has risen from 131st to 95th place, and Darkside of Mercury from 141st to 103rd.  Next, here are some up-and-coming pages dedicated to particular stories:  Amtor rose from 87th to 49th place, and Brightside Crossing and A Rose for Ecclesiastes have also edged up.  And one of my favourites, The Sands of Mars, has gratifyingly surged from 191st to 106th place. 

Of course there have to be losers as well as winners, but let's seek a positive explanation that fits everything.  How about this: you the veteran readers of Solar System Heritage are becoming so knowledgeable that you now prefer to pore over the details, having already assimilated the big picture.