Changes in Latitude

4°.

Well, 3.7° to be more precise. No, not the temperature (not by an order of magnitude!). The latitude. 259 miles south of the equator. 340′ above sea level.

Hot. Humid. Muggy.

There are no direct flights from North America into Iquitos, so first one makes one’s way to Lima, the capitol of Peru. Even that is not a straight shot from Seattle, so instead I flew to Chicago, which felt sort of like going the wrong way, and from there to Toronto, which really felt like going the wrong way, where I met up with Dale in the airport before catching the long leg down the east coast, across the Caribbean, and into South American airspace. We arrived in Lima in the middle of the night and made our way to the airport hotel, where I had my first taste of the classic Peruvian pisco sour.

I could grow to really like this drink, I thought.

In the bar of the hotel we met up with Kate and Steve, Canadians who would be paddling in the race, and subjects of Dale’s documentary. With their arrival, I had a second taste, and the four of us kept the barman busy until it was time for the Canadians to catch their flight to Iquitos. I think they found this preferable to trying to nap on the floor of the airport.

Wait, what race? What documentary? And what are we doing in Peru, again? Hmm, rather than explain it all over, go back one blog post for the introduction to this story and how I found myself, on practically no notice, dropping everything to jet off to the jungle.

Meanwhile, Dale and I stayed in Lima an extra few hours. I was scheduled to appear as a speaker on a professional webcast that morning, and the hotel WiFi in Lima was going to be far more reliable than anything we’d likely find in Iquitos. That proved true, the webcast went well (“Greetings from Peru!”), and as soon as it was over we rushed back into the airport for our own flight.

Where we waited. And waited. Then we waited some more, as our flight was delayed, then delayed some more. To make things worse, the stated destination over the gate kept changing. Sometimes it said Iquitos. Then it would say Tarapoto. We were pretty sure the plane was going to both cities, we just weren’t sure in which order.

“¿Es este el vuelo a Iquitos?” asked an older gentleman of us as we stood in line to board. Is this the flight to Iquitos? Even the locals were confused!

“Sí… Yo creo que,” replied Dale. Yes… I think. Ah well, they accepted our boarding passes, so surely it was the right plane.

By this time it was already evening, and as Tarapoto lies between Lima and Iquitos, we assumed we’d be landing there first. It was pitch black outside, so no landmarks could be seen to assure us. To my regret, I never was able to catch sight of the famous Andean Cordillera when we passed over. It was only as we started to descend, and we began to see rivers and tributaries reflecting the starlight, that we knew we were well and truly over the Amazon basin. We began to see the lights of river barges as we flew lower and lower, and then we touched down on a short runway between the bright city and the dark jungle.

Heat. Humidity. Flying insects. Unenclosed airport (though not as glamorous as Kona, perhaps). I could grow to enjoy this place.

Bags collected (pelican case, photography gear), the haggle for a moto-taxi ride into town began.

“¿Diez soles?”

“No, no, veinte.”

“¿Quince?”

“Veinte.”

We moved on. 20 soles (about US\$6) was too much for the ride, though we knew we were unlikely to get it down to 10. The second driver we spoke to said ok to 15, and off we went for a night ride through the streets of the city.

The streets of Iquitos are busy, crowded, with everyone seeming to go wherever they felt was best for them, and as such they are difficult to navigate in a regular car (though people do). So, they are crowded with motos, or moto-taxis, the same as tuk-tuks found in southeast Asia. Essentially these are the front half of a motorcycle and the back half of a rickshaw, able to carry three passengers in addition to the driver, and they dominate the city. Almost all of them are for hire, operating on a cash basis, so it is essential to carry plenty of coins in order to have correct change. Residents and visitors alike get around by moto-taxi, and as long as you negotiate your fare before getting in, the drivers will honor it without hassle when you arrive at your destination. Indeed, a good moto driver can make or break your search for just the right place in Iquitos when you need a certain part for the construction of a raft, but we’ll come to that later.

Motos are not clean machines, contributing greatly to the smoke filling the streets, nor are they quiet. From about 6am until Midnight, the sound of moto engines can be heard all over the city. On a hot night, however, riding in the back of one can be just the thing, a breeze in your face and hair, to make you feel that little bit less sticky.

It’s about a half-hour ride from the airport into the heart of the city, to our lodgings at the Green Track Hostel. We arrived to a dark street, and a barred and gated doorway. We rang the bell.

Moments later, the door opened, light flooded out, and there stood Kate! We were in the right place.

“Where’ve you guys been? We were expecting you hours ago!”

“Long story. Flight delays, changing destinations…”

“This is Peru,” she said, and off we went to find dinner at the Plaza de Armas, a picturesque, green, and lush city square ringed with shops and restaurants and, yes, motos.

I could grow to like this place.

Iquitos and the Amazon

If you’ve been wondering where I’ve been, I’ve been having adventures!

A few months ago I found myself in rather urgent need of a high-resolution portrait photo. How urgent? Well, a professional organization related to my day job wanted to give me an award, and they wanted to show my face on a huge banner at their annual conferences, in three cities on three continents, no less, and the first conference would be in a matter of a few weeks. Could I send along something of at least 300×300 dpi resolution, 30″ square, and by the way, tomorrow would be good?

If you do the math, you’ll quickly realize they were looking for a serious professional shot, not something I could whip out on my iPhone. I needed to bring in the big guns, and fast.

I gave my good friend Dale a call… well, ok, a text, really… and, what luck! He was actually in town and available. Dale is a semi-pro photographer, a reviewer and editor at one of the most prestigious online photography review magazines, and a freelance documentary filmmaker on the side.

“Sure,” texted Dale, “I can do that for you. But, I have a favor to ask. Do you remember that log raft race I won twelve years ago on the Amazon River? I’m going back to make a documentary about the race, and my usual assistant just canceled on me. It’s really a two-person job, so you’d seriously be helping me out if you could come with me to Peru.”

Peru? Cool! I thought, imagining this would be months in the planning. “That sounds like a great trip. When are you planning to go?”

“In a week.”

Pause.

“A week?” I’m pretty sure disbelief would have colored my voice, if this whole conversation were not happening by text message.

“Yep. I know it’s last-minute, but I’ve already invested a lot into this trip, and losing my assistant has put me in a bind.”

One thing you should probably know about Dale is that we met as students in a climbing course. We had scaled peaks together. We had camped overnight in an emergency snow trench together. We had literally held each other’s lives in the balance on belay during rock climbs. I knew that Dale had spent a couple years backpacking around South America, and that he was fluent in Spanish. I knew he had spent three days paddling a log raft on the Amazon while he was there. So I knew that he knew what we’d be getting into with this trip.

What’s more, Dale knew that I had wintered in Antarctica back in the day. He knew that I  had trekked the Himalaya and navigated the alleyways of Kathmandu. So he knew that I’d likely be fine for a little escapade in the Amazon jungle, and that the streets of a tropical Peruvian city were unlikely to faze me. He wasn’t asking an unknown to cover his back on this adventure.

“Give me ten minutes,” I replied. “I need to talk to my wife. And my boss.”

Fortunately for me, both my wife and my boss are adventure-minded in their own ways. Despite the short notice, the only issue my boss raised was that he’d prefer to be the one to go. Sorry, boss; this one was mine.

Ten minutes later I committed to travel to Peru in a week’s time, and then I called my doctor’s travel clinic to arrange for vaccinations.

Fortunately, much of what I needed in the way of vaccinations I already had from my time in Nepal, although a few had expired and required renewal (typhoid, tetanus, etc). I would need anti-malarial pills. And… ah, I would need a yellow fever shot. That was new.

The administrator for the travel clinic told me that it would be a week and a half before I could get on the schedule to see the travel nurse.

“I don’t have a week and a half,” I said. “I’m going to Peru in one week.”

“Oh. Where in Peru?”

“Iquitos.”

Ten minutes later the travel nurse called me back directly.

“You’re going to the Amazon!”

“That’s right.”

“You need a yellow fever shot.”

“I know.”

“Almost no one has it in stock right now. It’s in short supply all over the country. We’re ordering in an alternative from France, but it’ll take me ten days to get it here.”

My heart started to sink. I weighed the idea of just going without, but there are some complications with this particular nasty little bug. It’s rare to catch it, but if you do, there’s a scarily high fatality rate, and by all accounts it’s not a pleasant way to go (not that many ways are all that pleasant). And, because of its lethality, many countries require visitors to show documentary proof of having had the shot, depending on where they arrive from. Coming from the US, it seemed unlikely that Peru would require me to show the classic yellow vaccination card, but it seemed entirely possible the US would ask to see it upon my return.

And if not the US, well, a week after getting back I would be jetting off to Spain. Remember, the professional conference for which I needed the headshot photo that started all this? Yeah, that would be in Barcelona, and I was going. I had no idea whether Spanish authorities might see that Peruvian stamp in my passport and then say, “Tarjeta amarilla, señor?” It would be a shame to be turned away from the conference at which I would be winning this award.

“It’s ok, though. There’s a pharmacy in Sand Point that has yellow fever vaccine in stock, and they take walk-ins. Call this number.”

All was not lost! Hastily I wrote down the number, thanked the nurse profusely, and then gave it a call. I was able to make an appointment for the next day, and there I was able to stock up on everything the savvy traveler might require: anti-malarials, antibiotics, anti-diarrheals… pretty much anti-everything. And a course of typhoid pills, a tetanus booster, a flu shot while I was at it, and the all-important yellow fever shot, the most expensive vaccine of the bunch.

One week later I boarded a plane with no luggage besides a backpack, everything I would need for two weeks of equatorial living. I left the sweater at home.

Oh, and Dale snapped a great portrait.

Stay tuned for the next part of my Amazon adventure.

In the Year of ’39

In the year of ’39 assembled here the volunteers,
In the days when lands were few;
Here the ship sailed out into the blue and sunny morn,
The sweetest sight ever seen.

Lately I’ve had this song running through my head, pretty much on constant repeat. It’s an old song, first released in 1975 on the album A Night at the Opera by Queen.

And the night followed day,
And the storytellers say
That the score brave souls inside
For many a lonely day sailed across the milky seas,
Ne’er looked back, never feared, never cried.

At first it seems to be telling a relatively ordinary story. Volunteers set sail in a ship for a dangerous journey. Is it 1939? Is this something to do with World War II? It’s not really clear yet.

Don’t you hear my call though you’re many years away,
Don’t you hear me calling you;
Write your letters in the sand
For the day I take your hand
In the land that our grandchildren knew.

Wait, what? The land that our grandchildren knew? Ok, there is something odd going on here. And what’s this about being many years away? The song seems to be playing around with time.

In the year of ’39 came a ship in from the blue,
The volunteers came home that day,
And they bring good news of a world so newly born,
Though their hearts so heavily weigh;

For the Earth is old and grey,
Little darling went away,
But my love this cannot be,
For so many years have gone though I’m older but a year,

Right, this is definitely not an ordinary ship sailing ordinary seas, and time is certainly being twisted. The volunteers bring news of a new world, while the Earth is old and grey? We’re talking about space travel, aren’t we? In fact, we’re talking about interstellar travel.

It’s definitely not 1939.

Many music lovers might have been confused by this song, but by now it should be obvious to readers of this blog what’s going on here. For astronauts to travel far enough to discover another world (“so newly born”), one capable of replacing the “old and grey” Earth as humanity’s home, and return back with the news “older but a year,” they must have traveled very fast indeed. Perhaps even approaching the speed of light?

At speeds this fast, the theory of special relativity tells us (and experimental research has shown) that odd things happen with time. Time appears to slow down for the traveler, at least relative to the stationary observer, so that by journey’s end the traveler will have aged far less than those who stayed home.

In the year of ’39 assembled here the volunteers

2139, perhaps? 2239? It’s not completely clear.

In the year of ’39 came a ship in from the blue,
The volunteers came home that day

Not the same ’39, but 100 years later. 2239? 2339?

For so many years have gone though I’m older but a year

As it happens, given the parameters of the song, we can calculate how fast the ship was traveling, and thus how far away they went, and perhaps even speculate what star they visited! This is because, despite being such a non-intuitive phenomenon, time dilation due to relativistic effects is well understood, and there is an equation to calculate it.

$t'=t\sqrt{1-\frac{v^2}{c^2}}$

Where:

t’ = dilated time
t = stationary time
v = velocity
c = speed of light

We want to know the ship’s velocity, so let’s parse this out (like traveling back in time to algebra class!):

$t'^2=t^2\times({1-\frac{v^2}{c^2}})$

$\frac{t'^2}{t^2}=1-\frac{v^2}{c^2}$

$\frac{t'^2}{t^2}+\frac{v^2}{c^2}=1$

$\frac{v^2}{c^2}=1-\frac{t'^2}{t^2}$

$v^2=(1-\frac{t'^2}{t^2})\times c^2$

$v=\sqrt{(1-\frac{t'^2}{t^2})}\times c$

Ok, let’s plug in some numbers! To keep things simple, we’ll express velocity as a percentage of the speed of light, and time in years, even though normally in physics equations velocities would be meters per second and time in seconds. But at this scale, those would be some big numbers, so we’re going to assume that c=1, and that v therefore is a percent of c.

$v=\sqrt{(1-\frac{1^2}{100^2})}\times 1$

$v=\sqrt{1-\frac{1}{10000}}$

$v=\sqrt{1-0.0001}$

$v=\sqrt{0.9999}$

$v=0.99995$

In order for 100 years to have passed on Earth while only 1 year passed for the astronauts, the ship had to be traveling approximately 99.995% of the speed of light. That is some extreme time dilation, and so that is some extreme speed. Quite the starship!

Time isn’t the only thing dilating here, as traveling at these speeds does some interesting things to the fabric of space as well. Distances ahead of the travelers will appear to shrink somewhat, though even at this high fraction of the speed of light, it’s a minimal effect. Add a few more 9s to the significant digits, however, and it gets very strange indeed.

Meanwhile, though, our travelers have spent a year journeying at very close to the speed of light. How far have they gone? One light-year?

Oh no. They’ve gone much farther than that. The distance traveled is at a speed relative to time for the stationary observers waiting patiently back on Earth, so our starship has traveled a hundred light-years, though it seems to the astronauts to take only one year to do so.

So, what star might they have visited to find a “world so newly born” to which humanity could relocate? First off, this was a round-trip, so with half the time spent journeying out and half spent returning, that would imply they went no more than fifty light-years away (“no more than,” I say, as if this is no big deal, but fifty light-years is a very big deal). Gliese 163 is 49 light-years away and has one potentially habitable world, but it’s not considered an absolutely prime candidate.

Let’s assume, for a moment, that our starship took a little bit of time to accelerate and then decelerate on its journey, so that instead of 50 light-years, perhaps it really only traveled about 40 light-years away.

They went to Trappist-1.

Trappist-1 is a cool red dwarf star 39.6 light-years away, and it has seven temperate and terrestrial planets, four of which are considered potentially habitable even by conservative estimates. Trappist-1 is obviously a prime candidate for finding life, or at least worlds on which humans could live, and being at about the right distance, is also a prime candidate for our volunteers on their desperate and lonely journey.

Not that this provided much consolation to our narrator, who returns to Earth to find his wife long dead, and only a memory of her in the eyes of his (presumably centenarian) daughter (or granddaughter?).

’39 was written by Brian May, lead guitarist for Queen, in 1975. May, as some of you may know, is also an accomplished astrophysicist, and while the planets of Trappist-1 had not yet been discovered in 1975, he certainly understood the effects and impacts of time dilation on travel at relativistic speeds. May studied physics and mathematics up through the time when his music career began to skyrocket to success, though due to focusing on music after that point, it took him 37 years to complete his doctoral thesis (A Survey of Radial Velocities in the Zodiacal Dust Cloud), finally earning his PhD in 2008. He was Chancellor of Liverpool John Moores University from then until 2013, and he was a science team collaborator for the NASA New Horizons mission to Pluto.

Not just a fantastic guitarist and songwriter, but a serious scientist!

Don’t you hear my call though you’re many years away,
Don’t you hear me calling you;
All your letters in the sand cannot heal me like your hand,
For my life
Pity me.

Final note: Although Freddie Mercury is far more well-known as lead vocalist, it was Brian May who sang the lyrics for the studio version of ’39 (though Mercury sang for most of their live performances).

’39 from the album A Night at the Opera by Queen, 1975
Songwriter Brian May, copyright EMI Music Publishing, Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC

Special thanks to E=mc2 Explained for breaking down the physics of time dilation for us laypeople.

Header image credit: user:Les Chatfield / flickr.com under CC-BY 2.0

Writing Retreats, Poll Results, and the WIP

First off, the next scene from Chapter 3 is ready for your enjoyment (and your feedback — you’re an alpha reader, remember?). Anna, Laxmi, and Jaci are making the most of their enforced encampment upon an alien tropical beach. Jaci, hindered by a broken leg and thus unable to help with much else, becomes camp cook, and quickly nominates himself “greatest chef on the planet,” based upon a competition involving “every human within a thousand light-years.” Of course, there are only three humans within a thousand light-years…

So, if you’re ready to jump right in:

Chef

Meanwhile, in other news, the poll for best scene for an audience reading is still open (see the blog post immediately preceding this one), but results are starting to narrow down to a single choice, with one runner-up. I suppose I should not be surprised that, while one scene is more action-oriented than the other, both involve significant and colorful description of the world around our intrepid explorers, and that seems to be what people are gravitating towards. But, if you haven’t yet, go vote! And then check out the results.

Meanwhile, note to self: use more (or continue using) significant and colorful description of the world around our intrepid explorers!

Speaking of colorful, I spent the weekend on another mini “retreat,” once again anchored in the middle of Port Madison Bay by myself, for the purpose of some focused writing time. While I didn’t achieve as many total words as I might have hoped, I did produce this latest scene (why haven’t you read it yet?), and had a little fun with dialogue. Do let me know what you think of it, what works and what doesn’t.

I’ll be doing more of these!

A friend of mine has asked me to give a reading from my work at a function he’s organizing — ok, it’s his birthday party, and he’s a musician, and he plans to have a number of artists perform or present their art. There will be music, there will be poetry… and there will be me, reading a short bit of my science fiction to the audience.

I’ve never given any sort of public reading before, and I admit to a certain amount of nervousness. So, having read what online advice I could glean about such things — thank you, Internet! — it seems that I should try to keep it to about 5 minutes. At a typical audiobook pace of ~150 words per minute, that equates to 800 words. I’m prepared to round up, so I’m looking for a selection from my work-in-progress of roughly a thousand words.

But which thousand words? Obviously, I want it to be strong and captivating, so what does that mean when delivered via spoken word? Too much dialogue, and the audience could get lost in “he said, she said.” Too much description and too little action, and they could fall asleep. How to find the right balance?

Should it come from closer to the beginning of the work, when there is less knowledge assumed on the part of the audience? Or is a later selection ok, and just let unexplained things go?

So here are the five options I’m considering. Which would you pick? (Poll at the end of the list, or feel free to comment!)

1. Ch.1, Approach
1. This is the scene where Anna and Laxmi argue about aliens in the exercise room. There are some references in the dialogue to the sociological impacts of advancements in interstellar travel.
2. 1,146 words
2. Ch.1, Observatory
1. Not the whole scene, but from “The observatory was a small transparent blister…” to “we outran our own historical radio waves to get here.”
2. Here Anna enjoys some rare solitude while looking out at the galaxy and pondering radio signals; she gets a bit philosophical, and there are some nice references to the vastness of interstellar space and speed-of-light travel.
3. 1,090 words
3. Ch.2, Reaction
1. This is a hard-core action scene. The shuttle is disabled and in danger of crashing, and (spoiler alert!) Takashi dies.
2. 1,331 words; perhaps a bit long, but it’s a fast-paced scene.
4. Ch.2, Deorbital, excerpt 1
1. “You want to do what!” to “Yes, that technology.”
1. Here Anna describes how and why she wants to land on the planet, in the face of insurmountable odds against survival.
2. 964 words
5. Ch.2, Deorbital, excerpt 2
1. “The terminator merged with the eastern horizon behind them,” to “I think my leg’s broken.” (end of scene)
1. Another action scene, atmospheric entry and crash-landing on the planet.
2. 1,031 words

header image credit: user:Enokson/flickr.com under Creative Commons CC BY-ND-NC 2.0