Monday, May 28, 2012

Excerpt: The Case of the Displaced Detective:The Arrival

This is the prologue to the first book in my Displaced Detective Series, The Case of the Displaced Detective: The Arrival, a science fiction mystery. Books 1 and 2 (The Case of the Displaced Detective: At Speed) are in release, ebook and treebook; book 3, (The Case of the Cosmological Killer: The Rendlesham Incident) will be released later this year. You can purchase both in pretty much any format you like through my website, Hope you enjoy this excerpt.


Prologue—Objects, Subjects, and Beginnings

A tall, dark figure, clad in formal Victorian eveningwear, strode briskly down the shadowed street, casually swinging his silver-embellished walking stick. No carriages had passed in the last half-hour, and only one hansom cab had wandered by ten minutes before, its horse’s hollow hoofbeats echoing between the buildings. The gas street-lamps were long since lit, but between them were patches of deep darkness, patches entirely too broad for comfort in these circumstances. Beneath the brim of his silk top hat, eagle-sharp grey eyes darted about, studying the shadows, alert and aware. For well this man knew that danger lurked in the gloom this night, danger peculiar to him alone; and he was alone. So very alone.

But not for long. He was headed to a specific destination. To the one man he knew he could trust, the one man who would stand at his side regardless of danger—for had he not done so, many times before? Was not this the reason for the deep, if largely unspoken, bond of friendship between them?

His friend would help. There was no doubt in his mind on that point. Already today two attempts had been made upon his life, and well did this man need help.

"Not far now," the words breathed past thin, pale lips. "Almost ther—"

The words died on said lips.

A hulking, brutish shadow materialised from the alleyway in front of him. The elegant man in the top hat ducked just in time to avoid the lead-weighted bludgeon that swung through the space his head had occupied fractions of a second before. Instead, the silk hat took the brunt of the blow, flying across the sidewalk and into a puddle in the gutter, its side crushed. Flinging up his cane and grasping each end in his hands, the gentleman dropped into an Oriental horse stance, and prepared to do battle.

"’Ere, now," the other figure said, in a coarse growl. "Hit’s th’ end o’ you, it is. Me superior won’t be ‘arvin’ it, an’ Oi means t’ see ‘e don’t ‘arve ta."

"You can try," the gentleman replied, calm. "But better men than you have tried, and here I stand."

A guttural, angry sound emerged from the assailant, and the cudgel swung again, this time with enough force to crush bone. Deft, the gentleman caught it with the center of his cane, but to his chagrin the walking-stick, his weapon of choice in many a similar street altercation, chose that moment to give up the ghost. It snapped in two, splintering and cracking. He snarled his own irritation, and flung the pieces aside when he realised there was not enough left to use as a decent weapon.

Then he began to flit and weave as the other man smirked and lunged at him, swinging the club repeatedly, as hard as he could. It was a dance of death, and one wrong move by the gentleman would have serious, possibly fatal, consequences.

But the man in the evening dress was not without weapons; no, his best weapons were permanently attached to his person. The alert grey eyes watched, looking for some opening; and when he saw his chance, he struck like lightning. A fist shot out at the loutish face, catching the hit man squarely in the mouth just as he realised his danger and started to shout for help. All that came out was a grunt, however, and the assassin fell to the pavement as if pole-axed, with both lips split.

The gentleman hissed in pain, grabbing his fist with his other hand for a moment to let the worst of the discomfort pass before examining the damage.

"By Jove, he has sharp teeth for such a troglodyte," he murmured, peeling off the ruined black kid glove to expose the bloody knuckles beneath. "Completely through the leather and into the flesh. I shall have to have this disinfected, for certain. No time for that now. Go, man!" He turned swiftly to resume his journey.

A crack resounded from the brownstone close at hand, and the man felt a spray of stone chips strike the side of his face. He flinched, and a sharp curse left his lips. He took to his heels and rounded the corner of the street, then disappeared into shadow.

* * *

Not ten feet away from the gentleman, though invisible to him, an elegant blonde woman in a white lab coat stood between tall, electronic towers. Behind her, concentric rows of computer consoles were manned by two dozen scientists, engineers, and technicians. Surrounding all of them was a huge, domed room carved from solid pink granite.

The woman stood for long minutes, silent, watching.

Finally one of the technicians broke the electronic silence.

"So, Doc, whaddaya think?"

"What do you think, Jim? How were the readings?" The woman turned toward him.

"I’ve got bang-on, Dr. Chadwick," Jim noted, glancing down at his own console, brown eyes darting about as he surveyed his readouts. "But I can’t say for everybody else."

"Rock steady at Timelines," someone else called.

"Sequencing looks good…" another said.

"Software’s running nominally."

"Hardware’s humming right along…"

On it went, from console to console. Finally the woman nodded.

"Perfect," she purred in deep satisfaction. "We’ve got our subject. Page Dr. Hughes and have her come down."

"On it, Doc," Jim grinned, reaching for the phone.


For more, or to purchase this and more books in the series, go to my website,

Monday, May 21, 2012

Solar, Space, and Geomagnetic Weather, Part 4

So what the heck are CMEs?

Coronal Mass Ejections are gigantic explosions that occur, usually in the vicinity of particularly active sunspot groups (though not always). We're still discovering what they are, how they occur, and why they do what they do. It seems to get into some complicated electromagnetic physics and something called “magnetic reconnection.”

Think about it like this. Suppose you have two bar magnets, lying near each other but, say, perpendicular to each other. Each has its own magnetic field, with field lines that go out from one pole and arc around to the other pole (remember our discussion of iron filings a couple weeks ago?), but now we've got them close enough that those magnetic fields interact.

Suppose – just suppose – a field line broke away from its parent magnet and attached the opposite end to the other magnet? Now suppose a whole SEGMENT of field lines did that. Those bar magnets would start dancing a whirligig, and the magnetic field would go crazy.

Now suppose that the bar magnets are swirling plasma gases, and the field lines are running through more swirling plasma.

THAT is magnetic reconnection. The end result is that a whole bunch of energy gets transferred from the field into kinetic energy. This heats up the plasma AND accelerates it, and, at least on the surface of a star like our Sun, a titanic explosion is the result. A great big blob of plasma goes flying out into space, and that blob is a “coronal mass ejection,” because a big mass of the corona just got ejected from the Sun. (Imaginative name, huh?)

The vast majority of them aren't THAT big, and aren't even Earth-directed. The chances of one smacking Earth aren't that big. But because there are a lot of them, especially at solar max, it happens fairly often. Sometimes it's just the edge of the expanding bubble, but sometimes it whacks Earth upside the head. And when they come in, they're coming fast.

So what are the general parameters of a CME? Depends on where in the solar cycle you are. If you're near solar minimum, they occur about one every 5 days or so. If you're around solar max, expect one every 6 or 7 hours. How big are they? If you're talking volume, that's gonna depend on how far out from the Sun they are, and how well the interplanetary medium is allowing them to hold together. If you're talking how massive, well, on average they're about 3,520,000,000 lb (1,600,000,000,000 kg). That's over three and a half trillion pounds of plasma. On average, their speed is about 304 mi/s or 1.1 million mph (490km/s). IF, however, one follows close on the heels of another, so that the first one has swept most of the interplanetary medium out of the way (decreasing drag), the speed can increase to 2,000 mi/s or 7.2 million mph (3,200 km/s). And with the Sun 93 million miles away, that means a fast CME can reach Earth in just under 13 hours.

-Stephanie Osborn

Monday, May 14, 2012

Solar, Space, and Geomagnetic Weather, Part 3

So what are the effects of coronal hole winds and Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs)?

They can actually raise the temperature of the outer layers of the Earth's atmosphere (the thermosphere, aptly named) sufficient to cause it to expand. This affects us, because that increases drag on satellites and spacecraft, and can cause the orbits of satellites to decay and re-enter well before they were intended. This is really bad if it's something important, like a weather satellite during hurricane season. After all, if the people of Galveston had had weather satellites in 1900, the city could have been evacuated well before it got hit, because they would have known it was coming for days. If we DON'T have weather satellites because we've lost 'em to increased atmospheric drag, we might as well go back to those days, as far as weather prediction is concerned. Ditto communications satellites. Don't even mention GPS.

Disruption of the Earth's magnetic field can be a problem. It can disrupt radio communication (including cell phones) rather severely. It can damage satellites that remain in orbit. It can generate “induced current” in any lengthy conductor. Let's pause for a moment and talk about that.

Induced current is a way of using magnetic fields to generate electicity. Remember how I said, in part 1, that the “current” of plasma created by the Sun's rotation on its axis generated a magnetic field? The reverse is also true. A moving magnetic field can generate an electrical current in any conductor placed within the field. So the disruption of the geomagnetic field constitutes a “moving” magnetic field and will induce electrical currents in everything from power lines to pipes and conduits.

When these truly huge induced currents hit things like transformers and circuit breakers and power stations, they can quickly overload them. This, in turn, can (and has) cause(d) blackouts and brownouts, particularly in parts of the country/world where the power grid is not robust enough to handle significant surges.

Long pipelines, like the Alaskan Pipeline, can be affected as well. In fact corrosion is occurring at a higher rate than expected because its northerly location exposes it to such induced currents all the time (remember that the ends of a bar magnet's field are open).

And it causes the aurorae. Most of you reading this have heard of the Northern Lights, properly termed the Aurora Borealis, but there are also the Southern Lights, the Aurora Australis. These are actually ovals that circle the magnetic poles of Earth (and most other planets with magnetic fields, by the way. They've been photographed on Jupiter.) They are where the charged particles that have been caught up from the solar wind or CME into the geomagnetic field follow the field lines down into the atmosphere. The gas molecules become excited into a higher energy state, then discharge that extra energy as light. This is very similar – in fact, essentially the same – as a fluorescent light bulb, only natural and not contained. The colors are determined mostly by the main gas that is fluorescing. Carbon dioxide produces white light; nitrogen, pink or red; oxygen, green or blue. (It can also generate ozone.)

Now, having talked about all of this radiation that an increased solar wind and coronal mass ejections pump into our Earth's system in general, and the fact that there are more of these things when there are more sunspots, when do you think the Sun is sending out more energy, Solar Max, or Solar Min? Yup, despite the logic of sunspots being cooler, the Sun actually sends out more energy during Solar Max, when there are the most sunspots.

-Stephanie Osborn

Monday, May 7, 2012

Solar, Space, and Geomagnetic Weather, Part 2

But wait! There's more!

At Solar Max, the coronal holes move away from the Sun's poles and group in with the sunspots, spewing high-speed solar particles out into the plane of the solar system.

At the end of every 11-year cycle, the magnetic orientation of the spots...flips. The end that was North becomes South, and the end that was South becomes North. It takes a whole 'nother cycle to get back to the way it started out. So that's a second solar cycle, the 22-year cycle.

In addition there are longer cycles that we are still working on figuring out, because they're hundreds of years long, and it's hard to get data that goes far enough back to chart those.

Now, sunspots look dark not because they're cold, but because they're just a bit cooler than the surrounding plasma of the photosphere (which is the visible “surface” of the Sun). If the photosphere is about 5,800°K (~10,500°F), then the sunspots are about 3,000-4,500°K (4,900-7,600°F). Still plenty hot enough to fry your turkey, but still several thousand degrees cooler than their surroundings. They can be teeny-tiny (relatively speaking, of course) or they can be huge things (80,000km/50,000mi – not too shabby when you consider the Earth is about 13,000km/8,000mi diameter) big enough to be seen by the naked eye (but don't do that – we like having eyesight.)

So you might reasonably expect that during a solar max the Sun would be cooler, and send less energy out into space, right? Well, at first glance you might think so, but that isn't really how it works. Remember, a sunspot is a big magnetic snarl. And the plasma around it follows the lines in that snarl. So we get all those great big loops – prominences and flares and things like that. Occasionally, like a snarl in your hair, the lines break – but unlike your hair, they reattach, producing really spectacular flares.

And then there are the CMEs. Coronal Mass Ejections.

I'm never quite sure how to best anthropomorphise a CME. Are they solar belches, or sneezes? Suffice it to say that all of that magnetic field mess around the sunspot group causes some sort of explosion. (No, we don't know exactly why. We do know it's really, really complicated.) And it is like a giant nuclear bomb, blowing a big bubble of plasma away from the Sun at high speeds.

So between the coronal holes increasing both the speed and density of the solar wind, and these CMEs exploding into the solar system, the most active time for the Sun is in fact solar max, and that is when it's pumping more energy into the solar system, not less.

I know, I know - that doesn't make sense. Let's talk about the details next week.

Stephanie Osborn