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15 Nov 2002
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Dan Simmons: A Winter Haunting

In 1981, elementary school teacher and freelance author Dan Simmons attended a workshop for amateur writers in Denver, Colorado, hoping against hope for some sign to keep pursuing a career as an author. Simmons had told his wife that this was the last chance he was giving writing as a real career; if he didn’t get some encouragement at this conference, he was ready to quit trying and concentrate entirely on his teaching. Luckily for Simmons, the conference’s guest speaker Harlan Ellison recognized his talent immediately. The science fiction luminary bluntly told the teacher he’d ツ“rip his nose off if he didn't keep writing.ツ” The threat was sweet music to Simmons’s ears.

With the author’s happy consent, Ellison entered Simmons’s short story, "The River Styx Runs Upstream," in a contest for beginning writers. Ellison’s instincts were dead on: the story won, and saw print a year later, soon winning the Rod Serling Memorial Award. By 1985, Simmons had published his first novel, Song of Kali, which earned the author a World Fantasy Award. Simmons spent the next several years trying different genres and earning high marks in all of them: his first horror novel, Carrion Comfort, won the Bram Stoker Award from the Horror Writers of America, while his first science fiction novel, Hyperion, won the prestigious Hugo Award.

Although he still experiments with new styles and genres, Simmons dwells mostly in the realm of psychological horror. Like the late Victorian ghost story writers who influenced him, Simmons introduces fear by degrees, beckoning the reader to follow the narrator down long, dark corridors that lead to madness or worse. In Simmons’ most recent novel, A Winter Haunting , the author re-introduces Dale Stewart, a survivor of the horrible events of Simmons’s 1991 book The Summer of Night, in which a group of young teenagers are tormented by an evil entity. Now a writer looking for inspiration, Stewart returns to the house where he first experienced terror forty years earlier. When Stewart finds himself plagued by small but seemingly malign occurrences, he can’t tell if they’re visions or genuine hauntings. The reader is skillfully persuaded to trust Stewart – although doubts begin to creep in about his sanity – as he confronts his personal demons.

Is Pluto a Planet?

In 1930, Clyde W. Tombaugh, an astronomer at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, conducted a systematic search for a planet beyond Neptune. Astronomical calculations based on the movements of Uranus and Neptune had suggested the existence of a ninth planet. Although those calculations would later be shown as flawed, Tombaugh managed to discover Pluto. Today, however, some scientists are asking whether Pluto even qualifies as a planet, with many speculating it is just a large lump of ice on the edge of the solar system.

The definition of a planet is rather arbitrary, though it is common to require the body be large enough for its own gravitation to turn it into a sphere. Whether Pluto met this criteria was unknown at the time of Tombaugh's discovery. Tombaugh simply found through his close examination of photographs that Pluto moved slower than nearby asteroids. He immediately announced that he had found the elusive "Planet X," and the International Astronomical Union (IAU) officially named the ninth planet in 1930.

Today's burning question, however, is whether Pluto will retain its "planet" designation. Many astronomers think Pluto--believed to be 70 percent rock and 30 percent ice--is more likely a large comet of the Kuiper Belt. Even the IAU debated "demoting" Pluto, nearly giving it the name "10,000" to denote it among the other small bodies on the edge of the solar system.

The Rose Center for Earth and Space, which opened in 2000 at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, also embraced the controversy. Their solar system display reads: "Beyond the outer planets is the Kuiper Belt of comets, a disk of small, icy worlds including Pluto." Though the debate still rages, the IAU has decided against re-classifying the planet.

Darwin 'Confesses a Murder'
Charles Darwin (1809-82) lived quietly in the English countryside with his wife, eight children, and a household staff of nannies, servants, and gardeners. As befit a gentleman of his social standing, he served as a part-time judge. But his main passion was the study of nature, and from his peaceful rural hilltop he unleashed the theory of evolution--an explosive concept that still reverberates a century and a half later.

As a young man, Darwin feared the outrage his theory of evolution would provoke. The Anglican Church had declared itself the sole authority on human origins, and Darwin himself had studied to be an Anglican clergyman before shifting his focus to science at the age of 22. Confiding to a friend that he believed all living things had evolved from common ancestors rather than being unique creations of God, Darwin said, "It is like confessing a murder." He meant the murder of God and, for years, was plagued by dreams of being hanged for his beliefs.

Although he had become an evolutionist in 1837, Darwin put off writing and publishing On the Origin of Species, the book that outlined his theories, until 1859--only publishing then because another naturalist's ideas threatened to scoop him. Evolution became an immediate topic of debate among scientists, philosophers, and theologians around the world.

Darwin, however, continued his quiet life as an English country gentleman. His conservative lifestyle demonstrated that a rejection of Biblical authority does not lead inevitably to moral decadence, and no taint of scandal ever touched him. After Darwin died in 1882, zoologist Thomas Henry Huxley said, "He found a great truth and lived to see it established in science and in the common thoughts of men. What can a man ask more than this?" Today every branch of the life sciences, from biochemistry to botany, has an evolutionary underpinning.

Judith Tarr: A Realm of Wonder
Judith Tarr’s latest historical fantasy novel, The Pride of Kings , is set in England during the twelfth century, when good King Richard the Lion Heart ruled, until his brother the wicked King John inherited the throne. But in Tarr’s novel, the historical (and popular) version is turned on its head – the hated John becomes a hero and ultimately his country’s most ardent patriot. In this magical mingling of fact and fiction, Tarr makes clever use of real historical detail, evocative myths, and the desires that motivate the human heart.

When his father dies, Richard the Lion Heart is offered two crowns: one is the crown of the realm, the other is a magical gift offered by ancient pagan gods. Richard chooses the first and spurns the second, then leaves to go crusading in the East. His brother John, Richard’s temporary replacement, is visited by a Saxon ghost who promises him supernatural powers if John will only seize the throne and defend his country against a dark otherwordly evil. The only catch is that the world will never know the truth about John’s real reasons for taking power. History will portray him as a villain, though his motivations are pure.

John is helped by a range of characters Tarr plucks from legend, history and her own imagination. His mother, the ravishing, fiery Eleanor of Acquitaine makes an appearance, as does Richard’s childhood friend Philip of France, who schemes endlessly to claim the throne of England for himself (as he did in reality). Robin Hood is a shadowy figure in the wood. There are also less solid creatures: Arslan ("lion" in Turkish), the son of a human noble and a female spirit, who jumps between the fairy and the human worlds, and the magical Lorelei, who wears "a woman's shape" but moves with the grace of a spirit. Together, they fight to defend England against a magical power that threatens to destroy the realm.

The author of several other historical fantasy works, World Fantasy Award nominee Tarr weaves her tale so skillfully that even the most devoted historian will prefer her version to reality.

The Piltdown Man Hoax
In 1912, Charles Dawson, an amateur archaeologist, presented fossils that he had discovered in Sussex, England. The human-like skull bone and ape-like jaw came to be known as Piltdown man. However, as the years passed, new evidence formed a picture of evolution in which Piltdown man had no logical place. Finally, in 1949, new methods of fluorine dating revealed that the "fossils" were quite modern. The jaw was from an orangutan, the teeth had been filed to appear more human-like, and the bones had been stained to look old. By 1953, Piltdown man was shown to be a fake.

Why were so many scientists fooled by this fraud? Whoever created the hoax was clever, obscuring any evidence that would give it away, and producing new "finds" every time someone questioned its authenticity. But there was a larger reason, too. British anthropologists at the beginning of the 20th century believed that having a big brain was the key to the evolution of modern humans. When they saw evidence of this in Piltdown man, it neatly fit into their theories.

In addition, they were all too eager to believe that human beings evolved in Britain, which Piltdown man seemed to confirm. Anthropologists today believe that walking on two legs was the key change that brought our ancestors out of the forest into the savannah where they evolved into a new species.

Determining who was responsible for the hoax is its own mystery. Some believe that Charles Dawson did it, others argue that various key figures in British anthropology were responsible. The most intriguing suspect is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, though few scholars believe he is responsible.

Regardless of who cooked up the idea, the Piltdown man hoax has taught scientists to be more cautious in evaluating "proofs" of their pet theories.

 Beethoven on the Edge of Madness: The Heiligenstadt Testament
It is part letter, part will and, perhaps, part suicide note. It is the Heiligenstadt Testament, written by Ludwig van Beethoven, dated October 6, 1802, and addressed to Beethoven's brothers, Carl and Johann--though never mailed. According to author David Wyn Jones, it is "the next best thing to Beethoven on the [psychiatrist's] couch."

In 1802, Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) was 32 years old and quite successful. He wrote his second symphony that year and had, by that time, also written three piano concertos. Though Beethoven was born in Bonn, Germany, his adopted city of Vienna loved him, and his music was beginning to gain an international following. But for several years, Beethoven had been losing his hearing. A doctor had suggested rest; so in May 1802, Beethoven moved to Heiligenstadt, a town just outside Vienna. His hearing did not improve, and after four months, a tormented Beethoven sat down to write.

"O you men who think or say I am hostile, peevish, or misanthropic, how greatly you wrong me," began the four-page document. "You do not know the secret cause which makes me seem so to you." Seemingly despondent, Beethoven continued: "For six years now I have had an incurable condition, made worse by incompetent doctors ツ・I must live quite alone, like an outcast."

Another, shorter letter was attached to the original. Addressed once again to Carl and Johann and "to be read and executed after my death," it reads a bit like a will. In it, Beethoven despaired that "for so long now, the heartfelt echo of true joy has been strange to meツ・ With joy," he wrote, "I hasten towards death."

Beethoven, however, would live for another 25 years. Though he eventually went completely deaf, Beethoven produced some of the most important and memorable compositions in the history of Western music, including nine symphonies--thrilling the world with melodies that, eventually, he could only hear in his troubled heart.

Michael Crichton:prey
For his latest thriller, Prey , Michael Crichton says the artificial intelligence-gone-haywire plot grew out of his interest in "knowing where three trends might be going--distributed programming, biotechnology, and nanotechnology." The answer, at least in Prey , is someplace terrifying and inescapable.

Crichton taps into a broad fear of the rapidly advancing technologies of artificial intelligence in Prey . Skillfully presented as a family drama turned large-scale disaster, Prey stars a mechanical plague, set loose after a top-secret experiment in the Nevada desert goes awry. Millions of self-producing microrobots escape, threatening to overwhelm the human population.

Like his fictional robots, Crichton is compelled to keep producing. Says Crichton, "I tend to write books that grab me by the throat and force me to write them. I don't usually feel as if I have a choice, or much control of what comes out. Often, I don't want to be writing a particular book, but there I am, writing it anyway."

A graduate of Harvard Medical School and the creator of TV's medical drama "ER," Crichton says that he keeps up on cutting-edge technologies through personal interest. He uses his knowledge to weave masterful techno-thrillers that manage to hit home, whether they're about dinosaurs or microrobots. Given that that science is inextricably part of our everyday life, Crichton has said it's important for the dark sides of scientific advancements to be explored in novels and in films.

In a recent speech, Crichton said, "We live in a culture of relentless, round-the-clock boosterism for science and technology. With each new discovery and invention, the virtues are always oversold, the drawbacks understatedツ・everyone knows science and technology are inevitably a mixed blessing. How then will the fears, the concerns, the downsides of technology be expressed? Because it has to appear somewhere. So it appears in movies, in stories--which I would argue is a good place for it to appear." If it's in the books of Michael Crichton, then we would too.

The X-ray Visionary
During an 1895 experiment on a cathode ray tube, Wilhelm Röntgen's attention was drawn to a sheet of chemically-treated paper on a nearby bench in his darkened laboratory. It glowed each time he turned on the tube. Curious to know why, he abandoned his original experiment and focused on learning more about the "mysterious rays" that the tube seemed to generate.

Röntgen placed different objects in the path of the rays--paper, a book, a sheet of aluminum, a piece of lead--and found that the rays passed through everything but the lead. He watched, stunned, as the rays passed through his own hand, revealing a shadowy image of the bones inside. Röntgen had discovered X-rays, a find that would change the world and earn him the first Nobel Prize in Physics in 1901.

After his initial X-ray experiments, Röntgen worked so furiously that his wife, Bertha, expressed concern. He convinced her of the importance of his discovery by having her place her hand on a photographic plate and aiming the rays at it. When he developed the plate, his wife was amazed to see the bones of her hand clearly visible. It was the first recorded X-ray of the human skeleton.

X-rays are a form of energy similar to light. They're invisible to the naked eye because they have a much shorter wavelength than light waves. Today, X-rays are used to detect art forgeries, and in a range of other applications so common most of us take the science for granted. Imagine what a trip to the dentist or through airport security would be like without Röntgen's discovery.

Werner Heisenberg and Germany's A-Bomb Failure: Incompetence or Moral Choice?
It is one of the lingering mysteries of World War II: What was German physicist Werner Heisenberg's role in failed Nazi efforts to build an atomic bomb? At the start of World War II, the Germans were thought to have an advantage; German scientists had, after all, discovered atomic fission in 1937, and Germany had access to uranium and other key natural resources. They also had Heisenberg, a brilliant Nobel laureate who directed Germany's weapons research during the war. Albert Einstein thought the threat was so great that he warned President Franklin Roosevelt personally, helping to launch the Manhattan Project despite strong pacifist feelings.

The Americans built the bomb first, however, and post-war intelligence suggested that the race really wasn't that close. The Germans apparently failed to grasp basic elements of atomic-bomb design, not recognizing, for instance, the role that plutonium plays in fueling the bomb. They also failed to produce the self-sustaining chain reaction needed to trigger an atomic weapon. So, what went wrong?

There are still more questions than answers. Did Heisenberg fail intentionally in order to keep the bomb from falling into Hitler's irresponsible hands? He hinted as much after the war. Also, despite staying in Germany during the war, he never joined the Nazi party, and his love for Germany did not extend to Adolf Hitler. Samuel Goudsmit, a Jew and the scientific director of the Allied intelligence mission, is among those who believe such arguments are simply a cover for incompetent science. Others, including Heisenberg biographer David Cassidy, say meddling by Nazi officials ultimately may have derailed German bomb research.

After World War II, Heisenberg never explained his loyalty to Germany to the full satisfaction of scientific colleagues. While many accepted that he may have had little choice but to work for the Nazis during the war, others weren't as forgiving, and Heisenberg's stature suffered.
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