Tag Archives: imagination

More Awesome NASA Space Travel Posters

Thinking about a trip to Mars or Ceres? Book today! Don’t forget to ask about your Pi Day discount.

NASA is in the travel agent business again! JPL released travel posters for Mars, Venus, Jupiter, and several moons. They explore some different styles from the first set, and are cool as hell. Below are some of the preview sizes. They are available to download free at high res, suitable for printing up to 20″ x 30″.

And if you’re a vintage poster enthusiast like me, also check out the Library of Congress site. Tons of WPA posters are available free at high res, among other historical documents. (Beware, though, their site requires patience. It’s not organized for quick browsing, but there are some real gems in their collection. I linked to some of my favorites in this old post. I decorated my bathroom with them. Yes, I have a poster about syphilis in my bathroom.)  And finally, the National Parks posters are amazing vintage posters, though they aren’t free. I just made a few of my own last week.

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Proof! I did indeed print and hang the travel posters. Also in this room: a tea towel with a graphic of the Very Large Array (VLA). Nerd factor infinity!

Science Fiction Worldbuilding

One thing I love about science fiction is worldbuilding. When you go to a new place, you take in the architecture, the language, the food, the weather, how someone enters a house, how someone insults another person… These things exist in any culture, but they vary, sometimes radically. In science fiction, the creator tries to imagine these things in a logical and consistent manner for a time that hasn’t happened yet, for planets unknown, with the very constants of life such as gravity and oxygen subject to change. And yet the end product, when successful, is similar to travel–we visit a place that is deeply familiar in the fundamental ways and yet different in ways that provoke thought.

(Some people think that there is too much worldbuilding–I don’t agree. I think the author can tell too much of their own personal worldbuilding process and not consider the reader enough. However, I speak from a place of no authority, so take my opinion for what it is worth.)

In the last few weeks, I’ve been working on illustrations of street life in my city inspired by Hiroshige’s 100 views of Edo. Even after 17 years working on this world, I see many new things this way.


On the hill in the background is the outline of an old storm tower, shaped a bit like a lighthouse. The old fortifications stood high on the hills with thick walls to withstand the storms.SONY DSC

The view west from a storm tower, to give early warning of storms. In the early days of the city, storms caused flash flooding and devastation.SONY DSCGleaming cities often have unsavory hidden parts, sometimes literally lurking around the corner.

So far I’ve done about 20 illustrations. I’d like to do at least 100. In each one I feel more comfortable with previous details. I’ve looked up references of European and Moroccan and Japanese architecture (mostly the European showing in these three samples). Now I’ve started incorporating old sketches over a decade old. The city feels all the more real to me (it’s great inspiration for story ideas and details), and the work is great fun.


Science is Creative!

In the US, science is regarded as valuable, but dry and a bit stiff. As a student, it’s easy to get this impression, studying rigid facts first explored centuries ago. The math, chemistry, physics, and biology we learn in high school and college are about recreating long-known answers by well-established methods. But the process of making new science and math is inherently creative, and new ideas require letting the mind run wild a little. In this post, I’ll talk about how I develop my ideas.

I work with populations of oscillators. The idea of this research is that the complexity of the whole (the population) exceeds the complexity of each element (the oscillator). The human brain is a good example of such a system–each neuron is fairly simple and well-understood, but overall brain behavior arising from the interactions of many neurons is not understood. My research tends to work by observation–I notice something I find interesting and I explore that further. Other researchers work on what they suspect they will find, based upon other work. All research works within the context of its field. There are many interesting behaviors I have noted in my experiments, but I explore the ones I might explain. Really random observations are cool, but hard to frame in a way which is meaningful to the community.

The above may not sound particularly creative. But the key to experiments like I do is imagining what might happen when one explores slightly beyond what is known. It requires extrapolating from the areas we know, in the context of the rules we know, to the areas we don’t know. Some of the rules we know are pretty absolute, like thermodynamics, but others may be flexible. (As a note on this point, the stable chemical oscillations I study were once considered thermodynamically impossible. Someone had to bend the established understanding of thermodynamics to explain these oscillations. Einstein had to bend Newton’s Laws for relativity, and he arrived at that conclusion by logic rather than by observation.) In an experimental apparatus like mine, thousands of experiments are possible. It is up to the experimentalist to pick from the possibilities, in the context of what might work in his imagination, to demonstrate something hitherto unknown.

In some ways, the process is similar to writing. There are rules that must be obeyed, and the process of finding something new or interesting is very indirect. With science and writing, I develop some of my best ideas drinking a beer or taking a walk. Sitting at a desk focusing is required at times, but so too is active contemplation. The rules of science are broader and more rigid and take longer to learn, but there are similarities.

A lot of historical scientists were fascinating people, akin to historical artists. Van Gogh got his ear cut off in a fight. Astronomer Tycho Brahe lost his nose in a duel. Salvador Dali shellacked his hair. Electrical engineer Nikola Tesla fell in love with a pigeon. Mathematician Paul Erdos lived itinerantly for decades. In one visit to a colleague, he couldn’t figure out how to open a carton of juice, so he instead stabbed it open (among many, many other oddities). Physicist Richard Feynman used to work on his physics at strip clubs. Artists may share their eccentricities more in their works, but I would argue that scientists have every bit as much oddness.

I hope this post illustrates a little what it is like to be a research scientist, and how science at the cutting edge works. For more science posts, check out my fun science list.