Classic Sci Fi: Dreadnought! by Diane Carey

Dreadnought_coverWelcome to my beloved Star Trek novels shelf. In an earlier review, I mentioned the high caliber of novels written in the 1980’s and 1990s. Many of these novels were written by women. Diane Carey has written thirty-nine Star Trek novels to date. You’d think at that speed she wouldn’t be able to produce much quality, but her novels are great – exciting, thoughtful, and often highlighting lesser-known characters or introducing new characters who have their own adventures. My favorite is Dreadnought, which introduces Lieutenant Piper.


Piper is a hotshot with dreams of her own command who is thrilled to find herself posted to the Enterprise. Alas for Piper, before she even gets a chance to change from her civvies into her uniform, she’s implicated in a treason plot. Piper and her roommates form a mirror group to Kirk’s command group. Piper is the boss and the first-person narrator of the book. She’s human, but has never been to Earth before Command School (she’s descended from colonists of Proxima Beta, another planet). Scanner is the tech guy. He’s human, from the American South. Merete is the doctor (she’s another human descendent of colonists). And Sarda is Vulcan.


Piper has another roommate who is a Gorn. I would have loved for the Gorn to have been part of the team, although the Gorn doesn’t seem to communicate verbally so no telling how that would have worked out. Presumably due to this issue, the Gorn is sadly left behind. One of my favorite things about the novels is that, unlike the show, they are unconstrained by technological and budgetary limits, and therefore they have the opportunity to introduce more unusual alien species. Authors Barbara Hambly and Diane Duane had a lot of fun introducing all kinds of bizarre life forms. It was a disappointment to start the book in that direction and quickly devolve into a book in which everyone looks human with the exception of pointy ears.


Piper and Sarda have a complicated history in which she spilled some secrets about him “for his own good” at Starfleet Academy and then proceeded to bully him about being Vulcan. This kind of bigotry is omnipresent in Star Trek: The Original Series. It’s a show that very much pushes for inclusion, and yet has an odd dynamic in that people feel compelled to constantly needle Spock about being Vulcan without actually trying to understand him. McCoy is the most blatant offender, with his comments usually being played for laughs. It’s refreshing to see that Piper quickly realizes how inappropriate her reactions to Sarda are. Instead of continually trying to challenge him to behave in a more human manner, she starts to educate herself about Vulcan history and education, and she becomes more respectful of Sarda’s boundaries. This allows them to develop a healthy balance that nicely mirrors the Kirk/Spock relationship and even improves on that relationship a bit.


Piper is brash, awkward, nervous, and very young. In the course of this book and the sequel, Battlestations, it’s great fun to watch her mature as a leader. This isn’t a heavy book, but it has some substance behind it as people deal with cultural and ethical problems. It’s one of my go-to books for the bathtub, or when I’m sick. When I was nursing my baby, who wanted to be held all the time, I read piles of Star Trek novels, because they were fast reads that kept my attention and neither strained nor insulted my intelligence, and because they were lightweight paperbacks that I could hold in one hand when I had a baby in the other.


The other time in my life when I read a lot of Star Trek novels was high school. Whatever flaws these novels have, they were instrumental in introducing me to the work of many women who were writing science fiction, and they matter-of-factly placed female characters in leadership positions. This was long before Star Trek: Voyager. I was thrilled and astonished at the idea that women would be starship captains, but these books treated the concept of women in high positions of power across multiple disciplines as a matter of course. It’s largely thanks to these novels that I never thought of science fiction as something that was “for boys.” I’ll always be grateful to the women of the Star Trek novels for helping me believe that Space, actual and literary, is a Frontier for everyone.

Between the Lines Book Club: It’s a Mystery Edition!

between the lines book club logoDear Book Clubbers, we are on a hiatus while Arden Dimick Library gets a makeover – our next in person meeting will be on June 25, 2016. In the meantime, some of my book clubbers were chatting after our last meeting and asking for book recommendations for the break. While many of my regular readers are into genre fiction (science fiction, comics, and romance) many of my book clubbers are more well-versed in literary fiction and nonfiction. So once a month between now and June, I’m going to reprint one of my Gateway Drug columns from the genres of mystery, fantasy, science fiction, romance, and humor. This is a great chance to try something new!


This month I’m recommending some mysteries. I find that I’m usually not terribly interested in whodunnit, but I enjoy mysteries because they often allow the reader to peek into hidden parts of society. Mysteries can be set in any time and location, and in the course of events the detective will encounter all sorts of people. Thanks to mysteries I’ve read about the African-American neighborhoods of Los Angeles in the 1940s, modern day Saudi Arabia, Victorian England, and more. Click on the link to find a list of recommendations that range all over the world. Don’t forget the classics, dear Watson!





History’s Hidden Heroes: Vera Rubin

My favorite thing to write for this blog has always been ‘History’s Hidden Heroes’, in which I showcased the lives and accomplishments of scientists of color, LGTB scientists, and female scientists. This feature fell by the wayside when I started writing Kickass Women for Smart Bitches Trashy BooksGuest writer Max Fagin is bringing the Heroes back with his contribution about scientist Vera Rubin. bonus – unlike me, Max is actually a scientist, so his explanations of Rubin’s accomplishments are far more sophisticated than my own, which run along the lines of, “IDK, she discovered stuff, it was cool.” Enjoy!

It’s no secret that STEM has a major problem with obtaining gender parity, and astronomy is not immune to that problem. Astronomy doesn’t have it as bad as, say, computer science (with 18% women at the PhD level) but it isn’t doing as well as biology (58% women, again at the PhD level). Astronomy sits somewhere in the middle of the STEM pack with 35% of new PhDs going to women in 2012.

But as arguably the oldest science, astronomy has also been a field of many firsts for women in STEM. America’s first woman to be hired as a college professor was Maria Mitchell, who was hired by Vassar College in 1843 as a professor of astronomy. At around the same time, the first woman to receive a salary for her work as a professional scientist was the German astronomer Caroline Herschel.

The subject of today’s History’s Hidden Heroes is one of those women: Vera Rubin. A woman who overcame the biases of her day to discover an even bigger bias in the universe itself…
Vera Cooper Rubin '48

Up until the late 1970’s, if you were to ask an astronomer what the universe was made of, a complete list would be composed of:


1) Stars (living and dead)

2) Interstellar gas and dust

3) Black holes

4) Planets

5) Whatever detritus happens to be on that planet’s surface


(Note, that last category would include us). These are the things we typically think of as “normal” matter, where “normal” means stuff composed of protons, neutrons and electrons, sometimes in the form of atoms and chemicals, or ionized plasma.

However, ask an astronomer today what the universe is made of, and you will probably hear a list containing something that isn’t on that 1970’s list: Dark Matter. Vera Rubin was the first scientist to uncover observational evidence that Dark Matter was a real thing, and to reveal that “normal” matter was far from normal, but comprised only 20% of the matter in our universe. All past detection methods had been heavily biased towards detecting this normal matter, but that didn’t mean Dark Matter wasn’t real, and didn’t mean it hadn’t played a profound part in the formation and evolution of our universe.

Vera Rubin earned her BA in astronomy from Vassar college in 1957 (the college that had hired Maria Mitchell, the first woman to hold a professorship in the United States). Vassar had been founded as an all girls school in 1861 (and would remain so until 1969) but even before going co-ed, it had a reputation for producing smart and driven graduates, many of whom has already made significant contributions to science and engineering, including Admiral Grace Hopper, one of the inventors of COBOL, an early programing language. (Vassar also had a reputation in the fictional realm as well, counting among its many fictional alumni the smartest James Bond girl, NASA scientist Dr. Holly Goodhead, who proudly represented Vassar in the stupidest James Bond movie, Moonraker.)


Rubin graduated from Vassar as the only astronomy major in her class, and went on to complete her Masters in Astronomy at Cornell (after being rejected from Princeton on the grounds that their astronomy department did not admit women). Rubin then completed a PhD at Georgetown University under the famous cosmologist George Gamow.

At this era in astronomy, before the invention of space based telescopes, cosmology was focused on studying galaxies in our corner of the universe to see what their structure and distribution could tell us about the universe at large. This was the field that Dr. Rubin made her greatest discovery in during the 1970’s, while conducting observations of galactic rotation curves.

Under the influence of gravity, objects behave in extremely predictable ways. Since the days of Kepler, it had been understood that the further away an object (like a planet) was from the body it was orbiting (like a star) the slower it would be traveling in its orbit. The embodiment of this was captured in what became known as Kepler’s 3rd law, that the square of a planet’s period (the time it takes to complete one orbit) was proportional to the cube of the object’s semimajor axis (its distance from the star).

Although the geometry was more complicated on galactic scales, these rules applied to stars orbiting around the center of their galaxies as well. The farther away a star was from the center of the galaxy, the slower it should be orbiting.

But when Rubin measured the speed of stars in the nearby Andromeda galaxy, this was not what she saw. Outside the galactic core, the stars did not continue to slow down as one looked further away from the center of the galaxy. Instead, the velocity of the stars plateaued into a flat line, all the way to the edge of the galaxy where the stars stopped and intergalactic space began.




What could cause the stars to behave like that? By playing with the distribution of mass, it was quickly noticed that this “flat rotation curve” could be explained if there was some “missing mass” distributed in a spherical halo around the galaxy. The idea that astronomers might have missed some of the galaxies mass was not so far fetched. After all, galaxies contain more than just luminous stars. They also contained giant clouds of interstellar gas and dust, which can only be seen in the visible band by the starlight it reflects, or blocks out. But astronomers knew where gas and dust tended to be in a galaxy: In the galactic plane. Much like stars, it never tended to wander very far from the flat disk of the galaxy. And besides, if the missing mass was just gas and dust, an enormous amount of starlight would be obscured. Orders of magnitude more than what was actually observed in nearby galaxies.



NGC 891: A galaxy seen edge on, where dust is clearly visible from the starlight it obscures.


Astronomers began to consider more exotic possibilities. What if galaxies were surrounded by swarms of super compact dead stars? If the missing mass was composed of very small very dense objects orbiting the galaxy in a spherical cloud, their small size wouldn’t necessarily block the light from the stars (unlike the diffuse distributed clouds of gas and dust).

But in order to account for the amount of mass that was missing, these objects (and others like them, eventually referred to as MACHOS, for MAssively Compact Halo ObjectS), would have to be so numerous that they would still occasionally transit (pass in front of) a background star, causing the star’s light to briefly fluctuate in a very characteristic way. Search after search for these transiting MACHOs over the past few decades has come up empty.

Perhaps the missing mass could be explained by some very massive subatomic particle? If it was, this particle would have to be very weakly interacting, or else we would have seen it in our detectors by now. Unfortunately, these particles (now called WIMPs, for Weakly Interacting Massive Particles) have also eluded detection by every effort mounted so far to find them.

The seeming futility of the search even drove some scientists to suggest that we don’t understand gravity as well as we thought we did. Perhaps, at galactic scales, gravity required some additional correction factor that would explain the rotation of galaxies. These possibilities (called MONDs, for MOdifications to Newtonian Dynamics) originally showed a great deal of promise for explaining galactic rotation curves, but observations in the early 00’s of galactic clusters, and of elemental abundances in the early universe effectively ruled it out as an option as well.


The bullet cluster. Two clusters of colliding galaxies, the observations of which provided some of the first evidence that modifications to gravity could not explain the behavior attributed of Dark Matter.


Our existing model of gravity has withstood the test, leaving WIMPs as the best candidate for Dark Matter (though entirely by default). In the decades since Dr. Rubin’s discovery, we have simply ruled out anything else it really could be. However we slice it, ~80% of the mass in our universe is composed of “something” that doesn’t emit or obscure light (i.e. is invisible) doesn’t decay or radiate in anyway we can yet detect, and betrays its presence solely by exerting a pull of gravity on the normal matter around it (Though the term “normal” matter could now be said to be a misnomer. If anything, the matter that makes up the stars, dust, gas, planets, rock and squishy stuff that composes us is the unusual kind of matter. Physicists now prefer the term “Baryonic matter” to describe this type of everyday matter.)

The Nobel prize in physics is the most male dominated of all the original Nobel prizes. It has been awarded to a woman only twice since it was established in 1901: Most recently in 1963 when it was shared by three physicists, including Maria Goeppert Mayer for work on deriving a successful theoretical model of the nuclear shell. Before that, the only other woman to win the prize was Marie and Pierre Curie for their work on radiation.

Dr. Rubin is perhaps the best candidate to break this 50 year dry spell, and many would say that Dr. Rubin is long overdue for her prize, the original discovery being made almost 45 years ago. Such a long wait is not unprecedented (the 2013 prize for the discovery of the Higgs Bozon was the culmination of a prediction made 50 years before the awarding of the prize). However, in 2012, the Nobel Prize in physics was awarded for the discovery of the (similarly named but entirely unrelated) Dark ENERGY. While no one in the astrophysics community doubted that the discovery of Dark Energy (which outnumbers both Dark Matter and baryonic matter in our universe by 4 to 1) was an incredibly significant discovery, many people were surprised that the prize was awarded so early. The discovery of Dark Energy was only 13 years only in 2013. Some might say Dr. Rubin and the discovery of Dark Matter is overdue for its medal.


In the meantime, Dr. Rubin has retired from astronomy, but remains an active proponent of women in STEM. I had the privilege of hearing her talk about her work when she returned to Vassar while I was a student there in 2007. It was the first time I really accepted that Dark Matter was a real thing (in my defence, early 2007 was before some of the clinching observations were made of galactic clusters and cosmology that made MOND no longer a tenable theory.) Every year, when nomination season rolls around, I hope that Dr. Rubin will receive the call from the Nobel Committee, and I still think she will. Astronomy, by the nature of the subject, only attracts those who can learn to be patient, but waiting that long for the recognition a discovery like that must be a maddening prospect, even for a mind as tuned to astronomy as Vera Rubin’s.



Additional reading:

Three Rules For Being a Fan


Your move, D.C.

The more I go to conventions, the more I see people like this kid on the left doing fandom right. How can you be a good fan? There’s only three rules, and neither of them refer to having seen every episode and knowing every bit of trivia. Here they are:

Define yourself by what you love, not by what you hate.

There are many variations of this maxim on the Internet. I’ve seen “Define yourself by what you love” attributed to Tim Minchin, but it’s a common sentiment. It’s common not because it’s trite, but because it’s true. As an example, I give you the rivalry between Harry Potter and Twilight.

I’m interested in the fact that you love Harry Potter, and I’m not interested in the fact that you hate Twilight. Hating Twilight will not bring you joy. It does not make you smarter or kinder or better in any way.

Incidentally, “Define yourself by what you love” does not mean that the things you hate are exempt from criticism. Calling out things that are problematic can make the world better. Calling out workmanship that is shoddy can make us better creators. When I say, “Don’t define yourself by what you love,” I don’t mean “Keep quiet about what you hate.” Tell us what you dislike about it. But don’t make that your main focus in life, don’t use it as a source of snobbery, and don’t let it define your fandom. You can love Harry Potter and Twilight, if you want to. And you certainly don’t need to love Harry Potter because you hate Twilight. Love Harry Potter for its own sake. Leave the things you hate out of the equation. Define yourself by what brings you joy.



More hugging, less hating!


Let your fandom influence your life.


What values attract you? Does Star Trek speak because of its messages of inclusion? If so, bring that into your own life, even if in small ways. Donate $5 to the ACLU, post a cartoon on Facebook, and stand up for the rights of women and people of color in conversations. Maybe what attracts you to Star Trek is the focus on science – so go learn some, and support science programs in schools and elsewhere. Maybe you like the ideals of teamwork and found family, in which case, let Star Trek help make you a better real-life friend and team player. If what you like is the clothes, then perhaps you want to study fashion. I won’t judge. Just let your fandom make you a better friend and a better person in the world.



I’m judging you a little bit.



Never apologize.


If you love 50 Shades of Gray, you know what? You rock on with your bad self. It’s not my thing, but who gives a shit about whether it’s my thing or not? Your fandom is about what YOU like, not about what anyone else approves of. As I stated above, I’m free to point out aspects that concern me about the material, but I don’t think you are bad, or stupid, or immoral because you love the work. I encourage everyone to look at what they love critically and learn from both it’s strong points and its weaknesses. I adore Victorian fiction for lots of reasons – that doesn’t mean I support the colonialism and other problems in the material. It just means that there are other aspects of the material that speak to me. Don’t worry about whether I like 50 Shades. If you like it, read the hell out of that thing. Power, sister (or brother).



In closing, here’s a great message from Wil Wheaton about being a fan. “I want you to be kind, and I want you to be awesome.” Beautiful.