Self-Driving Cars – Coming to Your Highway in June

Steam powered car from 1771

Steam powered car from 1771

I included self driving cars in my science fiction novel, Glitch. That book is supposed to be a vision of the future, but I’m barely ahead regarding cars. (They should be called self-driving, not driverless – something is driving and it’s a combination of hardware and software created by human beings.)

“All Teslas will get an over-the-air update this summer, probably around June, allowing them to drive in ‘Autopilot’ mode… we’re not talking about some far-off future Tesla. We’re not talking about Google driverless car prototypes or government road tests. This is a car you can buy today, which will be given the ability to drive itself in a few months via the same setup that updates your iPhone.” mashable

Not only will self-driving cars allow me to read or nap or whatever as I travel, they should also make car-sharing easier. Imagine a computer system moving cars around for maximum efficiency and minimum wait-times. Private car ownership will decline, and that will change America. The automobile industry is a pillar of our economy, and the car is a pillar of our culture. Your driver’s license means leaving childhood behind, offers freedom, and you never forget your first car. Losing your driver’s license is more than inconvenient, it’s shameful. All that’s about to change.

The self-driving car is a change I’m looking forward to – I can imagine exactly how it will improve my life. Since nothing is perfect, there are probably problems coming, too. Bring it on.

The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” That applies to the future, too.

Kate Rauner, Hanover, New Mexico, USA

Kate is a chemical and environmental engineer, and Cold War Warrior (honestly, that’s what Congress called us), who worked in America’s nuclear weapons complex. Now retired on the edge of the southwest’s Gila National Forest with her husband, cats, llamas, and dog, she’s a volunteer firefighter, and writes science fiction novels and science inspired poetry. She also shares science news that strikes her fancy (and finds it odd to write about herself in the third person.)

Born of Earth and Jupiter – a poem by Kate Rauner

zeiss projector

Zeiss projectors, like this one at Kiev Planetarium, allow planetarium visitors to see a scientist’s view of the solar system and the universe.

Two thousand planets have been found
By our current generation.
Five hundred systems, like our own,
Escaped their sun’s damnation.
Most planets are much closer
To their stars and therefore hotter,
With a thousand times thicker air
Than the Sun’s rocky daughters.
And super-Earths are common,
Ten times larger than our own.
Perhaps with days that equal years,
So different from our home.
Most gaseous giant planets
Orbit their stars nearer.
Why we have no super-Earth
At last emerges clearer.
The proto-Jupiter that formed,
To proto-Earth was hostile.
And, five billion years ago,
It stole away our volatiles.
It scrambled inner rocky worlds
And smashed the proto-Earth to bits;
Tossed half of it into the Sun,
The rest then reformed planets.
This left our world, our remnant Earth,
Thinly veiled in wispy air.
Self-organizing, growing life
Could then arise and evolve there.
Surviving heat and pressures vast,
Life on extra-solar worlds
May not resemble any forms
That upon our Earth unfurled.
We may not discern our distant kin
Nor understand life’s game.
It’s hard enough to love our own
And we are all the same.

Kevin J. Walsh and his colleagues detail their findings this week in the journal Nature. “A wandering Jupiter may have wreaked havoc on the large inner planets of our early solar system, leaving behind an apparently rare configuration of planets.” [] Whether that rareness holds up as we develop way to discover smaller planets remains to be seen.

Better Blogging

Kate Rauner, Hanover, New Mexico, USA

computer desk-work-mdI recently read a huffingtonpost article on what readers like to see in a posting, as measured by what people share. One element was: a by-line and short bio included with each post. That’s easy to do – so I tried it today and may give it a shot for a while.

What do you think? Interesting? Helpful? Silly? Annoying?


Kate is a chemical and environmental engineer, and Cold War Warrior (honestly, that’s what Congress called us), who worked in America’s nuclear weapons complex. Now retired on the edge of the southwest’s Gila National Forest with her husband, cats, llamas, and dog, she writes science fiction novels and science inspired poetry. She also shares interesting science news (and finds it odd to write about herself in the third person.)

Cold Northeast But Warm Southwest


hoax because its cold“This winter may have brought a deep freeze to much of the northeastern United States — including record-breaking snowfall in Boston — but it was the planet’s warmest winter on record… according to a newly released report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Climatic Data Center.”

Even if the statistics get a little revision later, that’s still impressive.

We Americans tend to forget there’s a whole southern hemisphere, and they’ve had one hot summer. Of course, one datum does not make a trend, but the trends are equally alarming. But many people don’t see the trends.

Ideology is what makes life worth living for each of us. Our ideology is tied to what we see as the meaning of life. It’s how we decide what’s valuable and what sources of information are valid, and it underlies much of what we do. [don’t-be-a-jerk]

But to insist on viewing the science of climatology as ideology will be self-defeating. Reality always wins, and we need to start from reality to have any meaningful policy discussions.

When Two Plus Two Equals Five – a poem by Kate Rauner

Two plus two is four.two plus two counting on fingers
That’s such a narrow view.
It always works in textbooks
Where reality is skewed.
But in the real world,
Anywhere that counts,
Measurements are iffy;
You’ve problems to surmount.
An error band surrounds
Every measurement you take,
It confuses and it obfuscates
The reckonings you make.
Significant figures
Define accuracy,
Where rounding is an issue
And precision is a key.
So if you measure two-point-four,
Don’t round it down to two
And add it next to two-point-three
And think that you are through.
Two-point-four and two-point-three
Sum to four-point-seven;
You may round that up to five
Without a math transgression.
So now you see that four’s
Not always two plus two;
They sometimes sum to five
For large enough values.

Thanks to one of my favorite sites,, where Cecil recently reminded me of an old math joke: 2 + 2 = 5 for large enough values of 2. Here’s another one:

Mathematicians at a conference take a break at the bar.
“This is a real math town,” says one. “Everyone here knows math.”
“I bet our bartender doesn’t know that the integral of X squared is one third X cubed,” says a second mathematician.
They bet and when the bartender comes over to take their orders, they ask her:
What’s the integral of X squared?
She smiles and says: “One third X cubed plus a constant.”

I haven’t tried to make that one into a poem yet.


Anthropocene, the Human Epoch

Columbus ends the Holocene

Columbus ends the Holocene

We’re living in the Human Epoch, an age where humanity is profoundly affecting the Earth’s biosphere. We can’t control it – too many of us running off in all directions – but we may be able to precisely date its beginning.

Geologists divide Earth’s history into Eras: Paleozoic or Old Life, when fish, insects, and reptiles first evolved; Mesozoic or Middle Life, which saw flowering plants and the dinosaurs come and (for the non-avians) go; and Cenozoic or New Life, when mammals, including us, arose. Eras are further subdivided, especially the most recent Cenozoic, where we have more detailed knowledge.

“To pinpoint the start of [a] new phase, geologists [look] for a clear signal, described as a ‘golden spike’, that will be captured in rocks, sediments or ice – ‘a real point in time when you can show in a [geological] record when the whole Earth changed.'”

Such a record must be dramatic to be preserved in Earth’s geology, “continental movement, a big asteroid strike, or a major shift in climate,” like the end of the last Ice Age about twelve thousand years ago. That marked the start of the Holocene or Entirely New Epoch. Modern humans had already spread out of Africa, our Neanderthal cousins were gone, and we trembled on the edge of agriculture and the great ancient civilizations.

Some scientists think our Entirely New Epoch is over and the Anthropocene or Epoch of Humanity has begun. Past epochs were determined by finding a step change, a “golden spike,” in the geological record. But today we are seeing a change as it happens.

Some have suggested the 1800s and the Industrial Revolution in Europe, but I’ve run across a better proposal: 1610 AD.

Here’s the reasoning:

  • Arrival of Europeans in the Americas had an “unprecedented impact on the planet…
  • “The rapid global trade after that time moved species around. Maize from Central America was grown in southern Europe and Africa and China. Potatoes from South America were grown in the UK, and all the way through Europe to China. Species went the other way: wheat came to North America and sugar came to South America [and deadly diseases entered the Americas from Europe] – a real mixing of species around the world… which is a geologically unprecedented impact, setting Earth off on a new evolutionary trajectory…
  • “50 million people [in the Americas] died, and most of those people were farmers… this farmland grew back to the original vegetation – tropical forest, dry forest or savannah.
  • “All that growing vegetation removed enough carbon from the atmosphere to see a pronounced dip in the global atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration that can be seen in ice core records.
  • “It provides an exact marker of the Anthropocene at 1610 AD, the lowest point of CO2 in the ice-core record at that time.”

So there you have it – the precise date Earth entered the Human Epoch. We don’t know what we’re doing, but we’re sure doing it big-time.

Thanks to the BBC and the Anthropocene Working Group.

First Time in 100 Years

I have to share this good news:

“During a recent population survey on Pinzón Island, a team led by Dr. James Gibbs, Professor of Vertebrate Conservation Biology and Associate Chair of the Department of Environmental and Forest Biology at the State University of New York, discovered ten newly hatched saddleback tortoises, the first Galapagos giant tortoises to be reared in the wild in over a century.”

When I visited the Galapagos, eliminating introduced species (which were destroying the native life) seemed an overwhelming task. Rats, cats, goats, pigs… But tortoises live a long time and that gave humans a chance to repair the damage. Hurray.