Archive for the ‘information’ Tag

The Stars I’m Under: Observations of the Night Sky   Leave a comment

“I got into science fiction by being interested in astronomy first.”  – Terry Pratchett

When I first opened this weblog, it was my intention to include far more astronomical content than I’ve managed so far. The main reason for this not working out until now has been a dearth of observations to report. Until a few months ago the time and energy needed to be out under those desert stars was in short supply.

I resumed amateur astronomy activities in 2003, after a long hiatus, and did so for some less than straightforward reasons. On the surface, it simply seemed that the time had come. That’s true, as far as it goes. I’ve always looked back fondly on that episode in my life, when as a teenager I spent so many hours under dark, rural skies with a small telescope (a 60mm refractor). The desire to revive this pastime remained with me for many years, until at long last, in ’03, I found that I had the resources, and could afford a good telescope of respectable aperture. I lived in a city with enough light pollution ordinances that visual observing would be worth the expense of time and money. The time had come indeed, and the time was right. (The details of how this all came about are to be found in my book Mr. Olcott’s Skies: An Old Book and a Youthful Obsession.)

But there was was more to it than that, a matter that I did not include in the above-mentioned book. After almost twenty-five years of admittedly sporadic attempts to be published as a writer of fiction, I’d given it up. The indie publishing revolution had not yet developed, and I was heartily sick of rejection slips. So, I quit. Since so much of my life had been shaped around writing, I was a bit untethered, and astronomy proved to be just the thing to fill the gap. Long story short (see The Process, chapter ten), while astronomy provided the necessary outlet for a while, in the long run it wasn’t enough. I needed to tell stories, and holding back from that proved unhealthy. Fortunately, before things became too serious, publishing directly to ebook and print-on-demand gave me the outlet I needed, and I started writing fiction again.

It was like pulling a cork out of a badly rattled bottle of sparkling wine. Words burst forth, forming books and short stories that seemed eager to see the light of day. A couple of the books were even astronomy-related. The release of pent-up creative energy took several years to settle down from a flood to a steady flow. But although astronomy didn’t fade back completely into hiatus status, I was far more interested in spending the time I had outside the day job writing than peering into an eyepiece. And even when evenings were so clear and mild that they seemed to call me out under the stars, I seldom had the energy left over to set up even that 60mm refractor, which has remained with me since high school.

A dozen publications later, and with the need for a day job behind me, I find myself looking at things in yet another new way. The need has asserted itself for a life that balances energy aimed at writing and producing new fiction, with a different sort of need, that of a craving for dark skies and the light of the moon and stars. Writing is a more relaxed activity now, no longer crammed into whatever time I have after coming home from an office. I don’t finish the days as worn out as I once did. I still have a job, you see, but a job you love doing is far less taxing, and there’s often energy left after a day’s work to set up a telescope and observe celestial sights deep into the night.

And so, belatedly, I’ve begun to develop this aspect of the weblog. I will still write about books and writing, with more commentary on winners of past Hugo Awards. I will also use this weblog to help keep you up to date on new books and stories as they become available. In addition to all that, I will now invite you to join me from time to time under the peace and quiet of the night sky. There will be regular posts about what it’s like out there, and those posts will include a list of celestial sights. The idea is to give you a sense for the experience of stargazing, without boring non-astronomers with the details. The details, for those who are interested, will be found archived on the Amateur Astronomy page of this site.

This is all very much “under construction,” and how I proceed may change as I move forward. So please pardon the stardust underfoot while I work.

Useless Knowledge   Leave a comment

When I was a boy and first encountered Doyle’s stories of Sherlock Holmes, a passage in the first of them, in which the reader is introduced to Holmes, startled me. He tells Watson (who shared my surname as well as my puzzlement) that he considered his mind a storehouse in which only things relevant to his work would be kept. This was all to explain to Watson why Holmes was entirely ignorant of matters to do with then-current theories regarding the solar system. The concept of only learning “relevant” things seemed very strange to me. It ran counter to my upbringing, raised as I was by curious folk who delighted in pointing out and naming birds and trees, and who encouraged me to read on the widest possible range of subjects. Why anyone would remain willfully ignorant of the solar system, just because it wasn’t relevant to his day’s, work left me baffled. I found many aspects of the Holmes character fascinating, even admirable, but Sherlock Holmes was never a role I wanted to inhabit for myself. I was too curious about – well, everything!

Well, almost everything. So-called physical education left me cold, but that might have been different if the “coaches” I encountered hadn’t all been so keen on whipping us into sufficient shape to march off and die in World War Three. I remember very clearly one of them explaining that the endless calisthenics were necessary if we were to be prepared for the “next war.” This was shortly before the end of the Vietnam War, and given the cultural climate of those days, it wasn’t a sentiment likely to inspire the young. It surely did not instill a love of push-ups in this one, that’s for sure!

But as for everything else, I was wide open. Even math fascinated me, though it also frustrated me terribly. (I eventually got over that, and though algebra has never become intuitive, I survived quadratic equations and such, and did so with respectable grades when I finally completed my degree, years later.) I was always most receptive to science and history, but all sorts of things in school caught my fancy, and I enjoyed school to a degree that caused me some sadly predictable social problems. I grew up in a time when being a nerd or a geek was anything but fashionable. It was not always the best of times, and there are no “glory days” memories of high school for me, but I don’t regret the mental habits that developed in my youth.

And habits they were, habits that stuck. I left school, but didn’t let mundane life stop the learning process. The curiosity never died. I can’t explain how it worked out that way. This wasn’t a deliberate effort on my part; it was just the way my brain was wired. I simply couldn’t help it. So I charged on into adult life, trying to find my path and make a living, all the while reading and making inquiries and steadily filling that mental storehouse in a way that would likely have caused Sherlock Holmes to shake his head in disgust. That’s fine, the judgment of imaginary beings having so little weight. I’ve found this life of learning liberating, and enormously entertaining. Those things alone would have kept me motivated, but it turns out now there’s something more. Because of these old but lively habits, I can write.

Or, I should say, write more effectively. All this nonessential information, this useless in day-to-day terms knowledge, “informs” my writing, though not always in obvious ways. I’m rarely conscious of it when it happens, but that lifetime of curiosity pays off when a story takes shape, and I need to give it the texture it needs to come alive. The details of the worlds I imagine, and the memories of starry nights I’ve put in print, all of these are easier to bring to life because of the time spent acquiring knowledge that had no immediate practical value. My muse carries a well-worn set of encyclopedia.

Next time I’m asked to provide an example of an oxymoron, my answer will be, “useless knowledge.”

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