• Fiona McIntosh: Voyager Author of the Month

    Fiona McIntosh was born and raised in Sussex in the UK, but also spent early childhood years in West Africa. She left a PR career in London to travel and settled in Australia in 1980. She has since roamed the world working for her own travel publishing company, which she runs with her husband. She lives in Adelaide with her husband and twin sons. Her website is at www.fionamcintosh.com.

    Her latest book, The Scrivener's Tale, is a stand-alone and takes us back to the world of Morgravia from her very first series, The Quickening:

    About The Scrivener's Tale:

    In the bookshops and cafes of present-day Paris, ex-psychologist Gabe Figaret is trying to put his shattered life back together. When another doctor, Reynard, asks him to help with a delusional female patient, Gabe is reluctant... until he meets her. At first Gabe thinks the woman, Angelina, is merely terrified of Reynard, but he quickly discovers she is not quite what she seems.

    As his relationship with Angelina deepens, Gabe's life in Paris becomes increasingly unstable. He senses a presence watching and following every move he makes, and yet he finds Angelina increasingly irresistible.

    When Angelina tells Gabe he must kill her and flee to a place she calls Morgravia, he is horrified. But then Angelina shows him that the cathedral he has dreamt about since childhood is real and exists in Morgravia.

    A special 10th Anniversary edition of her first fantasy book, Myrren's Gift, will be released in December!




So you’re into sci fi? But what about sci fact? Sometimes fact is stranger than fiction…

Each month our very own Voyager Science Queen* will bring you interesting, quirky and downright bizarre tasty morsels from the world of science. And its all completely, totally, 100% true!

Curiosity has its own reason for existing.
                                                                        Albert Einstein 

This past July and August was a very exciting time for the scientific community, with the discovery of the Higgs Boson particle and a photograph of an atom (see last month’s Science Page).  One of the high points for me was the landing of NASA’s Curiosity on Mars. I am a big fan of the rovers, but Curiosity has captured my imagination in a way the other rovers never did. I think it is the name; was ever an exploratory robot craft ever given a better title?

Curiosity has four main scientific goals:

1/ Biological – to keep looking for evidence of organic compounds and biological processes;

2/ Geological – investigate the minerals and non-organic chemicals of the Martian surface;

3/ Climatological – determine water cycle and carbon dioxide cycle in an attempt to understand the Martian atmosphere; and

4/Radiation – to record the spectrum of radiation at the Martian surface.

From my personal viewpoint, it is the hunt for biological signatures that is the most interesting. It isn’t just intelligent life that fascinates me, though a positive SETI result would thrill me beyond belief, because all the forms that life can take are complex and unique. I consider all four of Curiosity’s goals are a link back to the search for evidence there is, or was, life on Mars.

To put things into some perspective, let’s contrast the known conditions for life on Earth with the possibility of life on Mars.  Life on Earth can’t exist without water; so the theory goes that the presence of water would increase the probability of the presence of life. This meant I found the discovery of a stream bed by Curiosity very exciting. There can been evidence for free-flowing water gathered before, but it was ambiguous. Now there can be no doubt that Mars does have periods where water flows just like here on Earth.

Life went a long way to changing the face of our planet Earth. The increase in oxygen cause by the respiration of living organisms, and many new minerals were formed by the processes of oxidation. Bacteria, microbes and lichens changed the chemical composition of some types of rocks. Limestone is the remains of billions upon billions of skeletal fragments of ancient marine organisms; coal is the remains of Carboniferous-era peat bogs and forests; and oil and gas are the fossilised remains of zooplankton and algae. So, it seems self-evident that the presence of similar minerals on Mars would indicate life was present once, if lo longer, on the Red Planet.

It may seem to the observer that Mars is too hostile an environment to life, with its lack of water and atmosphere, extremes of temperature and high levels of radiation. However, here on Earth, microorganisms are found in almost every habitat present in nature. On Earth we have extremophiles; life forms that exist – nay, thrive – in the harshest and difficult environments.  The surface of Mars is comparable to some of the niches that are exploited by microorganisms here on Earth.

On the down side of discovering these tough organisms on Mars would be the risk of disease or cross-contamination if we ever send a team of astronauts to Mars. Such organisms might find our warm and watery bodies the perfect substrate for reproduction, a luscious paradise after struggling to thrive under arid conditions. Alternatively, the organisms might find our bodies too different to adapt too – instead, our own organisms might escape into the Martian environment and overwhelm the native population of organisms and create a tragedy of the scale of the introduction of smallpox to the American native peoples.

The history of exploration isn’t always a happy one.

But I am an optimist.  I hope we do find life on Mars. This would greatly increase the probability that life appears wherever possible. In our galaxy alone, that would mean thousands, maybe millions, of other planets would contain and sustain life. And I love the idea that our planet isn’t the only one to have a rich and wonderful ecology. There should be analogues to butterflies, penguins and camels on other planets … and maybe even people analogues.

*The Voyager Science Queen is also known as Lynne Lumsden Green- find out who she is in About Our Contributors!

Taking Photos of the Atom

So you’re into sci fi? But what about sci fact? Sometimes fact is stranger than fiction…

Each month our very own Voyager Science Queen* will bring you interesting, quirky and downright bizarre tasty morsels from the world of science. And its all completely, totally, 100% true!
As excited as I was by the discovery of the Higgs Boson Particle, I have discovered that this historic event did the scientific community in Queensland no favours.  The day before the announcement, there was another science news story causing waves in the world of Physics. Scientists at Griffith University in Queensland had taken a photo of the shadow of an atom. I was lucky and got to meet with two of them: Professor Dave Kielpinski & Ben Norton, a PhD student.

Professor Dave Kielpinski & Ben Norton – you can just glimpse an image of five atoms lined up on the screen to their upper left. (Photo taken by Lynne Green)

Now, you might think that this doesn’t sound like the most exciting achievement – after all, we’ve all seen those amazing pictures taken by electron microscopes. But electron microscopes are old hat and old technology (heck, I was taking photos of the nematocysts of peanut worms using one back in the 1980s). Taking the photo of a shadow of an atom is a whole new quantum level of technical difficulty – and I’m using the word ‘quantum’ in its correct sense here. Atoms are so tiny and it is hard to manage to isolate just one, let alone managing to photograph it.

Firstly, you have to pick the right atom: Ytterbium (atomic weight 70), because the atom has to be opaque to the frequency of the beam of laser light. The atom has to be big, so it will cast a large enough shadow to register. You have to use a special lens to trap miniscule levels of light – the scientists in Griffith University’s Centre for Quantum Dynamics designed the lens and it was fabricated at the Fraunhofer Institute in Berlin. The atom has to be manageable, in the sense that you can arrange to have a single atom in the beam and not fifty or none. There has to be no vibration, so the atom has to be in a nearly-perfect vacuum so it can’t get ‘knocked’ out of place by other atoms or molecules. You have to slow the atom down with the cold of absolute zero. There are a lot of factors that have to line up perfectly for the photo to happen.

Now, I was lucky enough to see the equipment on the Griffith University Open Day and to meet with some of the team who managed this supremely difficult feat. (And, at this point, I want to mention that one of them, Ben Norton, admitted he had actually READ the Science Page and had heard of me – which thrilled me to no end.) The equipment was as complex, but not dramatically so.  There was a screen above it that actually showed the photo of the atom’s shadow.

Now – some of you may ask ‘Why wasn’t this photo of an actual atom?’ Well, for a start, an atom isn’t a ‘solid’ object as we understand solid. It is more like a vibration, or a cloud, or a spinning particle, and the reality is a combination of all these and so much more. And – as I mentioned – they are tiny beyond our ability to imagine. We tend to think science controls atoms, thanks to CERN and the magic[1] the collider seems to control; this is incorrect. Part of the reason the photo of an atom is such an amazing achievement is because atoms are so hard to control. And our scientists at Griffith University did it without a machine the size of a city and a budget of billions.

Ordinarily, an achievement of this magnitude would have created a buzz that would have lasted for weeks. Only news that they had discovered the Higgs Boson was big enough to push it out of the headlines. As a footnote … I also saw a plasma dot on the same day and in the same laboratory. All-in-all, I had a wonderful day. )

[1] Using Arthur C Clarke’s definition of Magic. If you don’t know it, go look it up! I’ve mentioned it before.


*The Voyager Science Queen is also known as Lynne Lumsden Green- find out who she is in About Our Contributors!

Karl and Bertha Benz

So you’re into sci fi? But what about sci fact? Sometimes fact is stranger than fiction…

Each month our very own Voyager Science Queen* will bring you interesting, quirky and downright bizarre tasty morsels from the world of science. And its all completely, totally, 100% true!

Karl Benz

Think about this name for a second:

Mercedes Benz

It is a name synonymous with style and quality – and so it should be. Karl Benz was the German counterpart to Ford. It was his genius that made the first internal combustion engine, which in turn lead to the development of the modern automobile. However, his star glowed bright thanks to the flame being fanned by the support of his wife, Bertha

Benz was born Karl Friedrich Michael Vaillant in 1844, in what is now part of modern Germany. His mother married his father, a locomotive driver, after he was born, and he was named after his father after the poor man died tragically when Karl was just two. Even with such unfortunate start to his life, he was a brilliant student of the sciences. At one point, like the great Richard Feynman, he was interested in locksmithing; however, his studies led him into locomotive engineering and eventually he gained a degree in mechanical engineering.

Even at this early stage in his career, he was focused on the concept of the horseless carriage. It has been theorized that Benz got the idea from riding his bike and from his bicycle business; I can see that, for I might fantasize about other forms of transport while riding on a wet, cold, dark day. However, I think that diminishes the accomplishments of Benz, because it infers he was trying to escape from drudgery rather than inventing the horseless carriage for its own sake. A mind that loved the complexity of locks would want to solve the puzzle of the horseless carriage.

For it was a puzzle! Benz’s first automobile did have wire wheels like a bicycle, but it was its motor that made it unique. Rather than slapping a steam-engine on a carriage or wagon, Benz had designed and developed his own four-stroke engine that ran on gasoline. At that time, gasoline was not a fuel, but a cleaning product you bought at a store. However, it was gearless and something of a bugger to steer.

Bertha Benz

At this point, I would like to introduce the peerless Bertha Benz – née Ringer –was born in Germany in 1849. She helped fund her then-fiancé’s business and his efforts into making his inventions by donating her dowry. Bertha was not a silent partner, for it was she who suggested the use of gears – to assist in controlling the vehicle. After they were married and had five children, she had a test-drive of her husband’s latest vehicle (without Karl’s knowledge) and went on to make sensible suggestions on improving the invention. She was the actual inventor of the brake lining. Bertha was also a marketing whiz, because she took her own sons along for the trip while she was making the test drive, and made sure the trip was well-publicized. It increased public interest in the invention enormously.Now, in Victorian times, a woman was still meant to be a helpmeet to her husband, but that usually meant she was confined to her home as wife, mother and hostess. I think is says a lot about both Karl and Bertha that he obviously appreciated her intelligence and independence, and had no qualms about letting society see that their marriage was a union of equals rather than a Victorian patriarchy.

Benz went on to design trucks and buses as well. He invented and patented the spark plug, the radiator, the gear-shift and clutch, the carburetor, an ignition system and a speed regulation system. Not everything he invented worked, but what did work was often adapted by other car manufacturers into their designs.

He remained married to Bertha all his life, and pre-deceased her in 1929. Bertha remained in their final marital home until her own death in 1944. But their name lives on in both their descendants and the car …

*The Voyager Science Queen is also known as Lynne Lumsden Green- find out who she is in About Our Contributors!

Modern Day Alchemy

So you’re into sci fi? But what about sci fact? Sometimes fact is stranger than fiction…

Each month our very own Voyager Science Queen* will bring you interesting, quirky and downright bizarre tasty morsels from the world of science. And its all completely, totally, 100% true!


mercury thiocyanate

Mercury Thiocyanate
Image: Tomasz Szymborski, Creative Commons License

In the English language, ‘intumescent’ is a word that means distressfully or abnormally swollen, or something in the process of swelling. In chemistry, intumescents are substances that – upon the application of heat – result in the production of enormous amounts of ash, many times the volume of the original substance. This ash will be less dense than the original substance. In the past, intumescents have been used in pyrotechnics and in the production of fire retardants.Probably the most spectacular tumescent is mercury thiocyanate. Upon application of heat, this chemical expands and coils in a serpentine manner to form a yellowish or greyish mass of tentacular ash; it looks more like the hair of a Medusa to me. A quick surf of the internet will supply you with video clips of this spectacular process; it is referred to as the Pharaoh’s Serpent or the Pharaoh’s Snake. Mercury thiocyanate used to be a popular compound for fireworks, but its toxicity became an issue and it is no longer used as much.

When mercury thiocyanate is ignited, rapid oxidation causes it to decompose into carbon nitride, mercury sulfide and carbon disulphide. Notice the original substance contains a cyanide compound, sulfur and mercury, so it is extremely toxic, and the fumes released during the decomposition are poisonous. Even after its transformation, the ash is toxic enough to kill anyone ingesting it – like small children; tragedies have occurred. As interesting as this process is to observe, I would recommend just watching the video clips.

If I were a modern day alchemist and discovered mercury thiocyanate, I believe I would dedicate of this chemical to Cthulhu. However, it is suspected the first person to synthesize the compound was a chemist, Jöns Jacob Berzelius, in or around 1821. No pentacles or tentacles were involved … what a shame.

Non-Newtonian Fluids

First off, let’s look at Newtonian fluids, so that we have a an idea as to why non-Newtonian fluids are so weird. A Newtonian fluid will remain a fluid regardless of the kinetic forces that are acting upon it, in other words, the viscosity of the fluid should be dependent on its temperature and pressure and not the forces action upon it. Water is the perfect example; if you stir or shake water it will remain a fluid, but a change in temperature or pressure can turn it into ice or steam.

This is not the case with non-Newtonian fluids. Under a sudden change in sheer forces, certain non-Newtonian fluids will lose viscosity and act like a solid. Cornflour (also known as corn starch) mixed with water acts in this manner. The faster you try to stir the mix, the stiffer it becomes … stop stirring and it slumps back into liquid. If you try to ‘throw’ a bucket of the mix, it will stay in the bucket. However, if you tip the bucket onto its side, the cornflour and water mixture will flow out like a fluid. As the water and cornflour mixture is entirely harmless, I can recommend playing around with it. I’ve seen the men from Mythbusters attempt to run across a pool of cornflour and water … with mixed results (pun intended); you can see this on: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5GWhOLorDtw

On ‘The Big Bang Theory’, our intrepid band of scientists used the vibrations of speakers to ‘stress’ a similar mixture: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2CJJ6FrfuGU

There are liquids that act in the exact opposite way to cornflour and water, like most house paints; they remain thick while at rest and become more fluid when stressed – or all the paint would drip off the walled once applied. These are non-Newtonian fluids as well, because their viscosity is affected by the kinetic forces acting upon them. Some polymer clays start out as quite stiff and become more elastic as they are ‘worked’; again, they can be classified a non-Newtonian fluid.

As an alchemist, I would rate a non-Newtonian fluid as super loony, but still pertaining to the element of water, so I would imagine it was ruled by the Moon. Or, if I may postulate a sixth element after fire, water, earth, air, and aether,  and suggest they are just FUN!

*The Voyager Science Queen is also known as Lynne Lumsden Green- find out who she is in About Our Contributors!

Rocket Science

So you’re into sci fi? But what about sci fact? Sometimes fact is stranger than fiction…

Each month our very own Voyager Science Queen* will bring you interesting, quirky and downright bizarre tasty morsels from the world of science. And its all completely, totally, 100% true!


The Cartwheel Galaxy
(Photo credit: IYA2009, FETTU, NASA/ESA, P. Appleton, JPL-Caltech, J. Uson, NRAO/AUI and Palomar Sky Survey.)

We’ve all heard that saying ‘it’s not hard, it isn’t rocket science’. This infers that rocket science is complex and complicated, and you have to be very bright to understand it. Nineteen year old Aisha Mustafa, a physics student from Egypt’s Sohag University, has come up with a theory for a new type of fuel-less space-propulsion system using an esoteric physics concept … the Casimir Effect. So, Aisha has come up with a type of rocket science even more complex than balancing a rocket on a controlled explosion.The Casimir Effect is based around the string theory in Quantum Physics; that there is really no such thing as a vacuum and every point in space is an oscillating field, flashing through a range of ‘vibrations’ that we understand as ‘space’, ‘time’, and ‘matter’. If you want a more complex explanation that that … you will probably need to start studying for your Ph.D. in Physics. From my own limited understanding, one of the implications of the Casimir Effect it that it supports the concept of the breakdown of the laws of causality – and causality is where one thing causes something else to happen, one event after another in a logical progression. To me, this is the point where Physics is synonymous with Philosophy.

So, how does Aisha’s design work? Aisha uses shaped silicon plates – similar to the ones used in solar-power cells – placed close together but not touching. The Casimir Effect is the repulsion/attraction that the ‘vibrations’ – quantum particles, matter/anti-matter foam or whatever you want to call it – creates between these plates.  In the vacuum of space, this should create a force that would ‘pull’ or ‘push’, creating the basic thrust of propulsion system. This system works in a vacuum because is no particles of matter to interfere with the creation of this force.

Now, think of the benefits of a fuel-less propulsion system. It can run forever without the need for input from another energy source; in fact, the further it gets into the depths of space the better it should run!  How this might dramatically improve humanity’s ambitions for exploration of the universe, with probes or ships that can propel themselves for eternity. If that thought can’t excite, I don’t know what else can.


*The Voyager Science Queen is also known as Lynne Lumsden Green- find out who she is in About Our Contributors!

The Mundaneum

So you’re into sci fi? But what about sci fact? Sometimes fact is stranger than fiction…

Each month our very own Voyager Science Queen* will bring you interesting, quirky and downright bizarre tasty morsels from the world of science. And its all completely, totally, 100% true!


This is one for the ‘I can’t make up stuff this great’ files. Back in the last throes of the Victorian era, the field of information science was already well developed. Forget Google. Forget Wikipedia. Before all that, and the Internet, was the Mundaneum. The Mundaneum was the proto-World Wide Web.

A normal day at the Mundaneum

A normal day at the Mundaneum. Photos via the Mundaneum Museum

It was first conceived and co-founded in 1895, by two Belgian gentlemen lawyers: Paul Otlet and Henri La Fontaine. It started existence as the Institut International de Bibliographie, in Brussels.  Otlet and La Fontaine began with a collection of index cards, with the intention of cataloguing facts, all the facts … they meant to record and file every fact in the world. They had over 400,000 entries by the end of 1895. By 1937, it was estimated there were over 15 million index cards, housed in a left wing of the Palais du Cinquantenaire, Brussels, and staffed by librarians. Otlet and La Fontaine convinced the Belgian government to support the creation and running of  the Mundaneum for most of the first four decades of the Twentieth century.

Imagine the thousands of drawers that would be required to file so many millions of three inch by five inch index cards. Those librarians were made of stern stuff.

The stated goal of Otlet and La Fontaine was to gather together all the world’s knowledge, and then classify and catalogue it according to a bibliographic and library classification system they developed called the Universal Decimal System – it was based on the Dewey Decimal Classification system. This system meant that retrieval of the facts was relatively straight forward, even from such an enormous data base. The system allowed (and still allows) related fields of knowledge – such as text, maps, charts – to be linked and so form a coherent whole. Now, this is where the Mundaneum started to really resemble the modern construct of the World Wide Web.

From 1896, people could apply – by mail or telegraph – to the staff of the Mundaneum for answers to specific questions. Otlet set this function up as a fee-based service, to help cover the costs of running the service and continue funding the collection of facts. By 1912, this service was answering around four or five queries a day, or the equivalent of 1500 queries a year.

Paul Otlet hoped to see a ‘city of knowledge’ (as he nicknamed the Mundaneum) in each major city around the world, with Brussels holding the master copy. The attempt was made to make this a reality, but the sheer size of the project created problems in duplicating the collection.  But this isn’t to say La Fontaine wasn’t a dreamer too; both men hoped to help create a world with information available to all and education provided to men and women; both men proposed and supported the idea of organizations such as a world school and university, and a world parliament. Henri La Fontaine went on to win the Nobel Prize for Peace, partially due to his support for these ideals.

Unfortunately, even though the founders of the Mundaneum were men of peace, it was WWII that derailed their great project. The Belgian government withdrew their funding and support as the 1930s drew to a close and war loomed. The Mundaneum had to be moved to smaller, less suitable quarters.  The amount of index cards, even with the brilliant classification system, was unworkable at the new site; if only the system had been able to use computer storage systems like we have today. Then, when Brussels was invaded in 1939, the Nazis destroyed many of the boxes of index cards. To be fair, they destroyed the index cards not so much out of malice as from a lack of understanding of the files’ true value. After the war, with files in disorder and no chance of funding, the Mundaneum was all but forgotten.

The Mundaneum was allowed to moulder until 1968, when a student named W. Boyd Rayward rediscovered the remnants of the index cards and created a renewed interest in what the project had achieved. Eventually, what remained of the project was housed in the Mundaneum museum in Mons. In a twist that astounds and thrills me, Google is talking about funding a travelling Mundaneum exhibit. If it makes it to Australia, I’ll be one of the first in line to see it.

Photographic portrait of Paul Otlet and his surviving files from the Mundaneum

Photographic portrait of Paul Otlet and his surviving files from the Mundaneum
Photos via the Mundaneum Museum

The whole concept of the Mundaneum fascinates me. Unlike Babbage’s Difference Engine and Analytical Engine, the Mundaneum was an intellectual dream that saw the light of day and had an actual useful existence for over forty years. Not to denigrate Charles Babbage – we all know how much I adore the man – but Otlet and La Fontaine were able to see the fruits of their ideals blossom and thrive. Sadly, Paul Otlet died in relative obscurity, and it is only recently that he has gained recognition as a visionary and the father of information science. He died in 1944, and Henri La Fontaine died in 1943, so neither of them lived to see the development of the Internet and the World Wide Web. More’s the pity. They would have loved the Information Age.

*The Voyager Science Queen is also known as Lynne Lumsden Green- find out who she is in About Our Contributors!