Long live Coursera!
For those of you who haven’t stumbled upon it yet, it’s a series of on-line courses offered by Universities throughout the world. The courses run from about 6 to 12 weeks, generally, and you can view the video lectures and do the homework at any time you choose. This is great for me at the moment, as sometimes I need to do them at 3.30am. The courses are not for dummies – this is real education, by respectable institutions. Best of all, it’s free! I am currently doing a course called ‘Think Again: How to Reason and Argue’, which I’ll discuss in a later post. However, my partner has been putting his brain through the wringer with ‘Introduction to Astronomy’. It’s a tough course, but so far rewarding.
One of the most interesting parts has been some of the on-line astronomy tools which they point you towards. This one, called My Solar System, simulates the different orbits that you can achieve with a different setup of planets, moon and comets. I encourage you to follow the link and have a play for yourselves. You can vary the size, positions and velocity of each body, and watch as the orbits play themselves out. I should warn you, it is rather addictive – it should perhaps be subtitled the ‘Timewaster 2000’. The graphics are quite simple, but achieving a highly elliptical orbit, or managing to slam a comet into the sun is pretty cool.
It strikes me that this is potentially a terrific inspirational or planning tool for those people who like to write hard sci-fi. Asimov would have absolutely adored it. It just oozes story possibilities. Think, for example, about being a civilisation on one of those planets, as it slowly circles the sun, and then suddenly coming into the influence of one of the other bodies, especially a highly unpredictable one. How would the seasons, the harvests, and weather be affected? Seasons may be longer, or more intense. Alternatively, picture a planet which is slowly being dragged towards the sun by the orbit of its own moon. It gets even crazier when you think about being on a planet within a binary system.
I find science like this quite fascinating, and I wish that I could incorporate more of it into my stories, although they tend more towards the quirky than the purely scientific. 😉
How about you? What inspires you? Would a tool like this be useful in thinking about new stories?