NerdGuy Fridays

NerdGuy Fridays: Dispatches from a Writer's Brain - M. L. Buchman

NerdGuy Fridays #6: Orion and Not Orion


What can I say, this is just an awesome constellation. High in the sky at winter, it’s the first constellation I ever looked at with a telescope, and it never gets dull.

The mighty Greek warrior stands tall in the sky and myths surround him. Some say he holds a mighty bow before him (to the east), others say he holds a great sword raised on high above his right shoulder (to the northwest). He is ready to strike at the massive V of Taurus the Bull’s head (marked by the bright Aldebaran–not to be confused with the fictional Star Wars Alderaan). His faithful companion Canis Major (the big dog) stands close behind him ready to leap into the fray. He is marked by Sirius “The Dog Star”, the very brightest in our sky.

Most know him for the three bright stars of his belt and the scabbard that dangles below.

Orion Consteallation with connecting lines (planetarium image) (c) Neilander (cc)

With simple binoculars there are many fun things to discover. The ghostly haze at the sword belt, that even a small telescope will resolve into the “Great Nebula” is but one of these. Binarys, triple stars, red giants, even the Horsehead Nebula are all there just waiting to be discovered.

Not Orions

Back when I was running my college’s planetarium, I had a man walk up to me after a show and tell me that he had learned Orion as the “Kite.” The bright shoulders were the edges of the kite and the sword was its tail.

In my upcoming novel (Condor, a Miranda Chase thriller, March 10th, 2020), Holly Harper is remembering some of her high school days spent in the Australian Outback. There, Orion stands on his head, and so is drawn differently.

Finally, Holly looked up.

Cruising at fifty thousand feet placed ninety percent of the atmosphere below them. Over the mid-Atlantic, in the middle of the night with the dashboard dimmed down for night vision, the stars seemed to burn in the sky above.

How many nights had she lain out and watched those stars?

Except they were wrong.

The stars of home were dominated by the Southern Cross, not the Big Dipper. And Orion didn’t command the sky girded by his mighty belt and dangling scabbard. In the Southern hemisphere, Orion stood on his head and was drawn differently. Instead the belt was three brothers, and the downward-pointing scabbard was now the upward-leaping sawfish they had eaten against their laws. This had angered the Sun-woman Walu who created a waterspout and cast their canoe into the sky.

Getting away from the town lights of Tennant Creek wasn’t hard. Three thousand people in the middle of the Northern Territory desert, with the nearest roadhouses thirty klicks north or a hundred and thirty south, didn’t cast much of a glow.

As teenagers, they’d take their dirt bikes out into the Barkly Tablelands.

The Warumunga and Yapa, who made up half the town, had learned from their parents how to survive in the Outback. On school holiday, a whole group of them might go for a night and end up staying for a week. She’d learned fieldcraft out there. Holly had also lost her virginity to a lovely Yapa boy with skin the same brown-hued richness as the landscape’s crimson sand. She’d often envied him the lazy brown curls of his sun-lightened hair.

She’d also had her first puking drunk out in the Tablelands. Not one of her better moments.

Not many of the white kids went along on the jaunts.

But one other did.

Her brother had always gone out with them.

Until he hadn’t.

Holly closed her eyes but it didn’t help, she…could still see him as clear as day.

Though it was dark, she slid down her helmet’s sun visor. It blocked even the brightest stars.

She kept it down until she felt the jolt of F/A-18F Super Hornet’s wheels contacting the runway at Ramstein Air Force Base.

Betelgeuse and Rigel, two of the eleven brightest stars in the sky are his shoulder and knee. In the Australian myth, they are the prow and stern of the erring brothers’ canoe cast into the sky with them.

But Betelgeuse has a problem

It’s first problem is that it is moving very quickly away from the constellation. All of the stars are in relative motion to one another and the constellations of today will not be the constellations of a ten thousand years  ago or ten thousand to come.

Betelgeuse has another issue, it’s a red giant. What do we mean by giant?

The sun is roughly 443,690 miles in diameter = 696,347 km.

Betelgeuse is 617,000,000 km across. Now this gets awkward. Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars would all be orbiting will inside the star if it were to suddenly replace the sun. It is one monster ball of fire. (In fact, Mars would still be about 90,000,000 km beneath the surface–greater than the distance between Earth and Mars.

The other part of being a red giant is that it has a very fast life cycle. The sun has been around for roughly 4.7 billion years. Betelgeuse had been around for just 10 million. After orangutans, but before gorillas. Proto humans stopped being chimpanzees around 6 million years ago.

And Betelgeuse will explode as a supernova somewhere in the next 100,000 years before it collapses into a white dwarf. This process has already begun. Betelgeuse is has faded by a factor of 2.5x since October 2019. A furnace bigger than the orbit of Mars has faded in just months to significantly alter the look of Orion.

Next time you’re out on a winter (or summer south of the equator night), look up at Orion’s right shoulder, or the left corner of the kite, or the stern of the brother’s canoe. It is no longer even one of the 20 brightest stars.

Science estimates that that the explosive brightness of a supernova that will be visible during the day and cast shadows at night is still probably millennia away.

Meanwhile, one of my favorite pieces of the night sky, Mighty Orion, is changing shape and we’ll have to redraw it with new myths.

NerdGuy Fridays: Dispatches from a Writer's Brain - M. L. Buchman

NerdGuy Fridays #5: Knots and Lines

Knots of Latitude

I love my proofreader. We’ve been working together for years and she will chase the most obscure facts right down the rabbit hole with me. She’s incredibly hard to stump. But she’s learned to sometimes just put in a comment… “I couldn’t find this…after 1/2 an hour of looking.” I, of course, then send back how I came up with that obscure something and send her plunging right back into the rabbit hole. (No, that’s not my evil smile.)

So, she tripped on a fact in my newest book, Miranda Chase #3 Condor. “Polyarny submarine base, three hundred kilometers north of the Arctic Circle.” A seemingly simple statement, but a real pain to verify…unless you know how I came up with it.

Here’s my explanation back to her:

Per Wikipedia, Russian Shipyard No. 10 (aka Ployarny, where the Red October departs in The Hunt for Red October) lies at a latitude of 69°12’ N versus the Arctic Circle at 66°33’ N, subtract the two to get 159 minutes apart (60 minutes per degree). A minute of latitude = a nautical mile. So 159 minutes = 159 nautical miles = 294 km. Wasn’t that obvious?

For lines of latitude (parallel to the equator) each degree is made of sixty minutes. Each minute is one nautical mile, roughly 6,076 feet.

Fun Game: How far are you from the equator? Find your latitude, then follow this example. The rather curious big red rock in the middle of the Australian Outback (Uluru or Ayer’s Rock) is at 25°20′ S. (25*60)+20 = 1,520 nautical miles from the equator. (1,726 statute miles or 2,815 km).

Some trick the other way around: Uluru is 64°40′ from the South Pole. (64*60)+40 = 3,880 nautical miles.

By the way, this only works when traveling north or south. Lines of longitude don’t work that way at all. They’re a mile (nautical) apart at the equator, but touching just as they reach the poles.  However, if you’re looking at a map marked with latitude (like a good hiking map), a minute along the vertical can be used to then measure a mile at any angle on the rest of the map. Just remember it’s a pretty long mile if you’re used to hiking in statute (5,280′) miles rather than nautical ones (6,076′).

The Arctic Knot

The Arctic Circle lies at 66°33’48.0″ N (read as 66 degrees 33 minutes 48.0 seconds [60 seconds per minute, just like time). Except that’s only where it lies at present.

The Arctic Circle isn’t some specific distance from the Equator. Rather it is the line above which the sun never sets on the Summer Solstice and never rises on the Winter Solstice. Same effect just upside down at the Antarctic Circle. (That’s a tease to Holly Harper, my structural specialist in the Miranda Chase thrillers. She from Oz (Australia), and they hate the phrase “Down Under.” Hi, Holly.)

So, as the axis of the Earth tilts its way through a slow (41,000 year slow) precession (no, the North Star is not always the North Star which I’ll nerd out on some other time), the Earth changes its angle to the sun. As it does, the Arctic (and Antarctic) Circles move. Right now, it’s moving north. So, to be more precise to my proofreader and any far future readers, Polyarny is becoming 15m closer to the Arctic Circle every year. In just 66.67 years (at current rate of shift), it will be another kilometer closer to the Arctic Circle.

Bonus knots

Bonus Fun Fact: marine and air speed is almost entirely in knots (nautical miles). Why the holdover? One, probably because the US is the final stick-in-the-mud country in the world to still use the English measurement system. Second, to change everything at once, worldwide, so that someone isn’t suddenly traveling in miles vs. knots vs. kilometers and colliding with each other, is an unimaginable task!

In fact, air traffic flight levels globally are still in 1,000s of feet for that same reason. Flight Level 250 = 25,000 feet everywhere in the world.

Bonus Thought: Ever wonder where the phrase “A mile a minute” comes from. Well, every resource I can find points to the 19th-century’s belief that to travel 60mph was lethal to body and soul (the first we’ve proven many times on our highways and I wouldn’t dismiss the latter too lightly). But it’s a really useful measure that goes back to the 15th century.

NerdGuy Fridays: Dispatches from a Writer's Brain - M. L. Buchman

NerdGuy Fridays #4: cargo planes, turkeys ,and more turkeys

Cargo Planes

I seem to be writing a lot about big cargo planes at the moment. Don’t worry, I’ll get over that soon…maybe.

These are fascinating machines. If you ever want to boggle your mind a bit, find the perimeter road of some major runway, then park right under the end of the runway. I’m always awed at our ability to throw massive objects into the sky as if it’s somehow a normal thing to do. A320s, 737s, 767s, Bombardier… It’s just amazing to watch the endless stream of them roaring aloft.

If you’re lucky, you might see a 747-800F (freighter–the biggest production plane flying today) or a rare Antonov AN-124 Ruslan Condor (now #2). If you’re near certain military bases (or can make it to an airshow–I’ll be at the one in New Brunswick, Maine this August if you want to geek out together), you’ll hopefully see the big 3: C-130 Hercules (we’ll meet one in Miranda Chase #3, Condor (which is mostly about the AN-124 Condor), and really get to know it in #4 Ghostrider), the C-17 Globemaster III, or the monster C-5 Galaxy (which is also in #3 but is featured in the Miranda Chase origin story Galaxy–available exclusively in an upcoming collection called Origins of Honor.) By pure chance, both Condor and Origins of Honor release on March 10th, 2020. (Just sayin’ you might want to pre-order them now.)

Anyway, imagine if you will that a plane can take off weighing almost a million pounds (460 tons!). In addition to the plane itself and the fuel it needs, it can carry a pair of 70-ton Abrams M-1 main battle tanks. These are the tanks that are so heavy, President Trump was told he couldn’t have them in his military parade because they would break all of the bridges around DC. And the C-5 can deliver its cargo up to 8,000 miles away, not counting mid-air refueling.

The cargo bay is forty yards long, 13.5′ (1-1/3 stories) high, and as wide as a two-land road. In 1903, the Wright Flyer, with a maximum take-off weight of 745 pounds, flew thirty yards. The whole flight would have fit inside the cargo bay (except the wings were a bit too wide). And even in it greatest flight–in which it reached an altitude of thirty feet–it wouldn’t have cleared a C-5 Galaxy’s fuselage without at least banging on the roof.

Go to an airport, sit at the end of a runway, and witness the amazing things we can do.


So, we have several flocks of wild turkeys who live in our neighborhood. (It’s Massachusetts, so it seems appropriate.) You never knew quite when you’re going to be tooling along down a narrow two-lane, winding through the trees… And slam to a screeching halt because the flock has decided that its time to cross the road.

Sometimes, when my wife and I are out walking, we’ll hear them calling to one another. We’ll peek over a hedge so that we can wave at them. (They probably don’t care but it cheers us up.) One time we heard a very odd turkey call in a wide-open yard–like it was strangling on a grape or something (yes, I’m thinking of that scene from one of my favorite books, The World According to Garp). But there were no turkeys. We kept looking for them, wondering what was going on. We finally spotted a crow, sitting in a tree above our heads, making a turkey call. If we hadn’t seen its beak moving, we wouldn’t have believed it, but its true. (Here’s a poor example, right at 6-8 seconds in if you listen carefully:

Since we’re talking turkeys

And more on that topic, we often wondered where they nested at night as we also have fox and coyote around here.

One evening just a week or so ago, I was out walking in the chill evening…a really lovely time with just amazing light. It’s also a great time to walk alone and brainstorm on a book.

Anyway, I was startled by the sudden movement of a big bird. I looked up and found the answer to my question.

Turkeys in trees
A flock of turkeys roosting 30+ feet up in the trees. (Take that Mr. Coyote.)
NerdGuy Fridays: Dispatches from a Writer's Brain - M. L. Buchman

NerdGuy Fridays #3: the 4th SMU, sprinting to the gun, & chionophobia

The 4th SMU

The US military has 4 designated SMUs, Special Mission Units. These are the elite of the elite units. Two you’ve heard of: Delta Force and DEVGRU (aka SEAL Team 6). Two you probably haven’t.
The 24th STS are the Air Force’s elite air controllers. These are the guys who can spend 3 days fighting to take an airport, coordinating all the air strikes, then, once the airport is taken, run dozens (or more) flights per hour, by themselves, with a handheld radio from a card table. Imagine one person suddenly taking all air traffic controller responsibilities for a major airport with minimal equipment and you get the idea. These guys are seriously good.
The 4th SMU goes by many names: The Intelligence Support Activity, The Activity, Team Orange, The Army of Northern Virginia, and others. Their name keeps changing to help hide them from the public eye. Their entire mandate is the gathering and coordinating of intelligence in support of the other 3 SMUs. They are small, elite, and often will be the ones to go on the ground ahead of time so that the SMUs know exactly how to attack.
I’ve written about them before several times, most notably in Night Stalkers #7 By Break of Day and Delta Force #3 Wild Justice. And I think I may have even met a retired one once. The person implied things specifically by what they weren’t able to talk about. A fascinating non-conversation in a way. Let’s just say that we were in a group discussion and they were surprised by what I’d unearthed doing my research…and also declined to point out anywhere I’d gone astray.
However, I’ve never seen a write-up about anyone in The Activity before. But if I read the article below right, that exactly what Chief Shannon Kent was. It’s a long read, but an utterly amazing story of an incredible warrior.
Also, do you want to waste even more time with NerdGuy? Click through on the driving course that was mentioned in the article. (Did I mention that there are several cool videos if you look at the different kinds of courses they offer? And then, if you get down into the rally driving courses, you’ll be thinking about the Night Stalkers #11 Target of One’s Own with my heroine rally driver.)

Sprinting to the gun

In 1983, Sergeant Stephen Tueller of the Salt Lake City Police Department asked an alarming question, “How close is too close?”

How close can an assailant be, perhaps with a knife or a club, that they can charge an officer faster than the officer can draw and fire? He recruited a number of volunteers and decided to find out.

Twenty-one feet.

Let’s think about that for a second. That’s longer than my Toyota Camry. It’s 27″ longer than a 1959 Cadillac Coup DeVille. In fact, it’s 2″ longer than a full-size Ford F-150 Supercab with the crew cab and the full 8′ bed.

Tueller’s research completely changed the question of when was the appropriate moment for an officer to draw against an attacker. I have a buddy who was a Vietnam-era Marine MP. He said that a lot of his job was hauling drunk Marines off to lockup until they dried out. When I mentioned Tueller’s Drill to him, he shivered. “There I was, manhandling some of the most lethal drunks ever, and I never thought to draw against even the most belligerent. I’m lucky I’m alive.” Of course, he was one tough-as-hell Marine himself.

Here’s the Mythbusters failure to bust that myth:

Now you understand why the emphasis on quick-draw holsters. I’ve read, but haven’t seen (despite a Google search), that Delta Force operators actually wear their pistols at the center of the abdomen so that they are actively aiming their weapon in the same motion that they are pulling it from the holster. (Hint: I wouldn’t try charging against a Delta Force operator anyway. Just sayin’.)

Tueller’s Drill, or Tueller’s Law as I learned it in a “Firearms & Fiction” course,  has appeared in several of my books, most recently in the upcoming Miranda Chase #3, Condor.


Looking for something new to be afraid of? How about chionophobia, the fear of snow (chion is Greek for the white fluffy stuff).

Want to know about the 35 types of snowflakes and how to study them? Pick up a copy of Ken Libbrecht’s Field Guide to Snowflakes. Trust me, you’ll want the print edition. Way fun!

By the way, it’s been confirmed that the Inuit do have roughly fifty (50) words for snow. But that’s barely a flurry. To properly catalog snow in all its many forms from “skelf” (a large snowflake) to “unbrak” (the beginning of the thaw), one should learn the four hundred and twenty-one (421!!) words cataloged as used by the Scots. So, next time your heads in a “feefle” (swirl) while standing out in the “spitters” (small flakes of driving snow) you’ll know what to call it.


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