Category: Popular


Harvard asked for a bio/reflections for the next reunion. I had fun writing it, so I share here for any who are interested:

I recall my Harvard years with great pleasure: many excellent conversations & some courses that still stay with me. For a while I was a dual major in Anthropology & Physics but back then the overlap between these two disciplines was not great. I settled on Physics.

This was during the political upheavals of the Vietnam war; I with two friends founded the Party of the Radical Middle: the party of extreme common sense. If we had actually had any common sense we would have realized this party would be going nowhere. Still it was fun while it lasted.

Sophomore year final exams were interrupted by discovering I was coughing up blood. This turned out to be tuberculosis. At the time it seemed like a negative, but it turned out it kept me out of the draft & the Vietnam war until the draft was ended, two years later. Net positive.

I got my Harvard BA in Physics in 1972 (summa cum laude) and then a Masters in Physics from Princeton (1977).

For several years after that I was an assistant editor for Asimov’s SF Magazine, which started a life long involvement with the science fiction community.

After that I was the production manager (really the IT guy) for a startup scientific & medical press called Centrum. Many 100 hour weeks. Our first journals were, appropriately enough, the American Journal of Emergency Medicine & the International Journal of Disaster Medicine. My favorite Disaster article was one explaining how to triage at a disaster site, using a system of red, yellow, & green toe tags. If you find yourself with a red or green toe tag, steal your neighbor’s yellow toe tag: yellow toe tags get you the maximum attention (red toe tags get you morphine, green toe tags no attention at all).

I also learned how to lie to computers. This is an incredibly useful skill & has been the foundation of my subsequent career.

I got my start as an official IT consultant working at Bellcore, the joint development arm of the 7 baby bells. After a year or two, I wound up responsible for an entire computer center, with 30 mini-computers & perhaps 1500 users. Time to go independent.

Since then I have worked as a software and database developer, working in the medical, legal, advertising, financial, scientific, and other areas, with clients ranging from a high-risk perinatal laboratory to a cemetery (my company slogan is cradle to grave programming).

I currently work full time as the database department at a leading optical switch manufacturer (your web pages & email travel over switches I helped build).

I’ve stayed part of the science fiction community. I’ve given talks at NASA, and at Philcon, Balticon, Capclave, and other science fiction conventions on Time Travel, Invisibility, Star Gates, Parallel Universes, and related topics. Recently I co-edited (with Darrell Schweitzer) Tales from the Miskatonic University: what evils lurk in the dark reaches of the Dewey Decimal System?

And I am working on a Ph.D. dissertation in physics, Time Dispersion in Quantum Mechanics. I presented this at the 2018 conference of the IARD (International Association for Relativistic Dynamics). It is now up on the web as part of the IOP Conference Proceedings. I’ve written a followup article (Does the Heisenberg uncertainty principle apply along the time dimension?) also published by the IOP.

My lifetime goal is to build a really practical time machine.

Artificial intelligence, the quantum internet, and life and/or death

The 2021 Baltimore Science Fiction Convention (Balticon) runs this coming weekend. Virtual but real, if you get my drift. Convention is free; the programming looks very strong. Poke around & check off the interesting ones: I had great trouble keeping my choices down to one per time slot.

And, Balticon has recorded all of the talks: I’ve linked each talk to its video.

For my Balticon talk I’m doing:

Hands as seen by an artificial intelligence.
The Hands of AI

Artificial Intelligence: Past, Present, and Futures: Saturday, 2:30pm

From neural nets and genetic algorithms to facial recognition and deep fakes, artificial intelligence (AI) is everywhere today. What exactly do we mean by AI and how did it get where it is today? What are the benefits and risks of AI and how should we manage it going forwards?

Fast moving & fun topic!

Ethics and Robotics: Friday, 4pm

Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws formed one of the earliest ethics systems for robots and artificially-created beings, but aren’t necessarily accurate or complete. A hundred years after Asimov’s birth, what approaches are being taken in the practical development of robots? What is “real AI” and how far away are we from it?

With Anne Gray aka netmouse (moderator), Aaron M. Roth and Marie Vibbert

The Quantum Internet: Hype or the Next Step? Saturday, 7pm

What do we mean by the quantum internet? What are quantum cryptography, quantum key distribution, quantum sensors, and linked quantum computers? What are the advantages and key problems? Who will get to use it? And do we have just a bunch of interesting tech that all have quantum in their name or can the whole be more than the sum of the parts?

I’m moderating this one with Anne Gray and Kevin Roche (who is the quantum computing evangelist at IBM).

From “Mostly Dead” to Alive and Back Again: Sunday, 10pm

How is it that something like the coronavirus can be completely inert one moment and then spawning millions of copies of itself the next? How did intracellular obligate parasites — organisms that can’t survive without a host — manage to evolve into existence in the first place? What of transposons (jumping genes), viroids (the smallest infectious pathogens known), and the dreaded “giant” viruses? Join us as we dart back and forth across the line that separates life & death in biology!

I’m moderating this one as well, with the panelists: Dr. Jim Prego, Doug Dluzen, Anna Kashina, Pam Garrettson.

2020 Philadelphia Science Fiction aka Philcon

Philcon runs from about noon this coming Friday (11/20/2020) till early evening Sunday (11/22/2020). It is, inevitably, virtual this year. With that said, they are going to a lot of trouble to make it as live & immediate as possible. And are clearly much helped by the benefit of earlier virtual conferences this year. For instance, the program participants were invited to training sessions to check out their setups & make sure they knew how to present on Zoom & Discord. I found mine helpful. Thanks Syd Weinstein & crew!

I have my schedule as well:

 Joy in SciencePlaza 1Science & TechnologyPanelFri 8:30 PM
What about Science first drew us in to it?

Remembering our sparks of inspiration. Recountings and tall tales of our best discoveries and why they continue to inspire us. With Carl Fink (moderator), John Skylar (the invariably intelligent!), Tom Purdam (always witty & knowledgable), and myself.

Artificial Intelligence: Past, Present, FuturesPlaza 1Science & TechnologyTalk by John AshmeadSat 1:00 PMDuration: 00:50
Artificial Intelligence — Too late to escape it, but too soon to panic.

From Oz’s Tik-Tok to the Mechanical Turk, from Neural Nets & Genetic Algorithms to Chess & StarCraft, from fighting the Coronavirus to flying Killer Drones, from Facial Recognition to Fakes, Deep Fakes, & Anti-Fakes, Artificial Intelligence (AI) is everywhere today. How did it start? What do we mean by AI? What are the basic AI techniques? How is it being used? What are the benefits? 

Drift Compatible: The Science of Neural Interface TechnologyPlaza 1Science & TechnologyPanelSat 4:00 PM
Plug in, tune out, or control the world — your call

What can be done with current technology? Are we going to be piloting mechs with our minds before the decade is out? With the ever charming & erudite Catherine Asaro, Rebecca Robare (one of the filk), and myself (as moderator). For me, a nice follow-on to my Arificial Intelligence talk!

Dust to DirtPlaza 1Science & TechnologyPanelSun 4:00 PM
OK, we’re on Mars. What an Expanse of possiblities? Red, Blue, or Green?

 The practical considerations of building a city on Mars, from the habitat to the technology of living on an inhospitable world. I’m moderating based on my talk of a few years back, Mars or Bust! And have Robert Hranek (who has already scared me with his level of preparation), Premee Mohammed (who has scared me with her Lovecraftian Beneath the Rising and who is basically the advance team for Mars), and Tobias Cabral (who I’ve shared many panels with & who is not at all scary — meaning no offense!) to put questions to!

Time & QM at Balticon 2019

I did my “Time dispersion in quantum mechanics” paper as a popular talk at Balticon 2019 this last Saturday. Very energetic audience; talk went well. The audience had fun riffing on the time & quantum mechanics themes. And gave a round of applause to “quantum mechanics”. That doesn’t happen often. Post talk, I spent the next hour and a half in the hallway responding to questions & comments from attendees. And afterwards I ran into a woman who couldn’t get in because there was no standing room left. I think the audience liked the subject, liked the idea of being at the scientific edge, & was prepared to meet the speaker half way. So talk went well!

Thanks to Balticon for taking a chance on a very technical subject! and to all the attendees who made the talk a success.

So I’m hoping to do the talk for Capclave (DC science fiction convention) & Philcon (Philadelphia science fiction convention) in the fall.

My Balticon talk was basically a translation from Physics to English of my long paper of the same title, keeping the key ideas but doing everything in words & pictures, rather than equations.

Balticon will be publishing the video of the Balticon talk at some point. I developed the talk in Apple’s Keynote. I have exported to Microsoft Powerpoint and to Adobe’s PDF format. The advantage of the two slide presentation formats is that you can see the builds.

The long paper the talk was taken from was just published last week, by the Institute of Physics as part of their Conference Proceedings series. And the week before, I did a fairly technical version of the paper as a virtual (Skype) talk for the Time & Time Flow virtual conference. This is online on Youtube, part of the Physics Debates series.

Practical Telepathy: the Science & Engineering of Mind-Reading

From van Vogt’s Slan to Willis’s Crosstalk, telepathy has been a staple of science fiction. But what are the real world chances of reading another person’s mind? With MRI & PET scans we can see what images a person is thinking of, with brain implants we can help the blind to see, and—the way the science is going—we are only a half-step away from direct mind-to-mind communication. Nothing to worry about here!

I’ll be speaking at 4pm Saturday November 11th, this coming Saturday, in Crystal Ballroom Two at Philcon.  Hope to see you there!

StarGates Jump to FossCon — The Free & Open StarS Convention!

9/3/2017: I have just posted the slides from Fosscon on slideshare.  Comments, questions, problems, & buildable blueprints, all very welcome!

This coming Saturday I’ll be doing the latest revision of my StarGates talk at FossCon, the Free & Open StarS Convention!

(Pay no attention to those who assert this is the Free & Open Source Convention, that is a mere cover story.)

The convention is at International House in Philadelphia, starting at 9am, and is free.  As to my talk:

“Call them Stargates, Jumpgates, Fargates, Hypergates or just an invitation to every pest from the far reaches of the Galaxy to visit, they would be invaluable in helping mankind break free of this solar system.

Are StarGates only a convenient plot device — or could they actually be built? Accordingly to Einstein’s Theory of General Relavity, they are possible — at least in principle.

We will discuss how to glue black holes together to build a wormhole, how to avoid the dangers of spaghettification, radiation poisoning and paradox noise, and just what would it take to build one in practice.”

My talk’s at 1pm.  Hope to see you there!

And there I have you seen!  There was a nice turnout (in the South America room at International House) with a lot of questions.  We finished with a few minutes for additional questions, including my favorites:

What happens if you drag a wormhole through a wormhole?

I congratulated the questioner on the question & he just pointed at his young son sitting next, a lad clearly with a bright future as a scientist!

I had to admit I wasn’t sure, but I suspect it would be bad news for all concerned:  both wormholes, and any spaceships, space stations, or space-persons nearby!

How do you think this might actually be done?

I focused on wormholes because that is far & away the most popular of the approaches.  But if some sort of stargate were ever actually to come to fruition, I suspect a combination of the Einstein-Rosen-Podolsky (EPR) effect and the ideas behind the Krasnikov tube would be at work.  The EPR effect is the spooky-action-at-a-distance Einstein objected to; the Krasnikov tube is an idea of — curiously enough — Krasnikov for laying out a tube of warped spacetime behind your slower-than-light spacecraft.  You’d have to go slower-than-light while laying out the tube, but could use it for faster-than-light thereafter. And as I said in the talk, negative energy & vortices are pretty sure to be involved.



Time to the Power of Tim

Three Time Travel Tales by Tim Powers

Three Time Travel Tales by Tim Powers

This year the guest of honor at Capclave was Tim Powers. (Capclave is the Washington DC Science Fiction convention.) Tim is not only the author of many fine science fiction novels, but a very nice guy.

This turned out to be a good thing, as the initial proposal was to have Tim & I appear together and do something physic-y about his novels.  I have never done a talk with a live author before (dead authors are no problem, I have that down cold), so I was a bit nervous about the whole thing.

But it worked out well:  Tim was very helpful & gracious and when the audience asked him if one of my theories about the time travel in his novel The Anubis Gates was correct he said, essentially, “Now it is.” 🙂

I focused on three of his novels, The Anubis Gates — his first big success (with romantic poets & time-traveling Jackel Gods), Three Days to Never — something like the bastard child of John Le Carre & H. P. Lovecraft, and Medusa’s Web — who can resist the Time Spyders?

One of the distinctive features of Tim Powers working method is that he starts with a place and a time, researches it looking for the curious facts, bizarre details, & strange omissions that point to an unknown but dark reality, then gradually teases out the true story of whatreallyhappened!

“I made it an ironclad rule that I could not change or disregard any of the recorded facts, nor rearrange any days of the calendar – and then I tried to figure out what momentous but unrecorded fact could explain them all.”

So Tim builds his novels from the bottom up. As a result, they tend to differ wildly from each other.  Other authors, once they have got a setting that works, tend to reuse it, Tim builds anew each time.  No ten volume trilogies here!

And he also works out the timelines of all of his critical characters.  At each moment, he knows where each of his on and off stage characters are & what they are up to.  His notes on this are a kind of secret history of the secret history!

He has 20 or more novels out, so I focused on just three, all involving time travel.  And in each the theory of time travel was radically different!  I had a lot of fun linking each up to the corresponding physics and going back & forth about all this with my stage-mate Tim. 🙂

The talk, minus alas, the actual talking, is now up on slideshare.  Download if you will & any questions/comments please let me know!  thanks!



Stargates: The Theory & Practice

Doors and Portals and Stargates, Oh My!

Call them Stargates, Jumpgates, Fargates, Hypertubes or just an invitation to every unwanted pest from the far reaches of the Galaxy to visit, they are absolutely necessary if we are to have the glorious Science Fiction action we desperately need.  But could they actually be built?  We look at what modern physics has to say:  how to glue black holes together to build a wormhole, how to avoid the dangers of spaghettification, radiation poisoning, and paradox noise, and just what it would take to build one in practice.

This was a talk I did at the last Philcon, went over well.  And I had a lot of fun doing it.  I’ve got it up as a talk on slideshare.  And I may do variations on this at the 2017 Balticon & also Capclave.

It is the kind of subject you can go anywhere with!


Invisibility, Anti-gravity, Ethics of Time Travel, & Balonium

I’ve just received my schedule for Philcon, being held in a bit over a week, November 8th thru 10th.  Curious collection of subjects, but looks like a lot of fun.  If you are in the Philly area, it would be great if you can come by!

Sat 1:00 PM in Crystal Ballroom Two (1 hour)


[Panelists: John Ashmead (mod)]

How do we hide a jet fighter, a tank, even a city from sight? For
millennia people have dreamt of invisibility rings, caps, & cloaks:
how close are we to Harry Potter territory? Progress in the last ten
years has been extraordinary, and, with some help from general
relativity, 3d printers, advanced photonics, and more than a pinch
of ingenuity, we can now bend, fold, & spindle light in ways
unimagined ten years ago
Sat 3:00 PM in Crystal Ballroom Two (1 hour)

[Panelists: John Ashmead (mod), Ed Bishop, Walter F. Cuirle, Jay

Both creating and negating gravity are very common tropes in science
fiction. It’s taken for granted in most Science Fiction that
spacecraft have normal gravity, although they do not spin. How this
is achieved is rarely discussed. Anti-gravity is nearly as common,
(and convenient for the plot).. Are either of these concepts
scientifically plausible? Could such a technology ever actually be


Sat 6:00 PM in Plaza II (Two) (1 hour)

[Panelists: John Ashmead (mod), Evelyn Leeper, Andrew C. Ely]

Everyone talks about killing Hitler in his crib, or stopping Booth
from shooting Lincoln. But if you could change the past, would you
Sat 7:00 PM in Plaza III (Three) (1 hour)

[Panelists: John Ashmead (mod), Darrell Schweitzer, John Monahan,
Sharon Lee]

From cavorite to kryptonite, science fiction fiction writers love to
add new elements to the periodic table. How do you create
convincing imaginary substances and what do you do with them

Talks now on Slideshare

I’ve uploaded a number of my more recent talks to Slideshare.  Physics, with occasionally a wee bit of speculation admixed:

  1. Thought experiments – talk done 1st April 2012 for the Ben Franklin Thinking Society.  Role of thought experiments in history, use by Galileo & by noted violinist, how they can turn into real experiments.
  2. Not Your Grandfather’s Gravity – done last year (2011) on the latest developments in the suddenly hot area of gravity.  The stuff on faster-than-light neutrinos is, alas, already out of date:  boring won:  looks as if the FTL neutrinos were due to experimental error.   But Verlinde’s entropic gravity is still one of the most promising lines of attack.
  3. Temporal Paradoxes – physics talk given at NASA’s Goddard Space Center 2011.  A slightly NASA-fied version of a talk I’d given at several SF conventions in 2010.
  4. Quantum time – physics talk given at Feynman Festival in Olomouc in 2009.  I did popular versions of that talk as well.
  5. How to build a (real) time machine – talk given at several SF conventions in 2009.
  6. Life, the Universe, & the Second Law of Thermodynamics.  Or, the Infinite Probability drive.  About the role of entropy in the universe, complete with Babelfish.  2008.
  7. Faster Than Light – talk on faster than light travel:  theory, practice, applications. Given at several SF conventions in 2007.
  8. Confused at a Higher Level – arguably one of the funniest talks ever given about problems in quantum mechanics. OK, competition not that fierce.  Given at several SF conventions in 2004.
  9. The Physics of Time Travel.  Review of time, with respect to the bending, stretching, folding, & tormenting thereof.  Given at Philcon & Balticon (in various versions) in 2003.
  10. The Future of Time Travel – mostly about the science fiction thereof.  Probably 2002.

These are not all of my talks — I’ve probably done 20 or 30 SF talks over the last 20 years, at least one per year — these are just the ones done using Keynote or Powerpoint.  The 2005 & 2006 talks have gone walkabout.  If they reappear, I will upload.  I generally talk at Balticon, Philcon, & more recently Capclave.  I’ve spoken twice at Farpoint, but that is really more of a media convention, not as good a fit.

Talks before 2002 were done with Word & overheads. Overheads are easier to make than slides, but have a tendency to get bent, flipped, out of order, or in one especially memorable talk:  burnt.  That talk I was doing at the Franklin Inn Club: the projector failed at the last minute & I had to rent another from a nearby camera shop.  The rented projector ran hot. If I stayed on a specific slide for more than 60 seconds, the slide began to smoke.  Literally.  Colored smoke of course, wafting in strange tendrils towards the ceiling. Taught me a lot about pacing, mostly to make it faster.
By the way the word you are looking for, in re me & time travel, is not obsessed, it is focused.  Let’s just be clear about that.

Other talk(s), marginally less speculative:

  1. Overview of Backbone – talk on the jQuery library Backbone, given at PhillyCoders. April 2012.
  2. How to Destroy a Database – talk on database security.  October 2007.  Wile E. Coyote & other experts on correctness & security are enlisted to help make key points.
  3. Getting started with MySQL – talk given at PACS and my Macintosh programming group in 2006. Manages to work in the Sumerians, the Three Stooges, a rocket-powered daschhund, some unicorns, and – of course – dolphins (the totem animal of MySQL).

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