November 23, 2016

HUMAN JOURNEY TO MARS: Excerpt from my public lecture, “Obstacles to A Space Odyssey”

Is anyone watching the new National Geographic Channel’s TV series, “Mars”? It’s exhilarating stuff: 1960s Apollo fever all over again as we contemplate going to Mars. But is it “castles in the air”?

Since Russia’s Sputnik ignited the space race in 1957, making President Kennedy aim our rocketry at the Moon, we’ve been dreaming of sallying forth into deep space — the realm of Cosmonauts and Astronauts. But we’ve never got beyond the Moon, which is still a “suburb” of our Earth.

We must distinguish between near space and deep space. Don’t be misled by the dreamy terms Astronaut (USA) and Cosmonaut (Russia): Such people do not exist yet. As I pointed out in a blog a year ago, the pretentious terms “astronaut” and “cosmonaut” are pompous political malapropisms, merely expressing our hopes and desires. Humans are yet to go past the Moon to navigate the astros or the cosmos. (“Aster” is Latin/Greek for star, while “Cosmos” is the universe. We’ve never been out there!)

In 1998 John Glenn returned to near space in a space shuttle, in the company of other astronauts; he was 77. For him this was really a celebrity ride to honor him as the second man in near-space (after Russia’s Yuri Gagarin in 1961). Glenn was the man who, tired of roaring down his Cambridge, Ohio hometown roadways on his motorcycle, joined the USAF and in 1962 became the first American in near-Earth orbit.

Reporters who covered Glenn’s return to earth in 1998 added a human touch by showing a woman of 81 who watched the spectacle in awe and gushed: “I wanna go, too!” That brings up the question I used to ask my audience: WOULD YOU GO? If volunteers were invited for a one-way trip out of Earth (you’d get a front-row view of the glories of the universe, but you had no chance of returning: none, zero, zip, zilch, nada!), would you go?

During my years as a scientist at NASA, I used to amuse myself and entertain audience at schools, universities, and museums in Greater Cleveland area with public lectures on “Obstacles to A Space Odyssey.” I would extol the amazing achievements of NASA through the hectic days of Gemini and Apollo, etc… But then I would sketch out the myriad problems needing to be solved before man can venture out to real/deep space (in our solar system or beyond) to the real domain of putative astronauts and cosmonauts.

The biggest challenge is lofting the payload through the vastness of space. Consider distances: Mars (our nearest planetary neighbor) is 400 times farther than the Moon. If Neil Armstrong’s hop to the Moon be likened to sprinting 25 miles on a bicycle from a US city’s downtown to its nearest suburb, then a trip to Mars would be like flying 10,000 miles non-stop in a glider from Canada to Australia.

Then there’s the matter of payload. If the Saturn-V rocket which launched Apollo 11 from Florida on July 16, 1969 is seen as a full pencil, then Eagle (the Lunar Lander that shuttled Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin softly from lunar orbit to the lunar surface) is the sharpened tiny tip of that pencil; the very long shat of the pencil was just propellant fuel. Eagle was the size of a camper’s tent; it weighed 5 tons. In contrast, the smallest module that can carry a human crew and keep them supplied through the 7-month flight to Mars would be the size of a colonial house, weighing over 20 tons. We have no rocket in service or even in conception yet that can lift such a behemoth of a payload from Earth.

Even so, that is only HALF the requirement: the spacecraft will need to be launched from Mars for its return. So, extra fuel will have to be procured at Mars or carried there with the original payload. Since Mars gravity is much bigger than the Moon’s, the entire “pencil shaft” of propellant may have to be doubled to carry extra fuel to Mars (if it is liquid or solid hydrocarbon) for use to launch a return trip. Look again at the sharpened full pencil; now, double its length! If the same launch pad design for the lunar launch is to be used again for the Mars trip, the gantry would dwarf the Statue of Liberty — giving a new meaning to the biblical Tower of Babel!

Such doubling of the rocket power would complicate and jeopardize things immensely. Of course there are alternatives to liquid and solid propellants but their performance and reliability issues are far beyond our scope here. The most likely scenario is to time the return trip for when Mars-Jupiter-Earth are aligned (not in the astrologers’ sense!) so that a small thrust off Mars can be boosted by Jupiter’s behemoth gravitation to sling-shoot the return craft towards Earth. That not only brings more perils but, if it works, may add years (of waiting for alignment) to the trip.

That brings up the topic in which I was involved at NASA: the durability of rocket engines in the incredibly aggressive environment of a rocket flame, exceeding 5,000°F (3,000°C). With the single-shot rockets used for Moon launches it is not a serious concern, but when we must use and reuse the rocket (a trail now being pioneered by the intrepid company SpaceX) it becomes a limiting issue. No metal can stay solid/intact at those temperatures, and ceramics are notoriously too brittle. Between its glorious maiden flight in 1981 and its catastrophic death in 2003 (for both of which events I was lucky to be in Cape Canaveral to watch), Space Shuttle Columbia, flew 28 missions in 22 years. That is remarkable longevity (albeit in intermittent service and with constant repairs, of course) under the severest service conditions known to engineering.

The solution that protected space shuttle and advanced jet engines under those conditions was to line the combustors of the rocket engines with a veneer of material (essentially ceramics) that continuously regenerated during service. (The task of our team was to determine how the desirable regeneration occurs, and how that benefit might be maximized.) That process is yet to be developed for deep space vehicles. (That’s a dream job for my next incarnation — on Mars!)

Other challenges include:

  • Unfathomable distance & time from earth (communication is limited by speed of light);
  • Propulsion Speed (round-trip journey to our next-door planet, Mars, would last years);
  • Carrying/finding enough fuel, food, drinking water, or breathable air for such a journey;
  • Mechanical challenges: equipment that run forever with zero or minimal maintenance;
  • Crew Welfare (illness, radiation, confinement & zero-gravity effects on body & mind);
  • Compatibility of Crew who would live & procreate en route in crushed confinement;
  • Etc.

(For a casual reading, see the November 2016 National Geographic Magazine topic of trip to Mars.)

But human ingenuity gives us hope. Upon escaping from 1,500 years of Dark-Age ignorance imposed by Christian dogma, man jumped from primitive proto-flight (at Kitty Hawk, NC in 1903) to Mare Tranquilitatis (on the Moon) in 1969. In just a blink (66 years, or two human generations) we went from earth-bound existence to the threshold of eternity!!!

So, can we reach for Mars? Yes, we can, eventually:  I believe in human ingenuity!

I always ended my lectures on conflicting notes: Realistically, we are far from true space travel; but as to the philosophical question, would I go? the answer is “abso-frigging-lutely, YES!!!”

A song to sing on that ultimate journey:

♫ Fly me to the Moon and let me play among the stars/

♪ Let me see what spring is like on Jupiter and Mars….



11/17/2015:  IMPROVING & PROMOTING SELF-PUBLISHED BOOKS                                          by Lyn Thomas-Ogbuji

{My Experience with Publishing PREYING MANTIS (The Story of Tarissa)}

Reproduced from: FrontPorchCommons.org],  November 17, 2015
EssaysBookstores, Preying Mantis, Publishing Models, Reviewing, social media

For the original essay, go to: http://frontporchcommons.org/?p=339

Nearly 70(f)











When you approach a newspaper or large-chain bookseller for help with promoting a book, their first question is usually: “Who is your publisher?” If your publisher is not a “big house” you will be told, “Sorry, we don’t do self-published books.” Recently I undertook that uphill task for my novel, Preying Mantis (The Story of Tarissa). It was a tough sell, with mixed results. I came away chastened; above all I got an education on the pitfalls of self-publishing. The reaction of booksellers and the press is really like the proverbial error of judging a book by its cover, but they have good reasons for that prejudice.

51tW95eup4L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Since my book had already been well received by critics I argued convincingly that it had a special merit deserving attention. That did not sway everyone; however, it got me a foot in the door. In those encounters I learned that my experience is typical for writers of books published by what is euphemistically called the “vanity press.” I was moved to set down a few tips, summarized here, to help some aspiring writers over that high initial hump.

Time was when writers were few and far between, but those days are gone beyond recall. Websites of literary agents caution they are inundated with dozens of submissions daily and so may not even acknowledge your submission. It seems everyone is a writer these days, and there is a cacophonous clamor for attention all around. So it is a buyer’s market. Many agency websites display astonishing instructions such as, “We seek manuscripts that grab our attention from the start and are impossible to set down once we start reading…” What can one say to a platitude like that? I was tempted to tell one such perfectionist that as a teenager I dreamed of a girlfriend with Aphrodite’s looks, Penelope’s virtue, and the smarts of Scheherazade, but that I grew up to find contentment with a mortal woman.

We also know that the pickiness of literary agents is not a reliable assessment of any book’s quality. J. K. Rowling is said to have gone through several score rejections before she hit pay dirt; and it was a publisher’s eight-year-old daughter who saw the merit of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and wheedled her dad into backing it. The rest, as they say, is history! “Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings thou hast perfected praise.”

Nevertheless, we know that agents have good reason to be picky. And publishers have even more reason to winnow chaff from their repertoire: they are the ones who front the capital to produce and market a book. They won’t even give you time of day until some mainstream agent and a battery of handpicked reviewers have raked your manuscript over hot coals. So, what to do? Many writers just give up and decide to publish their book by themselves, with help from the vanity press. If you do, welcome to the club — and prepare for a mountain climb!

Some encouragement may be gleaned from survey results published by Jeff Herman after he polled hundreds of agents. All the agents he surveyed affirmed an enthusiasm for self-publishing. (See Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors & Literary Agents.) They know the torrent of books now gushing from writers far outstrips the capacity of mainstream publishers to handle anything but the tip of the iceberg. So, standard publishing houses are becoming moribund.

Nevertheless, we are just at the hardscrabble beginning of that revolution in book publishing. The day of our liberation from the tyranny of mainstream publishers will dawn only when the quality of self-published books improves markedly from what it is today. Until then, booksellers and critics will remain gatekeepers to readers, and pooh-pooh self-published books. Our task is to wean them from that attitude of disdain.

My first book was handled by a mainstream publisher, the second by a publisher of intermediate status (who arranged editing and reviews but printed “on demand”). My third book, Preying Mantis, a novel that has garnered excellent review ratings (4-5 stars across the board) has just been published by a vanity press. Because of the glowing acclaim by reviewers and readers, I am beginning to make inroads towards getting publicity to boost sales.


By publishing your book via a vanity press you are starting it off from the basement, so you must do all you can to give it a competitive head start. The first attribute that you control is the quality of the manuscript, including robust and rigorous writing skills, proofing it against errors, and using good editors. I cascaded my manuscript through three successive editors, one of whom was accessible and committed enough to discuss the book in detail and in person.

Poor editing and retained errors (“typos,” for instance) are serious impediments; but they need not be showstoppers if your narrative is compelling enough; much depends on other factors. Recently I bought a book on the basis of its title: it was about an exotic island nation that has always fascinated me. The book had a profusion of errors: of punctuation, bad grammar, fractured syntax, typos, and inconsistent spelling. Still, my fascination with the subject kept me going and I enjoyed reading that book. On the other hand, I’ve bought some self-published books I could not finish reading because the literary quality was off-putting.

The choice of a title for your book is important. One of my editors noted that my initial title (which was about the tenth one I had considered) didn’t do justice to the contents. I dug deeper and came up with a title that had a zing, Preying Mantis; several reviewers complimented the final title. Many heads are better than one, and such pointers from good editors are a sound reason you should have as many heads as possible judge your manuscript.

The bottom line is, unless you make the quality of your manuscript the best you can, you are starting it out no longer in the basement but in the sub-basement!


You should not stint on review or editing cost. Quality concerns may be your biggest investment outlay in time and effort, but reviews and marketing will cost the most money. Good editors will charge by the word, but some will also let you negotiate a rate. At the end I requested each of my editors to provide a review and a rating also (for a little extra fee); they were in a good position to provide it since they had dissected the manuscript and knew it inside out.

There are many good review outfits nowadays and you should diversify your quest. I chose three brokers for pre-publication (“foreword”) review; the comments from those arrived in time to be excerpted on the back-page blurb. I also chose two pricey “professional” or “trade” review outfits that provided in-depth comments for posting in their journals and other sites. The advantage of the later is their name recognition, which carries clout; the former category, on the other hand, has the advantage of agility and of being closer to readers’ tastes than the touted “professionals.” I also duplicated my choice in each category. All “expert” reviewers have their conceit and it is amazing how much their opinions can differ.


The most difficult questions I had to answer included the category/genre and the target audience. Some books defy easy classification. Concerning audience, it is OK to aim at everybody if your style and content have broad-spectrum appeal. But it helps a lot if you can narrow your aim and shoot with a rifle instead of a blunderbuss. For instance, you target a textbook at academic elites and a book about snowboarding to folks in the frigid northern latitudes. For my book the determinant of audience was the prose, especially the lexicon. Preying Mantis was targeted at an audience with a good grasp of English language as well as a robust vocabulary.

In Native Tongues, linguist Charles Berlitz gave these sobering statistics: (1) English language has some one million words; (2) a well-informed user of English can boast a vocabulary of 50,000 to 100,000 words (5-10%); (3) Shakespeare used 19,000 words (2%) to craft all his work, while the New York Times (aided by a profusion of modern coinage) uses some 25,000 words, or 2.5%; (4) the average UK university graduate can manage 10,000 words (1%), but the average US college graduate makes do with about 2,500 (0.25%)! Now, in no intellectual field of endeavor would you be considered remotely literate or educated if you know less than half a percent of the subject matter. Even without judging the import of Berlitz’s statistics we see that a book written for those with ample English lexicon will leave average American readers scratching their heads.

By specifying your target audience you ask the review brokers to choose reviewers in the appropriate category. Unfortunately, that does not happen often. When my first book was published in 2006, I had tussles with editors who might have been reacting to reviewers’ comments by querying sentence construction, use of the “serial comma,” and, above all, “uncommon” words. I was urged to replace words like devolve, juxtaposition, dreadnought, obfuscation, etc. One “expert” reviewer said words like connivance, exculpate, and punctilious were “verbose” and created a “discord” when used in the same book as phrases like “mucho bucks.” One encounters such hokum!

When I balked at some synonyms the editors suggested I was called “pedantic,” but I held firm. As a life-long educator, I won’t acquiesce in the kind of linguistic “dumbing down” which Charles Berlitz alluded to. I have had to point out to critics that a serious reader should have the basic curiosity to consult a dictionary now and then, especially nowadays when dictionaries and thesauruses are freely available on the Internet. So, if you disagree with an editor or reviewer on matters of style, your informed preference should prevail since it is your book after all.

Mainstream publishers are mostly interested in the bottom line and, accordingly, they will seek the common denominator where language skill is concerned. If you publish your book by yourself and wish to maximize revenue from it, you may consider mass appeal highly important, in which case you have to write to the literacy level of your audience. But if you are after literary acclaim, you may decide to focus your aim more narrowly.


If at this point your manuscript is still wallowing beneath 3-star ratings it is in trouble, and you will have to do iteration loops. Some reviewers and editors will engage you at this point with pointers you could use to beef up the ratings. Sometimes you may have to go so far as to reorganize your manuscript to clarify sequences, remove ambiguities, add paragraphs or drop them, or change the ending. A book with a sad ending will depress most readers. (Except that Russian classics seem to really thrive on melancholy!) So, contrive to make the good guys win in the end.


When you get your desired ratings you have scaled only the foothills of the mountain. You will then use those ratings to leverage publicity where it counts. Newspapers and large-chain bookstores were skittish over my request for an airing, but they were swayed when I sent them the review comments. One assumes that they only want to know that your book won’t be a dud! When asking bookstores to sponsor book signing, you should bear in mind that they stand to lose if your book flops.

Vanity publishers print books “on demand” and won’t accept return of unsold books as traditional publishers do. So, be willing to underwrite some losses the sellers may incur. I offered to order copies of my book for the signing — a matter of putting my money where my mouth is, and it satisfied some bookstores. If such collaboration succeeds, the bookseller may not ask you to underwrite future sessions. If losses ensue, you are on your own; but then you won’t return to the sellers for another session, will you?

Nearly-70b-810x1024The author, Lyn Thomas-Ogbuji, is a retired scientist and academic with engineering background. He has had a life-long fascination with the English language — a subject on which he currently maintains a blog.  Kindly leave any comments or feedback at his blog site: http://www.cutthebabble.com







Straining to Master the LapTop!

Straining to Master the Lap-Top!

The first time I used a computer, to calculate and plot research data, towards the end of the 1970s, there was nothing “personal” about it. The thing occupied an entire suite in a large building. I approached it the way an ant approaches an elephant, and every reply I got from it was intimidating as a blast from an elephant: “Syntax Error” it trumpeted over and over in FORTRAN (jargon for the “Formula Translation” language of early computers).

Fast forward to 1990 when I returned to the USA from a decade-long sojourn abroad and found the PC (for Personal Computer) in vogue. It was less intimidating in size; and it soon sported a mouse for navigation in windows mode (unless you were a troglodyte intent on staying with DOS (“Disk Operating System” mode). My fingers were too clumsy to pick up individual letters on the keyboard (because I never learned formally to use a typewriter); and they were too sluggish to perform a “double click” on the mouse. But I wrestled with that lesser monster that was the PC, because my scientific research came to require computer operation at every turn.

But no sooner did I master the mouse and keyboard than I was hit with an “update” (a term I’ve come to dread as it now pops up every hour on my PC and its derivative machines (or “apps”). In the early years of the new millennium I upgraded to the Lap-Top PC, which was even more personal in the sense that it sat on my lap, and I eased anxiously into a dizzying pace in the fast lane of computing. But once again I adjusted and learned to work the integrated “track-pad” that had replaced the more agile but less compact mouse. By then my laptop, the size of a brief-case, could perform with one click or two all the number-crunching tasks that used to consume an entire day’s session on my student-era Fortran computer (not to mention the weeks I had to wait to get on the users’ queue).

That was when I began to experience role-reversal in my personal life. My sons were all studying computer engineering (by some mischief of fate that steered them away from lucrative fields like law, medicine, and “business,” to join me in the cerebral but financially unrewarding field of engineering!). The boys were just weaning themselves from often having to ask me to explain this or that, and, instead, became my teachers as I began to depend on them for help in plumbing the ever-deepening mysteries of the computer. If I suspected them of biting their tongue to hide their glee at the role reversal, I ate humble crow and approached them anyway.

Fast-forward another decade, and it was now the turn of my grandchildren to sigh and roll their eyes as they explained to me, with growing impatience, “Look, grandpa, it’s not so difficult!” But I’m still mystified as I try to imitate the nimble tykes whose tiny fingers fly over the miniature keyboards and whatever passes for navigational tools on their ipads. Each of my fourteen grandchildren seems to have half a dozen different ipads for different tasks — tasks that generate only pure, selfish fun while still leaving my family scratching for money to get along.

Now my grandchildren are getting a little weary of my questions; they sidle away when I lean closer to gaze at their tiny machines which are now the size of cigarette boxes. Two decades ago I used to paraphrase to my sons the satisfying lesson imparted to all generations by Mark Twain: “When I was fourteen my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand him. But when I turned twenty-one I was amazed to realize how much the old man had learned in seven years!”

And so, in the looming twilight of my life I find myself back in the role of pupil to my offspring; only, now it is the turn of my grandchildren to sigh and remonstrate with me: “Grandpa, it’s not so difficult…” Still, I realize I’m bugging them too much. My thirst to learn is worrying them to exasperation. So I’m easing off and waiting for my great-grandchildren to come along, join our family, and reiterate life’s delightful cycle with the innocence of tots who ask: “Dad,” (or Papa, or Ga-ppa), what does this mean…?” I may be unable to fix their miniature gizmos anymore, but I strongly desire to impart to them a curiosity so they will fix such problems in future when faced with their own bright-faced children who will ask, “Dad, how does this thing work?”

The Doyen of Nigerian Grad-Dads in Cleveland                                                                                    July 23, 2015


May 29, 2015

This is about the journey of life —a topic that fascinates and then consumes everyone as they grow older and older.

On Memorial Day just past, 05/25/2015, I was playing with nine of my 13 grandchildren (the other four live out of state). I had a camera ready. All of a sudden the youngest, Melayo, got up on his two feet; it was the first time he had done so, as far as I know. Know the very first thing he did? He clapped for himself! Then it hit me: what a long, hard road we travel just to go from babyhood to childhood. That short journey is really a trek, an odyssey. In the ten months of his life up to that day he had mastered a lot of steps towards proper use of his limbs.

  • First, he would just lie on his back or on his tummy or in whatever position you left him.
  • Then he learned to kick his legs and jerk his arms, and then to roll over on his own.
  • Next we found he could stiffen the muscles of his neck and hold his head up.
  • Then he was able to hold his bottle with his own two hands.
  • Next trick was to get on his hands and knees and rock to and fro.
  • From there he learned to crawl forward to reach whatever he wanted.
  • Then he could steady himself on one hand and two knees to reach up for something.
  • Finally, he had grasped a handy support and hauled himself onto his two feet.

Melayo had just launched himself onto the threshold of childhood. Don’t call him baby anymore! He will soon set one foot ahead of the other and so propel himself forward, upright. That is a trick wired into his subconscious by his genes and his instinct.

Thereafter he will ambulate on his two legs to any destination, leaving his hands free for manipulation: a feat first established by Homo Erectus nearly two million years ago.

That’s why he burst into spontaneous self applause. And I, watching him attain that instinctive performance, joined in the applause for him, for humanity.

What a journey! One tiny step for baby; one tremendous jump for Homo Sapiens Sapiens.

The joy of our first steps is captured in the photo below, from the image of Eric Reed’s 2011 jazz CD, “Something Beautiful.” Oh, yes, I too was there once upon a time!