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New Title on Gravitational Focus Mission

Claudio Maccone’s new book is out, an extension and re-analysis of the material in two earlier titles that examined the author’s innovative ideas on deep space systems. Maccone is best known to Centauri Dreams readers as the major proponent of a mission to the Sun’s gravitational focus where, at 550 AU and beyond, a spacecraft could take advantage of lensing properties that would allow detailed observations of distant stars and their planets.


The Italian physicist, formerly associated with Alenia Spazio and now working independently on deep space matters, has developed the idea as an interstellar precursor mission loaded with good science. But in the second part of Deep Space Flight and Communications: Exploiting the Sun as a Gravitational Lens (Springer, 2009), he also examines the mathematics of what is known as the Karhunen-Loève Transform (KLT), analyzing the tools that seem to offer the best choices for optimized communications as we eventually develop star-faring capabilities.

Serious interstellar advocates will want Maccone’s work on their shelves, and therein lies the problem. Springer has priced the volume at $139, which essentially targets it toward university libraries and the community of researchers most closely focused on these topics. A tiny press run in assumption of a small audience leads to high prices, which is the same issue we’ve faced with our Frontiers of Propulsion Science book.

What to do? Several years back, before I had started this site and while I was working on the Centauri Dreams book, I needed a copy of Colin McInnes’ book Solar Sailing: Technology, Dynamics and Mission Applications. The price has dropped in the intervening years, but I see that even the paperback version of this Springer title weighs in at a hefty $94.89 on Amazon. Back then, I wound up paying substantially more than that for the hardcover.

All this comes to mind because of yesterday’s announcement of the Kindle DX, which seems targeted at least partially toward the textbook market. An electronic reader with a larger screen than the regular Kindle, the DX could offer a way for publishers to lower prices substantially, as small press run books could eventually be distributed without a large fraction of the overhead. Other companies, like Plastic Logic, are also getting ready to move into this space, which is why Amazon moved now.

Much depends upon the attitude of publishers. In the case of an older title, how much has already gone into the publishing process, and how much of a discount is feasible? I see that even the Kindle edition of Solar Sailing sells for $85.40, a price guaranteed to keep McInnes’ work out of most hands. In so many ways, the publishing model of today is broken, and we must wonder how long it will take technology to fix it. See Greg Matloff’s Deep Space Probes: To the Outer Solar System and Beyond for more proof. It will cost you a cool $169. And note this: “Usually ships within 1 to 2 months.”

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  • Brad Neuberg May 7, 2009, 15:19

    I own a Kindle, and just bought Frontiers of Propulsion Science yesterday. I was disappointed actually that there is no Kindle version; it seems like a perfect fit for this crowd so I was surprised. I’m willing to pay the high price, but I don’t like lugging around a giant textbook. For books that have a small-run, I’d rather just be able to send some money via Paypal directly to Marc Millis and have him just email a PDF or DOC version of the book to my Kindle email address, which will automatically convert the book and download it to my Kindle in a few minutes. Everyone wins: Marc and the other writers directly get the money with less intermediaries in the middle, which probably translates into more money for them; I get to read the book without lugging a textbook around; and the Earth doesn’t have to have a few more trees ripped out in order to print a giant text book. The coolest thing will be when you can easily annotate these books using the Kindle and then share them; I’d love to see how the author of this blog, for example, would annotate the book. I might even pay a few dollars for that.

  • Administrator May 7, 2009, 15:26

    Brad, good points, especially with regard to carrying massive volumes around! I love the annotation capability of a Kindle, but I think the device needs a touch screen instead of that little keyboard. I use a Kindle 2 and love reading books on it, but I find making notes cumbersome, as is navigating to a word to begin a section of underlining. I believe touch screens are coming for electronic ink readers some time next year, with color in 2011 or so.

  • Belisarius May 7, 2009, 21:40

    The Sun can focus neutrinos that pass through its interior, and the focal length for that case is 23.5 AU.

    Gravitational Lensing Characteristics of the Transparent Sun, Bijunath Patla et al 2008 ApJ 685 1297-1303

  • Geoffrey May 7, 2009, 23:24

    I’m a poor University student who would love to read any of the books you mentioned but of course rent/food/tuition comes first. Still next Friday I receive my first summer pay cheque and I will be buying a copy of Frontiers of Propulsion Science. I’m very excited. I just wanted to say great job on the site, I find it very inspiring!

  • Adam May 8, 2009, 6:49

    As always never buy the latest gadget straight away ;-)

    Specialist tomes are always hefty in dollars and mass – an irritating impost for non-corporate private hacks like myself. I bought a planetology textbook new for $125… which smarted somewhat, but I don’t regret that investment. Would be nice to make it pay for itself one-day.

  • Marc Millis May 8, 2009, 16:19

    At the time of creating Frontiers of Propulsion Science, I did not even know about Kindle. Something to think about for the future, and thinking about the future is a habit of mine.

    I am touched by Geoffrey’s devotion to buy our book under the kind of college financial strain I remember well. There’s always the angle of asking for it as a birthday or Christmas present for those folks who have no idea what to get you. I got a whopping electronic reference text that way – that I still have.

  • Administrator May 8, 2009, 16:33

    In any case, Marc, Frontiers of Propulsion Science would have needed the larger screen of the just introduced Kindle DX. Only the first version of the Kindle was available (not yet Kindle 2 or the DX) when you and Eric were doing all that editing on the chapters. I suspect the DX is going to begin to attract a number of scientific publishers to the idea of an electronic alternative.

  • Ed Reed May 8, 2009, 21:13

    We’ve had good luck with self-publishing via on-demand publishers like Lulu.com. For small audience runs, they’re terrific. Amazon and brick-and-mortor stores can order small quantities as long as you register your ISBN with them. And others can buy hardcopy or softcopy or even electronic downloads from a web site that handles international as well as US domestic sales and distribution.

    Better, the author cuts out about 2 layers of distribution discounts.

    I encourage you to consider it for your Frontiers of Propulsion Science book, at least.


  • Administrator May 9, 2009, 8:09

    Ed, good point. I’m familiar with Lulu and other publish-on-demand options. I also note with great interest that three of the big four textbook publishers have signed up with Amazon for distribution via the new Kindle DX. It appears that all kinds of experiments will be happening with scientific and academic publishing in the next few years.

  • Pat Galea May 9, 2009, 17:14

    I have a copy of this new Maccone book. I had a fascinating conversation with him at the Interstellar Session of the UK Space Conf about the Karhunen-Loeve Transform, and decided that I needed to know more about the KLT and the gravitational lensing missions he proposed, so I bought the book.

    I’ve only skimmed it so far, but there appears to be plenty to work through in there. I’m still going through Frontiers of Propulsion Science at the moment (about 3/4 of the way through now).

    • Administrator May 9, 2009, 18:15

      Dr. Maccone is a remarkable man. A few years back, I was at a conference with him in Princeton and had the privilege of having breakfast with him before one day’s sessions, and then the next day, we sat across from each other at the banquet. I remember that one of the speakers had brought his young son, who was something of a history buff. The subject of the Hundred Years War somehow came up, and Claudio explained to the boy in great detail about the causes and events of that war, at a level of insight that would have befitted a history professor. His range is simply remarkable, and if anyone could explain KLT theory to a mathematical bonehead like me, he is the man. I have his earlier book on it, but haven’t seen the new one yet.

  • Tyler August May 10, 2009, 13:04

    I second the notion that texts like these would be perfect for e-books, but there is another option better tailored to small-run books like this : Print on Demand. I see this has been mentioned, so I’ll skip mentioning the economics and focus on PoD vs Kindle DX.
    The Kindle is only available in the United States, and Amazon will only sell a kindle e-book to kindle owners; a print-on-demand service will ship a book anywhere to anyone. A Kindle eBook has built-in DRM which could easily make it completely unreadable on newer hardware should features change– a paper book can easily outlast it’s owner. Of course you could publish with a non-DRM’d, non-Kindlecentric eBook: then the playingfield is much more level vs. PoD, except that eBooks and eBook readers (while likely the future of the media) still haven’t caught on with the majority of the book buying public (especially students! We want your books, and we want the gadgets, but we can’t afford then.) so you’re automatically excluding a segment of the market you wouldn’t otherwise have to with print-on-demand and a paper book.
    Of course the up-front costs of either are quite low, so why not do both?

  • Brad Neuberg May 11, 2009, 17:22

    Following on this thread, if the Frontiers of Propulsion Science (I’ll call it FOPS for brevity) were available on the Kindle, it would be really cool to have ‘guest’ annotators. I’d love to see annotations from Dr. Maccone, Freeman Dyson, etc., as well as both noted skeptics and supporters. Digital annotations have never really taken off, but I think the combination of digital readers + social media + ease of use getting annotations and creating them + possibly paying a small amount as a small incentive would be fabulous and might cause third-party annotations to finally be a usable and real technology. I’ve already been doing this ‘manually’, downloading both books like Tropic of Cancer onto my Kindle along with critical analysis by others. It would be nice if the technology made this easier (one pattern of invention is to identify something that takes X number of steps to do, and make it simply take much less or no steps to do).

    I’m a bit of a hypertext geek, and so have always been interested in ways we can evolve the book past the constraints of physical paper. See StretchText as one example of having a linear narrative that can accommodate ‘stretchable’ text which can go deeper in various sections. Here’s an example StretchText implementation for the web:


    A good place to track these kinds of ideas is from the Institute for the Future of the Book:


    Including their excellent blog:


    The technology behind e-book readers is progressing faster than most folks expect. I think Amazon has accelerated things about 3 or 4 years faster than would have happened naturally. The next big steps include larger screens, color, and most importantly flexible backplanes using plastic electronics (which unlike semiconductors can roll up like a piece of paper). Amazon themselves have a natural incentive to get the price of these readers close to zero, as a loss-leader to induce people to buy books (give the shaver away for free sell the blades).

    Here is a great video from a company named Plastic Logic flexible e-book backplanes:


    That is in the lab, but just last year a factory in China was bankrolled for close to 100 million dollars to begin mass producing such flexible backplanes.

    Ultimately, the user interface for these things will look and feel close to paper, but with the malleability and social connectedness of digital computers. It will be very exciting. I predict 3 to 5 years for an ‘iPod’ like moment for the book publishing industry and book stores unfortunately, with things inflecting relatively quickly (especially now that 3G cellular networks are slowly getting commodified).

  • Administrator May 12, 2009, 10:29

    Brad, excellent thoughts, although let’s call Frontiers of Propulsion Science FPS instead of FOPS… ;-)

    I track the ebook scene closely and agree with you on Amazon’s accelerating the pace of things significantly. It will be fascinating to see how the Kindle DX plays out in the upcoming university experiments and also whether or not it has any effect on the newspaper situation. My guess is that it’s a more natural textbook device than a newspaper reader, but we’ll see. I do think Amazon rushed it out because of the upcoming Plastic Logic entry, with an even bigger screen. A touch screen would immeasurably improve the Kindle experience, but of course those are coming, and soon.