Archive for the ‘history’ Category

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Film review: “Interstellar”

November 19, 2014

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” – Arthur C. Clarke

This quote applies, of course, to any number of science fiction films over the last fifty years. But I’ve seen so many reactions on the interweebs to this movie that seemed to be so wrong headed that I wonder if maybe there are several different versions of the movie out there, and I happened to see the one that actually used an extrapolation of science.

Physicist Kip Thorne and producer Lynda Obst started out, much like Kubrick and Clarke, to make a real science fiction movie that was based on fact, or at least logical extrapolations of what we know right now. After a bit, they attracted Steve Spielberg, who in turn suggested Jonathan Nolan to work with them on a screenplay. Ultimately Spielberg had to leave the project, and eventually Nolan got the script to his director brother Christopher Nolan. After some legal wrangling between Paramount and Warner Brothers, the film finally got started. Thorne had many discussions with the Nolans, the effects team, and cast members as the film progressed. For many members of the audience, it probably would not have been necessary to go this far – audiences today will suspend their disbelief for a lot of nonsensical pseudo-science. But the fact they did makes it that much richer for me, and hopefully for a lot of other folks as well. Thorne even wrote a book elaborating on the process, called The Science of Interstellar. I recommend it; not only does it give a good overview of the science used as a basis for the movie, but it also demonstrates how much hard work goes on behind the scenes in a film, sometimes for decades before the film comes out.

Let me say at the outset that I enjoyed the film a great deal. It’s long, at over 2 hours and 45 minutes, and early on it seems a little slow. However, I think that’s just the way I perceive it after all the cgi-laden action/adventure films that have come out over the past decade. This movie doesn’t start with a bang and then just keeps running along. It takes the time to build the relationships in Coop’s (Matthew McConaughey) family for us. However, it seems to take a much shorter time for Coop to be sold on the idea of what probably will be a one-way trip through the wormhole. But then, Michael Caine can be very persuasive, of course!

If you want a recap of the plot, you can always go here. Rather than that, I’d like to reflect on the main theme of the movie, which is, to me, “we can save ourselves with a little bit of time travel, just not the time travel you think.”

Nobody physically goes back in time. (In fact, Thorne is one of scientists best known for explaining why we won’t be able to do that.) However, that doesn’t mean that information can’t be sent back, in one way or another. All you need is a civilization sufficiently advanced to give a father a way to send some information to his daughter – if the father is in the right place, and if the daughter is the right daughter.

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD! I’ve read that some folks who have seen the movie took the bit of speculation about the nature of love as being a tangible, physical force that transcends time and space – presented by Anne Hathaway’s character – and ran with it. Sorry, y’all; you weren’t paying attention later on. It is made abundantly clear that the lines in the dust in Murph’s room were created by artificially-created gravity waves. No “Power of Love” here. I can understand some of the confusion, though: gravity is just as difficult to perceive, and no more easily controlled, at least by us. But not by the post-humans. (That’s what I call ’em. For a long time we are sort of led to believe they are some kind of super-beings just doing us a favor so we don’t die off. Coop makes the mental leap that they are our descendants, greatly evolved.) We never see them, and we only really see one effect of their presence. The “time lattice” Coop uses to communicate with Murph is apparently constructed by the post-humans only for that purpose, so he can give her the information she needs for a breakthrough that allows humanity to finally leave Earth, and apparently just in time.

In a way, this is the “transparent aluminum” storyline: In Star Trek IV, Scotty needs “transparent aluminum” to construct a tank for the whales. He gives the formula to a 20th century chemist/engineer so that he can create what Scotty needs. When asked by Dr. McCoy if this was messing with the timeline, Mr. Scott replies, “How do you know he didn’t invent the thing?”

I suppose transparent aluminum isn’t as big a thing in the 24th century as radio is for us. (Although if asked, most people would identify the inventor of radio as Marconi, if they had any idea at all. Grrr. Tesla, folks, Tesla. Look it up.) Still, Scotty wasn’t worried by bootstrapping materials science and creating the classic causality loop.

To make sure that humanity doesn’t die out by being stranded on Earth, the post-humans leave messages for Murph that subtly suggest to Coop that his trip through the wormhole might not be the sheer folly it seems. Therefore, he goes, lots of crazy stuff happens, and he in desperation makes the dive through the black hole’s event horizon. There they have set up the commo lattice – referred to in the film as a tesseract – for him to use to provide signals to Murph at various times of her life, including those that influenced him in deciding to go in the first place. He also can send the data the older version of Murph needs to make the breakthrough in mastering gravity so that we can get off this rock. He does this by manipulating the second hand on a watch through gravitational effects, sending a lot of data collected from inside the event horizon. It seems to take him only a short time to do this, but as we know, time inside a black hole’s event horizon is different from outside it.

So at the end of it all, no aliens – but something that started out as humanity has to help get its ancestors off the planet, or they won’t exist, and they placed the wormhole in orbit around Saturn just for that purpose. Seems like a long shot, but if they had the history of what had happened at that time, all they had to do is make sure the history had a little help to play out correctly.

Those of you who are believers in the “Many Universes” hypothesis probably won’t buy into this as much. In another universe, no wormhole; in yet another, no Coop to save them, etc. If that interpretation could be brought into the plot, the tesseract would have shown Murph in her room in many, many more versions of the situations that first and last provided communication with her. But the film stays firmly rooted in a traditional causality.

It’s not a new idea, but it certainly is played out in a refreshing fashion. I was happy to see a plot that took that much of the audience’s attention to follow in a big mainstream movie.

There are the nitpicks. First, Coop’s training sucks. They pretty much throw him into the ship with three other people, and away they go. That is necessary so that he can be the space cowboy he needs to be, flying the Ranger by hand at several key points in the movie.

Questions have been raised about the Ranger. Why did it need a big chemical-powered, multistage booster to get off Earth, yet takes off and lands under its own power on several other planets, including one with a surface gravity of 1.3 G? I have a possible answer, though it isn’t covered in the movie: antimatter.

The ships are a combination of tech we have now (Rangers are covered with shuttle-like protective tiles, for example) and very high tech (robots with advanced AI.) We know that making antimatter, at least the way we know we can do it right now, is very slow, requires very large equipment, and is very power-hungry. Maybe the Ranger could have taken off on its own, but say it uses 25% of its available fuel to do so. No more fuel after that. Let’s save some by using a sort of pseudo Saturn V that we had laying around. We may have fueled it with the last antimatter we could produce.

The Ranger has little room for fuel stores, so fuel has to be something very energetic, like antimatter, but it can’t take up a lot of space. Maybe a couple of tanks of reaction mass to interact with the antimatter can be squeezed in. Hydrogen is the best choice if the antimatter is really anti hydrogen, but it isn’t very dense so the tanks have to be insulated like crazy and be larger than LOX or H2O tanks would be.

The other nitpick is tidal effects. On the first planet the explorers are confronted with a tidal wave 4000 feet tall. The planet is too close to the black hole – close enough that time slows down a lot, and tidal effects on the ocean are enormous. The same tidal effects should affect everything on the planet, so it eventually will be torn apart. That to me means it isn’t a good candidate for a new home for mankind.

Also, apparently the light from the black hole (huh?) is bright enough to provide light bright as day – at least, a cloudy day in Iceland. Where is that light coming from, really? You would need it to grow crops. None of these planets sounds particularly pleasant or survivable in the long term!

My major gripe about the film is the score. Hans Zimmer was apparently asked by Christopher Nolan to do something unique. He’s done that if unique means boring, loud and simplistic. Sometimes it was so loud it covered important dialog. The score lent more of a feeling of slowness to the movie as it slogged along, repeating the same phrases over and over again. Did Zimmer listen to too much Philip Glass? I would have thought a score like Alan Silvestri’s for The Abyss would have been appropriate, instead. I think this movie would have been a complete knockout, Oscar-worthy, if the score wasn’t so annoying and boring.

Nolan likes using IMAX cameras, he likes using real film over digital recording, and he likes using practical EFX over CGI when possible. All are great, but remember, far more viewings of this movie will be on TV screens than in the theater. Until we all have our 85 inch 4K HDTVs that extra quality won’t be noticed…but a bad score will be.

In summary, I was pleasantly surprised. It’s not the landmark film some people have said it is, but it’s very good, and I highly recommend it to you.

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Is “Ascension” going to be cool or stupid?

July 28, 2014

It has been announced that this fall SyFy channel (God I hate that name) will run a miniseries called “Ascension.” It sounds intriguing, in a weird sort of way. The premise is that in 1963 it was thought that America would soon be involved in a cataclysmic nuclear war – a not unreasonable assumption. Somehow a major leap of technology is made and a generation starship is launched. Not sure how it is determined that there is a habitable planet out there, and how a country that could barely launch a single man into orbit could send 600 people on a centuries-long trip.

Now, I’m a big fan of Project Orion. Except for some pesky Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, and the fact that JFK was terrified of a spaceship that used nuclear bombs for propulsion, we could have lifted hundreds of tons into orbit by 1970. But that’s another story. And it wouldn’t have been ready for a interstellar trip by 1963.

But I digress. The story is that the folks on the ship are pretty much stuck in the culture of the 1960s, in terms of mores, styles and such. Apparently the big issue is that the generation in power 50 years later is considering turning around and going home. They have received no communications from Earth since they left, so they don’t know if they might find a radioactive cinder or a world out of the Jetsons.

I have to admit, I was intrigued. Then This image showed up on io9 and other web sites:

Ascension ship 2

Yeah, that’s a Saturn V stuck in the middle of that thing. The rest of it looks like it was built out of Legos. I couldn’t image this was the generation ship. It was odd enough that they just stuck the Saturn in there, but how did they get the whole stack into orbit? The F1 engines of the first stage weren’t designed or optimized for a vacuum. Besides, if you have the technology to lift an entire Saturn V into space…well, you generally wouldn’t have to.

I still don’t know what this thing is, but I found this one in a clip on the official Ascension site:

Ascension ship 1

Go watch the clip. This is in a pullback from a view through a porthole, so it looks like it might be the generation ship. Still not enough detail to really see what it’s about, but at least it’s not completely laughable.

So maybe the first ship was something else. I can’t imagine what, but I don’t care how much this is “Mad Men in Space,” if the tech isn’t at least slightly believable, I’m not watching. And I know, there was a bunch of nuttiness in the physics of Battlestar Galactica, and I still watched the hell out of that. So maybe there is a chance this won’t suck…

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Fifty years from now we will be wondering why everybody thought the world was warming

July 7, 2014

In Forbes, of all places, there is an opinion piece by James Taylor (no, not that one) that talks about NOAA data showing the US as cooling by 0.4 degrees in the last decade, not warming as we are told to think. And in the UK Mail there is a piece that states that there is more Antarctic ice, not less.

What surprises me about the whole global warming meme is how easily it took hold, and how hard it is to shake it off, even with substantial evidence that the planet is not warming right now, and has not been for at least ten to twenty years. I know it was pushed by a bunch of folks who depend on government grants for their livelihoods, and rising seas, superstorms and other Roland Emmerich-style phenomena make for better copy than “well, the Earth is getting a little bit cooler, now, but not much.” Still, it amazes me that the kind of blatant cooking of data sets and backstage dealing to squash dissent we have seen has gone on for so long.

The sun is a variable star. Not much of one, thank goodness, or life couldn’t exist. But vary it does. We understand the sun less than we understand our own weather. For some reason, for example, the number of sunspots has been far less lately than expected. There are theories that say the sun doesn’t even use nuclear fusion, as most scientists believe. Neutrino counts from the sun are lower than predicted, but they are elusive little bastards, and it may be that our understanding of them is flawed.

In any case, what we have learned is that there is a lot we don’t know. Water vapor is a better greenhouse gas than CO2, but the Earth naturally regulates the amount of water vapor in the air. It may be doing the same thing with CO2, but the last I read the mechanism is not fully understood.

I would expect, however, that in 2064 we will be looking back on those silly scientists and politicians from fifty years before and shaking our heads at how they thought we were going to all be inundated by rising oceans and killed by superstorms. Do you remember a book called The Population Bomb? How about Silent Spring? 1960s and 70s doom-and-gloom predictions didn’t happen, and even the fear of civilization being destroyed by nuclear war went away, thanks to Ronald Reagan. I would like to be around to see what folks say about our silliness then. Maybe humanity will have matured enough to know not to run around crying “the sky is falling” when we don’t even know what the sky is made of.

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How Obama’s executive orders threaten us more than anything else

February 15, 2014

I just did a piece on Obama’s executive orders over on Keep Americans Free. I invite you to read it.

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Alternate Universes that we don’t think of as alternate universes

December 5, 2013

There are many books and short stories having to do with”alternate universes” – timelines similar to our own but in which a single historical even changes, and over time the results of that action have large consequences. There are the Sidewise Awards, given in both long and short form.

I won’t bore you with a history of alternate history. You can google it faster than I can write about it. However, you might want to check out the work of Harry Turtledove and Robert Conroy, at least.  Maybe one of these days I will list some of my favorites.

But here I’m talking about something else, primarily television shows. Almost all political series that take place in the present day could be called alternate history. Take “The West Wing,” which was running when the 9/11 attack took place. There wee references to it, but not much, and it did not profoundly effect the timeline in the show after that – even though it did in our timeline.

But here’s my favorite: “In the universe of “Star Trek,” no “Star Trek” ever aired.” I don’t remember where I first read that, but I’ve pondered it over the years in idle moments. For example, apparently manned space exploration continued in ST timeline more extensively than in ours – it was good enough to loft a sleeper ship in the late 1990s to get rid of Kahn Noonian Singh and his motley crew. There was that pesky nuclear war around that time, or after; and the Genetics War before Kahn was exiled, but even that didn’t keep Zephram Cochrane from building a warp ship from an old Titan missile.

Phoenix_launch (1)

 

Some like to say that ST inspires us toward that sort of Utopian vision apparently held by Gene Roddenberry. It’s more complicated than that, but I think it is safe to say that ST didn’t really inspire us to maintain manned exploration of space – the Trekkers couldn’t even get NASA to name a real space shuttle after the Enterprise. (The one they named was a test article used for glide tests.) Perhaps a series taking place in the nearer future would have done so more effectively.

Sherlock Holmes, in all his manifestations – novels, stories, films, plays, radio shows, television – existed in a particular world. Usually, as in the original, it was very close to actual history. Later versions had him fighting Nazis and working in a more steampunk Victorian England. The two contemporary versions – “Sherlock” in the UK and “Elementary in the US – apparently take place in a world in which Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote about other things. Perhaps his medical practice took off faster, or maybe he decided to stay in London rather than moving to Southsea, and became involved in other activities.

Still, every time someone in “Elementary” is introduced to Holmes, their lack of surprise at the name, except for its odd sound, seems very strange to me.

Some interpretations of quantum physics imply that there is a multitude of universes. Maybe in one of them Barak Obama lost the Senate election to Jack Ryan, and he stayed in the Illinois General Assembly…

 

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More prescient than even he would have expected

November 19, 2013

demonhauntedIt is well-known that Dr. Sagan was not religious – he described himself as agnostic, believing he had seen no proof of a supreme being. His 1995 book, The Demon Haunted World, was about using the scientific method and critical thinking instead of superstition and pseudoscience.

Admirable goals, and Carl Sagan was very articulate. His Cosmos series and book (PBS, 1980) probably did more to to help laymen understand the universe than any previous media program. (He also wrote the novel upon which the Jodie Foster film Contact was based.)

But I doubt he would have expected that his description of America in the quote above would have happened so quickly, or that we got there in the way we did. He seemed to believe the “New Age” trends he saw in the 1980s and 90s might grow, and that the much-publicized decrease in our ability to educate our students would result in an overall dumbing down of America. He himself did what he could to keep that from happening. I doubt he thought, though, that only two decades after he wrote those words we would have fallen so far and so willingly.

Hat tip to Scott Lowther and his “Up-Ship” blog for tipping me off to this one.

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The SR-72! ?

November 5, 2013

sr-72

According to this information from Lockheed, they have a way to combine a regular jet turbine engine with a ramjet that could power a Mach 6 aircraft. Calling it the SR-72 as a nod to the famed SR-71 reconnaissance plane the Lockheed Skunk Works built in the 1960s, this one is to be unmanned – like pretty much every military plane on the drawing boards.

I just hate it that they announced way before they bent any tin, though. The X-33 disaster of promise-oops- can’t deliver is still too fresh in my mind. (In defense of Lockheed, though, a lot of the problem with getting the X-33 demonstrator flying was political. Interference by Congress has a way of screwing up programs like that. Well, any program, really. ) Saying they may have this operational by 2030 sounds like a long way off, but the F-35 Strike Fighter has been in development really for over 12 years. They are just barely getting production aircraft out to the USAF now, seven years after the first prototype flew.

I really hope this will happen, even if just for the jumpstart hypersonic flight would get. But the generation that built the U-2, the SR-71 and even the stealth fighter are pretty much retired or passed on. (Kelly Johnson, the legendary leader at the Skunk Works, died in 1990.)

If anyone can do it I figure Lockheed will. But why announce it so early?