Posts Tagged ‘science’


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.


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.


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.


Maybe this one is THE one…

October 21, 2013


This pretty little thing is called the Aeromobil, and it was designed by two Slovakian gentlemen. This is supposed to be version 3.0, and the current flying version is 2.5. You can see it flying at this link.

Is it cooler-looking than the Terrafugia? Yeah. Than the next iteration the Terrafugia folks want to build, by 2020? Yeah, probably so. But not by much:

tfx v03 cityliftoff-WM


And this one will be an electric hybrid, and will pretty much fly itself. We’ll see how things shake out. At least the technology has progressed to a point where a “roadable aircraft” can really be built…



Few posts over the next few weeks

February 28, 2013

Sorry, campers, I know you hang onto my every word. Family medical issues will keep me away most of the time until about May 1. I know you can hang on that long without my observations!

I really recommend that you check out Jerry Pournelle, at I think he’s the original blogger, and his commentary and that of his readers covers science, science fiction, politics, music, health care, education…a very wide range of topics. He is a very wise man and a kickass hard science fiction writer. In fact, he and Larry Niven owned most of the hard science fiction real estate for about 20 years, and both are still writing, together and separately!

See you around the intertubes. Keep your heads down.


So how’s that space program coming along?

February 17, 2013


I found it on Jerry Pournelle’s site. I don’t know where he got it. Can’t read the type on the bottom. If anyone knows who created it, I would love to know…


How to improve our standings in the world’s education rankings

December 7, 2012

I recently saw a reference to yet another article decrying the state of US public education. Here, in a nutshell, is what I think:

Like with the recent presidential election, be careful what you wish for.

Huh? I’ll explain.

See, we say we want one thing, but we reward another. I taught high school for 34 years, in rural, blue-collar and then in “high achieving” suburban environments. I saw a wide range of student achievement and parental and societal expectations. What bugged the living hell out of me wasn’t the belief that if the kid didn’t get into exactly the right college, he would be a failure at life, although that pissed me off a lot. It was that there was so much focus on the environment of the school and the social life offerings there.

It was as if the kids and parents were picking a place to go for their summer vacation, not to get an education. The appearance of the campus, the athletic teams, the other social programs for the students, all the stuff completely unrelated to the actual business of learning dominated their thinking.

But I shouldn’t have been surprised. We have been looking at education that way all the way through, K through 12 and beyond, for decades.

Schools can’t be demanding, unless it’s an Advanced Placement course. Then you can do darned near anything to a kid and the parents won’t complain, because it’s cool because it’s a college course. We had one at our school that was targeted at sophomores. Sophomores? Really? Since when are they able to handle college material? If they are, why stay in high school? Skip the crap and go get the degree.

But the degrees are watered down in a lot of fields, too, and grade inflation has made “academic rigor” practically meaningless. I laugh when I hear somebody from a regular college complain about the “for-profit colleges” that are out there. To me, they should all be for a profit and not receive any state tax money. You want a college education, you pay for it. You need loans, you get them yourself.

“But college is too expensive.” Sure it is…cut the nonsense out of it, just pare it down to the education, and you can probably reduce costs (and staff) by half. It’s completely gotten out of hand.

But that wasn’t the point of this piece. It’s why we can’t compete in the rankings with other countries.

Here’s how to fix it, if the rankings are the priority:

Shoot the horses that can’t jump. Start in, say, 6th grade, separating kids by examination into college bound and non-college bound programs. Non-college bound will prepare the “workers” our Socialist President thinks we need more of. (How Lenin of him to call us “workers.” Sheesh.) Another set of exams at 8th or 9th grade. Kids who test high in science and math don’t get to be dockworkers or taxi drivers, or investment bankers or hotel operators…they are funneled into engineering and pure sciences, or into medical profession preparation.

You see, in many countries those are the kids who are tested for the rankings – not the entire general population. Every time we include everyone in that kind of testing we shoot ourselves in the foot.

Make businesses run the colleges. For example, if you test well in 12th grade, you can go to the college run by GE, or by Apple, or by BP…their own R&D folks would teach, and you would learn what they want you to learn to actually be of use to them. Afterwards, you work for them for a number of years to pay back your education. No summer vacations starting in mid-May, no winter or spring break…you learn straight through, 8 hours a day. You could do the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree in two years, tops, without “Gender studies” and garbage like that loaded in the curriculum. No football games, no fraternities.

This would also give those companies a stake in how the lower grades are handled…I can’t see how that could be worse than the way we in public education are led by the nose by the colleges today.

Sound silly? Japan has been doing this for more than 20 years, that I know of. I know because I was present for a panel discussion with Japanese educators where they laid the system out for us.

Trim the fun stuff out. No more athletic teams. No extracurricular activities. No fine arts. None of those are used in those rankings, so why bother? Do you think the Estonians who rank higher than our kids are all great violinists or soccer players? If they are, it is because their parents decided to have them do that after school on their own, not depend on the school to pay for it and teach it. There are some outstanding concert bands in Japan, for instance – but not school-sponsored, and they for sure don’t rehearse during the school day.

And yes, I know that since I am a former fine arts teacher I sound hypocritical. Remember, I am telling you how to raise our rankings, not to provide the proverbial “well-rounded education.” Obviously that has not been a priority or I would not have had a job for 34 years.

If you know of a country that matches the extent of arts and athletic and extracurricular activities we offer in most of our schools, let me know; I don’t know of one – including those who rank ahead of us.

While we’re at it, we can cut about half the social studies classes – have you looked at what kids are offered today? But American History and American Government, especially learning about that pesky Constitution, are not required. But we don’t cut the Home Ec and Industrial Tech – those are needed for the kids going into the service and technical industries. We need more auto shop, not less.

Full-time school. Sorry, fellow teachers, but the cushy part of the gig is the days off. We aren’t bankers and really it doesn’t make sense to barely see kids 180 days a year. Kids no longer work on the family farm, and that’s what determined the school schedule a hundred years ago that we still use today. Give ’em July off, even, but not Columbus Day, or Presidents’ Day, or whatever, and for God’s sake cut out all the shortened days for conferences and teacher work days and meetings. Just teach the kids. We have been reducing the actual number of hours kids learn for decades. It’s a crime, and I never saw that most of those days were worth the time spent. Most of us thought most of the stuff we did was a waste of time and effort. Often the activities were planned to make it look like the administration had us focused on something new and cutting-edge; then we went back into the classroom, closed the door, and taught like we always had because the old way still worked.

Make teachers accountable. Not in terms of social interaction, but in knowledge of subject matter. I don’t want my granddaughters to get an education from people who teach math but got no higher than a B in algebra – and that is far too possible today. One of the reasons for the turnover in education is because smart people get out to do something real with their lives instead of putting up with the administrative BS, the snotty kids and their arrogant parents. That leaves us with, sorry to say, not the top of the heap. I’m not saying we need PhDs in physics to teach our classes – often those folks have no clue how to teach. But we do need people who know how to teach and what they are teaching.

Look, to a great degree, the effectiveness of a school has to do largely with the raw material. I taught in a district that selected for intelligence just like a Catholic high school that required entrance testing, except ours was based on housing costs. You couldn’t live in the district if you couldn’t afford a house there, and really stupid people rarely could. Or really unmotivated people. Move kids from low-achieving areas to that school and sorry, you wouldn’t get the same results. We were good but not that good. We had smart kids to work with, motivated kids with motivated parents and a history of valuing a good education. So we got results and were ranked high in the state tests. But that’s a topic for another piece another day.

That should be enough to move us up, say, 10 places. But we won’t do it, because we can all complain about the rankings, but we still want our daughters to be cheerleaders, or in drama, or our sons to play football or (heaven forbid) join the Chess Club. And then, when they graduate, we want them to “enjoy their college experience.” When or if we ever get more serious about kids getting an education than about the football team’s record, we’ll see some changes.

Oh, and one more…

Make the schools ethnically and culturally homogenous. According to an article in the UK Guardian, the top 10 countries in reading are:

South Korea
New Zealand
The Netherlands

Math and Science rankings were similar. Show me how any of those countries are as ethnically and/or culturally diverse as the USA. The dirty little secret is that we are trying to be everything for everybody, and to do anything else is racist by the standards of the US. I’m not saying any ethnic or cultural group is less able than another, just that cultures dictate learning styles, as well as a host of other things that help or hinder receptivity to educational processes, and we can’t do everything at once for everybody. I think some of the inner-city charter schools are doing well because they understand this and focus on particular neighborhoods and populations. They have high standards but they don’t have to take their eyes off the educational ball. We are constantly being told we have to do this and that because of culture and diversity. Either we all learn the same way and buckle down or we don’t. If we can’t get to kids one way, we don’t have time to find six others. We really don’t. But other schools can.

When I retired, the smallest department by enrollment was “Educational Services,” or what used to be called “Special Education.” It also had the largest number of faculty. Huh? But that, too, is another piece for another day.

This little piece ought to piss some folks off. But I’m telling you, if the goal is to be better at math than the kids in Finland, we have to become them. We can’t do it the way we have our schools structured now.

Well, what do you think?