Saturday, July 31, 2010

Jurassic Park

My father had a lot of Time-Life series natural history books with plenty of dinosaur renderings in them, so I kind of developed an early fascination for the prehistoric world. But this was not a hot topic when I was a kid. Sometime between kindergarten and first grade, the schools gave us these catalogs of books for children, mostly educational, to encourage us to practice reading and learn something at the same time. There was one book that was all about Dinosaurs, and it quickly became my favorite, one that I read over and over. The illustrations were authentic dinosaur scenes and the text contained then current scientific facts, presented in simple language but not "dumbed down" like many kid's books. When the teacher discovered how well I could read this one book even though it was well past my grade level, she ordered several copies, took a recording of me reading it, and then played it back on a headphone system for other students to follow along. In second grade, now at a new school, there was a learning center run by one of the nuns that had these circular discs with pictures on them. You inserted a disc into a machine and it would ask you to write down the word that matched each picture. Then you would turn it in for a score. Each disc revolved around a particular topic. The discs for the second grade level had relatively simple words, but I found one for the 7th and 8th graders that had pictures of dinosaurs. I would write down their names - Brontosaurus, Tyrannosaurus, Triceratops, etc. I knew them from my little book. I still remember Sister Dorothy dropping her jaw when I got them all right.

Ok, so enough about my childhood. The point is that as much as I loved everything prehistoric, there was always so little material to digest at that age. In the early 1970's, that one little book was the only children's book I ever found that treated the subject seriously. The only one! There wasn't anything on TV about dinosaurs except silly comedies like the Flintstones. That's why I went crazy over Land of the Lost when it came to TV a few years later. I would also jump out of my seat whenever we passed that grand canyon prehistoric exhibit on the train ride at Disneyland. It features, among other great stuff, an animatronic battle between a T-Rex and a Stegosaurus with full sound effects. It's still there after all these decades and several makeovers. Here's a good video of the scene. I think the original audio was better, if I could only find it.

By the time I was old enough to be interested in movies, post 1976, I don't remember any films about dinosaurs in release at the time. It seems there were plenty in earlier decades - One Million Years B.C., When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth, and even some great scenes in the original King Kong. A big deal was made about The Land Before Time in 1988, but that was just a stupid kid's film with talking dinosaurs in it. Then, one day I saw an ad for a book published by Michael Crichton in 1990 called Jurassic Park about using DNA sequencing to bring dinosaurs back to life to create an amusement park. That sounded cool, but the amusement park idea seemed a bit corny, so I just filed it away somewhere in my memory.

Then in 1993, it happened. When I saw the trailer for Jurassic Park I could hardly believe what I was watching. It wasn't just that somebody had finally made a serious modern dinosaur flick, but the dang CGI dinosaurs looked more real than I could have ever imagined. I kept thinking, "How on earth did they create those images? - I gotta see this film!" It was the first time I had reacted to a movie trailer like that since first seeing the original trailer for Star Wars, which also featured effects never before seen on film.

When I did eventually see it, I was not disappointed with regard to the visual effects. They are still quite stunning when viewed today. But I did feel disappointed that the story focused mainly on people getting chased by the dinosaurs rather than exploring some of the more interesting aspects of the story. Crichton's book does a better job of that, addressing many modern theories about dinosaurs, but much of it was left out of the film. For example, the puzzle about why the Triceratops was sick (in the book it is a Stegosaurus) turns out to be that it has a gizzard-like stomach that requires it to consume small pebbles for digestion, and the pebbles are found in the midst of some poisonous plants. The movie presents the problem but not the solution, using it simply as an excuse to split up the tour group. The whole film was rather "dumbed down" to make it more audience friendly. By contrast, it is Crichton's tendency to include a lot of science in his fiction that allows me to legitimately feature a dino film like this on a sci-fi oriented blog.

I made it point to read the sequel to the novel, The Lost World, as soon as it came out. I could tell that Mr. Crichton was a bit annoyed at how Hollywood had butchered his first novel, even though he had been involved in the screenplay. You see, for dramatic effect, in Jurassic Park they manufactured a factoid about the T-Rex, which was that it could not see you if you stood perfectly still. This was not in the book nor was it a conclusion of any current research. So in the Lost World novel, Crichton had one character get eaten because he erroneously thought the T-Rex would not see him if he didn't move. That kind of cracked me up.

The movie version of The Lost World was quite a disappointment and departed even more drastically from Crichton's second book. In fact, he was not involved at all in the production this time. It seems they thought that if they just put more dinosaurs on screen it would make it more successful or something. And they added a King Kong copycat sequence at the end where a T-Rex is captured, taken to a big city, and then escapes on a rampage. What a classic example of sacrificing the story line for some completely superfluous carnage. The third installment was written directly for the big screen and is at least worth watching, even if the dino chase motif has been taken to the most crazy extremes.

If I had to make a recommendation, I would point you straight to the two more interesting novels on which the movies were based. But I do appreciate that it was the success of the first film that, almost overnight, thrust dinosaurs back into the public eye. After Jurassic Park, it seemed like CGI dinosaurs were popping up all over the place, including material for children again. The Discovery Channel's landmark series Walking With Dinosaurs in late 1999 probably finalized the transition and brought dinos squarely into the new millennium.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Buck Rogers, Pulp Fiction, and the Serials

Oh, how one thing leads to another. As I was researching for my last entry about Flash Gordon, I began to learn about some of the early history of sci-fi pulp fiction. I found it so fascinating that I just have to include a synopsis here. The first half of the 20th century saw a rise in popularity of short story fiction magazines referred to as pulp magazines due to the type of paper they were printed on. The first of these to be dedicated completely to science fiction, Amazing Stories, was launched in 1926, followed in 1930 by Astounding Science Fiction, which by paying the highest rates for its articles attracted the best writers like Heinlein and Asimov and helped launch their careers. In fact, it was these mags that were responsible for naming the genre science fiction, and were instrumental in bringing together a community of writers and fans.

This was also the time that science fiction comic strips appeared, the first being Buck Rogers in the 25th Century circa 1929. This was the first time a serial comic strip had been attempted, that is, a long continuous story from which a small episode was featured each week. The story was taken from the first two Buck Rogers articles which had been recently printed in Amazing Stories - "Armageddon 2419 A.D." in 1928, and "The Airlords of Han" in 1929 (The cover at left is a 1960 reprint). It turns out that the original Flash Gordon comic strip came out in 1934 to compete with Buck Rogers. So Buck gets the credit as the original science fiction serial.

And when serial programming came to radio, guess what science fiction serial first hit the airwaves? Buck Rogers of course - and it ran for 15 years, from 1932 to 1947! How about the first science fiction serial to hit the theaters? Gotcha - Flash Gordon became a film serial in 1936 thanks to Columbia Pictures, and Buck followed in 1939 out of Universal. Each had 12 episodes and the stories remained in their basic form from comic strip to radio to film. These were not stories that raised deep questions about man and society as the real meat of the genre would come to be known for, but we owe them much credit for accomplishing the impossible, namely, bringing science fiction to the pop culture and inspiring a generation of writers, film makers, and even astronauts to follow suit. And the era of science fiction that followed, often referred to as the Golden Age, was in part driven by this early popularization.

Almost in parallel historically, the modern remake of Flash Gordon in 1980 was preceded a year earlier by a modern remake of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. I believe they were both motivated by the success of Star Wars, and that is deliciously ironic since George Lucas modeled his space opera upon the original space serials from his childhood. The basic characters and elements of the original are still relatively intact, and the film became a pilot for a TV series (i.e. modern serial) of the same name. The main difference from the original is a much more light-hearted approach to the subject matter, which actually had the effect of making it more entertaining. Gil Gerard plays Rogers very much like a cheesy version of Han Solo - a smug ladies man, hot shot pilot, and serious hero all in one. They added in a robot duo as comic relief, again thanks to Star Wars, one being a scientist in a box named Dr. Theopholis, carried around by a humanoid robot named Twiki, voiced by none other than Mel Blanc of Looney Tunes fame. Hey, if you thought Yoda sounding like Grover of Sesame Street was odd, try a robot that sounds like a character out of Bugs Bunny. Of course, we're not talking high quality acting or script writing here, but it's less corny than Lost in Space. I mention it here mainly to show the longevity of these historical characters.

I also admit to some reminiscing back to a simpler time in my life. The actresses who played the two main female characters from the original serial, the good Col. Wilma Deering (Erin Gray), and the bad Princess Ardala (Pamela Hensley), who is cast here as the leader of the Draconians instead of Kane, were both stunningly beautiful, and the show takes every opportunity to capitalize on this in ways you could only get away with in the 80's before AIDS hit the scene. As a young 13 year old lad, I really enjoyed it ;). And I still think it is more entertaining than most series you might find on SyFy channel today.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Flash... Aaahhh!

Here I must tell you about one of my more indulgent film favorites. The Flash Gordon film from 1980 which I saw as a freshman in high school was billed as an adaptation of the original Flash Gordon comic strip, and I believe it stays truer to the comic book version than did the 1936 black and white movie serial. It remains in my book, and in my collection, a beloved cult classic.

Although some call it campy, you can tell that the film makers are fully aware of what they are doing. It is not a parody. Oh no. You might call it an all out celebration of the original comic strip. Everything is overdone - the acting, the colorful sets and costumes, the dialogue - but only within the acceptable parameters allowed in the world of comics. Even the silly jokes are just there for the darn fun of it. And if you had any doubts about my thesis, the final word is the soundtrack, which was written by 80's rock group Queen with the same serious gusto for the subject matter. The blog title is how the theme song begins - "Flash (aahhh!) Savior of the Universe!" - in full operatic chorus. It's just a fun film from start to finish.

I don't usually address comic book adaptations on this blog so why this one? Well, no one will deny the contribution that the original Flash Gordon serial from 1936 made to science fiction film history. Today all the crazy alien races from other planets featured in the series (Hawkmen, Sharkmen, etc.) would just be considered fantasy material, but at the time it was no crazier than many of the aliens encountered in sci-fi films today. I believe anyone who loves the genre as much as I do would fully appreciate and enjoy the tribute that this 1980 film pays to it, no matter how cheesy.

I've always liked Max Von Sydow. His role as Emperor Ming in this film is perfectly cast and played with such gusto. The same goes for the performance of none other than Topol (Fiddler on the Roof) in the role of Dr. Zarkov. I've always thought the opening scenes were reminiscent of H.G. Wells First Men in the Moon - with the hero, the damsel, and the scientist they meet taking off into space from his home laboratory. There's a whole group of really fun characters. But I think you just have sit down and watch it to really get what I'm talking about. If you do, please share your thoughts.

Saturday, July 24, 2010


In 1932, a book was published by Aldous Huxley called Brave New World. It was required reading for me in high school and one that I actually found enjoyable. It was one of the first early sci-fi works to touch upon the idea of a genetically engineered society. Of course, the science of genes were not understood at the time so Huxley had people born in test tubes and modified by the addition of chemicals to cause them to develop in predetermined ways. Even this was quite prescient for its time, but the society he created was purposefully exaggerated in order to make a point about man's over-reliance on science. As the genetic sciences advanced, it opened up all sorts of very plausible future societal changes that could be explored in the literature. New ideas continue to pop up even today. Some films deal with particular abuses or experiments by corporations like The Island, Jurassic Park, and The 6th Day. But I've never seen a film that deals with the effect of genetic technology on society in general better than Gattaca (1997), a film that never got the attention it deserved and whose very title was constructed from the genetic alphabet.

It's kind of sad today to see so many sci-fi films use some kind of pseudo-scientific concept of DNA to explain away all manner of ridiculous physical transformations and manifestations. Two big offenders that come to mind from TV land are Star Trek: TNG and the modern version of The Outer Limits. But Gattaca is one of those few films that uses truly plausible technological advances to illustrate how those advances might change our society. Specifically, if we could instantly read a persons genetic code, from zygote to full grown adult, and from that obtain a wealth of information about them, from future diseases to physical traits and abilities, what would we do with that information? Would it affect the way businesses hire employees? How about university admissions, military recruiting, and dating choices? Naturally there would be privacy and discrimination issues involved, but in Gattaca we see a society that has fully accepted this information as no less public than a driver's license. And discrimination laws are not very enforceable.

In one of the early scenes, we see a couple consulting with a doctor about having a child. The technology exists that allows the doctor to collect both eggs and sperm samples from mother and father and then create via test tube a small set of zygotes free from genetic diseases and possessing the most desirable traits. He presents the possible child profiles to the couple and allows them to choose their future child's gender and other traits. Once selected, the chosen embryo would be implanted into the mother's uterus so she could carry the child to term. The scene was memorable to me precisely because of its haunting future plausibility. I love this quote from the doctor after the parents voice concerns about over prescribing their new child's future - "Keep in mind that this child is still you, but simply the 'best' of you. You could conceive naturally a thousand times and never get such a result". Who wouldn't go for that?

In the film, this form of conception has become the preferred method, although some people are still conceived the "old-fashioned" way, like our main character Vincent (played by Ethan Hawke), who at birth is determined to have a 99% chance of heart failure by the age of 30. Vincent wants more than anything to be an astronaut, which in this future is a legitimate profession as mission launches to other planets and moons in our solar system happen regularly. But his condition, which can be detected in any blood, urine, hair, or other sample, makes him ineligible. He decides to take on the genetic identity of a perfect specimen of a man named Jerome Morrow, who happens to have broken his back and is now consigned to a wheelchair. There is a black market for such people to sell their body samples so they can continue to make money while giving someone with a less fortunate genetic profile a chance to beat the system, but it means one man goes into hiding for the rest of his life and the other must put on a life long ruse to fool the world into thinking he is really the other person. For Vincent, this means daily rituals of shaving off his own body hair and scraping off the outer layer of his skin, while taking samples of Morrow's hair and skin to leave behind in his comb and keyboard. It means taking hidden packs of urine complete with catheters to provide live urine samples from his alter ego, and finger caps with substitute blood underneath to pass the entry doors, which use pin pricks to obtain genetic identity (fingerprints were abandoned in favor of this more accurate method years ago). The story of how Vincent pulls off his dream, a romantic interest, and a murder case all provide substance, but it is the relationship that develops between Vincent and Jerome that provides the most poignant dramatic thread. The only drawbacks I would name are a complete lack of originality in the musical score and overuse of narration, but these are minor. And be sure to catch Ernest Borgnine in a neat minor role and little tidbits like Jerome's staircase being shaped like a DNA helix.

This is a great piece of writing, and what a delight that it was not adapted from a novel but was created for the screen by Andrew Niccol and then directed by him as well. He also penned and directed/produced two other excellently written yet highly underrated films - Lord of War and The Truman Show. I hope in the future we see more screen writers of this caliber in Hollywood.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A.I. - The Movie

To his credit, Steven Spielberg did direct some good sci-fi films in his later career to make up for E.T.. One of those was Artificial Intelligence: AI. Consequently, I just noticed the similarity in the title choices: ET: Extra Terrestrial. Both include the acronym and full spelling of a phrase representing a scientific term. Of course, except for the heart tugging elements involving a small boy, the two films could not be more different.

There is a lot to chew on in this film. You need only listen to the opening lecture by William Hurt's character Professor Hobby to get an idea of the sophistication that went into both the screen writing and the special effects. The professor uses a female "mecha" (the term in the film for human-like robots) for demonstration purposes, opening up her face to reveal the metal endoskeleton. The seamless switch between real actress and CGI robot is quite stunning, and similar effects are seen throughout the film (although I doubt the simple mechanisms shown could control all the subtle muscle movements of the human face). But as with any good sci-fi story, what is even more interesting is the future world that is presented and the concepts that are addressed. Lets take a minute to look at both of these.

==================== Spoilers increase as you go down ================

In this future world it turns out that global warming has caused the polar ice caps to completely melt. This in turn has caused the sea levels to rise by quite a lot, submerging most major coastal cities. I did a quick fact check and found that if all the ice on Antarctica and Greenland were to melt into the sea, it would raise ocean levels by about 220 feet (or 67 meters). That could put a good chunk of New York City and the coastal rim of Los Angeles under water, but the point is that a lot of people would be displaced. This along with climate upheaval causes massive demographic changes which somehow leads to tight governmental population control where families are only allowed a certain number of children. Robots become useful as replacements for human functions without needing food, or for that matter much clothing or shelter. Ok, so maybe the back story is a bit shady but it sets us up for the main plot line, which revolves around the concept of a child replacement mecha.

The initial speech scene is remarkably well put together as it both demonstrates and explains the consequential outcomes of creating machines that look and behave just like human beings, even in their simulated emotional responses. The professor stabs the female mecha's hand with an ice pick(?) and she yelps and pulls her hand away. As she puts it back on the table, he lunges again and she pulls her hand back as a learned response - but to what? He asks her, "How did that make you feel?". She replies, "I don't understand". He tries again, "What did I do to your feelings?". She cooly replies, "You did it to my hand". As a software programmer, I know it would be easy to make the robot pretend it understands what feelings are, but the scene does a nice job of illustrating the problem. The professor goes on to propose a new type of mecha that would be able to love. The technical dialogue that is meant to lure us into believing there is actually a scientific way to do this has that perfect mix of the foreign and the familiar to convince us that it would be something smack in between simulation and real love. What it actually means is still an open question for both philosophers and scientists today. But if a child robot could form a bond with a parental couple, it would allow people to have more children of another form. Yet if that bond is programmed to be irreversibly permanent (kind of like WORM memory), does the couple have the same responsibility to it as to a real child?

The first prototype of this new mecha is a young boy. The corporation, ubiquitously named Cybertronics, chooses to assign him to a couple who's only son has been in a coma for five years with no hope of recovery. The father obtains the mecha for his wife as a way for her to displace her unending grief, and she reluctantly agrees to try it. Later, their comatose son miraculously recovers. The real son doesn't take to the intruder well and gives the mecha an inferiority complex. Somewhat predictably, he attaches to the Pinnocchio story in his desire to become a "real" boy like his playmate. In the fairy tale, this is accomplished by the "blue fairy". But the mecha's attempts to copy the son become self destructive and raises safety concerns. The father, who always considered the mecha's purpose as a comfort for mom, then pressures her to return it to Cybertronics, where she knows it must be destroyed. Its permanent bond to herself makes it "unresellable". Well, on the way there she finds she can't bring herself to do the deed, so she instead decides, whether from pity, guilt, or love we do not know, to just drop him off on the roadside and leave. Thus begins the child mecha's journey deep into this new world in search of the blue fairy, so that he can become a real boy and his parents will take him back. It would sound hokey if not for the innocent disposition of the mecha child, played very nicely by Haley Joel Osment of The Sixth Sense. The implication is that the mecha never had time enough in this world to learn the difference between fairy tales and real life. All considered, I don't think you could ask for a better conceived plot set up than that.

One of the fun aspects of creating a new world in science fiction is exploring all the possible consequences that it might entail. We encounter pleasure mechas designed to be perfect sex partners. Inevitably, some will be abandoned to themselves and they end up in red light districts where they have taken over the prostitution business because customers prefer the robots to humans. It is also natural to expect that many people would be threatened by these robots which can so easily replace them, and so groups form which put on rodeo like shows called flesh fairs where abandoned mechas are destroyed in various ways as a hateful crowd boos and cheers. And mechas can easily be framed for crimes too.

Eventually, after several adventures and revelations, with the help of another mecha played nicely by Jude Law, the mecha boy finds what he was looking for, the Blue Fairy, a statue in front of a Pinocchio ride at a Manhattan Island amusement park submerged deep beneath the flood waters. I have to agree with the critics that the movie would have ended perfectly with the young mecha staring lovingly at the statue for eternity. But I guess that wasn't a happy enough ending for Speilberg so he added another 20 minutes to give the boy a more palatable fate. I considered it a complete waste of time since the new illusion is no more real than the first, and for a robot it would not matter.

The interaction between humans and robots has been a recurring motif in science fiction literature going all the way back to Asimov's I, Robot. This film presents a fresh and updated look at it with highly polished direction and cinematography that we've come to expect from Mr. Speilberg. It did not make my collection, but I would definitely recommend it to those who share my interest in "think" pieces.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

E.T. Go Home!

After Speilberg created his classic science fiction film in 1977, Close Encounters, I remember having high hopes for what seemed to be his next big sci-fi film, E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial, in 1982. After all, Spielberg had up until then a great track record in Hollywood. In addition to CE3K, he had produced a wildly successful monster thriller (Jaws), and an equally successful adventure film (Raiders of the Lost Ark). What could go wrong?

Well, instead of a science fiction film, I found myself watching what seemed like a kid's film about a family that finds a pet and takes it home. So the pet happened to be an alien, it was still nothing more than watching a Saturday film festival by Disney. For quite some time afterward, I struggled to understand where its popularity came from. It made more money than Star Wars! (On only 75% of the actual ticket sales - that's hyperinflation for you!). Both the critics and the audiences loved it. Just read through this synopsis to get an idea of the response at the time. Was it because of all the little kids that thought he was a cute alien? Was I, at 16, outside the targeted demographic? Strangely, however, there was never a sequel like with the other franchises mentioned above.

Although E.T. often gets voted into lists of the best sci-fi movies ever (and #1 in the Rotten Tomatoes poll), I can't even see this as falling under the category. The same goes for Back to the Future. These are family films that borrow some concepts from the genre but have no intention of taking the subject matter seriously. Yes, I am somewhat of a purist at heart, but that's part of why I started the blog. Whatever gets distilled out here helps me both understand and share with others this love of something that's just difficult to put a finger on. Perhaps someday I will watch it again as an adult, without expectations, and actually enjoy it, but only as a nice family film.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010


Contact is just a real good movie to sit down and take in. Just as in Silence of the Lambs, Jodie Foster shines best when playing a role that balances the smart and tough female who also wears her emotions on her sleeve. The story, written by Carl Sagan, is basically well put together in that he skillfully incorporates real science into an admittedly fictional scenario, while at the same time touching on philosophy and adding a powerful dramatic background story. And it was well directed by blockbuster veteran Robert Zemeckis. I couldn't resist adding it to my collection.

I have to say I've never been a fan of Sagan personally. As both a faithful Catholic and a student of science, I have never felt a fundamental conflict of interest between the two disciplines. Sagan always came across to me as having a downright contempt for religious belief as either naively ignorant or actively antagonistic to science. I admit there are some religious people that think this way, but to throw out faith and spirituality altogether along with them is a bit misguided. Although there are probably many scientists who might agree with Sagan, none of them were as publicly vocal about it as he was. Contact was adapted to the screen after Sagan had already passed on, and since I do not know how well it reflected his original novel, I will respectfully leave his name out of the commentary to follow.

In the film, Foster plays an atheist scientist involved in the SETI program when the first signal indicating extra-terrestrial intelligence is detected. A series of discoveries unfold that ultimately reveal designs to build a machine that will allow Earth to contact the aliens, and NASA decides to go ahead with the plans. The contraption is so huge that it takes a Saturn program style launch pad to operate, but it does not require a launch. It's more like a space-time transporter. One of the most striking scenes for me when I first saw it was when the first prototype was sabotaged and came crashing down toward the crowds. It's a very nice melding of CGI and live action that you can view here if you don't mind the spoiler. You get the full impact in wide screen.

A really unique aspect of the story is that it all happens in view of the public instead of some UFO sighting in the back woods. This creates all sorts of interesting political and social reactions in the world, which is a difficult thing to successfully predict. I can't say that it wasn't a bit oversimplified or exaggerated at times. Foster's character is entwined throughout the story with a preacher played by Matt McConaughey who engages her in discussions about faith vs. science. Their differences ultimately put them at odds as they must both respond in the public eye to the new developments and what they mean to the world. At first, it seems like a slap in the face to religious belief. But in the end, our atheist scientist successfully encounters the aliens without any proof to show the world that it actually happened. It comes down to congressional hearings in which she publicly has to admit that she can only point to her "faith" in the experience as the closest thing to proof. This full circle round trip makes for a beautiful close to the story.

There is an attempt by the filmmakers to evoke the sense of anticipation and wonder that was first achieved in Close Encounters, but on this count I feel it fails miserably. During the contact scene, there is some good atmosphere generated while poor Jodie Foster has to maintain her sense of incredulity for what seems like forever. But the whole concept of some all knowing, all good, paternal community of aliens waiting for the Earth to join up was just too much to swallow. It's kind of like replacing belief in God with belief in something almost as similar. Of course, I've never been one to buy into the idea that if a civilization advances far enough they will inevitably rid themselves of evil, anymore than they would rid themselves of goodness or heroic virtue.

I have to say one thing about the Introduction, which is a pan out sequence in space attempting to show how the radio transmissions emanating from Earth travel backward in time as you get farther away. It's a cool idea, but I don't know why the director didn't so much as try to make it accurate. Our nearest star, Alpha Centauri, would be receiving transmissions from 4.3 years ago, if they even had enough power to get that far. The intro has 70's music already playing before the camera reaches Jupiter - which is only 43 minutes away by radio signal. I mean, c'mon guys!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Don't Panic

And now for something a little more light-hearted. Anyone who likes science fiction has probably already read the classic satirical comedy which is The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. For those who have not, you need to run out and get a copy. Do not in any way rely on the recent film adaptation (which is still a fun watch) or other video mediums to convey the exquisitely humorous penmanship of Mr. Douglas Adams (God rest his soul). The first of the five books in the series is probably the most loved parody of science fiction literature ever, especially among college folk. In fact, it was at college that I first learned of the book from fellow students and sat down to read it during finals week, that period with not much to do besides study and wait for testing time. I was so drawn into the book from page one that I could barely put it down. Perhaps the stress of finals week heightened my reaction, but I thought it was one of the funniest things I'd ever read, and at times found myself putting the book down so I could roll over onto the floor in side splitting laughter. It was quite therapeutic.

To start with, Adams has that seemingly inborn British wit and a nose for good satire. But in order to get the full effect of this book, you really have to be a sci-fi fan and have watched and/or read a good number of serious stories from the genre. Adams likes to poke fun at beaurocracies, politicians, and the less noble aspects of the human race in general. His particular way of doing this is to use the already accepted outrageousness of sci-fi literature as an expose on life, while rarely stepping out onto a pulpit above his readers. The story begins with the total destruction of Earth by a galactic construction crew (Vogons) making way for an intergalactic hyperspace highway. The few characters that escape begin a wild adventure. Each chapter begins with a supposed excerpt from the Hitchhiker's guide on some phenomenon encountered in the story (such as the "Babel fish" in one of the quotes below). It turns out the Earth was a giant computer designed to find the answer to the meaning of life and construction on a new one is already underway.

The second book, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, is just about as good as the first, featuring Marvin the depressed robot. The third installment devolves into relying too much on crude humor and cheap one liners, but the fourth, So Long and Thanks for all the Fish, is a bit of a comeback. I could not even begin to describe all the memorable little side stories and anecdotes here, but in order to wet anyone's appetite that might be interested, I will leave with some quoted sections. The first is the full introduction to the first book, which gives a good feel for the type of writing you'll encounter further on. Oh, and if anyone ever answers a question with the number 42, you'll know they've read it. I apologize for the length of the text, but I hope it is worth it. And now for our featured program...

==== HGG Intro =============================================
Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.

Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-two million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.

This planet has — or rather had — a problem, which was this: most of the people on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn't the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.

And so the problem remained; lots of the people were mean, and most of them were miserable, even the ones with digital watches.

Many were increasingly of the opinion that they'd all made a big mistake in coming down from the trees in the first place. And some said that even the trees had been a bad move, and that no one should ever have left the oceans.

And then, one Thursday, nearly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change, one girl sitting on her own in a small cafe in Rickmansworth suddenly realized what it was that had been going wrong all this time, and she finally knew how the world could be made a good and happy place. This time it was right, it would work, and no one would have to get nailed to anything.

Sadly, however, before she could get to a phone to tell anyone about it, a terribly stupid catastrophe occurred, and the idea was lost forever.

This is not her story.

But it is the story of that terrible stupid catastrophe and some of its consequences.

It is also the story of a book, a book called The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy — not an Earth book, never published on Earth, and until the terrible catastrophe occurred, never seen or heard of by any Earthman.

Nevertheless, a wholly remarkable book. In fact it was probably the most remarkable book ever to come out of the great publishing houses of Ursa Minor — of which no Earthman had ever heard either.

Not only is it a wholly remarkable book, it is also a highly successful one — more popular than the Celestial Home Care Omnibus, better selling than Fifty More Things to do in Zero Gravity, and more controversial than Oolon Colluphid's trilogy of philosophical blockbusters: Where God Went Wrong, Some More of God's Greatest Mistakes and Who is this God Person Anyway?

In many of the more relaxed civilizations on the Outer Eastern Rim of the Galaxy, the Hitch Hiker's Guide has already supplanted the great Encyclopedia Galactica as the standard repository of all knowledge and wisdom, for though it has many omissions and contains much that is apocryphal, or at least wildly inaccurate, it scores over the older, more pedestrian work in two important respects.

First, it is slightly cheaper; and secondly it has the words Don't Panic inscribed in large friendly letters on its cover.

But the story of this terrible, stupid Thursday, the story of its extraordinary consequences, and the story of how these consequences are inextricably intertwined with this remarkable book begins very simply.

It begins with a house.

There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable.

There is another theory which states that this has already happened.

"The Babel fish" said The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy quietly, "is small, yellow and leech-like, and probably the oddest thing in the Universe. It feeds on brainwave energy received not from its own carrier but from those around it. It absorbs all unconsious mental frequencies from this brainwave energy to nourish itself with. It then excretes into the mind of its carrier a telepathic matrix formed by combining the consious thought frequencies with nerve signals picked up from the speech centres of the brain which has supplied them. The practical upshot of all this is that if you stick a Babel fish in your ear you can instantly understand anything in any form of language. The speech patterns you actually hear decode the brainwave matrix which has been fed into your mind by your Babel fish."

"Now it is such a bizarrely improbable coincidence that anything so mindboggingly useful could have evolved purely by chance that some thinkers have chosen to see it as the final and clinching proof of the non-existence of God. The argument goes something like this:

`I refuse to prove that I exist, says God, `for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing.'

`But,' says Man, `The Babel fish is a dead giveaway, isn't it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and so therefore, by your own arguments, you don't. QED.'

`Oh dear,' says God, `I hadn't thought of that,' and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic."

`Oh, that was easy,' says Man, and for an encore goes on to prove that black is white and gets himself killed on the next zebra crossing.

"Most leading theologians claim that this argument is a load of dingo's kidneys, but that didn't stop Oolon Colluphid making a small fortune when he used it as the central theme of his bestselling book, Well That About Wraps It Up For God."

"Meanwhile, the poor Babel fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation."

It is an important and popular fact that things are not always what they seem. For instance, on the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much - the wheel, New York, wars and so on - whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man - for precisely the same reasons.

Curiously enough, the dolphins had long known of the impending destruction of the planet Earth and had made many attempts to alert mankind to the danger; but most of their communications were misinterpreted as amusing attempts to punch footballs or whistle for tidbits, so they eventually gave up and left the Earth by their own means shortly before the Vogons arrived.
The last ever dolphin message was misinterpreted as a surprisingly sophisticated attempt to do a double-backwards-somersault through a hoop whilst whistling the 'Star Spangled Banner', but in fact the message was this: So long and thanks for all the fish.

"The History of every major Galactic Civilization tends to pass through three distinct and recognizable phases, those of Survival, Inquiry and Sophistication, otherwise known as the How, Why and Where phases.

"For instance, the first phase is characterized by the question How can we eat? the second by the question Why do we eat? and the third by the question Where shall we have lunch?"

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Making Gravity

We all know that when you're in space, particularly during planetary orbit, you tend to float around. After all, you are technically in free fall. This is what we see whenever we get live video from astronauts on the space station. Yet when we see people aboard various space ships in science fiction film and TV, be it the Enterprise, Millenium Falcon, or Serenity, they are usually seen with their feet planted firmly on the floor. We then have to assume that there is some sort of artificial gravity being generated throughout the ship. However, that is not as easy to dismiss as one would hope. This entry is dedicated to the impossible ubiquity of artificial gravity.

There are four fundamental forces in the universe that we know of so far. Only two of these are directly felt by us humans, namely, gravity and electromagnetism. There is also one more way to create a so-called "fictitious" force very similar to gravity which is to accelerate yourself in some direction. So how might we go about creating artificial gravity given what we know today? Probably the only practical method would be to use the acceleration technique in its centrifugal form. In other words, spin the cabin of the space ship around at a speed that creates an equivalent gravitational acceleration at the appropriate distance from the center where the astronauts are located. In this case, "up" would be toward the center of the rotation. This is exactly the method employed in the ships featured in 2001: A Space Odyssey and its sequel. It is also the method proposed by Stanford in 1975 for a viable space colony. Even this would present some issues since any attempt to move toward the center of the rotation would make you lighter and moving away would make you heavier. Also, for small radii, you'd have to deal with the coreolis effect. Of course, we know that is not the method used in most popular sci-fi ships.

We could not accelerate the ship in the same direction for very long, so that is out of the question. We're left with electromagnetism. The problem in this case is that the human body is not statically charged or magnetic, so it doesn't generally respond to EM fields. Occasionally, I have seen an attempt to fit magnetic shoes to astronauts and claim that it simulates gravity, but that is not really the case. Walking would be awkward since you'd have to keep at least one foot flat on the ground at all times. Non-magnetic objects like hair, clothing, food, and water would still float around, as would your upper body which could lean in any direction without falling to the floor. Most sci-fi shows do not try to attempt such an explanation. I suppose we could get creative and try to alter the human body in some way so as to make it respond to EM fields, but I haven't seen that one tried yet.

So if there is no known way that the laws of physics can currently support what we see on the screen, it is the responsibility of the writers to come up with some relatively convincing way for us to suspend our disbelief. In this case, you can't just say we have some new technology that just works because it is not a matter of technology. Simulating gravity is squarely a physics problem, and most of the time there is no attempt to explain it to audiences.

To make matters even worse, if a space ship undergoes any acceleration, it must still be felt inside the ship. Given the speeds that we are supposed to believe are being reached in short periods of time in order to travel huge distances, the number of g's involved would immediately kill you in the real world. Most film and TV shows will have the crew knocked around a bit from time to time, but it usually reflects very small changes in acceleration. It was always amusing to see the Enterprise crew sway from side to side while the ship was supposed be changing its speed by a factor of c (speed of light) every few seconds or so.

Oh well. I guess after this long we have to let it slide, as long as people sit up and notice when a writer actually makes a successful attempt to handle the problem.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

2001: A Triumph in Physics

I've never been much of a Stanley Kubrick fan. It's not that he isn't a good director, but his style is too preachy for me. The few films of his that I do like were early in his career and at the top of the list is 2001: A Space Odyssey. When you have a great science fiction author like Arthur C. Clarke combined with a great director like Kubrick, and the author is allowed to work closely with the director, and the director is given the freedom to do as he wishes, and he wishes to remain true to the original author's wishes, you end up with a classic sci-fi film. I don't think I actually got around to watching it until my college years, and because I was studying Physics at the time, one thing really jumped out at me. With the exception of certain mystical elements, the film was amazingly faithful to the actual laws of physics. Thus, the title of this entry.

Let me illustrate with a few examples. First, since space is a vacuum, there is no sound. All sequences shot from space (external to any ships) were either completely silent or had an added music track only (some space walks included what the astronaut was hearing inside the suit - breathing, intercom, etc.). There was no rumbling, no screeching (like Tie Fighters in Star Wars), no audible explosions, etc. Second, since there is no gravity in space, the research lab simulated gravity by spinning on its axis. Most other films assume some sort of auto-gravity technology however implausible that may be. In the Orion shuttle vehicle, which looked uncannily like the future NASA space shuttle, they used magnetic shoes, getting around by carefully making sure one foot is firmly planted before lifting the other. One scene where a hatch is blown open and everything shoots out into space, you can see how the papers fly straight out as if there was no air resistance, just as expected. Objects in motion in space stay in motion, virtually forever, as predicted by Newton's first law. This attention to detail, which I attribute to Clarke's influence, adds to the film's sense of realism. In the era of NASA's moon missions, a year before the first lunar landing, the memory of real space footage was fresh in audiences minds to compare it to. It is amazing that you can hardly tell the difference between the effects achieved in 1968 and something you might see in a news item on the ISS today.

Also adding to the realism was Kubrick's choice to film many scenes almost in real time, giving a sense of the long hours and slow motion required to work in space. The famous end sequence, which is artsy and largely symbolic, probably included his touch. I always loved it even though it seems incomprehensible. Another one of Kubrick's influences was the musical score. I've now learned that there was an original score already composed which was scrapped by Kubrick in favor of his own choices of classical pieces, and those choices were absolutely outstanding. The Zarathustra piece by Strauss was made famous by the film itself. Originally representing a sunrise, the music evokes anticipation of something big about to happen. In the film, it is used at great turning points in the proposed history of man. The Danube Waltz was used for long sequences in space. I subconsciously always thought this was a perfect match but didn't know why, until one day I realized that everything in space moves slowly and continuously like a ballet dance. It actually transforms something like a boring space docking sequence into an appreciation for the beauty of the movements. I don't think anyone has ever duplicated what was achieved in the scoring of this film.

There are two main threads to the story line which seem quite disconnected. The first is a notion about the history of mankind being influenced by some alien force beyond. This thread is mysterious and abstract and somehow involves the famous "monoliths". The idea itself is now overused and could be taken as silly if not for the unique and interesting way that it is presented in 2001. The second thread is more concrete and involves the computer HAL 9000. It deals with the question, again more original at the time than today, of how an intelligent computer would face the prospect of its own termination. Would it choose to preserve its own "life"?

I am surprised at how much I have to say on this film. Then again, it is an undisputed classic of the genre. And I would be remiss not to include a few words about its one and only sequel - 2010: The Year We Make Contact. This is a wonderful film in its own right and was also based on Arthur C. Clarke's own follow-up novel. It has some good performances by Roy Scheider and Helen Mirren, and a chance to actually see John Lithgow successfully pull off a dramatic role. The story continues directly from the first film but is much more complex. The monolith thread is explored and explained in more detail, while the thread involving HAL's malfunction turns into a really wonderful side twist. The climactic ending here is more concrete and dramatic. In addition to all this, a new political drama is weaved in as a major story line. Filmed at the height of the cold war, the story involves a necessary joint mission of Americans and Russians which, when tensions rise at home, causes difficulties for the astronauts stationed near Jupiter's moons Io and Europa. Although not quite as artsy as its 1968 counterpart, it contains plenty of meat to chew on. It has a great opening scene - a Russian flags down Scheider at a large antenna array to propose the mission. The dialogue between them is highly entertaining. The only embarrassing element for me is the attempt to bring Bowman back as some eternal Star Child, but I hear that was Clarke's idea too.

Finally, I end as I started by giving the sequel 2010 an A+ in its faithfulness to the laws of physics, just like its predecessor. I was actually teaching Physics to high school students at the time I saw it and remember other science teachers marveling at this. Again, the ship simulates gravity based on centrifugal rotation of the living quarters. When they reach the Discovery spaceship from the first mission, it is found spinning lengthwise on its axis like a twirling baton. This is physically accurate, since any freely floating object will with random perturbation eventually move toward rotation around its greatest moment of inertia. And all the no gravity space scenes look just as good, even without the classical music. There are a few exceptions though, like when Scheider floats a pen in mid air in the rotating cabin. I'm afraid a gravity simulated by rotation would appear to drop that pen right to the ground, even though it would only be Newton's first law in action.