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Tyson v. Abrams


Can somebody please introduce Neil deGrasse Tyson to J. J. Abrams?

The last Star Wars movie, this planet killing weapon destroys a bunch of planets that are across the sky as viewed from another planet.  Apparently orbiting another star. Far away. Hello? Seen any planets orbiting other stars when you look up at the night sky lately? And, um, seeing this would involve light which, you know, travels at light speed. Hard to imagine this taking less than a year.  Kind of muddles up the plot if the Republic was demolished for a year and nobody noticed.

Fire from one solar system to another in a couple of minutes? Yes, they did say it was a hyperspace weapon, but that fast? That far?

Sucking hot gas off a star won’t just turn the star off. Or be a wonder fuel for destroying other planets. Or fit inside your little planet killer. Unless this all goes into Hermione Granger’s magic bag.

Wonder what atmospheric pressure is like at the bottom of a pit hundreds of kilometers deep. Or the temperature for that matter.

Wonder what they use to keep such a pit from collapsing gravitationally. Deviatoric stresses are truly incredible at that scale.

For all his failings, George Lucas did have a sense of cosmic scale that Abrams lacks.

While Star Wars is really fantasy rather than science fiction and so maybe can absorb this silliness, Star Trek was more mainstream science fiction in the pre-Abrams universe. Trekkers had the scales for how fast warp speeds and how far things were, etc. This all went by the boards (along with a lot of other stuff).

In Abrams’s version of Trek, there is a planet with a breathable atmosphere so close to Vulcan than that planet is moon sized in its sky. And yet all that is on this planet is a piddly Federation base. Um, this would have to be orbiting Vulcan…and they didn’t colonize it to some degree? Or is there just a big magnifying glass in the sky?

Vulcan is a few minutes at warp from Earth. The Klingon home world is only a bit farther (seemed a lot closer when coming home than heading out–did they take the scenic route?). Quite the cozy neighborhood.

This all bled into the latest Trek where a nebula suddenly becomes a goofy dreamscape of colliding rock-like things that again only required a few minutes to pass through. Super challenging going in, piece of cake going out.

Look, space is really, really, really big.  Distances are equally big.  Is it really that impossible to develop dramatic tension without ignoring that?

If Tyson can help us to come to terms with an unpleasant election outcome, maybe he can convince Abrams that keeping space big is OK?


(Yes, those long drives do end up inducing odd wandering thoughts…)

Hidden Figures…

GG doesn’t really need to review such a prominent movie (particularly a movie that was based on a non-fiction book that hadn’t even been published when they were filming), but there are some points he’d like to make (aside from recommending both movie and book).

The movie focuses on one particular moment in time for the black women computers (yes, it was a job before it was a machine) of Langley around the time of the Mercury program.  As such, the movie rearranges many of the events documented in the book into a shorter timeframe (for instance, Mary Jackson’s long hikes to the segregated bathroom in the early 50s-and her angry tirade leading her to work in the wind tunnel group-were transferred to Katherine Goble in 1961, who had in fact ignored the absence of a Colored bathroom in her building by simply using the nearest available women’s room).  It also seems to amplify the racial tensions within Langley (especially with the supervisor of the white female computers and the flight engineering group) compared to the book’s broader view of Langley as more of a refuge from the Jim Crow Virginia these women lived in outside of work. These cinematic choices are not bad, and the movie does more or less convey the barriers the women faced and overcame. This does make the movie more coherent than the book, which probably needed a bit more development time, because the narrative thread in the text gets tangled from time to time. So it is a feel-good movie about the unjustly oppressed getting at least some justice based on a groundbreaking book that is long overdue.

GG’s point is that this is also a cautionary tale, and this is clearer in the book than the movie.  The book (unlike the movie) addresses the educational barriers these women faced, both in being black and female in the south.  By focusing on the few who had the combination of luck and skill to succeed, both the movie and book bury the fact that this means there were many others with less luck but, probably, equal skill whose contributions were never made because of discrimination. A point too rarely made is that discrimination not only hurts those discriminated against, but it denies the rest of society the contributions those victims could have made. And although the overt legal discrimination of the past is gone, the continued dearth of minority faces in science in general and in the earth sciences in particular suggests that some styles of discrimination remain. Because of that, we are poorer as a discipline.

Truth in Advertising, Geophysics Edition

This from a course syllabus of a geophysics class at MIT:

Formally, this course has 4 contact hours a week. If enrollment allows it, the extra one-hour session will be devoted to a discussion of a recent journal article on a topic covered in the lectures; if the class size is too large this will not be feasible and the extra time will be used for a combination of resuscitation and literature discussion.

The only question is, is it the students or the instructor needing resuscitation in large classes?

Alien Bait

OK, while pondering the bizarre motivations for evil alien monsters (must…destroy…schoolbus…which can dodge plasma blasts even as fighter jets cannot), GG wondered, why would any alien civilization want to conquer or destroy Earth?

Arguably the most likely reason would have something to do with our biosphere.  Maybe there are cool new medicines to be found–the cure for some intergalactic plague.  Or maybe they really are into zoos (hmm, didn’t Kurt Vonnegut go there?).  Our biosphere is presumably highly unique and probably pretty rare (current enthusiasm for planets possibly harboring life not withstanding).

Not knowing anything about alien ecosystems or diseases or the like, can’t really go any further.  Is there anything else special about Earth?  In the past, movies and some science fiction have used the water on Earth as a main motivation (see Oblivion for a recent example).  But water is simply hydrogen–which is widespread–and oxygen, which is also pretty common.  If you have the muscle to move spaceships all over the place, making water is probably not that hard to do.

Oddly enough, one possibility is one that feels more like motivation for a spy movie and not for some extra-terrestrial invasion: gold.

Now gold on Earth isn’t the most common thing, but the funny part is that there is a lot more of it near the earth’s surface than you’d expect.  If you make Earth by condensing all the material in the solar nebula at about this distance from the Sun, you kind of expect the gold to all end up in the core [woo-hoo! Another motivation for a movie about the core–travel there to get gold!]. Although this difference might be related to other elements present in early Earth and issues with experimental simulation of the partitioning of gold between core and mantle, if this is real, a decent proposal is that things like gold and iridium were emplaced on the earth’s surface in the Late Heavy Bombardment period just under 4 billion years ago (a review of much of this can be found here; a popular science story here and a 2011 Nature article providing observational support is here). What this might mean is that the earth might be uncommonly rich in metals like gold.  And if our solar system were unusually rich in gold to start with (the production of gold in stars requires either supernovae or even more exotic events), we might be quite unusual. So maybe a good ET movie might combine sci-fi and a Ft. Knox heist….

Of course you’d have to have some big reason for wanting gold (hint: probably not to make coins with).  But gold is exceptionally malleable and resistant to corrosion; it is also an exceptional conductor.  Perhaps there is some kind of gold-based superconductor out there (so Earth could be Avatar’s Pandora for some other species).

GG will wait for that call from Hollywood….

Core Fixations

Honestly, how did the mild-mannered core become the focus of so many disaster movies? Having one–The Core, which was laugh-out-loud bad–would have seemed to have exhausted that particular aspect of earth disasters (we are still awaiting The Landslide–who knows, maybe the sequel to San Andreas can do that).  But no, then we had the reboot of Star Trek drop “red matter” (or maybe we misunderstood–perhaps it was “read matter” as in science books they chose not to read) into the core to cause planets to implode. Why did you have to reach the core, anyways?  If this made black holes, wouldn’t it be enough to just pitch it onto the surface?

But now, after 20 years of gestation, we get the core as once again the weak link in life on Earth.  [Spoiler ahead–arguably the only thing you might not guess from ads or reviews]. Read More…

Star Wars: Science Fiction or Fantasy?

Let’s talk fluff….

Awhile back there was an op/ed in CNN arguing that Star Wars ruined science fiction by hemming in the expectations of what “science fiction” really is; basically the argument went that Star Wars made sci-fi solely into westerns in space.  A lot of that discussion had to do with the kinds of story arcs that could be within science fiction and less to do with what defines science fiction.

Well, watching trailers for the new Star Wars movie got GG mildly annoyed with the notion that this is science fiction in the sense fans of science fiction know it. In fact, if anything, written science fiction has been moving away from the lazy approximations of some hazy future and deeper into developing fairly rigorous conceptualizations of a possible future. Developing such future or distant universes is so involved that authors are increasingly making multi-volume stories to fully take advantage of the effort spent in world-building in the first place. Such efforts can inspire real-world goals (space stations, asteroid mining, etc). It has even gotten to the point where authors will set their tales within a universe created by another author (see the whole Man-Kzin Wars series, for instance).

Now of course there is a longstanding continuum between hard and soft science fiction and on into fantasy that, generally, each reader defines for his or her own self. But in the popular mind, Star Wars defines science fiction.  Is that fair?

Read More…

Reality invades animation

There is something mildly amusing and ironic going on in the world of animation.

It is the desirability of including realism in the form of land- and cityscapes.

After spending lots of time making up fake worlds (that, um, to a geologist look fake), animators have turned to real-world datasets to make their fake worlds look real.

Most amusing is that this discovery has brought the recognition that there is a lot of data. One was Big Hero Six, where real data about San Francisco was used to create the fictional San Fransokyo. The most recent example is Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur, which apparently used USGS DEMs in order to create background landscapes that look like landscapes should look. (Indeed, it appears that Bryce Canyon, Monument Valley and perhaps part of the Colorado Rockies are used from GG’s perusal of the film). That story notes that this resulted in the use of far more data in a single image than in entire movies. This is no surprise to any earth scientist who has played with 1m LIDAR images, though to be fair probably a lot of their data use was in spreading vegetation on their landscapes.

Ironically, there is a long history of software designed to try to simulate landscape development.  One particular program that stands out was Bryce, which used an unusual interface and fractal optics to create photorealistic images of artificial landscapes.  Of course, the trick was to create the landscape in the first place. You wonder how long it will be before they hire geomorphologists who can operate the CHILD software to produce geologically reasonable topography from some specified geology…