Musings on Writing in a Cafe

January 17, 2017 Leave a comment

I never really appreciated how sitting in a cafe can be conducive to the creative process before now. Before I saw them as loud, distracting things to avoid. But as I sit here, sipping Earl Grey and writing a book review, it strikes me how human it is. It seems to me that creative endeavors are human endeavors, and human endeavors are typically loud and annoying.

You could drown it all out by putting on headphones, but you miss isolated threads of conversation: “I was thinking…” and “That’s not how you…” What are they talking about, I wonder? The jazz music in the speakers overhead, the atonal beeps of the cash register, the whir of the cappuccino machine–the environment sings with activity, and the melody is alive and pulsing.

People talking, reading, studying–all with their own stories. So just look up and take it in from time to time.

Categories: Life, Musings, Writing Tags: , , ,

Book Review: Invisible Planets Part 1 (Introduction)

January 11, 2017 Leave a comment

It’s been a long time since I’ve updated this blog. Of course, I say that every time I come back from a long hiatus. I am a terribly inconsistent blogger–I admit this freely. Somehow this blog keeps calling me back, year after year, no matter how long I let it languish. I think I like to delude myself into believing that I have an audience for my ramblings.

Anyway, I wanted to start off 2017 by reviewing a book that my fiance got me for Christmas. Invisible Planets, edited by Ken Liu, features short stories by some of Chinese science fiction’s most preeminent authors. In his introduction, Liu attempts to explain to an English-speaking audience the complex, bold tapestry that is Chinese science fiction, inveighing us not to see the themes and narratives merely through a “Chinese” lense, but a human lens.

While there are some pretty serious cultural schisms that can make the stories somewhat hard to access for an average American reader (me), the stories are nonetheless masterfully written (translated) and serve as an adequate introduction to a vein of science fiction that hasn’t been availble to Western readers in the past.

Since Invisible Planets is split into short stories told by a handful of the most well-known Chinese authors, I plan on splitting my review into several parts, one for each of the short stories. While I cannot come close to anything approaching a knowledgable review of the book, I hope that by sharing my thoughts I can interest other Western readers and bibliophiles.

I started reading this book already a fan of Ken Liu’s skill for translation. I had previously read his translation of Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem and Death’s End. Liu’s understanding of the conundrum of trying to define literature is one that I share; indeed, when attempting to define how Chinese science fiction is different from English science fiction, Liu concedes “that the question is ill defined…and there isn’t a neat sound bite for an answer.” The genre is broad and diverse, even within languages.

So what is Chinese science fiction? I suppose that depends on the reader. Liu purposefully selects authors who have a broad range of approaches to science fiction, from their writing styles to the tropes that they employ. Liu grants us a huge boon in this strategy as it allows the reader to try to piece together a view of Chinese science fiction for themselves instead of relying on an easy answer Liu may give. Keeping in mind, of course, that as an Anglophone your idea is either woefully incomplete, wrong, or likely both. But in trying to understand a well-known and loved genre in Western literature taken up by another culture I believe it is best to try to learn what it is for yourself, without the bias of having a simple answer spoonfed to you.

Liu states that “The fiction produced in China reflects the complexity of the environment.” I believe that this is true of fiction produced in any culture or society, be it one comprised of many, many facets like China; or one as diverse and well-worn as America. In any case, the stories in Invisible Planets are best taken as individual pixels in a larger picture–be careful that you don’t read too much into them, but at the same time be mindful about their place in the grand scope of not only Chinese literature, but human literature. Because these stories are indeed human, even if they seem, to a Western reader, a little alien.

This exposure is one sure way to help bridge the gap between East and West. Exchanging not only ideas, but perspectives, is how we tear down the walls between us. Liu is ever mindful of the bias we Westerners may bring to these stories, and they’re mostly things we bring with us without conscious awareness. It’s probably impossible to completely divorce your perspective from the culture in which it was fostered, and that becomes apparent when you feel like you can’t quite grasp everything the story is doing–like you can’t see the whole picture that’s being painted for you. It’s easy to fill the gaps in your understanding with your own biased views–and to a large extent, I believe, this is not wrong so long as it doesn’t overtake or replace the perspective of the author.

The limiting factor in all of this is, however, the quality of the translation. Liu has proven himself capable by his admirable and skillful English adaption of Cixin Liu’s works; even so, there is always something lost–some flavor of meaning that doesn’t quite make the jump from language to langauge. I suspect that this is especially pronounced in Asian languages like Chinese, which are not based on letters put together to make words like English. The logic of the language is different, and thus when the stories are made to be told in a completely different language with a vey different logic, some of the perspective is lost.

But the effort to translate, and to read, and to try to grapple with a new perspective is worth these small losses. And the journey is an extremely rewarding one. The first review will be on Chen Qiufan’s “The Year of the Rat,”  and the stories will proceed from there based on the order in which they appear in Invisible Planets.

So, dear reader, grab a cup of Earl Grey and curl up with a warm blanket. We’re going to get a small window into a literary world that rarely gets translated to English.

Penn and Teller: Bull*%&! Episode 2: “Alternative Medicine”

April 27, 2015 2 comments

So it’s pretty obvious that I haven’t been doing a great job of keeping any of my blogs updated regularly. I have a new job as a Nurse Assistant at McLaren Greater Lansing working the night shift (7 PM-7AM) and I’m still getting used to the new sleeping schedule. I’ve also been doing some work for the Clinton County Democratic Party, so the time I have for writing is a little slimmer than I’d prefer.

Still, I wanted to make the next post in my rewatch of Penn and Teller Bullshit and maybe get back in the swing of writing. I was upset that I completely forgot about the April 2015 A-to-Z Blogging Challenge, but I don’t think that I would have been able to keep up with it.

Anyway, let’s get to the good stuff:

Original Air Date: January 31, 2003
Production Code: 102

The second episode of Penn and Teller’s show is called “Alternative Medicine.” This is a subject that is near and dear to my heart as I am extremely skeptical of complimentary and alternative medicine. In fact, I’ve linked back to one of my favorite blogs, Science-Based Medicine, multiple times over the years on this very subject. I haven’t seen this episode in a long time, so I’m very anxious to see their treatment of the issue.

The show starts with Penn reciting a list of diseases that Teller is supposed to have, while Teller acts as if he’s afflicted by them (and he sneaks in a few tricks, too). It’s a very comprehensive list of maladies that most people have had some experience with, including cancer and eczema. Penn wants to try to cure Teller of these diseases without visiting a doctor, declaring, “Let’s try some bullshit!”

And I think he’s right on point, there: the thing about a lot of alternative medicine is that it doesn’t have a good basis of support. Often, the scientific studies that are done on alternative treatments show no better outcomes than a placebo, and when alternative treatments do have some kind of benefit, they become mainstream medicine. I think it’s rather fitting that Penn starts the episode with a brief history of medical quackery, including showing a picture of an advertisement for cocaine toothache drops.

Medicine used to be a hodge-podge of nonsense (though, to be fair, things outside of mainstream medicine are more than likely still nonsense). Modern medicine has added structure, regulation, and standardization to medical treatment in a way that has reduced mortality, stopped disease, and increased the lifespan. There’s still a rich, fascinating history of medical treatments before we achieved this, such as using radium-infused water as a health tonic. As you can imagine, drinking radioactive substances didn’t have many health benefits.

The first target that Penn lays his sights on is reflexology. Basically Penn says that “reflexologists believe that the foot contains pathways to every nerve ending and organ in the body, and that by putting pressure on various points of the foot, a plethora of diseases can be eliminated.” This is followed by a gag where Teller is trying to change the sparkplug in Penn’s car by tapping the tires. It’s not a bad metaphor, to be honest. There isn’t any anatomical or physiological reason to believe that manipulating the feet will have an impact on any organs.

One thing that the show recognizes is that these alternative treatments are huge cash cows. Not that mainstream medicine isn’t expensive–at least it produces verifiable results and is backed by numerous studies. The reflexologist that is shadowed on the show charges, according to Penn, $55 an hour to apply a pulsating machine to the foot that seems to be nothing more than a foot massage. It’s noteworthy that there is no consensus about how reflexology is supposed to work, even amongst reflexologists.

Next, Penn tackles magnet therapy, which he notes at the time of the show’s production was a billion-dollar per year industry. According to Quack Watch, “There is no scientific basis to conclude that small, static magnets can relieve pain or influence the course of any disease. In fact, many of today’s products produce no significant magnetic field at or beneath the skin’s surface.” This is backed up by links in the wikipedia article, which note that the magnetic fields produced by the magnets used are too weak to influence blood flow.

The doctor that they have promoting magnet therapy on the show is, to be frank, wrong on just about everything. Magnets do not produce an “energy field,” they produce a magnetic field–magnetic fields that are orders of magnitudes too weak to affect the body. This doctor also has no idea what magnets are and stumbles through a frankly embarrassing attempt to describe them which I won’t even attempt to repeat here.

Sigh. The doctor is nuts and thinks that stress builds up in your body and that magnets can…do something? I think. To relieve that stress, apparently. It’s a big pile of nonsense. Teller does another gag, this one involving blood and magnets that I won’t give away, to demonstrate it.

I think that the highlight of the episode is a gag that they put on in a mall to show how gullible people are, and how responsive they are to the power of suggestion. An official scientist-looking person will demonstrate how effective the magnets are at treating them (even though, as they reveal, the magnets were completely demagnetized). It’s a pretty fantastic experiment.

The third target is chiropractic. This is harder to tackle because it’s so widely accepted and there are several different lines of thought on it. The quack chiropractors are the ones that agree with the nonsense idea of subluxations (and that most health problems come from the misalignment of the spine–hey, screw germ theory of disease, am I right?) and skew anti-vaccine to others that are nothing more than glorified physical therapists. It’s not hard to see that I don’t have a high opinion on chiropractic and I try to steer people clear of it if I get the chance (why go to an expensive chiropractor when you can go to a physical therapist and get the same, if not better, outcomes?).

And, again, the show finds the perfect avatar of the extreme side of chiropractic in a man who makes claims about chiropractic spinal adjustments that are irresponsible and unfounded, and in a perfect world a few would be criminal.

One of the things I appreciate about Penn and and Teller Bullshit is that they don’t shy away from showing things that will be controversial and disturbing. They show the chiropractor cracking the necks of children, along with the cracking sounds. Anyone with any knowledge of human development would know that children, especially young children, aren’t even fully developed or grown. Spinal and neck manipulations are dangerous–extremely so! This chiropractor then goes on to tell the story of how he treated a baby, and boasts that the youngest he ever adjusted was, in his words, a minute and a half old.

Yes, a baby. Spinal and neck manipulation of a baby. Let that sink in. The fact that this man isn’t in jail speaks volumes about how permissive we are of bullshit alternative medical treatments. The bones of a baby’s body aren’t fully formed. Any kind of manipulation of the spinal chord or neck could be fatal.

I just don’t have the ability to spend any more time on this bastard. I sincerely hope he never seriously injures anyone.

But the bottom line here is that all three of these alternative treatments are about salesmanship. We’re talking money pumped in to create the illusion of legitimacy, advertisements, and political lobbying to feed million and billion dollar industries that produce very few, if any, positive health outcomes. Tell the people what they want to hear: don’t like vaccines? Say that you don’t need them with this magical herb. Don’t trust “Big Pharma?” Sell essential oils and claim they can heal disease, when in reality they do nothing more than make things smell better.

The show moves back to the reflexologist, who trains people to be reflexologist in a sort of “pay as you go” setup, where the people will actually start “treating” people before they even start to “learn” his methods so that they can pay him for more. If you think that this is a scam, well, you’re not alone. Imagine if they let medical students practice medicine before they got their medical degrees.

I think that this was a great episode, when the dust settled. It was hard to watch the chiropractor manipulate the neck of a child, but that’s the kind of thing you can’t shy away from if you want to see how dangerous these people can be. I don’t have a problem with new ideas in medicine getting a fair shake. If the doctors or whoever can come up with an idea, and it can stand on its own after tests and experiments and criticism, that will advance medicine.

But the examples of alternative medicine demonstrated in these episodes have been tested. And they don’t produce good results. Often, you have people who are trying to sell you something you don’t really need if you just go to the doctor regularly and take care of yourself. The lesson to learn is to be skeptical. Ask questions. Do this for doctors and people in mainstream medicine, too. If a doctor can’t answer a question, or deflects, then you have good reason to seek another opinion. I would be good money that none of these alternative medicine practitioners could satisfactorily answer questions put to them. For instance, “What is a meridian, and how does rubbing a foot draw ‘energy’ from the brain to these meridians?”

The safe bet for health is always the treatment that has a mountain of credible data to back it up. Alternative medicine lacks that.

Previous episode

Penn and Teller: Bull*%&! Episode 1: “Talking to the Dead”

March 15, 2015 1 comment

Hello dear readers!

Tonight I want to start a project that I’ve wanted to do for a while now because I think there’s a lot of potential to have some interesting discussions. Penn Jillette and Teller, two of my favorite illusionists, put together a daring kind of show in which they took controversial topics and discussed them from their unique perspective. Sometimes this created shows in which their political ideology trumped science (like the global climate change episode), but other memorable times we got episodes in which they created one of the best visual metaphors for vaccines to date.

If you haven’t seen this series, I encourage you to do so. And one of the first things you should keep in mind (apart from the warnings about nudity and language) is that this is a show about skepticism, and applying skepticism even to the skeptics. The show is called Bullshit! for a reason–the two hosts may be peddling it, and it’s important to call even them out.

Of course, when doing so it’s important to be tactful.

To be fair, I don’t think I was kicking him when he was explaining that he made missteps. It’s hard to convey what you mean on the internet, much less in 140 characters. In case Penn ever sees this post, I want to apologize for the tone–but I was offering an honest critique of the show, not trying to put him down.

With that said, I want to start a “rewatch” and a review of the first episode, entitled “Talking to the Dead.” It’s the first show of the series, and it sets the tone and makes an introduction.

Original Air Date: January 24, 2003
Production Code: 101

The show opens with Penn talking to a prop headstone belonging to Houdini, which is very apropos to the topic and the show itself. Houdini is perhaps the most famous illusionist in history (his name is even an idiom!), and I’m sure both Penn and Teller find inspiration in his life. There’s a lot of humor in the show, which is a necessity because, often, they’re dealing with controversial and difficult topics in the show. Penn, for instance, will say, “See, it’s easy to speak to the dead,” after speaking to the prop headstone as if Houdini was listening to him.

One thing that stands out to me is that Penn admits that they have dealt out bullshit, but that they tell people that they lie. I think that this is particularly why the show works–and it reminds me very much of the work of James Randi, who made his mark by exposing people like Uri Geller as bullshitters. Who better to expose bullshit but bullshit artists themselves?

And in case you’re wondering why the show is called “Bullshit,” Penn explains it is for legal matters; apparently, calling people con artists and quacks will open you up to legal action, whereas saying they’re full of it is a-okay. Admittedly, after watching this episode I’m a bit leery of calling any bullshitter a fraud, but just talking about who they are and what they do is more than enough to get the point across.

So obviously this episode is about people who claim that they can communicate with the dead. It’s important to note that I’m a scientific skeptic and I don’t believe that ghosts or spirits exist, and even if they did, they probably have more important things to do than sit around and talk with us boring idiots all day. But there are certainly powerful emotional reasons for people to buy it–perhaps they miss loved ones, or can’t move past the grief of losing a life partner. These feelings are very understandable and they’re human. We should be empathetic to these people because we’ve all lost someone close to us.

And that’s why the people that take advantage of people in grief need to questioned. If they’re exploiting people, and lying to them, they should be exposed.

I have to agree with Penn when he says that they’re not interested in the money that psychics who claim that they can communicate with the dead are taking from vulnerable people–what matters is that they desecrate the memories that the people hold of their lost loved ones. How are people influenced by exploitation of those memories, and is it harmful? As Penn says, the only thing we have left of the people who leave us behind are our memories of them–more valuable than the money that they take.

Penn also introduces the Center for Inquiry, a group that is famous for its pro-science advocacy and fostering skepticism toward supernaturalism. What’s perhaps most useful is that they list and explain a number of methods that are used by performance artists and psychics to connect with their audiences. The first method is “cold reading,” which is described as a way of fishing for information “while giving the impression that you’re getting this information from some supernatural source…”

Psychics will make a lot of guesses, and eventually hit upon something that’s accurate. It’s a version of the sharpshooter fallacy. The psychics will make many misses, but what are remembered or stressed are the hits that they make. And if you’re a psychic with a TV show, you’re going to be incentivized to edit the show such that the misses are, well, missing.

There is also “hot reading,” in which the psychic gives very detailed or accurate answers, and this is accomplished when they’ve done some prior research or have spied on the people in the audience. It’s kind of a despicable cheating, but for unsuspecting people it’s probably a bit overwhelming. It’s pretty easy to accomplish by putting microphones in waiting areas, or planting people in the audience to suss out information as if they’re just people there to watch striking up a conversation.

I suppose if you’re going in knowing what the show is about, and appreciate a good illusion, there might not be a problem with it. I love watching magicians fool me with illusions, so why not enjoy a good psychic show? There might not be a reason to be so critical if they’re not exploiting vulnerable people and if they come clean about the tricks they use.

Perhaps the most obvious is the “shotgun approach,” where the psychic takes advantage of a large audience and plays the odds. It’s likely if they just throw stuff out at an audience, they’ll chance upon a member who has some connection to a random name they throw out. For example, “does anyone here know an Ed? Edward? I’m getting a name that starts with an E.”

I think that method is kind of ingenious, actually. The audience participates actively–if they hear something that they can relate to, and get involved, they’re probably more willing to be fooled. “Yes, my uncle’s name was Ed!” It’s like the psychic has made a personal connection–and can channel this uncle to them. And when the audience appreciates this by, say, applauding, it reinforces the belief that it’s real. So, in effect, the audience member will supply the information and fill in the blanks, essentially doing the job for the psychic.

I think one of the highlights of the episode is when people involved in the Bullshit show aren’t allowed to bring their cameras into a John Edward live show, and they’re asked to leave the premises. I think that’s pretty revealing, actually–anyone’s skepticism alarm should be raised as soon as they’re disallowed from observing or recording such performances. If anyone could actually speak to the dead as psychics, why wouldn’t they want as many people to see that as possible? What would they be so afraid of? Why not let skeptics bring in their video recording devices? Prove that you can actually do what you say you can?

I think what I appreciate so much about this episode is that they not only list the methods that psychics use, but that they avoid attacking the people who go to the psychics. That’s very important: we’re all vulnerable, and sometimes we all fall for bullshit, but we don’t move past that and do better when people make fun of us and criticize us for our mistakes. We need to empathize with these people–try to help them deal with their grief without making empty promises and bullshitting them.

Penn closes the episode by saying, “You don’t heal a broken heart by pretending its not broken.” Indeed. The showmanship of a psychic is no true balm for the wound of a lost loved one.

Bullshit gets off to an auspicious start by exposing what is essentially an obvious target for skepticism, and it does it in an empathetic and clever way. If nothing else, it provides a good starting point for further research into psychics and people who claim that they can talk to the dead.

The next installment of this series will focus on Episode 2: “Alternative Medicine.” I’m actually looking forward to that one.

Next Episode

Ultimate Book Tag! and Other Things

March 8, 2015 Leave a comment

First things first: I recently got hired at McLaren Greater Lansing as a Nurse Assistant. I am very excited about this job and I am eager to learn more skills. Everyone I’ve met so far at the hospital has been terrific, and I really believe that I’m going to enjoy my time there.

Second things second: I’ve been working for a while on internet stuff for the Clinton County Democratic Party as the IT Specialist. I’ve actually gotten a lot of work done, though by looking at the website you’d never guess it. Still, there are a lot of other factors that go into developing a decent internet presence for a political party than just the website, which is the next big thing to tackle on my seemingly ever-expanding agenda as IT Specialist.

And now, Ultimate Book Tag! I took this from Jackie Smith’s blog A Platform of Sorts. I haven’t written here in a while because life has been busy, so I thought I’d make this post fun.

1. Do you get sick while reading in the car?

Nope. I’ve read in cars for as long as I remember, and never had any problems with it. Even now, when I’m a passenger in a car and reading my Kindle, it doesn’t bother me.

2. Which author’s writing style is completely unique to you and why?

Douglas Adams. Hands down. And it’s not just his writing style, but how turns my expectations on their head. For instance, when describing the Vogon ships in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, he writes, “They hung in the air much the same way bricks don’t.” His writing style influences my fiction writing in ways too numerous to count.

My general rule of thumb, thanks to Adams, is “when in doubt, give everything an inner voice. Even composite board bookshelves.”

3. Harry Potter Series or the Twilight Saga? Give 3 points to defend your answer.

Harry Potter:

a. It’s not Twilight.

b. It’s more original.

c. It’s not Twilight.

4. Do you carry a book bag? If so, what is it in (besides books…)?

I carry a book bag when I need to. I’ll either put my notebooks, folders, computer, or papers in it. I tend to keep all of the papers for my writing projects organized into folders or binders.

5. Do you smell your books?

Who doesn’t like the smell of wood pulp?

6. Books with or without little illustrations?

It really depends on the book, doesn’t it? Sometimes an illustration adds to the narrative in complex or unexpected ways, and that’s very refreshing.

7. What book did you love while reading but discovered later it wasn’t quality writing?

A Song of Ice and Fire–the entire series. The stories are engrossing, complex, original–but Martin’s prose is atrocious. He can spend three pages describing what someone is eating and I just want to tear those pages out to get on with the damn story. His saving graces are the realistic characters he invents and his willingness to go places most writers fear to tread.

8. Do you have any funny stories involving books from your childhood? Please share!

I used to build tunnels with my books so my model trains could go through them. That’s not really that funny, but it’s all I’ve got.

9. What is the thinnest book on your shelf?

The Trial and Death of Socrates, translated by G. M. A. Grube.

IMG_057410. What is the thickest book on your shelf?

It was a close contest, but the winner was The Norton Shakespeare, Second Edition.

IMG_0575 IMG_0576This brick ends on page 3416.

11. Do you write as well as read? Do you see yourself in the future as being an author?

Yes, I love to write, and I do see myself being a published author in the future. It might take a while, what this this life thing, but I do love writing. If you want to preview some of my short fiction, head on over to my other blog, Fictional Heuristics.

12. When did you get into reading?

I still have my copy of Itchy Itchy Chicken Pox from when I was a kid.

13. What is your favorite classic book?

Ofer-hyda ne gym, maere cempa!


14. In school was your best subject Language Arts/English?

Yes, actually. I won awards for my screenwriting, for being an outstanding writer, and I entered writing contests all of the time. It really wasn’t a surprise when I decided to major in English.

15. If you were given a book as a present that you had read before and hated…what would you do?

I would express my opinion of the book in a friendly way, but keep it in my collection. It’s why I haven’t thrown away Ayn Rand books.

16. What is a lesser known series that you know of that is similar to
Harry Potter or the Hunger Games?

I don’t think I know of one. I haven’t actually read The Hunger Games and the Harry Potter series is pretty much a one-off for me in young adult fantasy.

17. What is your favorite word?

Queue. Look how funny it is. I want to pronounce it que-ue.

18. Are you a nerd, dork, or dweeb? Or all of the above?

I’m a geek. I have models of the Enterprise and the time machine from Back to the Future. I have so much Isaac Asimov it poses a small fire hazard.

19. Vampires or Fairies? Why?

I’d go with vampires for no other reason than I think Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a good book.

20. Shapeshifters or Angels? Why?

Shapeshifters are more interesting. Plus, Odo.

odo-in-tux21. Spirits or Werewolves? Why?

Neither. Boring. Overdone. Next?

22. Zombies or Vampires? Why?

Zombies, because if you can make a zombie movie like George Romero that offers up a critique of consumerism in American culture, you can make on out of a book. Max Brooks comes close.

23. Love Triangle or Forbidden Love?

Neither. Boring, cliche, just…come up with something more original.

24. AND FINALLY: Full on romance books or action-packed with a few love scenes mixed in?

If a choice between the two? The latter. I can deal with love subplots if they’re done right. Romance isn’t my thing.

Well, that was fun! I hope that everyone has had a great International Women’s Day!

StarTalk Radio and Scientific Ignorance

January 26, 2015 Leave a comment

I’ve long been a fan of Neil deGrasse Tyson, and see him as my generation’s Carl Sagan. I think it’s important to have affable people who can communicate scientific ideas and philosophy clearly and an in a friendly manner, especially now that our society is so steeped in anti-science sentiments or largely ignorant of science. Recent headlines, for instance, talk about how 80% of Americans are supportive of efforts to make labeling food containing DNA mandatory.

Sure, there are problems with that study and it should be taken with a grain of salt. But I think it’s part of a larger dialogue going on now about things like genetically modified organisms and medicine. I don’t want to go into the GMO debate right now (suffice it to say I generally and vocally support them–but don’t confuse this with support for companies like Monsanto or personal ignorance about the dangers of modern agriculture from monocultures to fertilizer runoff), and as for the uptick in, say, people sympathizing with homeopathy, I refer you to this news story about a recent study.

I don’t really blame people for ignorance, but I do not suffer it. It’s not that hard to get facts and learn new things with things like the internet (which, to be fair, can also be used to learn absurd and wrong things, like the bone-headed notion that vaccines are bad). So, in the spirit of trying to enlighten people, I want to talk a bit about StarTalk Radio.

Tyson hosts this show (with frequent guest hosts like Bill Nye), and it’s generally both entertaining and enlightening. Topics range from questions about gravity to discussions about technology. One of the better shows is “StarTalk Live: I, Robot” (Part 1, Part 2). Tyson, comedians, and robotics experts discuss the current state of robotics and where it might go in the years to come. It’s certainly not a topic that should be ignored, even by laypeople. Whether we like it or not (I’m looking at you, Luddites) robots and, possibly, superhuman intelligence, will be a part of human society. If we’re smart about how we approach it, we can do amazing things like this:

If we’re not so smart, we could do things like this:

StarTalk has conversations that are worth having, while educating and entertaining you. I really recommend listening to it, even if you don’t know that much about science or technology. Both of these topics should be priorities for a civilization that depends on them, as ours does.

In the future I hope to write more about robots, from ethics about them to their legal status. With the increasing possibility of superhuman intelligences, how we handle synthetic intelligence (and whether or not it constitutes life) will be of increasing importance in the coming years.

Random Thoughts about Science Fiction: Gravity

January 21, 2015 Leave a comment

I first saw the movie Gravity not too long after it was first released in theaters. Smarter people than I have explained what the movie got right and wrong in terms of science, but that’s not what I would like to talk about. I haven’t seen Gravity since I saw it the first time in theaters, so my memory might be a bit fuzzy on what happens in the movie. Fair warning: there are spoilers if you haven’t seen the movie.

The thing that most interested me about the movie was this theme about rebirth and growth that was developed through the movie, starting with Sandra Bullock’s character Ryan Stone and her first spacewalk to service the Hubble Telescope. The Hubble Telescope is, in fact, one of the most important instruments we’ve ever developed, capturing images of the universe with such clarity that they never fail to leave us stunned. To look at one of the images is to see the breathtaking expanse of space laid out before us, each speck of light representing another galaxy.

Gravity is a movie about space, but not in the way that a lot of other movies are. Sure, there’s the typical “space is dangerous” aspect about the movie. Apart from that, though, I think that there’s a great respect for the physical forces we’re dealing with, and what it will take for humanity to meet the challenges in front of us. We have a long way to go before we’re ready to reach out and touch the stars.

In the movie, Ryan Stone’s inexperience is met with the childish antics of veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski, played by George Clooney. This is Kowalski’s final mission, so he takes the time to enjoy the view and the experience of being in space by floating around with his manned maneuvering unit. To some degree, there’s less a feeling of exploration and pushing the bounds of human knowledge than there is the feeling that this is becoming old hat. How many people are interested in the minutia of what NASA does on versus the number of people who were watching anxiously as man took his first steps on the moon?

The main problem arises when a Russian missile strike on an old satellite puts debris on a collision course with the team and the Hubble Telescope. What follows is a mad scramble to avoid the collision, but ultimately, both the space shuttle Explorer and Hubble are destroyed, and one of the three astronauts dies. Kowalski and Stone then try to get to the International Space Station before the debris spins around the planet to hit them again.

Without doing an in-depth summary of a movie I haven’t seen in over a year, let me get to the point: after Kowalski dies, Stone is on her own, facing circumstances that nobody has ever faced before. There’s a poignant scene in which Stone, after crawling into the space station and taking off her suit, is curled up by a window.

This image calls to mind the picture of a human developing in the womb, curled up with the umbilical cord. And in a way, the space station is Stone’s womb–it’s the thin skin between the cold void of space and certain death and the warmth and air she needs to survive.

Moving ahead a bit, after she crash lands on the planet in one of the Chinese station’s escape pods, she crawls onto the beach. The movie ends as she takes her first, trembling steps on land, signifying her survival and growth from baby in the womb on the space station.

It’s very human–but more than human, it represents the evolution of life. There’s a an idea in science–not quite a theory–called panspermia. There are a lot of different version of this idea, but for me the most attractive is one which posits simply that life on Earth came from space via microorganisms that survived being carried on asteroids and comets. I don’t subscribe to this idea as a good explanation of life, but there are interesting implications. We do know that organic compounds that life depends on can be found on comets and asteroids–so it is, at least, thinkable that the compounds needed for life could have come from them.

There are clear parallels in Gravity and this idea, and furthermore with the evolution of life. Stone survives reentry as all of the metal of the satellites and the two space stations crashes around her. She emerges from the water–as early life did–crawling onto the beach, then on her hands and knees, and then standing on two feet.

So what does this have to do with space exploration and humanity? We reach for space, but come crashing back to Earth. What Gravity does is highlight how hostile space is and how much we actually rely on the safety of Earth. There’s a narrow window in which humans can survive, and once that’s gone, that’s it. As Carl Sagan said in Pale Blue Dot:

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

We reborn onto the planet Earth, with a new respect for it. We’re ready to take our first steps into space, but with humility and awareness that Earth is who we are. We’re drawn to it, literally and figuratively. From space we can marvel at its beauty, and from the surface we can appreciate how it has nurtured us.

Maybe one day we’ll find life on another planet, or maybe even settle and build on other planets. I tend to think that the future holds boundless potential for humanity, as long as we remember that, when we look at the big picture, life is fragile. Earth is all we have.