Archive for January, 2015

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.

NaNoWriMo 2014

January 13, 2015 2 comments

I almost decided not to participate in the National Novel Writing Month this year. I missed over a week of writing time due to the elections (I was very busy for the first few weeks of November taking care of campaign-related issues). At the last minute, I decided that I would give it a try.

I chose to write a fantasy story that I came up with by accident. I can’t remember the exact details, but I was playing some kind of game with a group of my friends, and due to my sloppy handwriting, they read the title of a fantasy novel I might write wrongly. Thus, Ser Darkthor’s Court was born; a novel about a Knight Errant who travels the realm and solves crimes. It was envisioned as sort of a Sword and Sorcery version of Sherlock Holmes.

Here’s the synopsis that I put up on NaNoWriMo when I started to write it:

Jesper is a class of Knight Errant called a Red Moon. They are tasked with policing the realm of Ser Darkthor, First of His Name, Honorable and Wise Leader of (Insert Name of Place Here). Jesper’s travels take him to a small village which appears peaceful on the surface, but hides a dark secret that could change the balance of power or something like that. Jesper begins an investigation in a Sherlock Holmes-meets-medieval fantasy novel, and uncovers a conspiracy that does something. I’ll flesh it out. It’ll be great. I promise.

The story, obviously, is much more developed now. Th good news is that I plugged away for the three weeks that I participated and I managed to win! Yay! It’s the third time in a row that I’ve won, and it always feels like I’ve climbed a mountain or explored a new planet.

I’m going to finish this story, clean it up, and probably serialize it on my fiction blog, Fictional Heuristics. Look out for that when it happens, because I happen to think it is an interesting story. It’s not the best fantasy, and I might have borrowed a teensy too much from Scott Lynch and George R.R. Martin, but I had a lot of fun writing it and I definitely think it is worth sharing.

I’ve actually thought about starting a patreon or something similar to that in case people wanted to chip in a few bucks if they like my fiction. I don’t have a lot of time to write, but if I can make some money doing it I’d carve out a niche for it. I think that’s something to think about for the future, if I can ever manage to get around to doing half the things that I say that I want to do.

Anyway, I hope that my fellow writers found success with NaNoWriMo last year, and I hope they continue to find success in the coming years.

30 Years Ago…

January 13, 2015 Leave a comment
Back to the Future Part 2Wait, what do you mean people don’t wear their pockets inside out?

I remember when I first got the Back to the Future trilogy on DVD and I watched the second part, I remember thinking that they represented the future in the movie as if they hired a bunch of futurists and then decided to make what they came up with as absurd as possible. There was over the top holographic movie technology, crazy flying cars, thingies that walked dogs (I’m guessing some sort of hovering robot), and people wore two ties for some crazy reason.

And I remember loving the hell out of that.

Nevertheless, here we are in 2015. We don’t have hover cars. We kinda sorta have something that’s close to what you might recognize as a hover board with either a lot of optimism or a few shots of bourbon. We don’t have those fantastic hydrator thingies, we don’t have dust-repellant paper, and we don’t have cafes that are dedicated to our nation’s rampant 80’s nostalgia.

cafe80sNobody really misses Reagan (and most younguns ask “Reagan who?”) and Pepsi is still an
inferior product.  They did get the Soviet flag craze right, though!

We do have what we’ve always had: our optimism and willing to dream big. Our drive to understand who we are and our place in the universe. We move forward, through time if not in other ways, because that is our existence. We struggle through our mistakes, and we come together to mourn our losses. We stand athwart those who would seek to divide us, and we honor the fallen with simple phrases that speak volumes. And that’s not so bad.

Je Suis CharlieSource:

2014 was a busy year for me, and my posting dropped off almost completely after April. There are a lot of things that I want to catch up on, including writing about my run for State Representative and a few other things. Plus, I’ve got some interesting things to say about John Scalzi’s new novel Lock In, and I really want to get started on some projects I said I would do years ago (I’ve been busy, okay!).

Plus, I’m planning to serialize a novel that I’ve written to my fiction blog, Fictional Heuristics.

I look forward to this new year, and obviously I plan on getting a lot of mileage on Back to the Future references. So, to everyone who reads this (and to all of those poor souls who don’t–you know who you are, all 7,400,000,000 of you) I wish a brilliant and amazing 2015.

Let’s make it worth remembering.