Category Archives: Video

Asimov on SF and Its Development

After my (ahem) uncharacteristic outburst of loathing in the previous post, I figure I should relax. Here, then, Gentle Reader, is Isaac Asimov, explaining the “Golden Age” of science fiction, when John Campbell tried to drag the genre out of its pulp ancestry.

And here is Asimov explaining what happened after that, in the Fifties and Sixties:
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City Lights at Night

This video, narrated by astronaut Don Pettit, was made from digital pictures taken on the International Space Station.

A passage from Sagan is eerily prescient. In Pale Blue Dot (1994) he takes a tour of the Earth from orbit, describing first the day-side and then the planet at night.

Some of the lights, though, are not due to cities. In North Africa, the Middle East, and Siberia, for example, there are very bright lights in a comparatively barren landscape — due, it turns out, to burnoff in oil and natural gas wells. [check!] In the Sea of Japan on the day you first look, there is a strange, triangular-shaped area of light. In daytime it corresponds to open ocean. This is no city. What could it be? It is in fact the Japanese squid fishing fleet, using brilliant illumination to attract schools of squid up to their deaths. [check!] On other days, this pattern of light wanders all over the Pacific Ocean, seeking prey. In effect, what you have discovered here is sushi.

It seems sobering to me that from space you can so readily detect some of the odds and ends of life on Earth — the gastrointestinal habits of ruminants, Japanese cuisine, the means of communicating with nomadic submarines that carry death for 200 cities — while so much of our monumental architecture, our greatest engineering works, our efforts to care for one another, are almost wholly invisible. It’s a kind of parable.

Way to be harsh on the maki, man.

(Via Neil Gaiman and Skepchick.)

Movie vs. Trailer Deathmatch: 21

Last fall, I helped write and a spoof rock musical called 22. It was a pun-heavy tour of the MIT campus whose “plot,” such as it was, circled around a terrorist threat involving an Infinite Improbability Generator. The title was a sly reference to 24, you see; however, were we to do the same thing today, the same title would let us mock the blackjack movie 21. Here’s the trailer for the movie — extremely loosely based on the antics of a few MIT students — a trailer which I happened to see back in January, at the Science Fiction Marathon:

I could crack a few obvious jokes — I mean, isn’t “Break on Through (To the Other Side)” basically as overplayed as “Bad to the Bone,” and couldn’t we at least get, I dunno, “Love Spreads” by the Stone Roses? More entertaining, perhaps, is the reaction of the MIT News Office, which says of Kevin Spacey’s character, “While his irresponsible acts may enliven the Hollywood script, they are entirely unrepresentative of the Institute.”

Better still, Christopher Orr has reviewed the movie based solely on the trailer above, plus the Internet Movie Database’s list of character names:
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Connections, Episode 10

This is the sort of thing which tends to get taken off the Network once the Powers Which Be notice that it exists, so we should enjoy it now. Here and there, in chunks of different sizes, we can find James Burke’s original Connections (1978) TV series. Embedded on this page is the tenth and last episode, “Yesterday, Tomorrow and You.” I could say many things about it, but for now, I’ll just note that “network robustness” has become a subject of quantitative investigation, that I can’t escape the feeling the arguments which perennially perturb the science-blogging orbit still aren’t addressing the points which Burke raised thirty years ago, and that you can’t go wrong with Ominous Latin Chanting.

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A Counter-Proposal

Expelled the movie -- Exposed!A while back, Paul Gowder suggested we scientists get our act together and make our own movie, for general consumption, countering the damnable and insipid lies of Ben Stein’s Expelled. Shortly thereafter, PZ Myers noted that, while he was sympathetic to the idea, it would be foolish to neglect the practical experience of filmmakers in doing so: the people who write the screenplay have to know how movies work.

Today, a variant of this proposal occurred to me. Somebody else may well have thought of it first, but I haven’t noticed the suggestion being made. Instead of explaining what evolution is all about, why not make a movie which explains why the Holocaust happened? To be sure, one historian will argue with another about which factors were most important in causing a sustained programme of cruelty to arise when and where it did, but a good documentary could lay all those factors out and, in so doing, make the point that Darwin and Wallace are not heading up the list.

Something tells me this project would be an easier sell than a feature-length nature show (I bet you could get Spielberg as an executive producer). And, at least in general terms, there’s a bit of a precedent for scientists entering this territory:

Discuss: what could be done that hasn’t been done before? What are the up-sides, down-sides and middle-sides of this idea?

Dawkins and Myers on Being Expelled

Expelled -- Exposed!Josh Timonen has filmed a dialogue between PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins. The clip below describes what happened when the two of them went, with friends and family, to see the creationist propaganda flick Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. Many people have already observed that the movie’s subtitle is a blazing beacon of irony, but gosh darn it, that observation gets truer every day: the makers of Expelled are bound and determined to drive home their lack of acumen.

The Harvard/XVIVO animation to which the biologists refer, one which creationists have plagiarized before, is available on Harvard’s website.

Two Slashdottings In One House

I got a little blip of a Slashdotting when I wrote about the Stuart Pivar incident, but my friend Brian Neltner — expert in genetically engineering viruses to his bidding, and black belt in a martial art which teaches eyeball extraction as a standard “defensive” move — has got the real deal. He designs LED artwork, you see, incorporating UV lights and other extra goodies to create colors which can’t be captured in a camera or reproduced on a computer screen. Imagine a room bathed in smoothly shifting wavelengths of vivid color, changing the appearance of everything they touch as pigments vanish or merge only to arise again in new, deceptive patterns.

That’s our living room.

The total effect of these LED fixtures is a combination of both additive and subtractive color mixing. Oh, and if you look directly at the UV LEDs without the protective diffuser screen installed, well, you better not look again with your remaining eye. Normal people, when we tell them this, back away, but for some reason, MIT students always need to check for themselves.

What do you do with an Ultraluminous Illuminator of Doom? Well, you shine it on artwork! Brian and his mother Janet went to great lengths to find pigments which work well under polychromatic precision light:
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The Dark Universe

Digging through my drafts pile to find something to post that doesn’t require too much extra writing, I found that I hadn’t yet released this item into the tubes. After The Halting Oracle and The Leech Lattice comes the third volume in our saga of good fantasy-novel titles, Lambda and The Dark Universe.

A few weeks back, Edward Kolb gave a series of talks at CERN on dark matter and dark energy, and how they fit into the standard “ΛCDM” model of the Universe. The abstract is as follows:

According to the standard cosmological model, 95% of the present mass density of the universe is dark: roughly 70% of the total in the form of dark energy and 25% in the form of dark matter. In a series of four lectures, I will begin by presenting a brief review of cosmology, and then I will review the observational evidence for dark matter and dark energy. I will discuss some of the proposals for dark matter and dark energy, and connect them to high-energy physics. I will also present an overview of an observational program to quantify the properties of dark energy.

Kolb’s presentations are, I found, entertaining and informative. At least, I laughed at his jokes — take that as you will. Much of the technical content can also be found in written form in, e.g., Cliff Burgess’ “Lectures on Cosmic Inflation and its Potential Stringy Realizations” (2007).

(Tip o’ the fedora to Jester.)

UPDATE (5 March): the newest figures, from the five-year WMAP results, are that the Universe is 72.1% dark energy, 23.3% dark matter, and 4.62% — everything else.

Physics versus Fear

In the Channel 4 programme Breaking the Science Barrier (1996), Richard Dawkins faces down a pendulum:

This is a classic example of a “put your money (or nose) where your mouth is” physics demonstration. It also appears in Carl Sagan’s novel Contact (1985), for example, and Feynman did it during the freshman physics lectures he gave at Caltech.

Later in the same show, Dawkins interviews Douglas Adams, and gives a few comparisons to help understand the depths of evolutionary time:
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