Stephen Gaskell is a British science fiction writer whose work has been published in Nature, Interzone, and Clarkesworld. A graduate of the Clarion East writing workshop, he recently released Strata, co-written with Bradley P. Beaulieu.
In many ways the interior of a star would be an ideal place to live for an advanced species. A near limitless source of energy. Camouflage from interstellar predators. And sunshine three hundred and sixty five days a year.
In our new novella, Strata, Bradley P. Beaulieu and I didn’t travel so far into the future that humankind had migrated to the sun, but we did imagine giant solar mining platforms that orbit through the sun’s chromosphere. Of course, at present such a feat of engineering is beyond the technological and economic reach of humanity, but we wondered if this might one day be a scientifically feasible enterprise. Here are 10 features of the extremely hostile solar environment that had to be overcome:
You might think your boss is putting you under enormous pressure for next week’s deadline, but it ain’t got a patch on the kind of stress that the center of the sun’s under. At its core, the pressure of the sun is equal to 340 billion times the Earth’s surface atmospheric pressure. That’s a lot of elephants standing on your head. Fortunately for the future of humankind’s solar mining adventures, the sun’s internal structure is not uniform. The outer regions from the photosphere up (the chromosphere and corona) are actually very thin, with pressures generally 1% or less of Earth’s surface atmospheric pressure. Still, I wouldn’t hang out there.
The sun’s big. Big like you can’t imagine. You thought Jupiter was big, but the sun makes Jupiter look like some snotty-nosed Mummy’s boy on his first day at school. And what does all that matter do? It does what gravity tells it, creating one serious gravitational well about which the planets orbit like toy ducks around a discharging plughole. Mercury completes one whole orbit every eighty-eight days. The orbital period for a mining platform situated in the sun’s chromosphere would be around one-tenth of a day. That’s a fair zip! And there’s an additional problem; any solar miners would be effectively weightless in the freefall orbit—the mass of the platform being negligible compared to a planet or moon.
In a fixed position the problem would be worse, the surface gravity of the sun some 28 times greater than the Earth. Even fighter pilots get nowhere near those g-forces. In the best traditions of science fiction we came up with an as yet undiscovered technology: gravity inhibitors, an idea first floated (ahem) in H.G. Wells’ The First Men in the Moon with Dr. Cavor’s invention of the fictional material cavorite.
Sure, your life is pretty green. You bike to work, recycle, and use energy-saver light bulbs. But what about after you are done all that living? How can you turn your green lifestyle into a green deathstyle?
Two words: liquid nitrogen. A sweedish company, called Promessa Organic Burial says they’ve discovered the greenest possible way to bury your loved ones: freeze them in liquid nitrogen and then use sonic waves to shatter their body, a la T-1000 in Terminator 2.
Within a week and a half after death, the corpse is frozen to minus 18 degrees Celsius and then submerged in liquid nitrogen. This makes the body very brittle, and vibration of a specific amplitude transforms it into an organic powder that is then introduced into a vacuum chamber where the water is evaporated away.
The powdered, dehydrated remains of your body are then packaged neatly into a small cornstarch box and buried to rot away and be reabsorbed into the earth within 12 months.
At “Star Wars Celebration V” this past Saturday, George Lucas announced that LucasFlims will release Blu-ray versions of all six Star Wars films in fall of 2011. He told The New York Times that he was waiting to see if Blu-ray really would catch on.
To some fans’ chagrin, the set will include the “Special Edition” versions of New Hope, Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi–you know, the version which features Hayden Christensen superimposed over Anakin’s ghost and killed that awesome Ewok song. Lucas said to The New York Times that releasing the originals would be “kind of an oxymoron because the quality of the original is not very good.”
If you can’t wait for 2011, it seems some other very special editions are making the Internets rounds. Oh, and a deleted scene.
Lando Calrissian, Blaxploitation-style:
Lightsabers have come a long way since the telescoping plastic toys of yesteryear. We’re not talking about realistic sound effects or iPhone apps. We’re talking flesh-burning, eye-blinding lasers.
Although this gadget is dangerous enough to require customers to fill out a “Class 4 Laser Hazard Acknowledgment Form,” the Spyder III Pro Arctic Laser looks like it might be found in a Toys-R-Us, next to rows of action figures and Yoda dolls.
At least George Lucas thinks so; Lucasfilm is now threatening to sue the manufacturer. As reported in DailyTech, where we first saw this story, Lucasfilm feels a great disturbance with the similarities.
“It is apparent from the design of the Pro Arctic Laser that it was intended to resemble the hilts of our lightsaber swords, which are protected by copyright…”
These are no toys, counters the seriously-named manufacturer, WickedLasers. They have added several security measures, including “training lenses,” but don’t appear to be willing to change their Jedi-like hilts anytime soon. Cue Duel of the Fates.
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Discoblog: Is the Force With Your iPhone? Find Out With the Lightsaber Duel App
Discoblog: National Pork Board to Unicorn Meat Purveyor: Lay Off Our Slogan
Discoblog: Scientists to Hollywood: Please Break Only 1 Law of Physics Per Movie
DISCOVER: The Science and the Fiction, in which Phil Plait critiques sci-fi science
Image: flickr / renfield
At the end of Back to the Future, Doc Brown and Marty McFly use their time-traveling DeLorean to race off to the mysterious world of October 21, 2015. Unless things change drastically over the next five years, it doesn’t look like we’re headed for the neon-colored world portrayed in the second film (perhaps McFly messed up history) but it looks like we’ll at least have the awesome sneakers.
Tonight’s the night: Futurama returns with fresh episodes on Comedy Central, starting at 10 PM Eastern Time. Two weeks ago we featured our conversation with Billy West, the voice actor behind Fry, Professor Farnsworth, and other characters. Today, it’s executive producer David X. Cohen, who worked on The Simpsons before creating Futurama with Matt Groening more than a decade ago.
Cohen discusses how he went from scientist to comedy writer, the logic (or illogic) behind heads in jars, why things still don’t work in the 31st century, and how he sneaks math jokes into the show.
*Plus, read through to the end for some spoilers about the plots of some new episodes coming this season.
DISCOVER Magazine: I feel compelled to ask: Does the X stand for anything? Or is it like the Harry Truman S, and it stands for nothing?
David X Cohen: I’ll get that off my chest right off the bat: It’s a fraudulent middle initial, but there is a logic behind it. The reason for that is the writer’s guild, which has a regulation that no two writers can have the same name for on-screen credits. So, when you join the union, if your name is already taken, you have to change your name. Being named David Cohen—as you can imagine, there were several other David Cohens already in the guild, [and] one with my actual middle initial, S, for Samuel.
So, I decided to go for the craziest most sci-fi letter available, X.
DM: Both of your parents were scientists, correct?
DXC: Yes. Both PhDs in biology. I grew up in a house that was very science-oriented. The family activities we did were usually science-related—trips to the zoo or the museum of natural history in New York. So it was just taken for granted—by me at least—that I would be a scientist sooner or later. I tended to gravitate, though, more toward the physical sciences and math and computer science and physics, and I actually majored in physics in college. So, my undergraduate degree is in physics, and then I got a master’s degree in theoretical computer science as well. Before I derailed.
DM: How did you “derail?”
DXC: When I was growing up I just wasn’t really aware that there were careers such as writing cartoons. It wasn’t something that anybody I knew did and never popped into my mind. But then, when I went off to college, I worked on the Harvard Lampoon humor magazine, and suddenly I did know some people who had the career goal of becoming writers, or specifically, comedy writers.
And after that, I was somewhat torn. Should I continue down my path to be a scientist, or should I pursue this thing which (I thought) I did for fun? Ultimately, [I decided] I would like to go to graduate school before forgetting everything I did as an undergraduate. I went to UC Berkeley and had a good time there, but got to the point where I had reached the end of the line of what I was working on, and I had to reevaluate. I decided I might rather try the other option after all.
It worked out. So, my leave of absence from graduate school is still in progress.
Next: Fermat’s Last Theorem, Star Trek, and suicide booths
|Preview – Interstellar Fugitives|
Robot-human intermarriage. The Harlem Globetrotters performing mathematical wizardry. Hearing, “Good news, everyone!” when bad news is on the way. It means one thing: Futurama is back.
The interstellar travels of the Planet Express crew—canceled by Fox in 2003 but kept alive by syndication, straight-to-DVD movies, and the unstoppable force of geek fandom—return with 26 fresh episodes on Comedy Central, starting with a full hour on June 24 at 10PM eastern.
Here’s our conversation with voice actor Billy West. The voice behind Philip J. Fry, Professor Farnsworth, Dr. Zoidberg, and Zapp Brannigan on Futurama (not to mention Stimpy on Ren & Stimpy and Looney Tunes characters like Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd in Space Jam) talks of the origin of the professor’s vocabulary, why Richard Nixon is the President of 31st century Earth, and whether it’s weird to talk to yourself so much.
(For spoilers about the new episodes, check out our interview with executive producer David X. Cohen, coming in two weeks.)
Discover Magazine: Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: During the hiatus, what was the turning point when you felt like this was really going to happen?
Billy West: Because, I think, the Futurama movies sold well, it gave them an indication of who was still out there. So as I’ve maintained all along, the super fans of this show kept it alive. It’s too good to go away. That’s my feeling.
DM: We’re big sci-fi nerds, and the show itself both parodies and pays homage to a lot of the past TV shows and movies. Were you a sci-fi person before you did Futurama?
BW: I used to try to tell my friends about some cool show I saw, and so I’d go to explain and I’d say, “Wait, let me just do it for you,” and I’d wind up doing a ream of characters in a scene. So, that’s where I think a lot of artists cut their teeth, because you didn’t have any way to instantly replay anything. It was on TV, and then it was gone. And maybe you’d see it in the re-runs, but if not, you’re out of luck, Charlie.
But, the thing about those movies: The Day the Earth Stood Still and all these things that people make fun of now were hair-raising back then. You know? To see this giant robot that was going to open up his hatch in front and disintegrate the entire planet put a lot of stuff in jeopardy. It was always the human race that was at stake with sci-fi, which is what I love. I love that much hanging in the balance. It’s a popular theme, probably more today than ever.
DM: Any other particular favorites of yours?
BW: Oh, yeah. It Conquered the World, where this craft from Venus somehow wound up in the Sierra Madre hills or wherever they filmed it. This thing that was in the spaceship hid out in a cave, and it looked like a giant cucumber or some sort of root vegetable with teeth and eyes, and it had these little vampire bats that would crawl out from underneath it and go and sting people in the neck, and they’d become his servants. Everybody wants everybody else to serve them. You will serve!
DM: Does the fact that you grew up on that stuff influence the way you do some of the characters on the show? The professor, in particular, is a classic sci-fi mad scientist.
BW: Yeah, I would say so. My whole world was a sonic one. I mean, more than watching something, I listened to it, spectrum-analyzed it in my head. I could remember what pitch they were in and what accent. Was it Midwestern or was it Mid-Atlantic or was it Southwestern or Eskimo? It just registered in my head for some reason. I can’t do anything else, but I can do that really well.
I would remember the lingo that some of these guys used, and I’ve dropped it here, there, and everywhere in the show. I think there was one sci-fi movie where the guy with all the answers—the mad scientist—ran out of answers, and somebody said something to him and he went, “Ah, fuff!” So the professor wound up saying, “Oh, fuff.” There was another instance where a lot of people in the 40’s: Instead of saying “robot” they would say, “What’s the big idea with the rob’t?” So I had Dr. Zoidberg, any time he refers to them he goes, “What’s with the rob’t? Why won’t the rob’t come home?”
It’s juicy because it’s language nobody knows, and it’s a pronunciation kind of thing that nobody remembers. I’ve had a love of language since day one, and when I listen to old radio broadcasts I listen to the stuff they used to say, the detectives, or whoever. There was a whole other bunch of descriptions for things, which would be brand new today.
Next: Futurama’s vision of the future and Nixon’s return
On Friday evening, in the midst of the upscale boutiques and trendy cafes of Brooklyn’s DUMBO neighborhood, a crowd filled the Galapagos Art Space for a sold-out show titled “The Science of Star Trek,” organized as part of the World Science Festival.
The crowd—scarf-wrapped, martini-sipping, not a single costumed fan in sight—was far from what one might expect at a Star Trek themed event (“closeted fans,” remarked one audience member after the show). Nonetheless, the packed space burst into applause as the night’s speakers were introduced: There was Laurence Krauss, a physicist from Arizona State; Seth Shostak, an astronomer with SETI; and Eric Horvitz, a researcher at Microsoft.
Moderating the discussion was the peppy Faith Salie, a regular on public radio but better known to Star Trek fans as the beautiful, genetically enhanced, Serena Douglas on the series spinoff Deep Space Nine.
Salie first steered the speakers into a conversation about whether the star ship Enterprise’s main means of navigating the galaxy—Warp Drive—is physically possible.
Pandora on Earth
If you’re a big Avatar fan, then James Cameron’s Oscar loss may have left your eyes swollen and your popcorn soggy. But if Avatar grabbed your attention with its story of greedy humans ravaging the alien moon Pandora for a mineral that Earth needs, then here are a handful of real-life stories, from good ol’ planet Earth, that might make the plight of Pandora’s native Na’vi seem eerily familiar.
First we have members of the Dongria Kondh tribe from Orissa, India, talking to the tribal-rights group Survival International about their quest to save their sacred mountain from a large mining company. The company wants to raze a huge part of their lush, bountiful, holy mountain to mine not “unobtanium,” but bauxite. Wait, James… are you getting this down?
Survival International took out an ad in the film industry magazine Variety to appeal directly to Cameron for help. Says Survival International director Stephen Corry: “Just as the Na’vi describe the forest of Pandora as ‘their everything,’ for the Dongria Kondh, life and land have always been deeply connected. The fundamental story of Avatar – if you take away the multi-coloured lemurs, the long-trunked horses and warring androids – is being played out today in the hills of Niyamgiri in Orissa, India.”
“More science, less fiction” is the message from the scientific community to Hollywood, even as the sci-fi film Avatar continues to rake in cash at the box office. Physics professor Sidney Perkowitz took to the stage at last week’s meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science to encourage more science in movies, but also to beg filmmakers not to bungle up their facts. For example, a movie should only be permitted to break one law of physics, he suggested.
Perkowitz, a member of the Science and Entertainment Exchange set up to advise Hollywood, singled out the giant space bugs in the film Starship Troopers for special scrutiny. He pointed out that if a real bug was scaled up to the size of the on-screen insects, it would collapse under its own weight. Perkowitz has come up with a set of scientific guidelines for Hollywood, and also encourages filmmakers to fact-check their scripts in a more deliberate manner so that audiences don’t dismiss a movie as absurd and stay away from the box office.
The Guardian reports:
The proposals are intended to curb the film industry’s worst abuses of science by confining scriptwriters to plotlines that embrace the suspension of disbelief but stop short of demanding it in every scene.