On the last episode of Stargate Atlantis, several of the characters were accidentally infected with an unusual pathogen: one that reprograms their bodies to begin the first stage of the process used to construct a Wraith starship. Wraith starships are biomechanical, that is they are made from organic, semi-alive materials rather than built out of metal, rubber and other more familiar materials. In fact Wraith ships aren’t really built at all — as the episode demonstrates, they’re grown.
In the real world, we’re actually making progress on what could be the distant ancestor of this technology. At places like Brown University, MIT, and Berkeley researchers are working on synthetic biology: the goal is to reprogram the DNA of microbes so that they can be used to construct minature machines, or act as tiny computers to process information. (A special shout out to DISCOVER’s 2006 Scientist of the Year, Jay Keasling.) There is even a contest — The International Genetically Engineered Machine competition — hosted by MIT. Teams of students use a library of standard “parts” (genetic sequences that perform specific fuctions) known as BioBricks to make their creations. Winners of this year’s competition will be announced in November.
Despite the huge hype, The Dark Knight was definitely not overrated. The movie has heft and complexity, while never letting its momentum flag. And while everyone is raving about Heath Ledger’s (admittedly brilliant) turn as The Joker, spare some props for Aaron Eckhart, whose performance as Harvey Dent/Two Face brought a convincing depth to this tragic character.
Batman, being a regular (if insanely fit and wealthy) human, rather than a mutant or an alien, has always had to rely on a collection of gadgets and other machines when battling his foes. In The Dark Knight, Batman relies on a distributed sensor network to track The Joker, an idea which is rapidly becoming science fact. In fact, within just a few hours of watching the movie, I found myself enmeshed in a location tracking network at the HOPE hacker conference hosted by 2600 magazine over the weekend in New York City. (The word “hacker” is sometimes taken to be synonymous with “computer criminal,” but it was hackers who, for example, built large parts of the digital infrastructure of the Internet and the World Wide Web and brought personal computing to the masses.)
The last installment in the amazingly brilliant Dr. Horrible’s Sing-A-Long Blog will be released at midnight tonight, and all three installments will be free to watch for a further 24 hours. After that, if you want to watch it, you’ll have to buy it from iTunes (and at a grand total of $3.99 for the whole ‘season’, let’s not hear any whining about corporate-overlord-price-inflation as a justification for piracy), or wait for the DVD which promises to be jam packed with extras, such as a musical commentary track.
For those who haven’t yet seen it, Dr. Horrible is a musical starring Neil Patrick Harris in the title role as a struggling-but-likeable mad-scientist supervillian. (If you’d told me, pre-Harris’s role in Harold and Kumar Go To Whitecastle, that that description was a recipe for filmmaking genius I would have thought you were mad, but there it is.) Directed by Joss Whedon of Buffy, Angel, and Firefly fame, Dr. Horrible was dreamt up during the recent Hollywood writer’s strike as a way to do something inexpensive but “professionalish” (to quote Whedon) outside the normal studio system.
It’s not the first show to try to drum up a paying audience by going direct to the web — Sanctuary, a show created by a lot of people behind the Stargate franchise, sold high resolution installments of of its pilot episode online, for example (Sanctuary has since been picked up by the Sci-Fi channel, and the Sanctuary website no longer sells downloads). But Dr. Horrible is certainly the most successful, shooting to the top of the iTunes bestseller list, and may represent the tipping point for a new breed of original and clever programming.
Confirming it’s status as the science-fiction mecca, Comic-con has completely sold out. As I type, we’re working away here to give con-goers a great panel on Thursday about how great science can inspire great science fiction, with insights from Jaime Paglia (executive producer and creator of Eureka), Kevin Grazier (science advisor to Eureka and Battlestar Galactica) and our very own Phil Plait (creator of the Bad Astronomy blog). The official press release is after the jump, and if you can’t make Comic-con this year, don’t worry, we’ll be blogging all the latest news from the floor.
I blame the Independence Day holiday for not seeing this fantastically good news sooner: most of the lost footage of Fritz Lang’s 1927 masterpiece Metropolis has been found in Argentina. For decades, audiences have had to make do with the cut down version that distributers produced to make the film more accessible (Lang’s original version ran about three-and-a-half hours long.) Unfortunately, some things about the movie don’t really make sense in the distributors version. Devotees helped by creating versions with title cards sprinkled throughout that told viewers the best guess as to what happened in the deleted scenes, but now guesses can be replaced with the truth of Lang’s vision.
Metropolis spins a tale of class warfare in a futuristic city that was the forerunner of Judge Dredd’s Megacity One, Bladrunner’s Los Angeles, DC Comic’s Gotham, and many other science fiction cities.
Metropolis is an important movie, not least for creating the character of Maria, a beautiful robot that can be considered the direct ancestor of Battlestar Galactica’s Six. But the movie’s most significant influence was on real world architecture: Lang was inspired by the rash of skyscrapers going up in places like New York City, and extrapolated the new skylines for his sets. In turn, architects, planners and futurists were inspired by his movie and brought elements of Lang’s fictional city into designs for real urban developments in a classic feedback loop between science fiction and science fact.
If you saw my list of underrated science fiction movies, you’ll know that I love a good ending. For me a great ending is when the movie really uses those last seconds to add something to the storyline (or even transform your perception of the whole movie), so that you sit watching the credits trying to digest what just happened. (I’ve nothing against epilogue-style endings–I’m looking at you, Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King–but they’re not great in and of themselves.) Again, your suggestions welcome! (Also, beware spoilers!)
Singing Mad Scientist Alert: Dr. Horrible comes online today and its pretty frakkin’ good. If only Whedon had the foresight to cast NPH in the Buffy musical.
Ahead of our ComicCon panel next week on good science in good science fiction, some musings on the opposite phenomenon: when science fiction hurts good science. [io9, Science Fiction in Biology and Mike Brotherton via SF Signal]
UPDATE: I totally missed the main point of this last story, which was that Buzz Aldrin was the guy who said that popular scifi was hindering science. Active discussion on the topic going on now at Bad Astronomy.
As I mentioned before, I expected a few of this summer’s big science fiction movies to be overrated: sadly, for me, Hellboy 2: The Golden Army was one of those. As I said on Friday, I enjoyed the first Hellboy because of its H.P. Lovecraft overtones. Lovecraft’s fiction was inspired by the cosmological shift in our perception that occurred in the first decades of the 20th century: Edwin Hubble proved that the universe was incredibly bigger than anyone had suspected, with island galaxies separated by vast voids; Albert Einstein’s theories of relativity demolished the previously rock-solid absolutes of time and space; and a cabal of quantum theorists played merry buggers with the definition of reality. Lovecraft’s writing spoke to the dark underbelly of uncertainty and insignificance that could be inspired by new discoveries: his stories are often about scientists plunged into events that are way over their heads.
Minus the Lovecraft, Hellboy 2 is simply average superhero fare, borrowing heavily from the original celtic folklore regarding fairies and elves (by “original” I mean before the Victorian era turned fairies into pretty winged sprites and Tolkien turned elves into beautiful warrior-snobs.) In this folklore, elves and fairies are generally best avoided due to their capacity for malevolence—Terry Pratchett’s Lords and Ladies is a great contemporary take on this. Despite the lavish visuals, it’s all rather predictable, featuring not one, but two, romantic subplots.
Oh well. At least I did enjoy the season five opener of Stargate Atlantis, as Robert Picardo becomes a regular cast member. I’ve liked Picardo’s performances since China Beach, and his character of the reluctantly self-aware medical AI on Star Trek: Voyager was the most interesting thing on that show. Fingers crossed for the rest of the season.
Two of my favorite science fiction franchises premiere their latest installments tonight: Hellboy II: The Golden Army opens in cinemas and Stargate Atlantis returns to television on the SCI FI channel for its 5th season.
With its supernatural overtones, some might quibble over whether or not Hellboy is really science fiction. putting it instead into the fantasy category. But Hellboy clearly draws from the tradition of horror science fiction writer H.P. Lovecraft, who, in his stories, created a complex and rich universe in which humanity is only a paper-thin dimensional wall away from malignant entities that regard us a little more than ants scurrying underfoot.
Stargate Atlantis, the spinoff from the successful Stargate: SG1 TV show (which was itself a spinoff from the 1994 Stargate movie) is also set in a rich (if considerably less bleak) universe. Since the Stargate franchise moved to television in 1997, the producers have done a great job in creating a believable and consistent constellation of advanced physics and technologies that form the background of Atlantis and SG1. They also deserve credit for how they’ve structured the show: idea-of-the-week plots are carefully balanced with long term character and story arcs, meaning that even after hundreds of episodes across both shows, casual or new viewers can still watch the show without feeling lost (something that became a problem with Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Bablyon 5 for example) while devoted fans get rewarded too.
Check back on Monday for my thoughts on both of tonight’s openings!
As reported by my fellow DISCOVER blogger Eliza Strickland, researchers believe that the moon may have considerable amounts of water ice. But Tintan fans have known this since 1954, which is when Hergé published the second half of his Destination Moon two-parter, Explorers on the Moon: during a moonwalk, Tintin discovers a cave with a floor of ice.
Okay, okay, admittedly the ice suggested by Eliza’s researchers isn’t just lying around — it’s bound into lunar rocks. But it is another prop for the Destination Moon books, which have held up surprisingly well over the decades, especially given that they were published three years before Sputnik I and 15 years before the Apollo moon landing.
Written with a desire to get the science and technology right (for example, in the first book, Destination Moon, an explanation of how a nuclear reactor burns uranium fuel is given that was not materially different from the version I found in physics textbooks years later, and which was somewhat better presented), the books feature a nuclear-powered rocket that uses Von Braun’s original Direct Mode mission plan to get to the moon (no mucking about with lunar landers, or rendevousing with booster stages in Earth orbit when you have a nuclear engine!). Acceleration couches support the crew, whiskey forms into little balls under its own surface tension in zero gravity, and reduced lunar gravity complicates walking.
Of course, there are lots of inaccuracies one could pick at, but to my mind Tintin’s discovery of ice is emblematic of why the books hold up so well. Hergé could easily have chosen to have Tintan discover the ruins of a lost civilization, or giant mushrooms, or any one of a number of things that are a lot more dramatic and cartoonogenic than ice. But by making the discovery of ice the scientific highlight of the mission, Hergé grounds Tintan’s fantastic adventures in reality, and gives the books the ring of truth.