Monday night was the last new episode of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles until February. The subplot featured Agent Ellison’s hesitant attempts to tutor a nascent artificial intelligence that may or may not grow up to become Skynet, the computer system that attempts to destroy humanity in the future. To speed the process, Ellison’s boss has hooked the A.I. up to the recovered body of a previously-dispatched terminator, explaining to the horrified Ellison that “Many believe that tactile experience is integral to A.I. development.” This was a spot on statement, directly echoing the work of people like Rodney Brooks and his colleagues at the MIT Computer Science & Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.
Normally on Sanctuary, the action focuses on so-called abnormals, sentient creatures who either belong an entirely different species to homo sapiens, or who are human beings that are born with genetic mutations. Last Friday night’s episode was a little different: a shadowy group was kidnapping down and outs, injecting them with a drug that caused normal humans to transform into abnormals. In other words, cause their adult bodies to undergo the same kind of developmental changes that would happen to a natural abnormal in the womb (or, in this show’s case, possibly in the egg or chrysalis). Although not focused on developing an army of pliable thugs, the basic idea—changing the genetic cards that an organism was dealt at conception–is the goal of real researchers working on gene therapy, which is popping up all over the place in science fiction these days: for more on the actual science check out Science Not Fiction’s earlier post when Stargate Atlantis took a different tack on the same topic.
Opening today is the remake of the 1951 science-fiction classic, The Day The Earth Stood Still, starring Keanu Reeves and Jennifer Connelly and directed by Scott Derrickson (who Science Not Fiction interviewed earlier this week). In the original movie, Klaatu came to inform the Earth that the galactic community was Not Happy about the stockpile of nuclear weapons humanity was building up. This time around, it’s the erosion of planetary biodiversity that has our alien neighbors ticked off. It’s actually not an unreasonable motivation — many astrobiologists suspect that bacterial life may be somewhat common in our galaxy; even in our own solar system there are several possible habitats, including Mars and Jupiter’s moon Europa. But they have speculated that more advanced lifeforms are exceedingly rare: consider that for 85 per cent of the 4 billion years life has existed on Earth, no multicellular creatures arose. So the rapid extinction of many species here would be a significant blow to the biodiversity of the entire galaxy, not just the Earth’s.
If your primary method of thwarting criminals is a hyper-intelligent car, that car really needs to be bullet proof or else your career will be short. But if your hyper-intelligent car is also super fast and high-performance, you don’t want to install heavy armor panels that destroys that performance. The current version of Knight Rider solves this problem with some nanotech magic, but the original relied on a special bullet-resistant coating, the formulation of which was the source of some of the best episodes they ever aired (The Goliath episodes, for those conversant).
Care of io9, check out this hilarious silent movie remix of the Star Wars IV-VI. It also interesting to see how just dropping a few frames per second converts the unstoppable menace of the AT-AT advance on the rebels at Hoth into the twitchy dinosaurs of King Kong. Ah, stop motion animation. In a world of CGI, I miss you and your greatest practitioner, Ray Harryhausen.
Last night’s episode of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles centered on Skynet going after a non-Connor-clan target: an unborn child whose natural immunity would would one day provide a cure for a lethal bioweapon developed in the future. It would be easy to think that this would be overkill, even for Skynet — instead of going through all the trouble of sending a terminator back through time, why not just brew up a different bioweapon? The answer is that making militarily effective bioweapons is actually quite tough.
Starring Keanu Reaves and Jennifer Connelly and opening this Friday is The Day The Earth Stood Still, a remake of the iconic 1951 science fiction movie of the same name. The plot centers around the visit to Earth of an alien, Klaatu, and his robot protector, Gort. Check back on Friday for Science Not Fiction’s review of the movie: today we have an interview with director Scott Derrickson about how he tackled remaking a classic and the role of science in science fiction.
Last night on Eleventh Hour, some evil gene therapists had a plan to make the athlete of the future. They had figured out a way to use gene therapy to stimulate muscle production in athletes, but they had to test it first, so they selected the athletes siblings, figuring the siblings would be genetically similar and possibly have similar responses. So, the evil scientists put their genetic cocktail into a virus (as is common enough in gene therapy) and then they secretly switched the siblings’ flu shots with Folgers Cryst– I mean, with the virus. Unfortunately, it turned out that whenever the recipients of the new stuff got their heart rates up, they tended to collapse from an unexpected case of the bends. It turned out that the gene therapy was causing these people to produce huge amounts of nitrous oxide, which then bubbled up in the blood, causing a severe case of the bends.
There’s a saying among marine biologists I know: “Never study anything you can’t eat.” It’s a good rule of thumb, and one that leads to lobster and mussel dinners at New England marine labs after test subjects have mysterious accidents involving boiling water and drawn butter. It’s also clearly a rule obeyed by at least some of the scientists engaged in figuring out how best to conduct space-based agriculture (astroculture?). If we’re going to explore the stars, after all, we’re going to need a renewable food supply to cross vast interstellar distances. Establishing whether crops can survive in space is crucial.
In 2006, Japanese scientists from Okayama University teamed up with Sapporo Breweries to conduct several experiements on barley, the raw material for many beers. This was not a study entirely focused on working out how to make a Cold One in outer space: Barley handles stress from lack of water or reduced oxygen better than wheat or rice, so it’s actually a useful study organism for astroculture in general. They tested whether barley grown in space would show any negative effects compared to barley grown on the ground (it didn’t) and they put some of it in storage for six months, to see how it would fare.
Like the dwarf wheat American scientists grew in space in 2002, the barley showed almost no ill effects from growing in microgravity or radiation. The scientists found only one enzyme increased from slight oxygen deprivation, but the plants did well.
The stored barley was returned to Earth and the scientists planted it and managed to grow healthy plants. They grew another generation from those plants, and produced 100 pounds of barley, which they plan on harvesting this weekend. The plucked barley will be given to the brewer Sapporo, who will brew it into 100 bottles of space beer. Or, as the marine biologists might say, the barley may have a terrible fermentation accident, after which the alcoholic byproduct might fall into bottles.
Sapporo doesn’t plan to sell the beer, nor do they know exactly how they’re going to distribute it. Perhaps they could send a sample bottle or two to SciNoFi HQ?
I was able to catch up on my reading over the recent holiday weekend, which included Mark Alpert‘s entertaining science-thriller, Final Theory. Alpert is a veteran science journalist and often when I read fiction penned by journalists, I’m reminded of the old maxim that “every journalist has a novel in them, which is where it should stay.” But not in this case: Alpert keeps the book fizzing along with all the stuff of any good thriller—mysterious clues, car chases, helicopters, commandos, Russian assassins—as well as bunch of neat science settings and plot twists. (Alpert’s Fermi National Laboratory is a heck of a lot more realistic than Dan Brown’s CERN for example.)
The plot imagines that Einstein did not actually fail in his quest to develop a unified theory of everything. Instead, horrified by the atomic bomb and fearful of the uses to which his unified theory might be put, but unwilling to destroy his work completely, Einstein entrusts the theory to a few trusted students. Decades later, those students–now elderly physicists–start turning up dead as a malevolent entity tries to piece together the theory for its own ends. While visiting him in hospital, a former student of one of the physicists is entrusted with a clue to the location of Einstein’s final theory, sparking a cat and mouse chase to discover the deepest secrets of the universe–and in best Crichton fashion–the key to the destruction of humanity.
Bearing in mind that coming up with a real unified theory of everything would be a bit of a tall order, Alpert none the less had to come up with a reasonable fictional theory for Final Theory, a difficult trick given that it needed to be more-or-less compatible with the current standard model of particle physics, consonant with the hints researchers are garnering from the bleeding edge, and workable in terms of the physics and maths available to Einstein in the 1940s and 1950s. But Alpert pulls it off, giving the book a nice meaty finish instead of collapsing into anticlimactic technobabble. If you’re looking for something to sink your teeth into during these long winter evenings, give Final Theory a try.