Friday night was the final episode of Stargate Atlantis, one of my favorite shows—great cast chemistry and often humorous writing combined with some solid science fiction made it fun for casual viewers, and a commitment to character development and continuity rewarded long-term fans (a commitment to continuity not shared by certain, other, science fiction shows). Unfortunately, the series ended just as new show regulars Robert Picardo and Jewel Staite were really hitting their stride, moving their characters in interesting directions, and their presence gave the established cast something new to bounce off as well. The show’s resident villains, the Wraith, were also beginning to display considerably more depth and complexity than the previous bad guys in the franchise’s history.
I know you all caught the “stay tuned” clips at the end of Knight Rider, right? It looks like we’re going to get our big fight, our KARR v. KITT battle at last! I can hardly wait, but as long as I have to wait, let’s talk about the cliff hanger from last night’s episode. We left our heroes driving straight north at 100 miles per hour carrying a hafnium bomb in the trunk. Dip below 100 miles per hour and BOOM! Keanu-er, Michael and KITT explode, destroying everything in a 10-mile radius.
Now hang on, a hafnium bomb? Hafnium actually exists (which is more than I can say for some elements), but can it actually blow up like that? Well, some scientists believe it can. In the real world, hafnium is closely related to zirconium, and it has many of the same properties. The structure of the hafnium solid is especially effective at storing energy. That makes it useful in control rods in a nuclear reactors, and also as a way to store energy as a kind of atomic battery.
To get any kind of explosion, start with the hafnium isomer 178m2. An isomer is an atomic isotope already charged with energy. Typically that energy will dissipate in its own random radiation, but in the case of hafnium, with it’s high storage capacity, a few (a very few) physicists believe it could be triggered to release all its energy in a fairly short space of time in a kind of explosion. I say “kind of” because the energy released would be in the form of gamma rays. As the highest energy form of electromagnetic radiation, gamma rays usually pass right through most solid objects. But when released in such high doses, they could, as Sharon Weinberger put it in the Wasington Post, “they could act like ray bombs in low-budget films, vaporizing living tissue and heating materials until they explode.” Nasty stuff. (Weinberger, who has written for DISCOVER, is a hafnium bomb sceptic and has since written a lively account of the controversy in her book Imaginary Weapons)
So storing energy in a hafnium isomer is one thing. Getting it all out rapidly enough to make an explosion is another. Carl Collins, a physicist at the University of Texas, claimed in 2004 that he got a lot of energy out just by shooting an X-ray from a dentist X-ray machine, but his work has not been duplicated and is considered dubious by many in the scientific community.
So the science is pretty questionable: Could our villain actually blow up hafnium with an X-ray machine? Well, phycists in the real world haven’t achieved it, but this kind of gray area is, after all, the whole point of SciFi. Maybe with a little elbow grease and a lot of evil-genius know-how, the hafnium bomb could be made to work.
For more on the U.S. Military’s research into the hafnium bomb, readers might want to look at this pair of excellent posts over on Wired‘s Danger Room blog.
Posting update: A surfeit of latkes and holiday galavanting caused me to get behind on Knight Rider and Eleventh Hour. I plan to catch up, so stay tuned.
Recently published by Nightshade Books and edited by Jonathan Strahan is Eclipse Two, an anthology of original science fiction and fantasy stories. While I puzzled over the selection of some stories (in particular, Margo Lanagan’s Night of the Firstlings seemed to be neither science fiction nor fantasy, but just a retelling, albeit a well-crafted one, of a bible story), what I did like more than made up for any possible misfires. Stand outs for me included Alstair Reynolds’ Fury — Reynolds is best known for his novels and stories set in the Revelation Space universe, but Fury is not set in that complex milieu. Instead it’s a clever stand alone tale about a robot bodyguard who discovers he must confront some home truths. I also liked Stephen Baxter’s SETI story, Turing’s Apples, Karl Schroeder’s voyage through an incredibly imaginative zero-gravity habitat in The Hero, and Daryl Gregory’s The Illustrated Biography of Lord Grimm, which makes a strong point about collateral damage without being preachy or predictable.
The last episode of Sanctuary revolved around the test of aerosolized biological weapon targeted at abnormals, the extraordinary creatures that are the show’s raison d’etre. Science Not Fiction commented recently on some of difficulties involved in creating effective bioweapons, and the choice of an aerosol-based delivery mechanism by Sanctuary’s writers is spot on. The particular biological agent in question is a designer prion, and a nasty little buggers they are indeed.
Confounding months of speculation, this weekend the BBC announced who will replace David Tennant as the Doctor: the almost completely unknown Matt Smith, who is best known for his acting chops on the stage rather than the screen. (On a side note, the bookmaker firm Paddy Power, which took in $58,000 worth of bets on who might be cast, has indicated the name may have leaked early based on late betting patterns).
So what do you think? Does Smith look like he has what it takes to be the 11th Doctor? What do you think makes for a good Doctor anyway?