Archive for March, 2009

This Day In Science Fiction History: The Birth of Blinkenlights

By Stephen Cass | March 31, 2009 6:20 pm

Univac IOn this day in 1951, Univac 1, the world’s first commercial computer was delivered to the United States Census Bureau. Until the microcomputer revolution in the 1980s, the Univac 1 provided the archetype for the general public’s idea of what a computer looked like—big, brooding, complicated, and covered in countless flashing lights. Later generations of hackers called these lights “blinkenlights.” Blinkenlights once came in handy, by letting engineers see the state of various subsystems as the computer worked in real time–and letting visitors know that here was a big powerful computer.

Blinkenlights have turned up in countless movies, lurking in the lairs of James Bond villains, or heralding the destruction of mankind in movies like Colossus and Wargames. In general, computers have long since become too fast for blinkenlight displays to be of much use in debugging problems, but both movie makers and computer enthusiasts have had a hard time letting go of these iconic symbols of computer power—the Jurassic Park movie is a classic example their combined efforts, where a Connection Machine supercomputer ripples with red LED blinkenlights. The Connection Machine used tens of thousands of processors working in parallel, and ostensibly the red lights were used to check on the status of processors and run various diagnostics, but everyone in the business knew the lights were really just there to look awesome.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Computers, Movies

Sci-Fi College Courses: Why Can't Star Trek Teach You About the World?

By Melissa Lafsky | March 30, 2009 2:06 pm

Who says science education is falling by the wayside? The Online Colleges Blog has compiled a list of the “15 Strangest College Courses in America.” And while the general list is pretty standard (yes, Virginia, there really is an underwater basket weaving class) a decent chunk of them are sci-fi related. The geek-friendly choices include Georgetown University’s  “Philosophy and Star Trek,” the University of California at Irvine’s “Science of Superheroes” (plenty of new material for that syllabus these days), “Myth and Science Fiction: Star Wars, The Matrix, and Lord of the Rings” at Centre College, UC Berkeley’s “The Strategy of StarCraft,” and our personal favorite, “Zombies in Popular Media” at Chicago’s Columbia College.

While it’s easy to laugh these off as “rocks for jocks”-level fluff, discounting sci-fi as an academic-worthy subject is a pretty big oversimplification. The best science fiction becomes so popular, and has such a lasting effect on culture, because it taps into underlying truths about humans, culture, and society.

Even now, current sci-fi mirrors just about every controversy we’ve got going, from the recent “Is Resident Evil 5 racist?” controversy to the religious fanaticism in BG. In fact, many sci-fi writers can get away with plotlines and characters that would never fly in a film or series set in the “real world” (reincarnation-obsessed Muslim fundamentalists as key characters? We think not. Attractive females in wading pools out to destroy humanity? No prob.) Plus there’s the fact that the best sci-fi spawns some pretty interesting work by big names in (real) science.

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Monsters vs. Aliens

By Stephen Cass | March 27, 2009 12:01 pm

Ginormica from Monsters vs. AliensOpening today is Monsters vs. Aliens, the latest digitally animated movie from Dreamworks. While you can see it in regular cinemas, Dreamworks is really hoping that people will flock to IMAX theaters to watch MvA in 3D. The movie was produced with the goal of riding the current 3D cinema wave in mind from the beginning.

In many previous “Made For 3D” efforts, this has resulted in a lot of gratuitous and self-conscious “Look Ma – Depth!” activity, with characters carefully moving to face the screen so they can throw an object or thrust a hand at the audience. Mercifully, there’s only one or two such incidents in MvA. For most of the movie, the 3D is in the service of the storytelling, not the other way around. In particular, the 3D is often used as way to easily establish scale—handy in a movie where giant alien robots square off against puny (and not so puny) Earthlings. The movie also has a lushness about its virtual sets, something which I think Dreamwork’s rival, Pixar, has had an edge on, at least until now.

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Better Off Ted: Test Tube Meat

By Stephen Cass | March 26, 2009 8:19 pm

Screenshot from Better Off TedABC’s new comedy, Better Off Ted, is centered around the antics of the research and development division of the only-slightly-fictional mega corporation Veridian Dynamics. It’s a funny show — it doesn’t have a stream of constant zingers, but the cast has chemistry and the characters are enjoyable.

Last night’s episode was about a crash project to grow beef (or at least something beeflike) without the cow. Unfortunately, according to the company’s long suffering food taster, their initial efforts tasted more like “despair.”

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Codex Futurius: Transparent Aluminum

By Eric Wolff | March 25, 2009 7:00 pm

Codex Futurius LogoMichael D. asked, on the Assignment Desk post:

In the most recent issue of Nature, there are two papers…that detail the characteristics of sodium and lithium under extreme pressure. Specifically, these two metals adopt semiconductor-like (even superconductor-like) characteristics if you subject them to giga-pressure (literally, 80-200 gigapascals). The sodium actually becomes optically transparent during this squeeze. Reading this reminded me of a Star Trek [movie] that involved a not-so-scientific explanation of “transparent aluminum” …Is the idea of using transparent metal for windows pure science fiction?

The paper you’re talking about, the one on high pressure sodium, sure did make a lot of noise in the science world, and for good reason. Drs. Yanming Ma and Artem Oganov at SUNY Stonybrook showed that  lithium and sodium do goofy things under pressure — like turn transparent. Normally under really high pressure, elements turn into metals, c.f. hydrogen. The science makes intuitive sense because the atoms are getting smooshed together as the pressure increases. The electrons are freed to become conductors, and the element takes a metal-like structure. But in sodium, it turns out, the electrons line up into columns, one on top of the other. This creates gaps between the atoms, and instead of becoming a conductor, it becomes an insulator, and, conicidentally,  becomes transparent.

All of which is cool, but it doesn’t really answer Michael D’s question, because the sodium is under 200 gigapasacals of pressure, the sort of pressure you find if you were journeying from Jupiter’s surface toward its core, not hanging out on the bridge of the Enterprise.

And yet! That formula Scotty gave for transparent aluminum in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home very nearly exists in the form of aluminum oxynitride  (known as ALONtm). Harder than diamond, ALONtm is far more shock resistant than even bullet resistant glass. In Air Force tests it has resisted multiple rounds from a .50 caliber sniper rifle. That hardness also prevents wear and tear, since neither sand nor rocks nor shrapnel in the night will scratch the stuff.

In practical use, the ALONtm would be the outer layer for windscreens of cockpit covers. It would be backed by a thin layer of glass and a layer of transparent polymer to prevent shattering. All together the ALONtm windscreen would be thinner and lighter than a traditional bullet-resistant windscreen.What’s unclear from my research is whether it would be strong enough to hold back enough water to make the aquarium for all those humpbacks whales on a captured Klingon spaceship, but it’s a start.

The main downside? It’s wicked expensive. Traditional bullet resistant glass goes for $3 per inch-squared, but ALONtm costs between $10-$15, or it did back in 2005.  I can’t seem to find any more current applications for it, but this is the military, it could be classified.

Anyway Michael D., I hope that answers your question.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Codex Futurius, Movies, Physics
MORE ABOUT: ALONtm, Scotty, Star Trek, whales

Dollhouse: Eyeball Cameras

By Stephen Cass | March 24, 2009 6:48 pm

Screenshot from DollhouseAfter last week’s focus on Battlestar Galactica‘s series finale, we turn to some items from other shows, that fell through the cracks. First up is a recent episode of Dollhouse, in which Echo, (played by Eliza Dushku) is imprinted so that she can infiltrate a cult’s compound that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives happens to be very interested in. So that the ATF can keep tabs on what is going on, Echo has a device surgically implanted in her brain that allows the ATF to tap into what her eyes are seeing (for dramatic purposes, the implant’s diversion of her optic signal renders Echo blind.)

This is a technology that has already seen a proof-of-concept demonstration. In 1999, researchers from Berkley and Harvard inserted electrodes into the brains of anesthetized cats that monitored the activity of 177 neurons located in the lateral geniculate nucleus, a key visual processing center. Using a computer to process the signals from the brain, the researchers were able to reconstruct different test images places in front of the cat’s eyes, albeit at a low resolution. While some people see this work as a possible pathway to give sight to the blind, by feeding images into the lateral geniculate nucleus instead of extracting them, it would require (as demonstrated on Dollhouse invasive brain surgery that would carry commensurate risk.


Battlestar Galactica: Watched The Finale? Still Got Questions? We've Got Answers!

By Stephen Cass | March 20, 2009 11:11 pm

Screenshot from Battlestar GalacticaEarlier this week in New York, Battlestar Galactica‘s co-creators David Eick and Ron Moore, along with cast members Mary McDonnell (President Roslin) and Edward James Olmos (Admiral Adama), sat down with the press for a Q&A session following a screening of the last episode. We were just as brimming with questions as you are about the finale, and here are some of the answers we got. Needless to say, what follows below the jump contains MASSIVE SPOILERS if you haven’t already seen tonight’s show, so don’t say you weren’t warned!

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Apocalypse, Robots, Space, Space Flight, TV

Battlestar Galactica: Watched the Finale? Exclusive Interview With Kevin Grazier, Science Advisor

By Stephen Cass | March 20, 2009 11:10 pm

screenshot from Battlestar GalacticaKevin Grazier is, among other things, the science advisor to Battlestar Galactica. With the show wrapping up tonight, Science Not Fiction talked to him about some of the science behind the science fiction. Warning — unless you’ve seen the finale, what follows below contains LOTS OF SPOILERS!

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Codex Futurius: Teleportation

By Stephen Cass | March 19, 2009 2:16 pm

Codex Futurius LogoIn this installment of Science Not Fiction’s Codex Futurius project, we pose the question:

I want to have a teleporter in my story. How would one work?

The good news is that a working teleportation device already exists. The bad news is that it won’t work for you if you happen to be bigger than a rubidium atom—but scientists are toiling away to fix that. As physicist Michio Kaku noted last year in DISCOVER, we could be teleporting things as big as a virus within a few decades, which means we would be ready teleport a person around the 23rd century, just in time for the predicted construction date of Captain Kirk’s Enterprise.

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Battlestar Galactica And The United Nations

By Stephen Cass | March 18, 2009 3:50 pm

United Nations Economic and Social Council ChamberAs the series finale approaches this Friday, yesterday the Battlestar Galactica caravan found it’s way to the United Nations for a high-powered discussion of human rights, the impact of armed conflict upon children, terrorism, and reconciliation.

Moderated by Whoopi Goldberg, who confessed to being a such a big fan of BSG that’s she started saying “Frak” on The View, the event was held in the UN’s Economic and Social Council Chamber. In a nice touch, the placards that normally held the boring old names of countries like “The United States” or “Japan” were replaced with the names of the twelve colonies (I became a “Gemenon” delegate for the evening.) The placards may be auctioned off for charity later, and if that happens we’ll let you know where you can go to bid. Many of the attendees were high school students brought in under the auspices of the Sci Fi/SyFy channel’s Visions For Tomorrow project.

The entire event took over two hours, so I won’t try to recap the whole thing here, but speakers such as Craig Mokhiber, Deputy Director of the New York Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, praised the show for rejecting the idea that national (or species) security is incompatible with human rights; illustrating how societies dehumanize people to make it easier to attack those people; and for not allowing viewers to come to easy answers about the morality of what happened on screen. On the BSG side, co-creators David Eick and Ron Moore were present along with Mary McDonnell (who plays the role of President Roslin), but it was Edward James Olmos, (Admiral Adama) who stole the show with his impassioned comments about BSG and the dialogue about real-world issues it has sparked over the course of its run — two examples:
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