At night in the rivers of the Amazon Basin there buzzes an entire electric civilization of fish that “see” and communicate by discharging weak electric fields. These odd characters, swimming batteries which go by the name of “weakly electric fish,” have been the focus of research in my lab and those of many others for quite a while now, because they are a model system for understanding how the brain works. (While their brains are a bit different, we can learn a great deal about ours from them, just as we’ve learned much of what we know about genetics from fruit flies.) There are now well over 3,000 scientific papers on how the brains of these fish work.
Recently, my collaborators and I built a robotic version of these animals, focusing on one in particular: the black ghost knifefish. (The name is apparently derived from a native South American belief that the souls of ancestors inhabit these fish. For the sake of my karmic health, I’m hoping that this is apocryphal.) My university, Northwestern, did a press release with a video about our “GhostBot” last week, and I’ve been astonished at its popularity (nearly 30,000 views as I write this, thanks to coverage by places like io9, Fast Company, PC World, and msnbc). Given this unexpected interest, I thought I’d post a bit of the story behind the ghost.
The chasm between science and the humanities is nowhere more blatent than the lack of work on how science fiction is reprocessed and used by those of us securely strapped into the laboratory. It’s a topic that attracts some heat: Some scientists take to suggestions of inspiration between their creations and those in preceding Sci-Fi with the excitement of a freshman accused of buying their midterm essay off the internet. In Colin Milburn’s new work on ways of thinking about this interaction, he refers to Richard Feynman’s 1959 lecture “There’s plenty of room at the bottom.” This lecture is a key event in the history of nanotechnology. In it, Feynman refers to a pantograph-inspired mechanism for manipulating molecules. It turns out that he most likely got this idea from the story “Waldo” by Robert Heinlein, who in turn probably got it from another science fiction story by Edmond Hamilton. Rejecting the suggestion of influence, chemist Pierre Laszlo writes: “Feynman’s fertile imagination had no need for an outside seed. This particular conjecture [about a link between Feynman and Heinlein] stands on its head Feynman’s whole argument. He proposed devices at the nanoscale as both rational and realistic, around the corner so to say. To propose instead that the technoscience, nanotechnology, belongs to the realm of science-fictional fantasy is gratuitous mythology, with a questionable purpose.”
Where do budding, even experienced, science-fiction writers learn about the science behind the science fiction? Going back to school and getting a university degree in a scientific discipline is an option, but that’s going to take quite a while. You could short-circuit the process by spending a week at Launch Pad at the University of Wyoming!
Launch Pad 2010 Attendees
Launch Pad is a free, NASA-funded workshop for established writers held in beautiful high-altitude Laramie, Wyoming. Launch Pad aims to provide a “crash course” for the attendees in modern astronomy science through guest lectures, and observation through the University of Wyoming’s professional telescopes.
The workshop’s mission is to:
…teach writers of all types about modern science, primarily astronomy, and in turn reach their audiences. We hope to both educate the public and reach the next generation of scientists.
But there’s plenty of room for a condensed run-through of all the latest technology, from motion capture to the ever-ubiquitous CGI. Which is reason enough to like the Science Channel’s Science of the Movies series, premiering Tuesday, May 26. Hosted by AchieveNerdvana.com blogger and Geekscape columnist Nar Williams, it’s six episodes on the behind-the-scenes geekosity that’s responsible for everything from Terminator 3 to The Fast and the Furious to Dexter to, yes, Star Wars.
Of course, take away all the blockbuster jargon and Hollywood sheen, and what you’re really watching is a tour through the ranks of ironic T-shirted, scraggly-facial-haired dudes that create the world’s biggest movies. Williams hobnobs with the best and baddest, from John Dykstra (yup, the guy who blew up the Death Star) to the Strause brothers, whose visual effects shop, Hydraulx, dominates the CGI market (300, anyone?).
Via Technovelgy, The Times Online has a report on a company called Image Metrics which has developed an animation technique that promises the most lifelike computer generated humans ever–good enough to finally get over the uncanny valley, which is responsible for that creepy feeling you get when you see an artificial face that is almost, but not quite, totally realistic.
The demo reel is pretty impressive–this is a creation whose eyes are full of life, not the gateways into zombie hell typical of many previous attempts at creating photorealistic images of humans. Still, the artificial Emily is a digital duplicate of a real actress (Emily O’Brien, shown at 1:30 in the reel) used for the image capture that drives the performance. What I actually find more impressive, if slightly less polished, is the demo on Image Metrics homepage that shows a synthetic character with a different face than the performer’s. It’s only a matter of time before someone puts together a prime time hit that, like The Simpsons, features no on screen real-life performances, but, unlike The Simpsons, has a cast of characters that wouldn’t be out of place on the Oscar red carpet.