Planets and moons do not give up their secrets willingly or easily — they make us work for every clue we get. That seems particularly true when it comes to the search for extraterrestrial life. Even then, some bodies in the Solar System make us work harder than others.
Take Titan, for example. Two weeks ago, I wrote that observations of Titan from Cassini have been interpreted by some as possible signs of life, in particular:
Now it turns out that computer simulations based upon Cassini observations, simulations which hint at depletions of various chemical species at Titan’s surface may again hint at the possibility of life on Titan. The results are very preliminary, but fascinating nevertheless.
It’s highly unlikely that we’ll ever be able to make a positive determination if there’s life on Titan based upon Cassini data alone. Cassini is, after all, an orbiter, and its observations of Titan’s surface come from hundreds, even thousands, of kilometers away–limited to those that can be attained during flybys. To ascertain the presence of life, we’ll need what scientists in the field of remote sensing call “ground truth”–we’ll have to wait until we are able to send a followup probe to the surface of Titan. Perhaps we’ll send a probe to Titan similar to Tiny–the Titan rover who has guest-starred in episodes of this season’s Eureka.
Even then it could turn out that, unless NASA’s version of Tiny returns samples to Earth for human examination, the results could remain ambiguous and leave scientists scratching their heads. That is what’s happening with Mars.
Titan hides its secrets beneath a thick photochemical haze, but when it comes to planets that jealously guard their secrets, Mars is the champion. The Great Galactic Ghoul of Mars destroys our spacecraft. Mars throws us curve balls; Mars lies to us. Mars even laughs at the spacecraft it does allow to explore it.
For the third year in a row, Discover hosted a panel on science in science fiction at this year’s Comic-Con. This year’s edition was moderated by Phil Plait and featured a great lab-meets-film panel: Jamie Paglia (creator of Eureka); Kevin Grazier (JPL planetary physicist, Science Not Fiction blogger); Zack Stentz (writer for Fringe, Thor); and Sean Carroll (Caltech theoretical physicist, Cosmic Variance blogger).
The conversation was good and lively, with a nice mix of funny and interesting bits. But don’t take my word for it:
Spring boarding from Amos’ post on Thursday’s Discover panel, I want to delve into some unexplored tension. The panel focused on how science could make storytelling better, and it included a mix of scientists and TV writers.
Jamie Paglia (Co-creator of Eureka) conceded that sometimes he’s had to “stretch the boundaries a little thin for my comfort zone,” and he was somewhat abashed thinking of those moments. But Fringe producer Zach Stentz threw down the gauntlet.
“Sometimes you have to break the rules to tell the story you want to tell,” he said, and ran a Fringe clip in which Olivia and Peter realize that Bell has extracted memories from Walter’s brain by removing actual pieces of Walter’s brain.
“He literally had his memories removed,” Stentz said. “We knew when we wrote it that memories aren’t stored in a discrete portion of your brain.”
Which I thought was a pretty direct challenge to Kevin Grazier, Sean Carroll, and Phil Plait, all scientists trying to make the case that accurate science can ratchet up the tension and provide a more satisfying resolution.
Alas, the argument never got going, and it left me wondering: where’s the line between acceptable and unacceptable scientific rule breaking?
Yesterday evening we held our third annual Comic-Con panel on the science of science fiction. And in our unbiased opinion, it rocked. (Attendees said the same, but then they probably wouldn’t have told us it was lame, would they?)
One theme that emerged from the panel was that skillful use of science could make stories better. But being Discover, we needed some evidence. And how better to present this evidence than as a scientific publication:
The Enhancement of Dramatic and Aesthetic Qualities of Fictional Works Through Application of Authentic or Apocryphal Scientific Theories
S.A.R.A.H. (Self-actuated Residential Automated Habitat), the talking, thinking, usually helpful house on Eureka is such a regular on the show that she could qualify as just another wacky genius in a town full of them. But though she’s smarter than any smart house ever known, she has a bit of a problem: her power source. We’re told that her radioisotope thermoelectric generator supplies plenty of power for energy independence, but these devices only output power at low levels, albeit for a long time, plus they depend on radioactive materials—which is why in real life they’re used on long-lived unmanned probes and satellites.
S.A.R.A.H.’s designer, Douglas Fargo, should take some cues from the Solar Decathlon, a biennial contest hosted by the U.S. Department of energy. This year, representatives from 20 teams have reconstructed their high-tech solar-powered houses on the National Mall in Washington D.C. for inspection by the public and judges alike. (See 80beats’ gallery of some of the houses.) Houses are scored on 10 criteria, from efficient appliances to market-worthiness.
Most of the houses share a few themes: They maximize the insulation to minimize heat and cool loss; they have large sections of walls that can be opened onto decks and patios to increase the amount of livable space in the house; they had ways to access appliances or climate controls remotely, whether from an iPhone app or an Internet connection; and all of them can, at the minimum, operate without electricity from the grid, though many generate excess power.
For those of you who couldn’t make it to San Diego last week, Discovermagazine.com and the National Academy of Sciences’ Science & Entertainment Exchange present our panel discussion on “Mad Science,” featuring Jaime Paglia (co-Executive Producer of Eureka), Kevin Grazier (Battlestar Galactica and Eureka science adviser), Jane Espenson (Dollhouse, Battlestar, Caprica, and lots more), Ricardo Gil da Costa (science adviser for Fringe), and Rob Chiappetta and Glenn Whitman (writers for Fringe).
Big thanks to Jennifer at SEE, to all of our panelists, and to the Bad Astronomer, who found time to moderate our panel while he wasn’t partying with Hollywood starlets (Phil – we kid because we love).
The geniuses of Eureka are inspired by a pretty good source: the geniuses of Cambridge, Mass.
Before his TV writing career took off, Jaime Paglia, co-creator of SyFy’s number-one-rated show, had a part-time gig as a program director of a science and technology public radio show called Cambridge Forum.
“It was this rare opportunity to be in Cambridge, Massachusetts where literally you have some of the greatest minds in science and technology,” Paglia told me in an interview recently. “Tim Berners-Lee, who literally invented the Internet, and Rodney Brooks, head of MIT robotics lab, the guy who made Sojourner, and who invented the Roomba in his spare time. Those guys, they see the world differently. There’s a unique way their brains work that allows them to be as creative as they are.”
These Cambridge geniuses eventually found their way into the show, if not as Nathan Stark or Douglas Fargo (Did you know he had a first name? I had to look it up), then at least as Walter Perkins or Carl Carlson. And Paglia also has another inspiration for scientific heroes: Dr. Donald Paglia, UCLA medical professor emeritus and Jaime’s dad.
I’m here at the Eureka panel at Comic-Con. Lead actor Colin Ferguson (Jack Carter on the show) is on location in Bulgaria and could not be at the panel. So a SyFy (heh) VP who’s here had moderator Josh Gates call Ferguson in Bulgaria on his cell phone, leading to much hilarity. But Ferguson put the VP on the spot and demanded to know if there would be a fourth season of Eureka.
Answer: Yes, 22 more episodes for sure.
The VP also requested a musical episode. All of which is pretty awesome. SciNoFi loves it some Eureka.
I’ll have more from the panel, and an interview with creator Jaime Paglia.
We are teaming up with Jennifer Ouellette and the crew at the Science and Entertainment Exchange to produce a panel on “MAD SCIENCE,” i.e. Science as a double-edged sword, ethically and morally neutral in and of itself, but dependent upon who wields it, and how.
Beloved Internet Personality Phil Plait is lined up to moderate (after he gets his tattoo) and we’re expecting guests from Eureka, Battlestar Galactica, Fringe, Stargate: Universe and more. Watch this space for additional details.
The Sci Fi channel became Syfy last night, with a network presentation to the press and advertisers that featured many of the channel’s new and recurring shows — and a screening of the series finale of Battlestar Galactica. Emblematic of BSG‘s traditional secrecy, Ron Moore led the screening audience through an oath not to reveal any spoilers about the last episode (backed up by NBC Universal reps making us sign little bits of paper to the same effect) so I can’t reveal anything about what to expect beyond a promise that it’s a wild ride that’s going to spark a lot of discussion. Check back with Science Not Fiction on Friday after the finale airs, and we’ll have excerpts from the Q&A that followed, featuring producers Moore and David Eick, as well leading cast members Mary McDonnell and Edward James Olmos, where we get some more answers about the deep background of the show. We’ll also have an interview with Kevin Grazier, BSG’s science advisor, about some of the science behind the rag tag fleet’s search for home.
If you can’t wait until Friday, come back tomorrow for coverage of tonight’s panel discussion at the United Nations, where the Battlestar crew will be joined by high level UN representatives to talk about the show’s take on human rights, terrorism, and reconciliation.
In other news, Eureka is still on track to return to our screens this summer, and the next season of Sanctuary is getting stuck into production this Monday. I’m also looking forward to Warehouse 13, which is set to premiere this summer and looks like a lot of fun.