SciNoFi sifts the mass of SciFi news to find the bits worth knowing.
• Battlestar Weirdness: For reasons more arcane than the Cylons’ plan, Universal is talking to Glen A. Larson about making a Battlestar Galactica movie–based on the original Battlestar series. What the heck? I loved the original series in my bespectacled youth, (we were really starved for space fights back then), but they couldn’t hold a blaster to the reimagined series. In other news, the actor playing Ellen Tigh and Battlestar creator Ron Moore will be making guest appearances on CSI. Don’t ask why.
• Watchmen Watchmen Watchmen! Despite getting wrecked by most mainstream critics, Watchmen cleaned up this weekend with a $55.7 million haul at the box office. Anyone out there see it and think it’s awesome? I haven’t seen it yet, but my nerd network seems to be rating it a solid “meh.”
• Smells like Teen Kirk: OK, I know this has made the rounds, but everyone needs to know that about the Star Trek themed colognes: “Pon Farr”, “Tiberius”, and—my personal favorite— “Red Shirt”. Because tomorrow may never come. Also worth noting, Paramount put replicas of the models of the new Enterprise on display at the Arclight (a.k.a. best theater in the world ever) in Hollywood. Click through for images.
• Fantastic art Spectrum announced the 16 winners of the best in 2008 fantasy art. This is not the usual fantasy dreck promulgated by Wizards of the Coast and well worth the click.
• What’s on TV : Last week Knight Rider sped off into the sunset for good, but news isn’t all bad for sci fi fans. Heroes got picked up for one more season, and, perhaps more enticing, Pushing Daisies creator Bryan Fuller is trying to generate momentum for a new Star Trek show, oriented back toward the original series. Also, Red Dwarf will make its return after 10 years with a two-parter expected to air over Easter in the UK.
Everyone loves a good hologram, right? Ever since we saw a tiny Darth Vader delivering orders to an Imperial officer in Star Wars: A New Hope, the idea of having a 3D chat with a friend has lived on in our minds— Well, my mind, at least. On last night’s episode of Knight Rider, Zoe made a rendering of an entire street, with a moving car, and had it float in the air in front of Michael Knight and co. Now we know she was showing off her computer prowess to justify why she got to be Billy’s boss, but I had to wonder whether such a thing is possible.
Ever since Knight Rider had it’s reboot a couple of weeks ago, we’ve been watching KITT grow into himself as an independent entity. This week he chafed at taking orders from Michael Knight, and the pair had two pretty hilarious spats. But late in the episode, KITT showed off his new autonomy by disobeying orders and taking control of another vehicle. In this instance, Michael had been arrested by a Drug Enforcement Agency agent, and was on his way to jail. KITT hacked into the agent’s car’s “RoamStar” satellite system to take over the controls of the car and drive it in such a way that Michael was able to escape.
It must be nice to have a car like KITT that can, amongst his many other handy abilities, transform. Sure it’s handy for crime fighting and all, but being able to turn into a van or a truck means Michael Knight never needs to rent a moving truck or worry about delivery when there’s a big Ikea sale. But since KITT’s ability to rearrange himself at the molecular level means that he can transform himself into any number of car-like shapes, even ones he’s never experienced before. And that means that he — and his deceased creator Dr. Graiman — has solved the problem of getting an artificial intelligence to use newly added parts. Typically a robot has to have a whole new set of code to be able to handle a new tool or sensor. Sure, most computers can handle plug-and-play attachments these days, but they still require a set of pre-written code to drive the newly added part. Artificial intelligence designers want the robot to be able to design that code itself.
Will someone please explain how this whole infrared-can-see-through-walls thing got started? It comes up everywhere: James Bond used it, One of the iterations of CSI used it, then KITT used it on last night’s episode of the New and Improved Knight Rider (now with more humor!). Not that I particularly blame Knight Rider, because it’s such a common meme. So, for the record, infrared cameras cannot see through walls. These cameras, like night vision goggles, pick up lower wavelength electromagnetic signals that we sense as heat. But the insulated walls of buildings are designed to block heat from escaping, essentially forming a…well, a wall between the camera and person in the building. Luckily, there are many excellent real ways for KITT to see through walls.
All that build up for an episode about KARR, and that’s it? In last night’s episode of Knight Rider, a dangerous robot went on the rampage, and all we get is a turbo-boosted kill shot from KITT, and KARR is no more? Sheesh. Now I almost wish I could just forget the whole KARR plot— kinda like Michael Knight did.
Early in the episode, the late Dr. Graiman tells Knight, via hologram, that he was actually KARR’s first driver. As we know, KARR started programming himself and became a killing machine, forcing the government to scrap the program and build KITT. To prevent Knight from spilling the beans, they wiped Knight’s memory. Induced amnesia is a classic of Sci Fi—and of soap operas, and who knows what all— but can it actually be done?
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.
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).
I can’t decide if electromagnetic pulses are scary. I mean, if Dark Angel was to be believed, a high-altitude electronic pulse could end civilization as we know it. If I put my trust in Ocean’s Eleven, then an EMP can be used to disrupt the entire power supply of an entire city. And in last night’s episode of Knight Rider, KITT used an EMP to knock out power to a casino. A weapon that can knock out an electronic grid could certainly do extraordinary damage to our infrastructure, on the one hand, but on the other, it doesn’t kill people directly or destroy buildings. And really, should we be trusting Hollywood on this subject in the first place?
Last night’s Sexual Tension episode of Knight Rider seemed to be all about spying: Computer techs Billy and Zoe spyied on Mike Traceur and Sarah Graiman while they were “sparring”, Sarah and Mike spied on the bad guys with tiny cameras, and of course, everyone spied on each other with sidelong, furtive looks. It was just that kind of episode.
But let’s focus (pun intended) on the tiny cameras. Sarah and Mike had a needle-in-a-haystack problem. The bad guys’ target was a factory that produces a key oil refining part. Our heroes had to locate the evil-doers on a production floor swarming with white coated technicians. They solved the problem with some of the snazziest ID badges ever created. Each badge held a tiny camera, which then broadcast video in real time back to KITT. The super car’s more powerful computers separated the faces from the rest of the image and compared them to an NSA face database to locate the villains. The whole device is preposterous, right?