Showing posts with label science. Show all posts
Showing posts with label science. Show all posts

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Signal Watch Watches: Transcendent Man (2009)

I really wish I had seen this movie when it came out, but it was just recommended to me by Co-Worker Ladd this morning.

As much as I like a good, Thunderdomish Dystopian look at the future, from a technology and academic standpoint, I fall much more in the camp of pointing at the shinier spacecraft and rocket pack visions of the future.  Prepping for a time of Robot Shock Troopers tends to make you start stocking ammunition and buying property in Queen Creek, Arizona, and I'm just not ready to cut the sleeves off all my camo jackets yet, and I look terrible in a crazy-man beard.

In fact, I like my job partially because its all about the future where we get flying cars and can download dissertations directly into our noggins.  Digital libraries!  Hoorary!

It seems that technologist and futurist Ray Kurzweil showed up as SXSWi 2012, and Co-Worker Ladd (yes, his name is Ladd) managed to see him speak.  Kurzweil is one of those names I've heard on and off for two decades, not quite the way you hear of Tim Berners-Lee, but he pops up on BoingBoing and is a name that technology hipsters tend to throw around.

Frankly, I should pay a lot more attention to these sorts of figures, because Kurzweil's personal innovations are incredible, even if that's not really the topic of the documentary, Transcendent Man (2009).  Instead, the doc follows Kurzweil as he moves around the planet as a bit of a Conference Personality, but as he also meets with figures from Colin Powell to William Shatner to an arena full of Church of Christ Conference attendees discussing the concept of The Singularity.*

As we all know, technology is advancing from all angles in ways predicted clumsily by Moore's Law.  What Kurzweil is looking at and discussing is that its not just processing power, but other technologies, falling into three areas of interest:  Genetics (bioinformatics), Nantotechnology and Robotics (or AI).  The Singularity is a point at which those things hit a point on the graph where the nature of humanity will be forced to change by the technologies so profoundly that it will rewrite our definitions of everything from technology to humanity to consciousness.

Basically, we're in a mad race to see if we create a race of super artificial intelligences, if we can rewrite our DNA to beat disease and aging while recreating the human body, or if nanotechnology will be merging us into machines while it has the ability to connect us to the super robot brains while rewriting our bodies into all looking like Fabio in 1994.  Or will we upload our consciousness to Facebook?

Here's the thing:  I think I know just enough about technology and SCIENCE to know I don't know anything, but I also tend to think that Kurzweil, while maybe jumping the gun on the timing, is probably right.

I intended to watch part of the show this evening and then return to it, but instead I watched the entire thing, slack jawed and in awe.  The movie manages to find genius after genius, players at the tops of their fields who all have different reasons to agree or disagree with Kurzweil in whole or in part, and its an absolutely gripping 80 minutes or so.  Especially as the director humanizes and builds a portrait of Kurzweil (a seemingly approachable gentleman, certainly) and digs into the basis for his quest and to see what drives him.

There are a tremendous number of questions occurring in the film, the sorts of things that have the longterm effects of global change, all without the pressure cooker or drive of a Manhattan Project.  Its happening now, and the minds pushing toward the future seem aware of the pitfalls and risks of the world they're creating, and seem to be sure that somebody else is going to deny the dinosaurs their Lysine.  Its absolutely riveting stuff.  And, again, this is a documentary.

The crowd that drifts into this blog is pretty smart and tech savvy, and I'd love to see what you guys have to say, if you've seen it or you get a chance to stream it from Netflix.

Highly, highly recommended.

*see my hilariously uninformed argument with my brother about the concept at his blog post from about a year ago.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

I still love "The Fantastic Voyage"

On Saturday morning Simon, his ladyfriend Leta and I will made our way down to the Alamo South Lamar for a screening of The Fantastic Voyage (1966).  The Alamo South hosts Kids' Club, about once a month, and I've seen some classics like War of the Worlds as part of the series.  Frankly, its a testament to both the laziness of Austinites and the lack of interest in anything not involving beer that a free screening (FREE) starting at 11:00 AM of one of the sci-fi all-time classics wasn't better attended.

Their loss.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Signal Watch Reads: Feynman

A few months ago Jim Ottaviani visited Austin during the promotional tour of his graphic novel, Feynman, a biographical sketch of famed physicist Richard Feynman.  It turns out that Jim's day job is in the field of digital libraries, and he had a sort of informal chat at the library, where it turned out he knew two of my colleagues from graduate school.

Its a small world, but I wouldn't want to paint it.*

A few things:  

1)  I struggled mightily in high school physics and stuck with geology as much as possible in college when asked to to take science (rocks!).  My investigations into modern physics (stuff they were not teaching at my high school) have been mostly catch-as-catch can through television specials, reading articles online and this, my third comic book on physics in any way, shape or form.  I know some basic principles, I know some names, I understand that light behaves like a wave and a particle, and aside from that, I sort of stop and start with what everyone who has ever owned more than one Pink Floyd album knows about Schroedinger's Cat.  And, as I understand it, what we consider the point of the experiment is incorrect.

2)  I don't pretend like I had ever heard of Richard Feynman before this book hit the shelves.  The pop-culture aspect of science also eludes me, and so I had not read any of Mr. Feynman's books or sat about urbanely quoting the man over coffee served in a small and delicate cup.  

3)  I have a hard time remembering the basic fundamentals of physics.  Every time I return to the material, that part of my brain re-engages, and neurons re-fire, but its not something I think about very often.  Its sort of how I wrote down what the Higgs-Boson is just so I had a place to go look it up every time I needed to know while reading an article on the LHC.

My hat if off to Jim Ottaviani for his handling and structure of a book that could have been an horrendous mess.  The book is really 85% biography, 15% physics lesson in order to explain why Feynman matters to Sally Q. Reader.  As he states in the afterword, I had no doubt that Ottaviani had done his research enough to both understand and not judge the man particularly one way or another, and to internalize what Feynman was on about enough to share it with an audience as clueless about physics as myself.

Friday, July 8, 2011

This Moment in History: The Final Space Shuttle Mission

The Atlantis lifts off for the final time

My heart breaks a little knowing that its the end of the Space Shuttle era. I'd be simply nostalgic if it meant that in 2012 the X-39 or a similar program were geared up to take the place of the Shuttle Program. But, instead, for the foreseeable future we'll be taking rides on Russian rockets to visit our own space station, and remaining earthbound after a half-century of touching the cosmos, even if it was only ever a glancing touch.

We looked into the face of limitless possibility as a nation, and we blinked.

In the years to come, they'll say it was a fool's errand, and a waste of resources. I'll be an old man, and the highest aspiration for kids will have long ago quit being being "Astronaut", which will sound antiquated and sad, almost how we smirk knowingly when you imagine being referred to as a "First Mate" on a ship.

And when we're old enough, or when we're gone, they'll say it never happened (just you wait). They'll say they never had the technology, that the will of a nation to spend the resources and capitol necessary just a few decades after the Wright Brothers flew their first place and the first rockets criss-crossed the skies... it was impossible. It'll be called illogical, fantastic and a hoax, written off like the sun-chariots in carvings in Egypt. And when that's said often enough, it'll be true.

Perhaps we went to fast, too soon.  Perhaps the kids I grew up with who squirmed their way through math and science took it for granted when we got to start making the rules, and maybe we were just a little disillusioned that they'd never asked us to suit up and go.  Like everything else, maybe we thought it would always be there.

As always, all we can do is hope that the tide will turn, and one day (perhaps when we're more deserving) we'll be ready, honestly and for real this time.

Until then, I thank the scientists, engineers, visionaries, and brave women and men who suited up and saw the Earth for us, and who went as close to the stars and further and faster than any of us.

The New York Times
AP Story at The Austin American Statesman

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Science! (we get no aliens - this time) and DC Comics' REBELS

Science! and aliens and not science

The other night I saw an article that led me to believe that SCIENCE had found evidence of extraterrestrial life.  I posted about it here, and then set about wondering why this wasn't front page news.

I thank Leaguers Fantomenos and Horus Kemwer for chiming in and helping out a bit in the comments section.

In the past 20 years, America has turned on its scientists as those lab-coated jerks keep (a) telling us things that are personally inconvenient to our butter-soaked, gasoline chugging lifestyles (b) refuse to just say "because of magic" and (c) keep finding new and amazing ways to kill us.  But I'd guess the number one reason we hate science is that it doesn't work in the way we were led to believe by the Professor on Gilligan's Island and cold remedy commercials.

While The News would lead you to believe that all scientists are equal, and that if they can find two scientists to disagree on front of cameras that it must mean that we just don't know, that's not really true either.  It means that they managed to find a scientist who disagreed, but that may be one scientist in a field of thousands.  Which is why SCIENCE relies upon peer-reviewed journals and conference proceedings, which basically give a few experts in the field a chance to review conclusions of a study before a scientist has a chance to make a jerk of himself and confuse the public.

This isn't to say that everyone who ignores the usual scientific channels is wrong, but its worth looking long and hard at the credentials of both the author and published journal before saying "these are facts".

Now, as Joe Public, I generally guess that when the usual news outlets report on "studies" in "research journals", they mean that they're looking at journals with a reputable peer-review and an actual research institute backing the journal.  I do not assume that the news is just looking at some dude's website and declaring "Science!".  However, that appears to be exactly what happened with the "hey, aliens!" story from the weekend.

It does occur to me that if we DID know of alien life, it might also be true that shadowy forces would try to cover up our knowledge of aliens.

they're making another one of these dumb movies, btw
So its not entirely outside the scope of possibility that President Obama spent Saturday afternoon being debriefed about some Omega Protocol being put into play to discredit the "alien bacteria" story.  But, until someone produces an actual alien, I'm going to go with the fact that the journal carrying the alien bacteria story looks about as professional as the average Office Admin's first attempts with DreamWeaver (download Open Journal System, Cosmology) and has an agenda to prove the existence of aliens.  So, there you go.


I only read the trade collections, and the series just got canceled, but you know what book I loved from DC Comics?  REBELS.

I think in this issue are heroes are more "running away" than "saving the day"
The basic premise of the series is that Vril Dox is a clone of Superman mainstay-baddy Brainiac, and using the intellectual might at his disposal, Dox set up an interplanetary PAX-for-hire.  Unfortunately, his use of robot drones as enforcers means that his forces are co-opted and used to subjugate the very planets they were intended to protect.  On top of this, the droids are used to keep the population docile while an interplanetary parasite known as Starro invades whole sectors of the galaxy.

Our man Vril joins with a ragtag band of pirates and thugs (and Vril is no Dudley Do-right himself) in order to take back the galaxy and get back to making gobs of money.

Its a really well written and well-paced story, even to the point that a two-issue diversion tied in with Blackest Night fits neatly into the plot.  It also manages to explore DC's oft-neglected outerspace cultures and characters in a away that feels natural, even if the interplanetary jumping feels a bit like people moving from town to town inside of a single state.

And as far as amoral anti-heroes go (who might still have some tiny, on-life-support bit of conscience left), Vril Dox makes for a pretty great central figure.  The writers have to remain two or three steps ahead of the readership and the other characters.  And, in fact, they manage to pull off pretty definite characterization for most characters, which is no small feat with a sprawling cast like you see in REBELS.

No matter who he's dealing with, Vril is always one step a-head
Sadly, REBELS did not feature any DC staple characters, and no comic company seems to be able to deal with the mass conversion of its readership to trades and illegal scans.  Just last week, the series was canceled.

I have to say - I think DC would do well to get on the same printing schedule as Boom! and others, printing the trade collections of an arc within weeks of the release of the most recent issue (ex:  issues 1-6 finish in March, the trade arrives in April).  Frankly, they seemed to be on that schedule but recently backed off for reasons I can't begin to fathom.

The REBELS books read very well as trades, and the first three trades will actually bring you through a very satisfying story arc.  I'm on the 4th trade right now, and I'm a little sad that I can only expect a couple more collections before we call it a day.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

So, apparently there's life out there in space

So, apparently NASA is saying that they've found the fossil evidence of alien life in a meteorite.

You can read the article here. 

So, upon realizing what I was reading, my immediate reaction was a sort of weird, physical thing where my body went cold and I felt sort of nauseous.  You get this, right?  I mean, these findings don't just suggest, but they are fairly significant evidence - there is something else out there.  Even single-celled warbly things are something.  Our planet is completely covered in single-celled warbly things, so it makes sense that there are chunks of Earth flying through space with bits of amoeba and flagellates embedded somewhere in the rock.

Now, of course you sort of have to believe in fossils to buy the evidence, and given the current state of things, it seems more likely that someone will cut this guy's funding and/ or burn down his home and office rather than suggest that fossil evidence means anything, but I tend to be completely amazed that scientists (the people who spent their lives dedicated to figuring this stuff out, and not you - the person who saw this thing once on the Discovery Channel), are going to go ahead and put their names in with this review.

Completely amazing.

Monday, January 24, 2011

DC Comics, The Multiverse and Everything

Grant Morrison believes that the DC Universe is alive and well and trying to tell us something.  And that something may have first been whispered to us via Flash comic books in 1961 (50 years ago!) via the story "Flash of Two Worlds".

The story posits that there are multiple universes, and The Flash (Barry Allen) can travel between them by changing his "vibrational frequency".  He travels to "Earth-2" where he meets the Flash from that world, a Flash he's only read about in comics books, named Jay Garrick.

Maybe writer Gardner Fox wasn't so crazy...

From NPR's science desk, a story on the possibility of multiverses.

From the article:
So if the universe is infinitely large, it is also home to infinite parallel universes.
Does that sound confusing? Try this:

Think of the universe like a deck of cards.

"Now, if you shuffle that deck, there's just so many orderings that can happen," Greene says. "If you shuffle that deck enough times, the orders will have to repeat. Similarly, with an infinite universe and only a finite number of complexions of matter, the way in which matter arranges itself has to repeat."
Deck of cards?  Why...  that has 52 cards in it.  It seems like I've heard that number somewhere...

I'm just saying.
DC's Infinite and 52 Universes