Science Fiction was an Inspiration for Many Professional Astronomers

Science fiction universe for Star Trek
The Star Trek universe occurs in the Milky Way Galaxy; this show and its memorable characters are cited, along with many other SF works as influences for scientists. Courtesy R.H. Hurt.

What do MINBAR, TARDIS, Cardassian Expansion, BoRG, DS9, Tatooines, and ACBAR all have in common? They’re names of astronomical surveys and software created by astronomers who say that science fiction (SF) influenced their careers. Those names are just one indicator of widespread interest in SF in the science community. It’s not surprising considering how many scientists (and science writers) grew up with the genre.

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The Science — and Fun — Behind “Moonfall”

Space shuttle Endeavour docks at the International Space Station while the Moon hurtles towards the Earth in the epic sci-fi film, MOONFALL. Image courtesy Lionsgate.

The master of disaster has struck again, and this time our Moon is the ominous villain.  

In “Moonfall,” film director Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, 2012) has created yet another sci-fi disaster film where the world faces obliteration from mysterious forces.

The movie opens in theaters today.

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“TrekTalks” Telethon Calls upon Star Trek Fandom to Meet the Needs of the Many

I grew up watching Star Trek inspired by what Trek imagined the future could be.

Earth had done away with poverty, disease, war. Humanity, in cooperation with other alien civilizations, explored the Galaxy on ships like the USS Enterprise doing good where possible. Diplomatic missions, crisis relief, medical aid. Star Trek is a view of what humanity could be if we were brave and bold but also empathetic and kind – us at our best.

Lately our 21st century world has been…well…a hard place to be – harder for some than others. What if the Star Trek fandom could take some inspiration from that imagined future to make change in the present? This weekend is a chance to make it so with “TrekTalks” – a livestream telethon featuring an incredible lineup of Star Trek cast and crew to benefit the Hollywood Food Coalition starting tomorrow (January 15th) at 11:45am Pacific Time and running to 7:45pm PT

TrekTalks livestream link
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Movie Review – Alien: Covenant

Promotional poster for Alien: Covenant. Credit: 20th Century Fox

Promotional poster for Alien: Covenant. Credit: 20th Century Fox

Warning: mild plot spoilers ahead for the upcoming summer film Alien: Covenant, though we plan to focus more on the overall Alien sci-fi franchise and some of the science depicted in the movie.

So, are you excited for the 2017 movie season? U.S. Memorial Day weekend is almost upon us, and that means big ticket, explosion-laden sci-fi flicks and reboots/sequels. Lots of sequels. We recently got a chance to check out Alien: Covenant opening Thursday, May 18th as the second prequel and the seventh film (if you count 2004’s Alien vs. Predator offshoot) in the Alien franchise.

We’ll say right up front that we were both excited and skeptical to see the film… excited, because the early Alien films still stand as some of the best horror sci-fi ever made. But we were skeptical, as 2012’s Prometheus was lackluster at best. Plus, Prometheus hits you with an astronomical doozy in the form of the “alien star chart” right off the bat, not a great first step. Probably the best scene is Noomi Rapace’s terrifying self-surgery to remove the alien parasite. Mark Watney had to do something similar to remove the antenna impaled in his side in The Martian. Apparently, Ridley Scott likes to use this sort of scene to really gross audiences out. The second Aliens film probably stands as the benchmark for the series, and the third film lost fans almost immediately with the death of Newt at the very beginning, the girl Sigourney Weaver and crew fought so hard to save in Aliens.

How well does Alien: Covenant hold up? Well, while it was a better attempt at a prequel than Prometheus, it approaches though doesn’t surpass the iconic first two. Alien: Covenant is very similar to Aliens, right down to the same action beats.

The story opens as the crew of the first Earth interstellar colony ship Covenant heads towards a promised paradise planet Origae-6. En route, the crew receives a distress signal from the world where the ill-fated Prometheus disappeared, and detours to investigate. If you’ve never seen an Alien film before, we can tell you that investigating a mysterious transmission is always a very bad idea, as blood and gore via face-hugging parasites is bound to ensue. As with every Alien film, the crew of the Covenant is an entirely new cast, with Katherine Waterston as the new chief protagonist similar to Sigourney Weaver in the original films. And like any sci-fi horror film, expect few survivors.

Alien: Covenant is a worthy addition to the Alien franchise for fans who know what to expect, hearkening back to the original films. As a summer blockbuster, it has a bit of an uphill battle, with a slower opening before the real drama begins.

So how does the science of Alien: Covenant hold up?

The Good: Well, as with the earlier films, we always liked how the aliens in the franchise were truly, well, alien, not just human actors with cosmetic flourishes such as antennae or pointed ears. Humans are the result of evolutionary fortuity, assuring that an alien life form will trend more towards the heptapods in Arrival than Star Trek’s Mr. Spock. Still more is revealed about the parasitic aliens in Alien: Covenant, though the whole idea of a inter-genetic human alien hybrid advanced in the later films seems like a tall order… what if their DNA helix curled the wrong way? Or was triple or single, instead of double stranded?

Spaceships spin for gravity in the Alien universe, and I always liked Scott’s industrial-looking, gray steel and rough edges world in the Alien films, very 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Now, for a very few pedantic nit picks. You knew they were coming, right? In the opening scenes, the Covenant gets hit with a “neutrino burst” dramatically disabling the deployed solar array and killing a portion of the hibernating crew. Through neutrinos are real, they, for the most part, pass right through solid matter, with nary a hit. Millions are passing through you and me, right now. The burst is later described as due to a “stellar ignition event” (a flare? Maybe a nova?) Though the crew states there’s no way to predict these beforehand… but even today there is, as missions such as the Solar Dynamics Observatory and SOHO monitor Sol around the clock. And we do know which nearby stars such as Betelgeuse and Spica are likely to go supernova, and that red dwarfs are tempestuous flare stars. An interstellar colonization mission would (or at least should) know to monitor nearby stars (if any) for activity. True, a similar sort of maguffin in the form of the overblown Mars sandstorm was used in The Martian to get things rolling plot-wise, but we think maybe something like equally unpredictable bursts high-energy cosmic rays would be a bigger threat to an interstellar mission.

The crew also decides to detour while moving at presumably relativistic speeds to investigate the strange signal. This actually happens lots in sci-fi, as it seems as easy as running errands around town to simply hop from one world to the next. In reality, mass and change of momentum are costly affairs in terms of energy. In space, you want to get there quickly, but any interstellar mission would involve long stretches of slow acceleration followed by deceleration to enter orbit at your destination… changing this flight plan would be out of the question, even for the futuristic crew of the Covenant.

Expect a high body count: the crew of the Covenant. Credit: 20th Century Fox

Another tiny quibble: the Covenant’s computer pinpoints the source of the mysterious signal, and gives its coordinates in right ascension and declination. OK, this is good: RA and declination are part of a real coordinate system astronomers use to find things in the sky… here on Earth. It’s an equatorial system, though, hardly handy when you get out into space. Maybe a reference system using the plane of the Milky Way galaxy would be more useful.

But of course, had the crew of the Covenant uneventfully made it to Origae-6 and lived happily ever after stomach-exploding parasite free, there would be no film. Alien: Covenant is a worthy addition to the franchise and a better prequel attempt than Prometheus… though it doesn’t quite live up to the thrill ride of the first two, a tough act to follow in the realm of horror sci-fi.

New NASA-themed TV Pilot by ‘The Martian’ Author Andy Weir

'Mission Control' is the name of a pilot for new TV series for CBS.

Author Andy Weir, who wrote the bestselling novel “The Martian” on which the successful 2015 movie of the same name was based, announced CBS is picking up his idea for a new pilot for a television show called “Mission Control.”

“For the past several months, I’ve been working on a TV show pilot, and I’m happy to announce that CBS is going to make it!” Weir posted on Facebook. “Of course, I’m all about scientific accuracy and this show will be no exception.”

Weir added (in what I assume was his best Tom Hanks), “Should be a hell of a show.”

Author Andy Weir in NASA’s Mission Control Center in Houston during a tour. Credit: NASA/James Blair and Lauren Hartnett.

The show will be a drama, with the main characters working as flight controllers at the Mission Control Center in Houston, and how they “juggle their personal and professional lives during a critical mission with no margin for error,” reported Deadline Hollywood.

Weir said casting for the actors is about to begin, but there is already “an impressive group of behind-the-camera people already involved,” he said. “Notably: [producer] Aditya Sood, whom I worked with before on “The Martian”.

Additionally, Simon Kinberg, another producer for the “The Martian,” will be the executive producer of the new series.

Andy Weir on Universe Today’s “Weekly Space Hangout” in January 2015:

Weir was first hired as a programmer for a national laboratory at age fifteen then worked as a software engineer. But as a lifelong space nerd and a devoted hobbyist of subjects like relativistic physics, orbital mechanics, and the history of manned spaceflight, he wrote “The Martian” in his spare time. Weir originally self-published the novel in 2011, but it was so successful, the rights to it were purchased by Crown Publishing and it was re-released it in 2014. A film adaptation directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon, was released in October 2015.

“The Martian” is the story of astronaut Mark Watney, who becomes stranded alone on Mars in the year 2035, and does everything he can to survive.

Weir didn’t provide a timeline of when the show would air, but Keith Cowing at NASAWatch reported that NASA Public Affairs “has been approached by the show’s producers and they are waiting on a script for final consideration. At this point NASA has not committed to assist the producers, allow use of its logo, facilities, staff etc.”

What is the Death Ray?

Death Ray

Scientists, futurists, and science fiction writers have been talking about it for over a century, and fans of science fiction and futurists have fantasized about it for just as long. The portable directed-energy weapon that zaps your enemies, rendering them incapacitated or reducing them to a pile of ashes!

The concept has gone through many iterations over the decades, ranging from laser pistols and cannons to phasers. And yet, this staple of science fiction is largely based in science fact. Since the early 20th century, scientists have sought to develop a working directed-energy weapon, based on ideas put forward by many inventors and scientists.


A”death ray” is a theoretical particle beam or electromagnetic weapon that was originally proposed independently during the 1920s and 30s by multiple scientists. From these initial proposals, research into energy-based weapons has been ongoing. While most examples come predominantly from science fiction, several applications and proposals have been produced during the latter half of the 20th century.

The Death Star firing its superlaser. Image Credit: Wookieepedia / Lucasfilm
Directed-energy weapons, like the Death Star’s superlaser, are a common feature in science fiction. Credit: Wookieepedia / Lucasfilm


During the early 20th century, many scientists claimed that they had created a working death ray. For instance, in September of 1924, British inventor Harry Grindell-Matthews attempted to sell what he reported to be a death ray that could destroy human life and bring down planes at a distance to the British Air Ministry.

While he was never able to produce a functioning model or demonstrate it to the military, news of this prompted American inventor Edwin R. Scott to claim that he was the first to develop a death ray. According to Scott, he had done so in 1923, which was the result of the nine years he spent as a student and protege of Charles P. Steinmetz – a German-American professor at Union College, New York.

In 1934, Spanish inventor Antonion Longoria claimed to have invented a death ray machine which he had tested on pigeons at a distance of about 6.5 km (4 miles). He also claimed to have killed mice that were enclosed in a thick-walled metal chamber.

However, it was famed inventor and electrical engineer Nikola Tesla who provided the most detailed framework for such a device. In a 1934 interview with Time Magazine, Tesla explained the concept of a “teleforce” (or directed energy) weapon which would be capable of destroying entire squadrons of airplanes or an entire army at a distance of 400 km (250 miles).

 Century Magazine photographer Dickenson Alley) of Tesla sitting in his Colorado Springs laboratory with his "magnifying transmitter" generating millions of volts. The 7-metre (23 ft) long arcs were not part of the normal operation, but only produced for effect by rapidly cycling the power switch.[117]
Photograph of Tesla sitting in his Colorado Springs laboratory with his “magnifying transmitter” generating millions of volts. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Century Magazine/Dickenson V. Alley
Tesla tried to interest the US War Department and several European countries in the device at the time, though none contracted with Tesla to build it. As Tesla described his invention in an article titled “A Machine to End War“, which appeared in Liberty Magazine in 1935:

“this invention of mine does not contemplate the use of any so-called ‘death rays’. Rays are not applicable because they cannot be produced in requisite quantities and diminish rapidly in intensity with distance. All the energy of New York City (approximately two million horsepower) transformed into rays and projected twenty miles, could not kill a human being, because, according to a well known law of physics, it would disperse to such an extent as to be ineffectual. My apparatus projects particles which may be relatively large or of microscopic dimensions, enabling us to convey to a small area at a great distance trillions of times more energy than is possible with rays of any kind. Many thousands of horsepower can thus be transmitted by a stream thinner than a hair, so that nothing can resist.”

Based on his descriptions, the device would constitute a large tower that could be mounted on top of a building, positioned either next to shores or near crucial infrastructure. This weapon, he claimed, would be defensive in nature, in that it would make any nation employing it impregnable to attack from air, land or sea, and up to a distance of 322 km (200 miles).

During World War II, multiple efforts were mounted by the Axis powers to create so-called “death rays”. For instance, Imperial Japan developed a concept they called “Ku-Go”, which sought to use microwaves created in a large magnetron as a weapon.

Dresden, 1945, view from the city hall (Rathaus) over the destroyed city Deutsche Fotothek?
Dresden, 1945, view from the city hall (Rathaus) over the destroyed city. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/ Deutsche Fotothek?

Meanwhile, the Nazis mounted two projects, one which was led by the researcher known as Schiebold that involved a particle accelerator and beryllium rods. The second, led by Dr. Rolf Wideroe, was developed at the Dresden Plasma Physics Laboratory until it was bombed in Feb. 1945. In April of that year, as the war was coming to close, the device was taken into custody by the US Army.

On January 7th, 1943, engineer and inventor Nikola Tesla died in his room at the Hotel New Yorker in Manhattan. A story quickly developed that within his room, Tesla had scientific paper in his possession that provided the most detailed description yet for a death ray. These documents, it was claimed, had been seized by the US military, who wanted them for the sake of the war effort.

Examples in Science Fiction:

Ray guns, and other examples of directed-energy weapons have been a common feature in science fiction for over a century. One of the first known examples comes from H.G. Wells seminal book, War of the Worlds, which featured Martian war machines that used “heat rays”. However, the first use of the term was in The Messiah of the Cylinder (1917), by Victor Rousseau Emanuel.

Ray guns were also a regular feature in comic books like Buck Rogers (first published in 1928) and Flash Gordon, published in 1934. In Alfred Noyes’ 1940 novel The Last Man (released as No Other Man in the US), a death ray developed by a German scientist named Mardok is unleashed in a global war and almost wipes out the human race.

War of the Worlds
H.G. Wells’ 1898 novel about a Martian invasion, War of the Worlds, featured alien machines using heat rays to spread havoc. Credit: Henrique Alvim Correa (1906)

The concept of the blaster was introduced by Isaac Asimov’s The Foundation Series, which were described as nuclear-powered handheld weapons that fired energetic particles. In Frank Herbert’s Dune series, energy weapons take the form of continuous-wave laser projectors (lasguns), which are rendered obsolete by the invention of “Holtzman shields”.

According to Herbert, the interaction of a lasgun blast and this force field results in a nuclear explosion which typically kills both the gunner and the target. Further examples of death rays can be found in just about any science fiction franchise, ranging from phasers (Star Trek) and laser blasters (Star Wars) to spaceship-mounted beam cannons.

Modern Development:

In terms of real-world applications, many attempts have been made to create directed-energy weapons for offensive and defensive purposes. For instance, the development of radar before World War II was the result of attempts to find applications for directed electromagnetic energy (in this case, radio waves).

In the 1980s, U.S. President Ronald Reagan proposed the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) program (nicknamed “Star Wars”). It suggested that lasers, perhaps space-based X-ray lasers, could destroy ICBMs in flight. During the Iraq War, electromagnetic weapons, including high power microwaves were used by the U.S. military to disrupt and destroy the Iraqi electronic systems.

An artist's concept of a Space Laser Satellite Defense System. Credit: USAF
An artist’s concept of a Space Laser Satellite Defense System. Credit: USAF

On March 18th, 2009 Northrop Grumman announced that its engineers in Redondo Beach had successfully built and tested an electric laser capable of producing a 100-kilowatt ray of light, powerful enough to destroy cruise missiles, artillery, rockets and mortar rounds. And on July 19th, 2010, an anti-aircraft laser was unveiled at the Farnborough Airshow, described as the “Laser Close-In Weapon System”.

In 2014, the US Navy made headlines when they unveiled their AN/SEQ-3 Laser Weapon System (or XN-1 LaWS), a directed-energy weapon designed for use on military vessels. Ostensibly, the purpose of the weapon is defensive, designed to either blind enemy sensors (when set to low-intensity) or shoot down unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) when set to high-intensity.

Then is what is known as “Active Denial Systems”, which use a microwave source to heat up the water in the target’s skin, thus causing physical pain. Currently, this concept is being developed by the US Air Force Research Laboratory and Raytheon – a US defense contractor – as a means of riot-control.

A Dazzler is another type of directed-energy weapon, one which uses infrared or visible light to temporarily blind an enemy. Targets can include human beings, or their sensors (particularly in the infrared band). The emitters are usually lasers (hence the term “laser dazzler”) and can be portable or mounted on the outside of vehicles (as with the Russian T-80 and T-90 tank).

The personnel halting and stimulation response rifle (PHASR) is a prototype non-lethal laser dazzler developed by the Air Force Research Laboratory's Directed Energy Directorate, U.S. Department of Defense. Credit: USAF
The personnel halting and stimulation response rifle (PHASR) is a prototype non-lethal laser dazzler developed by the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Directed Energy Directorate, U.S. Department of Defense. Credit: USAF

An example of the former is the Personnel Halting And Stimulation Response rifle (PHASR), a prototype non-lethal laser dazzler being developed by the US Air Force Research Laboratory’s Directed Energy Directorate. Its purpose is give infantry or other military personnel the ability to temporarily disorient and blind a target without causing permanent damage.

Blinding laser weapons were banned by treated under the UN Protocol on Blinding Laser Weapons, which was passed in 1995. However, the terms of this protocol do not apply to directed-energy weapons that inflict only temporary blindness.

We’ve come a long way since the term “raygun” became a household name. At this rate, who knows what the future will hold? Will Tesla’s dream of a Death Ray ever come true? Will we see directed-energy satellites put in orbit, or handheld lasers becoming the mainstay of armed forces and space explorers? Hard to say. All we can be sure of is that the truth will likely be stranger than the fiction!

We have written many articles about the directed-energy and lasers for Universe Today. Here’s Telescope’s Laser Pointer Clarifies Blurry Skies, The Challenges of Lasers in Space, Don’t Want Aliens Dropping By? Engage Laser-Cloaking Device, Could a “Death Star” Really Destroy a Planet?, and Finding Aliens May be even Easier than Previously Thought.

If you’d like more info on the Death Ray, check out this article from

We’ve also recorded an entire episode of Astronomy Cast all about the Death Ray. Listen here, Episode 36: Gamma Ray Bursts.


Book Review: The Caloris Network

Caloris in Color – An enhanced-color view of Mercury from the cameras on board the MESSENGER spacecraft. The circular, orange area near the center-top of the disc is Caloris Basin. Credit: NASA / Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory / Carnegie Institution of Washington

Thinking of taking a vacation this summer? Maybe you want to distract yourself with a bit of light science fiction fun. How about a deadly alien life form harbored within our solar system? That’s what Nick Kanas presents in his scientific novel “The Caloris Network.” Being placed not too far into the future, this novel lets the reader enjoy a believable taste of first contact that’s hopefully just as good as the contact from their first summer kiss.

caloris network
A pleasant novel has an intriguing plot that’s embellished with the interaction of fun characters. Sometimes it will also carry a somber undertone ringing in the background. So unravels the novel “Caloris Network.” The main character, Sam, is an astrobiologist fresh from looking at multicellular life on Europa. At home, her family suffers serious health concerns but she’s continuing with her efforts. Her research takes her to Mercury where something is raising the concern of the spacefaring military. Her fellow crew members involve a possible Martian secessionist, a cranky commander and a love triangle. All this is pretty typical fare.

Next up you may think there’d be the traditional English speaking alien biped threatening the very existence of the human race. But not this time. Instead Kanas identifies the protagonist as a silicate based lifeform on Mercury. No legs for walking and no lips for speaking. Further, this is the proverbial first contact between the human race and a living, thinking organism from another world. Will it be confrontational? As usual. Will it involve death rays? Kind of. Will it force the reader to ponder how to interact for the first time with an alien? Certainly! This is the best part of the book in that it places the reader not so far into the future so as to make the story readily believable. Being barely over a hundred years away, the reader can connect with the technological advances for an expedition on Mercury, for living on Mars and for the poor environmental state of Earth. With the simple lives of the expedition’s crew, the constrained space travel and the understated alien, Kanas has written a novel that would be fun for that long car ride or a day on the beach.

As a bonus, the author includes a chapter at the end of the book that discusses some of the science presented. It has details on what we’ve discovered of Mercury, particularly with regard to what a human visitor might encounter if standing on its surface; the temperature from searing heat to mind numbing cold, a Sun that changes direction in the sky and effects of a molten interior.

For even more fun when you’re at the beach, there’s an inclusion of how to define life. For instance, “Does it need to move?” “What do we mean by reproduction?” “How do we test for the ability to think?” and most entertaining of all, “How do we communicate with it when we can’t even communicate with dolphins yet?” These and other ideas in the novel may keep you up late discussing our very existence while watching the embers of the cottage campfire settle to a deep dark red.

Certainly something on Europa, Titan and Venus awaits people. Maybe it’s alien life. Maybe the life prefers to exist without humans coming to explore. Maybe they will be exactly as what Nick Kanas writes in his scientific novel “The Caloris Network”. With your imagination, take this novel’s plot as believable and see where it takes you. And maybe by reading this on your vacation, you may think that you’ve waited long enough and it’s time to go find out.

This book is available through Springer.
About the author, Dr. Nick Kanas.

Finding “The Lost Science” of 2001: A Space Odyssey

Space station from the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The film 2001: A Space Odyssey brought space science to the general masses. Today we may consider it as common place, but in 1968 when the film was released, humankind had yet to walk on the Moon. We certainly didn’t have any experience with Jupiter. Yet somehow the producer, Stanley Kubrick, successfully peered into the future and created a believable story. One of his methods was to employ Frederick I. Ordway III as his science consultant. While Ordway has since passed, he left behind a veritable treasure trove of documents detailing his work for Kubrick. Science author and engineer Adam K. Johnson got access to this trove which resulted in the book “2001: The Lost Science – The Scientist, Influences & Designs from the Frederick I. Ordway III Estate Volume 2“. It’s a wonderful summary of Ordway’s contributions and the film’s successes.

What makes a movie? A plethora of ingredients must come together. But most of all, the audience must accept it for what it proclaims to be. For instance, a science fiction show must wander about in space and/or time. And the audience has to believe the wandering. In the 1960s, the general audience had little knowledge of space and could conceivably believe in anything.

Many films used expediency over truth, such as using a gun to shoot a capsule to the Moon. However, to validate his film, Kubrick enlisted Ordway from the Future Projects Office of the Marshall Space Flight Centre. Presumably this alone would have added large amounts of veracity, but Ordway took on the challenge as we see in Johnson’s book and pushed further.


Ordway interviewed many scientists and engineers. Many of these came to the set to provide advice. Ordway acquired drawings as well as made his own schematics. He went to industry, academia and governments. Johnson skillfully brings this all to light. How did the results mesh with this effort? That is the value of Johnson’s book. It gives credit to the breadth and depth of Ordway’s research.

The book’s first section identifies the knowledge sources; people like Willy Ley, books such as Beyond Tomorrow The Next 50 Years in Space, and organizations such as Boeing and its PARSEC project. It identifies the individuals who came to the filming sets to give advice and has many images of the sets as well.

The second section gives credit to preceding films, though it’s not certain from Johnson’s book as to how or if Ordway drew inspiration from them.

Its third and final section is probably the most fun as it provides many figures of the mock-ups, drawings and schematics. It includes a great full page image of Space Station V and a four page pullout section of Discovery X-Ray Delta One. There’s also an interesting note therein that indicates that the sets and props had to be thoroughly believable from every perspective, as they didn’t know where Kubrick may place the camera. Thus, the book gives the reader a taste of the fine detail for some graphics such as for the Moon Bus. With Johnson presenting all this from Ordway’s collection then it’s easy for the reader to understand why there’s a high sense of believability to the film.

Yes, Johnson’s book shows the amount of knowledge that was available in the early 1960s and that Ordway gained access to much of this information. The very large size of this book, about 11in by 14.5in helps show off many great images throughout. However, its size also suggests the style of the book; that is, it is a scrapbook. The book is a wonderful compendium of information relevant to the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. But it doesn’t add to the knowledge base. It’s an excellent repackaging of existing material with only a little suggestive comments on cinematic technique that might be original. And, as with most scrapbooks, the value of this book is the images. While the text is informative, it’s also somewhat dry, so the reader will probably feel much greater reward from feasting on the many print reproductions, drawings and photographs within Johnson’s book.

Perhaps the greatest value of this book is what goes unstated. That is, with enough effort and research people can construct a likely overview of humankind’s progress into the near future.  A future than can be thrilling. The book “2001: The Lost Science – The Scientists, Influences & Designs from the Frederick I. Ordway III Estate Volume 2” by Adam K. Johnson captures some of the excitement and thrill as humankind lay poised upon the edges of travelling into space. Reading it will give you pause at just how far we’ve progressed in the last 50 years. And perhaps get you thinking about what the films of today might be telling us about the next 50 years.

Book Review: Hollyweird Science

Gravity movie poster
Gravity movie poster

Do you remember science classes from way back when? All those laws and rules made it seem like everything was logical and well behaved. Then perhaps with television and movies being a big part of your life you began to wonder whether what you saw was real and unreal. Those things on the big and small screens didn’t seem nearly as well behaved. For instance, can people hear sounds in space? Or, can travelers quickly and easily go from one star to another? If you want to get yourself back on solid footing, get a hold of the book “Hollyweird Science – From Quantum Quirks to the Multiverse” by Kevin Grazier and Stephen Cass. With it, you can sift through a lot of tropes and conceits and glean some wonderful insights of both modern science and modern cinema.

Yes, tropes and conceits are terms from the world of cinema and not of physics. Think of these terms as ‘untruths’ for entertainment that writers use to capture and hold the attention of the audience. As this book describes, writers conjure up these exigencies to meet their demands. Their main demand is to prepare a story that fits into a very limited timeframe and into a very limited budget.

HollyweirdAnd much of the first part of this book takes the reader on a journey of past and present cinema that involves detailed science. This part of the book substantiates the claim that science in the Hollywood world of cinema is weird, whether it is Superman’s kryptonite, Star Trek’s dilithium crystals or Godzilla’s shear bulk. So how does this book go about proving that the science is weird?

Ah, this is the part that you may either love or hate. The authors include science boxes at regular intervals throughout. These science boxes have the equations you may remember from your early science classes. And the equations include numbers or ratios that show how a trope or conceit is particularly untrue. That is, the authors return to all those laws and rules of science, such as the law of gravity, the formula for acceleration, and the standard chemical composition of ecosystems.

Nevertheless, most of these weird issues are ones that the audience has already accepted and even a science box won’t affect the shear enjoyment. For example, think of Torch, a human that can instantly become a flame even though there’s no fuel. While the authors do raise a general lament on the failure of cinema to faithfully follow science, they do provide some rationalization that the untruth or trope was necessary, whether to fit a timeframe or a budget. Perhaps most promising from this section of the book is that the authors indicate that the typical audience member has become much smarter. In consequence, writers put a lot more reality into their science and even the depiction of alien worlds.

Who knew that learning physics could be so much fun?

Overall, the first third of the book is a fairly light, simple read with not so many science boxes. At about a third of the way in, however, the book transitions from being a discussion of cinema entertainment, with particular attention to its science, and becomes a discussion of science with reference to cinema. Here the science boxes are more detailed and numerous. They assess the possibility of using material from the Earth to kick-start a failing Sun, as done in a movie. Or, the likelihood of the Earth’s Moon being kicked out of the solar system, also done. And there’s much detail on the holy grail of science cinema, the faster than light transportation, as happens in most science fiction cinema.

Reading through this part of the book may bring you right back to your science classes of yore and their laws and rules. That is, it will if your science classes included quantum mechanics, parallel universes and wormholes. Here in the book things get really weird as today’s science has yet to faithfully prescribe the laws. Thus, the authors introduce a whole field of science, add current investigations and then associate the science with somewhat related relevant films. Perhaps, when the science gets this challenging, then it’s a good thing that entertaining cinema can come along and at least introduce the ideas to the general public.

With all the attention that the authors give to the science in this book, the reader will quickly appreciate that the book is not just a simple list of cinema bloopers. Rather, the book’s details provide enough depth of knowledge to allow the reader to hold their own at lunch time conversations when the topic swings around to the science in the latest show or movie. Perhaps it may induce the reader to do a bit more exploring and learning, especially as many current films feature a website that defines the science, the tropes and the conceits. However, cinema is for entertainment and the authors must realize the same holds for their book. So as much as this book has lots of hard science, the authors still keep the book entertaining.

And entertainment is mostly what we want, whether from cinema or books. So even if explosions in space come with a loud bang on the sound track or people fly without space suits up and around the Moon, we the audience are content if we are entertained and we haven’t hit the ‘Oh please!’ moment. If you want to know more about this moment, take a look at the book “Hollyweird Science – From Quantum Quirks to the Multiverse” by Kevin Grazier and Stephen Cass. From it, you can make up your own mind on just what you’re ready to accept as entertaining and what is just too much expectation by the storyteller.

The book is available through Springer at this link.

Moisture Vaporators, Death Star Construction and Other Real Star Wars Tech

X-wing fighter flies by Earth? Actually, it is the ATV2 (Johannes Kepler) as it departs the ISS in 2011. Credit: NASA/Ron Garan

Remember that time an X-Wing fighter flew past the International Space Station? Or when R2D2 saved the ISS crew?

OK, yeah, those things didn’t really happen, but since the first Star Wars movie came out in 1977, there has been a lot of technology developed that mimics the science and tech from the sci-fi blockbuster films. Of course, we now have real robots in space (Robonaut), drones are now everyday items, there are actual holograms (Voxiebox and Fairy Lights) and DARPA has been developing prosthetic limbs that Luke Skywalker would totally use, called the Reliable Neural-Interface Technology (RE-NET). Plus, Boeing is building blaster guns that will use “pew-pew” sound effects from Star Wars. Seriously. The lasers are silent, and so they need to add sound to know for sure they’ve been fired.

Since we all certainly have Star Wars on the brain today (The Force Awakens opens tonight), let’s take a look at a few recent space-related developments that hint of inspiration from the movies:
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