Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Science Tab Dump

Because when shit's falling apart around you, the sane man escapes into the wonder of the cosmos...

This article about the seven wonders of our solar system is a good reminder of the incredible scale of what's in our immediate vicinity. Check out some of these examples:
  • Jupiter's Great Red Spot. "A storm," Bova pointed out, "larger than the entire planet Earth that has been raging across the face of the solar system's largest planet for at least four hundred years." But it's just it's great size and height that gives it its distinctive color
  • Olympus Mons, a volcano on Mars, that is so large that it rises above the Martian atmosphere. 
  • The martian canyon Valles Marineris is as long as the United States. (There's a lot of awe about these natural features in KSR's Mars trilogy.) 
Sander van den Berg has animated thousands of stunning real pictures from NASA's Cassini and Voyager satellites in this short video. Wow. The images of the moving clouds of Jupiter and Saturn are mesmerizing.

Many people credit Poe with being the first Horror and Detective writers. Now perhaps he was the first SciFi writer as well? Click through to see Eliza Strickland talk about Poe's poem Eureka, which includes “a spookily intuitive description of the Big Bang theory more than 70 years before astrophysicists came up with the idea."

Get your Sunshine shades on!

More and more scientists are becoming more open to the idea that we might live in a multiverse:
If  modern physics is to be believed, we shouldn't be here. The meager dose of energy infusing empty space, which at higher levels would rip the cosmos apart, is a trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion times tinier than theory predicts. And the minuscule mass of the Higgs boson, whose relative smallness allows big structures such as galaxies and humans to form, falls roughly 100 quadrillion times short of expectations. Dialing up either of these constants even a little would render the universe unlivable.
To account for our incredible luck, leading cosmologists like Alan Guth and Stephen Hawking envision our universe as one of countless bubbles in an eternally frothing sea. This infinite “multiverse” would contain universes with constants tuned to any and all possible values, including some outliers, like ours, that have just the right properties to support life. In this scenario, our good luck is inevitable: A peculiar, life-friendly bubble is all we could expect to observe.
Many physicists loathe the multiverse hypothesis, deeming it a cop-out of infinite proportions. But as attempts to paint our universe as an inevitable, self-contained structure falter, the multiverse camp is growing.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Neuromancer's Influence

William Gibson's Neuromancer, along with Stephenson’s Snow Crash, fully envisioned an entirely new SciFi idea: cyberspace. Essentially virtual reality, it was famously described by Gibson as “a conceptual hallucination… a graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding…”  This concept was also very exciting to those of us who were limited to going to the arcade to pay-to-play or by playing Atari chunky-pixel games or text-based games at home.

Case, the main character of Neuromancer is an addict hacker tricked into jacking into a corporate network, after which, of course, complications ensure. The novel alternates between the incredible cyberspace scenes and his real live in "the Sprawl,” a megalopolis ranging down the east coast of North America from Atlanta to Boston (think Bladerunner).  With the help of Molly, a hip augmented "street samurai", Case tries to get his life under control while also changing the entire face of cyberspace.

It feels almost quaint now, since that vision of an electronic frontier with hackers as noir-like freedom fighters died an early death after 9/11 as government has taken more and more of a role in total mediation of the online experience. (This is one of the themes in Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge, among other things.) It’s also incredibly influential – everything from the Matrix movies to the Lego movie owe Gibson a debt. He also predicted the modern focus on hacking, surveillance, terror, and an almost workship of technology. It should be said that Gibson's writing isn't the smoothest prose out there, but it gets the job done. For me, it’s hard to separate the strength of the book from the impact that it made upon me as a young’en. It sparked the cyberpunk aesthetic (google that term for fun pictures!), which was very exciting to a kid like me living in rural America that didn't even get Fox on our televisions. In the end, this quote sums up a lot:
"Neuromancer," says novelist and blogger Cory Doctorow, "remains a vividly imagined allegory for the world of the 1980s, when the first seeds of massive, globalised wealth-disparity were planted, and when the inchoate rumblings of technological rebellion were first felt. A generation later, we're living in a future that is both nothing like the Gibson future and instantly recognizable as its less stylish, less romantic cousin. Instead of zaibatsus [large conglomerates] run by faceless salarymen, we have doctrinaire thrusting young neocons and neoliberals who want to treat everything from schools to hospitals as businesses."

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Comet Landing!

Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko
So 10 years ago, mankind launched a box named Rosetta into space. It traveled over 4 billion miles to sync up with the orbit of comet 67P, a hunk of rock and ice only 2.5 miles in diameter and travelling 85K MPH. The comet is believed to have formed 4.6 billion years ago with material leftover from when the solar system was coalescing. Rosetta launched a lander Philae to the surface of the comet yesterday and, after bouncing twice (harpoon failure!), the comet is safely on the surface in a gravity just .01% of the Earth.

I'm awestruck, in the true sense of the word. And best of all, the comet is singing!

For more on the mission, check out this post on Bad Astronomy.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

It May Be the Last Act Before Your Arrest

“What about the main thing in life, all its riddles? If you want, I’ll spell it out for you right now. Do not pursue what is illusionary — property and position: all that is gained at the expense of your nerves decade after decade, and is confiscated in one fell night. Live with a steady superiority over life — don’t be afraid of misfortune, and do not yearn for happiness; it is, after all, all the same: the bitter doesn't last forever, and the sweet never fills the cup to overflowing. It is enough if you don’t freeze in the cold and if thirst and hunger don’t claw at your insides. If your back isn't broken, if your feet can walk, if both arms can bend, if both eyes can see, if both ears hear, then whom should you envy? And why? Our envy of others devours us most of all. Rub your eyes and purify your heart — and prize above all else in the world those who love you and who wish you well. Do not hurt them or scold them, and never part from any of them in anger; after all, you simply do not know: it may be your last act before your arrest, and that will be how you are imprinted on their memory,”

Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Book Review: Gillian Flynn's "Gone Girl"

Gone Girl is  one twisted book. The first half of the novel – despite some rather cheesy diary sections – contains some excellent writing as Flynn paints a picture of Nick and Amy, a husband and wife struggling through a tough life together. While they ostensibly are doing the same things, the chapters that alternate between their points of view reveal they are experiencing two very different realities. Filled with insights for anyone who has been in a close relationship for any significant period of time, it's easily the best part of the book. And while it’s obvious that there’s a twist coming, this is not telegraphed nor does it detract from the power of the story. However, once the secret is revealed, the book transforms into a thriller – a highly accomplished and exciting ride, to be sure, but one that wasn't as consistently insightful and engaging to me as the beginning.

[Spoiler alert!] This is partly due to the fact that, in the end,  the wife Amy becomes a super-criminal, inspiring awe in her ability to plan her way out of the most incredible situations. This ability dehumanizes her and thus belittles the interesting observations that she’s made before. For example, the famous Cool Girl speech, one of the best moments of the book, takes on a new light once you comprehend the depth of Amy’s psychopathic personality. I suspect that Flynn would argue that Amy’s perspective allows her to achieve these bitterly insightful observations, but I found myself pondering why I would trust anything stated by such a twisted personality.

And it wasn’t just Amy, all of the characters got flatter and flatter as the book went on. The only one that remained real to me the entire way was Go, serving as the Greek Chorus, keeping us grounded as to the insanity of it all.

The ending of the book is just fucked up. Expertly executed, it floored me in its cynicism, leaving me quietly angry at both the characters and the situation. I haven’t been this affected by an ending since Fight Club – high praise indeed. As frustrated as I found myself with the book, it’s stuck with me a long time.

In closing, i'd like to thank Ms. Flynn for giving us Tanner Brock: the best name for a lawyer, ever.

Cross-posted in Reading, Running and Red Sox