Counting On The Alien Life Discovery Game-Changing Effect

In Gaza, Palestinians and Israelis are lobbing rockets and missiles at each others’ homes.  In Syria and Iraq, Sunnis and Shiites are murdering and beheading each other.  In Africa, Boko Haram continues its campaign of religious-based slaughter and kidnapping.  In central Asia, sectarian and tribal animosities have produced a wave of bombings and violence.  And in central America, conditions apparently are so bad that tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors have traveled hundreds of miles in a bid to cross the border into the U.S.

That’s why the best news of the last week was the announcement by NASA scientists that they believe that, within 20 years, humans will be able to confirm the existence of alien life.  They believe that current telescope technology, and new devices like the Transiting Exoplanet Surveying Satellite that will launch in 2017 and the James Webb Space Telescope that will launch in 2018, will allow us to detect the presence of liquid water and indications of life on other moons and planets in our solar system and elsewhere in the universe.  Could the scientists be wrong?  Certainly . . . but the rapid advancements in planet discoveries and related detection technologies make their prediction plausible.

Science fiction writers have long posited that the discovery of alien life would have a unifying effect on the fractured world of humanity.  Such a discovery, they theorize, would cause humans to realize that the tribal, ethnic, religious, and political differences between them are trivial in comparison to the differences between humans and other intelligent life forms.  The ancient animosities would end and all of humanity would band together and venture out into the galaxy on vehicles like the starship Enterprise.

Is it really possible that a discovery that humans are not alone might have such a game-changing effect?  It seems far-fetched that anything could alter the benighted mindsets of religious fanatics who want to enslave women or restore medieval caliphates, or penetrate the rigid ideologies of people who cling to tribal or sectarian hatreds that are centuries old.  But, after decades of experience, we know that other approaches — like countless peace talks, the toppling of governments, the expenditure of billions of dollars in aid and training and infrastructure improvement, and the issuance of toothless UN Security Council resolutions — don’t get at the core problems.

Sure, counting on the alien discovery game-changing effect may be pinning our hopes on an improbable scenario.  As we read about an angry and bitterly divided world, however, it may be all we’ve got.

Warping To The Future Of Space Flight

I didn’t know that NASA scientists were thinking about how they might design a faster-than-light ship, but it’s pretty cool that people are giving concrete thought to the topic.  Even cooler is the artist’s illustration, above, of what such a spacecraft would look like — from the warp core to the Star Trek-like command bridge.

We all have to pay attention to the realities of the world — but it’s nice to take a moment now and then to dream.  I firmly believe that our future ultimately lies in the stars, and sometimes I wish we did more to make that future come to pass.  Aspirational projects like the one described in the article linked above might help to spur us in that direction.

The Death Pool Lives Again

In a few short minutes, the new season of 24 will begin.  We celebrated today by reviving the 24 Death Pool.

This year we decided to start the pool without watching even a single episode of the show, or even knowing anything about the characters.  We got the list of the characters from the wikipedia and imdb websites and know only their names.  We don’t have any idea whether those websites even know what they are talking about when it comes to characters.  But, because it’s 24, we know that deaths will occur — inevitably and in droves.  Along with mayhem, torture, conspiracies, moles, Jack Bauer screaming, evil and clueless Presidents, and the failure of American intelligence agencies to maintain a “hard perimeter.”

When you don’t know anything about the characters you are drafting as likely future corpses, you can only fall back on tried and true 24 plotlines.  It therefore is not surprising that the first three people drafted were identified as “Agent” X, Y and Z.  If 24 teaches us anything, it’s that otherwise nondescript “agents” are as likely to be promptly knocked off as the red-shirted security guys on the original Star Trek.  Because I drafted last, all the “agents” were gone when I made my selection — so I chose “Pete,” a member of a hacking group.  I’m speculating that we know his name only because another character yells “Pete, look out!” before a bomb goes off and “Pete” is blown to kingdom come.

I’m ready, baby!  Bring on the deaths!

In Pluto’s Bad Luck Orbit

Pluto’s had a tough time of it.  It’s the loner of the solar system, orbiting in the cold regions of the Kuiper belt, far away from the warmth of the Sun.  It’s got the same name as one of the more pointless Disney cartoon characters.  Then, in 2006, it was exposed to the sizeist biases of scientists who decided that it should be embarrassingly downgraded from a planet to a “dwarf planet.”

But recently things were looking up for poor Pluto.  Two more moons were discovered in its orbit, bringing its total to five.  In the lunar satellite category, therefore, Pluto kicks the butts of those haughty, full-scale planets like Earth and Venus.  And then a naming contest for the new moons got underway, and people became interested when William Shatner — also known as Captain James T. Kirk, of the starship Enterprise, on Star Trek, the original series — suggested that one of the moons be called Vulcan, after the home world of his fellow Star Trek character Mr. Spock.  Vulcan was the top vote-getter by an overwhelming margin, and Pluto must have thought its luck had really changed for the better:  it would have a moon with a name that people would actually remember and that might, in some far distant time of routine space travel, become a kitschy tourist attraction as a result.

Alas!  Pluto’s luck could not hold.  The International Astronomical Union vetoed Vulcan, concluding that it was used elsewhere in astronomy and that Vulcan, the Greek god of the forge, was not sufficiently associated with Pluto, the god of the Underworld.  So, instead of Vulcan, Pluto will be orbited by Kerberos and Styx.

It must be depressing for Pluto to constantly be reminded of its grim, land of the dead namesake, and it’s got to be even more depressing to now be reminded of a mediocre ’70s rock band.  Cheer up, though, Pluto!  It could be worse!  Your new moon could have been named Kansas.

Red Planet, White Rock, Deep Meaning

NASA’s Curiosity rover has once again excited scientists with some provocative discoveries about Mars.

Curiosity drove over a Martian rock and broke it open, exposing a dazzling white exterior.  The striking ivory color indicates the presence of hydrated minerals in the rock.  As any person who walks around with a water bottle knows, “hydration” requires water, and hydrated minerals are those that are formed when water is found.  Curiosity also has detected clay-type minerals in a different rock — another clue suggesting the presence of water at some point.  These discoveries are part of a growing body of evidence that running water once existed on this part of the surface of Mars.

On Earth, water seems to have been a crucial building block in whatever process, or outside force, first created life.  If water flowed on the Red Planet, the odds are increased that life once existed there — and may exist there still.  Although the surface of Mars is now a dusty red desert, it is possible that water and ice remain in rock formations deep below the Martian surface.  If so, life may be found there, because studies on Earth indicate that life, once established, is remarkably hardy.  The expedition to drill into a lake buried beneath a two-mile thick sheet of ice in Antartica, for example, recently uncovered life forms even in that dark, desolate, and inhospitable location.  Why should life on Mars be any less tenacious?

I’m of the Star Trek generation.  I believe that looking for — and especially finding — life beyond the confines of our home planet is a good way to get squabbling humans to recognize that their differences are minor and not worthy of much attention in the grand scheme of things.  We need to move beyond a mindset that focuses exclusively on our own fleeting creature comforts and recognize that we live in but one tiny, wayward corner of an unimaginably vast universe.  It’s been 40 years since humans walked on the Moon.  When will we take the next step, to Mars and beyond, to see whether life in fact may be found elsewhere?

To Boldly Go . . . To A Theater Near You

The next installment in the venerable Star Trek franchise is called Into Darkness and will be released this summer.  The official trailer has hit the theaters.  Richard and I saw it when we took in The Hobbit a few weeks ago, and it looks awesome.

I think the original Star Trek characters — Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Uhura, Scotty, and Sulu — are in very good hands with J.J. Abrams at the helm, and the new cast is excellent.  In the first Abrams-directed episode, the film changed history and thereby veered away from the Star Trek back stories that would otherwise have limited the possible story lines in the new version.  I expect Abrams to spring all kind of surprises, and that sounds good to me.

The new film looks like it takes a long and pointed look at the arrogance and overconfidence of one James T. Kirk, and that’s a story that definitely needs telling.  I can’t wait!

I Say, Bring On The Next Star Wars Movie!

George Lucas has decided to retire, and to help fund his retirement he decided to sell Lucasfilm to The Walt Disney Company for $4 billion and change.  The deal not only should provide Lucas with a comfortable retirement, it also means that more Star Wars movies will be made.  Disney has announced that the next Star Wars movie, episode 7, is scheduled for release in 2015.

Many fans have expressed concern about the sale to Disney, how it will affect the Star Wars franchise, and whether the movies will stay true to Lucas’ vision.  I’m not one of them.  I loved the original Star Wars films — I remember watching the first movie, with awe and wonder, in the old University Flick theater on the Ohio State campus, and then promptly watching it again — but I eagerly anticipate a fresh look at the characters and the Star Wars universe.

Beloved film franchises can become creaky and rote over time; they get to the point where only diehard fans can watch them.  Those franchises are injected with new energy when the characters are re-imagined by new creative minds.  The Star Trek and Batman movies are good examples.  Does anyone object that Heath Ledger had the opportunity to give his dazzling interpretation of the Joker?

I don’t understand the concerns, anyway.  It’s silly to worry that Disney is going to produce dross.  It just paid $4 billion, in significant part, to buy the Star Wars franchise and the right to produce new movies.  It’s safe to assume the company isn’t going to run its huge investment into the ground by bringing junk to the big screen.  If anything, the Disney approach might avoid some of the excesses of the later Star Wars movies, which could mean we won’t see annoying “comic” characters like Jar-Jar Binks, leaden, embarrassing, and unbelievable romances, and another exploding Death Star to provide a big finish.  And it’s not as if Disney could over-commercialize the Star Wars characters, either.  This is the franchise that led the way with action figures, comic books, and made-for-marketing characters like the Ewoks.

Lucas always said that he envisioned the Star Wars saga as a nine-movie tale, with the final three movies following the stories of Luke, Leia, and Han Solo and their children.  That’s apparently what Disney is planning for the next installment of movies.  I’ll be interested in seeing what happens to those now-iconic characters.  The Star Wars universe is sweeping, and there are lots of good stories yet to be told. Bring on the next Star Wars movie!

Khaaaan!

I’m waiting for the new Star Trek movie.  It’s apparently being filmed, but the producer and director are keeping everything tightly under wraps — the better to surprise us when the movie is finally released, they say.

So, I’ll have to wait a while to see the new Star Trek 2 — whatever it might be called.  In the meantime, I’ll just have to enjoy the original Star Trek II:  The Wrath of Khan, with one of the greatest William Shatner as James T. Kirk scenery-chewing scenes of all time, as an agitated Kirk screws up his face before bellowing his anger out to the universe beyond:

Hinckley’s Buzzards

Swallows return to San Juan Capistrano, salmons return to the stream where they were spawned, Vulcans return to Vulcan to mate . . . and buzzards return to Hinckley, Ohio.

Every March 15 buzzards — also known as turkey vultures — flock back to the little town in northern Ohio, where they are greeted by residents and bird-watchers.  Today the the celebrants of Buzzard Day in Hinckley were rewarded by a number of sightings of the large black birds.

No one knows exactly why buzzards are so attracted to Hinckley.  Some say the original inhabitants of the town saw the birds circling a gallows on which members of the Wyandot tribe hanged a squaw suspected of practicing witchcraft, others say the buzzards were first attracted by a huge pile of animal remains left after the Great Hinckley Hunt of 1818. Whatever the reason, buzzards have been associated with Hinckley for as long as anyone can remember.

Left unanswered, of course, is why settlers would want to live in the vicinity of large, ugly, carrion-eating birds — or, for that matter, why anyone would want to celebrate the return of the filthy creatures when the Ides of March arrive.  Those are just some of the little mysteries that make small-town Ohio great.

Lessons Of The Lunar Nazis

The hottest ticket at this year’s Berlin Film Festival is a self-proclaimed “B Movie” called Iron Sky.  Its consciously over-the-top plot features Nazis trying to conquer Earth from a swastika-shaped base on the far side of the moon.

I doubt Iron Sky will ever make it to our local multiplex cinema, but the movie’s popularity shows, once again, that people are endlessly intrigued by Nazis.  Books, movies, and TV shows involving Nazis always seem to find an audience.

The original Star Trek had two episodes involving Nazis — one in which a drug-deranged Dr. McCoy goes back in time and changes history so Germany wins World War II, and another where a famous historian tries to help a culture by modeling it on Nazi Germany, with predictably disastrous results.  Nazis make great bad guys (and often comic relief), as Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and Inglourious Basterds, among many others, have demonstrated.  Some years ago the book Fatherland, about a detective who uncovers a dark secret in a triumphant Nazi Germany, was a best-seller.  Alternative histories in which Germany prevails in World War II also are a staple of that genre.

Nazi Germany was one of the most brutal, bloody, awful regimes in the history of the world.  Why is it such a popular subject for fiction — to the point where it can even be the subject of humor?  Why does Nazi Germany seem to be a far more popular setting for fiction than, say, Imperial Japan?

Perhaps it is just because Nazi Germany, with its goose-stepping soldiers, stiff-armed salutes, and elaborate uniforms and ceremonies, already seems so fantastic that it is especially well-suited to whatever embellishment a creative mind could supply.  I also wonder, however, whether fictionalizing Nazi Germany is just a kind of cultural defense mechanism.  If you routinely depict Nazi Germany as a setting for outlandish activities, maybe it is easier to forget that a racist, bloodthirsty, soulless government actually existed, slaughtering Jews by the millions and dominating Europe, only 70 years ago — within the lifetimes of millions of still-living people.

The 24 Movie

When a popular TV show ends, it’s not unusual for fans to be promised that a movie will be forthcoming.  Sometimes it happens (think Star Trek, for example) but often it doesn’t.  Deadwood fans were told movies would happen, but they haven’t.  (More’s the pity!)

It’s looking more and more like 24 will actually make it to the big screen.  Kiefer Sutherland — excuse me, I mean Jack Bauersaid this past weekend that the movie will begin filming this spring.  He added that the movie will pick up about six months after the end of the series and, like the TV show, will follow the characters during one 24-hour period.  The plot will involve the scowling, cranky, indomitable Chloe O’Brian, ace computer hacker and one of the most original TV characters ever.

There’s always trepidation when a favorite TV show gets the movie treatment.  Sometimes the gist of a TV show gets lost between the small screen and the big screen.  Twin Peaks was (for the most part) a great TV show; the movie wasn’t.

Let’s hope that the 24 movie is able to capture the frantic pace, the constant conspiratorial twists, and the rapidly mounting death toll that made the TV show so enjoyable.  And who knows?  Maybe we’ll get to see something we haven’t seen before — like Jack Bauer coming out of a bathroom.

Alien Love

Casting is underway for the next Star Trek movie.  According to the BBC, a British actor named Benedict Cumberbatch — and was there ever a more British name than Benedict Cumberbatch? — has been signed to play a role.  Cumberbatch is rumored to be playing the villain, and will join the actors who will reprise their roles as Kirk, Spock, Scotty and others from the last movie.

I don’t know Cumberbatch or his work, but I’m hoping he plays an alien.  Why?  Because we desperately need a good new Star Trek alien.

I’ve loved the Klingons, the Romulans, the Gorn, and the Borg.  I’m talking about aliens with large, throbbing veins in their heads, aliens with squiggly, snapping spinal columns that get inserted into machinery, and aliens that are wildly implausible from an evolutionary standpoint.  I want to hear the back story about some weird culture where aliens communicate solely by rhythmic slapping of their rear ends or children are required to fight to the death from the age of three.

I don’t want overdone computer-generated images, either.  I want an actor to sit in the make-up chair for hours to achieve the appropriate alien appearance.

It’s been a tough few years for the humans on Planet Earth.  Star Trek, give us a new alien to distract us from the concerns of our own, weary world!

“I’m A Doctor, Not . . . .”

God, I loved the character of Leonard “Bones” McCoy as played by DeForest Kelley.  Crusty, unforgiving, gravel-voiced, and possessed of no people sense whatsoever, Bones had no problem with calling it as he saw it, even if it was in the middle of a crisis.  And, of course, no other doctor in the history of medicine was as proficient and profound as Dr. McCoy in declaring that some red-shirted security guy was dead.

But for me, the best McCoy lines had to do with the fact that he was just a doctor, with the limited skill set that implied:

45 Glorious Years Of Star Trek

45 years ago — on September 8, 1966 — Star Trek first beamed across the airwaves of American television sets.

On that day, viewers first began to know Captain James Tiberius Kirk, Mr. Spock, Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy, Montgomery Scott, Lieutenant Uhura, and the other regular members of the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise.  William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, and DeForest Kelley became well-known faces and names.  Equally important, fans were introduced to the inspiring concept of the United Federation of Planets, with its concepts of brotherhood, and science, and peaceful exploration and coexistence with alien races.  The series offered the promise that better days lay ahead, when the human race could move beyond the racial division, strife, and savagery of the 20th century and realize its true potential.

Has any TV show been more influential to our society than Star Trek?  Not only did it captivate legions of devoted fans, it created a durable franchise that spawned multiple TV shows and movies that populated various points in the back story and front story of the original series.  It also introduced a host of sayings and gestures — “Live long and prosper,” the Vulcan split-fingered greeting, “Beam me up, Scotty,” and the Vulcan neck pinch, among others — that became, and remain, deeply engrained in popular culture.  The show’s vision of future vessels and devices also influenced design of military vessels and technological concepts.

For all of its influence and inspiration, Star Trek was, at bottom, a pretty darned good TV show.  (OK, some of the episodes stunk, but the good shows were really good.)  When 4:30 came on a weekday afternoon on the Ohio State University campus in the late 1970s, you’d find countless students — me and Flameface included — gathered around their TV sets, cold beers in hand, ready to watch once more the familiar, classic exploits of Kirk, Spock, and Bones and revel in being part of their world.

A Time Travel Update

Scientists have conducted experiments that have confirmed that individual photons cannot travel faster than the speed of light in a vacuum.

For a time, it was thought that photons might be able to travel faster than the speed of light.  That prospect left open some tantalizing possibilities, because under Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, if an object could travel faster than the speed of light it could evade principles of causality.  That is, an event’s effect, by traveling faster than the speed of light, could theoretically precede its cause, and time travel conceivably could occur.  The most recent experiments have ruled out that possibility, as least as it relates to photons.

Fortunately for fans of time travel everywhere (and everywhen), Einstein’s theories still permit random intersections of curved space-time continuums — i.e., wormholes — through which time travel could occur.  Thus, it remains possible that Star Trek‘s Dr. Leonard McCoy could inadvertently cause the Nazis to win World War II and that H.G. Wells’ Time Traveller could save Weena from the Morlocks, and you should still take care not to accidentally kill an ancestor and thereby prevent your own birth.