from OUR BRAINS to YOURS

Read what's on our minds and in our hearts on the official 100YSS blog.


Science Movie Review: Arrival

by Ronke Olabisi, PhD, 100YSS Researcher

This contains no spoilers. Do yourself a favor, do not read reviews with spoilers. This movie is worth watching unadulterated.

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There is a certain beauty in sadness. Not in the enduring or the surviving of sadness, but in the choosing of it. In the caregivers who choose to enter palliative care for children, who choose to befriend these wonderful children despite knowing the sadness they must endure at the friendship’s inevitable end. In the May-December romances where one partner chooses to love despite knowing that they will most certainly outlive that love. The beauty in choosing to serve the homeless, the poor, refugees, or any suffering group for which there will always be more, an unstoppable flow that will never be staunched.

This beauty is embodied in Dr. Louise Banks, a linguist who at the film’s start we witness suffer a tremendous loss. We follow her moving throughout her day, unsmiling, and barely noticing the crowds clustered about televisions tuned to news coverage have likely been populated by the students in her now empty classes. When she is prompted to check in, she follows with interest like the rest of us and is recruited by the military to translate the alien speech. It is an interesting endeavor, particularly since we have yet to successfully communicate with whales, who have complex language and as different an anatomy to us as the film’s aliens.

However, in the film, the aliens have technology and are also attempting to communicate with us. Here we learn about the alien language while learning more about our own. We learn how subtle characteristics of language can affect one’s world view. Certain languages have masculine and feminine forms and native speakers of these tend to view certain nouns as male or female. For instance, to an English speaker the word “university” is gender-neutral, while to a Spanish speaker it is feminine. Speakers of the Australian aboriginal language do not use words such as left foot or right hand, but will indicate their east foot and south hand, depending on the direction they are facing. Thus, they always know what direction they are facing. Such distinctions affect how one views the world around them. Such distinctions define how we interact with our environment.

Exposure to certain types of speech can affect our levels of anxiety; people who regularly watch ratings-based news channels with “if it bleeds it leads” philosophies are substantially more prone to develop stress, anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorders. The film explores these myriad effects of speech and language on people and cultures, while teaching us about the visiting aliens as we learn their language. As different groups from around the world make headway with their translations, the culture and language of the linguists inform their translations. Since our world is one in which we so easily misunderstand each other, the inevitable outcome is that we transfer these misunderstandings to the aliens.

The film deftly acquaints us with these aliens, with Dr. Banks as our guide, negotiator, and translator. Woven throughout the film are moments of awe, nail-biting tension, and beauty. We experience the revelations with Dr. Banks, we see the beauty in her choices and we do not know that we would do the same. The special effects are superb — it is an accomplishment to successfully impart a sense of immense weight to something that is floating. It is very rare that a film is better than the story it was adapted from (Ted Chiang’s The Story of Your Life), but somehow this story that was just essentially a long linguistics lesson, is the best science fiction film I have seen in a while.

Rating: Gourmet movie.

The science:

It was a pretty wise choice to limit the understanding to our perspective and not attempt to explain the science. That way, there was nothing that they could get woefully wrong.

Aliens: the aliens are essentially octopi amputees. With 7 limbs and a bulbous upper part, I could only see an octopus missing a leg. Then I was reminded of Europa where the aliens also look like octupi. Not that aliens wouldn’t look like octopi, but what is this fascination with octopi? It would be interesting to see aliens that actually looked like nothing we had ever seen before.

Alien ships: there are scenes where the gravity is manipulated by the aliens. It is disorienting and was depicted as diminishing before gradually changing directions. Since gravity is experienced as acceleration, and acceleration is the second derivative of position with respect to time, the change in gravity over time would be a cubic expression, hence continuous rather than discontinuous. In other words, the gravity change should be smooth — its depiction was accurate.

Linguistics: Yes. So much yes. The approach that one would make when learning a language with no known corollary would have to be very basic. The commonalities needed and approach taken by Dr. Banks was appropriate. But also, more and more studies speak to the effect that language has on our minds. Aboriginal Australians are essentially human GPSs because their language requires them to be. In certain languages there aren’t additional words for the numbers 11-20, but direct translations of them would be ten-one, ten-two… two-tens. Child speakers of these languages tend to be accelerated over English speakers with arithmetic because they don’t have to figure out that ten plus two equals twelve, their language tells them.


Arrival is in theatres November 11, 2016.



A World First Glimpsed in Science Fiction Becomes Reality

Artist’s conception of the surface of Proxima b. (ESO/M. Kornmesser)

by Jason Batt

Exoplanet experts, interstellar proponents and space enthusiasts are celebrating the recent announcement of the discovery of Proxima b — an Earth sized planet orbiting within the habitable zone around our closest neighboring star, Proxima Centauri, just 4.2 light year away. Proxima b is “just what the author ordered”.  

Guillem Anglada-Escude, is a Queen Mary University of London astronomer and lead the group that discovered Proxima b. Anglada-Escude is not shy about his love of science fiction and its influence on his own astronomical exploration. This recent discovery was no exception. In an interview with Nature magazine, Anglada-Escude recounted reading Stephen Baxter’s 2015 science fiction novel Proxima which described in amazingly accurate detail the planet that Anglada-Escude and his team had just discovered but not yet announced. “He didn’t know anything about it [when he wrote] … it was a bit astonishing.”

The author, Baxter, has explored the possibilities of reaching Proxima Centauri in both fiction and non-fiction. In 2012, Baxter with co-author Robert M. Freeland II examined, a proposal for a robotic probe to Proxima Centauri entitled, “A Fully Decelerated Probe to Alpha Centauri Using a Perturbed Project Daedalus Design” which was originally published in the 100 Year Starship 2012 Public Symposium Conference Proceedings. The paper considered “a long stay mission to explore the Alpha Centauri system with a fast unmanned probe.”

Expanding on this “long stay mission,” Baxter’s fictional work, Proxima, starts with reference to a fictional interstellar probe: “a one-shot unscrewed mission to Proxima Centauri intended to deliver a probe to study the habitable world the astronomers had found fifty years earlier orbiting that remote star” and  examines the world-changing events of such a probe. The once fictional world has been found in the real world by astronomers; it is a welcome target for interstellar experts to set their sights. The discovery of Proxima b provides a potentially much closer target than ever before—a target that might be explored by a probe similar to what Baxter proposed.

100 Year Starship (100YSS) is building a global community of experts and advocates to ensure the all the capabilities required for human travel beyond our solar system to another star are a reality within the next 100 years.  Why?  Because all the advances in knowledge, technology and human systems needed for the successful interstellar voyage are fundamental to our survival as a species on this planet. And we know that pursuing an extraordinary tomorrow creates a better world today.

100 Year Starship believes the connection between science fiction and scientific discovery is invaluable to enabling the interstellar journey. The annual 100YSS Canopus Awards for Excellence in Interstellar Writing honors this critical influence. As Anglada-Escude referenced in the Nature interview, science fiction is the practice of “What if?”  What if there were a habitable world around our nearest stellar neighbor?  Writers tackle these questions. In the capable hands of authors like Baxter, societies profit from this form of robust speculation.


To nominate or submit a work for the 2016 Canopus Award, visit canopus.100yss.org.  

For more information on 100 Year Starship, visit 100yss.org.



100 YEAR STARSHIP ANNOUNCES SECOND ANNUAL CANOPUS AWARD TO HONOR EXCELLENCE IN INTERSTELLAR WRITING

HOUSTON, July 6, 2016 — The 2016 100 Year Starship (100YSS) Canopus Award for Excellence in Interstellar Writing is now open for submissions through August 30, 2016.  The annual prize recognizes the finest fiction and non-fiction works that expand our understanding of the challenges, opportunities, pitfalls and rewards of interstellar space exploration.

This year’s theme, “Near Steps to Interstellar,” explores what steps can or must be accomplished in the next five to 10 years to ensure successful human travel beyond our solar system to another star.    Achieving the capabilities for a human interstellar journey by 2021 will demand discontinuous, radical advances.  It also will require incremental progress be made in our knowledge of engineering, economics, social structures, biological systems, sustainability and commitment.  Finally, the reality is that the vast majority of people and their descendants will remain on Earth.  So, all along the way, how will the advances we make to get to the stars be exploited and impact life on Earth, our home planet?

The Canopus Award’s namesake is the second brightest star in the night sky.  The star Canopus has occupied a central role in the human journey over millennia—from an auspicious herald of planting seasons to a major navigation star for civilizations from the Bedouins of Sinai to the Voyager probe.  

The Canopus Award is a key program of 100YSS, an independent, long-term international initiative to ensure that the capabilities for human interstellar travel, beyond our solar system to another star, exist within the next 100 years.   100YSS led by former astronaut, engineer, physician and entrepreneur, Dr. Mae Jemison, together with advocates, researchers, industry experts and everyday people from all walks of life is building a global community capable of realizing this audacious journey.

“Storytelling is essential to communicating and concretizing a vision.  A story well told—fictional or non- fictional—pushes us to consider how, where, who and why we advance, stagnate or regress,” said Dr. Jemison.  “The Canopus Award invites writers and journalists to join the adventure.”

This year’s Canopus Award will be made in seven categories.  The first three categories are for Previously Published Works with awards made for Long Form Fiction (40,000 words or more), Short Form Fiction and Popular Non-Fiction (between 1,000 and 40,000 words).  

The categories for Original Works are based on this year’s 100YSS theme Near Steps to Interstellar.   Awards will be given for Original Short Form Fiction (1,000-6,000 words) and Original Short Form Non-fiction (1,000-6,000 words).

In addition, two new award categories are being introduced this year for Original College Works, including Original College Short Form Fiction (1,000-5,000 words) and Original College Short Form Non-fiction (1,000-5,000 words).

Prizes include a spectacular crystal award, cash, publication, sponsorship to 100YSS special events and programs.

100YSS is currently accepting submissions of Original Works and nominations for Previously Published Works until August 30, 2016.  Five finalists will be selected from each of the seven award categories and will be announced in September. Canopus judges will then select one winner from each list of finalists. Winners will be announced and honored during a special award ceremony at 100YSS’ annual public event.

According to Canopus Award director Jason Batt, 2016 will also include an opportunity for a glimpse at the contributions that visual, digital and musical art make to shape the future. Exact details will be released in August 2016.

For more information about award criteria, nomination and submission, visit http://canopus.100yss.org.  To nominate or submit works to the Canopus Award, visit http://canopus.100yss.org.

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ABOUT 100 YEAR STARSHIP™

100 Year Starship™ (100YSS) is an independent, non-governmental, long-term initiative to ensure the capabilities for human interstellar flight exist as soon as possible, and definitely within the next 100 years. 100YSS was started in 2012 with seed-funding through a competitive grant from DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) for the purpose of fostering the type of explosive innovation and technology and social advances born from addressing such an incredible challenge.  To foster such innovation, 100YSS engages in collaborative international programs and projects in research and innovation, science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) capacity building, entrepreneurship and education projects with and between organizations, companies, universities and individuals.  Programs and projects include yearly public gathering, 100YSS Cruciblesä expert workshops to jump start new disciplines, envisioning Center for Advanced Aerospace Manufacturing, public outreach and advocacy, membership and educational.  Based in Houston, TX, 100YSS recently opened an affiliate in Brussels, [email protected] and is in the process of developing affiliates in Africa and Asia.

100YSS is part of the Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence. For more information, visit www.100yss.org.  

Find us on social media:

Facebook:            www.facebook.com/100YearStarship

Twitter:                                   [email protected]



Science Fiction and the Symposium



Exploring The Future of Conflict in Space

by August Cole, Nonresident Senior Fellow, Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security (@august_cole) 

Guest Columnist

Our understanding of armed and social conflict is rooted in written histories like Thucydides’ volumes on the Peloponnesian War. What about tomorrow’s wars, particularly those that look nothing like the conflicts of today? That is the realm not of historians, but science fiction writers.

The Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council, a non-partisan think tank in Washington, has launched the Art of Future Warfare project in order to explore tomorrow’s wars through the lens of the artistic community. Not only does the project seek visions of the future, but also insight into artist’s methods and ways of working in order to enrich the national security debate and help prepare for – and prevent – future armed conflict.

Conflict in space poses a particularly rich subject for writers and a vexing challenge for government and industry leaders, particularly at a time when the American public is losing its connection to manned space flight. The cold vacuum among the stars would seem to ceded to lifeless satellites and probes, with film, games and books our best vehicles today for projecting ourselves into space. Imagination matters more than ever.

To that end, the Art of Future Warfare project runs creative challenges, such as the current one seeking short stories about space and interstellar conflict set during the final decade of the 21st Century. Will humankind leave its warring past behind when it sets out into space? Or will a tumultuous and violent legacy follow it, or even drive it, to the stars?

For the contest, stories should be between 2,000 to 4,000 words long and must be submitted by March 30, 2015. A panel of judges from the Atlantic Council, the website War On The Rocks and the 100 Year Starship will select a pool of finalists from which bestselling science-fiction writer David Brin will help choose the winner. The winner, who will be announced on April 20, 2015, will have their travel expenses to a May 18 Atlantic Council space-conflict event covered. This event will feature David Brin, the 100 Year Starship and War On The Rocks, among others. The winner will also have the opportunity to showcase their work and creative process on the Art of Future Warfare and the War On The Rocks websites.

See more on the contest at the Art of Future Warfare website.



He Lived Long and We Prospered For It

J. Batt

It was 1984 and the line at the drive-in theater in Denver for The Search for Spock felt like the longest line my nine-year-old self had ever been in. It was my first time seeing a Star Trek film on the big screen. We’d driven hours to get there and when the credits rolled, I was convinced it was worth it. It’s an odd entry point into the Star Trek franchise but my parents hadn’t let me see Wrath of Khan (something about violence and frightening images). Since it was my first experience with Star Trek, I’ve since viewed the franchise as being Spock’s story. Yes, Kirk was cool, but Spock was, and still is, the core of the series for me. I was a science geek and reveled in seeing a hero who overcame his challenges with science and rationality. The passing of Leonard Nimoy, the actor that brought Spock to life, has recalled those powerful, shaping moments sitting in theaters or at my house, watching Star Trek, dreaming of going “where no man has gone before.”


Leonard Nimoy passed away at 83 on February 27 due to end-stage chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. His death has been felt from the masses of fans to the White House itself. Astronaut Buzz Aldrin said that Nimoy was “a fellow space traveler because he helped make the journey into the final frontier accessible to us all.“ Don Lincoln, a senior physicist at Fermilab, acknowledged Nimoy’s influence: “The fact is that Spock was a cool geek. Scientists are not always portrayed as being very strong. Usually, they’re the guy with the tape on their glasses and their pants too high. He was clearly a person who had desirable components beyond just being smart.” 


Born to Orthodox Jewish immigrants from the Soviet Union, Nimoy grew up in Boston. Nimoy once remarked, “My folks came to the U.S. As immigrants, aliens, and became citizens. I was born in Boston, a citizen, went to Hollywood and became an alien.” He took acting courses from Boston College and later earned an MA in Education from Antioch College. Later in his life, he received an honorary doctorate for his activist work in Holocaust remembrance. He embraced acting early on and discovered that it was the one thing he wanted to do. He has acted in many roles before and after his primary run as Spock.
Yet, it was his portrayal of Spock that brought him both acclaim and fame. Spock was a consistent character that appeared through nearly every incarnation of the franchise from the original series to the recent J. J. Abrams’ reboot films. Nimoy’s Spock was done masterfully, creating a sense of reservedness and yet being incredibly relatable to viewers and fans. Yet, Spock was not a static character that fell into a repetition of his own stereotype. Nimoy first defined the character, so far as to actually have been the source of Spock’s famous greeting: “Live Long and Prosper.” Nimoy also grew the character, giving a strong emotional portrayal to Spock in Abrams’ reboot—a portrayal that brought echoes of Obi Wan Kenobi’s grandfatherly mentorship. 


Nimoy’s public persona was tightly intertwined with the character he portrayed for over four decades. Nimoy said, “Spock is definitely one of my best friends. When I put on those ears, it’s not like just another day. When I become Spock, that day becomes something special.” Nimoy wrestled with that public identity, evidenced in publishing two books, titled I Am Not Spock and alternatively I Am Spock. Nimoy later said, “I went through a definite identity crisis. The question was whether to embrace Mr. Spock or to fight the onslaught of public interest. I realize now that I really had no choice in the matter. Spock and Star Trek were very much alive and there wasn’t anything that I could do to change that.”
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden released this statement: “Leonard Nimoy was an inspiration to multiple generations of engineers, scientists, astronauts, and other space explorers … As Mr. Spock, he made science and technology important to the story, while never failing to show, by example, that it is the people around us who matter most. NASA was fortunate to have him as a friend and a colleague.” Star Trek’s influence on NASA and space exploration was recognized publicly in 1976 when NASA named the first shuttle orbiter “Enterprise” in a ceremony that included astronauts, NASA personnel, Nimoy himself and other Star Trek cast members.


We remember Leonard Nimoy fondly for his and his character’s influence on this world’s space enthusiasts and explorers. His final Twitter message is, perhaps, the most apt final Tweet yet: “A life is like a garden. Perfect moments can be had, but not preserved, except in memory.” Today, we at 100 Year Starship, along with the world, honor the memory of Leonard Nimoy.

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The Dying of the Light: Nolan's Interstellar

Movie Review by J. Batt

100YSS Interactive Media & Editorial Manager, and Author

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SPOILER ALERT!

Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar strives to be the spiritual successor to Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001. Just as it was in Clarke’s science fiction classic, at the core of Interstellar is the challenge to humanity to rediscover our role as pioneers and explorers. Nolan communicates this call resoundingly. The fate of humanity rests on our ability to “look up and wonder about our place in the stars, not look down to the dirt.” Cooper embodies this renegade pioneer, a maverick that channels the “right stuff” often. We are met with the “caretaker” mentality early on, and a voice is given to what is possibly underlying much discourse across our world today as space exploration takes a back seat to other concerns: “Teach them about this planet. Not about leaving it.” Cooper tackles that one directly: “We’ve forgotten who we are … Explorers, pioneers. Not caretakers.”

The juxtaposition of the stars with the Midwest cornfields reinforces this conflict in humanity. Having grown up in Nebraska looking across fields of corn identical to the ones Cooper’s family did, I connected with the daily toil of taking care of the present needs rather than off looking towards the stars. And that’s at the heart of the argument: can today’s people and today’s needs be met with long-time efforts? Is there a balance at all? On the far end of this argument are Mann and Professor Brand (whose name choice makes me wonder if Nolan wasn’t trying to allude to the Long Now Foundation’s lead, Stewart Brand). Cooper must wrestle with these philosophies and strives to find a place in between that satisfies both, his heart pulled to the needs of his living family and still managing to reach across the eons to save all of humanity itself.

Rather than actually attempting to answer this dichotomy of thought, the film attempts something different. The bridge between the near and the far aspects of humanity’s survival was only crossed because Cooper himself transcends the dimensions of time and space. Yet, if there had been no miraculous cosmic fifth-dimensional beings (possibly humans) and their mysterious tesseract suspended in a black hole (and just writing that makes me think we’re drifting into Tolkien’s territory more than Clarke’s), Cooper wouldn’t have succeeded. This is where, philosophically, this film fails. The pioneering spirit wasn’t enough to solve the problem. Murphy’s scientific prowess and curiosity were not enough to crack the code of gravity without supernatural aid. And when scientific endeavor rests on supernatural revelation, we risk nullifying the scientific spirit.

The theme of science and the supernatural is laced throughout the film. Murphy’s ghost is at first a supernatural agent and in the end, while a pseudo-scientific explanation is given, it’s still a supernatural agent. Scientific thought and reflection is crouched in religious terminology: “… When you’re done praying to it?” and Professor Brand’s nearly final lines: “You had faith … All these years. I lost it. Faith.” This repeated language isn’t necessary to the film but it does feel natural. Religious terminology is a language that many audience members are likely familiar with and it’s possible Nolan was very well aware that this might bridge the gap for people to reignite their scientific curiosity. However, this is speculation only. I suspect that supernatural language was employed by Nolan throughout in order to prepare us for the final moments of the film where the film becomes entirely a supernatural experience with only a thin veil of scientific explanation to mask it.

This is not to say that Nolan doesn’t fan the flames of scientific wonder. At the least, he does bring back the wonder of space travel. He repeatedly moves us back to a hull-bound camera view, much like the ones that have provided us outside views of the shuttle and ISS throughout the years. Nolan is wanting us to see his future NASA as a natural extension of the Apollo NASA and the ISS NASA, possibly with the intent to have us wonder if our current space exploration institutions are capable of bridging the gap. Nolan’s visuals also reinforce the stillness and the immensity and the violence of space–all aspects that space opera like Star Wars gloss over. The flyby of Saturn was haunting. We will explore the universe in fragile crafts with only inches of aluminum between us and the dark void, not in the Millennium Falcon.

Nolan’s worlds also invoked the reality of the true alienness of the rest of the universe. The worlds we discover won’t be Hoth’s or Dagobah’s. They will be bizarre. In our own solar system, it’s hypothesized that Saturn actually has rain made of diamonds. The universe is far more strange than what most science fiction has explored. Trying to recreate the universe on Burbank sound-stages (ala Star Trek) forces a limit on the bizarreness to be displayed. Nolan achieves something rare and potentially a first in science fiction. He has given us alien worlds that are truly alien.

There are other bright moments through the film, one of the most notable being the robotic TARS. We’re definitely meant to compare TARS to Clarke’s murderous HAL. TARS even jokes about blowing the crew out the airlock. These robots are also a unique invention. Nolan took the 2001 monolith and gave it a snarky personality and an ability to ambulate–a unique robotic vision in the science fiction sea of similar droids.

Beyond TARS, Nolan continues to make allusions to 2001. The docking procedure is eerily reminiscent of the earlier work. Nolan also pulls from the breathtaking sound library of the earlier film. We hear the 2001 fear-inducing limited note hum in multiple moments, the most obvious one being the Endurance’s flyby of Gargantua. Then there is the drop down the rabbit hole. Cooper’s descent into the fifth dimensional museum of his past is this film’s “It’s full of stars” moment. However, where the scenery of Saturn, the travel through the wormhole, and the beautiful vistas of the ice planet potentially exceed some of the harrowing moments of 2001, the “behind the bookshelf” scene completely tosses the sense of wonder that Clarke’s final moments of 2001 evoked. Nolan would’ve done well to remember his own words from the beginning of the film: “Science is about admitting what we don’t know.” In trying to pseudo-scientifically explain everything rather than allowing some things to simply be, Nolan doesn’t allow his characters to have any outstanding questions at the end and, through proxy, the audience doesn’t either. And here is where the wonder is lost.

Nolan’s monolithic TARS, his three alien worlds (although the final one seems to be a simple analog of Mars), his wormhole (which borrows from Madeleine L'Engle’s works), his multi-axis black hole, and his tesseracted rabbit hole, all supply testimony that he is a true student of Clarke. Clarke’s most-oft cited quote is “The universe is not only stranger than we imagine, it’s stranger than we can imagine.” Interstellar is carefully arranged to plumb this thought in every new visual and concept.

Finally, Nolan reveals his expertise as a student of science fiction with the final reveal of Cooper Station. This is Clarke’s Rama beautifully rendered. For this, whether it was necessary or not, Nolan should be applauded. So many fantastic images from Clarke and the early pioneers of science fiction have never been accurately attempted. My inner fanboy was absolutely delighted with this rendering, having wanted to bound through the interior of the great hulk of Rama since I first read about it in Rendezvous with Rama.

On to the nitpicking! There are a number of head-scratching moments throughout this work. The very thought of attempting to drift near a black hole, planet or no planet, seems absolutely ludicrous. And while much praise has been given to the visual accuracy of the black hole in Interstellar, much of the science, apart from the relativity of time, seems ignored. Skirting as close as they did, Cooper should’ve been made to resemble spaghetti rather than finding himself in a wonderful sciencey-wordy laden version of Alice’s rabbit hole.

The environmental disaster is both frightening and yet indecipherable. We don’t know what spawned it and its possible that we are not to know and simply speculate what in our current world with give rise to a future like that. It would’ve been nice if there had been more explanation given here. It would’ve helped cement the fear we see in the characters as their world grows worse yet we never truly feel this fear ourselves.

Oh, and how does a planet receive enough energy from a black hole? If the Miller’s planet was close enough for time to be altered, then radiation would surely not have been able to sustain liquid water.

While gravity is a repeated theme and concept of the film, Nolan seemed quite comfortable to shut it off when it didn’t suit the plot. They needed rocket boosters to escape Earth’s gravity well but on a planet with 130% of Earth’s gravity, the flier is able to get out on its own propulsion? We use standard chemical fuel to escape Earth but then utilize some fantastical method for the rest of the journey? This was a head-shaker.

As well, I simply don’t get how Cooper lives within driving distance of a secret NASA base. By accident. Just a short drive away. Just by pure chance. And it happens, also by chance, to be where they are building a future space station and the intergalactic mission.

I’m also not sure that love is quantifiable. It’s a nice thought experiment that Hathaway’s Brand falls into. But the digression that love might just be something that connects us to higher dimensions (although the speech prepares us for later plot elements) degrades her character from being a pioneering explorer on Cooper’s level to being just another supporting character compelled by nonsensical romantic compulsions. And I’m just not sure that love is an aspect of higher dimensional order. It’s a nice thought but felt forced and, ultimately, completely unneeded.

Hathaway’s character is also minimized further by the application of the standard damsel-in-distress trope. She foolishly heads off, gets stuck under machinery, and the robot must come to her aid. That’s not the insulting part. To further harken back to exhausted damsel trope, the robot carries her in its arms back to the ship. Please insert groan here.

Above all these, the most annoying issue I have with the film is its misuse of the word “interstellar.” The mission Cooper and Brand take is an intergalactic mission, to a system of worlds in another galaxy. Not to another star. Not to Alpha Centauri. Not to Canopus. Not to any stars that we see in our night sky. Why is this frustrating? Because in a film dedicated to reigniting scientific wonder and thought, it reinforces some of the basic scientific illiteracy of our world. We aren’t headed outside our galaxy for a very, very, very long time. Yet, there are efforts now that are working towards the dream of true interstellar flight–that is flight to a neighboring star. And yes, there is great potential that these neighboring stars (within our own galaxy), could have habitable worlds.

Leaving the nitpicking alone, I enjoyed this film. As a space enthusiast (make that a space geek), I loved the sense of wonder that is before us as we seek to explore the stars. As a boy from Nebraska that grew up surrounded by cornfields, I loved the imagery and the reinforcement of hope within a hopeless landscape. As a aficionado of science fiction, I delighted in Nolan’s subtle allusions to the classics of the genre, each respectfully noting his (and ours, within both space exploration and science fiction) indebtedness to those great works. As a father myself, Nolan brought a tear to my eyes several times throughout this. As a member of the human race that so desperately wants to discover what’s out there, I applaud Nolan for creating a work that does force us to look up to the stars and not stare down at the dirt. It has its odd moments, it blunders into tropes and unneeded supernatural thinking, but, overall, Nolan has created something which does deserve to be considered as the true descendant of Clarke’s 2001



Interstellar: There Is No Love

Movie Review by Ronke Olabisi, PhD

100YSS Researcher and Science Movie Reviewer

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This is so chock full of spoilers that if you don’t want to know what happened, watch the movie then read this review.  Needless to say SPOILERS AHEAD!!

Full disclosure. I am a Christopher Nolan fan. I enjoy the way his movies unfold. The experience is not so much akin to watching a plot laid out linearly as it is to watching someone solve a Rubik’s cube. Anyone can watch a story and see it to the end; in Memento, The Prestige, Inception, and the Bane/Talia subplot of The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan forces the audience to figure out the twists and turns and to solve the puzzle with him. A compelling enough puzzle captures the audience, makes us ignore otherwise glaring flaws, and has us coming back for more. I wanted to love this movie and was extremely excited to do so. I did not love this movie.

The film is set some time in the future, maybe 50 - 100 years, after a food blight has destroyed most of the food and killed billions of people. It is unclear whether we did this to ourselves with global warming, genetic engineering, or whether nature just turned on us. All that is clear is that blight has killed all food but corn, as we see McConaughey’s Cooper sit down with his family to eat 3 different preparations of corn. This corny meal should have been a clue as to what was in store. Despite the food shortage, everyone has plenty of gasoline and cars to transport them through what looks to be a recurrence of the 1930s Dust Bowl with random dust storms coating everything in their wake. Nevertheless, when a low-flying drone crosses their property, Cooper, his daughter Murph, and son Tom drive through all this precious corn to take down the drone to get its solar equipment. He claims the solar cells could power all the farm equipment, but everyone seems to have enough gas but not enough food. This garnered my first eye roll.

Murph claims she has a ghost or a poltergeist in her room, and after initially dismissing her, Cooper sees that there are anomalies and translates some of these messages into the coordinates of a secret base that turns out to be NASA’s new digs. Once there, they are told that 50 years ago gravitational anomalies like the one that led them there were discovered near Saturn. These anomalies turn out to be a wormhole, and because wormholes are inherently unstable, they theorize that some intelligent beings placed it there to help us humans find a new home to destroy. They’ve found 12 potentially inhabitable worlds and sent 12 astronauts to each to report back on the conditions there, with the most ridiculous caveat — you only get rescued if your world is habitable. This ridiculous condition comes back to bite everyone later. This caused eye-roll number two, specifically because the robots of this future world are particularly accomplished. Monolithic in shape and an obvious nod to 2001: A Space Odyssey, these robots show themselves more capable at this exploration thing than the crew we watch bungling their mission.

And the notion that the new underground (literally) NASA could afford to do this despite being officially defunded and disgraced (school children now learn the Apollo landings were faked), earned eye-roll number 3. Their off-the-books investment in 12 ships would cost trillions of dollars and would require training missions that would surely be noticed by the public. But in this story, all training is virtual (eye roll 4), and as a former pilot/engineer Cooper is recruited on the spot to pilot this mission without any additional training because, hey, it’s like riding a bike, right? Eye roll 5. NASA’s new mandate: Plan A — find a new habitable world and transport everyone from Earth, after they solve a particularly difficult equation that shows how to use gravity to do so. Plan B — find a new habitable world and repopulate it with frozen embryos.

Cooper leaves his family to pilot the ship through the wormhole and Murph can’t forgive him for leaving them, setting up the story to become about the love and reconciliation between a father and a daughter (never mind that he also had a son). McConaughey’s Cooper left daughter Murph with a watch that would someday be instrumental in saving both her and the human race, in a nod to the movie Contact where McConaughey’s Palmer gives Jodie Foster’s Ellie a compass that saves her from being crushed to death. The dusty backdrop of his sad departure is quickly replaced by our introduction to the wormhole. The visuals for the wormhole are beautiful and represented in a way I have not seen in film before, though I remembered their explanation from when I was 8 and read A Wrinkle in Time, a point also noticed by Slate’s Phil Plait. He and I fundamentally agree about this movie. The minute they got through the wormhole and arrived not at a solar system, but at a black hole system, with 3 planets orbiting a black hole, my eyes were feeling the strain from the eye rolls (count at 6). My thoughts: why are they stopping here? If there is no life-giving sun, are they getting all that light from the black hole’s accretion disks? Aren’t these incredibly deadly? Why is nobody mentioning this? If one hour down on the planet equates to 7 years earth time, why not send the robot out to gather the needed data, instead of slow humans to get it? Especially after we see how fast the robot is when it needs to rescue and carry the only female astronaut to safety? I hate this damsel-in-distress trope. And the astronaut who was close enough to the ship to save himself but just stood dumbly watching the robot save Hathaway’s Dr. Brand irritated me in causing his own death.

When they return, 23 years have passed, and the astronaut who was waiting for them, Gyasi’s Romilly, chose to stay awake for much of the time rather than hibernating or leaving them there to complete the mission himself. Cooper sits to an emotional viewing of 23 years of his son Tom’s recordings, from his happy news at finding a mate, the birth and eventual death of their first child, Jesse, a nod to The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford where the same actor (Casey Affleck) plays the titular Robert Ford. Only this time, Affleck’s Tom is sad about Jesse’s death. At the end we see Tom give up on his father and say goodbye. The very last video we see is finally of an adult Murph, still angry, and stating that now she is the age of her father when he left.  This did not make sense to me, given the 2 years that it took them to get to Saturn, plus maybe 1 to get to where they were orbiting the black hole, making it 26 years. So 10-year old Murph would be 36? Does that mean that McConaughey’s Cooper is supposed to be 36 when we meet him? The actor is 45, and he looks a mid-forties, not a mid-thirties. Murph looked mid-thirties, and the actress is indeed 37.  It was so distracting that I kept checking my math.

Having burned up too much fuel to visit both remaining prospective planets, they must vote on one. Dr. Brand wants to go see her boyfriend, and rather than really make the case for his planet on a purely scientific basis, she starts describing love as a force that transcends space and time as though this reasoning means the planet is hospitable. Of course, this completely undermines and ruins her argument. As a female engineer and researcher, if I ever gave an explanation like that for any of my conclusions, I would immediately lose all respect in my community. Based on the dearth of female astronauts and scientists at NASA, I can only assume that in Nolan’s future women are still a minority in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. We are often judged differently, and we are very aware of it. I know no female researcher who would talk like that about love, particularly to support their scientific conclusions. Scientifically, one could describe love as a biochemical reaction in the brain involving the release of neurotransmitters that mediate attachment and partner preference. Spiritually, I would say that love is the most important thing in the world. But I would never conflate a spiritual explanation with a scientific one. Hearing Dr. Brand do this caused eye rolls 6, 7, and 8. Schadenfreude got the better of me and I was happy they went against her wishes.

On the planet, they find a now crazy Dr. Mann (I won’t spoil the cameo surprise), who winds up having been so lonely that he cries upon seeing another human’s face, yet he tries to kill them all so he can complete Plan B. This whole sequence was completely nonsensical as he would need at least one uterus for Plan B and he does not have one; if he’s so lonely why’s he trying to kill everyone; if Cooper was able to subdue him, why not get off of him when it’s obvious Mann’s head butting of Cooper is damaging Cooper’s helmet and not his own? And finally, if you are trying to warn someone that they are about to kill themselves, mightn’t you mention that the airlock would blow if you opened it instead of simply repeating not to open it? And even still, Dr. Mann is an accomplished scientist.  If I know what’s about to happen if he opens an imperfectly sealed airlock, then he should as well.

This sets up Cooper and the robot to sacrifice themselves for the mission. Dropping into the black hole, they are saved by a tesseract constructed to protect them. Here Cooper is given the opportunity to both reconcile with his daughter, and transmit the needed information to save the human race. At this point, I was done. I wanted to see spaghettification — what would really happen if someone dropped into a black hole. The movie could have ended when he dropped into the black hole, but then the movie proceeded to end in 2 more places, tied neatly in a bow.  Cooper completed his mission then was placed right back in Earth’s solar system so that he could be rescued and see his daughter again, right before she died of old age — it could have also ended there. But after this brief, remarkably underemotional scene, he goes to find Dr. Brand Jr. To what? Bring her back? Are we going to any of these planets? Or now that we have the technology, are we good now with these space colonies we’ve created in our own solar system?

The visual effects in this film are stunning. It is absolutely beautiful. Sometimes, when we see beautiful people we ascribe more meaning to what they say than is deserving. I think it can be that way with films and audiences too. This movie is beautiful, the acting is top notch. For some, the father/daughter story is compelling. For me, it was a smoke and mirrors father/daughter story — if Murph joined the mission, she should have known the importance of Plan A, so her decades-long sustained anger did not ring true for me — once she realized her father had somehow managed to communicate to save her, she was no longer angry. But that was why he left in the first place — to save her — so why does one effort earn her love and forgiveness and the other does not? We are shown the two characters in parallel, but no longer interacting. There is no real exploration of Murph’s emotional journey, and no real relationship between the two anymore except in each other’s memory. The story is only compelling for those who see the mirror — the reflection of their own feelings about fathers and daughters. I saw smoke.

This was not movie Cheetos. Although I am vegetarian, I will use a meat analogy. This was the highest end Wagyu beef taken by misguided chefs who wanted the ultimate dining experience and marinated the beef in a concoction of puréed mac n’ cheese, ketchup, marmalade, syrup, cola and chocolate milk. While it is possible to love many of those things separately, together, it’s just too much and ruins what otherwise could have been a good thing.

The Science:

If this blight was so unstoppable that eventually it infected all plants, why did we not start growing plants in space? Or in biodomes? Or genetically engineering them to resist blight?

Sending humans is much more expensive than sending people, and on a scout mission why potentially send humans to their deaths when the robots could do just as good a job? We’ve only sent humans to our moon and that was preceded by unmanned reconnoissance. With satellites and robots we’ve explored Mercury, Venus, the Moon, Mars, Titan, Io, Europa, Ganymede, Callisto, Enceladus, Mimas, and peripherally, Saturn and Jupiter. The idea that this unmanned approach to scouting planets would change and we would send people on one way missions is ludicrous. If it were me, and I found myself on a desolate wasteland I might be compelled to say, “Yeah, hey guys, my planet’s great. Come get me!” A robot would not.

Even if NASA chose to send humans on a one way mission to explore these planets, they would never ever ever send a single astronaut. At minimum there would be a 2 person crew. If anything happened to that single astronaut, the mission would be a failure. There is redundancy in every system, even in the crew.

if Plan B was the true plan all along, how were they planning on gestating those frozen embryos? Dr. Brand Jr. spoke of gestating the first ones, but in what? They made no mention of artificial uteri. Then they stated that once enough of these humans had reached adulthood, they could become surrogates.  This was a very glossed over bioethical issue — part of this new world includes forced surrogacy? And if surrogacy was to be the way we save mankind, shouldn’t only female astronauts be sent? It’s already cheaper to send them — each pound sent into space costs hundreds of thousands of dollars in fuel — women weigh less, eat less, consume less oxygen, oh, and have uteri for this whole repopulation thing. And as any infertile couple exploring in vitro fertilization will tell you, the success rate is about 20-40%. Dr. Brand stated that they had 10,000 embryos, which is the minimum genetic diversity necessary to have a healthy non-inbred population. But with these success rates, they would wind up with only 2,000 - 4,000 people in this colony.

Everything about the time dilation sequence was irritating. As Plait noted (http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/space_20/2014/11/interstellar_science_review_the_movie_s_black_holes_wormholes_relativity.html), the science was miserably off. To get the kind of time dilation where 1 hour equals 7 years, that planet would have had to be no more than a few meters from the surface of the black hole. A stable orbit around a black hole has to be at minimum 3 times the size of the black hole, which means that in order to get the time dilation in the movie, the planet would be just about to be sucked into the black hole, hence not in a stable orbit and clearly not habitable. That close to a black hole, something called spaghettification happens.  Gravity near a black hole is not constant, but varies with distance, meaning that the part of the planet closest to the black hole is pulled more strongly than the planet furthest from the black hole, tending to stretch the planet until it pulls it apart, stretching it like spaghetti. And those crazy tides? We get tides from the rotation of the Earth and the gravitational pull on water in our oceans that is exerted by the moon and the sun. As the Earth rotates, different oceans face the moon or sun and are more subject to their pull. The planet in the film had impossibly high waves that are supposedly due to the crazy gravity of the black hole. But when gravity is that high, the planet would cease to rotate. Just as our moon shows us a single face because Earth’s gravity has overpowered its rotation, this planet would only show a single face to the black hole: no rotation, no crazy tides.

 When Cooper entered the black hole, he somehow managed to avoid spaghettification. He also managed to avoid being killed by the inexplicably unmoving accretion disk of the black hole. Accretion disks are spaghettified material swirling violently about a black hole before being pulled in. The forces involved in spaghettification heat up these accretion disks incredibly to more than a thousand times hotter than the surface of our sun. This heat makes them bright, bright enough to be seen millions of light years away, and they output enough deadly radiation to destroy anything nearby, including planets, space ships, robots, and Cooper.

The tesseract irritated me. Again, a concept introduced to me by A Wrinkle In Time, a tesseract is a 4 dimensional cube in the same way that a cube is a 3 dimensional square. The notion that future humans needed Cooper to communicate with his daughter in order to save the world and built a tesseract for him inside of a black hole so he could do so, then sent him back home so he could have a happy ending and reunite with his dying daughter sent my eyes rolling so much that it was at this point I lost count. The notion that 4-dimensional beings could not communicate in 3-dimensions was ridiculous to me, since every time I write a letter, it is a 2-dimensional representation of speech. I wanted the 4-dimensional beings to send a 3-dimensional letter. And let’s just pretend that they could not directly communicate with us. They were able to send both Cooper and his robot back, his robot who had all the necessary data in the first place. If they were able to place him anywhere, it follows that they would be able to take him from anywhere. So why not just take a robot from 50 years ago when the wormhole first appeared, put the robot in the black hole to get all that data necessary for this all-important equation, then put it back so they could solve the equation much earlier?

 I could go on, but then it would degenerate into a rant.



All Aboard 100 Year Starship

by Dr. Mae Jemison

This article was first published on the Scientific American Website.

In 2012, I asked LeVar Burton if he would join me on a trip across time and space, to another star.  And then I explained that, yes really.  I had a team with a modest seed-funded grant from DARPA to build an organization to ensure the radical leaps in knowledge, technology and human systems needed for people to travel to beyond our solar system within the next 100 years.

Knowing that I would totally get it—being the first person to appear on Star Trek to have actually traveled in space—LeVar said “Mae, you all are building the Federation!”  And he graciously said “Yes.”  We were honored when he agreed to be on the 100 Year Starship (100YSS) Advisory Board.  Yet that “Federation” comment, while a bit daunting, was extremely insightful and to the point.

Here’s why.  From the earliest moments of human history, human beings have gazed in awe at the infinite sweep of the heavens which persistently engaged their imagination, intellect, and emotion.  Today a misconception exists.  Many equate the dawn of space exploration with the launch of Sputnik and its accompanying cadre of engineers, scientists, and technologists.  Actually, space exploration began with the first miraculous human observations that tracked the shifting lights of the sky.  And ever since—across the globe—people, of every interest, socio-cultural affiliation, gender, age, economic status, and educational level have been dreaming about travel to the stars.

When most people think of deep space missions, first things to mind are the incredible technologies that must be designed, engineered and manufactured to address the very real physical challenges space beyond Earth orbit.  And, these are critical, tough, tough issues.  For example, interstellar distances, the distance between stars, are stultifying.  Voyager—one the very coolest things humans have accomplished in space exploration—would take over 70,00 years averaging the speed of 35,000 miles per hour it has been since 1977 to get to our closet neighboring star Proxima Centuri, 4.2 light years away, if it were heading that direction.  Clearly, too long a trip for us to get too excited about.  So that time and distance hurdle demands new energy generation technologies and propulsion systems.  Chemical systems will not do—we need to safely generate, store and control enormous quantities of energy from fission, fusion or antimatter.  (Quick aside.  Imagine what it would mean to us here on Earth if we were to achieve some small step along this path.) 

And, more technological and engineering challenges are mandatory.  From sustainable closed food and water systems, to radiation shielding and new robust materials and textiles, robotics and intelligent systems and equipment that error detect and self-correct, data storage, analysis and communications to medicine—all these areas require phenomenal advancements to even start the journey.  Such unfathomable leaps were also needed when we thought about travelling to the moon; particularly in the days when H. G. Welles wrote “First Man on the Moon” in 1901, yet less than less than 70 years later, there we were.   

Yet, I emphatically believe that the biggest hurdles to achieving interstellar flight are the sociocultural, political and economic factors.  And the humanities, social sciences, arts, politics, psychology and culture are an indivisible part of 100 Year Starship.  Success will most critically pivot upon 100YSS’ ability to ignite the imagination of and include the broadest swath of people in the journey.  100YSS does not have a date to launch a mission to another star; our task is to make such the capabilities across all human endeavors needed for such an undertaking are realized within a century and applied to enhance life here on Earth. The mission will most likely fail if it reflects an exclusionary posture that only some small set of people can fathom, let alone hope to participate.

In fact, it might be argued that the reason there, today, is no human presence on the moon is because there has, in a very essential way, been a lack of broad-based public support, understanding, willingness, and, perhaps most importantly of all—inclusion.  And this also extends to Mars, as we know its address as well.  Competing economic interests may play a role, but, given the amount of money actually necessary to achieve such an undertaking, the cost-factor was actually nominal, even incidental.[1] Rather the perceived “exclusivity of space” made much of the public feel space exploration would not benefit them or their children, and in fact, would leave them at a disadvantage.  So instead, the public settled for movies that included them in the form of characters and adrenalin and adventure and do-gooding quests.  The public never lost their fascination, they were just left out.

And here’s where the LeVar’s Federation challenge takes center stage.  In the Star Trek universe, the Federation is about ensuring that all people and sentient beings benefit and have a role in the forward evolution of that future.  The Federation is composed of individuals, societies and worlds that share a common ambition to explore and create a wondrous future.

100 Year Starship believes that pursuing an extraordinary tomorrow will create a better world today.  The sociocultural, political, scientific and technical communities must see human travel to the stars as not just aspirational for a few, but necessary for life here on earth to prosper and reach its full, potential. 

100 Year Starship invites you to be a part of building an inclusive, audacious journey that transforms life here on Earth and beyond.  Come to the Public Symposium this fall, follow us, twitter, friend us, check out website (100YSS.org), become a member, write papers, do research, draw, paint, sculpt, sew and film and tell stories…the universe is calling.  After all, space isn’t just for rocket scientist and billionaires—it’s an integral part of all of us.  



[1]“A rough cost estimate for Mars … about $20 billion  to develop all the required hardware, … each individual Mars mission costing  about $2 billion …  While representing a great sum, spent over ten years, it would only represent about 7 percent of the existing combined military and civilian space budgets.  …this money could drive our economy … the same way as the spending of $70 billion (in today’s terms) … Apollo program contributed to the high rates of economic growth in America during the 1960’s.“ The Case for Mars by Robert (New York: The Free Press, 1996), p.3.

This article was published on the Scientific American Website



Chasing Tomorrow...Inspiring Scientists and Engineers

 by Ronke Olabisi, PhD

This article was published in the SFWA 2014 Nebula Awards Bulletin under the title Sci-Fi and Science.

Since I was a little girl, I have been an avid reader of science fiction. I loved witnessing science fiction predict technologies. I first saw flat screen monitors, flip phones, and e-readers on the different incarnations of Star Trek, decades before they became reality. I first read of virtual reality in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. To me, Google Glass is just a slicker version of Luke’s targeting viewer he stowed away before destroying the Death Star. I cannot say which came first — a love of science or a love of science fiction. Regardless, they fueled one another and propelled me into a career in engineering.

As an engineer, I began to realize that a good portion of science fiction would better be called “engineering fiction,” or “technology fiction.” Someone once described the distinction between scientists and engineers as follows: “scientists look for questions; engineers look for answers.” I’d always found that explanation a little abstract and came up with my own: science is about discovery; engineering is about invention. Science seeks to describe observable phenomena while engineering seeks ways to apply those phenomena. Science (physics) described and therefore predicted that the stimulated emission of radiation would produce the laser; engineers invented the cashier scanners, the laser pointers, and the CD/DVD/Blueray players that employ lasers. Once invented, these become part of our technology.

Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wind in the Door describes the fictional farandolae as sentient creatures within mitochondria responsible for the energy production within our cells — this is fictional science. Crichton’s Andromeda Strain and Petersen’s Outbreak are also about fictional medical science. Yet there are a large number of science fiction books and films that do not actually delve into fictional science, but describe fictional technology. Starships are technology, warp drive engines are technology — warp drive theory, on the other hand, that is fictional science.

In matter of fact, there are scientists who are investigating a type of warp drive known as Alcubierre warp drives. But there are many more engineers that are inventing and designing technology that some science fiction book or film inspired them to realize. Perhaps I am biased because I myself am an engineer, but I do not see science fiction as influencing science as much as it influences engineering. As a child, I thought that science fiction predicted technology. I did not realize it inspired technology. Martin Cooper, the inventor of the mobile phone credits Captain Kirk for being his inspiration. Tom Swift and his Electric Rifleinspired NASA researcher Jack Cover to invent the Taser (T.A.S.E.R., an acronym for “Thomas A. Swift’s Electric Rifle”). And the worldwide web? Its creator, Tim Berners-Lee, credits Arthur C. Clark’s world of sentient networked computers in Dial F For Frankenstein as his inspiration.

If the perspective is that science discovers and describes existing phenomena, then science fiction can have very little impact on science — either a farandola exists or it doesn’t. If the perspective is that science fiction influences the direction of scientific inquiry, that is harder to answer — are we looking for microbial life on Mars because War of the Worlds planted the seed of thought, or is that the direction that astrobiology would have gone anyway? If the perspective is that science fiction influences engineering and technology, well–that is a provable fact. And as a science-fiction-loving engineer, I couldn’t be prouder.

Note: This article was published in the SFWA 2014 Nebula Awards Bulletin under the title Sci-Fi and Science.



World War Z Movie Review: Roll up your sleeve!

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World War Z is released on DVD this week.  Here is our Scientist/Movie Reviewer Dr. Ronke Olabisi’s review. Spoilers Ahead…

Those of us who have read the book World War Z know that the movie should have been titled World War Z: The Prequel. Once you get past the fact that the movie and the book pretty much only share a title, it is possible to enjoy the movie on its own merit.  WWZ is one of those movies that tries to combine fantasy with science fiction. For instance, in the film Daybreakers, vampirism is simply a blood-borne pathogen.  In WWZ, zombieism is contracted in much the same way rabies is – a bite will infect you, but getting zombie juices accidentally sprayed into your mouth will not.  Connoisseurs of science fiction generally view sci-fi as existing between two poles: hard and soft.  Hard science fiction is solidly based in science and engineering, and could exist should we have a few technological advances and choose to embark on the endeavor (2001: A Space Odyssey, Sunshine) Although some consider soft science fiction as dealing with the “soft” sciences (social and anthropological), I do not for two reasons: 1) I feel that referring to these sciences as “soft” is condescending; and 2) this definition does not represent the opposite of the “hard” definition. For many, soft science fiction generally requires a lot of hand-waving and acceptance of fictional science that is highly improbable (Attack of the 50 Foot Woman).  Most science fiction movies nowadays fall somewhere in between (Star Trek, Star Wars). A film can successfully shift from soft to hard science fiction in the course of the story, but can not successfully go in the opposite direction (witness the last 15 minutes of Sunshine – trust me).  A film also cannot successfully explain its fantasy elements using hard science fiction – did you like it when The Force of the Jedi was explained away by a midi-chlorian infection?  Didn’t think so.

The same holds true in World War Z.  I enjoyed every part of this film except where they tried to scientifically explain the fantasy that are zombies.  The movie did have its problems – there were underdeveloped characters (Pitt’s wife and kids), unforgivable lapses in judgement (I’m going to sneak past some zombies in the dark, but leave my phone on after instructing my wife to call me rather than wait for my call) but the human reactions throughout (even when annoying) were believable – I wanted to yell at his daughter for unbuckling her seatbelt and hiding in the foot well, but I could also believe that a freaked out tween would do that.  The tension and suspense were nailbiting, and it was certainly a fun rollercoaster ride as long as I suspended my disbelief and turned off the thinking portion of my brain.  My eyes and lizard brain had a blast.  The film is set as a realistic portrayal of how humanity would react to a zombie pandemic, and what tools we might employ to defeat it.  Since it is present day, we the audience know that the characters must rely upon present science.  We follow Pitt’s character, a former UN investigator who is tasked to assist a hotshot virologist who believes the zombieism is a virus. Together, they are to track down the source, until the virologist panics during a zombie attack and kills himself in a weird freak accident. I had a problem with this.  I do not like watching an event unfold and thinking to myself - this is a plot device. I know that freak accidents happen, but why make this guy so rare - he’s the best in his field, he’s the only guy they say knows what’s going on, he’s what everyone believes might save us all, and he will die in the weirdest way of anyone in the film – he runs back into the plane, trips on the slick surface and shoots himself while smashing his head into the hard metal.  They could have just as easily taken him out by zombies, and it wouldn’t have felt so contrived.

The Science:

  1. When Pitt’s character first sees a man get bitten by a zombie, he starts counting. By the time he gets to 12, that man turns into a zombie.  But the problem is that Pitt’s character has no idea what is happening - he’s just come from pancakes with his family and heard no news about zombies. So why does he know that the bite is significant? Why does he know to start counting? There is nothing in the entire history of human existence that infects a person in the time that it takes us to count to 12, so it is completely ridiculous that he would just think to himself, “hey, there’s no science to support this, but I’m going to start counting for no reason. Let’s just see what I learn”
  2. There is no way zombieism could be viral in nature.  Viruses have no reproductive system of their own and infect the body by invading the cells, then using the cells’ own reproductive machinery to replicate its viral DNA.  So our cells have been tricked into helping out the enemy, and as more and more of our own cells become infected, more and more viral DNA is being produced.  Since our cells do not work at infinitely fast speeds, it usually takes a couple of days for us to start showing symptoms after our initial infection with a virus.  Nobody in the history of the planet has gone from completely healthy to infected and fully symptomatic in 12 seconds.  No virologist with half a brain cell would conclude that the zombieism in WWZ was a virus.
  3. When Pitt and friends go to Israel, the singing over the loudspeakers stirs up the zombies into a rage until they mobilize and mount their defenses.  Pitt’s character knew the zombies were attracted to noise. The Israeli official showing him their defenses just finished telling him how they had spent soooo much time studying zombies, but they managed to miss this crucial detail that Pitt learned in like, 2 minutes?  I did not like this plot element, because after Pitt gets to Israel–the one place that is a safe haven against zombies–it is overrun by zombies in approximately 3 minutes after his arrival.  Israel managed to hold out for so long, but Pitt gets there, Israel is ruined, and now he has to leave.  Statistics is a science too.  It is the study of data.  Israel falling moments after Pitt’s arrival was statistically so improbable that it is valid to say that it was impossible.  Again, it felt like a contrived turn of events to move the plot along.
  4. Pitt’s character chops off the Mossad woman’s hand after it gets bitten by a zombie. He does this with a knife. Fairly easily. It is one thing when Darth Vader does it to Luke with a light saber which is essentially a portable laser that can cut through anything like it’s butter, but a knife?  If he had had a light saber, or razor sharp machete, this might have been believable.  It is relatively difficult cutting through the bone, muscle and connective tissue that is someone’s wrist. Early war field surgeons wouldn’t have used bone saws if they could do it so easily with a knife.  If you take a raw chicken leg (which is much smaller than a human wrist), and attempt to cleanly chop it in half (not on a chopping block, but held in mid-air), you will get a sense of what might happen.  What would have been more likely is that her arm would have swung away from the blow, her wrist would have now had a deep gash, but it would have been intact, and then he would have been staring at a very angry zombie with a flesh wound.  Incidentally, if I had just managed to cut her hand off, I wouldn’t have just counted to 12 and then trusted that she wouldn’t turn. He just came from a place where they told him that some people took 5-10 minutes to turn. And the blood management of her new stump.  You can’t just “tightly” bandage a stump and then start running and not expect to bleed out.  Arteries have to be tied off, or a tourniquet used.  And the whole “I’m going to disinfect this with alcohol."  It doesn’t really work.  The alcohol burns because it’s killing way more of your own cells than the bacteria you are trying to kill.  She was definitely going to get an infection with that treatment.  Despite its problems, I did like this scene.  She doesn’t thank him for saving her life – I mean, he did cut off her hand!  And he doesn’t apologize for cutting off her hand – I mean, he did save her life!  The science sucked, but the human responses were appropriate all around.
  5. Pitt and his Mossad sidekick are the only ones to survive a plane crash (not counting the zombie stuck in her seat).  And not only do they survive, they walk away. What are the chances that a fatal plane crash would leave only 2 people alive, and those 2 people happen to be our heroes?  Both the statistics at play here and the science of impact mechanics haven’t just crossed the line of ridiculous, but are maniacally tap dancing in the realm of the ridiculous. I could have more easily believed this if maybe a dozen people survived, and they were among the survivors instead of them being the only survivors. And only if they survived because it was a crash landing and not an all out crash.  Particularly when you look at the condition of the aircraft.  That plane was completely torn apart, seats exposed to the air, parts of the plane strewn all over the crash site.  In the rare event that people survive plane crashes in which the plane looks like that, they are usually hauled out completely unconscious, seriously wounded, and on a stretcher.  People who can happily skip away from planes are exiting planes that are largely intact (or at least the portion they escaped from was), and haven’t fallen 30,000 ft in complete free fall.  In short, anything that is going to do that much damage to a plane is going to do way worse damage to a human body.  Again, this was a ridiculous plot device.
  6. The whole concept of zombieism being a sentient disease. While it is true that some diseases are protective against other diseases, these are generally congenital diseases that have evolved as protections against communicable diseases.  For instance, sickle cell trait (having one copy of the mutant sickle gene) is protective against contracting malaria.  Unfortunately, sickle cell anemia (having 2 copies of the mutant sickle gene) is a painful and fatal disease. Recent research has shown that having a single cystic fibrosis gene is protective against contracting tuberculosis, while having two genes gives the painful and fatal disease cystic fibrosis.  In WWZ, they show the zombies steer clear of people with terminal diseases.  This would be like someone with tuberculosis being physically repelled by people with cystic fibrosis genes.  Or better yet, malaria-ridden mosquitoes would give a wide berth to people with sickle cell trait.  Diseases don’t work like that.  Cancer doesn’t say, "aw, man! Rabies already got you? I guess I’ll take my business elsewhere."  Cancer doesn’t say anything, as a matter of fact – it’s an unfeeling disease.  And why would whatever pathogen that infects people with zombeism care whether these people were already going to die since part of being a zombie means dying, then being undead? Why would the zombification process care what killed me first - the cancer or the zombie bite?  I’d still be dead.  If the story were to believably take the route of one disease fighting another, then it would have to be something that conferred immunity to a bite, but couldn’t repel zombies.  It would be like a rabies shot.  This would be more scientifically believable, but the story would have a problem – if immunized with a zombie shot that had no repelling powers zombies unable to convert you would likely just eat you.  So how could one believably have some sort of zombie repellant? I would have believed it if they tried to explain undead physiology.  If they said something like zombies’ eyes are undead, so they can only see movement (like a Jurassic Park T-Rex), and they don’t eat each other because of smell: they can smell living vs undead.  So then we develop an aerosol spray that masks the human smell, and also inoculate people with our new zombie immunity-vaccine.  Much more believable now, right? I agree.
  7. Pitt’s character inoculates himself with a lethal pathogen through his shirt. For some reason, Hollywood just loves to have people inject themselves through their clothing.  It’s their way of showing us that there’s just no time!!!  This was also originally done in the film Contagion, where a scientist is giving herself a vaccine for a deadly virus.  The film’s science advisor Prof. Ian Lipkin ultimately insisted that this was just so very wrong and had Soderbergh spend the money to re-shoot the scene. Scenes like this are so irritating to everyone in the biomedical sciences that we literally feel an itch and begin scratching uncontrollably. If injecting yourself through clothing seems reasonable to you, imagine watching a movie in which someone who has to go to the bathroom really really badly runs into a bathroom, sits on the toilet and starts to let loose without pulling down his pants because there’s just no time!!!  That is exactly how every single medical professional feels when they watch people inject themselves through their clothes. You might say, well, Pitt’s character wasn’t a medical professional, cut him some slack.  To that, I say, he indicated he had field medical training when he dressed the amputated hand of the Mossad woman.  So no, there will be no cutting of slack.



So was the movie a fun, well paced thriller that had me on the edge of my seat while watching it?  Yes, yes it was.  Despite the fact that the zombies en masse were obviously computer generated, it was an interesting approach to have them crawl over each other and make bridges of their bodies like ants do.  I enjoy zombie movies, and I enjoy new approaches to the zombie story. Was any of the science believable in any way, shape or form? No, don’t be silly.  They were not at all successful in scientifically explaining zombies.  But I can let that pass, you know, since zombies don’t actually exist.  Their lack of existence kinda makes it hard to explain them scientifically. All others have failed at the fantasy-science connection, they did too. On the Movieetos (movie Cheetos) rating, this was full on Movieetos.  But it was delicious Movieetos.  Would I watch it again? No.  With Movieetos, I sample different flavors.  It’s only the gourmet movies I return to.



Star Trek: Into Darkness Movie Review - It's Movieetos!

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In honor of the DVD Release of Star Trek: Into Darkness, our 100YSS Scientist and movie critic, Dr. Ronke Olabisi provides her scientific perspective on the latest J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek installment. [Spoilers Ahead!]

When I was a kid, I hated my vegetables and if left to my own devices would have subsisted entirely on a diet of Kool-Aid, ice cream (preferably the kind delivered by a truck), and any food produced by Hostess, Lays’ or McDonald’s. Similarly, when I was a kid I had a disdain for black and white movies and if left to my own devices would have watched nothing but Flash Gordon on repeat. Fortunately, restaurants offer alternatives to junk food in the form of delicious 4 star meals. These are better tasting and infinitely better for you than junk food. In the same way, film variety offer alternatives to crappy science fiction movies: a broken television forced me to watch the black and white classic, the Day the Earth Stood Still. That 4 star science fiction movie left my childhood self inspired and thinking about how not politics but science might bring about world peace.

Star Trek into Darkness is science fiction junk food. In a brilliant review by Threat Quality Press (http://threatquality.com/2013/05/26/dramaturgery-star-trek-into-darkness/), Into Darkness is likened to Cheetos: enjoyable when going in, but completely devoid of any substance. If the original Wrath of Khan was lasagna, Into Darkness is lasagna-flavored Cheetos. After exiting the movie, I overheard a man saying to his wife, “No, it was different. Nobody expects them to kill the captain. The second in command? Maybe. And Spock was still dead at the end of that movie.” He was right. In a time where sequels were not a guarantee, we who suffered as Spock died at the end of Wrath of Khan had no idea he would return in the subsequent film – we hoped, but we did not know. The emotional weight was palpable as we too wanted to scream “Khaaaan!!!” as Kirk did at the end of Wrath of Khan. Watching Kirk helplessly watch his friend die – his best friend of 20+ years – was crushing. Spock was alone, blind, and when he put his hand against the glass, we knew he couldn’t see Kirk reaching to touch that hand; we watched Kirk completely powerless to give any sort of comfort. If it is a horrible thing to watch your friend die in your arms; it is worse to watch your friend die within arm’s reach. This was crushing to watch for any fan of the series. In the reboot, however, Kirk and Spock are not longtime besties. In fact, they hated each other in the first movie. So much so, that Spock actually beams Kirk to a desolate and pretty dangerous planet to be rid of him. Hence, it didn’t quite ring true that Spock would now be so moved by Kirk’s death that he would put on the waterworks, particularly since in the first movie when Spock’s own mother died right in front of him he didn’t shed a single tear.

Aside from Spock, we are not moved by Kirk’s death – we know McCoy is going to have zombified the Tribble and will now do so with Kirk. Not to rehash Threat Quality Press’ review, but they raise the very salient points that original Khan was introduced in the 60s as an Indian man (played by a Mexican actor, a big deal back then) who was ostensibly their imagined 90s achievement of the master race. He was stronger, yes, but he was also smarter, well versed in literature, philosophy, science, the arts and debate. It was a statement that this epitome of the master race looked like nothing Hitler had in mind, though Kirk did. In their final showdown, the militaristic Khan attempts a suicide mission – destroying his own ship and everyone on board simply to defeat Kirk. This was the old way of humanity. In the new way, Spock sacrifices himself to save everyone on board. Thus, Khan may be stronger and smarter, but he is not better. The original Wrath of Khan shows that we are not individually perfect, but we have evolved. Our way, in which we sacrifice to save rather than to kill is better than the old way that Khan represents. Obviously in our time of suicide bombers, this is still apropos today…and a sentiment completely missing from Star Trek: Into Darkness. Benedict Cumberbatch’s whiteness would have fit Hitler’s ideals, so whatever statement that was once there is now lost. Khan is not the well-learned sophisticate from before – he doesn’t quote literature at all; in fact, he is more like Wolverine of the X-men than Khan of Star Trek in his mutant-like strength and regeneration. And the bad guys are no longer remnants of the past: in trying to murder his own, Admiral Marcus is as much of a psychopath as Khan is. And thus, the whole “we have evolved” theme is lost. So what is JJ Abrahams trying to say?

The Den of Geek also tackled the junk-food-ification of today’s science fiction movies (http://www.denofgeek.us/movies/star-trek/117723/star-trek-into-darkness-what-wentwrong). They argue that this began with Independence Day. Independence day is to science fiction as McDonald’s is to burgers. It’s convenient, appeals to the masses, and even though it’s not as good as a gourmet burger, the formula is easily replicable: senseless destruction on a large scale + gratuitous and unnecessary female semi-nudity = box office gold.

 Witness the formulas:

1. Independence Day: slow blow up of white house + stripper fiancée.

2. Star Trek (the first by Abrahams): slow blow up of Vulcan + Kirk in bed with some green woman.

3. Star Trek Into Darkness: Khan crashes ship (shown slowly) into San Francisco + Admiral’s daughter in lingerie.

Okay, so we get the formula. The message: that’s easy, Abrams spells it out for us in the end by dedicating the film to the 911 victims. Because those terrorists crashed into buildings in New York and Khan crashed into buildings in San Francisco, so it’s the same, right? Wrong, JJ. Wrong. If you are going to dedicate something to victims of a tragedy, it seems like it would be better to dedicate the best lasagna you had ever tasted than to the newest lasagna-flavored Cheetos you rolled out. Otherwise, instead of making an important film to dedicate to the fallen, it rings as though one is trying to make a film important by dedicating it to the fallen, which is just wrong on so many levels. So, in all of this badness, can we at least have good science, even if it’s fictional science? No. No you can’t.

1) In the beginning of the movie, Spock almost dies because they’re trying to save the lives of these primitive spear-chucking natives by deploying an anti-volcanic eruption fusion/fission/hand-wave device. The Enterprise has to hide underwater for this to happen (?) so they won’t inadvertently reveal themselves to the natives. Also, because the volcano is about to erupt, they can’t use transporters unless they are directly over the volcano. So they fly Spock over in a shuttle (which the natives don’t notice), drop him into the volcano where he deploys the device, then can’t get him back. Based on all the rules they set up, they should have been able to do all of this from orbit. Or you know how you don’t always see planes that are pretty high up in the air, even though they’re not in orbit? I suspect this may have worked too. In fact, I suspect that it would have been easier to hide at altitude than to get the Enterprise underwater right next to the native’s home without the natives noticing. And once the volcanic-eruption suppression device goes off, it is unclear why Spock mightn’t have survived, since it seemed like it pretty much stopped all eruptions as they were happening in what I would have likened to a “freezing” process rather than venturing into the fusion/fission language. I get why Spock would die in a regular volcanic eruption, but the one portrayed in the film seemed more like the rearrangement that happened in the North Pole when superman did some redecorating with dad’s crystal: maybe Spock would get a concussion if he was standing right on top of one of the solid lava-columns that erupted.

2) Khan gets away by beaming from his crashing ship to the Klingon planet Kronos. So, they risk war by flying the Enterprise to the neutral zone to fire on the planet. Because landing on the planet would cause a war, but firing with these super-stealth photon torpedoes would not, because the torpedoes are untraceable. Okay, I had a similar thought process when I was 7 and threw rocks at a wasps’ nest. The wasps pretty quickly figured out that the rocks weren’t coming from nowhere but were coming from me. I hazard to guess that the Klingons might have suspected the only non-Klingon ship in the area of being responsible for these untraceable weapons. So, instead of this plan, why not just beam a stealth team to Khan’s location? Oh yeah, something’s wrong with the transporters. Let’s fly a shuttle down.

3) During the scene where the Enterprise is falling towards Earth, someone yells that if they don’t get the engines up, they’ll burn up in the atmosphere. This does not make sense because the Enterprise was never in orbit. Remember that guy who parachuted to the Earth from space? Remember how he notoriously did not burn up? Yeah, same idea. Speeds required to maintain orbit are so high that when an object enters the atmosphere at that speed, the “friction” between the atmosphere and the ship causes heating. Like skipping a rock across a lake - the more horizontal speed it has, the more it skips. Each skip slows it down with drag, like “friction.” When you drop a rock into a lake, there is no skipping. No horizontal speed. Much less friction.

4) In the previous film, Spock’s mother dies because they can’t beam a moving target. And she falls pretty slowly from a cliff right when she’s about to be beamed to safety. But when Khan’s ship is flailing all over the place, he beams away safely. When Admiral Marcus’ daughter tries to run away from the transporter beam, her attempts to escape are ineffective. So, transporter technology only works for the bad guys.

So, did I enjoy the movie? Sure, I love Cheetos. Would I watch it again? No, there’s plenty more Cheetos out there. I have watched the original Wrath of Khan multiple times, and no doubt will multiple more. There is a market for movie-Cheetos: Movieetos. I enjoy Movieetos. But I truly love science fiction films with substance, and would loathe to see them replaced in entirety with these.



ELYSIUM Movie Review - Don't forget to intubate!

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From time to time 100YSS Scientist (and movie critic), Dr. Ronke Olabisi shares with us her views on the latest science fiction movies. She provides insightful , and sometimes humorous, movie reviews with lots of science reality thrown in.  [SPOILER ALERT]

If the Ancient Greek realm of Hades resembled the Catholic Purgatory, then their Elysian Fields (or Elysium) resembled Heaven. It is a place for heroes and demi-gods to reap their rewards in the afterlife. In the Odyssey, Homer described its location as the western edge of the Earth. Blomkamp’s Elysium is such a paradise in orbit above a dystopian Earth. Instead of heroes, this Elysium is reserved for the very rich: it is the 1% removed to a place where the 99% could never disturb their staggering privilege with anything so beneath them as an Occupy protest.  This movie has a strong social perspective and uses science fiction as a means to present it.  Although there were problems with both, overall it was a well-made film that had moments of good on-the-edge of your seat tension.  In order to discuss the good, the bad and the ugly of the science and the social aspects of this film, I must discuss what happened: there will be spoilers.

This movie is rich with social commentary: wealthy Elysians are shown sparkly clean and speaking British or New England sounding English or European French. People from Earth are dirty and grimy, speaking Latin American Spanish or English with a Latin American accent. Elysium is portrayed as largely European/white with a smattering of racial minorities while Earth (at least Los Angeles) appears to be entirely Latin American/brown with a smattering of whites (Matt Damon). Full disclosure: I love it when science fiction movies make social commentary. Few films achieve this better than The Matrix did. “The Man” is shifted from the figurative to the literal in the form of agents such as Mr. Smith, who are exclusively male, and exclusively white. Even when women or minorities are taken over by agents, they are taken over by white male embodiements of “The Man.” Unable to secure Will Smith for their hero, the directors chose Keanu Reaves, an actor who self-identifies as half Asian. The heroes in The Matrix are female and minority, and the only other prominent white male among their group turns out to be the traitor. A compelling commentary on the racial structure of power in our society that went in unnoticed by many because the science fiction story was so very good.

Elysium’s commentary is not as subtle, nor its sci-fi as good. We see illegal Latin American immigrants trying to make it to Elysium for medical care for their children. While crossing the border of outer space, their lives are not safe from trigger happy officials and should they make it to Elysium alive, they are unceremoniously deported. On Earth, their lives hold little value too, as robots in charge mete out ineffective health care and overly aggressive policing. Our hero, Matt Damon is raised speaking Spanish among Latin American nuns with other Latin American children. It is not explained why he alone grows to speak unaccented mid-western English, while everyone else he grows up with has more of a Latin accent. Through a turn of unfortunate events, his childhood dream of escaping to Elysium becomes a necessity and through very dear sacrifices, he winds up saving the rest of us on Earth. And here are where the problems with the social commentary begin. In real life in our current society, although the 1% are largely white, there are minorities who are extremely rich. This is still true in the fictional Elysium, as we are shown samples of its population. Similarly, although as much as 45% of underpriviledged minorities are born into poverty in the US, by sheer numbers there are more poor whites than poor minorities. This was not shown in the movie. If you want to make a commentary about social class and not about race, then you have to show poor whites as well as poor minorities. Otherwise, instead of a movie about a man who happens to be white saving all of us here on Earth, it becomes a movie about the last poor white guy on Earth saving all the helpless brown people who are left – a Great White Hope. Ways to avoid this – cast a Latin actor instead of Matt Damon, or show poor white mothers trying to get help for their children too.

The medical devices on Elysium are miraculous, and nonexistent on Earth. It all seems so simple to share, yet Elysians selfishly want all the privilege for themselves. The analogy is unmistakable – we are the first generation ever with the capability to end hunger worldwide; scenes in Elysium looked like they could have been depicting impoverished Mexicans attempting to cross the US-Mexico border. It all seems so simple to share, but most of us selfishly want to give those 7 bucks to Starbucks rather than to hunger relief efforts. The Occupy movement is a direct response to an ever expanding gulf between the very rich and the very poor, which is larger than it’s ever been. Many people protest that the problem is not that simple. The attempt to overthrow Elysium and the aftermath argues that it is that simple.

We live in a world where artificial islands have been built (Dubai) for the very rich to live and Elysium seems merely like a high-tech graduation from the artificial island to the orbital oasis. I would like to believe that it is not. At present, NASA and other international space agencies corner the market on space travel. If you’re thinking, “what about commercial space companies,” consider this: the single biggest customer in the market for the spacecraft generated by these companies is NASA. All of these companies are dependent on government support whether directly or through NASA – through the years SpaceX has received over $911 million in NASA contracts and in federal subsidies, it received $440 million in 2012 alone. Right now, governments are needed for space exploration. So the likelihood of a private venture like Elysium is unlikely for the foreseeable future. A NASA sponsored Elysium? One of NASA’s mandates is to improve life on Earth through space exploration. If you don’t believe this it’s because you simply don’t know what these improvements are: filtered water, shoe inner soles, cell phones, satellite radio and TV, GPS, scratch resistant glasses, Invisalign and a type of heart pump all are products of space exploration, in addition to the other 6,500+ patents NASA has licensed since its inception. Elysium decidedly did not improve life on Earth, and any NASA sponsored type of Elysium would break my heart unless it was open to all.

The Science:

1. The best part of the science fiction in this film was anything concerning the code (I’m not the best programmer in the world, but even I recognized what “*legal” signified). I am not referring to where they wind up storing that code, just what it looked like.

2. The next best part: the space station that was Elysium. Rhett Allain of Wired magazine calculated that Elysium had a radius of approximately 34 km (about 21 miles) and was spinning at about 0.17 rad/s, or 1.6 rpm (http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2013/05/gravity-in-the-elysium-space-station/). He made certain assumptions (that the spin was designed to precisely mimic Earth’s gravity), but his assumptions were reasonable. The gravity is explained with the rotation we see, but what isn’t explained is how the atmosphere is kept in place (they do not appear to have shields as immigrant ships are quite capable of entering the Elysian atmosphere). Mars had an atmosphere once, but when its core stopped rotating it lost its protective magnetic field. Put simply, this magnetic field diverts the sun’s solar wind and prevents it from interacting with and washing away our atmosphere. These winds create an opening in the field at the Earth’s poles – our Auroras are the beautiful result of these solar winds interacting with our atmosphere and magnetic field through that opening. What protects the Elysian atmosphere? Is there protection against radiation? Because this is a concern for astronauts, especially on long duration missions. Although these questions are unanswered, not everything needs to be answered in a movie. As long as they did not get anything glaringly wrong, this is forgivable.

3. The third best part: the weaponry. Tenth century Chinese fire lances are considered the first guns, with 15th century European advances bringing us the handguns we recognize today. Considering that in over a millennia, our guns still involve the rapid acceleration of metal projectiles, it is far more believable to witness futuristic guns that follow the same format. Sound emitting laser bursts are not very believable. Guns that fire timed-exploding bullets – more believable and cool.

4. The worst part: I am a biomedical engineer. I was sitting next to a surgeon while watching this movie. Medicine and biology are science too. It is a huge mistake to get some parts of the science right and other parts very, very wrong.

A. Radiation sickness: I once spoke with a man who performed an autopsy on a victim of a nuclear accident. The man tried to run from the blast, and fell over dead in under a minute. We spoke in depth about how ionizing radiation kills. Even if you are not vaporized instantly, ionizing radiation will kill in a certain predictable way based on exposure. It can take moments or years. When it happens within seconds, it is because  pretty much every atom and every molecule within every cell in your body has been ionized. Aside from the broken chemical bonds, the new undesired chemical bonds that form, the DNA damage and the free radicals, your cells function based off of pretty specific interactions between ions, and disrupting this disrupts every bodily function at once. At the cellular level. Killing them all simultaneously. In Elysium, one of our characters is subjected to ionizing radiation and given 5 days to live. Such a prognosis is accompanied with severe leukopenia, severe fever, severe diarrhea, vomiting, severe headaches, cognitive incapacitation, shock, and severe electrolyte disturbance. In other words - you ain’t walking around. Our character is told to take some pills for 5 days to maintain function until death. Occasionally the character displays one or two of these symptoms, and it is unclear how the pills can manage these symptoms yet be unable to prolong life. If they are painkillers, then our character should be still be suffering radiation sickness symptoms without feeling the pain from them. If the pills are managing the symptoms, then why can’t they manage them indefinitely? The character was briefly sick and seemed to power through radiation sickness. This was ridiculous. This link to the most famous radiation deaths will show you how ridiculous (http://listverse.com/2010/03/25/10-famous-incidences-of-death-by-radiation/).

B. Exoskeletal suit: if Earth’s medical facilities are so lousy, but a back alley mechanic can install an exoskeletal suit by drilling it into your skeleton in a decidedly unsterile room, then the screenwriters needed to consult a medical practitioner for their script. Even the worst quack on the planet could have told them, “No. Just no.” There are so many things wrong with this scene: infection, blood management, neural engraftment to the suit (we actually do have biorobotic arms, and it takes the recipients time to learn their operation, yet in Elysium control is instant). Anesthetizing someone for orthopedic surgery is nontrivial. Being anesthetized does not simply mean being knocked out. They also have to paralyze you because in your sleep you are likely to fight the people cutting into your body. That’s why they have to intubate you too - because you can’t breathe on your own when you are paralyzed. So the surgery they performed would have been believable if Damon’s character were X-men’s Wolverine, Heroes’ cheerleader, or, you know, just already dead. Plus, after you wake up from orthopedic surgery, you are pretty much in excruciating pain. Which is also debilitating. Forgetting the surgery to install it, even if an exoskeletal suit enables its wearer greater strength, it does not confer increased strength to the bones into which it is drilled. If I drill a screw into my finger bone, and then yank on that screw really, really hard, you can bet that if anything is going to break, it’s not going to be the screw. The opposite of what I am describing literally happened in this movie. All of the motions of this exoskeletal suit should have caused it to be ripped from the underlying bone skeleton.

C. Elysium’s medical beds. These beds reminded me of the sarcophagus used in Stargate to revive the aliens on both the movie and the television series. It could return people from death. In Elysium, it could return people from death, reconstruct their destroyed tissue on an atomic level, all as long as there was no brain death. But in this movie, a grenade to the face did not qualify as brain death.

D. Downloading data into the brain. It was not clear why this was necessary. I have a flash drive that stores 32 GB. If someone wants to steal it, I don’t have to worry about being kidnapped to get the data out of my head. Nobody would do this unless it conferred upon them special knowledge like instant Kung Fu, or language mastery. Yet in the film, the recipient is like a flash drive without personal access to the data until it is downloaded into another computer. And if you are going to include a safeguard that kills thieves who try to download your precious data, wouldn’t it make more sense to have the killing happen before they get the data? Not after they successfully use it? At that point, it just seems like a “revenge” feature, rather than a security feature.  An actual security feature would prevent thieves from using a program, rather than killing one after using said program.  All of these. Not good. Just why?

 

Lingering annoying plot points:

Dr. J: Did Foster’s character refuse the nurse’s assistance and choose to die because she was ashamed?

Me: Her character in the movie was pretty 2-dimensional, and nothing about her suggested this to even be a possibility.

Dr. J: Why did everyone in LA have Mexican accents? Did this mean LA was now a part of Mexico?

Me: And if Damon grew up in Mexico, why didn’t he have a Mexican accent?

Dr. J: That parole leg band Damon had on in the beginning was pretty clunky compared to all the other high tech hardware in the film. Wouldn’t they just implant a tracking device in jail?

Me: Yeah, it’s the 22nd century, but they prefer 1990s technology to track their criminals.

Dr. J: They even identified him on Foster’s screen during the robbery, but couldn’t track him later. And he has a tracking device on. Also, when the 3 immigrant carrier ships invaded Elysium space, why didn’t the first two “dodge” the incoming missiles as well?

Me: Maybe they were hoping to outrun the missiles.

So, while I thoroughly enjoyed this movie while watching it, there were many moments when it was just junk food for the brain.  It wasn’t quite Movieetos (movie Cheetos) – there were some moments of gourmet-ness to it, but it was more like gourmet popcorn than gourmet gnocchi.



Traveling Beyond Our Solar System —A Grand Challenge

When I think about the big ideas that have transformed our lives since humans first used the stars to anticipate the seasons, plant their crops and navigate while journeying to faraway lands, I marvel at the accomplishments of our ancestors. Undeterred by the unknown and the difficult, they succeeded in building thriving societies without the technology available to us today. In that same spirit of optimism and determination, 100YSS has embraced the grand challenge of our lifetime human interstellar travel.

 

Yes, you read that correctly. Beyond the Curiosity rover and focus on NASAs reauthorization, asteroid mining, SpaceX, Orbital, and billionaire missions to Mars, Im talking about making the capabilities for human travel to another star a reality, and doing it within the next century.

 

Can we do it? The current realities would suggest otherwise. The closest star to Earth, Proxima Centauri, is more than four light years (25 trillion miles) away and relying on current technology, it would take 70,000 years to get there (give or take a few millennia).  The longest human space mission to date has been 437 days. And the Voyager space probe, launched in 1977, is currently over 11 billion miles from Earthand may just now be exiting our solar system.

 

Any sober, serious examination of travel beyond our solar system to another star reveals one undeniable factit is very, very difficult.  The difficulty lies not within a single discipline such as propulsion. And the solutions will not be found by one country or person or expert. 

 

But I am confident human interstellar space travel will be a reality one day, because we are surrounded everyday with reminders of how the impossible is possible. The Internet. Cell phones. Satellites. Electricity. Airplanes. Space shuttles. Incandescent light bulbs. MRI images of the internal organs. Personal computers. And what about two of my personal favorites, single-serve espresso machines and stretch denim?   At one time, these inventions were all considered impossible or unnecessary. Yet, think about how life changing this technology has become.  Each invention answered a grand challenge in its own way.  

It is fun to think about past or in-progress grand challenges and name them out loud. Next time you are in a room of people looking for something to do, try it. Heres a starter list:

 

        Circumnavigation of the globe

        Public education

        Eradication of Smallpox

        Clean water and sewage systems

        Landing on the moon

        Sequencing of the entire human genome

 

That last example is a biggie. According to a 2011 study, human genome research has contributed to the U.S. economy more than $140 for every $1 invested by the federal government. And as for landing on the moon? As Buzz Aldrin noted at ES:GC2, it fundamentally changed the world. It forever changed how we think of ourselves and how we use technology to address huge challenges.

 

Our predecessors in invention, aspiration and exploration have shown us how solving a big problem has beneficial side effects: grand challenges yield unexpected solutions to lots of overlooked smaller problems, and that makes life universally better.

 

President John F. Kennedy, speaking about the previous generations quest to travel to the moon, said it best: “By defining our goal more clearly, by making it seem more manageable and less remote, we can help all peoples to see it, to draw hope from it, and to move irresistibly towards it.” 

 

Frantz Fanon, a Martinique-born psychiatrist, said: “Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it.”

 

And so, our own global grand challenge awaits us. We have to come together to solve problems and make decisions across a range of human knowledge, skills and experience.  A human deep-space mission calls on us to solve technology problemsenergy, propulsion, sustainabilityas well as people problems, from what to wear, what to eat and drink, to how to bridge cultural differences. In tackling interstellar human travel, we will also find answers that will help make our earthly existence better.

 

Here are just a few transformative benefits that would be realized here on Earth when we answer 100YSSs grand challenge to explore the stars:

 

  • Solutions to our energy shortage;
  • Mechanisms to meet sustainable water and nutrition demands;
  • Meaningful collaborations and alliances between disparate disciplines and people;
  • New industries and jobs; and
  • An energized, focused future generation of physical and social scientists, engineers, educators and entrepreneurs.

 

What do you consider the most important results spurred by grand challenges?

 

What are the most interesting problems you think we will encounter and must solve on the journey to another star?

 

Look up… and let me know what you think!



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