It’s been an exciting few months for anyone who is enthusiastic about space exploration. On 26th November the NASA InSight lander arrived on Mars (those tense landing moments are always worth a watch). Then on 13th December Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo aircraft reached an altitude of 50 miles, the so-called ‘edge of space’. On 2 January, the New Horizons Probe flew past Ultima Thule, producing the clearest image yet of one of the most distant known objects in our solar system (its about 4 billion miles away).
Is there any organisation out there leveraging the Internet as effectively as NASA? Despite the loss of the Space Shuttle programme in 2011, the agency seems to be winning hearts and minds through its confident and open use of social media.
Of course, NASA’s PR department is assisted by expensive, state funded machinery and the spectacular images it creates. But this does not tell the whole story. I think a large part of the organisation’s communications success is down to the creativity and personality of the astronauts themselves… and NASA’s comfort at letting their personnel broadcast to their earth-shackled audience directly. Continue reading “Astronauts Do The Coolest Things”
I’ve been thinking about the way languages are portrayed in the Star Wars film franchise, and what this says about the universe in which the adventures take place.
Some films portray all languages as English. This often happens in war and action films, where you’ll have German World War II officers or Russian spies speaking in accented English.
However, many English language films and television series choose to portray the other languages realistically, which involves subtitles (at least, when the dialogue is crucial).
In the Star Trek franchise, the Starfleet heroes encounter alien races every week. The problem is cleverly explained by the use of a Universal Translator (apparently built in to the little space ship emblem on the officers’ jerseys) which uses sophisticated AI to simultaneously translate the aliens’ words. There is even an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where the Universal Translator unexpectedly kicks in, thereby alterting the Enterprise Crew to the presence of a bizarre life-form, where they had perceived only crystals. Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy series solves the language problem in a similar way. Arthur Dent puts a Babel Fish in his ear, allowing him to understand all alien languages perfectly.
By contrast, Star Wars introduces no such trickery. Each alien race has its own language, and we often see subtitles when characters like Greedo or Jabba the Hut are speaking. R2D2 and Chewbacca speak languages that are unintelligible to the audience, but at least the main characters have learnt to converse with them. C3PO’s raison d’être is as a protocol droid, familiar in millions of languages.
What does this say about the English used in Star Wars? Well, since all the alien languages are rendered as one might hear them, with no concessions to the audience, then we can assume that the language we hear spoken by Luke Skywalker and Han Solo is also as we would hear them. The actors are not speaking English as a cheat for the audience. They are speaking English because that is the language that these characters actually speak. Continue reading “Does Star Wars Prove That The Universe is Finite?”
Like the death of many internationally famous people, the news and discussion of the death of Neil Armstrong was mediated through the 140 character stream of twitter. I wonder who would have predicted that in 1969?
I should write something thoughtful about the passing of this man, but time is short. For now, I will just repost a few tweets of images I had previously uploaded to Flickr, all Creative Commons. A considered piece will have to wait.
The website TopTenz.net lists 10 Lost Technologies such as Damascus Steel and the Antikythera Mechanism (via Kottke). Incredibly, the technology used to bake the Apollo programme lacks any meaningful record of its construction:
The Apollo and Gemini programs aren’t truly lost. There are still one or two Saturn V rockets lying around, and there are plenty of parts from the spacecraft capsules still available. But just because modern scientists have the parts doesn’t mean they have the knowledge to understand how or why they worked the way they did. In fact, very few schematics or records from the original programs are still around. This lack of record keeping is a byproduct of the frenetic pace at which the American space program progressed. Because NASA was in a space race with the USSR, the planning, design, and building process of the Apollo and Gemini programs was always rushed. Not only that, but in most cases private contractors were brought in to work on every individual part of the spacecraft. Once the programs ended, these engineers—along with all their records—moved on. None of this would be a problem, but now that NASA is planning a return trip to the moon, a lot of the information about how the engineers of the 1960s made the voyages work is invaluable. Amazingly, the records remain so disorganized and incomplete that NASA has resorted to reverse engineering existing spacecraft parts that they have lying around in junkyards as a way of understanding just how the Gemini and Apollo programs managed to work so well.
I find this offensive. Lore has it that the Apollo programmeran off less computing power than your average mobile phone, and I repeat my generous offer to donate my iPhone – completely gratis, I might add – to any future moonshot. Coupled with a Trident submarine turned on its end, I always assumed that this would catalyse our return to extra-terrestrial bodies. And so its crushing to hear that most of the work would have to be done again from scratch. What were you thinking, NASA?
At the event on Tuesday night, I remarked that China Mieville and Cory Doctorow share an irritating trait, which is to lathe my own ideas into science fiction books, many years before I even have the thought for the first time!
One example of this is on the important science-fiction problem of teleporting, and the possibility of transferring of one’s mind between matter. I scribbled some concerns about this earlier this year, but now I find that Mieville got there first, in Kraken (p.221):
This is why I wouldn’t travel that way,” Dane said. “This is my point. For a piece of rock or clothes or something dead, who cares? But take something living and do that? Beam it up? What you done is ripped a man apart then stuck his bits back together and made them walk around. He died. Get me? The man’s dead. And the man at the other end only thinks he is the same man. He ain’t. He only just got born. He’s got the other’s memories, yeah, but he’s newborn. That Enterprise, they keep killing themselves and replacing themselves with clones of dead people. That is some macabre shit. That ship’s full of Xerox copies for people who died.”
I love this kind of esoteric debate. Teleportation might never become a reality, but the questions raised by science fiction are essential when we consider the nature of the mind and artificial intelligence.
(This post contains vague spoilers, which should not damage your enjoyment of the stories in question)
Would I restore my mind from back-up?
I’ve been reading Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, Cory Doctorow’s first novel. It is a science-fiction thought experiment on what might happen if we all had immortality, and scarcity of resources had been abolished. Money is redundant, because one can simply utilise public replication machines to generate whatever food or tools you need. Instead, people earn credibility points (Doctorow calls it ‘Whuffie’) for all the good things that they do – The protagonist, Julius, earns this by maintaining the rides at Disneyland. Through these tweaks to reality, Doctorow gets to meditate on human purpose and ennui in a time of plenty.
The central, fantastical technology available to the characters, is the ability to upload and back-up to hard-drive your mind and all your memories. Should some accident or murder befall you (as of course it does to Julius) you can get a-hold of a clone body, and overlay your complete consciousness onto the tabula rasa. Doctorow has played with this sort of technology before, in the delightful I, Rowboat (yes, a knowing pun on Asimov’s I, Robot) and another story involving an absconded mother (the name of which escapes me just now). Apparently, such technology a staple of science fiction: Back-ups and clones are certainly used in the Schwarzenegger movie The 6th Day and I am sure they are found in Philip K. Dick and elsewhere in the canon.
For those who wish to live forever, brain-backups and reboots are exciting idea, but the immortality on offer would be false. In both The 6th Day and Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, its clear that in taking a snap-shot of your brain, you are not preserving your consciousness (or your soul) but simply making a copy of it. As both Adam Gibson (the Schwarzenegger character) and bad-guy Michael Drucker (Tony Goldwyn) discover in The 6th Day, it is possible to make a clone of yourself before you die! When your original ‘version’ dies, the fact that there is a replica of you living on somewhere is of no comfort as your own light fades. When you finally expire, you know your soul cannot fly away and awake in the new clone, because the clone is already wandering around making memories of his own (see also ‘Second Chances’, a Star Trek: TNG episode with two Commander Rikers).
Stepping into the Star Trek transporters or Fly-style teleporter carries the same philosophical risk. I simply wouldn’t have the guts to step into such a machine – Not because I worry that my psychology or physiology might be altered due to a malfunction, but because even if the thing works perfectly, the guy stepping in is not the guy stepping out.
One of the few places in fiction where the idea that the soul does not persist through back-ups and cloning is in The Prestige. Its a film I’ve previously slated for seeming to violate the rules of mystery-telling, but on reflection I think it is internally consistent (the opening shot of the film fortells the final revelation). Both the Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale characters discover, in their own very different ways, that you cannot achieve immortality through the creation of a clone or a twin, regardless of how that might appear to the rest of the world. In the end, both characters rightly weep at the demise of their clones, but Jackman’s character is the more tortured because he has caused the death of his ‘original’ self, merely by choosing to step into the crackpot machine in the first place. This is a sadness that seems to be missing from the characters in Cory Doctorow’s stories.
However, realisation that backup-and-restore is not bona fide immortality would not discourage me from plugging in my brain and making a copy. This is because we naturally value the things we have created, and we want to see them persist. I would like to pass on bits of my DNA through children and grandchildren. I would like people to read the thoughts I have written down, even after I become an ex-person. A human consciousness restored from my uploaded back-up would be indisputably my creation, a more detailed product of my life and times than anything I might write or carve, or anyone I might sire. Far better that they, in particular, get to witness the heat-death of the universe (Doctorow, with a nod to Douglas Adams) or the “more glorious dawn” of a Galaxy-rise than some other, generic homo sapien.
A major feature of the analysis of the Apollo missions, is the constant lament that we’ve never gone back to The Moon, or (and this is Buzz Aldrin’s formulation) that we haven’t reached Mars.
However, I wonder if this is fair? If we consider other great exploratory feats, such as Columbus crossing the Atlantic, or Magellan circumnavigating the globe, or Hillary/Tenzing climbing Everest… how long before the extraordinary was repeated? How long before it became commonplace?
Its the anniversary if the first moon landing tomorrow. Here’s yrstruly on Twitter:
I really can’t get enough Apollo XI anniversary coverage. An extraordinary boundary in human achievement.
Two minor thoughts on why I find the Apollo missions so fascinating. First, the technology seems so basic by today’s standards. I’ve read widely on the engineering behind the Apollo programme, so I know the machines were cutting edge in the 1960s. But I also know that the speed at which inventions were taken from theory to prototype and then to implementation, was much quicker than comparable projects, such as airliners and military hardware, are developed today. The images of the Apollo space craft modules make me think of the word ‘contraption’.
In addition, they were supported by such meagre computer power. Famously, there is more computer capability in a modern mobile phone than there was on the Apollo missions. Worse, the lunar model computer actually crashed during the descent stages of Apollo XI and Apollo XIV. What a contrast to all the back-ups, fail-safes and diagnostics that go into modern aviation technology.
To go so far in such vehicles was brave to the point of insanity. It is almost as if they went before their time. Most people speak of the Apollo programme as being a feature of the Cold War, part of the Arms Race, quintessentially 1960s. But I see it as being rather incongruous with the earthbound history around it. A tangent to the timeline that no-one was ready for, that no-one can parse. An alien act.