May 2010

Here the Unknown Editor will offer his perspective on some popular science fiction, but perhaps without the showmanship of Mythbusters. Perhaps another time he will offer some tips to authors who want to predict the future.

The United States holds 30th place out of 57 countries in science education, and the next generation of engineering candidates, particularly for defense jobs where the pool is restricted to citizens, looks bleak. What is going on? Could it be related to that Pop Culture phenomenon called Science Fiction? Perhaps science education could start with examining some of the nonsense that is out there. And by "science fiction" I don't mean comic books or their movies, so if you write please leave Ironman out of the conversation...

Not long ago I was making conversation with a physical therapist (don't ask). The converstion turned to some space movie, and I pointed out that artificial gravity was not possible. He laughed at my stupidity, and assured me that "they've got that figured out".

There should be a science test in order to graduate high school.

Star Trek and Star Wars

Let's examine the Star Trek or Star Wars franchises, but only for the 30 seconds that they deserve. Herre we are to believe that 500 years in the future, mankind will have many new things figured out. Interstellar space travel is routine, space ships will travel at multiple times the velocity of light, and their inhabitants will experience normal one-dimensional gravity, so that there is a clear up and down which is presented vertically by the cameraman. All planets will have an acceptable atmosphere for breathing, and the same atmospheric density as on Earth so that sound is not distorted like it is when you inhale helium. Planets will all have the same gravitational field as Earth, and everyone will be immune to any unknown viruses that could be encountered. Space ships will be shaped for aerodynamic properties, including wings. Explosions in the vacuum of space will propagate sound and shock waves. Then there's that "transporter"...

In the history of movies, why is it that only Stanley Kubrick understood how to portray a believable space movie, forty two years ago? Did we all get stupider since 1968? Even NASA couldn't figure out how to put artificial gravity on their space station.

2001 A Space Odyssey

Back to Trek and Wars: communications with other beings multiple light years away is done instantaneously, huh? When NASA communicates with the Mars missions, we have to wait 15 minutes for each message to make round trip. And this is only in our solar system. If you were light years away from the recipient, wouldn't it take years for them to receive your message? And where's the high-gain antenna that would be required to pick up that weak signal? You'd think something that requires a large area would be prominently visible on the space ship.

Check this out. Humans visiting other planets inhabited by intelligent life forms outside our Solar System is not going to happen, ever. If this was possible, our planet would have been wiped out long ago by whatever superior beings came to visit, so be glad we are so well isolated.

If you want me to watch a space movie, keep it consistent with Einstein and Newton or I have no interest, unless you want me to make fun of it, and make fun of you for watching it.

Time travel

The origin of science fiction is rooted in the coming of age of physics in the twentieth century. Automobiles and airplanes, even electric motors were the product of tinkerers, which the average person could somewhat relate to. But wireless telegraphy, nuclear weapons, and solid state electronics must have seemed magical when they were developed. You can't see them, therefore other things that can't be seen must also be possible, a twisted logic indeed. Like time travel.

There is an entire science devoted to time travel, which is partially described in the movie Donny Darko. Although this indie movie is undeniably entertaining (especially the rabbit), don't try to wrap your head around the philosophy of time travel. It is not possible, so why study it?

In recent news physicist Stephen Hawking is discussing time travel, could this provide a renewed legitimacy? Now a renowned physicist is telling us what we want to hear, sort of. The bad news is that time travel will take infinite energy, and can only be done with particle you can't see, and is only possible in the forward direction, and it requires a worm hole. Maybe once we have water fuel technology perfected we'll have that infinite energy.

People don't really seem to understand infinity. The Large Hadron Collider eats up a lot of the electric grid of Europe when it is switched on. And it can accelerate some tiny particles to 99% of the speed of light, at this velocity, they are sort of time traveling, relative to the rest of the world. If you wanted to accelerate a human to the same velocity, you might need all of the energy in the sun to do it. A small detail, scientists will work that out in 500 years or so! This use of energy for someone's pleasure cruise into the future makes Hummer ownership seem downright frugal.

Water-fuelled automobiles

A dream has been around for a century... what if you could power a car with water? Perhaps there is a magic way of splitting water into its constituents of hydrogen and oxygen, then you'd have an an unlimited source of energy, there's oceans of water available... This "science" make the news every so often. According to promoters, so far the dream remains just a few steps away...

Knowledge of high school physics will tell you that splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen will take more energy than will be released when you burn it. Anyone selling water for fuel is trying to scam investors. Listen below and hear the inventor tell you that NASA is interested in his system. That's a good one. NASA employees won't be calling him back any time soon, trust me on this.



If you hurry, you might be able to invest in Hydrogen Technology Applications before the owners flee the country. Check out that impressive Romanian patent, and let us know when you have it translated for our review.

The only thing worse that people believing the water-fuel myth, is that some of them think there is a conspiracy by energy companies to bump off the inventors. Anyone who designs a car that gets 300 miles to the gallon has signed their own death warrant. It all makes sense, if you have no sense.

While on the subject, there are plenty of steam powered vehicles that have time-traveled from the past for our enjoyment today. The term "steam shovel" has almost gone extinct with "ice box" and "mimeograph", but steam is what dug the Panama Canal, and there is nothing cooler than steam power. You dig?

Steam shovels at play

Techno-thiller novels

There surely is a lot of garbage on the best seller lists. We won't even go into the "end of times" novels, these deserve separate attention, the subject for a future editorial.

Grab any Clive Cussler novel, and hold on for a wild ride. Dirk Pitt and his friends don't operate within the constraints of science, but who cares?

Arctic Drift's premise is that global warming is playing havoc with the planet, and only the element ruthenium can stop the madness by acting as a catalyst. Ruthenium has some interesting properties and is rare, an interesting box on the periodic chart. It is used in thick film resistors, and can be recovered as a byproduct of nuclear fission of plutonium.

In Arctic Drift's the epilog we learn that:

The Kitimat Photosynthesis Station will safely and efficiently convert carbon dioxide to water and hydrogen without any risk to the environment.

How does a molecule made of carbon and oxygen provide hydrogen? Did Clive Cussler fail high school science, or does he need Aricept?

Speaking of Arctic, let's examine an Arctic Monkees video to restore our sanity.

I bet you look good on the dance floor
dancing to electro-pop like a robot from 1984!

Disaster movies


Here we have a mission to a Texas sized asteroid, to place explosives on it and render it to harmless dust. Actually, this very mission is being considered by government agencies and some of the top talent on the planet, such as Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. A teachable moment!

The space craft brings our astronauts to the surface of the asteroid, where they step out and do some drilling. So what's the problem?

High school physics will tell you that gravity is a function of the mass of the heavier object. If an asteroid is one kilometer in diameter, it doesn't have much of a gravitational field. A 200 lb person would weigh 1/5 of an ounce, an normal walking speed would be two times escape velocity (thanks to Lawrence Livermore's Science Technology Principal Directorate.)

Click here to go to Lawrence Livermore's on-line Science and Technology magazine, click "subscribe" and maybe you'll learn some real science in your spare time!

When Time Ran Out

WTRO is one of those movies that is so bad, it's a laugh riot. Produced by Irwin Allen and released in 1980, it is set on an island where a resort has recently opened, and a major oil company has just opened up a gusher, all within sight of an angry volcano. Yikes!

The cast includes Paul Newman, Jacqueline Bisset, William Holden, James Franciscus, Ernest Borgnine (McHale's Navy), Red Buttons, Burgess Meredith (quack quack!) , and other well known actors, and cost $20M to produce which at the time was a lot of coin. But it only grossed $1.7M, so it is a disaster flick indeed. Newman once stated that it was the one movie that he made that he regretted. Jacqueline's low cut shirt is of course the centerpiece of the movie poster!

That cardboard volcano is belching real smoke!

The DVD was finally released in 2009, so now it is possible to take some still shots of this masterpiece and really analyze it. Here's the science lesson. The volcano lava level is getting worse, so of course scientists are studying it up close. Here's the political message: oil companies will drill wells, even on top of an active volcano, to get you cheap oil! Too bad Irwin Allen didn't make a disaster movie about an offshore oil drilling platform, today he'd look like Nostra Damus instead of Nostra Dumbass.

One of the best (worst) scenes in the movie involves three manly men taking a first hand look at what's going on in an active volcano. In order to monitor the volcano, scientists have built an observatory on the rim, complete with an elevator car for up close viewing. Here's the elevator lowering James Franciscus, Paul Newman, and Ex Mousketeer John Considine.

Here's the operator's control panel in the building. Nice piece of foreshadowing with that malfunction light! And good repackaging of a crossbar scanner.

243 feet into the volcano, and the Cold War-era equipment is humming.

Say, is it hot in here?

It sure is hot in here, especially when the ride has an open floor and open windows. Why, it's 105 degrees! Like Arizona, its a dry heat. Nice use of a $5 label maker.

The elevator occupants are experiencing a burning, itching feeling in their socks. No, it's not athlete's foot, it's the lower observation hole which doubles as a broiler and perhaps as a toilet on long missions.

What could go wrong?

Oops, someone forgot to maintain the elevator's transmission. Could this prop be reused from Irwin Allen's previous Epic, The Towering Inferno? We'll add that to the 'ol Netflix list to find out. Like WTRO, Towering Inferno also stars Newman and Franciscus!

So, what to do when the lift equipment malfunctions? Of course there is a backup system. Just get a beefy ex-football player to turn the crank!

Meanwhile, what could go wrong with an elevator with a hole in the floor... Oops!

Thanks guys!

That was a close one. Time for a Man Hug!

This scene goes on for a while and is quite frightening to see three grown men acting so frightened. Here's a closeup... hold me!

At last, here comes the elevator back to the surface, only slightly worse for the wear.

Later when the volcano goes off, the observation building is lost. Here it is, breaking up. Styrofoam really does look like concrete from this angle.

Below Considine leaves us with that "let's get out of here" look. Probably the same look they all would have provided when Irwin Allen sent the next script for review. Alas, this was Allen's last movie. He died in 1991.

Now let's apply some critical thinking to the elevator scene. What's the nonsense fiction here? To start with, what scientist would think that there is sufficient oxygen inside a volcano so that people could take a ride down into it? Volcanos are notorious for gas emissions, which was well known even back in the 1970s. And what could be accomplished by ferrying people into the volcano, that couldn't be done with a camera and a suite of sensors (like a gas analyzer for example). And how was it even possible to build a concrete building on the slope of a volcano? That concrete must have set up pretty fast. And what county would issue a building permit for the perimeter of a live one?

Speaking of volcanos, did you know that volcanic ash is sometimes used as an ingredient to lightweight concrete blocks (sometimes called cinder blocks in the USA)? This is science that even laborers can truly enjoy, which I know from first hand experience. Thanks, Mount St. Helens!


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