Archive for the ‘Fun Stuff’ category

What is the Best Dinosaur?

June 25, 2010

This is the funniest, most well-informed rant about dinosaurs I have ever witnessed (warning, NSFW language). I was a dinosaur freak as a kid, and I still remember a ridiculous amount about them. Can I just say how much I loved watching him shoot down people who thought plesiosaurs and pterodactlys were dinosaurs? Everything he says is correct except for one thing: Brontosaurus was (I believe) either a diplodocus head or a model of a head (no skull was ever found) on an apatosaurus body.

This picture of a Utahraptor is a combination of the scale drawing and artist's rendition on Wikipedia.

His rant about raptors is almost correct, but the velociraptors in the movie are actually a bit smaller than the real-world Utahraptor, which he mentions in passing. Deinonychus was about 4 feet tall, and was awesome until Jurassic Park came along. And yes, the real Velociraptor was about the size of a goose. Around the same time as the movie, a novel called Raptor Red came out, about a Utahraptor. I loved that book. It was written by a paleontologist (Robert Bakker), and brought the cretaceous to life for me.

Anyway, my vote for best dinosaur is the Utahraptor. Intelligent, social, fast and strong, and the real inspiration for the “velociraptors” in popular culture. Also? Probably warm-blooded, had feathers, and is closely related to birds.

What’s your favorite dinosaur?

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Carl Sagan’s Apple Pie Recipe

June 19, 2010

Tip of the Chef’s hat to Jason Dunn at The Space Tourist for posting this!

The Biological Singularity

June 15, 2010

If you’re a sci-fi reader, you are probably familiar with the idea of the “technological singularity“. For the uninitiated, the Singularity is the idea that computational power is increasing so rapidly that soon there will be genuine artificial intelligence that will far surpass humans. Essentially, once you have smarter-than-human computers, they will drive their own advancement and we will no longer be able to comprehend the technology.

We can debate whether the singularity will or will not happen, and what the consequences might be, for a long time, but that’s not the point of this post. This post was inspired by the final chapter in Denialism by Michael Specter. In that chapter, Specter talks about the rapid advancement in biotechnology. Specifically, he points to the rapid increase in computational power and the resulting rapid increase in the speed of genome processing.

I always sort of knew that both fields were advancing rapidly, but for some reason it clicked while I was reading that chapter. A lot of people talk about nanotechnology as some sort of miracle technology that is just around the corner: we will be able to create tiny machines that can do our bidding to build things at the molecular level. Traditionally these machines are seen as tiny robots, but as I read that chapter in Denialism, I realized that nanotech is both closer than I expected and not “robotic” at all!

Maybe custom-designed organisms will make nano-scale machines like this unnecessary.

Nanotechnology already exists: it’s called life. Think about it. Why construct little robots to do our bidding, when living cells fit the bill perfectly? With exponentially increasing computing power, we will be able to sequence genomes in seconds or less. Sooner or later, we will understand the genes well enough to start designing entirely new forms of life.

So if we’re using our super-intelligent computers to design new forms of life, what happens when the computers become smarter than us? The singularity might not end with a catastrophic “grey goo” but with an explosion of bio-diversity. Of course the line between biology and computers might become so blurred that there is no meaningful distinction between the two.

The post biological singularity world might be a very strange place indeed. On the one hand, it could be great. Imagine instead of factories, huge colonies of carefully tended micro-organisms. Need a new car? Just culture some bacteria that deposit steel the way corals deposit carbonate. Keep them fed with raw ore and tended, and they grow the car for you.Or perhaps we do away with the distinction between life and technology. Maybe our vehicles will be living, intelligent things along the lines of those in the novel Leviathan. Of course, post-singularity, there might not be humans anymore. The post-humans might take over and see humans as obsolete.

Another thought that occurs to me is that this level of biotechnology might open up the solar system in a way that previous technologies could not. Terraforming could become much easier if you can design micro-organisms that can survive and thrive on Venus or Mars under current conditions. But why stop there, why not just design your astronauts so that they can survive on the surface. Instead of terraforming a whole planet, Areo-form the individuals who will explore it!

I think this is a really cool but also sort of disturbing idea to think about. One of the difficulties with science fiction these days is that the pace of advancement is so fast that it’s difficult to say what the future will be like even ten years down the road. I think the only thing we can really say for sure is that it will surprise us.

Speaking to the Past with Book Covers

June 14, 2010

A friend of mine just shared this on Google reader. Douglas Coupland has come up with a clever idea: create Penguin book covers to explain the world as it is in 2010 to readers in 1935 when Penguin first started. Some of the coverse are really amusing, and several of them are space-related. Here are the spacey ones, but I recommend checking out the whole set.

(Actually more like 40 years)

I like the fine print on this one.

The Case for Mars: Autotuned

June 3, 2010

For me, none of the newer symphony of science videos can match the sheer catchy-ness of the original, but this one is about exploring Mars, so I can’t complain too much. Check the Symphony of Science page for other autotuned science-themed music videos.

Barnstorming Mars

June 2, 2010

You need to check out this video that the ESA just posted:

This was compiled from the small “Visual Monitoring Camera” on Mars Express, and it gives a beautiful view of what Mars looks like from the spacecraft’s highly elliptical orbit. I love the way the orbit clearly speeds up as the spacecraft swoops by the pole. Also, pay close attention at the very end and you can see a dark spot cross the planet: that’s Phobos, one of Mars’ tiny moons!

For a more detailed discussion, check out Emily’s post on this awesome video!

Talking lasers on aussie radio

May 12, 2010

This is what my work is like every day. Honest.

Through a crazy random happenstance, I was just interviewed by a friend of a friend of a friend at Australian radio station ‘triple j‘ for a feature on lasers! We talked all about shooting stuff with lasers, why one might want to do that (other than because it’s awesome) and how the real lab is not quite what people picture.

The show is called Hack with Kate O’Toole, and it airs in about 2 hours at 1:30 pm AEST (11:30 pm EST). Update: I fail at time zones. The show aired at 5:30 AEST. It looks like you can listen to programs online for one week after they air, so no worries if you don’t see this in time, you should still be able to find it.

Update: You can download the show as a podcast at this link, or if that doesn’t work, try here. The feature on lasers starts at 18:22.

Sounds like they edited my interview a lot, basically just leaving the first stuff I talked about. But they also talked to some other laser folks, including a long interview about the LISA mission searching for gravitational waves, so I recommend you check it out.

Carnival of Space 152

May 2, 2010

Welcome to The Martian Chronicles and the 152nd edition of the Carnival of Space! As always, we’ve got a great bunch of space-related posts from across the blogosphere, ranging from life on Mars to the age of the universe to Science Ninjas!

I’ll get things started with a pair of posts from right here at The Martian Chronicles. A couple weeks ago I went on a cool geology field trip in the El Paso/Carlsbad area along with a whole bunch of other martian and terrestrial geologists. Among other things, we learned that printed Mars panoramas make good raincoats, that graduate students are ideal for menial labor like counting hundreds of thousands of layers of rock, and that ancient reefs have a surprising amount to teach us about stratigraphy on Mars. Check out my summaries of Day 1 and Day 2 of the field trip! Day three is coming soon, with lots of pretty pictures of Carlsbad Caverns!

Speaking of rocks and Mars, Paul Scott Anderson at Planetaria has a post about another Mars meteorite that might have evidence of life! He includes a few very nice electron microscope images of the meteorite for your consideration. Personally, I’m not convinced, but I’m also not an expert on this corner of Mars science. Take a look for yourself!

Ian O’Neill at Discovery News also has been thinking about martian microbes, and whether germs from Earth might have hitched a ride on our rovers, set up camp on Mars and wiped out the locals. It would sure be disappointing if we discover life on Mars only to learn that someone at JPL forgot to wash their hands! Of course, there are also those who think we should stop bothering with all this planetary protection business and deliberately seed Mars with Earth life. What do you think?

While we’re on the topic of our potentially infectious little rovers, Stuart Atkinson has some beautiful pictures from the Opportunity rover. Oppy is slowly making her way across the Meridiani Plains, and has a tantalizing view of the distant hills that are her ultimate destination. As Stu says, “The far horizon is calling…

But this is the Carnival of Space, not the Carnival of Rocks and Bugs and Rovers, so let’s get on to the more “spacey” stuff! I’m a big fan of stuff, and so is Steve Nerlich at Cheap Astronomy! This week they have a great podcast about “stuff” in space and the surprisingly limited number of shapes in which it can be found.

A radar "image" of an asteroid and its two tiny moons. Credit: NASA / JPL / GSSR / Emily Lakdawalla

While we’re on the topic of stuff and its various shapes, I should point out that radar is a great way to find out the shape of stuff in space like asteroids. If you’ve ever seen one of the “images” of an asteroid taken by a telescope like Arecibo and wondered how a radar antenna can be used to take a picture, then wonder no longer! Just take a look at Emily Lakdawalla’s post about radar imaging and all your questions will be answered.

If radar images are not your cup of tea, then maybe you’d prefer to learn about an old-school optical telescope: the Radcliffe 1.9 meter telescope. Markus shares the joy of handling the massive old wrought iron telescope in this post at Supernova Condensate.

Not a fan of old school ‘scopes? Well, perhaps I can interest you in some futuristic¬† Hypertelescopes? Next Big Future also has some cool posts about even more far-out ideas like Dyson Swarms and Dyson bubbles and “statites” – structures that hover above a star by balancing its gravitational force with its radiation pressure.

We’re a long way from that level of engineering, but solar sail technologies are getting more advanced. Centauri Dreams has a post about the Japanese IKAROS mission: an interplanetary solar sail that also uses its sail as a solar panel to generate electricity! I hadn’t heard of this mission, but it sounds really cool!

Whether you’re talking about star-enveloping Dyson spheres or relatively simpler missions, you have to wonder what drives exploration, particularly since big steps forward like the Apollo program come so rarely. Well, 21st Century waves talks about the idea that what we’re really dealing with is a chaotic system in this post on how complexity drives exploration.

Of course, sometimes it’s just the brilliance of one person that makes the difference, and lights the path forward, and Robert Goddard is a great example. Over at Music of the Spheres, there’s a great post about Goddard that takes a look as some of his earliest thoughts on space and also some of his inventions, which are now available online thanks to Google Patents.

Weird Sciences contributed three posts this week: First up, some thoughts on why Stephen Hawking is wrong about aliens and the threat they pose. Also, some thoughts on the implications of self-replicating machines. And third, visualizing the fourth spatial dimension.

Speaking of weird, what does Weird Warp have for us this week? Why it’s a nice, informative (and actually not very weird!) post all about the ins and outs of comets, everyone’s favorite icy visitors to the inner solar system.

While we’re back on the subject of “things that are in the inner solar system”, let’s take a look at Astroblogger Ian Musgrave’s post about how to use the moon to find stuff in the night sky. Ian even provides some scripts for the free programs Celestia and Stellarium!

Once you have rounded up your friends and family and taken them on a tour of the night sky using the moon as your guide, you’re bound to start getting pelted with questions. Luckily, “We are all in the gutter” has started a new “how do we know” feature. Their first post in the series is an answer to the question: “How do we know how old the universe is?” Do you have other “how do we know”-type questions? Contact the “We are all in the gutter” folks and get your answer!

Our penultimate post is from Steinn Sigurdsson, who reports on the unfortunate incident of the Nuclear Compton Telescope: a balloon-borne telescope that crashed in Australia during an attempted launch earlier this week. Condolences for those on the telescope team; it’s painful to watch so much work fall apart at its culmination.

And finally, on a (much) lighter note, what you’ve all been waiting for. Toothpaste ingredients! Which of course, logically, lead us to discover Amanda Bauer’s secret alter ego: the Science Ninja. This post makes me wish that a) all products had ingredient lists like the one on that toothpaste, and b) that I, too, was a science ninja.

Update: one late addition to the carnival! Nancy Atkinson at Universe Today is working on a series of posts entitled “13 Things that Saved Apollo 13“. The main article has link to the rest of the articles. Very interesting stuff!

Update 2: One more latebreaking addition! Out of the Cradle has a nice review of the book “The Big Splat, or How the Moon Came to Be”.

Phew! Well, that does it for this week’s Carnival of Space! It’s been a wild ride, as always. Thanks again to Fraser for letting me host, and thanks to all the space bloggers who contributed!


Review: Bioshock

April 8, 2010

When Bioshock came out, I heard rave reviews about its revolutionary gameplay, deep storyline, tough moral choices, arresting visuals and general awesomeness. So of course, when I decided to give in to my old gaming addiction and get an XBox 360, it was near the top of the list of games I wanted.

Well, I just finished playing and sadly, I was pretty underwhelmed.

The premise of the game is that in 1960, your character’s plane crashes in the middle of the ocean. You survive and find a bathysphere that takes you down to Rapture: an undersea city built by a man named Andrew Ryan as a sort of Randian laissez-faire paradise.

I am Andrew Ryan and I am here to ask you a question:
Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his brow?

No, says the man in Washington; it belongs to the poor.
No, says the man in the Vatican; it belongs to God.
No, says the man in Moscow; it belongs to everyone.

I rejected those answers. Instead, I chose something
different. I chose the impossible. I chose…

Rapture.

A city where the artist would not fear the censor.
Where the scientist would not be bound by petty morality.
Where the great would not be constrained by the small.
And with the sweat of your brow,
Rapture can become your city as well.

-Andrew Ryan

But immediately it becomes clear that all is not well in Rapture. Everyone you meet is insane and tries to kill you, thanks to rampant addiction to ADAM, a substance that allows people to regenerate and rewrite their genetic code using “plasmids”.

As you progress through the game, you collect various weapons as well as various plasmids that give you abilities like telekinesis, or the ability to throw lightning, fire, or even swarms of insects at your enemies. To gain plasmids, you need to get ADAM, which is collected from dead bodies by the “little sisters”: little girls who have been mentally programmed to extract ADAM with wicked-looking syringes. The little sisters are protected by “big daddies”, which are huge, groaning, heavily modified humans in armored diving suits.

The little sisters are impervious to all of your weapons, which made me wonder why exactly they need Big Daddies to protect them. But in any case, once you have dispatched a Big Daddy, there are two ways to get ADAM from the little sister. The first way is to “harvest” her, which gives you lots of ADAM but also kills her. The other way is to “rescue” her, turning her back into a normal little girl. This gives you less ADAM, but you are repaid with gifts and assistance from the rescued girls.

The decision whether or not to kill the little girls is really the only moral choice that you make in the game, and it doesn’t change much, other than the ending cinematic.

A little sister prepares to harvest ADAM from a corpse, while her Big Daddy protects her.

The plot of the game is almost entirely backstory. There are some interesting twists toward the latter part of the game, but really the game boils down to killing everyone in each level and perhaps collecting some items in the process that allow you to progress to the next level. In the process you come across various tape recordings from key characters that reveals some of the events prior to your arrival at Rapture. These eventually come together to reveal what sounds like an interesting story, but my complaint is that the player is not really an active part of that story! In fact, much is made in the game of how little the character has to say in what he does.

I would much rather have seen the game set before all hell broke loose in the city. The player could choose which of the various factions to side with, and there would have been lots of interesting moral choices to make that would actually shape the fate of the city. But instead everything has happened already and you just run around trying to survive and make sense of it. By placing the player in a mostly passive role, it took away a lot of the potential depth to the story for me.

The game’s strongest point was definitely the visuals. Rapture is undeniably a cool-looking place, with a neat combination of art-deco and steampunk influences. The environment is very “elemental” with lots of fire, water and electricity, and ice and this is mirrored in some of the plasmids that you can collect. And of course, the Big Daddy/Little Sister combination is visually striking.

Since this is ostensibly a science blog, I should say something about the science of the game, but really, this is more fantasy than science fiction. I think we all know that you can’t genetically modify someone to shoot fire out of their fingertips and that a city at the bottom of the ocean is not really practical. Also, you can’t genetically modify an organism “on the fly” by jabbing a syringe in its forearm. Any given individual is pretty much stuck with their original genes, at least as far as my understanding of genetics goes.

There is one glaring error that I have to mention, even though it is a nitpick. At one point, you encounter a bunch of ice, and you are told that the ocean water is so cold that when it leaks into the city it freezes solid. This is total BS. The bottom of the ocean is above freezing, and as you may remember, ocean water is salty so it freezes at a lower temperature. It’s true that supercooled water can be liquid under pressure and freeze when depressurized, but it doesn’t make much sense for it to freeze when it encounters the warmer environment inside the city.

Anyway, Bioshock was a very cool-looking game with an interesting backstory, but ultimately it didn’t live up to the hype. The game itself felt quite shallow to me. The moral choice was not particularly interesting or consequential and the gameplay boiled down to killing everything on each level. The main characters were all caricatures with little depth, and the player was essentially passive, with little choice about how to proceed. Without giving anything away, I’ll also say that I found the end of the game to be surprisingly abrupt and anticlimactic (and easy).

The plasmids basically just served as a different set of guns, so I didn’t think they really changed the gameplay that much. The enemies on each level didn’t offer much variety, and the ability to respawn every time you die made it easy to just throw caution to the wind and attack without strategy until they were all dead.

Maybe my hopes were too high and I expected too much from a shooter game. I think it’s clear that I’m more of a RPG person, and maybe that’s the main problem I had with Bioshock. But then again, I enjoyed the first two Halo games. In any case, Bioshock was fun, but ultimately for me it didn’t live up to the hype.

Review: Fallout 3

March 10, 2010

Other than Spore, which I played briefly (but intensely!) last year, and occasional multiplayer games when I visited with friends, Fallout 3 is the first serious single player game that I have played in a very long time. I used to be extremely addicted to video games, and for most of undergrad and grad school I had steered clear of them because I felt like I couldn’t afford the time.

But finally, this past christmas I decided I was ready to dive back into the gaming world with an XBox 360. I did my homework, and discovered a bunch of great games that had come out in the last few years for XBox360, and I got several of them for Christmas. Fallout3 just happened to be the first one I played.

Let me get this out of the way up front: Fallout 3 is one of the best games I have ever played. After years of starving myself from video games, Fallout 3 was like a ten-course meal from the finest chefs. I was always a sucker for role-playing games with their rich worlds, interwoven plots and sub-plots, the constant search for better equipment and of course, creating and leveling up a character.

Fallout 3 has this in spades. Let me start with the world, which is definitely the strongest part of the game. Fallout 3 is set in a post-apocalyptic Washington, DC and its environs, 200 years after a devastating nuclear war wiped most of civilization off the map. Using DC as a setting was a brilliant move, because it has so many iconic locations. There’s something simultaneously thrilling and disturbing about walking around the Mall amidst the ruins of the Capitol Building, the Smithsonian museums, and the Washington Monument. Later in the game I went searching for the White House and found that the only thing left was a radioactive rubble pile. The Pentagon and the Jefferson memorial are major locales in the plot, and there is a side-quest to help a group of slaves retake the Lincoln Memorial from a group of slavers and make it into a beacon of freedom.

It’s not just sightseeing downtown though. One of the major strengths of the game is the huge expanse of the “Capitol Wasteland” that you can explore. It’s great fun to just wander the wasteland and see what you find. There are hundreds of unique landmarks in the wasteland, and each of them is related to one of the dozens of quests in the game. And the attention to detail in each location is stunning. It’s also more than scenery: there are people. Memorable characters are scattered throughout the game, and most of the time, if you say the right things, you find that they could use your help with something. And of course, like most RPGs, even simple requests can grow into multi-stage quests that lead you to unexpected locations and into confrontations with unexpected foes.

A screenshot of the Lone Wanderer in the capitol wasteland, with his companion Dog Meat. (Yes, you can actually get a pet dog, and no you have no choice about his name.)

I particularly liked that most of the quests had multiple ways to complete them. Do you kill the raiders, or sleuth around to find and alleviate the cause of their raids? Do you rat out the snake oil salesman, or take him aside and convince him to stop cheating people? Do you blow up the town, or disable the bomb, or do neither? Most of the quests have clear “good” and “evil” choices, but there are a fair number where the right choice isn’t always so evident, including some of the more important quests in the main story.

The story itself is pretty good, and could be completed pretty quickly if one were so inclined, but I dragged it out, pursuing almost every side quest I could find. The voice acting is very good for a video game, and I was surprised to see that Liam Neeson is the voice of the main character’s father. The story begins with the father disappearing mysteriously and the main character setting out to find him. Eventually you do, and get caught up in a project that has been in the works since before the main character’s birth, and which leads to conflict with the Super Mutants who have taken over much of the ruins of Washington, and the Enclave, who have used their superior military technology to take over what remains of the government.

The prevailing culture of the Fallout 3 world before the war was similar to the 1950s, and everything from the propaganda posters to the cars, to the signs on the front of stores recalls this era. It may seem surprising in a post-apocalyptic game, but there is actually a decent amount of humor in Fallout 3 and much of it is based on the incongruity of quaint, optimistic relics of a 1950s culture and the “reality” of the Capitol wasteland. I particularly enjoyed the Vault Dweller’s surival guide, which you can browse here.

Of course, no game is perfect. I had a few minor complaints, the first being the targeting system and the gore. When fighting enemies (which tends to happen frequently), the easiest way to aim is to use the built-in targeting system, which freezes time, zooms in on the enemy and allows you to select which part of their body to shoot, and gives a likelihood in percent that you will hit that point. This is very handy, but it results in a slow-motion cinematic view of the shots being fired. This was really cool the first few times, but after a while I had two problems with it. First, I don’t really need to see every single shot in slow-motion, but I’d like to still be able to use the targeting system. Second, slow-motion means you get to see the blood and gore in excruciating detail. Every. Single. Time. I don’t really need to see heads exploding in that sort of detail, but there is no option either to speed up the replays or to reduce the level of gore.

Another complaint was that the variety of enemies was somewhat lacking. There are a few broad groups of enemies that you encounter in the game: super mutants, feral ghouls (radiation-induced zombies), raiders (humans gone bad), and enclave (high-tech soldiers), and mutated (a.k.a. giant) animals. That’s pretty much it. It would’ve been nice to see a little more diversity. Ugly and green though they are, after killing the hundredth super-mutant, I was looking for something else.

A final complaint is that the level cap is too low. Even with the Game-of-the-Year expansions, which increase the level cap to 30, I maxed out while there was still plenty left to do in the game. On the one hand, it was fun to be so powerful that I didn’t have to worry about most battles, but it made the end of the game somewhat anticlimactic to be able to kill everyone without breaking a sweat. It would be nice if there were levels enough for all of the available experience in the game, and if the difficulty of battles scaled to the player’s level a little better.

A screenshot showing the targeting system and a super mutant. I'll spare you a shot of the gore that is about to follow.

And finally, this wouldn’t be a Martian Chronicles review if I didn’t say something about the science. In this case, I think the game’s developers underestimated the ability for nature to take over once humans are out of the picture. The wasteland depicted is populated by yellowish grass and a few species of mutated animal, but we know what it looks like when a place is irradiated and then abandoned by humans: just go to Chernobyl. Only 24 years after the disaster, Chernobyl has become a haven for wildlife. Although there is some evidence of low birth rates compared to animals outside the exclusion zone, it’s still clear that many species have returned to the area and plants appear to be doing fine. If you look at the chilling pictures of the Chernobyl buildings now, they look a lot like the settings in Fallout 3, which is supposed to be 200 years after a nuclear disaster. Of course, it is never specified how extreme the destruction was in Fallout 3, but since many of the downtown buildings are partly intact, I think the game overestimated the effects of radiation on the surroundings. If 200 years had actually passed, instead of the Capitol Wasteland, a more accurate name would probably be the Capitol Forest, and I suspect the buildings would be even more degraded than they are depicted. For more on how nature would recover if humans were to disappear, I highly recommend the non-fiction book The World Without Us.

This photograph of a classroom in the Chernobyl exclusion zone 20 years after the disaster looks a lot like many of the locations in Fallout 3, which is supposed to be 200 years after a nuclear war.

I won’t go into a critique of the other science issues in the game. I talked in my lasers post about the problems with using them as weapons so I won’t repeat that here. I will point out that if you peruse the remains of the Smithsonian museums, you do actually find scraps of accurate information about astronomy and history among other things (you’ll also find lots of made-up information about the alternate future of the Fallout 3 world).

All in all, Fallout 3 is an excellent game. It is also incredibly addictive, and it is huge enough to keep you busy for at least a hundred hours, if not more. To give you some idea just how big it is, I started a new game after finishing my original game (in which I did my best to explore as much as possible), and played for more than a week doing quests and exploring locations that I hadn’t ever encountered with my first game. I probably still would be if I wasn’t in Texas for a month.

I highly recommend Fallout 3, and I can’t wait to get lost in some of the other RPGs by the same company.