Archive for the ‘Science Fiction’ category

The Science of Starcraft: Supernovae and Gauss Rifles

September 21, 2010

I’ve got two new posts up at The Science of Starcraft! The first tackles the difference between supernovae and novae. The words are often used interchangeably in sci-fi, but they are (usually) very different phenomena. Plus, I love telling the story of nucleosynthesis and stellar evolution, and this was a good excuse.

The second post is sort of a sequel to my previous post about railguns. This time I look at gauss rifles, another electromagnetic futuristic weapon that pops up in sci-fi pretty often, but is incorrectly depicted in Starcraft:

The Science of Starcraft: What is a Railgun and How does it Work?

September 6, 2010

I have a new post up at The Science of Starcraft! This time I tackle rail guns: sci-fi staple and the bane of intro physics students everywhere. To learn how these futuristic guns work in the real world and whether their depiction in Starcraft is accurate, go check out my latest post!

Can Life Survive in Space?

August 12, 2010

I’ve got a new post up at The Science of Starcraft! This time I tackle the question of whether unprotected living things could ever survive in the vacuum of space. Go check it out!

Force Fields and Plasma Shields

July 29, 2010

Force fields are common in lots of science fiction, but how realistic are they? That’s the question I tackle in the latest Science of Starcraft post. Head on over and check it out!

Starcraft Cloaking Devices

July 27, 2010

Today’s the big day: Starcraft 2 comes out! Over at my Science of Starcraft blog I have two new posts. One is a nice short video summarizing the plot of the original game, so if you want to know what I’m talking about when I make game references in other posts, check it out.

I also posted an article about real-world research into cloaking devices, a technology that is common in the game. Turns out there is a lot of research going on, but the best cloaking devices are still found in nature.

The Science of Starcraft: Creepy Slime Molds

July 23, 2010

My second article is up over at my new Science of Starcraft blog! This one is about the weird substance in the game called “creep” and its similarities to real-world slime-molds. Check it out! Even if you don’t play Starcraft, slime molds are really cool/weird.

(PS – I swear I’ll be posting some real Martian Chronicles content soon instead of just pointing to articles elsewhere! But I’m trying to get the Starcraft blog on its feet before the Starcraft 2 release date next week, so I’ll be using this blog to publicize it a bit.)

The Science of Starcraft

July 21, 2010

In 1998 the computer game Starcraft came out, setting the bar for real-time strategy games for the next decade. I loved playing Starcraft, and spent more time that I’d like to admit doing so. Starcraft also gave me my first taste of computer programming: the game came with a “map editor” which let you construct your own maps, including simple if-then statements. IF an enemy unit enters my base THEN it explodes. Stuff like that.

Well, on July 27th, the long-awaited sequel – Starcraft 2 – will be released. I am super-excited to play a new and improved version of one of my favorite games of all time. My brother has been playing the beta version and it sounds like it’s awesome.

With that in mind, let me tell you about the great idea I had last week. I was trying to think of some new non-fiction writing project to embark on. I write here and at Universe Today, but I was hoping to come up with something with a broader appeal than just space enthusiasts. And then it hit me, I could write something like the Science of Star Trek, but for video games. But each game is set in its own universe, some of which don’t really follow any scientific rules at all. I needed a little more focus. And then, as I was biking to campus, I realized that I could write about the science of StarCraft.

I immediately googled it, and found that nobody had beat me to the punch. The more I thought about it, the more perfect it seemed. It combined my three favorite things: science, writing and video games! With the game launching next week, I could get a new blog up and running just in time. So that’s what I did!

I am happy to announce the grand opening of my new blog: The Science of Starcraft! I’ll be digging into every aspect of the StarCraft universe, speculating about how it might work, and searching for real-world analogs. My first post is already up, taking a look at one of the cinematic teaser trailers for the game, which shows how the human armored infantry units are constructed. In my post, I show how the robotics in the video are actually quite similar to those being developed for the military today. And the assembly robots in the video are nearly identical to those on actual assembly lines!

If you’re familiar with the game, head on over and chime in or suggest a topic for me to write about! If you don’t know a nydus canal from an archon, go take a look, see what all the excitement is about, and learn how modern science is imitating modern science fiction (or is it the other way around?)

I’m pretty excited about this new project, and I hope you’ll check it out, and spread the word to any friends of yours who might be into either gaming or science! I’ve also created a new twitter account that you can follow: @starcraftsci

Review: On the Beach

July 11, 2010

Last week I reviewed the post-apocalyptic horror novel I am Legend. As it so happens, I am Legend was a rather short book, and I finished it only partway through a rather long weekend of traveling to and from a wedding in Wyoming. I was already in a post-apocalyptic mood, so I bought a copy of the classic post-apocalypse novel On the Beach by Nevil Shute for my Kindle.

On the Beach was a very different sort of novel from I am Legend. Where I am Legend is lots of action, On the Beach is a quieter story about people facing the inevitable. The premise for the story is that World War III has happened, and the many nations in the northern hemisphere have destroyed each other with nuclear weapons, particularly with Cobalt bombs designed to produce incredible amounts of fallout. Now, nearly a year later, the northern hemisphere is dead  and the fallout is drifting south with atmospheric circulation. The novel is set in and around Melbourne Australia, the southernmost large city in the world, and therefore the last to die.

Shute does a really nice job developing a handful of sympathetic characters, each of whom deals with the coming end in their own way. I was also impressed with how plausible the war in the northern hemisphere sounded. The end of the novel is no surprise, but it was still a tearjerker to read. I suppose my only complaint was that the characters all seemed to accept their end pretty gracefully. I think it’s true that some people would, but I am sure others would be frantically building fallout shelters and hoarding supplies, even in the face of certain creeping death from the radiation.

The scariest thing about this novel is that the only thing about it that is science fictional is that the cobalt bombs were actually built and used. The idea was there, and the nuclear arsenals of the US and the USSR were certainly large enough that the type of destruction described would be plausible if some of the bombs were cobalt bombs.

I should note that this novel, which was written in 1957, shows its age. It’s not a bad thing, for the most part, but it just “feels” like it’s from that era. Gender roles are the most obvious sign of the times. One of the main characters is a very independent (read: drunk) young woman who gradually shapes up and begins to take stenography classes. Men do most of the more active, interesting stuff in the novel. It was also annoying that the wife of one of the main characters was so ignorant. It served a purpose in the novel of course, because by explaining to her, the author was able to explain to the reader, but it still grated a bit.

Somehow, despite its very sad and grim ending, this novel manages to still not be as dark as I am Legend was. A constant theme throughout the story is how people come with the inevitable by pretending that it isn’t happening, and how really, maybe that’s ok. They continue to go about their lives. Society doesn’t devolve into violence the way that many post-apocalyptic stories depict. In a way, that was refreshing.

So, if you want an original, classic and touching look at the end of the world, I recommend On the Beach.

Review: I am Legend

July 5, 2010

No, not the Will Smith movie. The classic 1954 post-apocalyptic vampire/zombie novel that inspired the movie. I am Legend, by William Matheson, is a quick read and well worth it. It is intensely atmospheric, conjuring a very dark future in which the world’s population has succumbed to a disease that turns them into vampire-like monsters. The sole survivor is the main character, Robert Neville. Neville spends his days hunting down and killing the vampires and repairing his fortified home. At night he locks himself inside, drinking whiskey and listening to classical music while the vampires rage against his fortifications.

Note: minor spoilers below.

As the story progresses, the psychological toll on Neville grows and he almost despairs and gives himself up to the vampires. He eventually befriends a stray dog, and their brief companionship helps Neville snap out of his drunken depression. He decides to figure out what caused the vampirism, reading up on biology and setting up a laboratory in his house.

This novel may be the first one to attempt to explain vampirism scientifically. It does an admirable job with its technobabble, using a mix of bacterial infection and insanity to explain the various traits of a vampire.

I won’t give away the ending of the story, other than to say that Neville meets an apparently uninfected woman, and there follows a great series of scenes where Neville struggles with his intense distrust and his intense longing for a companion. The very end of the novel has a nice twist and the conclusion of the novel is very different, much darker, and far better than the one in the Will Smith movie.

This was generally a great book, especially for the atmospheric, dark vision of the future that it portrays. It definitely influenced the aesthetics of later post-apocalyptic worlds, such as the one portrayed in Fallout 3. The novel ages pretty well, although the mannerisms and speech of the main character are somewhat dated, and there are sexist undertones that are a sign of the times when it was written. My biggest complaint was the frequency with which Neville is shown spilling whiskey, smashing glasses against the wall, and just generally being drunk and despairing. I mean, I get it that he’s got issues, but some variety in how they manifested would have helped.

Despite those complaints, I highly recommend this novel. It’s a classic and when you read it you’ll see why.

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.