Movie Review: Passengers

To start with “Passengers” is a certainly a visually attractive film, and I don’t just mean Jennifer Lawrence. It’s true, the best part of the film are the special effects and especially the set design. The starship Avalon is the starship you dream of being on.

Passengers. Maybe they could have shown the starship in one of their posters?

The biggest problem with this movie is the plot, it’s sooooo slow and so predictable, especially the love story. The movie begins as the starship Avalon is about a third of the way through it’s 120 year journey to the colony Homestead II when the ship has a collision with a rather large asteroid. The ship’s deflector screen prevents the ship from being destroyed but there is some damage, the first instance of which is when passenger Chris Pratt is awoken from hibernation much too early. For the next half an hour we are treated to watching Pratt learn he is the only person awake, watching him try wake up members of the crew and otherwise try to find a way out of his problem as he slowly goes a little crazy. This is the worst part of the film.

The story gets a little better when Jennifer Lawrence wakes up (I’m trying not to give away too much of the plot here). At least now we have two people trying to figure out what they can do. As Jennifer and Chris fall in love and then break up we occasionally are shown small parts of the ship beginning to malfunction as Cleaning robots, visual displays and other systems run into walls or flicker on and off.

Here we have the biggest plot hole in the story. As the failures begin to cascade we are shown the ship’s computer keeping tract of all the breakdowns but for some reason it hasn’t been programmed to wake up any of the crew to fix the bloody problem. At the same time boy engineer Chris is so engrossed in Jennifer he doesn’t notice the accumulating malfunctions. If fact we have to wait for crewman Lawrence Fishburne to be awakened before anybody says “Hey we gotta fix this”!

Now, since three’s a crowd, Fishburne has suffered internal damage during his revival and literally only lives long enough to get Chris and Jennifer off their well exercised butts while giving them his authority to access sections of the ship they hadn’t been able to get into and control the computer systems in ways they’d never been able to. Then he dies leaving Chris and Jennifer to risk their lives saving the ship while falling in love again.

Don’t get me wrong, the movie isn’t bad but it is slow and predictable. As I said earlier the set design does have a real feel of what we imagine a starship passenger liner to be and the story does take the effort to think about why people would ever consider leaping 120 years into the future to begin a completely new life on a new world but hey, isn’t that kinda just the story of our country.

I guess if you like Chris Pratt or Jennifer Lawrence, or if you really like starships you’re like “Passengers” otherwise this movie will probably leave you feeling a little flat.

Review: The Finale of “MARS” on National Geographic Channel

Last night we were treated to the season finale of the National Geographic channel’s six part series “Mars”. Now I’m not sure but does season finale mean there’s more to come next season? Or is this the final finale? Either way it’s a good time for a review of the show.

Mars on the Nat Geo Channel

For those who haven’t seen Mars the series combines a fictional depiction of the first attempts to build a colony on the Red Planet with interviews from scientists and engineers who hope to turn the fiction into reality over the next few decades. Each episode in the series was intended to highlight one of the many dangers the first travelers to Mars will face while showing how they will overcome those dangers with courage, ingenuity and hard work.

While trying to avoid any spoilers the final episode posed perhaps the greatest challenge of all those facing Mars explorers. It’s not an engineering problem or the lack of resources on Mars, those problems we can easily overcome. The problem is the unwillingness of the people back on Earth to accept the inevitable casualties that will come as we explore new worlds in deep space.

The fifth episode had ended with just such a disaster as seven of the Mars colonists were killed. The finale then opens with the political and corporate leaders back on Earth trying to decide whether or not to order an evacuation of the remaining explorers. The interview segments then discussed how the near disaster of Apollo 13 brought about a cancelation of the final two Apollo missions and a complete ending of Human missions beyond Earth orbit for the last 45 years.

This is a big problem. When the colonists of Roanoke Island died they simply disappeared into history, we still aren’t really certain just what happened to them. When somebody dies on Mars however we’ll see it live (O’k there’ll be a time delay for the speed of light) and in full living colour. Now the adventurers who will go to Mars are ready to accept the risk but will we here back on Earth? As I said, this timidness on the part of the Earthbound public may well be in greatest difficulty to be faced in conquering Mars.

As to Mars the Series. Well, I can tell you it’s going in my video collection. It wasn’t perfect, the sound quality of the fictional sections was rather poor, some of the actors seemed like they were mumbling into their chests. But on the whole it was intelligent, thought provoking science fiction of the best kind. Hopefully Nat Geo, the Science Channel and other media outlets will find the way to provide us with more series like “Mars”.

Well, that’s my opinion. I’d like to hear yours. Till next time.

Feathered Dinosaur Tail encased in Amber!

Remember in the movie Jurassic Park where Richard Attenborough tells Sam Neil et al that his scientists obtained Dino DNA from prehistoric mosquitoes that had been encased in amber. Well wouldn’t it be better just to have the dinosaur itself be encased in amber, or at least a part of one. Well it’s happened, a Chinese paleontologist named Xing Lida found the remarkable specimen in an amber market in northern Myanmar.

Feathered Dinosaur Tail encased in Amber

The specimen is just a portion of the tail of a very small dinosaur, and it’s covered in feathers. Now, it’s not a bird, X-rays revel that the tail bones are arranged differently than those in birds. In fact paleontologists have identified the fragment as belonging to a member of the coelurosaurian group and therefore a relative of the Mighty T-Rex and the well known velociraptors. Although this animal probably only grew to the size of a small bird.

Artists Impression of Bird sized Dinosaur

Researchers haven’t been able to obtain any DNA but they have found soft tissue and decayed blood. This specimen has already given scientists a better idea of how dinosaurs, at least some, where covered in feathers rather than scales making them better able to control their body temperature and could provide the final proof that at least some dinosaurs were warm blooded.

Looking for ordinary fossils is like looking for a needle in a haystack but trying to find such spectacular specimens in amber is certainly needle in a haystack squared. Nevertheless you can be confident that dino hunters out there will be on the lookout and before to long maybe they will find that one specimen that does give us our first actual sample of Dino DNA.

P.S. A couple of posts back I talked a little bit about Cosmic Inflation after the Big Bang and how some cosmologists, and me, think that a simpler model is to look at the Big Bang as a Big Bounce from a previously contracting Universe. Well, Nova Next from PBS just released an article which goes deeper into that very subject. If you’re as interested as I am you can check it out by clicking below.

Did the Universe Start with a Bounce Instead of a Bang?

Batteries and a farewell to John Glenn

I have something really exciting to talk about today; batteries! What’s that you say, batteries aren’t exciting. Well, consider this, how much time do you spend recharging the battery in your smart phone and how often are you not able to get the latest scores from it because your battery is low.

Think of how many more electric cars there’d be on the road today if they could go further than a hundred miles before having to spend six hours or more recharging. Over the last two decades solar and wind power production technology has made rapid progress but green energy is still being held back by the problem of storing that energy for use during the night or when the wind is calm. The only solution at present is a huge bank of batteries that costs more than the solar arrays or wind turbines producing the energy.

The plain fact is that over the past one hundred years to only real advance in battery technology is the development of the Lithium battery which we all know from the news are prone to catch fire if you ask them for just a wee bit too much current. Really battery performance has become the limiting factor in the progress of many technologies that are otherwise ready to emerge into our daily lives.

Which gets me back to where I started. I have something really exciting to talk about today; batteries!

The first new development I’d like to discuss comes from a story in the magazine of the Institute of Electricians and Electrical Engineers, IEEE Spectrum and reports on research into Lithium-Sulfur batteries. Lithium Sulfur has the potential ability to hold five times the energy of current Lithium-Ion batteries but their performance has so far decayed rapidly every time they are recharged. The new research is led by Professor Guihua Yu at the University of Texas at Austin and has succeeded in encapsulating the Sulfur electrodes in polypyrrole-manganese dioxide nanotubes. While that is a bit beyond the chemistry I learned it has succeeded in reducing the loss of battery performance to 0.07 percent per charge cycle.

There are still some problems to be resolved, especially the tendency of the Lithium and Sulfur to develop dendrites that can short circuit the battery but hopefully Lithium Sulfur batteries will soon reach the stage where their greater capacity can attain widespread use.

To read the original article in IEEE Spectrum click on the link below.

The second story come from Merry Olde England where the daily express is reporting on the research of Dr. Brendan Howlin from the University of Surry and actually deals with what is claimed as a major breakthrough in the development of Supercapacitors rather than familiar chemical batteries.

Now, the chemical compounds that ordinary batteries use to store energy simply do not react as fast as electronic components like a transistor, that is why batteries take to long to charge and why their discharge currents are so limited. A capacitor however stores its energy in electric charge, actual electrons, and even a huge capacitor back can be fully charged, or discharged in less than a second. Until now however the amount of energy a capacitor could store was tiny compared to that of a chemical battery. Capacitors were great for small amounts of energy in an instant but simply could not hold enough energy for phones or drones or similar uses.

Doctor Howlin however, reports that he has increased the amount of energy his supercapacitors can store by a factor of 1,000-10,000 using the same materials used in soft contact lenses. If this is true, Doctor Howlin’s capacitors could allow electric cars to travel just as far as gasoline powered cars and be recharged just as quickly as pumping gas. Elon Musk of Tesla electric cars has often said that supercapacitors with this performance are the breakthrough electric cars have been waiting for.

To read the original story from the express click on the link below.

P.S. Before I go today I have to take a moment to mention the passing on Thursday of John Glenn. I was seven years old and in second grade on February 20th, 1962 when John became the first American to orbit the Earth. My class at Thomas Holme School was allowed to go to the school auditorium to watch the mission on a small TV placed on the auditorium stage. I may not have been able to see much but I will never forget that. There can never be any doubt that John Glenn was an example of the best of what the Human Race can be. Godspeed John Glenn.

John Glenn
John Glenn and Friendship 7

This Week in Space

Several news stories dealing with space exploration came out this week but didn’t receive much attention so I decided to take a moment to highlight them.

The first item on my list is the beginning of the final, and perhaps most exciting phase of the Cassini spacecraft’s mission to the planet Saturn. The Cassini mission is expected to end in September of next year with Cassini plunging into Saturn’s atmosphere but starting this week the spacecraft has begun a series of ring grazing orbits that will be followed by orbits closer to the giant planet than anything ever attempted.

In the picture below the gray lines indicate the ring grazing orbits while the blue lines are the planet grazing orbits. These orbits are dangerous, a collision with debris from the rings could easily destroy the spacecraft which is why NASA has waited till the end of the mission to attempt them. The possibility of close up observations of the ring system is too great a chance to miss however.

Cassini Spacecraft Ring grazing Orbits

Hopefully in the next several weeks NASA will be able to release spectacular images of Saturn’s Rings. If you’d like to know more about the Cassini mission here’s a link to the official NASA website.

Another interesting NASA story is the awarding of a contact to the California based company Space Systems/LORAL. I used to work for them back in the 1980s designing antennas for geostationary communications satellites. The contact is for the development of a satellite refueling spacecraft called the Restore-L spacecraft bus.

Refueling satellites in space is an idea that’s been talked about since the 80’s and I’m glad to see they are finally getting around to doing it. You see, all the satellites we put into space to sent you your direct TV signal or complete your overseas telephone call or keep an eye on the hurricane brewing in the Atlantic have only a limited amount of fuel to keep them in the proper orbit and, just as importantly pointing in the right direction. Once their fuel is gone these technological miracles costing hundreds of millions of dollars are just trash.

Having an unmanned spacecraft that could go to these satellites and refuel them is another step on the road to building the infrastructure of space, turning low Earth orbit (LEO) into a work environment of benefit to everyone here on Earth. If you’d like to read more about Restore-L here’s a link to the story.

A closely related story is the selection by INTELLSAT, the international consortium managing most of the world’s communications satellites, of Orbital ATK as the provider for a Mission Extension Vehicle-1, MEV-1. The objective of the MEV-1 will be very similar to NASA’s Restore-L spacecraft in that the MEV-1 will go to satellites already in orbit and either refuel or repair them, thereby extending their useful life.

These twin spacecraft, are scheduled to be developed over the next three to four years and together they will provide a new capability for mankind in space. To read the original story from Spacecraft Insider click on the link below.





Was Einstein Wrong??? Is the Speed of Light not Constant???

Over the past week there have been a series of news articles reporting that two physicists, Niayesh Afshordi at the University of Waterloo in Canada along with Joao Magueijo at the Imperial College of London have proposed that Einstein may have been wrong. The Speed of Light may not be constant, right after the Big Bang it may have been a lot faster.

Do you want the short answer or the long answer. For the short answer read the next 3 paragraphs, for the long answer keep going. If you want to read the news report use the link below.

What Afshordi and Magueijo were looking for is a solution to the problem in cosmology of just how the early universe was in such good thermal equilibrium as is evidenced by the Cosmic Microwave Background, CMB see picture below. For different objects, at different initial temperatures to come into thermal equilibrium requires some kind of contact between those different objects. In this case we are taking about the entire early Universe which is flying apart at the speed of light and that ain’t good contact.

Cosmic Microwave Background from Plank Satellite
Cosmic Microwave Background from Plank Satellite

What Afshordi and Magueijo have proposed is that, in the Early Universe the speed of light was far greater than it is now allowing greater thermal contact by the process of radiation. Remember there are three ways for heat to flow: conduction, convection and radiation, well Afshordi and Magueijo’s model would make radiation a much more efficient process thereby eliminating the thermal contact problem.

The point to remember here is that this is all mathematics at present, no one has measured a different value for the speed of light. Afshordi and Magueijo do make a prediction of the scalar fluctuations in the CMB as an experimental check but at the moment this is all just a model.

Also, we’ve been here before. The problem of thermal equilibrium in the CMB goes back to the 1970s when Alan Guth of MIT proposed cosmic inflation as the solution. The idea of inflation was that, right after the big bang itself, and we’re taking pico-seconds here, a huge amount of energy was dropped into the universe causing it to expand faster than the speed of light so that a small section of the universe that was in thermal equilibrium became the entire universe that we see. For thirty years after Guth published his model inflation was a standard part of cosmology, I learned it, but no one has been able to figure out where all that energy came from so inflation is no longer quite so highly regarded.

To me however, this new idea of Afshordi and Magueijo is just kind of the opposite of inflation. Instead of having a small part of the universe after the big bang expand faster than the speed of light they increase the speed of light, in a sense making the early universe smaller. And they now have the problem of describing what made the speed of light so different, and what makes it so constant now? Kind of the opposite of Guth’s problem of where all that energy came from. I wish Afshordi and Magueijo luck but as I said, we’ve been here before.

Now I get to give my opinion. To me the reason the early universe was in thermal equilibrium right after the big bang was that it was in thermal equilibrium before the big bang. That’s right I’m one of those big crunch guys, that is I think that about 15 billion years ago, before the big bang,  the universe was collapsing at the speed of light. Eventually the universe collapsed as much as it could and then rebounded, that rebound is what we call the big bang. A universe that is collapsing is coming into greater contact and therefore will achieve thermal equilibrium before the rebound, giving it thermal equilibrium after the rebound.

Anyway, that’s what I think. I know this has been a bit of a long post but I hope you enjoyed it. Let me know what you think.