Friday, August 22, 2014

Sci Fi Friday: The Science Story of the Century You Probably Have Heard Nothing About


EmDrive, illustration by Elvis Popovic
I scratch my head as to how how journalists decide what's newsworthy. Why do people living in caves know about Justin Beiber's legal troubles yet few have heard about NASA's recent success with a new propulsion system that could take a manned ship to Mars and back in eight months?

I heard about this a while back when the Chinese announced that Prof Yang Juan had successfully shown that British scientist Roger Shawyer's so called "EmDrive" created thrust without a propellant. The system uses electricity to generate microwaves that bounce around a closed space and generates thrust. The implications are huge. Panels could convert star energy into electricity - perpetual space travel fueled by the stars.

But scientists in the west seemed less than excited by China's news. It was less than a blip on the radar of mainstream media.

This is how Wired.co.uk explained Shawyer's system and what critics have said about it:
Shawyer claims the EmDrive converts electric power into thrust, without the need for any propellant by bouncing microwaves around in a closed container. He has built a number of demonstration systems, but critics reject his relativity-based theory and insist that, according to the law of conservation of momentum, it cannot work. (wired.co.uk, "NASA Validates Impossible Space Drive," July 31, 2014, David Hambling.)
EmDrive, Image: SPR Ltd.
Fortunately, an American, Guido Fetta, had a similar propulsion system that was pitched to NASA and they finally ran the tests on the Cannae drive. NASA's test of the engine they called "impossible" showed that not only does it work, but it would allow humans to travel freely about the solar system without the necessity of carrying a liquid propellant.

Here's a bit about going to Mars: 
The Nasa paper projects a 'conservative' manned mission to Mars from Earth orbit, with a 90-ton spacecraft driven by the new technology. Using a 2-megawatt nuclear power source, it can develop 800 newtons (180 pounds) of thrust. The entire mission would take eight months, including a 70-day stay on Mars. (wired.co.uk, "10 Questions about NASA's 'impossible' Space Drive Answered", Aug. 7, 2014, David Hambling.)

What the what?

Here's something that really gets me about this story. Scientists believe that Shawyer's science defies commonly understood laws of physics. But they have yet to prove that it doesn't work! 

So multiple experiments by different organizations are able to create a machine that defies the current understanding of physics yet it's still "not proven"?! And as far as I can tell, getting little attention in mainstream media (but being talked about in the science world).

It seems to me that scientists should be excited about this. Physicists were jumping up and down (literally) when CERN announced that they're "almost positive" that they've discovered the Higgs Boson, one of the holy grails of physics (and the main reason they spent billions on the LHC). Don't get me wrong. The work being done at the LHC is cool stuff (so awesome I included it as a plot point in my first book, Emily's House).

But come on guys. You have a few (relatively) tiny experiments which defy your current laws. That means there is new physics to understand here. And in the grand scheme of human existence, potentially finding a viable way to propel ourselves off this dying rock and into space in search of a new home is pretty fucking exciting. And useful.

What do you think? Am I celebrating prematurely? Do you think this could be the answer to our question of how to get to space?

Monday, August 18, 2014

Manic Monday: I Want to see Gamora's Boob Window and Thor Shirtless. Who's with Me?

Over on Tor.com's blog, Alex Brown's post "Guardians of the Galaxy, We Need to Talk,"  pointed out various issues she had with the summer blockbuster film. I consider myself  a feminist and frequently agree with articles that point out the (still) rampant sexism of Hollywood movies (as well as T.V. shows, advertising, and pretty much anything spat out at us from the L.A. screen industry). But as I pondered her post (and the copious comments to it), I found myself disagreeing with much of what she said. My post will focus on just one of the issues raised and that is of the outfits superheroes wear.

This is what Alex Brown said:
"Listen up, superhero creators. There are 3 big no's in creating costumes for female characters: no boob plates, no high heels, and no boob or belly windows. There’s no reason for Gamora or Nebula to wear something as impractical as 3 inch wedge heels. And no, Drax and Star-Lord being shirtless doesn’t count as a male objectification. They’re propped up as an admirable, desireable male physique, whereas Nebula and Gamora’s skin-tight, revealing outfits sexualize them. If Star-Lord doesn’t need heels or a costume that defies gravity, then neither do Gamora or Nebula." (Alex Brown on Tor.com's blog, 8/13/14)

In case you have not seen Guardians and/or wish to see Zoe Saldana in a "boob window" outfit, here it is:



Alex's has some points. Breast plates and "boob windows" are ubiquitous in comics and movies featuring female superheros. I've seen numerous articles written by women bashing male movie makers for putting female superheros in high heels and skimpy outfits. Women argue that female heroes should wear cloths that are comfortable. Clothes that make sense for all the action and fighting that the character does in the movie.

A good point. But this point seems to assume that male superheroes are wearing outfits that are "comfortable" and sensible and that do not accentuate their sexuality. Let's review male superhero gear. Do they, in fact, wear sensible clothes appropriate for all their running, punching, jumping and superhero work? And do they wear clothes that "sexualize" them?

Let's start with Superman. Check out Christopher Reeves rocking' the 80's version of The Man of Steel.


Does this outfit say 'I'm ready for fist-fights and flying'? First of all, as we all know, the cape is impractical.


We all know how dangerous they can be. So why do flying super heroes wear them? Because they look friction' cool, that's why.

And then there are Superman's tight knickers and knee-length plastic bootie things. He doesn't exactly look like he's ready to thrown down with the bad guys. But the outfit does do one thing: Show off Reeve's junk (which I'm kind of thinking is the point).

And because the old Reeves costume wasn't testosterone pumped enough, they had to create an even more manly edition for the new millennium.


Does this outfit not accentuate his manly features just as much as Gamora's outfit highlights her womanly features? Not a lot left to the imagination here.

Okay, what about Iron Man? Surely a suit made to enable to man to fly, fire weapons and generally kick booty would be robust and machine-like, right? Something like this maybe:

Prototype Iron Man Suit Commissioned by U.S. Military
Granted, it's primitive but probably more in line with a realistic military iron man suit than this:


Even when forged in metal, male heroes are molded into the shape of an Adonis. Their chests are large, their abs smooth and taut, and their manly bits ... Well even Iron Man's junk is accentuated.

Last but certainly not least, let's take a look at Thor.


Okay, you can stop looking at him now.

How did Thor strutting with his shirt off, displaying his rock-hard abs and teasing us with his low-slung jeans revealing his muscular groin further the plot? Could it be that it was there just to give female movie-goers a bit of eye candy?

Yes, of course it was. And while I saw this movie in the theatre I was wishing for a remote control so I could rewind that bit and play it over and over. (Thanks to the above gif, now I can watch it over and over ;-)

Both Chris Hemsworth and Anthony Hopkins are clad in demigod worth costumes in Thor, The Dark World
Costume designers routinely "sexualize" the costumes for superheroes, both male and female. Why?

Because it's sexy. 

And we want our superheroes to be sexy, whether male or female. I want to see Zoe's beautiful body and Thor's manly one. That's part of the attraction. Their virility and sexiness separate them from us and we like it that way. I don't want to go to a movie and see some middle-aged, pear-shaped mom whose boobs need an anti-gravity booster to keep from sagging to her navel dressed in sensible shoes. If I want to see that I'll look in the mirror!

It'd be like going to see an super hero action flick and watching Amy Farrah Fowler trotting across the screen in her cardigan doing judo kicks.


Okay, it would be funny. But not exactly the image of a super hero.

What about Jim Parsons in skin tight spandex?


Give it up, Sheldon. It's clearly padding.

Or how about Jack Black flashing the eye candy for the ladies?


I didn't think so.

Super heroes are mythic. Someone larger than life. They are a reflection perhaps of how we'd like to look and be (i.e. hot and heroic) rather than a mirror of what we actually are (i.e. too-large around the middle and bold only in virtual realities).

If women told the truth, my guess is that most of them would prefer to look like Gamora, green skin and all, than like themselves. And if we had her body, many of us would dress like that too. But the truth is, over 90% of us don't have anywhere near the body that Zoe Saldana has and we don't rock Lycra (some of us would get banned from dropping our kids off at pre-school if we dared dress in Lycra from head-to-toe like some super heroes).

When I go to the movies, for a little while maybe I get to imagine myself as Gamora (or more likely I imagine myself as Rocket because he's a friggin' talking raccoon with cool weapons). And in my fantasy world, I prefer to look way hotter than I actually am because, you see, that's the fun of pretend time.

I'm guessing that men are much the same way. Yes, Gamora (and Pepper Potts and Black Widow, etc.) look hot to appeal to guys. But the guys look hot to appeal to guys too (and to appeal to women as well). Because my guess is that guys cast themselves in the role of Thor (or Superman or Iron Man, etc.) and why would they aspire to a dude that looks more like them than like a demigod?

I think the success of the Marvel Universe movies is the plain old fun they are. And part of that fun is escape from our everyday looking-more-like-Amy-than-Zoe life and married to a man that's more Jack Black than Chris Hemsworth.

I'll leave you to ponder these thoughts as Chris takes his shirt off again ... 


 And again.


Do you think I'm on to something? Or do you think these movies objectify women (and/or men)?

And if you were a character from the Marvel Universe, which would you be?

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Sci Fi Friday: Alien Structures on Mars and a Man on the Moon?!

For this SciFi Friday, a bit of fun with moon shadows (cue up Van Morrison). 

Remember the face on Mars?

Face on Mars, 1976
The internet swarmed with stories of an alien race having built the structure.

NASA denied that the image was what it appeared to be. They said it was a trick of light and shadows. They have proffered this more recent photo taken by the Mars Global Surveyor camera in April, 2001. 


Of course it would be nice to see it pulled back from the terrain a bit so we can compare surrounding landscape. I looked for one that was equivalent to the top photo but couldn't find one. If any of you find it, can you leave a link in the comments below?

So we have alleged faces, pyramids and cities on Mars. Now there's a literal man on the moon! Or maybe it's an alien.



What do you think? Is this a shadow playing tricks on our mind? Is it a complete fabrication/hoax? Or is it possible that there's a being on the moon that just happened to get caught on film by a satellite?