Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Cosmos: Unafraid of the Dark

The very first episode of Cosmos: A Personal Voyage discussed the Great Library of Alexandria and the tragedy of its destruction, so it is fitting that the final part of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey should return there, to bookend the series. Tyson's description of the library complements Sagan's without very much repetition.

It acts as an introduction to the chief topic of this programme, how the limits of human knowledge are pushed back over time, but also how they can be lost again if the knowledge is not guarded carefully.

Tyson chooses a superb example to demonstrate the pushing back of the limits of human knowledge by beginning with Victor Hess discovering cosmic rays in 1912. He worked out that they were stronger when higher up in Earth's atmosphere, but didn't know why this was or what they were.

Later, in the 1930s, Fritz Zwicky proposed they came from supernovae, as well as being the individual who theorised neutron stars, gravitational lensing and dark matter.

Later still, his theories were confirmed, by Vera Rubin studying distant galaxies and observing that they were rotating at different speeds than those predicted by the laws of gravity as they were then understood.

Dark matter and dark energy make up 95% of the universe but, as Tyson explains, dark matter and dark energy are "code words" for these things because we still don't know what they really are. This is the frontier of scientific knowledge in astronomy as it stands today. Tyson emphasises that scientists are OK with not knowing more - yet - because admitting ignorance is simply better than pretending to knowledge, a (not very) veiled shot against the opponents of science.

From the frontiers of science, Tyson begins to wrap up the series by moving to the frontiers of human exploration. The Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 space probes will travel through interstellar space for a billion years, carrying with them the gold discs with messages from the Earth. Science is the language the inscription is written in, with the (universally constant) frequency of the hydrogen atom as the base unit. Music and greetings from humans (and whales) form the "sounds of Earth."

Voyager 1 also took the photograph known as the "pale blue dot" of the Earth as seen from beyond the orbit of Neptune, 6 billion km away, which was the idea of Carl Sagan and gave rise to one of his most moving and impassioned speeches, repeated here almost in its entirety.

A billion years ago the Earth was populated by single-celled organisms in the ocean and nothing lived on the land, so who knows how unimaginably different the Earth will be a billion years in the future? Tyson ties together the hopeful message of his Cosmos series in a final appeal for science to always belong to everyone, to prevent misuse by an elite and a recurrence of the fate of the Great Library, and that way to ensure the long-term prospects for humanity in a vast, uncaring universe.

In the final scenes Neil deGrasse Tyson appears on the beach location used by Carl Sagan in some of his most memorable Cosmos scenes. The Ship of the Imagination then flies off without him, symbolic of him bequeathing it to the future, or to us.

"Consider again that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known, so far, to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment, the Earth is where we make our stand. It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known."

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Cosmos: The World Set Free

This programme stands as an hour-long challenge to climate change deniers; a remarkably polite way of calling them wrong for an hour. Not that those with political motives for denying climate change would be watching anyway, or even if they did then they're not the sort to let facts persuade them of anything.

Venus. The differences between the atmospheres of Earth and Venus that give Venus a "runaway" greenhouse effect are down to the amount of CO2, and the results are that Venus has clouds of sulphuric acid, insanely high atmospheric pressure, and is hot enough to melt lead.

On Earth, millions of years after this happened on Venus, we have seen a 40% rise in the CO2 level since the industrial revolution. Tyson directly addresses the opponents of climate change by asking the sort of questions they ask (most likely because they think their questions raise unanswerable objections to the scientific point of view), beginning with: Could climate change be down to volcanic eruptions instead of human actions?

Each year the volume of CO2 produced by all volcanic eruptions is equivalent to only 2% of that produced by humans. To give a sense of the staggering scale of the amount of Carbon Dioxide our civilisation creates each year, Tyson explains that it is equal in volume to the white cliffs of Dover, illustrated with an effect showing those cliffs rising out of the ground and doubling in height.

In reality, of course, CO2 is invisible, and Tyson suggests this may be part of the reason we find it so difficult to take seriously as a threat. This is followed by a neat effects sequence showing the CO2 being emitted by cars and planes as a sinister purple smoke.

Linking the scenes on Venus and Earth, Carl Sagan's PhD thesis was on the Venusian greenhouse effect, and in the original Cosmos series he spoke about the greenhouse effect on Earth, as things stood in 1980.

The differences between weather (with chaotic, short term patterns) and climate (showing a predictable pattern in the long run) are illustrated by Tyson taking a dog for a walk and looking at the dog's path - a fun way of making a serious point.

The animated sequences for this episode concern historical attempts to introduce alternatives to humans burning fossil fuels for energy, which go back further than you - or I, before I saw this programme - might have thought. At the great exhibition at Paris in 1878, Augustin Mouchot demonstrated solar energy, but at that time coal was just too cheap for anyone to be interested so it never caught on.

A similar fate befell Frank Shuman in 1913. He went out to Egypt and planned to irrigate the desert using solar power. The British and German governments were interested, but the arrival of cheap coal, and the First World War, got in the way.

We would only need to harness a fraction of the available solar and wind energy to power our civilisation, it seems disheartening that we have not yet made that transition. But, as with previous episodes, we end on a note of optimism and hope, with Tyson giving two examples of where humanity has successfully made difficult transitions before: the passing of the Cold War (which was, of course, still ongoing at the time of the first Cosmos series) and the ending of the threat of instant nuclear armageddon. And, much further back, the dawn of civilisation as humans made the change from nomadic to agricultural societies, made possible by climate change of different sort - a global warming coming out of an ice age.

This says that we can avert global warming on Earth and prevent it from becoming like Venus. The programme finishes with a few lines of John F Kennedy's inspirational, uplifting speech "We choose to go to the moon."

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Cosmos: The Immortals

I find this is one of the hardest episodes of Cosmos to summarise because its central theme on Immortality, at both an individual and species-wide level, manages to be strong while still covering a wide variety of topics over the course of the hour.

It begins in the Iraq of 5,000 years ago, where writing was developed in the city of Uruk. Enheduanna, daughter of the emperor, is the oldest recorded individual whose writing has survived to the present. This is the first example of a form of immortality possible for a human - that of their writing living on after they themselves are dead.

The epic story of Gilgamesh gives him a variant of this immortality - which he sought in the story, making it a doubly appropriate example - as the subject of the writing rather than the writer. He lives on through the retelling of his story, the oldest such work we have. From Gilgamesh Tyson moves on to talk about DNA, and how it is carried across generations, and so moves from the immortality of a single person to the idea of living on through genetic descendants.

Tracing back the existence of DNA as far as we can, we are forced to speculate about the ultimate origins of life, and Tyson suggests that DNA could have come to Earth from space before providing some evidence to make this sound more plausible. First, a sequence tying in to the original Cosmos tells the story of how meteorites that landed in Egypt in 1911 were eventually shown to have originated on Mars (this was uncovered by the Viking landings in the 1970s, cue clip of Carl Sagan talking about Viking), thus proving that meteorites can travel from world to world.

The following scenes establish that we know some bacteria can survive in space, and we know that this must have happened in the past. I found this particularly interesting, that it must have happened because in the first half of the Earth's lifespan there were asteroid collisions so large that they would have sterilised the Earth, so the only way that life would not have had to start again from scratch is if some bacteria were launched into space before the strike and then came back down afterwards.

This leads Tyson on to talk about the lifespan of civilisations, starting with a seeming tangent to this topic of how humans first began broadcasting signals into space at lightspeed in 1946, since when we have created a 70 light year sphere around the Earth of radio waves. These would be detectable by aliens within this sphere using radio telescopes, and likewise we ought to detect alien radio transmissions, but we never have.

But there are issues with this - we can only a fraction of the sky for such signals, and aliens may not use radio. But the issue Tyson wants us to consider is that if we are not looking during the time such signals are passing the Earth, we cannot detect them. It is part of the question: how long do civilisations last?

In Enheduanna's time her city was destroyed by war and drought, as climate change affected the early civilisations of Europe and Asia. I love the image that briefly - but very effectively - illustrates this. This leads Tyson on to list some of the ways that a civilisation can die:

A supernova within 30 light years would devastate the solar system. Fortunately there is not one due in the next few hundred million years.

A supervolcano eruption would block out the sun for 5 years, with effects like a nuclear winter (except without the radiation - something that isn't mentioned is that an actual nuclear winter is vastly less likely now than in the time of the first Cosmos series). Present civilisations would be "brought to their knees" (Tyson's phrase) but humanity would survive as it survived the last such eruption back in the Stone Age.

An asteroid strike is something Tyson claims we may soon have the technology to prevent by deflecting their paths away from the Earth.

Diseases, such as those that devastated the native American populations when Europeans arrived.

Pollution. Tyson suggests that our current civilisation is in denial about how this could affect us within the next 100 years, but from that pessimistic note he turns to a more optimistic view of the future, saying human intelligence is our best weapon with which to survive against anything.

He returns to the Cosmic Calendar to consider what the next year - the next 14 billion years - might bring, a possible future for the human race. The sun will become a red giant in about 5 billion years, but red dwarfs are the most plentiful type of star and last for trillions of years, making them a more secure place for a habitable planet than the solar system.

But in the much nearer future Tyson suggests that we need to increase our environmental awareness, eliminate poverty and reverse pollution, before colonising nearby planets and then nearby star systems. By the time we are doing this humans will have "more of our strengths and fewer of our weaknesses", becoming an interstellar species with an origin on Earth in common.

This is a moving and beautiful ending for the programme, full of hope.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Cosmos: The Lost Worlds of Planet Earth

This episode of Cosmos really has something to say as we revisit the Halls of Extinction (previously seen in the second programme of the series, Some of the Things that Molecules do) to examine the Permian extinction of 300 million years ago. Volcanic eruptions released carbon dioxide and methane, causing global warming that wiped out 9 out of every 10 species on the planet.

The animated sequence - a short one in comparison to others in the series - is on Alfred Wegener. In his time geologists believed that there were once land bridges across the Atlantic Ocean, long since vanished, to explain how fossils of the sames species could be found on both sides even with an ocean separating them. Wegener took the evidence, worked backwards and came up with the idea of continental drift and called the original supercontinent he theorised "Pangaea."

His continental drift views were not accepted in his time and he became a laughing stock and a pariah in his field, and one day in 1930 he disappeared while on an Arctic expedition. In 1952 Wegener's ideas were vindicated by Marie Tharp who mapped the mid-Atlantic floor.

Tyson takes the Ship of the Imagination down into the Marianas Trench to look at the animals that live even down there in the deepest place on Earth, but this isn't a David Attenborough series so he soon moves on, deeper, below the crust of the Earth to look at the core and mantle, explaining how continental drift occurs. The flow from one subject to another feels natural, even though they could have been covered without any link to one another.

Another extinction event, most certainly better known than the Permian one, is the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs but gave the mammals the chance to become dominant on Earth. Tyson then takes us from that event to the evolution of man, showing how some (less well known) random events had consequences that shaped the course of that evolution: the continental drift that brought North and South America together changed the ocean currents in that part of the world, which had a knock on effect on the ocean currents around Africa. The African climate became drier, and tree-dwelling animals came down from the dying-out trees to the Savannah, where to compete with the other ground animals they evolved to use tools (monoliths may, or may not, have helped with that).

The gravitational effects of Venus and Jupiter had tiny but incremental effects on the Earth's tilt and orbit over millions of years, resulting in the ice ages. We are now in a warm interval between ice ages, due to last for another 50,000 years.

And now the various strands of this programme come together as Tyson warns of the dangers of man-made global warming and climate change, accelerating, changing or amplifying the natural (but very slow) changes the Earth undergoes over time. He points to an empty corridor in  the Halls of Extinction and says we don't know when or how it will be filled. Maybe an obvious message to some of us, but a powerful one nonetheless.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Cosmos: The Electric Boy

(This was the tenth episode broadcast when the series was originally shown in May 2014, but it appears ninth on the DVD set. I'm not sure why the order is different, and I'm not sure it matters either. Since I'm watching the DVDs I have used their ordering.)

Michael Faraday, at 21, attended Royal Institution science lectures to see the demonstration of electricity by Sir Humphrey Davy, and was later hired by him as an assistant.Faraday went on to investigate the connection between electricity and magnetism, designing the first electric motors and generators and so turned electricity from a scientific novelty to something... well, to call it "useful" would be a massive understatement.

While Faraday is the focus of the episode and the hero of the piece, Davy is not portrayed very favourably - the animated sequences show him injuring his own eyes from an exploding experiment in a really stupid way (i.e. he had just called out another scientist for being injured doing the same experiment), and is jealous of Faraday's achievements and pettily tries to direct Faraday's researches down a different direction.

Faraday succeeded Davy as the director of the Royal Institute and established the Christmas Lectures for children which continue today. The programme reminds us that Carl Sagan presented them on TV in 1977, they are available to watch here (although the picture quality is not fantastic).

Illness afflicted Faraday with memory loss for the rest of his life, but he continued to work and make discoveries - at age 60 he proved there was a relationship between electricity, magnetism and light.

From the behaviour of iron filings near magnets he deduced the existence of magnetic fields - invisible lines of force between magnets - including the Earth's magnetic field. Tyson goes on from magnetic fields to discuss gravitational fields, as both allow action at a distance. The episode concludes with James Clerk Maxwell's reading of Faraday's work and putting them into mathematical formulae - an animated scene of Faraday receiving Maxwell's book on his work parallels an earlier scene where Davy receives a book on his own work from Faraday.

This isn't the strongest episode of Cosmos by a long way, but that's mostly down to my preferences and the scientific topics I am most interested in learning about or expanding my knowledge of. I do feel that the subject matter of this programme is less interesting, and - as with Robert Hooke in an earlier episode - it seems to resort to caricature (mainly I mean the portrayal of Davy here, but also in the scene of Faraday's schooldays) to inject an artificial level of drama to spice up the narrative.

When it is at its best, Cosmos does not need this.

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Doctor Who Night 2014: Leela

The theme for this year's Doctor Who Night was chosen to be "Leela" and we watched the first three stories with her in them. They were all great in their own way. Afterwards me and my friends reenacted some of the scenes we liked best.

The Face of Evil

Here we see Leela (being played by Douglas Puglas) meeting the Doctor (that's me, Big Gay Longcat, with my scarf on!) for the first time after she falled over.

"It's true then? They say the Long One eats bunnies."

The Robots OF DEATH

This is Leela and D84 (Super Robot Bird King) from when D84 says
"Please do not throw hands at me."

The hand is being played by Starscream's hand.

The Talons of Weng-Chiang

Leela is being menaced by a Giant Mouse (Drayko). The Giant Mouses in this story looked cute and extra nomable, but they weren't in it that much.

Robots OF DEATH is my favourite of the three - it is a good story and has great actors and great characters in it (D84 is especially wonderful) and, although it doesn't have Avon in it, it was the basis of the Kaldor City stories and they do cross over with Blakes 7 and have Avon Kaston Iago in them!

Saturday, 29 November 2014

Cosmos: Sisters of the Sun

This programme begins with a short sequence on the dawn of astronomy when ancient peoples all over the Earth used the human talent for pattern recognition to name constellations and use their movement in the night sky to predict the seasons.

For the real meat of the episode we jump forward to the late-19th century. A scientist called Edward Pickering employed "computers" - a team of women - to map the stars, taking years to classify hundreds of thousands of stars.

The team was led by Annie Jump Cannon and Henrietta Swan Leavitt, who used spectroscopy to determine the stars' chemical composition and came up with 7 categories and 10 sub-categories with which to classify them.

The animated segments of the episode beautifully show them working at their day jobs as Tyson's respectful voiceover keeps things interesting.

Cecilia Payne came from the UK to join their group and worked out that the categories they had come up with corresponded to a star's temperature. Her PhD thesis was that stars were primarily composed of hydrogen and helium (something I would have assumed was known before then, but before Payne made this discovery astronomers thought that stars were made up of the same elements as the Earth and in roughly the same proportions). If Tyson's voiceover was respectful before, he is positively in awe as he describes this, saying it pioneered modern astrophysics.

The next section of the programme is on the life of stars from 'birth' to 'death', including the sun - we see the sun becoming a red giant in 4 to 5 billion years, then collapsing again into a white dwarf, as Tyson discusses the atomic processes that cause these transformations.

Other stars have different fates in store depending on their size and mass, and if they are part of binary star systems. The heaviest stars end up as supernovas, black holes, or hypernovas. Eta Carinae is 100 times heavier than the sun and could become a hypernova, destroying entire star systems and their planets up to hundreds of light years away from the centre of the explosion. Tyson reassures us earth is 7500 light years from Eta Carinae and is safe, but will see it as the brightest star in the sky when it goes.

Tyson closes the episode by talking about how the milky way galaxy would look from the point of view of a globular cluster, in one of the most poetic speeches in all of Cosmos - and echoing closely Carl Sagan's lines from the original series:

"A still more glorious dawn awaits.
Not a sunrise, but a galaxy rise.
A morning filled with 200 billion suns.
The rising of the milky way."

Sunday, 23 November 2014

The Sonic Screwdriver

Does it get used too much?

For Doctor Who's 51st birthday, I thought I would look at the challenging and difficult (for a cat) question of does the sonic screwdriver get used too much or, more importantly, does it get used too much these days compared to how much it used to get used?
(Doctor Who Night will be next Caturday this year, due to manny reasons beyond the ken of cats.)

At first I thought this question would require me to do investigation work which, as a cat, would mean that I would not bother because Cats Do Not Do The "W" Word. But then it turned out that the writers* of the rather amusing and interesting book A History of the Universe in 100 Objects had already made a catalogue** of the sonic screwdriver and its many uses over the years, at number 67 out of the 100 objects.

* James Goss and Steve Tribe. Full review of their book coming soon, hopefully.
** I like that word.

This list looks pretty thorough and comprehensive to me, covering all of the TV series up to season 32, and we can immediately see at a glance that the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors have much longer lists of uses than the Doctors that came before them. So the answer is yes.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Cosmos: The Clean Room

While previous episodes of Cosmos have hung their central narratives around a single historical individual's story, The Clean Room has the strongest such line yet, being really about the life and work of Clair Patterson, a man who made not one but two significant scientific contributions in his lifetime.

Cosmos, while standing head and shoulders above the average science documentary we see on US or UK TV channels these days, cannot escape their trappings entirely. This is never more clear than in this programme's pre-advert break animated sequences showing Patterson being horrified by germ-like apparitions that cover every surface and which only he can see. These scenes are overly dramatised and blatantly exist to create a fake sense of suspense - stay tuned to this channel until after the break to find out what's going on, viewers!

Patterson's first breakthrough concerned the scientific question of how old the planet Earth actually is. Tyson illustrates the difficulty with a visually impressive scene where he lifts the geological layers of the Grand Canyon (beat that Brian Cox!) but they don't hold the answer because the layers are laid down at different rates.

The idea was that meteoric rocks formed at the same time as the Earth, and their age could be measured by the constancy of radioactive decay - to find out when the matter in the solar system (and hence the Earth) was formed, measure the amount of uranium that has decayed into lead in meteorites.

Patterson set to the task but could not get consistent readings on how much lead there was because of the sheer amount of environmental contamination from lead that was not in the sample he was trying to study. It required extreme measures to clean the lab of lead - it took Patterson 6 years and required him to create the world's first ultra-clean room - but this led to success, and the discovery that the world was four-and-a-half billion years old.

So that was Patterson's first major scientific achievement. The second was linked to it, following on from his work on lead, and so Tyson just carries on the story.

Lead poisoning was known about by the Romans, but it was still used as a material by them and right up to the early 20th century, when leaded petrol caused workers exposed to it in quantity to go mad and die. Robert Kehoe - villain of the piece - was the scientist hired by General Motors to say that lead posed no danger to the public and that the amount of lead in the environment was natural and absolutely not the fault of his corporate sponsors. Whew, public relations disaster averted!

Our hero Patterson began to investigate the lead in the atmosphere by looking at the contamination of the world's oceans. When he published his findings in the "Nature" journal, it took just 3 days for the petroleum and chemical industry to withdraw his funding and try to get him fired. Why, it was almost as if they had something to hide!

The government backed Patterson and he supported his findings from the deep oceans by investigating Antarctic ice. For those who were being kept in suspense by the pre-advert teaser scenes, the 'germs' are revealed to be lead, present in everyday scenes at artificially high levels as a man-made byproduct of (leaded) petrol being emitted by cars all over the world.

Senator Muskie held hearings in the US, at which Kehoe (boo!) and Patterson (hooray!) gave evidence contradicting each other. And after 20 years the US government banned lead in petrol.

It may have taken a while, but this was a victory for science over corporate self-interest. Tyson concludes the episode by taking these events as a template for how important the independence and objectivity of science needs to be.

While I have heard of and, in some cases, know the stories of many of the scientists featured in Cosmos, I had never heard of Clair Patterson before seeing this fascinating programme, and never would have imagined that the age of the Earth and the dangers of lead in petrol were discovered by the same man.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

There's a reason that Cats Don't Tweet

This is what things like #gamergate look like to cats.

Hint: Servalan is a baddy. Context.

Friday, 14 November 2014

Cosmos: Deeper, Deeper, Deeper Still

Brian Cox's latest series Human Universe finished last week, and I can't help but feel that I would have been a lot more impressed by it if it hadn't had the misfortune to come out later in the same year as Neil deGrasse Tyson's Cosmos series. Because in his five one-hour programmes, Cox covers a lot of the same ground as Tyson - both series obviously drawing a lot of inspiration from Carl Sagan's original Cosmos; both men are admitted fans of Sagan's - but Human Universe feels like the bargain basement version, with it looking to me like almost all of the BBC budget must have gone on Brian's foreign travel expenses.

That said, it clearly had a strong sense of purpose and a clear theme: humanity's place in the universe, hence the name. And some of the sequences, while lacking Cosmos's effortless grandeur, were impressive, and some of the locations visited were spectacular. So still an excellent and worthwhile series, with all of Cox's trademark (albeit easily mockable) enthusiasm and charm put to good use extolling the accomplishments of humanity and the virtues of science.

Meanwhile, in Cosmos, part 6 goes Deeper, Deeper, Deeper Still. It begins by looking at atoms, with water molecules given as the example, and introduces us to tardigrades - tiny, literally microscopically tiny, creatures that live in water drops (although they can, it seems, live just about anywhere).

At the even smaller subatomic scale we see the workings of plants as they turn carbon dioxide into oxygen and sugars, the 'machinery' of photosynthesis being represented as animated machinery. (This bit makes me a little sad that I didn't study Biology at school, and perhaps gives me a taste of what watching Cosmos would feel like for someone without my level of education in other sciences.)

The historical animation sequence of this episode takes us to Ancient Greece of 2,500 years ago - the time of the first theatre, the first ideas of democracy, and the first ideas of atoms in the minds of the philosophers Thales and Democritus.

We return to the present with a slightly stupid bit about how objects never really touch because, at the molecular level, the nuclei of the atoms never touch (because atoms are "mostly empty space"). This is something of a useless technicality - perhaps someone should try their luck with it in court!

It quickly gets much better by moving on to discuss a place where atomic nuclei do touch - at the heart of the sun where hydrogen atoms are fused to become helium. Larger stars than the sun fuse helium and even other heavier elements in their cores.

This leads on to my favourite scene from this programme, with Tyson discussing neutrinos.

Tyson visits the Super-Kamioka Neutrino Detection Experiment, deep underground in Japan, required for the detection of the elusive neutrino particle - a scene reminiscent of the way Brian Cox illustrated his Human Universe by visiting interesting locations, laboratories, or scientific establishments.

Neutrinos from a supernova hit Earth about 3 hours before the light - but they don't travel faster than the light, they just get ejected first, before the explosion shockwave. Neutrinos were theorised years before their discovery by Wolfgang Pauli, who needed them to exist for his Conservation of Energy theory.

Tyson illustrates conservation of energy by way of this practical demonstration.

Calling back to the previous episodes, we can see back in time so far by looking for old light. And then neutrinos allow us to see back further - neutrinos from the beginning of time, before any light was able to shine, are spread throughout the universe.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Duncan reviews Doctor Who: Death in Heaven

If Steven Moffat had come round my house and spent 45 minutes literally shitting on my DVD collection while someone from the BBC filmed it then the raw, unedited footage would still have made for a better episode of Doctor Who than that. I mean






Was there anything good in that AT ALL?




Big Gay Longcat reviews Doctor Who: The Shakespeare Notebooks

Friends, Romans, countrycats, lend me your cat ears;
I come to bury The Shakespeare Notebooks (by James Goss, Jonathan Morris, Julian Richards, Justin Richards and Matthew Sweet), not to praise them.
The evil that mannys do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with The Shakespeare Notebooks.

That's a taster of the kind of Shakespeare-style writing that this book is full of. It's a sort of sequel to the TV stories The Shakespeare Code and City of Death (or at least that one scene where the Doctor talks to Countess Scarlioni about Hamlet), being all about the Doctor's many encounters with William Shakespeare. It uses the well-worn scarf of a conceit that the chapters of the book are first drafts and alternative versions of Shakespeare's plays, in which the Doctor interferes or plays a part, often replacing familiar characters or taking over their roles within the plays.

The book is very variable in quality throughout (suggestive of the multiple authors), with some of the pseudo-Shakespearean verse being both well-observed and witty, mixing Doctor Who references into the original lines with skill. At other times the alternative versions appear lazy and groan-inducingly unwitty. For example:
"I am but mad north-north-west.
When the time wind's southerly,
I know a Dalek from a Cyberman."


One thing the book consistently captures very well is the different aspects of the Doctor's personality across his varying regenerations, so that you can soon tell which Doctor he is supposed to be in each appearance, even without the accompanying illustrations. This does manage to highlight how annoying some Doctor's mannerisms could be when not backed up by the charisma of the actor playing him on TV - especially the tenth.
"Oh, I'm sure you'll think of something. Allons-y, Alonso!"

Mew again. I will now go into more detail on my three favourite chapters.

First, "Master Faustus", a Doctorless, Shakespeareless chapter in which the Master tries to change history by getting Christopher Marlowe to write stories from the future so his plays eclipse Shakespeare's. For some reason the Master's speech is full of song titles and lyrics, such as:
"Oh, Master Shakespeare? Fear him not.
His bright eyes suddenly burn so pale.
For he is but a candle in the wind.
And I shall snuff him out."

I didn't really get the point of this quirk - it doesn't come from the Master as seen on TV - until reaching the following lines:
Pageant of stars unfurled 
"We cross the void beyond the mind,
The empty space that circles time
We see where others stumble blind
To seek a truth they never find
Eternal wisdom is my guide
I am the Master."

Lol, it's Jon Pertwee's "I am the Doctor" song.

My second best bit is the chapter where a manny is writing footnotes to Julius Caesar and gets haunted by a ghost. The story is told really well, considering it is done entirely as footnotes written in the first person, and builds up to become nicely spooky. The main character ignoring the Doctor's warnings mirrors Julius Caesar ignoring those who warn him about his upcoming assassination, which I found to be really clever.

The only problem I have with this story is that the Doctor has to act very out of character for it to work - he only ever helps the protagonist obliquely instead of directly, even though he clearly could have. As a result I feel this would have worked better if it had not been a Doctor Who story at all.

But the best chapter of the whole book is the version of Macbeth where the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe take the places of the three witches - accidentally at first, but then they have to step in to keep history on its course. This whole short story is wonderful, capturing the second Doctor and his Companions' personalities and era perfectly and being just a great, funny version of Macbeth as well.

The whole book would be worth it for this chapter alone, even if there were no other good bits. As it is, The Shakespeare Notebooks is quite patchy overall but I would recommend it because the good more than outshines the bad. And so all's well that ends well.

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Cosmos: A Sky Full of Ghosts

“What actually transpires beneath the veil of an event horizon? Decent people shouldn't think too much about that.”
-- Academician Prokhor Zakharov, "For I Have Tasted The Fruit"

As I begin writing this, I think it will perhaps be a shorter review this week, as it is taking time away from my playing of the new computer game Civilization: Beyond Earth. Supposedly Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey was an influence on this game, but another obvious influence is the previous Civilization-in-space Alpha Centauri. And this episode of Cosmos reminded me of Alpha Centauri, as we shall see...

The narrative line of A Sky Full of Ghosts concerns William Herschel and his son John. William is credited with the idea that looking into space is looking back in time, because of the speed of light and the distances involved.

Tyson gives examples of how far things are from the Earth as measured in light minutes/hours/years, from the moon (at 1 light second away) to the first galaxies and the big bang, as far away and as far back as we can observe the light. Considering this light is billions of years old, Tyson takes a swipe at Creationists who take the Bible literally, saying that if the universe was only 6,000 years old, then only the light from within 6,000 light years would have had the time to reach us.

As the previous episode dealt with light, so this deals with gravity, taking us (briefly) through the discoveries of Newton, Faraday, James Clerk Maxwell, and finally Einstein, with a bit more time spent on the latter's thought experiment about travelling at the speed of light that gave rise to his Theory of Relativity.

A less well-known scientist who gets discussed is John Michell, who predicted the existence of Black Holes, or "Dark Stars" as he called them - you can't see them because they (by definition) give off no light, but we can now detect their gravitational effect on nearby stars.

Staying with the subject of gravity, there is a very vivid scene where Tyson visits a New York street and 'turns off' the gravity to see what happens, and then turns the gravity up to many multiples of Earth's normal gravity. As with the soundwaves scene last time, this is a visually impressive  and imaginative set-piece.

Back on Black Holes for the remainder of the episode, Tyson takes us through how giant stars become Black Holes at the end of their natural lives, and how scientists discovered the first actual Black Hole, Cygnus X-1, using X-rays and the effects it had on a nearby star. This led on to detecting giant Black Holes at the centres of galaxies, including the Milky Way.

Finally Tyson takes his Ship of the Imagination into a Black Hole, speculating about what lies beyond the Event Horizon - a tunnel to somewhere else in the universe, or maybe even another universe, raising the possibility of universes within universes, and these with their own Black Holes, layered infinitely.

This bit cannot help but remind me of the Singularity Inductor project from the Alpha Centauri game, with the quote I gave at the beginning of the review ironically tying in here - what Zakharov warns against is precisely what Tyson is doing.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Cosmos: Hiding in the Light

The fourth part of Neil deGrasse Tyson's Spacetime Odyssey is the most thematically coherent so far, as he takes us through the development of humanity's understanding of light and, hand-in-hand with this, the progress towards the Scientific Method as it is used today.

It begins with the story of Mo-Tzu, an early Chinese scientist - he invented the Camera Obscura, which made use of his discoveries about light, and had come up with a forerunner of the Scientific Method.

Unfortunately the rise of the first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huangdi, and his totalitarian philosophy of Legalism, destroyed much of Mo-Tzu's learning in great book burnings. This illustrates Tyson's point that freedom of expression is required for science to survive, and it was a thousand years before humans recovered what was lost.

The animation of the China section is really good, capturing the Qin and pre-Qin era very well.

Ibn al-Haytham, in Baghdad during the Islamic golden age of science, is the next subject of discussion. He rediscovered the Camera Obscura and made advances of his own, such as discovering that light moved in straight lines. He laid down another early version of the Scientific Method.

Isaac Newton's work on visible light makes for only a small part of the episode - the real focus is on those who came after him. Perhaps this is because Newton is focused upon in other programmes in the series, or perhaps they just thought that putting the spotlight on some less well known scientists would be more interesting?

150 years after Newton, William Herschel discovered infra-red by accident (it came out of the control part of another experiment he was doing) and, at about the same time, Joseph Fraunhofer rose from poverty to become the leading lensmaker in Bavaria, also discovering the absorption spectra of light - although he didn't know what they were.

This section is my favourite of this episode, for two reasons. First, the visual effects are put to good use to make sound waves appear as if visible (as part of Tyson's explanation of light waves by comparison and contrast with sound waves).

Secondly, Tyson allows himself to become emotional as he explains how the discovery of the absorption spectra from the sun and stars became the foundation of astrophysics - his field. This moment manages to be touching and personal, and if those emotions weren't genuine then Tyson must be a great actor.

As the episode draws to a close, the Ship of the Imagination goes inside a hydrogen atom to show us electrons absorbing and emitting energy and light, and then Tyson takes us through the more modern discoveries of the rest of the electromagnetic spectrum: as well as visible light and infra-red, there are X-rays, radio-waves, gamma rays, and microwaves.

Finally, there are still mysteries about light yet to be uncovered (illuminated?) by science: while spectroscopy allowed the discovery that the universe is expanding, we can't see Dark Matter with any kind of light, so we only know about it because of the effects of gravity.

All in all, this is a fascinating look at the subjects covered.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Bleak's 7

According to legend, Terminal was intended to be not just the last episode of Blakes 7's third season, but the last ever episode of Blakes 7. It was not until after it had been written, produced, filmed, edited and, by some accounts, broadcast, that the BBC decided to make season 4.

So if you look at Terminal with this in mind, that Terry Nation wrote it and the cast performed it all intending it to be the grand finale of the series, you can get a somewhat different take on the story. Today I am going to look at Terminal with this in mind.

For a start, Paul Darrow seems to be using it as an audition for whatever he is going to do next if he can't be playing Avon. He is very theatrical here, especially in the scenes (and there are several of these) where he is the only actor on screen.

The Liberator is doomed from early on in the episode, the first sign that this Terry Nation story is, in contrast to almost the entirety of the rest of season 3, a return to the bleak, uncaring universe we saw in the early part of season 1. A return to its origins in a way.

Would they have chosen to destroy the iconic Liberator spaceship if they had known they were going to do another season after this? I doubt it. As good as Scorpio! is in its own way, there is nothing that could possibly have stood comparison to the Liberator - both the spaceship model and interior sets - as the fixed central location for Blakes 7.

Arguably foreshadowed throughout this season (though not constantly), Terminal sees Avon and Tarrant wrestle - only metaphorically, sadly - for dominance of the Liberator.

Rather than risk literally wrestling with Tarrant (the very idea makes me go purr), Avon pulls a gun from his pocket.

If there hadn't been a season 4 then this would have been the climax of their relationship, with no way back from this development to the dynamic they had previously. In reality, the dramatic, game-changing events of Terminal and then Rescue create a new dynamic between Avon, Tarrant, and the other survivors from the Liberator.

Blake cast his shadow over the whole of season 3 even in his absence, not least because his name stayed in the title. He was mentioned in around half the episodes, usually by guest stars who had heard of the regular characters or the Liberator because of Blake's reputation. But it is not since Volcano (10 episodes earlier) that they had been actively searching for Blake.

(I have read that 'the search for Blake' was supposedly the story arc for season 3, but as it only happens in 2 out of 13 parts, I have to conclude that they were getting season 3 of Blakes 7 mixed up with Star Trek 3: The Search for Spock.)

Nevertheless, the one scene with Blake is crucial because it provides closure on this aspect of the series, as well as justifying them having kept the show's title. The fact that it is not the real Blake but a "drug-induced and electronic dream" of Avon's is a clever twist. When Servalan later says that Blake is dead we might take it for the truth since, if there had never been a season 4, there would be nothing to contradict her.

The death of Zen is one of the most moving moments in the whole of Blakes 7, even if Terry Nation has borrowed some of the style from the film 2001: A Spacetime Odyssey. (The presence of the monkey-like "links" in the same episode makes the connection more blatant.)

Vila and Dayna don't get much to do in Terminal, but the scenes they do have when the Liberator is disintegrating and Zen is dying are important to the plot as well as building on the apocalyptic mood of the finale. Vila gets a rare opportunity to be explicitly clever when dealing as best they can with the crisis, as though Terry Nation wanted to confirm that he was supposed to be clever really before the end.

There is a second such moment of cleverness later on when Vila tricks the baddys into letting him take Orac with him to the planet.

The links don't serve much purpose in the plot of Terminal, but thematically they fit very well with the bleak tone that comes together in Servalan's final confrontation with Avon: she has won. The baddys have won. And to rub the bleakness in the faces of the mannys watching she adds:
"The planet's evolution was massively accelerated. It developed through millions of years in a very short time. The creature you saw is not what Man developed from. It is what Man will become."

However, just when you think the bleakness is so much that the show will end with Servalan stamping on Avon's face forever, we get the last clever twist in Terminal. It is one that has been set up in advance: Servalan thinks she has won because she has the Liberator at last.


And we know that all she has is a dead ship about to explode the moment they try to make it go.

Nothing the crew of the Liberator did stopped Servalan, only blind chance.

(Here we have one moment suggesting they might have been preparing for a season 4, or at least hedging on the possibility, when they made this, because Servalan runs to the teleport to try and escape rather than us seeing her die on the bridge of the Liberator.)

Just this once, nobody wins. The former crew of the Liberator may be alive, but they are stranded on a dangerous planet without any spaceship (let alone the most powerful ship in the galaxy) with which to get off. So how does Avon react to this?

Of course. The purrfect ending: Avon smiles.

The Two Tarrants

In Death-Watch Steven Pacey plays both Tarrant and Tarrant's brother Deeta Tarrant. The wig he wears as Deeta allows us to tell which is which, but it is also a distraction away from the subtle but clever way in which he plays the two characters differently.

I have watched Death-Watch a few times now, so it is easy for me to forget that it is not obvious from the start that Deeta is Tarrant's brother - he could be Tarrant in disguise. It is not until Tarrant sees his brother on the main screen and confirms it to both the other characters and the audience that we know for sure.

Avon is wearing large shoulder pads today. Maybe because he thinks he is in a different kind of Deathwatch
or maybe it is just because of the 1980s.

Avon hasn't kiffed anyone since Sarcophagus (a whole three episodes ago!) so he pays a visit to Servalan while they are both in neutral territory and aren't allowed to kill each other.

This somewhat mirrors the situation in Aftermath when they last kiffed, even though a lot has happened in season 3 since then. Servalan doesn't try to persuade Avon to join her side, she just says:
"I don't think of you as an enemy, Avon. I think of you as a future friend."

And after he teleports away Servalan looks very happy. As you would if you had just had kiffs with Avon. Purr.

Playing an important role in this episode is Stewart Bevan as Max. He is called upon to give a lot of exposition so the Liberator crew, and us, can understand what is going on, but he is also the character who interacts most with Deeta and, through him, we get to see the similarities and differences between the two Tarrants.

The action centrepiece of Death-Watch is the duel between Deeta Tarrant and Vinni. It is filmed on location and excellently directed, walking the fine line between camp (because of the contrast between the fabulous, shiny costumes and the grimy, industrial location) and dramatic perfectly, culminating in the slow-motion shootout.

Deeta gives up his chance of winning easily to go for an honourable shootout, but in that situation the fact that Vinni is really an android means he has no chance so he loses.

There is then a poignant moment that makes good use of the sci-fi setup, as the dying Deeta's last words (thoughts) to his brother are being overheard by millions of mannys when they should have been private between the two of them.

While Vinni is a small part (and his name isn't exactly very dramatically appropriate, seeming oddly out of place in Blakes 7), his actor Mark Elliott makes good use of his scenes to convey that there is something not quite right about him - backed up by other characters' dialogue - before he is revealed to be an android.

Death-Watch belongs to Steven Pacey, with him playing both Tarrants really well; his best performance in Blakes 7 except for Powerplay. As Del Tarrant, his reaction to Deeta's death (not just having seen it, but felt and experienced it too thanks to the sci-fi death-watch device) is wonderfully underplayed, showing the grief in his face and in the simple line:
"He should have killed him when he had the chance. Deeta never was very practical."

But later we see that Tarrant can't just shoot Vinni in the back either.

The direction in this story really is very good overall, not just in the location scenes. Here we see Avon from Orac's point of view.

Avon smiles when he comes up with a plan to defeat Servalan. Purr.

Death-Watch is a very good episode. Written by Chris Boucher, he once again demonstrates that he understands the characters and the universe of Blakes 7 better than anybody, perhaps even Terry Nation.

As well as the good points I have already mentioned, there is also a subversion of Star Trek present here. Not just from the line
"Space, the final frontier... as it was once called."
but the Teal-Vandor war being fought by proxy champions is a variation on the computer-simulated war in the episode A Taste of Armageddon. That story is an allegory for the Cold War in which Captain Kirk interferes in the status quo between two planets, forcing them to either fight a real war or make a real peace. Here the crew of the Liberator leave the Teal/Vandor situation as it was before they arrived, only having stopped the Federation interference.