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, if you don't know it.

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.