Category Archives: Physics

How “Hidden Figures” Can Help Inspire a STEM Generation

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Hidden Figures film poster and images ©2016 20th Century Fox, all rights reserved.

History abounds with examples of unsung science heroes, researchers and visionaries whose tireless efforts led to enormous breakthroughs and advances, often without credit or lasting widespread esteem. This is particularly true for women and minorities, who have historically been under-represented in STEM-related fields. English mathematician Ada Lovelace is broadly considered the first great tech and computing visionary — she pioneered computer programming language and helped construct what is considered the first computing machine (the Babbage Analytical Engine) in the mid-1800s. Physical chemist Dr. Rosalind Franklin performed essential X-ray crystallography work that ultimately revealed the double-helix shape of DNA (Photograph 51 is one of the most important images in the history of science). Her work was shown (without her permission) to rival King’s College biology duo Watson and Crick, who used the indispensable information to elucidate and publish the molecular structure of DNA, for which they would win a Nobel Prize. Dr. Percy Julian, a grandson of slaves and the first African-American chemist ever elected to the National Academy of Sciences, ingeniously pioneered the synthesis of hormones and other medicinal compounds from plants and soybeans. New movie Hidden Figures, based on the exhaustively researched book by Margot Lee Shetterley, tells the story of three such hitherto obscure heroes: Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson, standouts in a cohort of African-American mathematicians that helped NASA launch key missions during the tense 19060s Cold War “space race.” More importantly, Hidden Figures is a significant prototype for purpose-driven popular science communication — a narrative and vehicle for integrated multi-media platforms to encourage STEM diversity and scientific achievement.
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Podcast: “Hollyweird Science” and the Quantum Quirks of Entertainment

Hollyweird Science cover ©2015 Springer Books, all rights reserved.
Hollyweird Science cover ©2015 Springer Books, all rights reserved.

Dr. Kevin Grazier has made a career of studying intergalactic planetary formation, and, over the last few years, helping Hollywood writers integrate physics smartly into storylines for popular TV shows like Battlestar Galactica, Eureka, Defiance and the blockbuster film Gravity. His latest book, Hollyweird Science: From Quantum Quirks to the Multiverse traverses delightfully through the science-entertainment duality as it first breaks down the portrayal of science in movies and television, grounding the audience in screenplay lexicon, then elucidates a panoply of physics and astronomy principles through the lens of storylines, superpowers and sci-fi magic. With the help of notable science journalist Stephen Cass, Hollyweird Science is accessible to the layperson sci-fi fan wishing to learn more about science, a professional scientist wanting to apply their knowledge to higher-order examples from TV and film or Hollywood writers and producers of future science-based materials. From case studies, to in-depth interviews to breaking down the Universe and its phenomena one superhero and far-away galaxy at a time, this first volume of an eventual trilogy is the essential foundation towards understanding how science is integrated into a story and ensuring that future TV shows and movies do so more accurately than ever before. Full ScriptPhD review and podcast with author and science advisor Dr. Grazier below.
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Editor’s Selection: “The Martian” is a Transcendent Sci-Fi Opus

Movie poster and stills from "The Martian" ©2015 20th Century FOX. All rights reserved.
Movie poster and stills from “The Martian” ©2015 20th Century FOX. All rights reserved.

The Martian, is a film adaptation of the inventive, groundbreaking hard sci-fi adventure tale. Like Robinson Crusoe on Mars, it’s a triumph of engineering and basic science, a love letter to innovation and the greatest feats humans are capable of through collaboration. Directed by sci-fi legend Ridley Scott, and following in the footsteps of space epics Gravity and Interstellar, The Martian offers a stunning virtual imagination of Mars, glimpses of NASA’s new frontier – astronauts on Mars – and the stakes of a mission that will soon become a reality. Below, ScriptPhD.com reviews The Martian (an Editor’s Selection) and, with the help of a planetary researcher at The California Science Center, we break down some basics about Mars missions and the planetary science depicted in the film (interactive video).
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Citrine Informatics: Jump-Starting the Materials Science Revolution

Materials engineers performing research in the laboratory. Image ©Wonderful Engineering, all rights reserved.
Materials engineers performing research in the laboratory. Image ©Wonderful Engineering, all rights reserved.

The last 25 years have brought an unprecedented level of scientific and technological advances, impacting virtually all dimensions of society, from communication and the digital revolution, to economics and food production to nanotechnology and medicine – and that’s just a start. The next few decades will rapidly expand this progress with exponential discovery and innovation, amidst more pressing global challenges than we’ve ever faced before. The opportunities to develop faster, better and cheaper products that improve modern living are limitless – Tesla electric cars, energy-saving fuels and machines, robotics – but they all share a common basic need for developing and studying materials in a more efficient manner. This will require a real-time acceleration of sharing, analytics and simulation through readily accessible databases. Essentially, an open-source wiki for materials scientists. In our in-depth article below, ScriptPhD.com explains why materials science is the most critical gateway towards 21st Century technology and how California startup company Citrine Informatics is providing revolutionary new information extraction software to create a crowdsourced, open access database available to any scientist.
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REVIEW: SyFy Channel takes off with “Ascension”

As part of an ongoing recommitment to its sci-fi genre roots, SyFy Channel is unveiling the original scripted drama Ascension, for now a six hour mini-series, and possible launch for a future series. It follows a crew aboard the starship Ascension, as part of a 1960s mission that sent 600 men, women and children on a 100 year planned voyage to populate a new world. In the midst of political unrest onboard the vessel, the approach of a critical juncture in the mission and the first-ever murder onboard the craft, the audience soon learns, there is more to the mission than meets the eye. Which can also be said of this multi-layered, ambitious, sophisticated mini-series. Full ScriptPhD review below.

Ascension poster
Ascension poster and stills ©2014 NBC Universal, all rights reserved.

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Editor’s Selection: ‘Gravity’

Gravity 1
Gravity poster and stills ©2013 Warner Brothers Pictures, all rights reserved.

Space movies are almost always grandiose in their storytelling aspirations. The enormity of space, the raw power of the shuttle, the existential quandary of whether we are alone in a vast Universe, and (as is the case in Gravity) an almost-inevitable crisis that must be resolved to steer the astronauts onboard to safety. There is one critical detail, however, that most fail to convey visually—solitude. Dr. Katherine Coleman, who spent thousands of hours aboard the shuttles Columbia and the International Space Station, and who was a primary mentor to star Sandra Bullock, recounts isolation—spatial separation, physical movements, zero gravity and a distant Earth—as the biggest challenge and reward she faced as an astronaut. With a tense, highly focused storyline centered almost entirely on one brave scientist, Gravity is a virtual space flight for the audience, but also a gripping examination of emotional and physical sequestration. Through this vista, we are able to perceive how beautiful, terrifying and enormous space truly is. Full ScriptPhD.com Gravity review under the “continue reading” cut.
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REVIEW: Europa Report

Europa Report film poster
Europa Report poster and stills ©2013 Magnolia Pictures, all rights reserved.

In 2007, new NASA research suggested that underneath the vast ice sheaths of Jupiter’s moon Europa lay oceanic water, which is a key element to support life. The Galileo probe, which had been orbiting the moons of Jupiter since December of 1995, was constantly orbiting and swooshing near the sixth largest moon in the solar system, collecting pictures and data that could prove the existence of liquid water. Then in 2011, scientists hit a proverbial jackpot—evidence for two liquid lakes the volume of the North American Great Lakes underneath a region of jumbled ice blocks termed the ‘Conamara Chaos.’ Even in the wake of such exciting discoveries, critical budget cuts severely threatened NASA’s space program, including the Mars rover and Cassini spacecraft orbiting Saturn. This same time frame gave concurrent rise to private space travel, led by the commercial venture Virgin Galactic and ambitious research company Space X. The merger of limitless industry resources with the possibility of uncovering alien life seems like a perfect Hollywood pitch. Such is the scenario explored in the brilliant documentary-style sci-fi thriller Europa Report. A full ScriptPhD review under the “continue reading” cut.
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Artificial Intelligence: The Risk of Robots on the Rampage

For every friendly robot we see in science fiction such as Star Wars’s C3PO, there are others with a more sinister reputation that you can find in films such as I, Robot. Most movie robots can indeed be classified into a range of archetypes and purposes. Science boffins at Cambridge University have taken the unusual step of evaluating the exact risks of humanity suffering from a Terminator-style meltdown at the Cambridge Project for Existential Risk.

“Robots On the Run” is currently an unlikely scenario, so don’t stockpile rations and weapons in panic just yet. But with machine intelligence continually evolving, developing and even crossing thresholds of creativity and and language, what holds now might not in the future. Robotic technology is making huge advances in great part thanks to the efforts of Japanese scientists and Robot Wars. For the time being, the term AI (artificial intelligence) might sound like a Hollywood invention (the term was translated by Steven Spielberg in a landmark film, after all), but the science behind it is real and is not going to go away. Robots can now actually learn things akin to the way humans pick up information. Nevertheless, some scientists believe that there are limits to the level of intelligence that robots will be able to achieve in the future. In a special ScriptPhD guest post, we examine the current state of artificial intelligence, and the possibilities that the future holds for this technology.
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REVIEW: Looper

Official Looper film poster, and all movie stills below, ©2012 Sony Pictures Entertainment, all rights reserved.

In the year 2042, time travel has not yet been invented. But by the year 2072, that is no longer the case. Nevertheless, it is outlawed, inaccessible to all but the most powerful and violent gangs in an economically repressed dystopia. Due to scientific advances of that era, it is impossible to dispose of a body without a trace, so the criminal gangs use the time travel to execute their “trash,” sending the bodies back in time to be executed by hit men called Loopers. The body vanishes from the future, but never existed in the present. Unless something goes terribly awry. Such is the setup of Rian Johnson’s bleak, brilliant sci-fi film Looper, a shrewd commentary on how we use technology, the value of a human life and whether a destiny can be changed. It is easily the best sci-fi film since 2010’s Inception, and surely one of the best of this year in any genre. Full ScriptPhD review, below.
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Interview: Michio Kaku and The Physics of the Future

Physics of the Future images and all content ©2011 Doubleday Publishing.

Dr. Michio Kaku recently consolidated his position as America’s most visible physicist by acting as the voice of the science community to major news outlets in the wake of Japan’s major earthquake and the recent Fukushima nuclear crisis. Dr. Kaku is one of those rare and prized few

who possesses both the hard science chops (he built an atom smasher in his garage for a high school science fair and is a co-founder of string theory) and the ability to reduce quantum physics and space time to layman’s terms. The author of Physics of the Impossible has also followed up with a new book, Physics of the Future, that aims to convey how these very principles will change the future of science and its impact in our daily modern life. (Make sure to enter our Facebook fan giveaway to win a free copy this week!) Dr. Kaku graciously sat down with ScriptPhD.com’s physics and astronomy blogger, Stephen Compson, to talk about the recent earthquake, popular science in an entertainment-driven world, and his latest book. Full interview under the “continue reading” cut.
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