Profile: Jorge Cham, Author of PHD Comics

Piled Higher and Deeper

To people who might wonder what three most important factors helped me navigate the rigors of higher education, I’d say passion, persistence, and good old-fashioned hard work. Yeah, right! More like coffee, my iPod and PHD Comics. Oh yes, three times a week, as I’d saunter to my graduate mausoleumoffice, serious decisions had to be weighed: pipette smelly bacteria or laugh along to a spot-on comic strip spoofing the ups and downs of all things academe? You know I made the right choice every time!

What is PHD Comics? Its official name, Piled Higher and Deeper, is derived from one the oldest inside puns about ascension on the ladder of knowledge: if a BS stands for bullshit (pardon my Swahili), MS means more of the same, and attaining a PhD means you’re piled higher and deeper. (Empirical observations have validated the veracity of these acronyms.) Often relegated to fringe sidelines in media and popular culture, the junior Ivory Tower set is composed of a bustling microcosm sporting its own culture, mores, axioms, and idiosyncrasies. Illustrated and composed by scientist Jorge Cham, PHD Comics celebrates, spoofs, but most importantly, spotlights, this world with remarkable humor and authenticity. I have had too many “Oh my gosh that is SO true!” moments reading this comic to count. But a few notables:

Graduate students’ love of free food, so true, so desperate, so universal.
Graduate students’ love of free food, so true, so desperate, so universal.

Ennui of the daily research grind (psst inside secret: yes, sometimes the days are very boring and graduate students waste time)
Ennui of the daily research grind (psst inside secret: yes, sometimes the days are very boring and graduate students waste time)

Frustrations with nonresponsive graduate “advisors” (we’ve all worked for or encountered a Professor “Smith”).
Frustrations with nonresponsive graduate “advisors” (we’ve all worked for or encountered a Professor “Smith”).

The writing of the thesis (basically the bane of any graduate student’s existence).
The writing of the thesis (basically the bane of any graduate student’s existence).

Jorge Cham got his undergraduate degree at Georgia Tech University He then completed doctoral studies in mechanical engineering at Stanford University with a research focus in Robotics. Jorge built robots that mimic natural biological functions in their technological design, resulting in some of the fastest running prototypes ever created. He also completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Caltech University, where his research specialized in the design of “smart” biomimetic neural implants. His impressive body of work includes 24 scholarly articles, invited talks at prestigious universities and leading corporations, as well as teaching experience as a lecturer at Caltech. Oh, yeah, and he can draw pretty well too!

PHD Comics embodies the notion of a mighty tree growing from a small acorn. Initially published as a black and white strip at the Stanford University Daily while Cham was a PhD student, it quickly built a devoted cult following. Especially popular among grad students, scientists, engineers and other tech-geeks, the strip eventually found its way into a plethora of college dailies and mainstream national publications, with the official site generating over 12 million monthly pageviews. To date, the comic has evolved into a full color publication, including posters, song parodies, and book collections that have sold over 60,000 copies. You can (and absolutely should!) catch the latest PHD Comics on the official website, follow along on Twitter or on Facebook.

A couple of standout hits hand-picked by the ScriptPhD:

“Who Will Grade Your Work?”, a song parody of Jewel’s “Who Will Save Your Soul?” (particularly appreciated by those of us who have had the…er…distinct pleasure of being Teaching Assistants). Click the link for the mp3.

“If TV Science Was More Like Real Science….” This strip was my favorite, and particularly apropos for our site, because we do cover the very best of science and technology in entertainment. Sometimes it’s really hard to ignore the worst!

ScriptPhD.com was extraordinarily fortunate to catch up with Dr. Cham, who graciously and generously lent us some time in-between updating his strip and promoting the new addition to the PHD Comics books on a campus tour.

To read our exclusive interview with Jorge Cham, illustrator of PHD Comics, please click “continue reading”.
Continue reading Profile: Jorge Cham, Author of PHD Comics

Hi-Fi Sci-Fi: I’m Gonna Take My Problem to the United Nations

Remember back during our complete coverage of the Battlestar Galactica panel at the Paley Television Festival when I said that event would probably be the last significant gathering of on and off-screen talent from the show? Well, I may have been lyingpremature in my declaration. It’s no secret that in the annals of television history, Battlestar Galactica will rightfully take its place as one of the most sophisticated, abstruse, demanding, and thoughtful shows to ever grace the silver screen. No issue or hot-button topic was off-limits to the writers: war crimes, torture, genocide, abortion, religious conflict, human rights, the rule of law, anarchy, the very essence of humanness. Though an action-adventure space opera to its core, BSG integrated storylines eerily germane to the times we live in, and transcended its medium in the process.

In recognition of these tremendous achievements, and in a television first, the United Nations hosted an invitation-only panel back on March 17th in the hallowed Economic and Social Council Chamber composed of UN representatives and officers, cast members Mary McDonnell and Edward James Olmos, and executive producers Ronald D. Moore and David Eick. As a pilot project for its Department of Public Information’s Creative Community Outreach Initiative, the UN hopes to partner more often with the international film and television industries to raise awareness and foster discussion of prevalent global issues. Unfortunately the first United Nations event took place at their headquarters in New York and we had to miss it (sadly, the ScriptPhD is not yet bicoastal). But luckily for us, the United Nations partnered with the Sci-Fi Channel to host a West Coast rebroadcast from Hollywood Thursday night. As a part of the Los Angeles Times’s annual pre-Emmy Envelope Screening Series, LA Times writer Geoff Boucher moderated a panel that once again welcomed McDonnell, Olmos, Moore and Eick, and UN representatives Steven Siguero and Craig Mokhiber.

Amid a chorus of enthusiastic fans and “So say

we all!”s, a lively and vibrant discussion ensued about torture, enemy combatants, race, and the upcoming Battlestar Galactica: The Plan TV movie event. ScriptPhD.com is proud to bring you complete coverage.

To read a transcript of the LA Times Envelope Battlestar Galactica Discussion Panel please click “Continue Reading”.
Continue reading Hi-Fi Sci-Fi: I’m Gonna Take My Problem to the United Nations

From the Lab: Breaking Bad, Chemistry Good

I must preface this next post with a little truth in advertising. I’m a chemist. True blue, to my very core. College degree in physical chemistry, PhD in chemistry. So when I heard about a cable show on AMC whose whole premise rested on a chemistry teacher manufacturing meth, I must say, I was slightly skeptical. The propensity for letdown was huge, both in plot and in science. Well, let me assure you that Breaking Bad broke good. A “Break”out hit in its second season, the show has managed to layer complex serialized storytelling with compelling characters and stories, and even better science. In fact, chemistry itself can very well be considered a recurring character on this show and we’ll highlight some of the best moments in a bit.

ScriptPhD Grade: A+

The Premise
If the pilot episode doesn’t get your attention in the first five minutes, then I don’t know what will. A man wearing nothing but his skivvies and a gas mask careens a Winnebago in the New Mexico desert, a passed out body beside him, two more dead in the back, and a toxic sludge of chemicals seeping on the floor. With impending sirens approaching, he videotapes a final goodbye and apology to his family. Through flashbacks, we come to find out that the man is Walter White, an unassuming chemistry teacher in Albuquerque, NM. While on his humiliating moonlighting shift as a car wash attendant, because we pay our public school teachers so well, Walt collapses. The culprit? Lung cancer. Terminal. Inoperable. He decides to infuse some excitement into his life on a bust ride with his brother-in-law, a DEA agent. Only instead of discouraging Walt, the bust shows him how much money can be made. While pondering the possibility of leaving his family financially secure after his passing, he spots an old flunky student, Jesse Pinkman, fleeing the scene. “You know the business, I know the chemistry,” he proposes to Jesse. An idea is born, and the metamorphosis of Walter White begins. Back to the original scene, the sirens turn out to be fire trucks, one of the many hair-raising escapes to come, and Walt and Jesse live to sell meth another day.

In addition to Walt (played by the talented Bryan Cranston), and Jesse (dazzling newcomer Aaron Paul), we meet Skyler (Anna Gunn), Walt’s supportive but perplexed wife, who grows to be very suspicious of him as he has a harder time curtailing his clandestine activities, and Walt, Jr., a teenager with Cerebral Palsy, sensitively portrayed by RJ Mitte. The relationships serve as a centerpiece of the show are unraveled like the plot, in layers and tantalizingly. As Walt’s own family unit faces turmoil, Jesse, too, is disowned by his for his drug use. What started out as a business transaction between a teacher and former student blossoms into a tender father-son relationship. Meanwhile, while Walt’s well-meaning DEA brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris) closes in on the hottest new meth dealer in town, Walt and Jesse face a series of personal and professional setbacks. For every two steps forward, for every dollar made, there is a new foe, a new nemesis, or new unintended collateral. All of the action culminates in an electrifying Season 2 finale sure to generate buzz and anticipation for Season 3.

The Science
Science on Breaking Bad is given the red carpet treatment: it’s sleek, sexy, geek-chic, tongue-in-cheek and everywhere. The show revels in delightful touches such as the title credits interspersing elements from the periodic table. Walt’s classes brim with interesting blink-or-you-miss-it factoids, such as H. Tracy Hall inventing the first reproducible process for making diamonds. To a stupefied, gun-happy Jesse, he makes the suggestion of killing a drug lord with castor beans, the source of the protein toxin ricin. And let’s not mention the two separate synthetic methods he comes up with to cook and crystallize the best meth the New Mexico DEA has ever seen. The darkly comedic highlights of the show are Walt and Jesse’s interactions in their “laboratory”, a beaten-down Winnebago camper. Shocked by Jesse’s sloppy street cooking, Walt pilfers glassware and equipment from his classroom—gas masks, round bottom flasks, reflux condensers, crystallization dishes—to build a setup worthy of Pfizer. Along the way, Jesse gets some remedial chemistry that he failed back in high school. I mean, sure, they’re making a devastating and highly illegal narcotic, but at least it’s via a proper Grignard reagent amination of a Schiff base!

On a more serious note, Breaking Bad also strives for a VERY candid and unrelenting portrayal of both cancer and the ramifications of the modern-day drug trade. Often whitewashed in entertainment, Walt’s cancer, and the side effects are shown in a brutal way, but the stark realism also underscores his desperation as the illness unfolds. Easily on par with David Simon’s brilliant The Wire on HBO, in the world of Breaking Bad no one is absolved from the intertwining effects of drugs—the rising body count, both from use and dealing, the strain on law enforcement, and families torn apart. In an astute opening TRULY ripped from the headlines, a Season 2 Breaking Bad episode starts with an original narcocorrido, a Mexican drug ballad evolved from its folk music tradition that is often used to chronicle the drug trade and escalating violence over the last two decades. Take a look:

Bottom line: the science is white-hot, the writing is red-hot, the meth is blue and the humor is black, so why aren’t you watching?

Accolades
Breaking Bad has been the recipient of a number of recent awards and critical acclaim. They won a 2009 Peabody Award for excellence in television achievement. Bryan Cranston won the 2008 Emmy for Outstanding Leading Actor in a Dramatic Series. Series creator and executive producer Vince Gilligan won a Writers Guild of America award for the Pilot episode. Many more achievements are sure to come for their outstanding sophomore effort!

For the ScriptPhD.com Top 4 Walter White Chemistry Moments in the show thus far and an in-depth discussion of the neat science behind them, click “continue reading”…
Continue reading From the Lab: Breaking Bad, Chemistry Good

From the Annals of Psychology: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Original Premise
Who among us hasn’t wanted, nay desperately needed, to forget a painful event, relationship, person, or circumstance that can’t seem to escape their memory? Oh to be able to just wipe it from your brain and pretend it never happened! The concept sounds like something straight out of the imaginative mind of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. In his movie, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, ex-lovers Joel and Clementine, played by Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet, erase memories of each other after their relationship sours. To do this, they seek out the bioengineering company Lacuna Inc, whose scruples are more than ambiguous. All’s well that ends well for the lovers, as they reconnect towards the end of the movie, rebuild new memories of one another and fall back in love.

Indeed, plenty of recent movies deal with memory loss, of varying degree, origin and consequence. In Christopher Nolan’s brilliant and esoteric Memento, Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce), suffering from antiretrograde amnesia rendering him unable to form new memories, is trying to piece together the events of the vicious attack and murder of his wife. A similar condition is suffered by Drew Barrymore’s character in the romantic comedy 50 First Dates and has to “meet” her character’s love interest anew every day. In Paycheck, the film adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s science fiction story, Ben Affleck’s character takes extreme measure to protect his clients’ intellectual property, in the form of wiping his own memory, almost costing him his own life as his last deal embroils him in a standoff with the FBI.

Indeed, a slew of medical and psychological syndromes can cause, or is associated with, memory loss. But the idea of selective memory engineering has been the stuff of science fiction fancy.

Until now.

Current Research
While watching an episode of the television version of This American Life, I was struck by the episode entitled “Pandora’s Box”, which profiled the work of SUNY Downstate Medical researchers Drs. Todd Sacktor and Andre Fenton. Dr. Sacktor had a revolutionary idea about how memory is formed in the brain, and the elementary, yet powerful, way to manipulate it by eradicating the function of one regulatory molecule. And what a Pandora’s box did they open! Take a look at this short clip:

Powerful stuff, no? This research, in effect, suggests that a single molecule, Protein Kinase Mzeta, regulates the brain’s ability to form and retain memories, and consequently lies at the heart of memory erasure potential. In a recent New York Times interview, Dr. Sacktor admitted that his scientist dad directed him to a family of molecules called Protein Kinase C in 1985, from which his lab derived PKMzeta as a brain-specific member of that family. In a 1999 paper in the journal Nature Neuroscience, Drs. Jeff Lichtman and Joshua Sanes narrowed down 117 hypothetical molecules involved in long-term potentiation (LTP), the communication between two neurons when stimulated simultaneously. Following this paper, in a subsequent 2002 Nature Neuroscience paper, Dr. Sacktor’s lab was able to isolate PKMzeta as the absolute “it” memory factor, showing that it congregates semi-permanently en masse around these activated neuronal connections. At that point, he was off to the races. He joined forces with the friendly neighbor downstairs, neuroscientist Dr. Andre Fenton, who just happened to study spatial memory in mice and rats. He had previously shown that mice and rats placed in a circular chamber learn how to move around to avoid getting their feet shocked, a memory they retain, days, weeks, even months later. Sacktor’s lab injected an inhibitor for PKMzeta into the rats’ hippocampus, the part of our brain that regulates memory. The results were stunning. Two pioneering papers (paper 1 and paper 2) in the elite research journal Science showed that these “blockers” both reversed the rats’ neurons from forming long-term potentiation, and that it manifested in them forgetting the spatial information they’d learned in the chamber, an effect that seemed to last for weeks. Drs. Sacktor and Fenton had erased the rats’ memory!

Dr. Fenton and Dr. Sacktor’s reaction to their research in the This American Life piece was notable. Normally, scientists are shielded well behind the safe solitude of the ivory tower: long work hours, constant pressure, achieving the next research milestone. It’s not that scientists don’t ever think about the implications of their work per se, but they rarely have the luxury of time for such contemplation or the fortune of far-reaching results. While he read letters from victims of post-traumatic stress disorder, Dr. Fenton broke down crying, and expressed a desire to just help these people.

Less than two months ago, scientists at the Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children [sorry I can’t help myself… as opposed to healthy ones? I love Canadians!] have added an important piece to this canon of research. In a Science paper, the scientists identified the exact group of neurons—lateral amygdala (LA) neurons with increased cyclic adenosine monophosphate response element-binding protein (CREB)—responsible for formation of a given memory (the neuronal memory trace). Selective targeting and deletion of these neurons using an injectable, inducible neurotoxin blocked all learned memories.

Eventually, of course, all of this body of science will coalesce into a more coherent picture of how memories are formed, what subsets of neurons in which portions of the brain store them, and what molecules and proteins we can manipulate to control, enhance or erase memory altogether. But that still leaves us to grapple with some very powerful and comprehensive bioethical dilemmas. Assuming that this translates into a medical procedure or pharmaceutical treatment for memory manipulation, who will regulate it? How will rules be established to regulate how far to take this therapy? Is memory erasure the equivalent of altering our personalities, the essence of who we are, a psychological lobotomy? Most importantly, however, is the question of how much we need memories, even painful, negative ones, to build the cornerstones of human morality, empathy, and the absolute meaning of right and wrong.

Sheena Jocelyn, one of the researchers involved in the University of Toronto study, acknowledged the bifurcated ethical implications of the research: “Our experiences, both good and bad, teach us things,” she said. “If we didn’t remember that the last time we touched a hot stove we got burned, we would be more likely to do it again. So in this sense, even memories of bad or frightening experiences are useful. However, there are some cases in which fearful memories become maladaptive, such as with post-traumatic stress disorder or severe phobia. Selectively erasing these intrusive memories may improve the lives of afflicted individuals.” In fact, Anjan Chatterjee, M.D., a neuroethicist at the University of Pennsylvania Ethics Center, penned an incredibly prescient piece two years ago that equated psychological mitigation of painful memories to “cosmetic neurology”. “If, as many religions and philosophies argue, struggle and even pain are important to the development of character,” Dr. Chatterje asks, “Does the use of pharmacological interventions to ameliorate our struggles undermine this essential process?”

To shed some light of this ethical quandary, ScriptPhD.com enlisted the help of Mary Devereaux, PhD, a bioethics expert at The Center for Ethics in Science and Technology in San Diego, CA and Peter Wagner, MD, a professor in the Schools of Medicine and Bioengineering at UCSD.

To continue reading these enlightening interviews, click “Continue Reading”…
Continue reading From the Annals of Psychology: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Trekking to Outer Space… And Beyond!

three interacting galaxies, which was released recently to mark Hubbles 19th birthday. The grouping, known as Arp 194, sits about 600 million light-years from Earth in the constellation Cepheus. Feustel says the Cosmic Fountain image reminds him of a cosmic question mark. I think its Hubbles way of asking us whats next, Feustel says. Im curious to see whats next as well. © NASA
An image of three interacting galaxies taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. The grouping, known as Arp 194, sits about 600 million light-years from Earth in the constellation Cepheus. © NASA

Review:  Star Trek

ScriptPhD Grade:  A

Still sitting atop the box office a couple of weeks after its release, the new addition to the Star Trek franchise is, quite simply, sensational.  J.J. Abrams’s stunning visual pyrotechnics in the first ten minutes are worth the price of admission alone.  The 11th film in the Star Trek movie series, arguably one of its best, goes back to the beginning to recreate the narrative of James Kirk and Spock.  As the film opens, the USS Kelvin is under attack by Captain Nero, of the Romulan mining ship Narada.  Only able to save his pregnant wife, acting Captain George Kirk is able to witness the birth of his son, James T. Kirk, before the Kelvin is destroyed.  The action picks back up as Kirk, having grown up to be the cocky daredevil that we all know and love, is urged by Captain Christopher Pike to channel his recklessness and arrogance towards joining the Starfleet Academy.  On the way to the USS Enterprise, he meets some familiar friends, Commander Spock, whose own childhood is chronicled early in the film, and Leonard McCoy.  During Kirk’s first moments on the Enterprise, an attack similar to the one that killed his father occurs, and in trying to warn Pike and the rest of the crew that it might be a Romulan ambush, he is kicked off the ship to the desolate Siberia-like Delta Vega for mutiny.  There, in the movie’s best moments, he meets an aged Spock Prime (portrayed by Leonard Nimoy), who relays events of the future to him.  In the year 2387, a particularly strong supernova threatens the entire galaxy.  Ambassador Spock is sent aboard the Jellyfish to inject a “red matter” with unstable gravitational properties into the star, thereby creating an artificial black hole to devour the supernova.  But he didn’t do it in time, and the planet Romulus was devoured instead, along with both ships, which travel into the past.  Nero arrives 154 years earlier, when he destroys the Kelvin helmed by Kirk’s father, and Spock arrives 25 years later and is marooned by Nero on the Delta Vega, a witness to the destruction of his own planet with the very same red matter.  Spock Prime convinces Kirk that he must become the Captain of the Enterprise.  They meet Montgomery Scott (always a welcome source of humor relief) at a Starfleet outpost and beam back up to the Enterprise.  Aided by Pavel Checkov, Scotty, Spock, Bones, Mr. Sulu, and Uhura, Kirk sets of on a dangerous and exciting mission to stop Nero, save the captured Captain Pike, and save the entire galaxy.  All in a day’s work!

What worked best about the movie was its updated cast, it’s wink-wink-nudge-nudge nod to little bits of the original series, and the movie’s overall approachability.  Perfectly cast, its two leads, Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto, sizzle with chemistry and add a fresh facelift to beloved characters of sci-fi lore.  They channel this chemistry well Of particular note was Quinto’s lone scene with Leonard Nimoy, the original Spock.  When they stood side-by-side, giving each other the Vulcan salute, I’ll admit, my nerdy little sci-fi heart melted.  Also noteworthy were Karl Urban as Bones, a hilarious Simon Pegg as Scotty, and Eric Bana who does what he can with Nero (who is a little too one-dimensionally eeeeeeeeeeevil for my taste). It’s hard for anyone to find disappointment with this movie.  There are so many wonderful “insider” Trekkie moments to the new Star Trek, with references to Treks of the past, that older fans will not feel ignored.  By the same token, by rebooting the story of Kirk and Spock’s original friendship and retelling the story of how Kirk came to be the Captain of the Enterprise, those fans who haven’t necessarily watched the series or the movies (*whistles innocently to deflect attention*) will still be able to follow the action anew.

Thanks to some first-class big-screen magic, a sleek, snazzy tricked out Enterprise set, and all the bells and whistles modern CGI can buy, I’d say the Trek franchise will live long and prosper for quite some time to come!

The Science:
I’m not here to nitpick about every little detail from the movie, like, ohhhhh, DRILLING INTO A PLANET and the considerable power it would take beyond Captain Nero’s big, bad drill.  Or that quantum teleportation, at the very basis of “beam me up Scotty”, has been accomplished only on the modest scale of atoms or light beams.  But I digress.  Instead, here are a couple of Big Items to mull over as you’re watching or re-watching the movie.

Black Hole Sun, Won’t You Come…
Let’s talk about black holes for a moment, since they get a lot of play in the Star Trek movie.  A black hole is a region of space with such a powerful gravitational field that nothing, even light can escape the pull.  That is why it is called black—it absorbs all light but emits none.  At the center of a black hole is a concentrated point called a singularity surrounded by a spherical boundary called an event horizon.  If crossed, this boundary will lead all matter and light inevitably towards the singularity.  How are they created?  Well, there’s three types of black holes.  Black holes at the center of galaxies are called supermassive black holes, because they are just that—supermassive, usually on the order of 10^5 to 10^10 solar masses.  Then you have an intermediate black hole, which is on a smaller scale than supermassive black holes, but whose formation is still a mystery to physicists.  Lastly, and most common, are stellar black holes, created by the gravitational collapse of giant stars (at least 20 times more massive than the Sun) at the end of their lifetimes.  When a star runs out of nuclear fuel—its ability to balance the gravity with pressure—gravity wins out and the star, if its massive enough, explodes as a supernova. That is the core completely collapses under its own weight to a point with zero volume and infinite density (the singularity).  The velocity required to be able to break free from this point would require exceeding the speed of light.

Now having reviewed all of this, you don’t have to be Einstein to know that getting really close to black holes—bad.  Getting trapped inside one—VERY bad.  But they don’t suck things in.  Unless you are closer than twice the diameter of the black hole, the gravitational pull is no different than anywhere else in the Universe.  Each black hole has an event horizon, a mathematical demarcation of the space-time continuum, the region from which no escape is possible.  Cross the horizon, and you are trapped, stay out of the horizon, and you are safe.  In fact, if our own Sun were to theoretically go supernova and collapse into a black hole, the Earth would not suddenly be sucked in like a Hoover, since that black hole would only be about 3 km in diameter, proportional to its mass and the radius of its event horizon.  You would have to have a very massive star or planet—definitely something bigger than Vulcan or Romulus—to create a black hole with a large enough horizon to be able to pose a danger to ships and other planets far away.  And even then, it wouldn’t be able to reach across outer space to go get them.

Escape from a black hole.  It sounds like a bad 1960’s Sci-Fi movie.  And bad science.
In the movie, the black hole that envelops Romulus spits out Spock and Nero’s ships into the past.  This is just not possible.  Assuming that the ships made contact with the supernova’s event horizon, tidal gravitational forces would carry you to the black hole’s singularity in a matter of seconds.  And since the concentration of mass per radius of a black hole is condensed such that the escape velocity—the speed with which you’d need to move to escape the gravitational pull of that object—is greater than the speed of light, nothing gets out.  The ships wouldn’t even escape as minced meat; they just wouldn’t escape.

Later in the movie, as the Enterprise is about to escape to safety from the final black hole battle, the black hole’s event horizon threatens to suck the ship in, Scotty suggests ejecting the warp core and blowing it up near the black hole, thus creating enough momentum to thrust to push the ship away.  Drop a bomb here on Earth, and the force of the explosion creates a shock wave as the exothermic reaction of the explosion travels through a chemically unstable medium, such as air (lots of oxygen, nitrogen, methane, etc.).  We’ve all seen the videos of how far away a nuclear detonation can have this effect.  The problem is, there’s no AIR in space.  The force of the explosion would just create massive amounts of electromagnetic radiation.  And even if we were to swallow this oopsie, once again, the escape velocity of an event horizon is equal to the speed of light, which the Enterprise would have to outgun.  So we would have to make some assumptions, like relativity and quantum theory being wrong, to breathe a sigh of relief at this miraculous escape.  J.J., bubbeleh, you’re killing me!

Red Matter, It Matters!
All things being equal, the scientific low-light of the entire movie had to be the “red matter” resulting in the implosion of the planets Vulcan and Romulus.  The matter was created to possess certain gravitational properties, and was originally used for a good purpose, to stop the supernova threatening the Galaxy.  Without spoiling the movie for those that haven’t seen it, the matter, having reappeared in the hands of the evil Nero, is used to create a black hole that envelops the planet Vulcan.  Now I can predict what you’re thinking I’ll say next… “You can’t create a black hole!!!”  Well, actually, yes, you theoretically can.  And recently, researchers from the University of St. Andrews did… on a tabletop!  The researchers used the refractive index of a fiber optic as an analogue for a gravitational field.  They sent a pulse of light through that fiber optic that changed that refractive index, and then followed that up with a probe beam of light that could travel faster than the pulse, but because of the local altered field, couldn’t move past it.  Boom, theoretical black hole!  This experiment was prototypic at best, though, a model for a black hole using fiberoptic analogy.  But to create something powerful enough to collapse a planet, a galaxy, especially given what we’ve discussed about getting close to a black hole, he fact of the matter is…. you need matter.  And lots of it.  The size and diameter of a black hole is directly proportional to mass of the original collapsing star.  Something the size of a droplet of red matter would create a black hole smaller than the size of a pin, and since the event horizon is twice the diameter away…. OK, you guys are starting to get it.  So the idea that a mere soupcon of mysterious “red stuff” can create a black hole core with that kind of gravitational pull?  Well, that’s Hollywood.  Shiny, dazzling Hollywood, but Hollywood no less.

Interested in reading more about the science behind Star Trek?  Dr. Lawrence M. Krauss has written a fantastic book called “The Physics of Star Trek”.

All other things being equal, however, the movie itself had way too many shiny explosions, neat special effects, a decent script, and likeable, sexy cast portraying familiar characters to divert my attention away from J.J. Abrams’s brilliance or the tight production values.  Bottom line?  Worth seeing, and definitely reinvigorates the franchise.  And hey, it got us talking about physics, right?

But you don’t have to move at warp speed or dream big on a movie screen to see stunning examples of technology and engineering taking off to the cosmos or staying right here on Earth! Click “continue reading” for more details…
Continue reading Trekking to Outer Space… And Beyond!

TV REVIEW: Caprica

Caprica DVD Cover. Copyright 2009, SciFi Channel.
Caprica DVD Cover. Copyright 2009, SciFi Channel.

ScriptPhD Grade: B+

Airs on SciFi Channel starting early 2010. DVD including an extended version of the pilot, bonus scenes, interviews, and video blogs was released April 21, 2009.

Outline:

Set fifty-eight years before the Cylon genocide attacks and the subsequent events of Battlestar Galactica, Caprica details the genesis of the first Cylons amidst the backdrop of two rival families—the Adamas and the Graystones.

Plot:

For those bereft fans tuning into Caprica as a means to replicate the magic of Battlestar Galactica, you will be sorely disappointed. Oh, sure, there’s Cylons, and Adamas, and pyramid ball and plenty of ‘frak’s flying left and right. But as the pilot streamed with a bang onto the enormous screen of Hollywood’s ArcLight Cinema Dome, I was reminded in a not unpleasant way that this was not going to be the same show. And oh what a bang it was!

The action breaks in a club of sorts. Although patronized by teenagers, we meander through various provocative “rooms”—Fight Club-style combat, erotic dancing, sex shows—as three friends congregate. Suddenly, one of them spots their exact twin and we cut to the same friends, Zoe Graystone, Ben Stark and Lacey Rand, at a futuristic high school conspiring to escape their Caprica colony for the greener pastures of Geminon. On the train out of the city, however, Ben reveals himself as a suicide bomber acting in the name of the ‘Soldiers of the One’ monotheistic religious movement and commits an astounding act of terrorism that kills Zoe, among others. What had seemed like ephemeral teenage fancy is revealed to have much darker roots with wide-ranging

ramifications. Because as it turns out, Zoe is the daughter of surgeon Amanda Graystone and brilliant scientist Daniel Graystone, who has been consulting for a company entrusted with building the perfect government war machine. We recognize the faulty prototype as an early-model Centurion Cylon.

Bereft with grief over the loss of his daughter, Daniel forms an unlikely bond with earnest, honorable young lawyer Joe Adams, who also lost his wife and child in the explosion. In the search for answers, Daniel discovers Zoe was a chip off the old block. Using a hollaband, a computerized headband, that teleports him to the virtual nightclub where Zoe’s twin resides, he reunites with his dead daughter. The virtual twin from the virtual nightclub was not a twin at all, but an engineered digital life copy into whom Zoe downloaded her DNA and personality, the Zoe-A.

Preying on Joe’s grief and guilt over losing his family, Daniel poses the tantalizing possibility of being with them again through artificial computerized human replication. In setting up the major moral and philosophical conflict of the show, Daniel cajoles Joe into stealing the missing component for the war machine robot—a ‘metacognitive processor’, an artificial brain—from the rival Virgis Corporation from his own native Tauron. Adams’s reunion, however, is not nearly as heartfelt as his daughter’s replicon, trapped in a soulless black nothingness, is frightened by her very being. Buoyed by this realization, Adams reclaims his responsibility to embracing the living, namely his young son William, in a deliciously cheeky early peek at the eventual Galactica Admiral. He recounts for his son their family’s cultural and ethnic lineage from Tauron, where vicious civil wars left them orphaned strangers in a strange land. “Our name is not Adams,” he tells his son. “It’s Adama.” Nevertheless, it is too late to stop Graystone. As the Centurions flashing LED eyes change from orange to red, a Cylon—a cybernetic life node—is born, but at what cost, and at what consequence?

Caprica’s departure from the BSG shadow is immortalized in more than plot and core conflict (to build or not to build artificial intelligence), but in a cinematic majesty and geek-chick technological marvels that make for some visually appealing television. The gadgets of Caprica are bright, sleek, modern, oozing with cool, in direct contrast to the simple, practical, dilapidated equipment of the aging Galactica ship. Hollabands, paper-thin computing sheets with lit-up displays, cyber-chamberlains reminiscent of Rosie the Maid from the Jetsons, virtual mental computing, streamlined transportation hubs that we can only dream about. The cinematography of the show is split between rich, vibrant oranges and yellows for outdoor scenes and fresh blue-green hues for indoor scenes. Caprica also take advantage of Vancouver’s glorious outdoor settings in a way Battlestar could not within the location limitations of … er … space.

Another critical divergence for Caprica will be its serialized storytelling and focus on the linear dramatic development of Cylon creation and the ethical and moral quandaries posed therein. “It’s more about their personal lives,” series producer/writer Jane Espenson remarks. “They don’t have the threat of death breaking down their neck every moment so that you can feel more lived in, you can explore this culture more.” Adds Ronald D. Moore, “It’s a different show. I mean, losing the action-adventure is a risk…. [But] since there’s no Cylons coming in to sort of destroy the Galactica every once in a while, fate and humanity doesn’t hang in the balance yet.” Instead of the salvation of humanity, Caprica will probe on the very essence of what it is. “Find those things that make you cry, that make you feel,” Joseph Adama pleads of Daniel Graystone. “That’s what makes you human.” The Adama/Graystone schism certainly forms the show’s psychological nucleus, but other important questions are also raised: the roots of the monotheistic vs. polytheistic religious conflict, the greediness of the very corporate vultures that ordered the beta Centurion war models, racial and ethnic strife between the Twelve Colonies unified under one government, and the very limits of artificial intelligence and the human essence. “[These complex and difficult themes] are to Caprica what the space battles were to Battlestar,” remarks producer David Eick.

Ultimately, it is difficult for any show to escape the looming shadow of such an accomplished and critically acclaimed predecessor, especially when their plots are indelibly linked. Thankfully, Caprica has decided to step out of that inimitable shadow, contextually and stylistically, to create its own identity, and some pretty good frakkin’ television along the way. There’s enough sentimental peeks into a familiar world that we already know—so that’s how Bill Adama gained that sense of honor!—but enough new compelling characters to keep us coming back for more than just nostalgia. I, for one, plan to tune in to see what happens.

Good hunting, Caprica. See you next year!

~*ScriptPhD*~

HiFi-SciFi: Battlestar Galactica/Caprica Paley Festival Panel

BSG and Caprica:  A Look Back and a Look Ahead

Battlestar Galactica and Caprica cast and producers at the 26th Annual Paley Festival in Los Angeles, CA.  Copyright 2009, Getty Images
Battlestar Galactica and Caprica cast and producers at the 26th Annual Paley Festival in Los Angeles, CA. Copyright 2009, Getty Images

On a recent sweltering evening in late April, the ScriptPhD ventured out to Los Angeles’s majestic ArcLight Cinema Dome, which was playing host to the tenth night of the 26th Annual William S. Paley Television Festival, a preservation and celebration of the very best the small screen has to offer.  Each year, a handful of select shows are selected by the Paley Center for Media to screen an episode and engage in a question and answer session with onscreen and production talent.  This year, writers, producers and actors from the recently completed epic space opera Battlestar Galactica, and its forthcoming prequel Caprica, delighted a small audience with a sneak peek at the Caprica pilot and a candid behind-the-scenes look at the creative process behind both shows.

Fans in queue for the Caprica screening and BSG/Caprica Q&A at the ArcLight Cinema Dome in Los Angeles, CA.
Fans in queue for the Caprica screening and BSG/Caprica Q&A at the ArcLight Cinema Dome in Los Angeles, CA.

Fans at the beginning of the line had queued up as early as 11 AM to witness what may be the last gathering of BSG cast and crew for quite a while, while others paid thousands of dollars for VIP after-party access to the cast and crew.  Echoing the diverse fanbase that Battlestar Galactica was able to reach and appeal to, the crowd around me was composed of all ages, races, and genders, of the geeky, the giddy and the gaudy.

And speaking of geeky and gaudy, the evening’s festivities were moderated by actor Seth Green, sporting a rockin’ blue Mohawk and more than a tad bit of fanboy revelry.  At times starstruck, at times nonsensical and at times spot-on hilarious, but always a bit too verbose, Green came across as a genuine, appreciative fan.  Like yours truly, Green came onboard after two obsessivethrilling catch-up seasons on DVD, provided a two minute monologue about all the reasons to love BSG and why it rocked his world, and then, the evening really began.  (I kid Seth Green, with love and affection.  But seriously, for comparison’s sake, Kevin Smith, who moderated last summer’s Comic*Con BSG panel, infused the perfect mix of humor, awe and order into the Q&A while still allowing the panel to be front and center for the fans.)

As a preamble to the screenings and panel discussion covered below, the heart and soul of Battlestar Galactica, producers David Eick and Ronald D. Moore (I’ll let you decide who’s who), thanked the two people responsible for the success of bringing Caprica to the attention of Sci-Fi network, writer Remi Aubuchon and director Jeffrey Reiner.  They then brought an always-refreshing bit of mayhem to an otherwise dignified event by kicking off Caprica’s first major screening with a few good-luck tequila shots from a flask (ohhhh these are MY kind of people!).

When the event planners said “A Look Back and a Look Ahead”, they weren’t kidding folks!  Perhaps for the sake of nostalgia, or for the sake of making us appreciate just how far science fiction has really come, Caprica was pre-empted by a clip of the 1963 sci-fi series Outer Limits.  The series, with a rotating cast each week, tackled everything from hard science, space travel, time travel, and human evolution as it tried to answer the question, “What is the nature of man?”  Remind you of something?  Thankfully this trip to Cheesy Bad Production Land was followed by a savory preview of Battlestar Galactica:  The Plan, the Edward James Olmos-directed 2-hour movie event set to air in November of 2009.  If you missed it during the series finale (like some of us who don’t subscribe to cable!) here’s a link to the YouTube version:

Finally, we were treated to a pre-DVD release screening of the Caprica pilot in its entirety.  My pilot review may be found in a separate post.  Caprica will start airing on the Sci-Fi channel in 2010.  The pilot is available on DVD.

Click “continue reading” to find the only full, unedited, word-for-word transcript of the BSG/Caprica panel to be found on the internet.  Until the Paley Center releases the DVDs of the event next year, the only place to truly find out what happened without missing a beat?  ScriptPhD.com!

Continue reading HiFi-SciFi: Battlestar Galactica/Caprica Paley Festival Panel

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