“I think we’re living through the greatest age of discovery our civilization has ever known,” declares British physics superstar Professor Brian Cox as a preamble for each episode of The Science Channel’s BBC import Wonders of the Solar System. Episode by episode, Dr. Cox deconstructs our wondrous Universe one focus at a time—the Sun, the Big Bang, life on other planets. But he does something even more important. He infuses his own obvious enthusiasm and passion for his field in each experiment and factoid. As a viewer, you can’t helped but be absorbed in the intergalactic vortex of knowledge. The timing of this mini-series and emergence of Cox’s exuberant personality could not be better. Funding for NASA missions has been cut dramatically, with an ongoing re-evaluation the role space exploration should play in the national budget and science ambition. American viewers should get used to Cox as a modern-day Carl Sagan, because his star is rising fast. ScriptPhD.com was extraordinarily fortunate to sit down with Dr. Cox in Los Angeles for a one-on-one podcast about the show, the current state of space exploration, and what is possible to achieve experimentally if we only try. My conversation with the inspirational, eloquent and brilliant Brian Cox, along with our review of Wonders of the Universe, under the “continue reading” cut.
What is time? How does it work? Why is it immutably unidirectional (moving from the past and towards the future)? And most importantly, why does time exist at all? These are among the preeminent metaphysical questions to date for scientists and laypeople alike. Using the principles of entropy and universe expansion since the Big Bang, cosmologist Sean Carroll (recently profiled in the New York Times) hypothesizes about the arrow of time in a brilliant new book From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time. In addition to reviewing the book, ScriptPhD.com’s in-house physics and astronomy guru, Stephen Compson, had an extraordinary opportunity to sit down with Dr. Carroll in his physics lab at Caltech University. In a stunningly in-depth, rich interview, they explored everything from the creation of our universe, to entropy, the time-space continuum, how physics and film intersect, and why the principles in Dr. Carroll’s book are important and topical for the general public to grasp. It’s rare to see this wide-ranging of a discussion on popular physics from such an authoritative researcher, so sit back, enjoy and click “continue reading” for more.
The Hubble Space Telescope is the world’s first observatory that actually orbits—you guessed it—through outer space. Over the last decade, Hubble has captured some of the deepest and most detailed images of our universe. All those recent headlines about exoplanets: those discoveries come from Hubble. Scientists viewing pictures of light projected from stars over 13 billion years ago (almost at the origin of the universe): that’s Hubble, too. Hubble 3D documents the 2009 mission by the crew of the Shuttle Atlantis to make vital repairs to one of mankind’s most expensive, and significant, science projects. There would be no second chances. If the mission had failed, Hubble would be just another piece of junk orbiting above the earth, like my Direct TV satellite and Elvis’s body. The tension is real, the suspense extraordinary, and the imagery? Out of this world. And fortunately for terrestrial audiences, the entire mission was captured by the crew and director Toni Myers on some of the most breathtaking, brave film ever recorded. We are proud to make Hubble 3D an official ScriptPhD.com Editor’s Selection.
Following up on Part I of our Fall Science Television preview, we continue with some of our picks for best bets in comedy, drama, and even reality covering the scope of medicine, physics, forensics, fantasy and pure old-fashioned science fiction. Tonight, in Part II, ScriptPhD.com give you a sneak peek of the return of Dexter, House, MD, Grey’s Anatomy, MythBusters, The Big Bang Theory and the highly anticipated television adaptation FlashForward. Tomorrow night, our coverage concludes with a review of the V pilot and previews of programming from the holy grail of science fiction television, the SyFy Channel. Our reviews, under the jump.
It’s not often that world-renowned scientists crash in the heart of Hollywood to talk about Nobel Prize-winning physics research. But on a recent summer night, the ScriptPhD, along with a handful of lucky astronomy aficionados, was treated to a light show with a side of general relativity. At LA’s famed Laserium CyberTheatre, Yale physicist Charles Baltay, also known as the man responsible for Pluto’s demise, captivated a delighted audience with about 10 billion years of physics, starting from the Big Bang to Pluto’s demise. Continuing the physics theme was a visually stunning array of laser pyrotechnics set to the thematically appropriate tune of Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon.” For Dr. Baltay’s lecture, entitled “Exploring the Dark Side of the Universe”, and the psychedelic imagery of the world’s most advanced laser light show, please “continue reading” under the jump.
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!
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…