We Interrupt This Broadcast…

One of my favourite topics to think about, since I was very young, is the effect that direct contact with intelligent alien life would have on our society. It would be transformative, I think, whether it be initially seen as for good or ill. Of course, most imaginings of such an event usually considers the “ill” aspect. I was chatting about the issue recently with a friend of mine while hiking the other day and then I recalled that I forgot to do a blog post on last week’s Sunday night radio listening, part of which was about just this very topic!

war of the worlds tripod illustrationThe show was in two parts (both good… more on the second later) and the first was a 1994 recreation of the classic War of the Worlds broadcast of 1938. You know the one, I hope… It was a CBS radio broadcast by the Mercury Theater company, masterminded and led by Orson Welles, and was a Howard Koch radio adaptation of the 1898 H. G. Wells novel. As you may know, the radio show created a huge panic among the listening audiences at the time, brought on by a combination of the relative newness of the medium (it was done in the style of a series of on-the-scene breathless news reports) and the general atmosphere in world politics at the time. (There’s a rather good Wikipedia collection of information about it here.)

All of this puts me in a nostalgic mood, since during some of my school days I loved that War of the Worlds rock musical concept album by Jeff Wayne from 1978 (I knew of it only in the early to middle 80s), with a star-studded cast of musicians (Justin Hayward, Phil Lynott, Julie Covington, David Essex and Chris Thompson), and the wonderful voice of Richard Burton as the main protagonist (a journalist). Anybody else remember that? From so many listenings to it, I used to be able to sing along to every note and word of that album! Probably still can, even though I’ve not heard it in so long. Altogether now – Uuuu-Laaaa!!!, or Come on Thun-der-child!!… Here’s a Wikipedia link.

Anyway, I highly recommend the recreation of the broadcast. Find an hour and curl up next to your computer and pretend it’s a warm old valve radio. Leonard Nimoy plays […] Click to continue reading this post

Consider the Alternatives

multiple parallel branes, often used as central idea of alternative universesTomorrow I’m shooting all day for a TV show that is going to focus on the idea of alternative universes (or parallel universes, if you prefer). Should be fun. The setting at least will be interesting (more on that later) and it ought to be interesting to see how the writer puts all the material together into a coherent narrative. Part of my job will be to try to emphasize that while parallel/alternative universes show up a lot in actual scientific discussions (and have done for a long time), we have not yet had anything like a good observational or experimental reason to believe in their existence anywhere other than in our imaginations. It’s vital to get this across (I hope they don’t just edit it out) because people are so willing to believe in many half-baked fanciful ideas – and this is one of them – and when they show up in a science documentary (this is (again) for the History Channel’s “The Universe” series, which has been very good) with actual scientists being quoted, one should be especially careful (as we were on the “Cosmic Holes” episode (with different filmmakers), which has proven to be rather popular, and is full of speculative ideas like travel using wormholes and time machines right alongside equally fantastic-sounding things, like black holes, which are in fact a scientific reality). The rest of my job will be to talk about some of the places where the idea shows up in modern thought, some of the reasons why, and some of the opportunities for solving various challenging problems (and maybe creating a host of others!!) can be afforded by such ideas.

All that aside, this reminds me of something else entirely – Do you ever have those days when you feel like you’ve accidentally stepped sideways into an alternative universe? I do. Recently, I had a huge dose of it. Sit back and I’ll tell you the story…[…] Click to continue reading this post

Law Vs Law

A silly lawsuit vs the search for physical law, that is. What’s the story?* An attempt to stop the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Geneva from operating over fears that the experiment will destroy the earth by creating a black hole that will swallow it up. Or some other bogeyman. Article by Dennis Overbye here, or here, and there’s a Fox News story by Paul Wagenseilhere.

The lawsuit, filed March 21 in Federal District Court, in Honolulu, seeks a temporary restraining order prohibiting CERN from proceeding with the accelerator until it has produced a safety report and an environmental assessment. It names the federal Department of Energy, the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, the National Science Foundation and CERN as defendants.

Quite an entertaining read can also be found at the two plaintiffs’ website. The main […] Click to continue reading this post

Greg Bear on Correlations

Over on Correlations, my co-blogger Damon Gambuto has started a new series: “Science Fiction Friday”, and guess who is featured for the first one? Greg Bear!

I’ve really enjoyed his writing over many years, starting with the first books of his I read in quick succession (“Legacy”, and “Forge of God”, along with their follow-up works), right up to the very good “Darwin’s Radio”. I’ve not read anything more recent of his yet.

Anyway, the interview (which will be in several parts) looks really good and interesting […] Click to continue reading this post

Warped Ambitions?

Just spotted this in the Guardian:

starship enterprizeNext Thursday, the British Interplanetary Society is bringing together physicists for a conference entitled Faster than Light: Breaking the Interstellar Distance Barrier. “The main purpose is to raise awareness of this obscure field of research within general relativity and quantum field theory and attract new and particularly young researchers to work on the technical problems,” said organiser Kelvin Long.

Wow! I had no idea there was such a meeting. Did anyone reading go?! What is the British Interplanetary Society? From their site I found this quote: […] Click to continue reading this post

Even More for my Reading List

Aha. I’ve been meaning to get around to some Doris Lessing for a long time. The Academy is trying to tell me something:

The Nobel Prize in Literature for 2007 is awarded to the English writer Doris Lessing “that epicist of the female experience, who with scepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilisation to scrutiny”.

Do you have any favourites of hers you recommend?

Here are some passages from her biography on the Nobel site, talking about some of the works that really got her a great deal of wider recognition, emphasizing her important intersection with other genres such as feminism and science fiction (to pick […] Click to continue reading this post

LHC Podcasts: Science Meets Science Fiction

Confession: I’ve no idea what Torchwood is, and I find the current Dr. Who shows annoying overall (there have been some good episodes that I’ve seen, but they’re swamped in a sea of such poorly thought through and simply phoned-in crappy episodes that I find it too annoying to take the risk of wasting an hour I could have better spent with my head in the oven…) Feel free to disagree with me, and I have not seen the most recent season, so maybe things are better.

LHC You TubeBut anyway, where was I? Oh, right. Someone called John Barrowman (apparently one of the stars on those shows? He plays a scientist? I honestly don’t know, but you will, if you’re a fan) took a visit to CERN (the particle physics lab in Europe you often read about here and elsewhere) to better inform himself about the intersection between science and science fiction. One of the resulting jumpy noisy and (reportedly) fun videos can be found on YouTube here. There are some somewhat interesting animations alongside some of the, er…jolly madcap fun, illustrating the physics. Following the particles along the beam-pipe to the collision is not a view I’ve seen before, I’ll admit.
Much more interesting is something they mention at the end. A series of podcasts on the LHC (the big experiment at CERN we’re all interested in and excited about). This is driven by Brian Cox (no, not that one, this one, the physicist), and seems to be in a […] Click to continue reading this post

Back To the Future

fifties science fiction spaceshipThe BBC Radio 4 program Archive Hour was just brilliant on the weekend. Here is the synopsis:

Adam Hart Davies looks at some of the predictions made in the past by scientists, programme-makers and politicians about how future society and technology would develop. He explores some of the moral and ethical dilemmas arising from mankind’s thirst for new inventions, new technologies and new ways of life.

(Image right: Chesley Bonestell painting for a cover of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in 1950. See more art from that era at this excellent site.)

It brings to the issue a lot of archival footage of interviews, debates, and other material. There are interviews with many interesting people, including scientists and science fiction writers. The role of science fiction (the really good stuff, not the stuff that’s purely space opera… although sometimes it is hard to know which is which without the benefit of hindsight) is discussed quite a bit too.

There are the usual discussions about mobile phones, communications satellites, and the like, well-known things that were anticipated by writers of fiction, but the programme is much more interesting than that, reflecting upon the impact of various technologies and medical techniques (e.g. heart transplants) and how they were regarded and debated at the time, since they were often seen as either assaults on, or enhancements of (depending upon point of view) our humanity. This discussion is all in aid of reflecting upon us in the present. (Consider carefully the face transplant, for example, and how people react to what that means…)

There’s also very interesting discussion of the moral/ethical responsibility of the […] Click to continue reading this post