Friday, May 27, 2016

Pluto At Its Best

Last summer the New Horizons mission made its historic flyby of Pluto. Data from the spacecraft have been slowly beamed back to Earth and its still not all here yet. But what is here is an amazing array of images and other information that have revealed this world to be nothing short of spectacular.

Today NASA unveiled their highest resolution imagery of Pluto showing an amazing and diverse range of landscapes.

Have a look at their video which cuts across our solar system's most famous dwarf planet:


Here's a just a piece of the cut across Pluto, its what they labeled at the Pitted, hummocky Nitrogen ice plains:
It's like nothing seen on any other surface in the solar system. (Note: I rotated the image.) The video goes too fast for my tastes, so it is worth the time to look at the full cut across Pluto. You can see the full image here. It's amazing.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Star Trek: Spectre of the Gun

On TV the third season of the original series of Star Trek series kicked off with the infamous "Spock's Brain" episode, but the first one produced was:
Spectre of the Gun is a very unusual episode of Star Trek

The episode begins with the Enterprise on a mission to "establish contact with the Melkotians at all costs" and even though they are telepathically warned away, Kirk presses onward toward their destination. 
We get a nice special effects sequence as the Enterprise encounters and then flies past a rotating buoy on their way to the planet.
There the landing party (Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty & Chekov) encounters a Melkotian, who doesn't take kindly to their presence: "Aliens. Our warning was plain. You have disregarded it. You shall be punished...You are disease. The disease must be destroyed. Your plea has been heard, and sentence has been pronounced. It is done."
Their sentence proves to be a strange one indeed as they are catapulted to something that looks like the American old west, but not in any that actually looks real. Even McCoy remarks that "It's just bits and pieces. It's incomplete." Yeah. Great sets!

Yet, in spite of the appearance of things our heroes are convinced that what they are experiencing is absolutely real. McCoy describes it as a "harsh reality" and then "This is not a dream."

The landing party soon learns that they are in Tombstone, Arizona on October 26, 1881 the date of the famous shooting at the OK Corral. They have been cast in the role of the Clantons who were killed at the shooting Yes, it is a strange sentence indeed. 
They attempt to flee, but Tombstone, Arizona has a force field keeping them in.
Chekov is gunned down by Morgan Erp, which comes as a surprise as he was in the role of Billy Claiborne--a person who survived the infamous shoot out.
Seeing no way out and not wanting to partake in the impending shootout, Spock and McCoy make a tranquilizing gas grenade out of a can of baking powder. Really.

They test it on Scotty, but nothing happens.

The fact that nothing happened is the crux of the episode, as it convinces Spock, who knows that their concoction should have worked, that what they are experiencing is unreal.
When McCoy counters that the bullet that killed Chekov was real, Spock tells him that "His mind killed him." And then we get a series of almost random philosophical statements from Spock:
"Physical reality is consistent with universal laws.
"Where the laws do not operate, there is no reality. All of this is unreal. 

"We judge reality by the response of our senses.
"Once we are convinced of the reality of a given situation, we abide by its rules. 

"We judged the bullets to be solid, the guns to be real, therefore they can kill. I know the bullets are unreal, therefore they cannot harm me."
The solution? Remove all doubt about the reality of the bullets. To do so Spock mind-melds with Scotty, McCoy & Kirk.

"The bullets are unreal. Without body. They are illusions only. Shadows without substance. They will not pass through your body, for they do not exist....They are shadows. Illusions. Nothing but ghosts of reality. They are lies. Falsehoods. Spectres without body. They are to be ignored."
When he's finished they all stand their ground as the Erps fire away.
And the bullets pass straight through them!
Seizing the moment, Kirk then does one of his patented Run & Jump Kicks into Wyatt Erp and pulls Wyatt's gun on him, which is kind of odd as, you know, the bullets are unreal. He considers shooting Erp, but then decides to show mercy and then everyone, including Chekov, suddenly reappears on the Enterprise bridge.
The Melkotians were impressed, by Kirk's actions telling him to "Approach our planet and be welcome," but Spock knows that Kirk wanted to kill Erp. Kirk confesses that Spock was right, but he and humanity have been able to overcome their instinct to kill.

It's a good Star Trek ending. It is a shame though that it takes the episode such a long, long time to get going though. There's too much in Tombstone as they talk to the Erps, the bartender, the Sheriff and the Marshall (they have both?), try to get away, Chekov ("Billy") has a girl, etc for my tastes. The episode finally picks up when they've finished making their tranquilizing gas grenade, but everything before that drags on way too long.

Composer Jerry Fielding wrote the musical score to the episode. It's not my favorite either. He tried to go western, but I'm not a big fan of the results.

Next up is the action packed Elaan of Troyius.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Cloudy Transit

Astronomers around the world today witnessed a relatively rare alignment of the planet Mercury and the Sun. Mercury passed directly in front of the Sun's disc in an event known as a transit.

Southern California normally has clear skies, but in the San Diego area May and June can be particularly cloudy as low clouds frequently blow in from the ocean. Locally it is known as "May Gray" and "June Gloom."

Today's transit of Mercury was mostly a victim of the May Gray from my vantage point at Palomar College (that's where I teach astronomy).

The event began before the Sun rose in California, making the first part invisible. The clouds blocked most of the rest of the view, but they did part a bit early in the morning.

The college's NS Building has a rooftop solar telescope and the photo below comes from it:
Photo by Tony Kopec
This image was taken with a hydrogen alpha filter that reveals some of the details just above the Sun's photosphere. Mercury is the small black dot.

Compare the view of Mercury above, with the pic below that I took during the June 2012 transit of Venus:
Different telescopes were used (the Venus transit photo was of a white light projection using my personal telescope), but it is easy to see that Venus (the big black circle) looks a whole lot bigger than Mercury does. This is because Venus is a whole lot bigger than Mercury is and also because Venus is significantly closer to Earth than Mercury is. The other spots on the Sun are sunspots.

If you missed today's transit, here's how it looked from NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory:
The next Mercury transit event will be on November 11, 2019.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Star Trek: Season Two Redux

Yes, I've been blogging about the original Star Trek series for a while and I've just completed my last episode from its second season, so here is my list of the top 10 episodes of season two.
#10 The Apple - Kirk plays the role of the devil, casting out a civilization from paradise, but its okay as he needed to do so to save his ship. Oh, and Spock gets hit by lightning. I suspect that few others would put this in their top 10 list, but this is my guilty pleasure choice.

Favorite Line: "All the world knows about Vaal. He causes the rains to fall and the sun to shine. All good comes from Vaal."
#9 By Any Other Name - Alien invaders from another galaxy seize the Enterprise and learn what it means to be human. This is perhaps another guilty pleasure choice, but it's my list, so why not?

Favorite Line: "It's green."
#8 Mirror, Mirror - There's an alternate universe where Spock is evil and wears a beard. A beard! What's not to love? Well, plenty, but if you just go with it, it is pretty fun. This episode spawned a whole bunch of sequels in Deep Space Nine, Enterprise and an awesome one from Star Trek Continues too.

Favorite Line: "In every revolution, there's one man with a vision. "
#7 Obsession - Lots of Red Shirts die as Kirk must destroy a Killer Outer Space Vampire Cloud. Still, it is good stuff.

Favorite Line: "Mister Spock, why aren't you dead?"
#6 The Ultimate Computer - A classic Kirk vs. Computer Episode, only this time it's personal, as the computer, M5, may put Kirk out of a job.

Favorite Line: "We're invincible. Look what we've done. Your mighty starships, Four toys to be crushed as we choose!"
#5 The Trouble With Tribbles - Rapidly breeding, but adorable fur balls eat a lot of GMO grain and threaten a space station with ecological disaster through rapid population growth, while inadvertently uncovering a Klingon plot. It is oodles of fun.

Favorite Line: "Surely you must have realized what would happen if you removed the tribbles from their predator-filled environment into an environment where their natural multiplicative proclivities would have no restraining factors."
# 4 Who Mourns for Adonais? -  Michael Forest plays the Greek god Apollo, who demands that Kirk and his crew worship him. A wonderful episode, that also has a great sequel from Star Trek Continues.

Favorite Line: "I offer you more than your wildest dreams have ever imagined. You'll become the mother of a new race of gods. You'll inspire the universe. All men will revere you almost as a god yourself. And I shall love you for time without end, worlds without end. You shall complete me, and I you." - How's that for a pick up line?
# 3 Journey to Babel -  We get to meet Spock's parents as the Enterprise escorts a ship full of ambassadors to a peace conference that is threatened by dangerous foes. It's just awesome.

Favorite Line: "Mother, how can you have lived on Vulcan so long, married a Vulcan, raised a son on Vulcan, without understanding what it means to be a Vulcan?" Honorable mention: "Tellarites do not argue for reasons. They simply argue."
# 2 Amok Time - Kirk and Spock fight to the death. What more do I need to say?

Favorite Line: "The air is the air. What can be done?"
# 1 The Doomsday Machine - A wandering, automated planet-killing machine takes out the U.S.S. Constellation, will its captain bring the Enterprise down too? I pretty much love everything about this episode--the acting, the 60s effects, the music--everything. It may be my top TOS Trek episode from any of the three seasons.

Favorite Line: "No, I'm a doctor, not a mechanic."

Honorable Mentions: The Changeling was on this list, but got bumped. Return to Tomorrow was also a strong contender, if for no other reason, than for Kirk's Risk Speech. It's that awesome.

All-in-all, season two was pretty good. Yes, there were some turkeys, but most of them had something wonderful here and there.
It took me almost a year to cover the first season of Star Trek and almost two and a half years to get through blogging about season two. At this rate, I'll be finishing up season three.....well, who knows, but I'm planning on picking up the pace.

Since I'm covering the episodes in production order, season three will begin with Spectre of the Gun.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Star Trek: Assignment: Earth

Most of my posts recently have been about Star Trek and here's another one, as I take a look at the final episode of season two of the original series
Once again, it's a really clear day everywhere on Earth.
Assignment: Earth is a strange episode. It was put forward not just as an episode of Trek, but also as a hopeful spin-off series. As a result, it wasn't really good at either. The hopeful series didn't get picked up and the episode isn't the best that Trek has to offer either.

In the episode the Enterprise has been sent back in time (!) "to find out how our planet survived desperate problems in the year 1968." Interesting, as 1968 would later prove to be a rough and tumble year in the U.S., but thankfully one that didn't see the launch of the orbiting nuclear weapons platforms that were supposed in this episode.
Just before the opening credits they accidentally intercept a powerful transporter beam with a human, Gary Seven, and his cat Isis (a familiar?). It seems that Seven has been sent from a planet whose existence will remain hidden even in the 23 Century "to prevent Earth's civilization from destroying itself before it can mature into a peaceful society." Can Kirk and Spock trust him? Can they stop him or should they help him? That's the crux of this episode.
That, along with showing us cool footage of the Apollo 4 launch of the first unmanned Saturn V rocket
And Spock hanging out with Isis the cat.
We also get to meet Roberta Lincoln, Seven's new groovy, but ditzy helper. The series they were trying to sell would have been the adventures of Seven, Lincoln and the cat, presumably saving the Earth from destruction every week.
I'm not sure it would have worked, especially without a T.A.R.D.I.S., but at least Seven has a Sonic Screwdriver. I think that you can make a good argument that Seven is in fact a Time Lord, but I don't blog about Doctor Who, so I'll just leave it at that.
We do get to see Kirk and Spock in civilian clothes, which is fun, and the episode gave us a genuine look at the future by showing us a voice-recognition typewriter, but the whole, "were here to figure out what happened in the past" argument doesn't work for me, especially when at the end of it all, Kirk explains that their record tapes reveal that everything happened exactly the way it was supposed to. So why didn't they look at those record tapes before their mission?

Or maybe history was altered and they just don't know it. Alas, there's no sign of a historian on this mission who might have been able to sort it all out. I guess they never replaced the one they lost in Space Seed.
 Assignment: Earth ended Trek's second season. In my next post I'll look at the season as a whole and present my top 10 episodes.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Star Trek Concert!

It is no secret that I'm a huge Star Trek fan. I'm also a big fan of movie and TV music and I have a large soundtrack collection. So it shouldn't be a big surprise that I was interested in attending the Star Trek 50th Anniversary Concert Tour which played in San Diego last night.
Overall, the experience was a lot of fun. The tour has a live symphony orchestra in front of a 40-foot projection screen which was showing clips from the TV shows and movies along with occasional narration by Michael Dorn ("Warf" from TNG).
It is likely that my expectations were different from the average concert goer. I was there to hear and see the orchestra. This was often difficult to do as there was sound to go along with the projection and at times it overwhelmed the orchestra. There was also a loud reverberation at times which was very annoying. However, the clips projected were mostly a lot of fun, though I was surprised that they re-used a few of them. We only needed to hear Kirk's "Risk Speech" once. The video also didn't give the audience much of a chance to applaud for the orchestra, as sometimes they would be starting another clip right at the end of some music when I felt it was time to give the orchestra some applause.

The orchestra was surprisingly hard to see. The shot above shows the stage (before the show). There were various set pieces to give it sort of a Star Trek feel, that mostly hid the orchestra from view. Often there was little or no lighting on the orchestra, so they were hard to see.

The best time to see the orchestra was after intermission when Trek composer Ron Jones was guest conducting the Enter'acte. There was no video as Jones was conducting and the orchestra was nicely illuminated. Composer Jay Chattaway was also on hand to guest conduct his wonderful Orchestral Suite from The Inner Light, which is perhaps the most famous and beloved music from all of the TNG franchise. The Orchestra really hit the mark for this piece, but the video presentation was very distracting from here and it felt somewhat rude to be playing dialog and sound effects over this while the composer was conducting his own work. Yes, I realize that this is the fate of music composed for TV and film, but I was hoping to hear this piece in particular on its own.
Thankfully, a lot of music composed for Star Trek has been released on CD, so that film score fans like me can listen to it on its own. Yes, the CDs above are my Star Trek music collection.
Speaking of CDs, there's one available from this tour too. The two disc-set was available at the concert hall and is online. I picked one up at the show, but haven't had a chance to listen yet. There are extensive liner notes, which I'm looking forward to reading. I should note that the conductor for the CD is different from Nicholas Buc, the conductor who is out on the tour.

As for the music in the concert, the show pretty much hit all the highlights with the major pieces by composers Jerry Goldsmith, James Horner, Dennis McCarthy and others being represented. I was especially happy to hear some of Sol Kaplan's music from TOS episode The Doomsday Machine, Jerry Goldsmith's Ilia's Theme from TPM, and Michael Giacchino's Enterprising Young Men from the 2009 Trek movie. 
Conductor Nicholas Buc, along with composers Ron Jones and Jay Chattaway (center stage) get a standing ovation at the end of last night's show. 

All-in-all it was a fun show. If you are a music purist then you might get annoyed at some of the other elements of the show, but if you want a fun evening of Star Trek, then take a look to see if this 100-city tour will be near you before the North American tour is done in early May.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Star Trek: The Omega Glory

It is time for another episode of Star Trek. Today it is:
The Omega Glory is a pretty good episode of Trek, until it isn't.
The Omega Glory has got a lot going for it. There's another Federation starship, the Exeter, with a crew that has been killed by an awesome plague where their bodies were crystalized.
There's the Exeter's captain, Ron Tracey (played by Morgan Woodward, who you might remember as Dr. Simon van Gelder in Dagger of the Mind), a man that has violated the Prime Directive by phasering hundreds of natives so that he can live long enough to find the secret to what he thinks is a fountain of youth.

He's got good reasons for thinking there is a something special going on as the villagers here (the Yangs and the Kohms) can live to be over 1,000.
There's action, like Captain Tracey phasering a Red Shirt to keep him from calling he Enterprise for help.
There's a savage Yang chief (Cloud William) and his hot wife, who get thrown into a cell and fight with Kirk. 
There's Dr. McCoy who discovers that the terrible disease that killed the crew of the Exeter is no big deal at all, just spend enough time on the planet and everthing's just fine. McCoy also gives a warning about it as the "infection resembles one developed by Earth during their bacteriological warfare experiments in the 1990s." Let the be a lesson kids of the 60's, don't grow up to dabble in biological warfare.

McCoy even discovers that Tracey's Fountain of Youth isn't really a thing after all. So why do the natives here live so long? Darwin. "Survival of the fittest, because their ancestors who survived [the bacteriological war] had to have a superior resistance. Then they built up these powerful protective antibodies in the blood during the wars."
Kirk and Tracey fight, with an axe no less, before the hordes of Yangs that take over town and make everyone a prisoner. They fight again later, to the death, for the Yangs to see who's telling the truth. Good always defeats Evil, you know.
Spock even gets compared with the Devil (Evil One).

So what's not to like?

Plenty.

Alas, this is another episode with a world that's parallel to Earth, which we've seen too often. Neither  Miri nor Bread and Circuses were anything to be proud of. At least in A Piece of the Action, the Earth-based culture was at due to cultural contamination.
Our first hint of problems in The Omega Glory come when Kirk in in the cell with Cloud William (and his hot wife). As they fight, Kirk speaks to Spock, who is in the next cell, about how they might gain their freedom. That gets the attention of Cloud William, who describes 'freedom' as a "worship word." Okay, yeah. We all love freedom. I mean, if you don't love freedom you must be some kind of a communist, or in this case a Kohm. Yes, the locals on planet Omega IV are Yankees (Yangs) and Communists (Kohms). As Spock says,  "The parallel is almost too close, Captain. It would mean they fought the war your Earth avoided, and in this case, the Asiatics won and took over this planet."

"The parallel is almost too close." Seriously? Almost?! Unfortunately, the parallel is even closer.
Yeah, the U.S. flag comes in and Cloud William recites the f'ing Pledge of Allegiance.
But wait, there's more. Cloud William has the U.S. Constitution too. Sure, we get to hear Kirk giving a dramatic reading of the Preamble to the Constitution, but really? Is this necessary? Apparently so.
If you are a good patriot, I guess you should be happy that on planet Omega IV the Yankees finally beat the Communists and you should watch The Omega Glory on Flag Day, Independence Day and especially on Constitution Day, but I think I'll pass. Had the story not taken us to a parallel Earth, I think it could have ended up a winner, but as it stands its not very good.

Next up is the last episode of TOS Season Two Assignment: Earth. Thankfully, it is a better episode.