Saturday, February 21, 2015

Venus and Mars Are Alright Tonight

Venus and Mars have been putting on a fine show in the western sky after sunset. Last night the moon joined the planetary duo in, from the photos I've seen, a beautiful gathering. Alas, it was cloudy here in Tucson.

Tonight the moon had moved on but Venus and Mars were super close, just 0.4 of a degree apart in the sky. Alas, we had clouds again, but not quite enough to completely foil the view.
The Moon made its appearance first, largely hidden by the veil of the clouds. 
Occasionally, the clouds parted enough to let me almost get a clear shot at the moon. 
 For most of the evening Venus and Mars were completely obscured by the clouds, but as they got lower in the sky, they dropped below the cloud deck and popped into view. That's Venus on the left and much fainter Mars to the right. Venus is almost 100 times brighter than Mars. 

Why so bright? Three reasons - Venus is closer, larger and more reflective (it's surrounded by white clouds). 

You might wonder how and inner planet (Venus) and an outer planet (Mars) could be so close together in the sky. At first thought it feels like one should look in different directions to see them, but that obviously wasn't the case tonight.
A screen grab (above) from the SkySafari app shows how this can be (I added the red line). Looking inward from Earth you can tell that, even though Mars is an outer planet, it is in essentially the same direction as Venus. Earth, Venus and Mars make a straight line. So, when we look from Earth, we see Venus and Mars close together. As the nights move on, they'll gradually move apart in the sky, with Mars gradually sinking lower into the west each night until it is eventually lost from view.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Star Trek: Journey to Babel

It is time for another episode of Star Trek, today I bring you my comments on:
The crew of the Enterprise is carrying a shipload of ambassadors to the "neutral planetoid code-named Babel." Issues to be discussed are contentious. The story is complicated by the presence of Spock's parents, murder and a hostile alien vessel that's likely to cause mayhem.
Spock's parents, Amanda (played by Jane Wyatt) and Ambassador Sarek (played by Mark Lenard) arrive and Sarek wants to have nothing to do with Spock. Lenard and Wyatt bring a lot to their roles, both of which would later reprise them in some of the Trek movies. This episode does more than any other episode in giving the audience elements of Spock's back story. It's good stuff.
Kirk tries to give Spock a moment or two to shine in front of his parents, but Sarek shoots down every opportunity. As we learn, the big wedge between them is that Spock chose Starfleet over the Vulcan Science Academy. When will parents learn to let go and let their kids be what they want to be? Apparently in the 23rd Century this is still a thing.

Years before Star Wars gave us its alien-filled Cantina scene, Trek's Journey to Babel paved the way on a weekly TV series low budget with its own room filled with aliens.
Dudes in robes, gold-painted midgets wearing fezzes --it's all here.
Actually, the real time and effort went to the creation of aliens with speaking parts --the Tellarites (center & right) and the blue-skinned Andorians. Ambassadors Sarek and the Tellarite Gav (center) have met and debated before and it is clear that Gav has a bone to pick with Sarek. In a later scene Kirk has to break them up from fighting.
This naturally makes Sarek the prime suspect when Gav is found dead in the Jeffries Tube, having been killed by what looks like a Vulcan technique for neck-breaking called tal-shaya. 
Sarek's got an excuse though. He's sick with a malfunctioning heart valve and was incapacitated at the time of the murder. McCoy can maybe fix him, but only through open heart surgery and by getting a Vulcan blood donor to take an untried drug to boost blood production. Sarek's blood type is rare, so only Spock can be the donor. Even so, it's a risky prospect.
There are all kinds of problems here. First the drug. Spock has been poking around in the 23rd Century equivalent of Google Scholar and found a drug that can boost blood production in Rigelians, citing that their physiology is very similar to Vulcans. McCoy rightly says, "Similar is not good enough." and "It's still experimental." Good for him. The number of tests with this drug on Vulcans is precisely zero. Spock pushes and McCoy sticks to his guns saying, "It could damage you internally. It could kill you. I'm sorry, Spock. I can't sanction it."

Amanda agrees and says, "And I refuse to permit it. I won't risk both of you."

Oh, yeah there's also the fact that McCoy admits that he has never operated on a Vulcan before. "Oh, I've studied the anatomical types. I know where all the organs are. But that's a lot different from actual surgical experience. So if I don't kill him with the operation, the drug probably will."

So this is a bad idea and everyone should just face facts and say, "Well, Sarek has had a full life with honorable service to the Federation and Vulcan and if McCoy can't save him, maybe we should perhaps get him to a doctor who can." Nah.
All of this is set aside for the moment as Kirk gets jumped by an Andorian with a knife. Thankfully, Kirk's two-handed chop and other fighting moves prevail, but not before the Andorian manages to stab him.
Kirk will be fine in a few days, but the same can't be said for Sarek. McCoy has abruptly done an about face saying, "There's no longer a choice. I have to operate immediately." Wait. What?

McCoy wants Spock to get ready for the procedure and Spock rightly refuses - not because it's unsafe though. Spock considers the risks to be acceptable. Instead, Spock admits, "My first responsibility is to the ship. Our passengers' safety is by Starfleet order of first importance. We are being followed by an alien, possibly hostile, vessel. I cannot relinquish command under these circumstances." It just as he would later say in Wrath of Khan, "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few."
Like McCoy, Amanda has changed her mind about the operation. She wants it to happen and tells Spock, "Nothing is as important as your father's life." That doesn't go over well with Spock, so she tries to appeal to his human side and tells him that if he lets his father die, she'll hate him for the rest of her life. Thanks, Mom.
Kirk is also willing to put all risks aside for his ship (!), his mission, Sarek and his first officer. So he lies to Spock, telling him that he's fine and that Spock should report to Sick Bay for surgery.
Kirk is planning on turning the ship over to Scotty (who sadly never makes an appearance in this episode), when the epic space battle takes place between the Enterprise and a little blob of light. (By the way, I never understood how they hit anything with those divergent phaser beams. Maybe there's a big convex lens out there somewhere.) Anyway, there's a pretty good battle that shows off how awesome Star Trek was at having dramatic action even when the effects weren't up to the task. They weren't needed.
Kirk naturally saves the ship while McCoy saves Spock and Sarek, so there's happy endings all around.

In spite of the fact that McCoy and Amanda do a 180-degree about face on the operation, I really like the episode. Mark Lenard and Jane Wyman are Sarek and Amanda. The interplay between Spock and his parents is good stuff and Kirk's handling of the battle is classic. Journey to Babel is good Trek.

There's no new music for this episode, but you'll hear a healthy dose of tracked selections from Amok Time, The Doomsday Machine and others.

Next up, is A Private Little War.