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?


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.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Blue Whale!

My wife and I went whale watching out of San Diego on Thursday. It was our first whale watch since our cruise to Alaska in 2013. While we saw humpback whales that time, I wasn't exactly sure what we might catch this time around. San Diego Whale Watch maintains a tote board with the count of what they've seen over the past few days and I noticed that just the day before they encountered a blue whale. I was hoping that we might have similar luck as I've always wanted to see one.
For a while though, it wasn't looking too good, as sea lions and pelicans (along with a few puking whale watchers) being the highlights.
We did catch a few dolphins, but not in large numbers. Just when I thought that the trip was going to be a total bust, we spotted a blue whale. Blue whales are not only the largest of the whales, they are the largest mammal on Earth. They are dinosaur sized.
It is hard to get a sense of scale from the photo above or below, but they are huge--close to 100 feet long and weighing some 150 tons.
Blue whales were heavily hunted and brought to the brink of extinction until such practices were banned in the 1960s, which was why I never thought that I might someday see one.
We got to see it at the surface three times. I caught it going under twice. Once was from fairly far away, but the first time was at a perfect distance. Here's how it looked:
Everyone was pretty happy seeing that. (Note: I used GifMaker for combining the frames.) Here's a crop on one of the frames:
Notice the markings near the whale's fluke. We were told that those were signs of the whale having been injured by a boat some years ago. It certainly makes for distinctive markings today, but I am sure that it wasn't a pleasant experience for the whale when it happened. All-in-all, it was an amazing trip and I'm very happy to have had the chance to see this majestic blue whale.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

The Asteroids of Science Fiction

Jack McDevitt, one of my favorite science fiction writers, was recently honored by having an asteroid named for him.
328305 JackMcDevitt is a main-belt asteroid (located between Mars and Jupiter) that on average lies 2.55 astronomical units (237 million miles) from the Sun and has an orbital period of 4.08 years.

Note the number 328305. Asteroids are named by their order of discovery. The first one found was 1 Ceres (back in 1801) and now we are up to more than 328,305 of them that have been discovered. That's a lot of asteroids!

The naming of this asteroid for Jack McDevitt got me to wondering what other science fiction authors have asteroids named for them. I decided to find out which authors from my science collection have asteroids. So this isn't a comprehensive list, but rather one that reflects my reading preferences:

230765 Alfbester
5020 Asimov
9766 Bradbury
4923 Clarke
5748 DaveBrin
25924 DouglasAdams
10177 Ellison
115561 FrankHerbert
196772 FritzLeiber
6371 Heinlein
328305 JackMcDevitt
12284 Pohl
127005 Pratchett
2675 Tolkien
5231 Verne

Yes, I included a few fantasy writers (Terry Pratchett and J.R.R. Tolkien) too. The list is much smaller than I thought it would be and I was surprised to find that other giants of the field, such as Gregory Benford, Philip K. Dick, Larry Niven or H.G. Wells*, do not have asteroids named for them. I left 21811 Burroughs off of the list because I don't think that I've ever actually read anything by Edgar Rice Burroughs.

There are of course other names from science fiction that could have been added such as 4659 Roddenberry and 9777 Enterprise, but I decided for now to focus on science fiction writers (Maybe asteroids of Star Trek will be a future post here).
Here are the orbits of the asteroids that are on my list as seen from directly above the solar system. The orbital planes of the major planets are all very nearly aligned, but that's not true for the asteroids. The parts of their orbits that lie below the plane of Earth's orbit (known the ecliptic) are shown in dark blue while the lighter color shows where in their orbits they are above this plane.

A view from the side shows this more clearly:
In this case I didn't include all the asteroids on the list. Instead, it only shows the ones with orbits that have a significant tilt with respect to Earth's orbit.

There are a few astronomers who have written science fiction that have asteroids named for them, but the main reason for their having been honored with an asteroid was due to their work in astronomy rather than for their work in literature. Those include:

2709 Sagan which was named for the late, great astronomer Carl Sagan author of the wonderful science fiction novel Contact; 3341 Hartmann for planetary scientist and artist William K. Hartmann who wrote the under appreciated Mars Underground; and 8077 Hoyle for astronomer Fred Hoyle who wrote or co-wrote more than a dozen (mostly not-so-great) science fiction novels.

I assembled these images from the plots available at the JPL Small-Body Database Browser and I used various sources (including the books on my bookshelves and the Minor Planet Center's Minor Planet Names: Alphabetical List ) to compile the list of science fiction authors who have had asteroids named for them.

*Note: 17458 Dick is named for an astronomer, 12513 Niven was named for a mathematician and 1721 Wells was named for a university administrator.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Two Cool New Astro Books

It has been a good year for reading so far. Regular readers of my blog may have noticed that I've got the books I've recently read on the right sidebar of the blog under my recent tweets.

I finally got around to reading Hampton Sides' book In the Kingdom of the Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette. It was amazing and terrifying and I couldn't put it down. I also recently read William Shatner's surprisingly moving book about Leonard Nimoy: Leonard: My Fifty-Year Friendship with a Remarkable Man. If you are a Star Trek fan, it is a must read.

In the realm of astronomy and space exploration (where my mind is much of the time), two books recently published are very much worth your time.

David Eicher's new book (it published late last year, but was very hard to get for a while) The New Cosmos: Answering Astronomy's Big Questions is an amazingly fact-filled look at modern astronomy. As the editor of Astronomy magazine, Dave has a front row seat and great perspective on all that's new and recently changed in the world of astronomy.

Dave gives an amazingly in-depth look at many of the big topics in modern astronomy including black holes, the fate of life on Earth (spoiler: it wont last as long as you might think), dark matter & dark energy, the size and scale of the universe, the fate of the universe and much more. As technical as this sounds, Dave still manages to interject his sense of humor and personal reflections on how the science has changed during his more than three decades working at Astronomy magazine. It's a great book if you need an update on the field of astronomy, but it would certainly work well for someone that just getting started with it too.
Not an astronomy book, Infinity Beckoned is instead a history of the robotic exploration of the solar system that focuses on the men and women that made it happen. Jay Gallentine clearly put an amazing amount of effort into digging up the inside information and personal stories of what was an amazing time in history of exploration. Tales of the Soviet Lunokhod lunar rover drivers, the Viking missions' search for life and the Soviet Venera missions to Venus left the biggest impressions on me, but the book is a wonderful history of robotic exploration. This is the second book in this series. Jay Gallentine's previous book Ambassadors From Earth looked at missions such as Sputnik, Explorer and the Voyager probes to the outer solar system, and while I enjoyed that one too, for me, Infinity Beckoned was even better.  

Friday, March 4, 2016

Star Trek: The Ultimate Computer

It's time for me to look at another episode of the original Star Trek series. Today, it is:

The plot behind The Ultimate Computer is as relevant today as it was when it first aired in 1968. In the episode a computer capable of running and commanding a starship is installed on the Enterprise for a series of tests, making Kirk fearful of losing his command. As McCoy explains, "Jim, we've all seen the advances of mechanization...We're all sorry for the other guy when he loses his job to a machine. When it comes to your job, that's different."

Yes, machines have been taking people's jobs since the beginning of the industrial revolution and if recent predictions of artificial intelligences causing massive unemployment come to pass, then we'll see a radically different world come into being. As it is, computers and robots are already working as journalists, replacing cashiers and are or will soon be performing a wide variety of jobs.

As the episode begins Commodore Wesley comes aboard to explain that the Enterprise crew will be removed to test the M-5 computer's ability to handle "a series of routine research and contact problems... plus navigational maneuvers and the war games problem."
"You've got a great job, Jim. All you have to do is sit back and let the machine do the work."

We all know how much Kirk loves uppity computers, as the Kirk vs. Computer theme is one of the classic TOS episode types. Just take a look at The Return of the Archons, The Changeling,  or even I, Mudd.

Even Spock isn't too crazy about the idea, telling us: "Computers make excellent and efficient servants, but I have no wish to serve under them. Captain the starship also runs on loyalty to one man, and nothing can replace it, or him."
Soon Kirk meets Dr. Richard Daystrom, the designer of the Multitronic Unit, M-5, that's being installed on board. Daystrom was played by the wonderful William Marshall who delivered a superb performance.
Before 2001: A Space Odyssey introduced the world to HAL-9000, Star Trek gave us M-5.

Daystrom and Kirk have stormy working relationship from the very beginning that soon spirals out of control. M-5 first makes good decisions on investigating a planet and then in an unscheduled war games drill before running into problems.
First Scotty becomes concerned as power is being turned off across the ship, but Daystrom explains that power isn't needed in those areas, as they are unoccupied and that M-5 "pulls more power to enable it to do what is required of it, just as the human body draws more energy to run than to stand still."
All is proceeding according to plan until M-5 goes out of its way to destroy an automated ore-freighter (which should look very familiar, as it's the same model that was used for the Botany Bay in Space Seed).
Kirk uses this opportunity to put M-5 "out of a job", but M-5 establishes a force field around itself and when they try to pull the plug on it....
Zap! An engineering Red Shirt bites the dust. 
 Further attempts to disable M-5 are unsuccessful before the scheduled battle drill commences. 
The attacking battle fleet goes in expecting the Enterprise to be firing at 1/100th power, but M-5 fires phasers and photon torpedoes at full power. It doesn't go well for the attacking ships.
In typical Star Trek fashion damaged ships are portrayed as looking like boats that are taking on water.
Finally, Daystrom then talks to M-5 to explain things: "You're killing, we are killing, murdering human beings. Beings of our own kind. You were not created for that purpose. You are my greatest creation. The unit to save men. You must not destroy men...You must not die. Men must not die. To kill is a breaking of civil and moral laws we've lived by for thousands of years. You've murdered hundreds of people. We've murdered."
Eventually though, Daystrom and M-5 each have a bit of a meltdown. Spock takes care of Daystrom.
And Kirk talks M-5 into a coma leaving the Enterprise vulnerable to attack from the remaining starships from the drill. Kirk takes a gamble that the attacking ships wont go after the Enterprise when it looks defenseless and it naturally pays off. We end with a bit of verbal sparring between McCoy and Spock about the value of computers and all is well (unless you were on one of the starships M-5 attacked).

The Ultimate Computer might not make anyone's top ten list but it is good Trek. Its core story very much works, but like a lot of Star Trek tech (except for perhaps warp drive and transporters) it's only failing is that it likely isn't visionary enough. The computer age will be here long before the 23rd Century.

Love it or hate it, the next one up is The Omega Glory.