Happy Holidays, Everyone

Happy holidays. I would like to post more often next year. We shall see.

Today I finished reading (again) one of my favorite books, The Hobbit. I hope you all are reading, too.


Space Movies… 2013

I discovered that I’d written this last year and never posted it. Well, here it is. I think Europa Report is still on Netflix, if you’d like to check it out.


Europa: Let’s go there.

When Gravity hit theaters, friends asked me if I was going to see it. I knew from the onset that I would not, did not want to see it. The more I heard about Gravity, the more it sounded like a disaster movie in space. I have never enjoyed disaster movies—I can’t derive satisfaction or stimulation from seeing one person or a handful of people survive xyz horrible thing while many other people suffer and die. I do not want to see that play out in space or anywhere else.

Last year [aka 2013] I did, however, see and for the most part enjoy Europa Report. Set in the near future, this film tells the story of a human mission to Europa, a jovian moon that has the potential to support life. Six explorers are chosen for the crew of Europa One. They set out on their journey, travel farther than any human has gone, and… lose contact with Earth. Europa Report is presented as footage filmed before, during, and after the mission’s launch—including the last transmission from Europa One, received on Earth months after communication with the mission dissolved.

Europa Report places its characters in harrowing crises and bitter isolation. But it’s different from Gravity because Europa Report ponders the mystery of life beyond Earth and explores the lengths that humans can or should go to in order to solve that mystery. Pointedly, crewmember Rosa asks,

Compared to the breadth of knowledge yet to be known, what does your life actually matter?

Though I haven’t seen Gravity, I get the vibe that it doesn’t touch on such matters. Gravity seems to focus on really dreadful things happening—and human resourcefulness to survive such things. The latter has merit. If you liked Gravity, I’m ok with that. I’m glad a space movie made such an impact in 2013. But it isn’t my thing.

Mind you, Europa Report is not perfect. It drags sometimes. It employs a few tiresome tropes, and a few of the crises feel manufactured. The one thing I would absolutely change is the amount of static, blurry, or garbled screen moments. The static expresses Europa One’s difficulty transmitting and its eventual loss of contact with Earth. But there’s too much of it in the film. We get the point, folks. Static. We get it. Just tell the story.

But to end with some additional positive notes: The imagery in Europa Report is fantastic—Jupiter and its satellites are some of the most beautiful and freaky objects in our solar system. The movie whets one’s appetite for future jovian missions, robotic and human.

Also, through my work I have developed a strong appreciation for international missions. Thus I found the diverse cast in Europa Report satisfying; it added depth and reflected the reality of modern space exploration.

Artist's concept of the europan surface. Thanks, artist.

Artist’s concept of the europan surface. Thanks, artist.

If you haven’t checked out the images full size, click on them now. They are awesome.

Top image: Freckled Europa. Image credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona/University of Colorado

Bottom image: Simulated View from Europa’s Surface (Artist’s Concept). Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Nothing I do will ever be this awesome.

Over the holidays, I began reading Return of the King again. And I realized that, no matter what I do, I will never be as awesome as this guy.

Tall and proud he seemed again; and rising in his stirrups he cried in a loud voice, more clear than any there had ever heard a mortal man achieve before:

Arise, arise, Riders of Théoden!
Fell deeds awake: fire and slaughter!
spear shall be shaken, shield be splintered,
a sword-day, a red day, ere the sun rises!
Ride now, ride now! Ride to Gondor!

With that he seized a great horn from Guthláf his banner-bearer, and he blew such a blast upon it that it burst asunder. (pp 819–820)

He blew on a horn and it exploded! And he shouted out epic poetry in a voice more clear (clearer?) than anyone ever.

. . .
Tolkien, J.R.R. (1994) The Return of the King, Houghton Mifflin Company, New York. ISBN 0-618-00224-3

Astrobiology Valentines

Thermophiles are red.
Psychrophiles are blue.
Endoliths rock,
and so do you!

Last night I seized on the idea of Valentines for astrobiologists. I think these ought to exist. So I took the time to compose a few. Note that these are based on the knowledge a copy editor has gleaned from years of reading astrobiology articles. I’m not a legit astrobiologist, so the science might be shaky.

By the way, in my little poem above, I don’t mean to reinforce the stereotype that hot things are red and cold things are blue. Thermophiles, psychrophiles—you can be whatever color you want to be!

More astrobiology Valentines:
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NASA’s Day of Remembrance

Charles Bolden 2014January 31 is NASA’s Day of Remembrance. Please take some time out of your day to learn about those we remember: http://www.nasa.gov/externalflash/DOR2014/index.html. In the name of space exploration, they made the ultimate sacrifice. We think of them and thank them.

The photo was taken last Friday at Arlington National Cemetary. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden laid a wreath in memory of the men and women who lost their lives. Image credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls.


I don’t give book cover blurbs much credence, but Howard Zinn’s last sentence on the back of Logicomix sums up the novel’s worth well:

The book is a rare intellectual and artistic achievement, which will, I am sure, lead its readers to explore realms of knowledge they thought were forbidden to them.

This is true. Generally, I find mathematics, logic, philosophy, and computer science daunting—though I appreciate their value to the world and find the structure inherent in them compelling. Logicomix offers entry into a realm of complex ideas, making them accessible while at the same time driving home how intense these ideas can be (the “Notebook” in the back of the book provides a taste of some pretty heavy stuff). I loved learning about set theory and grasping Russell’s paradox. I enjoyed contemplating infinity and was surprised to discover what a bane it can be to mathematicians. I was impressed by the Incompleteness theorem. I glimpsed what it was like to conceive of the first computers.

Logicomix is a fascinating graphic novel, well written and illustrated. It jumps between the present and past and is narrated both by the novel’s creators and by Bertrand Russell, whose biography serves as a backdrop for the novel’s ideas. Though not all incidents in the story occurred as described (see “Logicomix and reality” in the back of the book), readers are taken on a journey through the study of logic. This journey encompasses both intellect and emotion, leaving readers to ponder how pure logic and real life intermingle.

The authors describe Logicomix as “an epic search for truth” and “the quest for the foundations of mathematics.” Why then, use comics to tell of this quest? Explains coauthor Apostolos, “The form is perfect for stories of heroes in search of great goals.”

The heroes of the “quest” are fascinating people. Passionate… tortured. In fact, true superheroes! (p 22)

So we readers learn about those in search of “certain, absolute knowledge”: Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Kurt Gödel, John Von Neumann, and many more luminaries.

The passion, the human flame that ignites these scholars could lead to madness as well as clarity: the authors of Logicomix ponder the lives of David Hilbert, Gottlob Frege, Georg Cantor, and others who clutched so tightly their respective disciplines that they lost hold of compassion, humanity, or sanity. Thus the theme of “logic from madness” (or vice versa) is explored, the toll of passion and the ways in which even those most devoted to logic can become detached from it.

In addition, world events encroach on even the loftiest pursuits. Logicomix illustrates how two world wars formed or deformed intellectual pursuits, affecting for example Alan Turing, John Von Neumann, the Vienna Circle, and Bertrand Russell himself. Logicomix not only teaches the reader about important concepts, it also illustrates how our humanity is inseparable from our work and, for good or ill, accompanies all our efforts to attain truth.

. . .
Doxiadis, A., Papadimitriou, C.H., Papadatos, A., and Di Donna, A. (2009) Logicomix, Bloomsbury, New York.

Three Thoughts at a Time

What is it with threes? Is this a trend? If so, it must be an old trend by now, because these books came out several years ago. Still, when I arrived at a certain passage in When You Reach Me, it dawned on me that I’d encountered three books in which the protagonists made three discoveries. Wow. Me, I’m lucky if I can come up with one good idea every week or so.

The books in question are Twilight, Graceling, and When You Reach Me. For the sake of protecting anyone who hasn’t yet read When You Reach Me (see my previous post), I will share quotes after the jump. Note that there is also a minor spoiler for Graceling.
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