Friday, October 24, 2014

Moon of Saturn may have water

Time now again for Science Friday, ESE style.

It has been jokingly referred to as "The Death Star."

Mimas, one of Saturn's smaller moons, has an enormous impact crater, granting it an appearance similar to that of the giant space station from Star Wars (the big crater looks like the dish-shaped opening for the planet-killing laser get the idea.) Aside from that, space scientists have found Mimas to be rather unremarkable.

Now the thinking is that Mimas may have water. Mimas wobbles significantly as it orbits Saturn. So much so that data obtained by the Cassini space probe suggests that there must something in the moon's core to cause such a wobble. It is strongly suspected that this "something" is an ocean of liquid water cloistered within Mimas' center.

In a previous post, I blogged about a study that found that over 50% of Earth's water actually came from space, suggesting that water itself is likely more plentiful in the universe than we might have originally suspected. The oceanic core of Mimas, though not conclusively proven yet, would be a moon-sized glop of evidence heaped onto that line of thinking.

Of course whenever we talk about water in space, there is a certain accompanying level of excitement. Our myopic tendencies bring us to the axiom "where there is water, there is life." I could go on to explain how that's a narrow means of thinking, but that would take away from a post on Mimas. Suffice to say that the chances of life in the center of that Saturn moon are very slim, but this finding is significant in and of itself.

And it would further demonstrate how little we know about our own solar system as well as tantalize us with the prospects of further discoveries in the vast cosmos.

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Thursday, October 23, 2014

Captain Marvel

I have been reading a lot of Captain Marvel comic books lately.

Whenever you say that to a comic book geek, you typically need to clarify just which character you mean. DC Comics has a Captain Marvel known colloquially even if erroneously as "Shazam." Marvel Comics has several characters with said name. Me? Well, there's only one in my eyes.

It was 1977 and I was in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Spent the summer there as my Dad was at an academic conference. That was where I saw Star Wars for the first time. It was also where I had my first Slurpee at a 7-11. At the time, such frozen concoctions were being sold in superhero collector cups. The cup I selected was one featuring a comic book hero that I had actually never seen before. He was clad in red and blue, which seems to be a standard superhero color scheme, had a frock of blond hair, and was flying through space. Clearly, this Captain Marvel was a science fiction superhero.

And he looked really cool.

In time I would learn his history. His real identity was Mar-Vell, a military officer of the alien Kree Empire. Loyal ESE readers who suffered through my long dissection of the Kree-Skrull War know this already and no doubt it comes with a pang of misery. Think it was rough for you to read? Imagine blogging it. But I digress...

Mar-Vell came to Earth as part of a Kree detachment. His task was to infiltrate human society and evaluate whether or not Earth is a threat to the Kree Empire. What better place to do this than Cape Kennedy? As he carries out his mission, however, Mar-Vell begins to admire humanity (for reasons that pass understanding) and he gradually comes to believe that it is the Kree who are in the wrong. This earns him the branding of "traitor" and lifelong animosity from his own people. So Captain Marvel makes the best of it on Earth. He wears his original green and white, 1950s-style "space cadet" outfit and uses his enhanced strength and endurance as well as sophisticated technology to defend all of humanity from supervillainous threats.

He eventually gets the costume pictured above and I actually think that's an improvement. The issues I've been going through have him teaming up with Drax the Destroyer (name should ring a bell if you saw Guardians of the Galaxy this past summer) and fighting Kree sentries and super criminals such as The Living Laser. It was one particular battle though that made Captain Marvel rather unique in all of comic books.

In taking on a super criminal named Nitro, Captain Marvel needed to disarm a bomb before it went off and dispersed a nerve gas called "Compound 13" across a populated area. He is successful in doing so but in the process comes into contact with Compound 13. An antidote is administered and Marvel suffers only exiguous effects.

Or so he thinks.

Captain Marvel eventually learns that the Compound 13 gave him cancer. Even for a superhero, there would be no stopping the disease. You see, Marvel wears bracelets called "nega-bands" which are a source of his power. They slow the cancer from spreading but they also cause him to resist all treatments. Damned if he does, damned if he doesn't. Even the advanced technology on Saturn's moon of Titan is of no help. Therefore, across the span of a year or so of comic book time, Captain Marvel slowly faces death the same way as any mortal would and finally succumbs to it. All this is brilliantly depicted by Jim Starlin in The Death of Captain Marvel.

Perhaps this is Captain Marvel's ultimate appeal for me. Despite his heroic nature and the fact that yes, he looked cool and could do cool things, he was just as vulnerable as the rest of us. How often have you heard, "What did that superhero die from? Oh, lost a long, drawn-out battle with cancer. So sad." And so real. There's more than a touch of humanity to Captain Marvel and that's saying something given that he's a Kree. In the end none of his powers mattered. He still faced the same sort of death that the rest of us do.

Face it he did. With grace, with calm, and with dignity.

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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Great Martian War

I forget when exactly it aired (last spring?) but I remembered my mixed reaction when I saw it.

It was a two-hour BBC program called The Great Martian War. It was all shot "mockumentary" style with actors portraying historians and survivors of a conflict called "The Martian Invasion of 1913." So you guessed it. It was a mash-up of World War I and War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells.

The 1913 portrayed in the mock-documentary is much the same as that of our actual historical reality. All of Europe is itchy and twitchy as it appears Germany is girding itself for war. So when a massive explosion booms out from the Black Forest, the world naturally assumes that Bismarck has tested a superweapon. That line of thought all changes when the German government sends out a telegram begging for help, stating that a "cylinder" full of alien war machines is laying waste to the nation.

And things just begin to deteriorate from there. The Martians (as they are somehow determined to be) have ominous technology at their disposal. There are the "Herons," towering tripod war machines much like the kind Wells described in his novel. There are the "Spiders," which are smaller versions of the Herons and act rather as the foot soldiers to the Herons battlefield commanders (more on that in a moment.) Perhaps most insidious of all are the "Lice."

After the armies of Germany, France, and Britain engage the alien enemy, they find themselves losing. After all, infantry and cavalry are no real match for what geeks might recognize as essentially "battle mechs." It's a slaughter. Perhaps even more disturbing than the carnage is the fact that the morning after a large-scale engagement, the battlefield is utterly barren. There is no wreckage. There is no debris. Creepiest of all, there are no bodies. Survivors tell the camera that they at first speculated that Martians took the bodies during the night for nefarious purposes. In a way, yes.

The Lice, stubby, crawly robots, move across the battlefield and devour whatever is in their path. They take what is useful to the Martians, namely things made of metal or composed of crude electrical components, and then discard the rest. "The rest" in this case being the corpses of humans and horses. They were ground up and dispersed back into the soil. The inorganic material became raw resources for the Martian military to resupply itself. With this kind of self-sustaining supply line added to advanced technology and firepower, the area under Martian control grew to extend as far north as Denmark, as far south as Italy, and westward into France.

The seas are no picnic, either. Just like in the real World War I, the United States and Canada encounter deadly lurkers in the deep as the two nations attempt to move men and supplies across the Atlantic. Instead of U-Boats, this time it's Martian robots "running silent, running deep."

Eventually, things start going right for the humans. Once a Heron steps on a landmine and is destroyed, the Spiders deactivate. Taking the hint, the Allies target the Herons as command and control figures. Additionally, a riff on the original Wells ending becomes the main reason that humans are able to turn things around. A Heron comes to an impotent stop in London. Inside it is a dead Martian who is found to have no resistance to the bacteria and viruses of Earth. Once again taking a hint, the Allies inflict the horse virus glanders upon the Martians. Sick and dying, the Martian advance utterly halts and the war is over.

A cool twist for history buffs is that this type of biological warfare forms a parallel to the Spanish Flu outbreak of 1918 where people begin to contract the virus and not just the Martians.  Instead of Wells' humility of humans being saved by the smallest of creation, however, we see a pavonine strutting of "oh humans are so strong" that left a bad taste in my mouth.

I'm left wondering just what the motivation was for this mock-documentary. It's a unique concept, yes, but where were the producers going with it? It's a quality production. I mean, you're not going to get anything less than that from the BBC, but it's just odd. It's almost as if it's too small in scope to be a feature event and not fully-developed enough to become a series. There is a springboard for a series (what that would look like I have no idea) in the sense that the recovered Martian technology called "victicite" has made it into the contemporary electronics of the world of the documentary. There is an insinuation that victicite might actually be biotech with a sense of sentience. Is it trying to make us into Martians?

Who the hell knows. They don't tell us.

This is not to say that The Great Martian War isn't worth a look online or the next time you see it listed on BBC. If you like history or if you like science fiction or if you're like me and you like both, this is one to see. Just don't expect much more than entertainment.

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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Mars is a work of art

People often ask why I am so fascinated with Mars.

These are often woodsy, earthbound types who either can't consider anything outside of this world to be of interest or they hear the word "astronomy" and instantly think "data and scholarly articles." The conventions of realpolitik often keep me from telling them to snork off, but if I feel I absolutely must answer the question, I have many reasons to give. Now, I can thankfully refer such inquisitors to this article at io9.

In one composite image you can see the strange landscape of Mars in all of its diverse, geological splendor. There are the remains of avalanches, carvings made in rock by floods (water on Mars!) and marks in the rusty-copper soil from fierce winds. Speaking of winds, you can see dunes shaped by them as well. You can also see craters, scars from where meteorites made it in past Mars' atmosphere. Together they create a mosaic effect worthy of the canvas of any landscape artist.

The images come from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Obviously many of the photographs are not the actual color of the Red Planet. For a detailed technical explanation of just why this is, click on the above link. As one particularly geeky reader of io9 (is there any other kind?) pointed out, the multicolor image gives the impression of a "patchwork planet," not unlike the Genesis planet from the original Star Trek film series.

Snow and sub-tropical vegetation in the same sector. Indeed.

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Monday, October 20, 2014

Film Review--Fire in the Sky

starring D.B. Sweeney, Robert Patrick, Henry Thomas, James Garner, Peter Berg, Craig Sheffer, and

Travis Walton (Sweeney) works to cut trees and clear brush in the town of Snowflake, Arizona. His crew of coworkers returns to town one day without Travis. They claim that they saw Travis taken aboard a UFO. Immediately the men are suspected of murder and a search begins for Travis' body. Travis, however, returns five days later...with a harrowing tale of alien abduction.

I saw this film when it first came out in 1993. At the time I greatly disliked it as the actual account of Travis Walton was egregiously "Hollywood-ized," as if dipped in a tub of H.R. Geiger and not allowed to dry (coming complete with abduction victims placed in slimy, membranous pods.) Seeing it with fresh eyes over the weekend, I began to find things that intrigued me, whether the filmmakers intended them to or not. For one thing, there is a scene where the bodies of what appear to be Gray aliens are dangling from cables. Walton, loose inside the UFO at this point, discovers they are not bodies at all. "Spacesuits," he gasps as he inspects them. This is somewhat reminiscent of the alien masks and armor depicted in Communion.

Outside of their suits, the aliens are shriveled and mummy-like. In fact, the entire spaceship is grimy and in a seeming state of perpetual corrosion. Combined with their own decrepit physique, the aliens just look like they've fallen on really hard times. They don't even seem to know why exactly they are taking people and performing torturous examinations upon them (you can watch that grisly moment in the abduction here.) Instead their victims are left terrified and bewildered...not at all unlike they are in real life I'm given to understand. While this all flies in the face of the "mythos narrative" of the abduction say nothing of what Travis Walton claimed actually brings up a few interesting points.

Must an alien race conform to our notions of "advanced?" True, they would by definition need to be "advanced" in order to traverse the mind-blowing distance, but might they not also be utterly pragmatic? No "clean rooms," no "cathedrals of light," just muddy, grimy reality? Or could this get back to the idea that they are not "Grays" or "aliens" at all in the conventional sense but rather metaphysical things? After all, what is originally thought to be a "Gray" turns out to be a facade, a hollow outer shell. Is the visage of the Gary a mask in and of itself? Or are these beings in the film ourselves from the future, humanity having been reduced to jaundiced and shriveled forms by our misapplication of science? Could it even be weirder, something along the lines of a hidden race eking out an existence while symbiotically needing our biological matter? Something along the lines of Mac Tonnies' "cryptoterrestrials?"

Of course, as I already pointed out, I highly doubt that the producers of this film intended any such speculation. They didn't even intend to accurately depict the Walton incident with any kind of real accuracy. So as a movie, the rest of it is serviceable at best. The acting is pretty much what you'd expect but James Garner is particularly good. Then again he was good in just about anything he did. In a quirky twist, Henry Thomas...Elliot from E.T. ...has a role, showing up once again in a movie about aliens.

That brings up an interesting question. Just where should one place Fire in the Sky on the cline of UFO-themed movies?  To be honest, I'm not exactly sure. While I'm still not a fan of it as a film per se, it still has me thinking days...even years...later.

There are movies I've thoroughly enjoyed that don't do that.

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Friday, October 17, 2014

Painting and "mommy groups:" findings on early humans

Time again for Science Friday.

Since I recently posted a...shall we say, contentious...theory of human origins, I thought that I would take a look at actual verified advancements in the field.

Like most kids, prehistoric life fascinated me during my formative years. This primarily means dinosaurs but I also enjoyed the Hollywood "lost world" milieu as seen on Skull Island in King Kong and the underground world of At the Earth's Core.  One glaring scientific inaccuracy (among many) that these settings featured was a duple depiction of Earth eras.  There were "cavemen" or loose-knit tribes of primitive humans that lived alongside the dinosaurs in a Flintstone's-like existence. Unless you're a fundy, you know that such cohabitations never happened and that any depictions thereof are for the purposes of pulpy entertainment only (granted the native islanders of King Kong were not "cavemen" but the ethno-insensitivity of the times made them transparent stand-ins, I would argue.) Fortunately, the realities of what early hominids were like are far more interesting and multi-faceted than their cheesy Hollywood reflections.

It is now speculated that mothers among early hominids raised their young collectively. "Momma groups," so to speak. Examining already existing research, a team consisting of academics from Harvard, the University of Utah, and the University of California have found that mothers of those species began to give birth to larger babies. These children were also more dependent. It is therefore thought that they could not have been raised alone and "care networks" of sorts formed between mothers.

Doesn't surprise me. We're constantly told (especially by corporate leaders and conservatives it would seem) that our natural, Darwinian state is one of survival of the fittest and kill or be killed. Yes, there is truth to that both with humans and elsewhere in nature. However we neglect the numerous examples where organisms cooperate in order to survive. Not only survive but to prosper as a matter of fact. This is yet another case of that and the fact that it was women who were the pioneers likewise does not surprise me. It would seem that they would naturally see the strength and advantage in collectivism. I'll just drop it here before someone gets bent out of shape about "It takes a village..."

Elsewhere, what are thought to be the world's oldest examples of human art have been found. The insides of a cave of Indonesia showcases a montage of water buffalo, warthogs, and even handprints rendered in ochre, a reddish natural pigment. At least a few of these are thought to be 40,000 years old. Stylistically, the depictions are similar to those found in Europe, the previous crown-holder for the oldest-known human art. Primal humans were painting what they saw, namely wild animals. As they no doubt were sources of sustenance, they loomed large in human existence. I am also intrigued by the handprints. To me, they suggest a search for identity. "I am aware I exist and I'm trying to figure out why. In the meantime, I mark my place here." Just my thoughts.

In a similar vein, I'm wondering if we are about to find that humanity, in one form or another, has been around much longer they we've ever suspected. Discoveries such as this those in the caves keeps overturning the previous paradigm. How sophisticated were we? Well...I don't think I'm ready to say that there were advanced civilizations lost to us by flood or something (e.g. Atlantis), but you have to wonder.

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