Friday, January 27, 2017

Life Under a Double Star

You've all seen the iconic image: Luke Skywalker on Tatooine, gazing into the sky at two suns. That's George Lucas's way of whacking us over the head with a two-by-four -- "Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Tunisia anymore."

Could life actually exist on a planet orbiting a binary star? Ivan Shevchenko has recently made an extraordinary claim -- he argues, in this paper, that life is actually more likely to develop around binary stars than around a single star like our Sun. In Shevchenko's view, we are the weird ones, while life on planets like Tatooine should be common. 

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Gilligan's Island: Time-Shifting your Children's Popular Culture

A bit off the topic of this blog, but I have an article at National Review Online about raising children in the current cultural milieu; you can read it here. Neither my background in science nor in science fiction qualifies me to write the article; it's based on my experience in raising six children.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Television Science Fiction Trivia Question

Lost in Space premiered when I was six, which is probably the optimal viewing age for that show. (Talking vegetables, anyone?)  So naturally I was hooked. I was a bit too young for Star Trek when it appeared the following year, but, like many others, I became a fan of the show after it went into syndication -- it remains my favorite television SF series.

So here's today's trivia question: one of the main actors from Lost in Space and one from the original Star Trek appeared together as regulars in a later science fiction television series. Which one was it?

The answer is Babylon 5 (1994-98).  Bill Mumy (danger, Will Robinson) appeared as a sort of acolyte for the main character from one of the alien races, while Walter (nuclear wessels) Koenig played a rather sinister telepath. The latter was a much more interesting role than Koenig's character on Star Trek. (And just where, exactly, did Koenig get his Russian accent? He was constantly pronouncing his v's as w's -- "wodka" instead of "vodka" -- while a real Russian would do just the opposite.  And don't get me started on the name "Chekhov." When I later studied Russian literature, I could never take that particular writer seriously).

Babylon 5, unusually for television at the time, had a long-term story arc, although unlike many SF shows, the writers appear to have planned ahead and did not end up writing themselves into an unresolvable corner (see, e.g., Lost). The final resolution of the story arc seemed a bit too abrupt, and the last of the five seasons felt very much tacked-on (it was tacked-on -- there was doubt whether the show would be renewed for a final season), but all in all it's an excellent series -- my second-favorite SF television show.

Bonus:  June Lockhart, who played Will Robinson's mother, also appeared in a single episode of Babylon 5. And there were several other shows employing actors from both Star Trek and Lost in Space. One was The Twilight Zone, which featured quite a few actors from both series, but then again, everyone and his brother appeared on that show. And another was Bonanza, which featured, at various times, Leonard Nimoy, James Doohan, and DeForest Kelley from Star Trek and the actors who portrayed Zachary Smith and Will Robinson's father from Lost in Space. Now that's just weird.

Friday, January 13, 2017

A Relic of the Big Bang (Not)

Helium is the only element produced in large quantities in the early universe. About 25% of the "ordinary" matter in the universe is in the form of helium, and it was almost all produced when the universe was only a few minutes old and very, very hot (about a billion degrees).

So does this mean that when you buy a helium balloon at the grocery story, you're holding a bit of the Big Bang right in your hands? Unfortunately, no. The helium for our balloons doesn't come from the early universe at all -- it comes from Texas.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Vera Rubin and Dark Matter

Somewhat lost amid all of the publicity over the deaths of Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds was the death, on Christmas day, of Vera Rubin. Vera was one of the most influential cosmologists of her generation, and a legitimate contender for the Nobel Prize. I only met her once, at a conference at Irvine in the early 1990s.  (Tom Hanks was there as well -- evidently he was thinking of making a movie about cosmologists but decided we were too boring.  A wise decision).