Pamela left Fraser behind (with sorrow) and took on Dragon*Con and the facts (or lack there of) in Science Fiction. Helping her out were special guests Phil Plait and Kevin Grazier.
Real people discussed
Real Science Discussed:
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Dr. Pamela Gay: This is our second anniversary edition coming to you live from Dragon Con in Atlanta, Georgia, USA. I am here [Applause - Cheers] with the wonderful Drs. Phil Plait and Kevin Grazier. How are you guys doing?
Dr. Plait & Dr. Grazier: Cool, great…..We’re at the only place here that’s cool. It’s like sweltering out there.
Pamela: It is about 100 degrees in each room and each room is filled with a bunch of IR radiation systems called human beings. They are all happily heating the room up large amounts. But, we are not here to discuss IR radiation today. Well, we could but we have to tie it in to the realms of science fiction TV, movies and books.
We’re going to start with what gets done right and move on to what is done wrong. And those of you who saw Phil Plait speaking earlier, already got a hint of some of the things that are really bad in the Universe of bad Astronomy. [Laughter]
Dr. Phil Plait: All of them.
Pamela: Not all, because we have Kevin Grazier who is a ????? 2:03 scientist working on studying Saturn at the Jet Propulsion Labs in California. Besides having a really cool day job, he also helps make sure that there are a few TV shows out there that do a few things right. I’m going to give him a chance to brag about what he will.
Dr. Kevin Grazier: Thanks. We have an hour right? [Laughter] In what passes for my spare time, I also work as the Science Advisor on the TV series Battlestar Galactica and Eureka, an upcoming show called Virtuality and also [laughter] Phil and I both work on a children’s animated series, a science education series called the Zula Patrol.
Pamela: For those of you who are out in the pod casting audience who cannot hear the audience of this room, I’m going to remind this room’s audience there is a microphone, Swoopy has the microphone, save your snarky comments for when she walks up to you and hands you the microphone.
Snarky comments allowed but they must be amplified and recorded. We had a wonderful man who is not quite five years old say, “Oh, Zula Patrol,” which is what both Kevin and Phil work on.
Phil: The Zula Patrol is a science-based program for little kids. Actually Kevin was one of the Science Advisors. We met at World Con and then Dragon Con two years ago. He asked me if I wanted to be on the show and so after awhile I got on too.
Kevin: Well actually I met Phil at World Con and then struck up a conversation and you are….and so.
Phil: Yeah, that was funny. I just sat down and we started talking and decided we have a lot in common. Except he does a lot more shows than I do.
Kevin: And having spoken to Phil and realizing he’s a pretty reasonable guy and I’ve been to his website and pointed hundreds of people to it in the past, we had another Science Advisor on Zula at the time that I didn’t get along with very well and I suggested that maybe one of us needed to go. And the show is now a lot better for Phil’s input.
Phil: It’s actually quite fun doing that sort of thing. I was quite surprised.
Pamela: So what this brings up is the fact that there are TV shows out there with writers who are willing to say “Hey, I write really well, maybe not so well with the science.”
What is the process by which TV shows decide they need a Science Advisor and go out and hunt a PhD, hire them to get things right and how are you able to herd the writers into doing things that work?
Kevin: Wow that’s a long question. Well, you know how Phil got the job, but for me, when I was in graduate school, a buddy of mine and I weren’t really happy with the first couple of seasons of Star Trek Voyager. We thought it had so much potential and we decided to write a script and sent it in. Long story short, seven months later we were invited to come in and pitch stories.
They said we love your script, going in a direction we don’t really want to go with the series (which I should point out they eventually did) [Laughter] So we pitched a few times primarily to two people, one named Brian Fuller who is known for “Pushing Daisies” and “Dead Like Me”. Another was Michael Taylor who is now on the writing staff for both Galactica and Virtuality.
I got to know them and stayed in contact a little bit and when Galactica came on-line, Brian was having lunch with Ron Moore (for fellow Trekalons, Ron is executive producer of Battlestar) and Brian said if you need a Science Advisor, I know this guy at JPL. They called me in and essentially hired me on the spot. They gave me the first two scripts, gave m the series Bible. Then a few days later Richard Hatch who had been a buddy of mine for about seven years at the time, [Laughter]
Pamela: He was my first childhood crush.
Phil: Not the guy from Survivor Richard Hatch?
Kevin: No, the Richard Hatch from Battlestar Galactica and I had been buddies for 7 or 8 years at the time. He had been in talking to Ron a few days later about his role as Tom Zarek on the new Galactica and Richard said to Ron, “Oh, by the way if you need a Science Advisor, I know this guy.” Ron said, “Oh no, we’re already talking to somebody.” And they were referring to the same person. So, that’s how I got on Galactica and then a little while later, Galactica and Eureka which is a new starting series, shared an office building – the Rock Hudson building – at Universal and all the writers were having a lunch, a little team building exercise or whatever.
The writers assistants were saying they had some technical issues that we have to deal with on Eureka, how do you get yours solved? The Galactica team replied, “We have this guy at JPL and an hour later I got a call and I’m on Eureka.” And also Virtuality simply because there are a lot of Galactica people who are doing Virtuality. As to Zula Patrol, it was even better. Somebody on a planetarium website said “Hey, they’re hiring a Science Advisor on this show called Zula Patrol.” I sent them an e-mail and told them what I do on Galactica.
By the time I got home I had a phone message on every phone I owned, e-mails, and I interviewed the next day. It was actually very amusing because Zula is about a lot of things Science, dedicated to principles of non-violence and worthwhile goals. It teaches more than just Science. It teaches good values. And so they asked me to come in at 0800 next morning for an interview and asked me to bring some of my notes [Laughter] from Galactica. Now, if you’ve seen Galactica, it’s not a child-friendly show.
So I think I had taught that night so I couldn’t go back to JPL and get notes that are on my computer at work. I had to rely on what’s on my home computer. Our fourth episode was about a flight deck accident and there was a scene (that originally got cut) where Chief Tyrol was referring to during the investigation he said he’d never had a death on his flight deck. He was talking about a guy who got sucked into a Viper turbine and how he lost a leg but he never had a death.
This was the only set of notes that I had. [Laughter] So, as I’m interviewing for the producer of the show dedicated to things like non-violence she said at the very beginning of the interview, which was going very well and I’m hoping that she doesn’t ask for any notes, she says, “Do you have the Galactica notes you’ve written?” Oh, here. “Oh, thank you.” [Laughter]
Pamela: The look on Kevin’s face depicts a woman getting more and more disturbed as she reads.
Kevin: That was pretty much it. But, they hired me anyway. The rest is as they say history.
Pamela: So you’re working with a group of writers, what sort of educational backgrounds do a lot of these people have? Do they come from science backgrounds? Do they come from writing backgrounds? Are they people who just started writing out of High School?
Kevin: They’re usually from writing backgrounds, the creative, right-brained people. Certainly on Zula our writers are right-brainers who are increasingly educating themselves. On Galactica we have a very dramatic range of people. Some are really into science, in particular Bradley Thompson, David Wettle who are both very scientifically oriented. They consult me early on but they have a good idea of what they want to do from the onset.
We have other writers who aren’t really scientifically oriented and they are more character oriented. Usually when they write a script there’s not that much tech in them because it’s a character-oriented story. But we have some people on Galactica who are technically oriented. On Eureka, again same thing we have some people who are really into the tech and some who are into character and sometimes they overlap and sometimes they don’t.
Pamela: How often do they come and how much do you get this on Zula as well that they come to you with this really great script that is physically impossible no matter how you try to manipulate technology, physics won’t allow it? How do you deal with circumstances like that to prevent your shows from becoming Armageddon? [Laughter]
Phil: Keep Michael Bay away from them. [Laughter] I think that the first rule on Zula, the show itself is Science-based but it’s an educational program so there are various topics. We’ll have episodes about Planets and different Astronomy topics but also Ecology, Oceanography, History, Paleontology, all sorts of topics.
So, instead of having one Science Advisor like Battlestar can get away with it because typically it’s more of a Physics-based show if you want to call it that. Zula covers everything. So, there is a team of Science Advisors. I don’t even think we need two Astronomy Advisors, but who am I to argue since if they get rid of one, it’s gonna be me. [Laughter]
The scripts can run from anything so we actually have as opposed to a fiction show like Battlestar or Eureka, we have brainstorming sessions at the beginning of the season where all of the advisors come in and ask what topics do we have that we want to see covered? We would talk about them and have secondary topics.
Then those are handed to the writers and in fact, we covered last season a lot of the shows that we discussed. They put out a draft, a two-page summary then we get the first, second, fourth draft with all the changes in it. You see it evolving. I don’t think we had a single script that I looked at that I thought we couldn’t do, that it was totally wrong. There were some that had some basic errors but they were all fixable.
It is a fun process. We go back and forth, I would disagree with one of the Biologists on one topic but at some point I had to admit I’m an Astronomer so maybe I’ll back down. [Laughter] But Kevin and I didn’t agree on everything, but that’s okay, we worked it out. It’s like at some point one of us would decide it’s not that important. That was usually me.
Kevin: Not only that, it’s also that we tend to have complementary skills. While Phil is correct that we’ve covered a lot of Science at the same time it really is a Space Science show, more Space than anything else.
I’m a Planetary Scientist and Phil is a Stellar Astronomer, so there are areas where I wouldn’t even begin to question his advice and vise versa. It’s really powerful when we haven’t discussed something and we both come in with the exact same point and say, “This needs to be changed.”
Phil: All the Science Advisors get a draft and we make our edits and change the name with our initials after it or something so that when we send them back to the writers and producers they can keep everything straight.
There were a lot of times when I would see the notes: “Kevin and Phil both agree on this so we need to change it.” It’s awesome, it’s pretty cool. So, he goes out to Neptune and stops and then I take the rest of the Universe and it works out pretty well. It’s the only thing I’ve got on him because he’s doing all these other shows that I don’t want to do.
Kevin: And you should probably make sure you drink from closed bottles of water while you’re sitting next to me. There are those who never know what I’m going to put in your glass. You’re probably not going to get the opportunity to work on Battlestar. We’ve been done since June.
Pamela: Well if only the episodes would air SOON! All of us are quivering with anticipation and our hearts will explode if we wait.
Kevin: Well, your heart may explode when the season starts too.
Phil: Yeah, you know, I’ve known Kevin for a couple of years and he keeps dropping hints like that: “Wait until you see the episode three months from now!” Bite me. “We have an episode that may appeal to you,” he says. And I’m thinking okay, I’m guessing exploding star but that’s all I know and then finally that episode aired…..
Pamela: So tell me about the evolution of that wonderful star that led the way to so many coolnesses and ….14:50
Phil: La, la, la…..I haven’t seen that yet.
Pamela: Nevermind, moving on…We’re not going to spoil things for Phil. So they’re all down on the planet, standing there Temple, Star, and Super Nova in the painting. Tell us the evolution of that storyline from the scientific side.
Kevin: The scientific side of that was actually kind of fun. What happened is I had been asked to come into Universal to give a PowerPoint presentation to the writers of Galactica on potential signs and portents and things that would be good to find along the way and things that wouldn’t be so good.
For example: Constellations – bad. Constellations are so dramatically different from different orientations, different distances and things like that. We don’t want to be looking for Constellations. We do want to be looking for things like Pulsars. Pulsar is good. We find a Pulsar.
Clusters are hazardous. Clusters have a lot of radiation passing through – bad. I did this long presentation about good and bad and then afterwards I was sitting there talking to Bradley Thompson. I made the comment that you don’t have to have a Star a whole lot bigger than ours that the lifetime drops to about a billion years. Our Star will live ten billion years. We say it’s a medium size Star. It’s actually bigger than 95% of the Stars, it just happens to fall in the middle of the major diagram of how we classify Stars.
So our Star is actually fairly large, but it has a fairly long lifetime – 10 billion years. The lifetime of a Star equals one over Mass squared. If you get a little bit bigger than ours, you have a lifetime of about a billion years, which sounds a long time but it took 800 million years for life to spring up on Earth.
So, I wonder how many times in the history of our Galaxy has the first sign of bacteria, the first life to spring up on the Planet – we were here – BOOM is eradicated by a Super Nova. Or anyway it is eradicated by its Star. They go ooh. [Laughter]
You notice they land on the algae planet where they’re getting the algae and I will assume in that episode that any other form of vegetation was not indigenous. Maybe it was brought by the thirteenth tribe or whatever.
So, we have algae and we have hopes that the algae are eradicated by the exploding star. That actually off-handed comment became the two episodes: Rapture and I Jupiter.
Pamela: Very cool. So, I’m going to just assume that the things you guys work with are mostly correct and move on to ask hasn’t there been at least one time that you’ve lost to the writer? I mean on Eureka, there are things that I just sorta laugh at. I love the show, watch it regularly but it does cause giggling.
Phil??: Well, even the producer was talking about that. We did a panel with him and he was talking about one particular episode where the science wasn’t so good and even the plot was kinda silly.
Pamela: But that’s why you watch Eureka. It’s the anti-Battlestar Galactica.
Phil?: Particularly, the irony is for that particular episode Jaime Paglia was the episode where we have a bunch of Nanobots.
Kevin: I wasn’t going to bring up the exact episode…. [Laughter] but okay.
Phil: Well he said it was on-line. He’s over there recording us. So if he says that in an episode primal that we have a bunch of Nathan Starks……18:15 that are made of Nanobots. At the same time he’d made earlier references to the fact that some of our episodes are homages18:23 to other SciFi shows that we enjoyed and Eureka does whatever Killer Tomatoes, we actually discussed that by the way. I said I personally didn’t have a whole lot of problem with that episode because I thought it was homage to the Michael Creighton’s “Prey”.18:38 which had that happen in “Prey”. I didn’t see the issue there. There is some suspension disbelief required. There are other episodes that I….. [Laughter]
Kevin: He’s pulling his hair out there.
Phil: But you know it’s a balance between the science and the dramatic dictates of the episode and in some, science is better than others. That’s going to happen in any Science Fiction show.
Kevin: Just to continue with that thought, it’s kinda funny on Zula Patrol, which is a kid’s show. First of all, it’s about Aliens who are basically Intergalactic Cops and they chase after their goofy Super Villains. But they go outside of their spaceship and they can breathe and they can talk.
There are all these basic sounds in Space and there are all these basic rules they are breaking and yet we have to talk about sometime Space being a vacuum. Or, you need air to breathe and you have to kinda go, “Yeah.” [Laughter]
We have to really ignore the basic premises of the show itself while we’re giving a Science lesson and that’s a form of double-speak that’s interesting. We had some issues with that just talking about how to do this. It’s a kid show so we work it out.
Pamela: So what are your favorite really good things that other people have done?
Kevin & Phil: Firefly.
Kevin: They get away with things that we had intended to do on Galactica and I don’t know why eventually we went away from this. Firefly – no sound in Space.
Pamela: Yeah, it’s wonderful. And there isn’t a brown coat in this room. This is the only room in all of Dragon Con where no one is wearing a brown coat.
Phil: That show was great. There was even a show where they have to fire a gun and that was really fun because a lot of bullets actually use their own oxidizer so you could in fact sometimes fire bullets in Space. It depends on the ammo you are using.
But they made a point and said no, this powder needs an oxidizer. They had to wrap a spacesuit around a gun. I was really amused by that because they didn’t really have to do that. I think it may have been a misunderstanding on their part that they even did it at all but it was so cool when they did that. [Laughter]
Kevin: We have actually had discussion on Galactica about having an oxidizer in the charge for the weaponry. We had established that they are bullets. They actually had Tyrol tear one apart and dump out the gunpowder or the equivalent and a person could not do that but good thing he’s a Cylon. [Laughter]
Phil: I have to agree on Firefly. That was such an awesome show and the idea of traveling between planets, the idea that there was a Solar System of this many world in it and we could terraform them that easily. Josh Wheaton has gone and said does not drive this show, I’ll make it right when it’s good and when I can.
In fact it makes a lot of the Science really good; they did a Crazy Ivan in the pilot which was great and all kinds of stuff like that. I enjoy that. Every show has its ups and downs. I’m a big Star Trek fan, always have been and when you’re watching Star Trek, you just kinda say well…. What I like to see is a show that is consistent. If you are going to say we cannot go faster than light, then you stick with it.
Kevin: Or like what Galactica does which I really like is we have a form of Space travel where you pop out of Space and that’s where you pop out. You may not know exactly where you’re going to be, they have to do a triangulation to figure it all out. I love that.
In Star Trek, people ask me, “how fast is warp drive?” I say it is precisely as fast as the writers need it to be to get to a Planet just in time to do whatever it is they need to do. I actually wrote, and it is one of the few pieces of fan23:00 fiction I’ve written, just sitting on my computer and I’ve never published it using that idea, twisting it and getting the Enterprise to a place right after they need to be there. So they get there too late but their speed is actually part of the plot line.
At some point you just have to swallow and say, yeah warp drive and everything. But then Larry Niven, the Science Fiction writer talks about this. He says the problem is you have a really advanced technology; you have a list of them. In his world you’ve got Stasis Fields which are basically impenetrable Force Fields. Time doesn’t move inside the field so you have that.
You have transport booths where you walk into the booth and poof you’re someplace else and as he creates these great devices, he found that writing a plot became impossible because you could always solve the mystery or solve the crisis using one of these gadgets. He said that’s why he wrote a lot at first and slowed down as time went on because he couldn’t think of anything to do this.
In Star Trek there is an episode where in the second season, Dr. Pulaski gets the aging virus and they take a hair from her brush, stick it the transporter and poof! She’s relatively young again. I’m thinking, hello, twenty-two was a good year for me. You could have set the clock back a little bit more! [Laughter]
So, why doesn’t everybody do this? They say well, it wouldn’t be right for us to take away the human equation. It’s the inconsistency like that that makes me nuts. I’m a huge Dr. Who fan and I don’t think Dr. Who shows are consistent even within the plot lines themselves.
Phil: I love how now in the new revamped show they will talk about time travel and he’ll say well, it’s complicated. I love that when they do that. “Here’s how we’re going to get out of this plot hole.” Or he says time doesn’t flow like that. It’s a wibbly wobbly timey wimey thing. [Laughter] And I was just like dancing when I heard that.
They went out of their way in one episode this last season to say that there are fixed events in Space and time. Everything else can change, but like Mt. Vesuvius blowing up – fixed event, has to happen. I was like that was very cool. That is a get out of plot hole free card forever.
Kevin: And one example I use like Phil said in the beginning, we did a similar discussion in Comic Con a few weeks ago and Phil and I were joined by Jaime Paglia of Eureka. At the time I made an analogy that as far as fixed points goes, let’s look at Earth’s history. There will come a point where our Sun will expand and swallow Earth. That’s going to happen no matter what happens on Earth….
Pamela: Not necessarily, it depends on the Mass loss rates of the Sun.
Phil: She’s right. [Laughter] There will come a time a time the Earth will get fried either way.
Kevin: The Earth will get fried eventually and the Sun is going to do it unless we move it. It turns out there are ways to do that as well. My point was going to be that Earth will get fried eventually and no matter what happened on Earth leading up to that point, no matter how human history has advanced, it’s going to get fried.
The day after Earth gets consumed the state beforehand is not going to matter. It’s not like you’re trapped there in chaos. That will happen. That’s your fixed point. Phil of course goes and points out that except for in Dr. Who they’ve actually constrained the Sun from doing that.
Phil: Yeah and they sold tickets to the day the Earth destroys. They used devices [Laughter] to keep the Sun from expanding and then turned them off and let it expand and eat the Earth. I thought that was cool. [Laughter]
Pamela: So we clearly adore Dr. Who despite all the terrible things it does to the consistency of everything. Even the Doctor can’t stay constant. What is the thing that is scientifically wrong the most but is still a guilty pleasure?
??: Dr. Who.
Pamela: Okay, so that one was asked and answered.
??: Space 1999?
??: I love Space 1999 and every science fiction show, you have a couple of conceits. A couple like on Galactica for example if you can handle faster than light travel, artificial gravity which is a standard in Sci-Fi……
Pamela: It will never happen unless we do really weird things that are never going to happen.
??: Like turn on the LHC? Right?
Pamela: I don’t think we’re ever going to capture and control gravitons. It’s not going to happen.
??: Well you’re assuming gravitons exist and that’s one model of gravity that you’re already ascribing to that may or may not be true.
??: Anyway, we digress.
??: I’m glad Pamela wasn’t the Wright Brothers’ advisor. No, I’m kidding. Actually, as far as Physics goes today I agree with her but we’ll see what happens in the next couple of hundred years. [Laughter]
Phil: I’m sure on Galactica you have a couple conceits? And also there’s the whole sound in Space thing that we hadn’t planned on doing from the outset. Apart from that, everything else we get pretty much right and they actually listen to their Science Advisor.
On Space 1999 if you can get past the whole Moon being pushed out of Earth’s orbit, then the rest is actually not that bad. Have you ever seen a more functional spacecraft than an Eagle?
Kevin: The Eagle is the single coolest that is ever been invented for Science Fiction. I love it.
Phil: So the movie itself is depicted as pretty good. From a Science standpoint when it first came out, they called it Science Faction.
Kevin: I remember that. In 2000, I did a Science Fiction convention for Space 1999 and that was very cool. It was one of my first Science Advisor gigs at a Con. I had to watch the show again. I hadn’t watched it in 15 years or whatever. It came out in 1977 I think.
They sent me a bunch of copies of the show, the pilot, the one with the Black Hole and a few others. I realized watching them that as a Scientist I actually had prepared a talk to say if you’re going to push the Moon out of the Earth’s orbit with an explosion, you’re going to vaporize the Moon. The amount of energy you have to give the Moon to move at that speed would vaporize it.
Then you watch these episodes and you realize there is this sort of mystical power that is behind a lot of this. You don’t know what it is. They don’t actually say God, they kinda tip in to make that it’s God but you never really find out.
These Aliens seem to know about it as they go and it seems like the Moon’s path is random to them. When you look at the big picture there is a Force behind their reasoning and all of this. I’m not big into the Mysticism and that sort of thing, but it was a cool idea. It wound up tying all of these episodes together and they weren’t that bad.
I was actually really impressed with the writing. I have to say that Victor Bergman, the Scientist on the show was a hero of mine when I was a kid because sometimes they would say Victor come to the Command Center and he would come down there and Commander Konic would say: “What is that thing?” Victor would tap his teeth with his pen and say: “I don’t know.”
What the hell did Spock ever say? I don’t know. “Why it’s an energy field Captain and it’s being held together by…..” So, I loved that about Bergman. He was a good role model for Science.
Pamela: The key to being a good Scientist is being able to say “I don’t know” but that isn’t always the key to good/bad Sci-Fi. Its part of the campiness of so much of what we see in Science Fiction and it’s the camp of “I know everything” is the quintessential Scientist in a lot of these shows.
You need your Mr. Data; you need your Mr. Spock to get the campy, move forward quickly paced. It’s the retrospective darker things that you start to get in Battlestar, that you had in Babylon 5, that you had in 1999. Its different genres. Is it required with the campiness to always have the genius?
Eureka has many, many flocks of geniuses [Laughter]. How is it that the “I don’t know” gets associated with the darker Science Fiction and the campy Mr. Spock gets associated with the happy uplifting world is perfect Science Fiction?
Phil: Eureka is like the anti-Star Trek. Because Star Trek has Data and then everybody else, but in Eureka you’ve got all the geniuses and then you’ve got Sheriff Carter the one who doesn’t understand anything is the one who winds up solving [Laughter] everything.
Kevin: Well we had different kind of geniuses and Carter obviously makes connections. That’s what Carter does. He says “I have this over here”, and he somehow connects it. That is his goal in life. Genius is what are you genius of what topic and he obviously makes connections well. He doesn’t know about Quantum Physics or DNA or about Magma. My point being is Carter obviously makes connections better than others.
We as scientists may not make connections in an interdisciplinary way. There are areas of Science that I’m not as well-versed in as others and so I may not make a connection as a Scientist.
Someone who has a little bit of indoctrination to all of this because he has been asking questions may make connections that I wouldn’t. He’s actually there asking the questions of the people and he gets enough information from the people that he makes those connections. I don’t think it’s all that big of a stretch that he solves the problems. He has the questions he’s been asking. That’s what he’s trained to do.
Pamela: So we do have these two species of Science Fiction. There is the happy bouncy world is perfect, we’re aspiring to coolness bouncy people. Then there is the dark oh no Babylon 5, Battlestar Galactica darker mysterious, the world is scary the Universe is a scarier place trying to kill us where there are much more things we don’t know.
How is it that we somehow end up with the things we don’t know are dark and scary and Scientists knowing everything in the happy bouncy Universes? Why is mystery not happy and bouncy?
Kevin: I think that’s always been true. It’s mysterious, that’s the nature of this area of the unknown. We’re afraid of the unknown. You mentioned Galactica as being depressing; I’m going to just drive Phil nuts here.
Phil: La, la, la…….
Pamela: So the three of us though are Scientists. We went into this because we love the mystery; we’re excited by the questions. I love sitting down and trying to tear apart why the heck a Variable Star is doing what it is doing; why the heck an Evolving Galaxy is doing what it is doing in the environment it is doing it in and it sometimes feel like running jubilantly with scissors. Whatever you stab is hopefully the truth.
??: But you know at the same time I refer back to Dr. Who. There was an idyllic episode years ago where there was a couple, a man and woman who were Scientists, one is a Doctor. They are about to be killed maybe, they are in prison and the doctor says: “You forget I’m a doctor. I’m going to know the name and function of every organ that pops out of me.” [Laughter]
??: I guess you’ve put your finger on a basic conundrum, a basic paradox about humanity and that is that the mysterious is scary but we’ve evolved to understand that if we don’t know something maybe we shouldn’t stick our faces in it.
When you walk into the dark cave there is a saber-tooth tiger in there and it bites your head off. So, if you’re brave, you get killed and your genes are removed from the population and so the scaredey-pants live on…. [Laughter]
On the other hand, you’ll never learn about your environment, you’ll never grow and spread if you don’t look over that cliff or around the corner or in the cave.
Pamela: What you’re telling me is people like me who like the mystery, who like the question, who like the unknown……
??: You’re removed from the gene pool.
Pamela: Right. I am a mutant who someday will die by sticking my face in a cave.
??: Yeah, you’re the kind of person on the airplane who wonders:” What does this button do?” Not a good idea.
Pamela: But nowadays we luckily have shotguns as we approach caves. But how do we communicate that asking questions is cool? Not knowing something keeps me employed.
The fact that there are things that we don’t understand about our Universe makes the Universe worth studying and it is fun. How do we get this excitement back into the Science Fiction as well as the plot devices?
??: I think you had mentioned Star Trek as an example of a happy bouncy where they know everything. Well, they don’t and the extent of exploration was part of that. In fact, look at Voyager. From a management standpoint in the real world didn’t figure out its direction in the few years, it was one thing one season and another one the next. Eventually they found their direction the last four seasons and they stuck with it.
One of the things Janeway said is “I’m done and we’re done collectively whining about our fate in life. We’re going to enjoy exploring on the way home because that’s what we do.” So, she’s acknowledging there is a whole boatload of things that are on our way between here and home that we don’t understand and we are going to start collecting data about. Right there is the sense of we don’t know but we’re going to find out.
Pamela: As we move forward with you two out there taking over the Universe and advising so many different things and probably mentoring writers as you go, how do you instill in them a sense of wonder?
Phil: Enthusiasm. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve loved this stuff. I will always walk outside of my house and whenever I walk outside and go to my car to go to the store to pick up a gallon of milk or whatever, if it’s dark out I look up. It’s the first thing I do. It’s a habit. It’s like, oh, there’s Jupiter, oh there’s Venus, over the mountains.
Pamela: Hopefully there are no stairs between your front door and the car.
Phil: Somebody told me that every Astronomer they know has twisted an ankle or broken a nose tripping while walking out of their door and getting eaten by a saber-tooth tiger. But I think that’s the point. I love this stuff. I just finished a book about every possible depressing Cosmic catastrophe you can think of. Gamma ray bursts, Super Nova.
My book is “Death From the Skies” and it is coming out in October. Pamela has read it. The point is these were all massively depressing scenarios but they were fun to research and fun to write about and so just having a native enthusiasm about it is really what a lot of these people see.
I do Coast-to-Coast A.M., which is kind of a paranormal radio show. I love it. They have ten million listeners and that’s a lot of potential book buyers. The host is a really nice guy and I think he was surprised that when a Scientist came on, he was making jokes and was having a good time.
I have some other friends who do the show and they do the same thing. I think that goes a lot farther showing that this stuff is cool because IT IS cool.
Pamela: Part of what we’re doing is we’re also dispelling the mythology of what a Scientist is. Especially, as we start creating new well, Baltar, oh my God that is not the way Scientists, the way we have them depicted in our textbooks look like. I might have decided to become a Scientist much earlier had I had Baltar as a role model. Sorry, I’m admitting I am a total Battlestar Galactica fan.
I had a fascinating interaction earlier today. I was waiting in line to go get coffee, standing next to a security guard. He looks me up and down and asks me what I’m dressed up as. I’m thinking, this is what happens when I steal my husband’s credit card and go to Macy’s. So, I look at him and say, I’m a Scientist; I’m an Astro-Physicist. He looks at me, looks up and down. I said to him: “Really I’m an Astronomer here giving talks.” He said I didn’t know Scientists were shaped like that.
Kevin: I on the other hand, have been aware of this for many years. [Laughter]
Pamela: I’m not sure what he was expecting but I’m okay with it and now maybe he’ll pay more attention to Science. If it works, I’m okay with that. We need to change how people look, how people question and Science Fiction is a great way to tap into audiences that might not be otherwise Science inclined. They’re more like the world is ending inclined or go and explore Aliens inclined.
Don’t take that the wrong way. There is Science embedded in all of this. I passed a college Astronomy exam because I watched Next Generation and learned about Dyson Spheres instead of studying my textbook. I learned enough to pass my exam.
??: I would really like to hear how you passed by knowing what a Dyson Sphere is.
Pamela: Because I didn’t even know what the term was. I’d missed that part of my book because I decided that wasn’t possibly ever going to be on the exam. [Laughter] I at least knew the term and then I could calculate the flux hitting it and figure out all……It worked. I at least knew the term. I wouldn’t have known the term had I not watched Star Trek: Next Generation I would have sat there with the question and not known the answer. Kevin is staring at me like I am a freak! [Laughter]
Kevin: It’s more like, you so dodged a bullet. The Gods were smiling on you that day.
Pamela: Sometimes a girl gets lucky. [Laughter] So we’ve told you all far too much than we should have I think. What questions do you have for us?
Audience: I have a Babylon 5 related question for all 3 of you but particularly for the Planetary Scientists. I’m impressed with the way that they did the spaceships. I think they did a very good job depicting Space battles in free-fall and having to work that around, but what do you feel about the way they depicted planets and planetary surfaces?
Kevin: I thought it was fantastic. I thought they did a great job with the planetary surfaces, their orbit around a habitable Planet. Not every Planet was habitable, there were gas Planets, colonies on Gannemead 44:10 ______ If I didn’t make a big deal of it and thought hey, that’s wrong then they did a good job of it. I’d never even given it that much thought until now.
I had with the Space battles idea thought because we had to think about that on Galactica and you notice our Vipers move similar to the Star Furies, the only difference being the Vipers are aerodynamic because they’re designed as dual role to Atmosphere and Space. That means they have to be ______44:31 and the Star Furies never intend to go into an atmosphere so they’re _____44:36 and can get away with that.
The Space battles in B5 were really good. Something else that was really good which was never really done right in Science Fiction is you’ll notice that if somebody fires a laser from a blaster or from a spacecraft, you’ll see it as a bolt whereas it would be given the speed of light being what it is, it would connect and unconnect. What you see is the shadow of it. They just fire and slice through things like a __________45:06 often would. That’s a small detail that gets lost but that’s how they would.
Even the original ballast on Galactica 45:12 did it fairly well where you don’t see a bolt. You wouldn’t see it in an atmosphere unless there is smoke to see the beam. You pull a trigger and the explosion is at the other end. That’s actually reasonably well done.
Pamela: Yeah, and it saves money on the Sci-Fi budget.
??: I was thinking that because in the original Star Trek, sometimes the phasers had beams and sometimes you would shoot somebody and there would just be a light and they would fall over. I thought yeah their budget must be running short that month. They got the Science right because they ran out of money. [Laughter]
Pamela: By any means possible. Other questions?
Jack Jaffe: I’m a creative comment writer and I could never afford you guys. Is there a resource for us as amateur writers to get real Scientists so that we’re writing correctly?
Pamela: bautforum – It stands for Bad Astronomy Universe Today Forum and we hide AstronomyCast there as well. It is filled with a ginormous population of people discussing all aspects of Astronomy, Space Science, Astro-photography and sometimes random crap.
There are Forums there where you can go and ask questions of people with all education levels participating in dialogue, mentoring one another, asking and answering questions. It’s a community of people you can and dialogue with.
??: Check the show notes for more.
Audience: I’m curious. Just ruling in all different kinds of media, written as well as video and all that, what’s the most heinous use of Science in any show or book that you remember?
Pamela, Kevin, Phil: Armageddon. [Laughter]
Kevin: A friend of mine said that movie was like having a steel pail put on your head for two hours and somebody banging it with a wrench. [Laughter]
Pamela: I have to admit my friends who love me dearly and protect me and I love them back for the protection they give my psyche, forbid me from seeing this movie when it came out. I have never been allowed to see it and this is good, I think. I went to a teacher training workshop about a month ago for the GLAST now named FERMI Mission and they were going through and talking about the bad Science in it.
I’d been happily sitting in the back of the room working on things for the International Year of Astronomy, minding my own business, wallflower watching the teacher training going on and I became a heckler. The evil Pamela inside of me emerged and ranted at the screen! Oh my God!
??: Yeah, yeah….[Laughter] I’d like to say that it has one thing correct. It’s a movie about an Asteroid and Asteroids exist. [Laughter] After that, yeah…..
???: I’m all about suspension of disbelief 48:24 and I am serious when I say that movie lost me in the first 30 seconds. You see the impact that wipes out the Dinosaurs and the shock-wave going all around the Planet and I said, no.
??: And they also said that was the equivalent of 10,000 nuclear bombs blowing up and actually it was like 300 million. They grossly underestimated it.
Pamela: And if you want to come up with a big number, overshoot! Don’t undershoot by orders of magnitude. That’s just silly.
??: No, I think you can do that incorrectly too. I remember War of the Worlds they tried to wrap it up in the last episode. They said what brought the Aliens to Earth were the first Nuclear Tests. The flash of energy from the first Nuclear Tests were detectable from far, far away. So overshooting is not always good.
???: I think the x-rays emitted from atmospheric tests are actually detectable from a long way off.
Pamela: But if you consider the Sun, you’re….
??: You’re swamped by the Sun.
Pamela: And Coronal Mass Ejections – how do you differentiate between the two?
Phil: That whole show was based on the fact that the Martians invaded in the 1950s as the movie depicted. The wonderful George _____49:45 movie. I heard there was a remake but….La,La,La – yeah, I ignore that. And then the Aliens come back and in the intervening four decades, everybody has forgotten. If you watch the movie “War of the Worlds” the Earth is flattened. So it’s just the whole premise of that show is ridiculous.
Kevin: Well that’s true but it’s not always good to over or under…… [Laughter]
Phil: I actually kinda liked the Tom Cruise “War of the Worlds”. It was kind of an amalgam of the original book, the ’38 radio programs and the 53 movie. It had elements of all of those.
Kevin: I have to admit that there was a scene where the train goes by. That made it one of the best scenes I have ever seen filmed. They’re all like “oh, a train’s coming yah”. All the refugees are walking out – I think it was Boston – and they hear the train coming and they all stand there and it’s very quiet.
Then the train goes by and at full speed it goes by and it’s on fire. Then it just passes by and ding, ding, ding…. And the gates go up and everybody just keeps walking. [Laughter]
Phil: That was depressing. It was really well done.
Pamela: Next question.
Audience: I really hate to ask you all to comment on something that none of you all probably have ever worked on, but just because I’m curious, would you care to comment on the Stellarizing of Jupiter in 2010 and…..
Pamela: Not going to happen.
??: Jupiter – you need the small Stars ………..51:12 Jupiter masses.
???: Right so Jupiter … you know I said in Science Fiction you get one conceit? That’s your conceit. Actually I thought 2010 from the Science standpoint wasn’t bad. The small details, we had Discovery in orbit around IO51:25 for years and its covered in Sulfur because the IO is volcanic and it spews out Sulfuric Lava – well Sulfur anyway.
There are a lot of things that were really recommended ………51:36 the whole capture sequence was pretty well done. The L…..51:43 spinning through Gravity was fairly well done. There were a lot of things that were I think very good. I would hope 2010 has fairly good Science.
Kevin?Phil?: That’s your …….51:51 is adding mass to the Aliens and whoever we don’t see adding mass to Jupiter to turn it into a Sun which would have melted all of its icy Moons. But the fact of the matter is it was actually fairly insightful when the Alien said: “All these Moons are yours except Europa”. Attempt no landing there because the Aliens who did this – which we don’t see had put life on Europa.
That was an experiment they didn’t want humans to screw up. It turns out Europa may be one of the places in the Solar System that has life maybe even over and above Mars.
Pamela: It’s cool when the real world turns out to be just as funky as the imagined Science Fiction world and in this case, they aligned.
Phil: It’s even better than that because in the original version of 2001, this all took place on Saturn not Jupiter. The Monolith was on the Moon Iapetus around Saturn. Of course, Kevin would know about this studying Cassini.
But evidently when Voyager passed by Iapetus it showed some strange features on it that were somewhat reminiscent of what Arthur C. Clark had originally written in 2001. I assume the story is true that Sagan sent a picture of this Moon to Clark with a note on it that said: “Thinking of you.”
Kevin: I hadn’t heard that one but it turns out Iapetus, the Moon where the Monolith was instead of the Jupiter system in the book.
Iapetus – half light and half dark. We used to say half of it is as dark as freshly laid asphalt and half is bright as freshly fallen snow. Well, the asphalt part is true but since we’ve been there with Cassini the other part is more like snow in Detroit in March. [Laughter]
Pamela: And on that cheerful note we’ll take one more question and then we’re going to have to say Good Night.
Audience: Hi Pam – you’re even cuter in person than I thought you’d be. [Laughter] And hi to those other guys up there. I have more of a concern or maybe you can comment.
There is a lot of mystery – I think that’s what keeps Science Fiction in business – if we ever do find anything out there, any other life, is the mystery gone? And do we search elsewhere?
Pamela: No. No. I have to say, and this is something that Fraser and I talk about and one of these days we’ll have to do a debate – not as a normal show. With our shows we try and stay fact-based.
He and I both are on opposite sides of this. He’d love it if life’s out there and we discovered it in our lifetime! I don’t want that to happen. Not because I’m anti-Alien but because I’m anti what Humanity will do when we find the Aliens.
The movie Independence Day where you have all the people on the roofs – come get me. And then you have all the doomsday people with their signs and their clans and Kool-Aid and all of that. Really finding Aliens will cause a bit of insanity I don’t want to experience.
There are all sorts of different ways to think about it, worry about it. It doesn’t destroy the mystery – it does do interesting things to Religion. That’s a discussion for a different track.
??: But if we do find life in our Solar System which is where we’d find it first, it would be bacterial. When you look at the time scales involved, the Earth was actually bacterial for several billion years before multi-cellular life evolved.
???: The Earth is still mostly bacteria.
Pamela: Your bodies are mostly bacteria.
??: Now we’re finding out that our human bodies are estimated to be over half bacteria. If you remember the Star Trek animated series from the 70s there was an episode called BEM – which is funny because it stands for Bug-Eyed Monster – that was a colony creature like a jellyfish. Its arm was one creature, its leg and its torso was something else. Turns out that’s what we are – a colony of bacteria. We’re jellyfish. Ewh.
Pamela: Bags of water.
??: Ugly bags of mostly water, right. I think that when we do that, it will enhance the mystery. When we find this life, it’s going to be like what Jody Foster’s character in Contact said that we’ll find out how unlikely and how rare and precious and wonderful life is.
The vast majority of Planets we find in the Galaxy will be covered in goo. For something to be advanced – if you want to use that word – like we are, is going to be that much more precious. I think it’s going to be a good thing.
Pamela: It changes our whole idea of the forms life can take. Peter Ward has written several really magnificent books that discuss life, how rare it is, how rare the Earth might be…. One of the cool things he has done is he’s made room in the taxonomy of life for there to be life that has evolved on other planets.
Let’s take life on Earth, give it it’s own up above Kingdom division and then start making branches for life that evolved on other Worlds in other ways perhaps with a slightly different subset of Amino Acids. Nucleic Acids – I get that one wrong every time! I’m not a Biologist, but an Astro-Physicist. They’re different.
There’s lots of mystery in the Universe and every new piece of information we find gives us a little bit more understanding and just makes the picture we’re trying to paint a little bit bigger and requires a lot more paint. It’s a wonderful miraculous Universe – miraculous is a bad word – it’s a wonderful marvelous Universe filled with Science that we’re still trying to understand.
Because we don’t understand it, people mistake it for magic. As Scientists it is our job to describe the magic and give it equations and give it math and give it graphs, computer models and basically be able to beat things into a bloody pulp of understanding.
??: That’s too long for a bumper sticker but I like it. [Laughter]
Pamela: You guys have been a wonderful audience and this was the second anniversary episode of AstronomyCast and I’m glad I had a chance to share it with my good friends Phil and Kevin and share it with all of you as well.
This transcript is not an exact match to the audio file. It has been edited for clarity. Transcription and editing by Cindy Leonard.