Category Archives: Space!

1997: The year they made Contact

20 years ago, I watched Contact in the theater with my family[1]. Tonight, I watched it again, with S.

To me, it held up well as a movie. All the characters were believable, and the science and the effects were well within the normal parameters of suspension of disbelief.

What struck me[2] was how hopeful a movie it was, that our better natures would win out, that our endless curiosity would take us places we’ve never imagined.

[Note that spoilers follow]

It’s always interesting the things you remember 20 years later. “Why not make two, at twice the price?” The destruction scene. The prime numbers sounding so ominously alien from the aether. The speaking through her father. The 18 hours of static[3].

Interestingly, I had remembered that 18 hours of static as being the vindication at the end of the movie, that she was not crazy, that something had indeed happened, but I had forgotten how much it was covered up.

The one (gaping) plot hole I had missed the first time around was the absence of study and testing before a human was sent through the machine. If you look at the history of the Apollo program, you see that it was preceded by Mercury and Gemini, with dozens of sequential missions, each testing new parts, to make sure that each part of the system and plan were well-enough understood to ensure successful missions. The idea that they would build a half-trillion-dollar system in Contact and not fully study it (especially if it’s generating strange EM radiation) before sending a human through it ‘strains credulity’. Even the EM it’s radiating would be a fantastic discovery for humans.

But I can understand how they would cut out things to make a move that was watchable, and which was able to spend its time focusing on the humans in the story.

The alternative view of events that the NSA directory was trying to convince people of at the end of the movie was reminiscent (for me) of the big con[4] at the end of ‘Watchmen’, albeit at the opposite end of the hope-fear axis.

Apparently, like Bladerunner, the ending was supposed to keep your doubt alive as to whether the events she experienced had actually happened. To me, it didn’t, as 18 hours of static (and whatever metallurgical data they could get from the sphere) would be enough to prove the story.

I laughed, I cried, I am full of hope. A new year dawns. Time to use that hope to build something meaningful, starting with some words.

[1]We immediately followed it with Men In Black. I’ll leave it to you to enjoy this juxtaposition.

[2]If you’d read or watched any Carl Sagan, this would probably not be surprising. “The sky calls to us. If we do not destroy ourselves, we will one day venture to the stars.”

[3]I had remembered it as 18 minutes.

[4]In ‘Contact’, it was posited that a billionaire had faked first contact to inspire humans to push themselves outwards. In ‘Watchmen’ (the graphic novel[5]), Adrian Veidt fakes an alien invasion to scare humans into working together against a common foe.

[5]’Watchmen’ the movie simplified the plot to have Doctor Manhattan be the scapegoat. this lead to a much tighter movie, but slightly less appropriate for my analogy, however much he played with space and time.

Enterprise: Broken Bow

So, we finally watched the pilot (Broken Bow) for Star Trek: Enterprise.

I thought it was pretty good. (I’ll try to keep this as spoilers-low as possible.)

The pacing felt good, through the action scenes, I was actually (figuratively) on the edge of my seat, genuinely tense about what would happen to the characters.

I feel like they captured the feeling of exploring into a completely unknown and dangerous galaxy, that any moment, they could be overwhelmed by an alien force, if they should do the wrong thing.

It was also a really interesting choice having the Vulcans being almost reluctant parent allies. Not quite adversaries, not quite obstacles, but always watching and judging…

It’s also interesting to see the first real human/vulcan team start to really learn to work together. To see the first tentative steps towards actual friendship…Two peoples who know they’re better together, but are still learning to trust each other well enough to actually find the synergy they know is there somewhere.

I had been worried about the T’Pol & co. ‘Decontamination Chamber’ scenes, that they would be pure fan service, uninteresting/unrelated to the show. Instead, they were a very odd, fascinating confrontation between the Id (Tucker) and the Superego (T’Pol). I’m not sure exactly how well the scene worked, but it was fascinatingly brave, having two characters who have to rub decontamination gel on each other, a very intimate act, while having an intense emotional argument about Human/Vulcan relations going back decades and discussing the future of the Human species. As the canonical Superego would say: ‘Fascinating’.

Perhaps the most jarring parts of the episode was the slightly too wordy exposition, setting out the political and historical landscape of the early Federation, especially the Human/Vulcan conflict.

At the same time, the Klingon-Human first contact was handled well, with the imperfect universal translator adding a nice touch.

Scott Bakula was a good choice for captain (although the cast felt a little white male focused, with little differentiation between them, even compared with TOS or TNG.) He genuinely seemed a little more afraid, pushing through with more bravado than even Kirk. But perhaps that’s because he didn’t have his Spock yet. Some reviews described him as somewhat of a ‘pirate’, but that hasn’t come out yet.

SPOILER:

I think the Temporal Cold War arc was introduced well, but I could see how it could get old hat if it becomes too commonplace.

Walking into the Rigel X Trade Complex felt like a very Star Trek experience. I couldn’t put my finger exactly on why, but something about the atmosphere of the music (or the visuals!) was very Star Trek.

END SPOILER

Interestingly, this episode also featured the first in canon definition of a specific warp speed[1], when Archer says: “Neptune and back in six minutes”, when describing warp four point five.

(Neptune being around 4.5 billion km from Earth, that puts warp 4.5 as 9e12m/360s, or 83.3c. This is only slightly different from the TNG technical manual, which places warp 4 at 102c, which can be explained by the need to avoid using warp drive while close to gravity wells.)

I also greatly enjoyed the ‘mad scientist’ Doctor Phlox and his menagerie.

Overall, a good episode (and I believe lived up the ‘best Star Trek pilot’ that they were shooting for). It was more dramatic than usual Star Trek, probably more emotionally raw, but it worked well to keep the audience engaged, by having heightened emotion even while arguing important points of philosophy, almost like the best of the lightsaber battles.

4.5 stars, some of the best Star Trek I’ve seen. Even the opening credits, and their message of humans hopefully striving, made me cry[2].

[1]“Warp 6.” “Aye sir, full impulse.” doesn’t count.

[2]Interestingly, very similar to the “Cineplex – 100 Years of Movies” trailer.

When You Wish Upon a Star…

So, a good friend of mine recently posted the following meme:

Depressing thought...But is it true?
Depressing thought…But is it true?

“According to astronomy, when you wish upon a star….
You’re actually a few million years late.
That star is dead.
Just like your dreams.”

It’s a really depressing thought, perhaps even more depressing than the Nietzsche/Kubrick mashup: “God is dead, and you are alone in an uncaring universe.”[1]

At least with an uncaring universe, something with persist after you are gone. If all the stars are dead before you can even see them, would there even be anything left after we are gone?

But extraordinarily depressing statements require extraordinary evidence. So let’s take this sentence apart and define some things.

First: “According to astronomy” means that we get to (and have to) use astronomy in our proof or disproof. It also likely refers to modern astronomy, as it did not specify a time/technology period. (It may be interesting to see if any answers would be different under astronomy from a different time period, but that will be a secondary investigation.)

Second: “when you wish upon a star….” has a few different readings. The phrase seems to come (at least most recently) from the song written for Disney’s Pinnochio. In that movie, Gepetto says the following:


Look! A wishing star!

Starlight, star bright, first star I see tonight…

I wish I may, I wish I might have the wish I make tonight.

This is an ‘English language nursery rhyme’ first published in the late 19thC (Wikipedia).

Interestingly, it seems to refer to ‘shooting or falling stars’, or meteors. These would certainly be ‘dead’ (as they are vaporizing in the atmosphere during the ‘wish’, but not for ‘millions of years'[2], as the distance from the viewer to the meteor can be measured in tens or hundreds of kilometers, an insignificant time light distance[3].

But going back to “When you wish upon a star, the meme-maker seems to be clearly referring to the 1940 Disney song and film. Looking at the occurrences of this song in the film:

At 0:34, you can see the image of Gepetto wishing upon the star:

The star is clearly stationary, as can also be seen in the reprise at the end of the film, where Jiminy Cricket is looking upon the same star, still unmoving:

So, this restricts us to the realm of non-moving (or slowly-moving) celestial objects[4]. From the film, the star also seems significantly brighter than the surrounding stars, but the exact extent to which this is true could be dramatic license.

The rhyme mentions ‘first star I see tonight’, which also suggests that the celestial object seen is unusually bright.

So, non-moving (or slowly moving) celestial objects which are bright. This leaves us with comets, planets, and bright stars[4][5].

Comets are objects orbiting through the solar system, and unless they fall into the sun, impact another body, or otherwise breakup, they tend to go on ‘living’ after we see them. (Halley’s comet has been known since at least 240BC.)

Planets could easily look like stars, often like unusually bright stars. Venus was called the ‘evening star‘[6] since antiquity, and it would be bright enough (up to apparent magnitude -4.9) to be significantly brighter than anything else in the sky. Venus could be considered ‘dead’ because it may have once supported life before a runaway greenhouse effect millions of years ago, but this seems an unlikely metaphorical interpretation. Mercury (up to apparent magnitude -2.45) would also be significantly brighter than anything but Venus (and the moon and sun), but has never been ‘alive’, being too close to the Sun[7]. Mars (up to apparent magnitude -2.91) could have been alive at some point, in the same vein as Venus. One or more of the moons of Jupiter (up to apparent magnitude -1.61) or Saturn[8] (up to apparent magnitude 1.47) could have been home to life, under this same metaphorical definition. (The other planets and other bodies in the solar system are too dim to ever be a ‘bright star’.)

So, a planet could be a metaphorical source for this quote, but this seems unlikely, as the quote seems to be referring to the fact that the celestial object is no longer emitting the light itself.

This leaves us with bright stars. Looking at the brightest star in the night sky, Sirius (up to apparent magnitude -1.46), it[9] is only about 8.6 light years away, so we would know in less than a decade if something were to happen there.

The next 91[10] brightest stars are listed here:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_brightest_stars

You will note that even the furthest among these, Deneb is still only 2600 light years away, much closer than the ‘few million years’ mentioned above.

Based on all this evidence, it would seem that the original meme:

“According to astronomy, when you wish upon a star….
You’re actually a few million years late.
That star is dead.
Just like your dreams.”

is false, which is good, because it would be super-depressing otherwise.

If you enjoyed this sojurn through astronomy, you may like the rest of my blog. Comment below with things you want me to talk about or investigate!

[1]If you have a better source for this, please let me know.

[2]If you want to be pedantic (and I know you do), you could say that meteors are the dead husks of possible (or tidally destroyed) planets, and their burning up in the atmosphere is hundreds of millions of years after they ‘died’.

[3]Much less than a second, even if you assume they impact the Earth’s atmosphere thousands of kilometers away.

[4]A close supernova might also qualify, as it could easily be brighter than anything else in the night sky, would last just long enough to be a ‘wishing star’, and would have been ‘dead’ for some time before it was seen by a human observer. This might indeed be source of this rhyme, where a ‘guest star‘ could inspire wishing and omens. However, looking at this list of supernovae, any supernova which would have been visible as a ‘bright star’ with the naked eye would be at most tens or hundreds of thousands of light years away, not qualifying for the ‘few million years’ mentioned above. I also personally see supernovae more as a seeding of the galaxy with heavier elements, and thus wishing upon one of these would be wishing that the spreading of heavier elements would inspire life to form elsewhere in the universe.

[5]I see no way that any reasonable person could confuse the Sun or Moon with a ‘wishing star’.

[6]Interestingly, the Babylonians had figured out that the ‘evening star’ and the ‘morning star’ were one and the same. It took the Greeks a significant amount of time to discover this themselves, calling them ‘Phosphorus’ and ‘Hesperus’. How many times have there been such dark ages, where knowledge needs to be rediscovered? Was there a Greek ‘renaissance’, or were the Babylonian star charts lost until modern archaeology? Did mere dregs survive to inspire subsequent scientific revolutions?

[7]…unless there was life along the terminator, at some point in the past…

[8]Or [spoiler alert]:

One of the planets themselves!

[9]They, really, as Sirius is a double star, but that is outside the scope of this post.

[10]93, including the Sun, Sirius and the next 91 of magnitude 2.5 or greater.

DS9: The Power of Adversaries, Season 4

Continuing our adversaries series, we’re looking at DS9 season four. We’ve seen a number of different patterns season to season, with season one being ‘Q and Prime Directive’, season two being ‘Cardassians and Introspection’, and season three being ‘Dominion, Time/Planar travel, and Introspection’.

Let’s see what’s out there…

S4:

High: 7 (3 Dominion)
Equal: 4 (Klingons, Klingons, mirror, and Jem’Hadar)
Low: 3
Self: 11

The standout this season was internal conflict, whether it’s Bashir vs. O’Brien, or Worf vs. his brother, season four was a study in character stories and internal dilemmas. The writers continued to use the Dominion for the plurality of the high-powered adversary plots, while eschewing almost entirely low-powered external adversaries.

Almost like the calm before the storm, the self introspection before the galaxy erupts into war.

1 (Klingons)
2 (frozen in time)
-1 (Bashir vs. O’Brien)
-1 (Kira vs. Dukat vs. Dukat)
-1 (Dax vs. Dax)
2 (Time Travel)
2 (Two Jem’Hadar ships and a gas giant)
-1 (Worf vs. Kor vs. Worf vs. Kor)
2 (Holodeck)
-1 (Earth and fear)
-1 (Earth and fear, part II)
-1 (Odo & Kira)
2 (freighter vs. Klingon ship)
-1 (Worf & Kurn)
-1 (Quark and the union)
0 (Bajoran politics)
1 (Klingon courtroom drama)
-1 (O’Brien suffers)
1 (Defiant vs. Mirror)
0 (alien & Lwaxana’s lover)
-1 (Sisko)
1 (crew + Jem’Hadar vs. Jem’Hadar)
2 (Dominion disease)
0 (one Ferengi)
2 (The Great Link)

DS9: The Power of Adversaries, Season 3

Continuing our adversaries series, we’re continuing with DS9. Today we’ll see if season three follows in the footsteps of season one, season two, or something else entirely.

As usual, moderate to severe spoilers below.

S3:

High: 8 (3 Dominion)
Equal: 6
Low: 3
Self: 9

Note that all of the times that the Dominion appeared during season three, they were presented in an overpowering way, with even one changeling being equal in power to the Defiant’s crew.

Season three is a different mix again from seasons one and two. Season one focused on high- and low-powered (‘Q and Prime Directive’) adversaries. Season two focused on self and equal (mostly Cardassian) adversaries.

Season three goes back to a more TNG-like mix, in fact almost the exact same mix as TNG seasons six and seven, with the focus on High/Equal/Self instead of High/Low/Self.

This seems to be because DS9 meets with the other major powers much more often than the TNG crew, possibly because TNG is more exploratory, and DS9 is more interested in politics.

It’ll be interesting to see how the remaining seasons compare, especially once the Dominion War starts in earnest.

(0 is less powerful, 1 is about the same, 2 is more powerful, -1 is self)

2 (Defiant vs. The Dominion)
2 (The Dominion)
1 (Klingons)
-1 (Dax)
1 (Cardssians)
0 (one Jem’Hadar)
2 (DS9)
-1 (Dax)
1 (Cardassians)
-1 (Lwaxana)
2 (Time stream)
2 (Time stream)
-1 (Bashir)
-1 (Odo)
2 (Prophecy)
0 (Nagus)
1 (Romulans)
-1 (Bashir)
2 (Mirror)
1 (Tain)
2 (Dominion)
-1 (Sisko & Jake)
-1 (Quark & Family)
0 (Bajorans)
-1 (Jadzia)
1 (One Changeling!)

DS9: The Power of Adversaries, Season 2

Continuing our adversaries series, we’re continuing with DS9. Today we’ll see if the trend which separated DS9 from TNG continues in season 2.

As usual, moderate to severe spoilers below.

S2:

High: 3
Equal: 8 (mostly Cardassians)
Low: 6
Self: 9

Season two is a marked departure from ‘Q and Prime Directive’ mix from season one. A plurality of episodes are dealing with the Cardassians, usually in an equal[1] adversary role. We also see an overall plurality of ‘Self’ episodes, as the writers now have enough space[2] to start exploring the characters in some more depth.

Perhaps most interestingly, there are only three stories with extremely powerful adversaries, and two of those are because a small number of crewmembers are up against an entire colony or civilization (The other is the Dominion, but that’ll be a story for a later season).

On a slightly different note, S suggested the following scenario, as an exercise for the reader:

“Riker and Dukat are on Earth, during the early 21st century. They are trying to order a Blizzard at Dairy Queen, but the teenager behind the counter tells them no. Who is the adversary, and what is their power level?”

(0 is less powerful, 1 is about the same, 2 is more powerful, -1 is self)

1 (Cardassians)
1 (Cardassians, and the Bajoran ‘Circle’ has “more firearms than a Galaxy-class starship.”
1 (same as previous two, three-parter)
1 (same number of people as the crew, even though the plot was contrived)
1 (Cardassian politics)
-1 (Bashir, Melora, and low-gravity Ability)
1 (Ferengi negotiating story)
-1 (Odo flashes back and meets Kira, Dukat, and Quark)
-1 (Sisko meets someone…or does he?)
-1 (Resettling gamma quadrant refugees away from Bajor)
0 (con-artist, and ‘luck’)
-1 (Odo and his ‘father’)
2 (less powerful civilization, but trapped and left for dead)
-1 (O’Brien)
0 (colonists/trap)
-1 (character stories, hologram generator)
0 (prime directive story)
1 (Cardassian ship)
0 (40 guards, they have a ship)
0 (Maquis)
0 (Maquis, part II)
-1 (Garak)
2 (mirror universe)
-1 (Bajoran politics)
1 (Cardassia)
2 (3 Jem Hadar ships outmatch one Galaxy-class)

[1]There is considerable analysis suggesting that the Federation/Cardassian war was vary one-sided, at least in space. In the context of this analysis though, starting a new war with Cardassia would create far more problems than it would solve, and therefore the Cardassians get an ‘equal’ ranking.

[2]Ha!

DS9: The Power of Adversaries, Season 1

Continuing our adversaries series, we’re starting today looking at DS9. I’m curious to know how it will diverge from TNG, and when. Or maybe it won’t. Which will mean there’s something about the Star Trek formula, or perhaps the general television formula[1].

S1:

High: 8
Equal: 2
Low: 9
Self: 0

So, this presents a significant departure from TNG. Even though DS9 is supposed to be grittier and have opportunities amongst the main cast, this is never the main adversary or obstacle in an episode. Also interestingly, the episodes almost exclusively separate into ‘very powerful outside force’ and ‘morality play where we try to solve problems without anyone getting hurt’.

The proportion of lower powered adversaries might be part of showing how powerful the Federation really is, as discussed by Garak and Quark[2] in ‘The Way of the Warrior‘.

You can also see this very clearly in the ‘Federation Maps‘ (direct link here). Just look at the size of the Federation compared to all of the other powers. Even if they’re not especially warlike, as any good Civilization player knows, if you have an economy four times the size of your opponent, they’re not really much of a threat. Add in the Federation-Klingon alliance, and they should be unstoppable. Gives you an idea of how powerful the Dominion and the Jem’Hadar must have been.

Perhaps it’s because the adversaries which are ‘just the right amount of challenge’ for the Federation haven’t really discovered the station yet, perhaps because the seasons-spanning plots haven’t started yet.

But I think a lot of it is the nature of the beast. A ship exploring will encounter all kinds of different adversaries and challenges. They can travel to see the Klingons or Romulans whenever they want. A space station will be visited by small numbers of beings at any time. Some will be spatial anomalies which threaten to destroy the station. Many will be travelers on their own missions, but not significantly powerful in their own right. Rarely, representatives from other governments will visit, even more rarely will they have warlike intentions.

(I’ve copied my rationale below, as the results were o surprising. Please check out Jammer’s Reviews and/or Memory Alpha and tell me how I’m wrong in the comments below!)

2 (celestial temple, convincing by Sisko)
1 (Cardassians)
0 (Bajoran person)
2 (virus)
0 (3 aliens)
“Were we interfering with these people, their philosophy, their society? At the same time, what has happening there wasn’t fair. It was a classic Star Trek story” – Colm Meaney
2 (Q)
0 (courtroom)
1 (contamination from destroying ship)
2 (alien game)
0 (Ferengi)

0 (1 criminal)
2 (immortal self-healing people)
0 (Bajorans)
0 (reluctant evacuee)
2 (spatial anomaly)

2 (entity in the computer)
2 (telepathic matrix)
0 (one Cardassian)
0 (Bajorans)

[1]After DS9, I should do Community!

[2]If the link is broken.

Toy Boxes and Connections

Recently, I spent a few hours going through my old toy box from my childhood. I found a number of curiosities (which I’ll share later), but I wanted to give my first impressions.

The toybox my dad made for me so many years ago.
The toybox my dad made for me so many years ago.

Above is the toybox my dad made for me so many years ago. It was a lot of fun, even going through and unpacking all the things inside.

Interestingly, all the way through, I was thinking about all of the connections I could make with people based on the things in the box. Finally sorting my Lego pieces so that S and I could download instructions (or use the classic instructions still in the box!) and make things together. Taking all of the various parts of games and toys and putting them up on this blog or on fb, to see if people could help me figure out what they were (thinking they might enjoy that challenge (and the nostalgia) too).

Perhaps most poignantly, I came across the numbers ‘1’, ‘2’, and ‘8’, written on tape, attached to Lego pieces. I think that they were part of that one time I brought the miniature city I had built[1] and was so proud of, and labeled parts of it. Anyways, I was going to use this as an excuse to ask my dad if he had any pictures of that, or other things I/we had built, so we could bond over that.

And perhaps I could bond a little with that child from so long ago. One of the things I found was a mint. S mentioned that young me was eating mints, and had somehow left one for me, some way of communicating across the decades.

One of the things I want to do there is to build again my favourite spaceship (it had three parts which were each their own ship!), and my favourite town set, the classic fire station.

The toybox all sorted, with Spaceship!  (And Fire Station!  (And Space Station!))
The toybox all sorted, with Spaceship! (And Fire Station! (And Space Station!))

Happily, it seems that most of (or at least a lot of) the space parts are still there. Sadly, it seems that many of the essential parts for the fire station are not present. It had a really cool slidy-up-and-down front door to each of the fire truck bays. Of the 46 pieces involved, I was only able to find about 10 of the grooves, and three of the roll-top-desk-like part things. But then I remembered the internet! So, brickinstructions.com has a parts list for the fire hall, and they link to Bricklink, where you can purchase the part! And not even that expensive! I love online communities.

Maybe I’ll connect with other people about this, too.

Here’s to connecting with ourselves from so long ago, and maybe helping us connect with ourselves and each other right now.

[1]It even included a hockey rink! With a swimming pool underneath, with real water in it! Lego is surprisingly water-tight. Or maybe there was a lining. I don’t remember. I just remember the paper rink surface getting wet. 😀

TNG: The Power of Adversaries, Season 7

Season seven is a bit of an enigma for me. I don’t remember most of it, probably because I’ve never actually watched most of it[1].

S7: 20-100 2-102-1 210-11 -12-121 -102-122

High: 9 (2 for ‘All Good Things…’)
Equal: 3
Low: 6
Self: 8

Season seven continues with the themes of self-searching along with terrifically difficult adversaries which must be defeated using guile.

Jammer’s Reviews mentions in the season seven reviews that there were a number of episodes designed to tie up loose ends, specifically having to do with the families of each of the main characters. Interestingly, the writers managed to do this while keeping the same mix of adversary power as they had in previous seasons.

This season includes some of my favourites, including ‘The Pegasus‘, about regret over decisions made decades ago (and some more meaningful conflict between Riker and Picard, more meaningful than Riker just questioning everything Picard says for the sake of questioning things), Wesley going off with the Traveler, Ro Laren going off with the Maquis, spinning off into many storylines for DS9 (and not incidentally Voyager).

But the crown has to be the season finale, ‘All Good Things…’, where for one brief moment, our (and Picard’s) eyes are opened just a little bit to some of the other things which are possible, both out there, and in here.

[1]I don’t remember why specifically, I think I must have been distracted by something, because I think I stopped watching TV somewhere around then.