Categories
Fiction Science Club

Get a way-out reality check on dreams of leaving Earth

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos wants to have millions of people living and working in space — that’s why he founded his Blue Origin space venture more than two decades ago. But what if living in space turns out to be like holing up in an Amazon warehouse?

“The reality of going to another planet in our current environment, I think … the best analogy is an Amazon fulfillment center,” Taylor Genovese, an anthropologist at Arizona State University, says in “Last Exit: Space,” a new documentary about space settlement narrated by famed filmmaker Werner Herzog.

“You won’t be able to actually see where you are,” Genovese explains. “You’re going to be inside of a factory, and you’re not going to experience what you think you’re going to be experiencing — that is, the kind of awe of being on another planet and experiencing being off Earth. No, you’re going to be working inside of a cubicle.”

That’s a perspective you won’t often hear in the wave of space documentaries flowing through streaming-video outlets, including “Countdown” and “Return to Space” on Netflix, and “Secrets of the Universe” on Curiosity Stream.

But Rudolph Herzog — Werner’s son and the director of “Last Exit: Space,” now playing on Discovery+ — wasn’t that interested in doing a conventional documentary about the final frontier.

“I just like the edgy, quirky stories,” the younger Herzog, who’s built up his own portfolio of film projects, explains in the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast. “I think everybody knows about Elon Musk, and everybody knows what Jeff Bezos is up to. … I just wanted to show the incredible lengths people will go to, to live this dream of going to space.”

Categories
GeekWire

‘Kimi’ takes its cue from Alexa, Siri and Seattle tech

Once again, Seattle’s tech scene provides the backdrop for a high-profile movie on HBO Max — but this time, it’s serious.

Oscar-winning film director Steven Soderbergh’s tech-noir thriller, “Kimi,” echoes movies like “Rear Window” and “The Conversation” in a tale that also reflects the mind-wrenching isolation forced by the COVID-19 pandemic and the concerns raised by smart devices that are capable of tracking our every move.

Zoë Kravitz portrays an employee at a Seattle tech startup that markets a smart speaker and AI voice assistant called Kimi. The startup is gearing up for an IPO that promises a big payoff, but as Kravitz’s character works through a list of audio files that Kimi couldn’t understand, she happens upon a snippet that suggests a crime was committed. Her efforts to get to the truth spark a classic spy chase with some extra tech twists.

It’s a tale far darker than “Superintelligence,” the 2020 romantic comedy starring Melissa McCarthy as a Seattle techie and James Corden as an AI overlord.

Will “Kimi” stir up a debate over AI voice assistants? Does the movie accurately reflect the Seattle vibe? Will it generate as much buzz as Amazon’s Alexa, or will it flop as hard as the Fire Phone? The early indications are mixed: On the Rotten Tomatoes website, for example, the critical consensus is thumbs-up (89%) while the audience score is an emphatic thumbs-down (52%).

To get the verdict from ground zero, we turned to the experts who helped us sort out the fact, fiction and frivolousness in “Superintelligence”: Carissa Schoenick, director of program management and communication at Seattle’s Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence; and Kurt Schlosser, GeekWire’s go-to guy for coverage of Seattle’s tech culture.

Categories
Fiction Science Club

The realities behind the ridiculousness of ‘Moonfall’

Even geophysicist Mika McKinnon, one of the science consultants for a $140 million disaster movie called “Moonfall,” admits that the moon-crashing tale is ridiculously exuberant.

So what’s wrong with that?

“A movie is supposed to be fun, and science is allowed to be fun,” McKinnon says in the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast, which focuses on the intersection of science and fiction. “You don’t need to nitpick at it, or rip it all apart.”

Science-minded spoilsports would probably find it about as easy to rip apart the plot of “Moonfall” as it was for giant tidal waves to rip apart the space shuttle launch pad at California’s Vandenberg Space Force Base in the movie. (One of the plot twists involves taking the shuttle Endeavour off its L.A. museum perch and blasting off from Vandenberg, which was once set up as a shuttle launch site.)

The movie is based on a premise that’s even harder to imagine than resurrecting a space shuttle for a lunar mission: A conspiracy theorist (portrayed by portly John Bradley of “Game of Thrones” fame) discovers that the moon is spiraling out of orbit toward Earth, and eventually persuades NASA to go into world-saving mode (with Halle Berry and Patrick Wilson playing leading roles).

“Moonfall” riffs on the recent scientific speculation over alien megastructures, throws in a villainous swarm of nanobots, and adds a dash of Apollo moon-hoax hokum. It’s the kind of ripped-from-the-tabloid-headlines approach that’s worked in the past for the film’s director, Roland Emmerich, in movies like “Independence Day,” “2012” and “The Day After Tomorrow.”

“There are some who believe that the moon is not a natural object,” Emmerich says in the “Moonfall” production notes. “I thought that was an intriguing idea for a movie. What happens if this object falls down to Earth?”

McKinnon and the movie’s other science consultants were tasked with providing plausible answers to that implausible question.

Categories
Universe Today

Tom Cruise movie’s producers plan space studio

The production company that’s playing a key role in a space movie project involving Tom Cruise says it’s working with Axiom Space to add a sports and entertainment facility to the International Space Station by the end of 2024.

The inflatable module, known as SEE-1, would be built by Axiom for Space Entertainment Enterprise and attached to the commercial complex that Axiom is already planning to put on the space station, SEE said today in a news release.

The facility would provide a studio for film, TV and music production as well as a space for performances and sports events. “SEE-1 is an incredible opportunity for humanity to move into a different realm and start an exciting new chapter in space,” said SEE’s co-founders, Dmitry and Elena Lesnevsky.

Dmitry Lesnevsky made his name in Russia as a film/TV producer, publisher and a co-founder of REN TV, but SEE is based in London. The Lesnevskys are listed among the producers of the unnamed Tom Cruise space film project, which has the support of SpaceX and NASA. (SpaceX founder Elon Musk is listed as a producer as well.)

Axiom Space, which has struck a deal with SpaceX to send its first customers on a visit to space station later this year, is expected to facilitate the Tom Cruise project, but the timing for that project has not been announced. It’s not yet clear whether the Tom Cruise project would make use of SEE-1.

Categories
Fiction Science Club

‘Don’t Look Up’ aims a satirical spotlight at a cosmic threat

The science adviser for “Don’t Look Up,” a star-studded comedy about a killer comet, has some serious advice for dodging a threat from the skies: Take the title of the movie, and do the exact opposite.

“The sensible thing to do about this particular problem is … just go look up and see if it’s out there,” said Amy Mainzer, a planetary scientist at the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. “And do a thorough enough job of it that we have a reasonable chance of spotting something that’s large enough to cause appreciable damage, well before it could make its way here.”

The roughly 5-mile-wide comet that’s heading for Earth in “Don’t Look Up,” with only about six and a half months of advance warning, is totally fictional. Nevertheless, the movie is a teachable moment for the science surrounding asteroids, comets and planetary defense. And Mainzer said the stars of the show, including Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence, were unusually eager students.

“These actors wanted to know everything,” she said. “I would say they’re approaching some pretty solid knowledge of just how do we find asteroids and comets, and what do we do about them.”

Mainzer discusses what’s going on with the search for potentially threatening near-Earth objects, as well as her experience as a science adviser for “Don’t Look Up,” in the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast, coming to you from the place where science and technology intersect with fiction and popular culture. You can listen to the episode via your favorite podcast channel — or right here:

Categories
Fiction Science Club

Scientist takes a trip to the frontiers of consciousness

Could magic mushrooms hold the key that unlocks the secrets of consciousness?

Well, maybe not the only key. But Allen Institute neuroscientist Christof Koch says that hallucinogenic drugs such as psilocybin, the active ingredient found in special types of mushrooms, can contribute to clinical research into the roots of depression, ecstasy and what lies beneath our sense of self.

“What they can teach us about consciousness is that the self is just one aspect of consciousness,” Koch says in the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast. “You’re still highly conscious, and very often this is associated with states of ecstasy, or states of fear or terror, or a combination of ecstasy and terror. … What’s remarkable is that in all of these states, the self is gone, and very often the external world is gone, yet you’re highly conscious.”

The quest to understand consciousness through detailed analysis of the brain’s structure and function, scientific studies of religious and traditional practices — and yes, research into the effects of psychedelic drugs — is the focus of a 102-minute documentary film titled “Aware: Glimpses of Consciousness.”

“Aware” has been on the film-festival circuit for weeks, and an online showing will be the centerpiece of a live-streaming event set for Nov. 10. The documentary will also air on PBS stations next April as part of public TV’s Independent Lens series.

Koch, who’s the chief scientist of the Seattle-based Allen Institute’s MindScope brain-mapping program, is one of the stars of the show.

Categories
GeekWire

How the ‘Dune’ sci-fi saga parallels the science of dunes

The deserts of Abu Dhabi and Jordan play starring roles in the blockbuster sci-fi movie “Dune,” which premieres this week in theaters and on HBO Max — but the origins of the classic tale go back to a different set of dunes on the Oregon coast.

“Dune” creator Frank Herbert spent much of his life in the Pacific Northwest, from his childhood days in Tacoma to his stint as the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s education editor. (When I worked at the P-I back in the 1980s, some of my fellow copy editors could still reminisce about Herbert’s habits.)

In 1957, Herbert spent some time researching what he hoped would be a magazine article about a U.S. Department of Agriculture project to stabilize the shifting sand dunes near Florence, Ore., by planting invasive beachgrass. The article was never finished, but according to “Dreamer of Dune,” a biography written by Herbert’s son Brian, the idea of transforming the dunes made a huge impression.

“Dad realized he had something bigger in front of him than a magazine article,” Brian Herbert wrote. “He sat back at his desk and remembered flying over the Oregon dunes in a Cessna. Sand. A desert world. He envisioned the earth without the technology to stop encroaching sand dunes, and extrapolated that idea until an entire planet had become a desert.”

From that initial thread of an idea, the elder Herbert wove six novels, published between 1965 and 1985. Since then, Brian Herbert and  longtime sci-fi collaborator Kevin J. Anderson have written more than a dozen of their own “Dune” sequels and prequels. (The latest was published just last month.)

The newly released movie covers just the first half of the original “Dune” novel. But in subsequent books, Herbert traced how fictional scientists tried to green up the desert planet of Arrakis — and how that brought about unanticipated, even problematic consequences.

Strangely enough, that part of the story parallels what’s now happening amid Oregon’s dunes. It’s a case of life imitating art … imitating life.

“It feels very extreme and sci-fi when you see it in a movie or in a book, but it’s also just like real U.S. government land management,” said Rebecca Mostow, a graduate research assistant at Oregon State University.

Categories
Cosmic Science

‘Tomorrow War’ adds time travel twist to today’s problems

As far as we know, we won’t be facing an alien uprising in 2051 — but there are plenty of catastrophes that could be hitting with full force by then, ranging from the wildfires, droughts and floods associated with climate change to super-pandemics and food and water shortages.

In that context, the aliens of “The Tomorrow War” — a sci-fi movie making its debut today on Amazon Prime — serve as stand-ins for the perils we could well bring upon ourselves over the next three decades.

“The Tomorrow War,” starring Chris Pratt, calls to mind earlier time-twisting movies including “Edge of Tomorrow” (the Tom Cruise alien-battle flick) and “It’s a Wonderful Life” (watch for Pratt’s “heehaw” greeting, which was used in the Jimmy Stewart classic as well).

This time, the time travel trope includes a setup in which unsuspecting present-day citizens are drafted to fight future-day aliens as unrelenting as the bug-eyed monsters of “Starship Troopers.”

“I wanted to do something with the idea of conscription, the draft, for a long time. The idea of not having it be about necessarily an ideology, or patriotism, or loyalty to your country, but being about literally your desire to save your own kids,” screenwriter Zach Dean said during a pre-premiere press conference. “Who doesn’t sign up for that?”

Categories
Fiction Science Club

Why ‘Voyagers’ puts space travelers in a rat maze

Space may be vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big, as humorist Douglas Adams wrote in “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” But during a long journey,  a spaceship’s confined quarters can feel mind-bogglingly small — potentially messing with a space traveler’s mind.

Depression, isolation and brain fog are among the health hazards traditionally associated with months-long space missions.  And back in 1999, a 110-day simulated space mission in Russia reportedly sparked even more serious flare-ups, including a sexual harassment case and a bloody fistfight between crew members.

So what might happen if space travelers go on a decades-long odyssey to a far-off, habitable star system — a mission so long that the children who begin the trip have little hope of seeing its end?

That’s the premise of “Voyagers,” a movie written and directed by Neil Burger. And it shouldn’t be any surprise that sex and violence are part of the formula, as they were during the simulated space trip in 1999.

In the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast, production designer Scott Chambliss discusses how the stripped-down, closed-in environment he created for the movie’s multi-generational spaceship sets the scene for a space-based retelling of “Lord of the Flies.”

Categories
Fiction Science Club

Hollywood creates a new kind of killer comet

If a killer asteroid or comet comes our way, don’t expect Bruce Willis or Robert Duvall to try flying to the rescue. And don’t expect doom to arrive in one big dose.

Those are two of the lessons that Hollywood has learned since 1998, when “Armageddon” and “Deep Impact” put death from the skies on the big screen. The killer-comet theme returns in “Greenland,” a big-budget movie that’s making its debut on premium video-on-demand this weekend. But the plot twists are dramatically different.

There’s a different look to the movie as well, thanks in part to the research that was done by visual effects supervisor Marc Massicotte.

“The movies of the past have had a large creative influence on the direction we wanted to take, but at the same time, we didn’t want to repeat what had been done,” he told me. “We wanted to update and also be as close [as possible] to what reality as we know it now is.”

Massicotte discussed his vision of doomsday for the Fiction Science podcast, which focuses on the intersection of science and fiction.  And to even out the proportion of science to fiction, I also checked in with Danica Remy, president of the B612 Foundation. Remy’s group focuses on the threats posed by asteroids and comets, as well as strategies to head off such threats — none of which involve Bruce Willis.

“Every movie that talks about this subject is a way to educate the public and raise awareness about the issue,” Remy told me. “The science in the movies may not be correct, but certainly the discussion and the education aspect — you know, the fact that these things do happen — we think is a plus.”

Massicotte was especially taken by the idea that incoming space objects may not hit the ground at all, but instead break apart as they plunge through the atmosphere, setting off a powerful airburst.

That was the case for the Tunguska blast that flattened half a million acres of Siberian forest in 1908, and for the Chelyabinsk meteor that injured hundreds of Russians in 2013.

For Massicotte, the fact that an airburst would look so good on the big screen was a bonus. “You’d have an asteroid that would come in and have an airburst — and in nighttime it would pretty much light up the sky, and light up its whole environment as if we were in total daytime, having beautiful shifting shadows and shadow play on vehicles that were driving at night on the road,” he said.

Several other choices were made with a nod toward scientific findings. For example, the filmmakers went with a killer comet rather than a killer asteroid, because comets are typically harder to track than asteroids. Virtually all of the near-Earth asteroids capable of causing mass extinctions are already being monitored, thanks largely to an effort that started around the time that “Armageddon” made its debut.

Even better, the comet in “Greenland” is an interstellar object, which plays off the first-ever detection of an interstellar asteroid in 2017. And the filmmakers set up the plot so that the comet broke up as it rounded the sun, turning a single object into thousands of unpredictable pieces.

As Massicotte and his teammates created the visuals for the movie’s latter scenes, they took their cues from the wildfires that were sweeping over Australia while the movie was being made. That explains the reddish sky that gives everything an eerie glow as the world burns.

“Considering the time frame within the film, the time that has passed, the amount of impacts that have hit the Earth and the devastation of ongoing fires from these impacts, we wanted to show how it had started to affect the climate,” Massicotte said.

There are also parallels to yet another real-world crisis, the coronavirus pandemic. The movie’s name, “Greenland,” refers to the location of a huge military shelter that was held over from the Cold War. Who decides which people survive? How do the deciders enforce their will? The failings and sacrifices that come to light in the course of the comet crisis may strike a chord for those concerned about COVID-19.

The script for “Greenland” doesn’t include parts for the brave astronauts who try to subdue the killer comet — which is pretty much how it would be in real life.

Remy said that none of the three generally accepted methods for diverting a potentially hazardous asteroid would involve sending humans. One calls for a kinetic impactor to smash into the asteroid, changing its course just enough to result in a miss. Another would use a “gravity tractor” to tug the asteroid into a slightly different orbit.

“The third one, which we hope we never have to use, is a nuclear standoff,” Remy said, “where you don’t blow it up, like in ‘Armageddon,’ but where you would explode it near the asteroid, and then the explosion will push the asteroid away.”

Scientists still have a lot to learn about comets, asteroids and interstellar objects — and about the best ways to keep our planet safe from cosmic threats — but perhaps the most promising plot development is that scientists are quick learners.

This month, Japan’s Hayabusa 2 probe delivered fresh samples from a carbon-rich asteroid that’s likely to help scientists figure out how such asteroids are put together. NASA’s OSIRIS-REx probe is carrying an even bigger load of asteroid samples back to Earth. And a future mission known as the Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART, will actually try out the kinetic impactor method for diverting an asteroid.

Even Massicotte is fascinated by the real-life science behind big-screen tales of killer asteroids and comets. “It’s all these little aspects that I’m still very curious about and would love to learn more about, obviously,” he told me. “It has shone a light on our little place in the universe — and how we’re not so indestructible.”

Use the form at the bottom of this post to subscribe to Cosmic Log, and stay tuned for future episodes of the Fiction Science podcast via Anchor, Apple, Google, Overcast, Spotify, Breaker, Pocket Casts and Radio Public. If you like Fiction Science, please rate the podcast and subscribe to get alerts for future episodes.