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Fiction Science Club

How the stars gave birth to the Human Cosmos

Once upon a time, the sky was filled with stories.

They might have been tales of migrating bulls, horses and antelopes, translated from the constellations into paintings in prehistoric caves. Or sagas about the cycles of life and death, commemorated in stone structures oriented to mark the seasons. Or legends about the Widower Sun and the Sky Coyote that dictated the timing of rains, ripenings and rituals for California’s Chumash culture.

Such stories helped ancient peoples get a grip on the workings of the natural world — and set the celestial stage for millennia of scientific advances. But ironically, those advances may be leading to the extinction of the stories, as well as the fading of the night sky.

“We understand so many wonders about the cosmos, but at the same time … we’ve never been so disconnected from the cosmos,” says Jo Marchant, the author of a new book titled “The Human Cosmos: Civilization and the Stars.”

In the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast, Marchant and I delve into how our cosmic perspective has been simultaneously sharpened and dulled. Give a listen to the Q&A via your favorite podcast channel, whether that’s Anchor, Apple, Spotify, Google, Breaker, Overcast, Pocket Casts or RadioPublic.

As a species, Homo sapiens is exceptionally skilled at recognizing, replicating and creating patterns out of raw data. In her book, Marchant traces how ancient cultures connected the star patterns they saw in the sky with the natural cycles they had to deal with on Earth, and how those connections evolved in the ages that followed.

Our proclivity for finding patterns can sometimes get us into trouble, as illustrated by the attraction to the Face on Mars — or, more recently, QAnon conspiracy theories. But in the main, it’s a good thing: An argument could be made that the scientific method boils down to the ability to identify patterns that knit together data, and verify that those patterns apply to subsequent occurrences.

Jo Marchant
Jo Marchant (Photo by P. Marchant)

“I’m interested in how we built the scientific view, but I’m also interested in what have we lost,” Marchant said. “Does it matter that we no longer see the stars? We know from light pollution that most people in Europe and the U.S. can no longer see the Milky Way, for example. With artificial lighting and heating, and air travel, and our computers and phones, we’re living in a way that’s more disconnected from the cycles of the sun and moon than ever before.”

An overreliance on our devices, and on perspectives that are divorced from the natural world, could leave us unaware about emerging risks from climate change and viral spillovers. It could also rob us of the emotional response that pushed our ancestors toward discoveries: a sense of awe about the vastness and complexity of the cosmos.

“One of the most common ways that scientists use to trigger awe in studies is to show people pictures or videos of the starry sky, and they’re finding that when people feel awe, it makes them more curious, more creative, less stressed, happier, even weeks later,” Marchant said.

Exercising your sense of awe can also have a beneficial social effect. “People make more ethical decisions,” Marchant said. “They’re more likely to make sacrifices to help others. They care less about money. They care more about the planet. They feel more connected to other people and the Earth as a whole.”

Can we heal our social and political divisions and unite to solve environmental challenges just by looking at pictures from the Hubble Space Telescope? If only it were that easy. Marchant said we’re sorely lacking in the kinds of stories that knit together the human and the natural world.

“Now we have this view of a physical universe out there — the scientific universe, if you like, made of particles and forces, and we’re separate observers of that,” she said.

The Human Cosmos
“The Human Cosmos,” published by Penguin Random House

The closest things we have to the cosmic myths of ancient times are science-fiction tales such as George Lucas’ Star Wars saga or Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. (The former took many of its themes from “The Hero With a Thousand Faces,”  Joseph Campbell’s distillation of mythic archetypes, while the latter was inspired by “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.”)

Even those sagas are more about all-too-human affairs rather than our connections with the heavens. The long-ago, faraway galaxy of Star Wars, for example, primarily serves as a new stage for war-movie drama, just as Lucian’s 1,850-year-old sci-fi novel served to satirize his own society.

When I asked what kind of sci-fi came closest to capturing the cosmic connection Marchant was looking for, she pointed to “Avatar,” James Cameron’s 2009 movie about the clash between naturalistic aliens and machinery-mad humans. (Due to coronavirus-related delays, the sequels are now scheduled for release between 2022 and 2028.)

But even before “Avatar 5” rolls out, another type of cosmic connection could well inspire a fresh wave of awe and innovation. Within the next decade, actual men and women could well be walking on the surface of the moon, and perhaps even on Mars.

“I think it makes a difference, having people up in space rather than just machines,” Marchant said. “It’s kind of going back to that ancient view of the heavens, of seeing these characters and people in the stars, in the skies. … There’s also that perspective of looking back down on Earth, which has been so influential — that view of Earth from space.”

Astronauts have long talked about the Overview Effect, a deep sense of oneness with the Earth that arises when seeing its full disk from space, paired with a heightened desire to protect the planet from harm.

Could a widening of the Overview Effect restore humanity’s cosmic balance? If so, it’d be a sky story worth retelling for ages to come.

Cosmic Log Used Book Club

After our podcast Q&A, I asked Marchant if she had any recommendations for science fiction worth reading or watching. On the streaming-video front, she talked up “Devs,” an FX/Hulu series that capitalizes on the many-worlds interpretation of quantum physics.

“What would the consequences of that be if you could have a computer that could literally predict everything that you were going to do in the future?” she asked. “How would that affect our sense of who we are, and our responsibilities?”

Deeplight cover
“Deeplight,” published by Pan Macmillan

On the book front, Marchant recommended Frances Hardinge’s “Deeplight,” a Lovecraftian fantasy tale that’s set in an underwater realm. “It’s a great adventure story, but also she’s looking into themes of power and the divine, and what happens when the gods are taken away,” she said.

Marchant said her favorite part of “Deeplight” was Hardinge’s disclaimer: “The laws of physics were harmed during the making of this book. In fact, I tortured them into horrific new shapes whilst cackling.”

Based on Marchant’s recommendation, I’m designating “Deeplight” as this month’s selection for the Cosmic Log Used Book Club, which spotlights books with cosmic themes that have been around long enough to pop up at used-book stores or your local library. For a list of previous CLUB Club selections going back to 2002, check out last month’s lineup.

UNESCO made Francesco Bandarin’s photo of the prehistoric auroch painted in the Lascaux Cave available under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 IGO license. We’ve added a rendering of the constellation Taurus.

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.

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Fiction Science Club

‘Twin Peaks’ star channels tech genius in ‘Tesla’

Can you picture Thomas Edison with a smartphone? Or poking a rival with an ice-cream cone? When you watch Kyle MacLachlan play one of America’s most famous inventors in the movie “Tesla,” you can.

And wait until you hear which 21st-century tech genius MacLachlan would love to portray next.

“The story of Elon Musk would be interesting, just because I think he’s a quirky fellow,” MacLachlan told me during an interview for the inaugural Fiction Science podcast. “That would be challenging, to understand who that his, and how he moves through the world, what he thinks, how he interacts with people.”

MacLachlan is pretty good at playing quirky roles. His best-known character is FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper, who delves into dark secrets, interdimensional weirdness and damn fine coffee in “Twin Peaks,” the classic TV series directed by David Lynch.

In a wide-ranging Q&A, MacLachlan and I talked about “Tesla” and “Twin Peaks,” as well as “Dune,” the science-fiction cult classic (or classic flop, depending on your perspective) from 1984 that marked his big-budget movie debut.

To cut to the chase, proceed directly to the Fiction Science podcast, which is also available via Apple, Spotify, Breaker, Pocket Casts and Radio Public.

It’s interesting that MacLachlan makes a connection between Thomas Edison and Elon Musk. Just as Musk has a long-running rivalry with Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos over rockets and cars, Edison butted heads with Nikola Tesla, a Croatian-born genius who was more eccentric in real life than Agent Cooper was on “Twin Peaks.”

The Edison vs. Tesla rivalry had to do with how best to distribute electricity, which was revolutionizing the American economy in the late 1800s. Edison favored the direct-current approach, which pushed the electrical charge in one unvarying direction. Tesla, in contrast, championed alternating current, which involves reversing the direction of the electrical flow dozens of times per second.

Edison argued that DC was safer than AC, and his associates went so far as to have dogs electrocuted with alternating current to prove his point (though a tale about electrocuting an elephant is said to be overblown). Despite Edison’s efforts, AC eventually won out — largely because DC electricity couldn’t be transmitted across long distances.

Tesla went on to blaze trails in wireless communication and power transmission — technologies that are continuing to change the world. But as brilliant as Tesla was as an engineer, he was a total failure as a businessman. He ended up dying penniless in a New York hotel room,

Edison, meanwhile, reaped fame and fortune — in part because of his pragmatism and hardheaded business sense.

“If he was working on something and it didn’t work, he would just try something else,” MacLachlan told me. “It was really that simple. There wasn’t a whole lot of thought given to it. It was just, ‘Let’s bring up the next thing and give that a shot, and see if that gets the job done.'”

Tesla’s life has been touched upon previously in TV shows and movies: In “The Prestige,” David Bowie played him as something of a light-bringing demigod with a Frankensteinian twist. More recently, Nicholas Hoult played Tesla as a foil to Benedict Cumberbatch’s Edison in “The Current War.” Both Edison and Tesla have had their turns in the documentary spotlight as part of PBS’ “American Experience” series.

In head-to-head match-ups with Edison, Tesla tends to come off as the lesser-known underdog. In fact, filmmaker David Grubin told me that when he was asked to do the Tesla documentary, he initially thought it was about the electric car built by Musk’s company of the same name.

In the new movie, veteran actor Ethan Hawke plays Tesla as an earnest electricity nerd who suffers outages in business — but nevertheless generates sparks with women admirers including actress Sarah Bernhardt and Anne Morgan (the scion of industrialist J.P. Morgan).

Anne, played by Eve Hewson, serves as the movie’s narrator and occasionally addresses the audience directly as she pulls up pictures of Tesla on a MacBook. After the Tesla vs. Edison ice-cream fight, Anne immediately sets viewers straight: “This is pretty surely not how it happened, but what can I tell you?” she says.

Those aren’t the only anachronisms engineered by “Tesla” director Michael Almereyda: In one scene, Edison is seen idly thumbing a smartphone, while in another, Tesla sings a karaoke rendition of “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.”

But not every weird twist in “Tesla” is an anachronism; some of them are true to life. Tesla really did rub elbows with Sarah Bernhardt and Anne Morgan, and he really did have many of the eccentricities shown in the movie — including an aversion to pearl necklaces and a need to polish his dinnerware with a set of 18 napkins before using them.

Toward the end of the movie, Tesla is shown obsessing over particle-beam weapons and the “statistical certainty” of extraterrestrial life. Back in Tesla’s time, such ideas may have seemed like science-fiction tales at best, and delusions at worst — but today they’re being taken totally seriously.

It’s debatable whether “Tesla” will succeed at the box office, but the mere fact that the movie was made with such high-profile stars argues that the real-life Tesla won’t be forgotten. And in case we’re ever tempted to forget, we should remember every time we switch on a light, flip open a laptop — or watch the movie on a mobile device.

Speaking of movies, here’s a video from astrophysicist Andy Howell that explains the AC vs. DC battle between Tesla and Edison in the context of “The Current War.”

IFC Films’ “Tesla” opens in theaters and on demand on Aug. 21. 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, Spotify, Breaker, Pocket Casts and Radio Public.

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Cosmic Books

Join the CLUB Club with Asimov’s Foundation books

Classic science-fiction tales from the likes of H.G. Wells, Aldous Huxley and Philip K. Dick are in the midst of a revival, thanks to streaming-video series such as “War of the Worlds,” “Brave New World” and “Man in the High Castle.”

Now one of the sci-fi world’s best-known sagas, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, is being reimagined for an Apple TV+ series due to premiere in 2021.

The saga had its genesis almost eight decades ago, and the action is set more than 10,000 years in the future. But the themes of the work — centering on the decline and fall of a high-tech empire, Machiavellian machinations and unintended consequences — are, if anything, more relevant than ever in the here and now.

That’s what makes the Foundation series the perfect literary work for the revival of the Cosmic Log Used Book Club.

The CLUB Club goes back to the foundation of Cosmic Log. In contrast to book clubs that promote pricey new publications, our aim is to highlight books with cosmic themes that should be available at used-book shops as well as local libraries.

Over the past 18 years, we’ve issued more than 60 CLUB Club selections — many of them suggested by Cosmic Log readers. And to celebrate the return of the CLUB Club, we’re giving you the full list at the end of this item.

We’re also presenting a book giveaway, so keep reading!

“Foundation” dates back to a series of short stories that were published in Astounding Magazine starting in 1942. In the 1950s, those stories were published as a book trilogy — and in the 1980s and 1990s, Asimov produced two sequels and two prequels.

The key concept is psychohistory, the idea that the mass behavior of billions of people can be predicted and shaped centuries in advance. The series’ foundational character, Hari Seldon, uses psychohistory to foresee the fall of a galactic empire. He also comes up with a plan to reduce the resulting dark age from 30,000 years to a mere millennium.

That idea may have seemed far-fetched in 1942. But in this age of micro-targeted messaging, demographic data analysis, disinformation campaigns and social-media groupthink, the concept is less weird and perhaps more worrisome.

The latter half of the Foundation Trilogy highlights another concept: the potential for one individual with a talent for inspiring loyalty and fear to throw the course of history on a different track. That concept is as relevant today as it was in the midst of the Second World War.

Asimov’s masterwork ended up having an influence on luminaries ranging from conservative politician Newt Gingrich to liberal economist Paul Krugman. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk thought so much of the Foundation Trilogy that he agreed to tuck digitized copies of the books aboard the Tesla Roadster that was launched toward Mars on a Falcon Heavy rocket in 2018. “They’re amazing,” he tweeted.

Who am I to argue with Elon Musk on this?

To celebrate the revival of the CLUB Club, as well as the centennial year of Asimov’s birth, let’s have a trivial giveaway. This giveaway is “trivial” not only because it involves a trivia question, but also because there’s a relatively trivial sum at stake.

The prize is a $4 Amazon e-gift card that can be put toward the purchase of the Foundation Trilogy — or, frankly, any other purchase. I’ll send that amount to the first person answering the quiz question correctly in a comment below, based on submitted time stamp.

Here’s the question:

The Foundation series features a fictional reference work that has also popped up in books written by Carl Sagan and Douglas Adams. What is the two-word name of that reference work?

Update: We have a winner! Congrats to Kathy Coyle…

In case you’ve already gotten all the way through the Foundation series, here are 66 other CLUB Club selections you can check out using your e-gift card or your library card:

  • “The Sparrow” by Mary Doria Russell (June 2002 selection)
  • “Alice in Quantumland” by Robert Gilmore (July 2002)
  • “Mr. Tompkins” series by George Gamow (August 2002)
  • “Manifold: Time” by Stephen Baxter (September 2002)
  • “Dreamer” by Richard L. Miller (October 2002)
  • “Earth” by David Brin (November 2002)
  • “Roadside Picnic” by A. and B. Strugatsky (December 2002)
  • “Strange Matters” by Tom Siegfried (January 2003)
  • “Out of the Silent Planet” by C.S. Lewis (February 2003)
  • “Stranger in a Strange Land” by Robert A. Heinlein (March 2003)
  • “The Copper Crown” by Patricia Kennealy (April 2003)
  • “Dragon’s Egg” by Robert L. Forward (May 2003)
  • “The Elegant Universe” by Brian Greene (June 2003)
  • “Contact” by Carl Sagan (July 2003)
  • “A Skywatcher’s Year” by Jeff Kanipe (August 2003)
  • Mars Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson (September 2003)
  • “Book of the New Sun” series by Gene Wolfe (September 2003)
  • “The Best of AIR” by Marc Abrahams (October 2003)
  • “Flare” by R. Zelazny and Thomas T. Thomas (November 2003)
  • “Mother of Storms” by John Barnes (November 2003)
  • “Mars: Uncovering the Secrets of the Red Planet” by Paul Raeburn (December 2003)
  • Tripods Trilogy by John Christopher (January 2004)
  • “A Princess of Mars” by Edgar Rice Burroughs (February 2004)
  • “Bad Astronomy” by Phil Plait (March 2004)
  • “The Spirit of St. Louis” by Charles Lindbergh (April 2004)
  • “Angels and Demons” by Dan Brown (May 2004)
  • “The Man Who Sold the Moon” by Robert A. Heinlein (June 2004)
  • “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” by P.K. Dick (July 2004)
  • “Idlewild” by Nick Sagan (August 2004)
  • “The Right Stuff” by Tom Wolfe (October 2004)
  • “Science and Theology” by J.C. Polkinghorne (November 2004)
  • “Evolution” by Stephen Baxter (December 2004)
  • “Krakatoa” by Simon Winchester (January 2005)
  • “Killing Star” by C. Pellegrino and G. Zebrowski (February 2005)
  • “The Forge of God” by Greg Bear (March 2005)
  • “Short History of Nearly Everything” by B. Bryson (April 2005)
  • “The Red One” by Jack London (May 2005)
  • “N.Y. Times Book of Science Questions and Answers” (June 2005)
  • “Heavy Weather” by Bruce Sterling and “Forty Signs of Rain” by Kim Stanley Robinson (August 2005)
  • “Chaos” by James Gleick (October 2005)
  • “A Brief (or Briefer) History of Time” by Stephen Hawking (and Leonard Mlodinow) (November 2005)
  • “A Wrinkle in Time” by Madeleine L’Engle (December 2005)
  • “1491” by Charles C. Mann (January 2006)
  • “Ender’s Game” by Orson Scott Card (February 2006)
  • “The Gnostic Gospels” by Elaine Pagels (March 2006)
  • “Prey” by Michael Crichton (April 2006)
  • “Hellstrom’s Hive” by Frank Herbert (May 2006)
  • “Inferno” by Jerry Pournelle (August 2006)
  • “This Place Has No Atmosphere” by Paula Danziger and “Countdown for Cindy” by Eloise Engel (September 2006)
  • “Orbit” by John J. Nance (October 2006)
  • “Time and Again” by Jack Finney (November 2006)
  • “God in the Equation” by Corey Powell (December 2006)
  • “Conversations on Consciousness” by S. Blackmore (Jan. 2007)
  • “Everyday Life in New Testament Times” by Bouquet (April 2007)
  • “Supernova” by Roger Allen and Eric Kotani (May 2007)
  • “The Twilight of Briareus” by Richard Cowper (June 2007)
  • “The Traveler” by John Twelve Hawks (July 2007)
  • “Slaughterhouse-Five” by Kurt Vonnegut (August 2007)
  • “Flatland” by Edwin A. Abbott and “The Fourth Dimension” by Rudy Rucker (December 2007)
  • “The Year 1000” by D. Danziger and R. Lacey (November 2009)
  • “Creation” by Randal Keynes (January 2010)
  • “In Search of Time” by Dan Falk (February 2010)
  • “Space” by James Michener (September 2011)

What’s your favorite cosmic reading matter? Pass your suggestion along in a comment, and it just might be featured as a future CLUB Club selection.

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GeekWire

How the cloud lifts ‘The Expanse’ out of this world

Dominique Tipper on 'The Expanse'
Engineer Naomi Nagata (played by Dominique Tipper) watches a projectile whiz past her in an episode of “The Expanse.” Mavericks VFX was responsible for the whiz. (Mavericks VFX Photo)

It used to take a cast of thousands to create cinematic extravaganzas, but now the job can be done with a cast of dozens of artists and developers, plus thousands of cloud-connected computer servers.

The proof of that can be seen today in science-fiction epics ranging from “Star Wars” to “The Expanse.” And those shows merely hint at the beginning of a computer-generated revolution in visual effects, or VFX. Just wait until artificial intelligence hits its prime.

“That’s changing the game for all of us,” Brendan Taylor, president and visual effects supervisor for Mavericks VFX, told me. “That’s going to turn the VFX industry on its head in the next couple of years.”

Get the full story on GeekWire.

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GeekWire

Real-life planet quest goes far beyond Star Wars

Luke Skywalker on Tatooine
Luke Skywalker’s home planet, Tatooine, and its two suns are a good example of science echoing Star Wars. Or is it the other way around? (Lucasfilm / 20th Century Fox Photo)

Over the past 42 years, filmgoers have seen exotic worlds come to life in a succession of Star Wars movies — a series that is now coming to a climax with “Star Wars: Episode IX, The Rise of Skywalker.” But are those exoplanets really all that exotic anymore?

Sure, we’ve seen two suns in the sky over the sands of Tatooine, Luke Skywalker’s home planet. We’ve been to an ice planet (Hoth) and a lava planet (Mustafar). We’ve even spent time on a habitable exomoon that’s in orbit around a gas giant (Endor).

Back in 1977, most of us might have thought those types of worlds to be science-fiction fantastical. Today, they’re seen as totally plausible categories in the study of thousands of planets beyond our solar system. And Rory Barnes, a University of Washington astronomer who focuses on astrobiology and the habitability of exoplanets, suspects Star Wars creator George Lucas knew this could happen.

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GeekWire

Blue Origin links space fiction and space facts

If “The Expanse” ever decides to shoot episodes of the science-fiction series on a Blue Origin spaceship, Wes Chatham is ready to go.

“I do think it’d be an excellent marketing opportunity to be the first show that shoots a scene in space,” said Chatham, who plays the role of a space jockey with a gruff exterior but a soft heart on the Amazon Prime Video series.

His comments came to light in a video documenting the “Expanse” cast’s visit to Blue Origin’s headquarters in Kent, Wash. That visit took place in March, but back then, all we had to go on were tweets from Chatham’s fellow actors. Today, Prime Video posted highlights from the visit to publicize next week’s Season 4 premiere. This’ll be the first season to have its first-run airing on Amazon, thanks in part to CEO Jeff Bezos’ intervention.

Bezos also owns the Blue Origin space venture, so it was an obvious move to have the “Expanse” cast and crew stop by during March’s tour of Amazon’s home territory. In addition to the show’s stars, the entourage included showrunner Naren Shankar as well as Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, who are co-authors of the “Expanse” book series under the pen name James S.A. Corey.

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GeekWire

Alexa, who’s your favorite Star Trek captain?

When the actor who plays the boss’ favorite Star Trek captain drops in at the office, it’s best to agree with the boss. Even though Amazon’s Alexa is just a computerized voice assistant, she clearly understands that much.

That’s basically how things went down today when Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos dropped in at the Seattle office where comedy writers come up with bon mots for Alexa … with Patrick Stewart, who plays Captain Jean-Luc Picard, at his side.

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GeekWire

‘Terminator’ is back! AI experts do a reality check

'Terminator: Dark Fate'
The killer robot in “Terminator: Dark Fate,” played by Gabriel Luna, can split into a human-looking ectoskeleton at left, and a metallic endoskeleton at right. (Paramount Pictures Photo)

He promised he’d be back — and 35 years after Arnold Schwarzenegger created what’s now a cliche for artificial intelligence gone wrong in the first “Terminator” movie, the cinematic nightmares about time-traveling killer robots have returned to the big screen.

“Terminator: Dark Fate” also marks the return of writer/producer James Cameron — who directed the first two movies in the franchise, but wasn’t involved in the three sequels that followed. Cameron skips over those films and reboots the saga with an alternate timeline for the robo-apocalypse.

Although monstrous machines have figured in movie plots since Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” in 1927, Schwarzenegger’s performance in “The Terminator” set the stage for worries about out-of-control intelligent machines.

Billionaire techie Elon Musk is among the best-known doomsayers. “I keep sounding the alarm bell, but until people see robots going down the street, killing people, they don’t know how to react because it seems so ethereal,” Musk said in 2017.

On the other side of the debate, Oren Etzioni, the CEO of Seattle’s Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, or AI2, keeps telling people to calm down. “Even though AI is more and more being used, I want to reassure people that Skynet and Terminator are not around the corner for many, many reasons,” he told GeekWire in 2016.

Does the new “Terminator” movie update the saga with all the developments in AI, automation and robotics since 1984? How does “Dark Fate” stack up against the realities of our AI age? To get some informed perspectives, I invited two folks who work in the field to watch the movie with me — and share their thoughts afterward.

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GeekWire

Brad Pitt gets thumbs-up from space for ‘Ad Astra’

Brad Pitt at NASA
Brad Pitt, the star of the space movie “Ad Astra,” chats with NASA astronaut Nick Hague over a video hookup to the International Space Station. (NASA via YouTube)

Imagine the taglines in the movie ads: “Really good” portrayal of zero-gravity! “Absolutely” better than George Clooney!

There’d be some justification for Brad Pitt’s space movie, “Ad Astra,” to use those lines after today’s Earth-to-space video call between the A-list Hollywood star and NASA astronaut Nick Hague, who’s finishing up a six-month tour of duty on the International Space Station.

Pitt said the linkup, arranged through NASA, was a “real treat.” And he didn’t waste any time getting a film review from Hague, who watched an advance screening of “Ad Astra” with his crewmates on the station.

“Now that I have you all the way up at the space station, let’s talk about me,” Pitt said. “How’d we do? How was our zero-G?”

“I gotta tell you, it was really good,” Hague said as he floated amid the trappings of the station’s Destiny laboratory module. “The depictions, the settings, as you can tell, look very similar to the type of setting I’ve got around me.”

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GeekWire

5 big ideas from sci-fi author Neal Stephenson

Science-fiction author Neal Stephenson discusses hsi latest book, “Fall; or, Dodge in Hell,” at Town Hall Seattle. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

Seattle author Neal Stephenson’s works of fiction often play off the potential for future facts — for example, the virtual world described in “Snow Crash,” the nanotechnology at the heart of “The Diamond Age” and the millennium-scale thinking that’s embodied in “Anathem” (and in the real-life 10,000 Year Clock bankrolled by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos).

His latest novel, “Fall; or, Dodge in Hell,” kicks it up a notch with ruminations about what it would take to create an artificial afterlife, powered by computerized replicas of human consciousness.

Stephenson acknowledges that his vision in the afterlife in “Fall” plays loosely with the facts of neuroscience. But his books touch on other technological themes that are closer to reality, and he discussed several of those themes this week during a talk at Town Hall Seattle. Here’s a roundup of five ideas well worth thinking about — with recommendations for further reading.

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