Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Boldly Go

The boy stopped in at his dorm room briefly, after his mid-morning class. A couple things to fetch before the afternoon’s slate of activities kicked in. He flicked on the radio, set to the very local AM station, and noted his good fortune: a news update.

The report had begun already. The boy tried to discern what was going on in the story being reported, but without the introductory remarks to help him, he was a little at-sea. The reporter was hushed, speculative, without a bit of the usual “hey I’m on the radio” news-but-nearly-entertainment spark in his voice. Occasionally another voice emerged from the audio background, and the boy instantly recognized it.

Mission Control.

The boy had been greatly interested in the American space program ever since he could remember. He’d lie on the living room floor with a map, taken from the centerfold of an issue of National Geographic, of The Solar System, and study it for great long periods of time (as was befitting of a universe that was very old indeed). His imagination had been fired by episodes of original-series Star Trek, and by dim memories of the Apollo moon landings. Any time there was mention of the space program, or of space exploration, the little kid in him dropped everything and listened.

And so, he listened.

It was bad.

Well, something was bad, at least, but the boy was still having trouble taking the radio-reported puzzle pieces and assembling them into a completed mosaic.

Downrange” … “obviously we have a major malfunction” … “there is no downlink” …

Rockets had gone up and then come down, unceremoniously, before. Film clips of that sort of thing were common in video montages of “the agony of defeat” – especially the attempts by the Soviet space program, oddly-shaped projectiles that leapt briefly into the air before coming straight back down and setting their own launch pad on fire. Nothing like the majestic Saturn V rockets thundering off the pad at Cape Canaveral …

Oh wait. Oh hell. That was happening today, wasn’t it. That was supposed to be this morning.

The teacher going into space.

And something went wrong. But they still won’t tell me what it is. Because maybe they don’t know.

The boy had to get to lunch, on his way to afternoon classes. He picked up his things, shut off the radio, and headed out, with that awful sense that something is very wrong in the world but without the proper details to suggest just what.

On a whim, the boy detoured from his usual dorm-to-dining-hall path and headed for the campus center. Something suggested to him that there might be more information there.

Sure enough. There were at least sixty students crowded around a television mounted on a tall metal cart just outside a campus center convenience store, staring, shaking their heads, not saying very much. Dan Rather was the talking head, and next to him was a scale model of a Space Shuttle, mounted on its maroon fuel tank, flanked by its two solid-rocket-boosters. The boy instantly knew exactly what he was going to hear, as he tried to get closer to the TV.

There was no announcement on the fate of the crew, but it appeared … there was no way they could survive …”

He stood and watched for another few minutes. Then he turned and headed back to the dining hall. Such a cliché to say that while the world looked exactly as it had for days and months and years before, there was now something completely different. But it was true.

Hi all,” the boy said to a table full of his friends. One of them pulled out a chair and pointed to it, and the boy sat down, with a small smile of thanks. “Ready for this?”

What?”

Challenger just went down.”

What?”

Space Shuttle. They think it crashed just after lifting off, just now.”

The boy had to do quite a bit of work to convince his friends that he wasn’t pulling their legs. “Would I make a joke about that sort of thing?” Not merely because he wasn’t heavily into pulling practical jokes that had to do with seven astronauts reportedly dying horribly; but because people knew he was something of a Trek nerd, and therefore probably was a space program nerd too.

Since the Internet and smartphones were decades away, they had to take his word for it until they could get to a TV or a radio and see for themselves.

Meanwhile, the boy thought, for the first time in his life, manned space flight was not certain to end in triumph, like all those TV episodes. Really, it was just as dangerous as it always had been. For heaven’s sake (pun?), for years we’d been parking humans on top of a container full of many tons of intensely flammable fuel and lighting the stuff on fire, in the hopes that the humans could be launched into orbit, and then somehow those humans could make their way to the moon or somewhere, and then could actually make it home. (And usually, those efforts were supported by a roomful of computers, the equivalent of whose computing power now resides in the single iMac sitting on my desk here, from which I am blogging.)

What could possibly go wrong?

Apparently, the investigation eventually concluded, the effects of unusually cold Florida weather upon a tiny little O-shaped rubber ring inside a solid rocket booster. That’s what could go wrong.

Eight zillion little details, and not a one of them is allowed to go wrong. Otherwise … disaster.

The boy used to think it was ridiculous that, on every single Star Trek episode, something went wrong aboard the Starship Enterprise. What kind of rattle trap are they sending Captain Kirk out there on? That’s the flagship of Starfleet Command?

The boy didn’t think that, so much, anymore.

He even started to think about the eight zillion little details involved when cars started. Or when basement furnaces kicked in on a chilly morning. Or when band buses pulled out of the parking lot, headed for faraway places that were not, in fact, that far away really.

So he had even greater, even more firmly renewed respect for the people who were willing to climb on top of all that rocket fuel and agree to have someone light the fuse … and then spend a week surrounded by nothing but vacuum that you can’t breathe when your air hose snaps, and surrounded by no gravity to push against and nothing to grab hold of when you let go of your tether or your handhold.

Breathtaking, jaw-dropping, brain-freezing, heart-in-your-throat -grade peril … cheerfully accepted. That’s the reality of space exploration, and that’s okay with us, say our astronautical hero types. Or at least that’s what we’re showing the cameras, even if there’s a tiny sliver of terror hanging out in the back of our minds, since with Gemini and Apollo and Skylab behind us, we know full well what potential challenges we’re getting ourselves into.

Thirty years ago this morning, the Space Shuttle Challenger made its final launch, Mission STS-51-L. Commander Francis R. Scobee, Pilot Michael J. Smith, Mission Specialists Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, and Judith Resnick, and Payload Specialists Gregory Jarvis and Christa McAuliffe went out to explore, and didn’t come home. Doubtless they had some idea that there was risk involved; but that didn’t keep them from going. There was work to be done; there were things to be learned.

And now, there are folks in orbit, as we speak, aboard the International Space Station, and it doesn’t ever make the news. They’re up there, quietly doing great work, in their little tiny bubble of hospitable environment, surrounded by the great beyond. They have to get up there, somehow, and they do. They have to get back to Earth somehow, and they do that too. In part, they do all that thanks to the people who were charged with figuring out what (and who) went wrong, thirty years ago, so that humans might continue to focus on more lofty goals than just getting up there and getting back down.

As it turns out, the folks who first wrote the words “to boldly go where no man has gone before” either were strikingly prescient … or they didn’t know the half of it.

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January 28, 2016 Posted by | heroes, news, science, technology | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Science Fiction

This week, a tiny corner of the Internet flipped its lid. And that lid-flipping reminded me of some writing that I did awhile ago about first impressions.

Recently, a documentary has been produced on the subject of geocentrism. I confess: I had to go look that one up. Not many words in the English language give me pause – which I don’t say with hubris; it’s just that in my life, I’ve read a lot, so I’ve banged into arguably the majority of useful English words. Geo-, having to do with earth. -Centric, having to do with perhaps an overemphasis upon.

Geocentrism, as a concept, is at odds with heliocentrism. Heliocentrism has to do with the idea that stuff revolves around the sun. Therefore …

Wait wait wait wait. Geocentrism: a belief that all cosmic stuff revolves around the Earth??

Is this not still 2014? Have not Copernicus, Kepler and what remains of NASA not weighed in on this issue?

For context, we note that this is the year 2014, and yet science has been taking it on the chin lately. There are a bunch of people in positions of policymaking authority who are challenging the scientific method and its recent results (e.g. stuff we’ve had figured out since the seventeenth century) … and whether they’re doing it for political reasons, or at the behest of organized religion, or because they genuinely didn’t pay attention in class all those years ago … well, I bet a lot of my science teachers have been grinding their teeth a lot.

Enter this particular documentarian, or polemicist, or whatever we shall wish to call him. Robert Sungenis is his name, and he funded the making of this film called “The Principle”, whose tagline is “Everything we think we know about our universe … is wrong.”

That tagline smacks of Buzzfeed hyperbole, of course, and that stands to reason, because otherwise who would pay two eyeblinks of attention to a science documentary? I mean really.

But Sungenis had previously published a book called “Galileo Was Wrong, The Church Was Right”, which claimed to “give Scripture its due place and show that science is not all it’s cracked up to be.”

Just so we’re clear on who and what we’re dealing with here.

The makers of “The Principle”, backed by Sungenis’ money (which, even before Citizens United, has aphoristically talked), have been accused of a number of procedural no-no’s, not the least of which is “quote mining”. That’s an editing technique: cherry-picking bits of information and assembling them so they appear to support one view, even if in their context those bits of information would support no such view. I wonder where I’ve heard of that happening before …

Statements were allegedly taken from an interview with noted theoretical physicist Laurence Krauss that made him appear to be supporting the idea that everything astronomical revolves around the planet Earth. Krauss issued a statement that put a super lot of distance between himself and “The Principle”. Its tone of recoil was reminiscent of many muskets I have seen at Fourth-of-July parades: sharp and unmistakable.

Krauss’ statement insists that he was featured in the film without permission, and that he concurs with the scientific community’s contention that geocentrism has been debunked. He hoped that people would ignore it; “maybe then it will quickly disappear into the dustbin of history, where it belongs.” A number of other scientists who were in the film also have insisted that they were misled about “The Principle”’s agenda, and that they would never have taken part had they known about it.

One of the producers of “The Principle”, in a publicity statement interview this week, said this about Krauss’ participation: “Lawrence says he has no idea how he ended up in our film. I can tell him how he ended up in our film. He signed a release form, and cashed a check.”

What has gotten me to the keyboard, though, is the similar apparent participation (and subsequent reversal of gear) of the nice lady who contributed a very small amount of narration to the film’s promotional trailer.

Her name is Kate Mulgrew, and she portrayed the captain of the nearly-ill-fated Federation starship Voyager, a decade and a half ago.

She is an actor. Significantly, she is an actor who has participated in “Star Trek”.

When you do that, you become part of a piece of entertainment which, for all its inherent fluffiness (it IS part of American television entertainment), has gotten credit for causing many, many Americans in the last half century to think about science. Several US astronauts have cited their childhood viewing of “Star Trek” as one of the major influences in their lives that caused them to consider science as a profession.

Star Trek” is a lot of things, and as science fiction, one of those things is fanciful. Light-speed travel is something that, according to august scientific minds, only light can do; so the initial premise of the show (warping around the galaxy, rather than just crawling around the solar system) is presently a scientific non-starter. And most of the techno-babble that Spock and Data, and Scotty and Geordi LaForge, and just about every other Trek character ever, spout when faced with a cosmically daunting plot-resolution challenge is – to be charitable – somewhere between intensely theoretical and a writer’s desperate invention. “In this one particular episode,” say the producers, “we have to be able to transport Captain Picard from one ship at warp speed to another ship also at warp speed without lowering the deflector shields (which goes against a rule that’s been in place since we were on NBC in 1967), because otherwise the severance package for Patrick Stewart after we kill off his character will bankrupt the studio outright.”

But “Trek” has invited many people to go look up some actual scientific things. So by no fault of any “Trek” actor’s own, they are part of that show’s legacy, which includes advocacy for and advancement of the study of science. Thanks to the importance that American society puts on entertainers, those “Trek” actors often become more prominent symbols of scientific study than do a lot of actual scientists.

They’re not scientists, though.

One of the things that actors do is portray characters. Someone who plays the part of Jack the Ripper presumably does not espouse the views of Jack the Ripper in real life. (Or if they do, they tend not to get a lot of acting work after that.)  Someone who portrays Gen. George Patton may actually in fact be a screaming pacifist.

Another thing that actors have to do is eat. For that to happen, they need money. And most actors (I hear) have a great deal of experience with poverty, or at least with knowing that they’ll never retire and draw a pension. Every job is finite. Even while you’re working on one project, you’re looking for the next one. Only the most absurdly lucky actors finish a job knowing that they’re set for life. Guaranteed, very few people probably knew who (for example) Nichelle Nichols was, before she spent three TV seasons opening hailing frequencies for Captain Kirk. Now? She’s part of that Trek legacy, and her name gets her in the door – the same door that would slam in the faces of the vast majority of working actors.

So even the terrific actors like Kate Mulgrew, who will forevermore draw residuals from being Captain Janeway, are conditioned to take work whenever they can find it.

And sometimes, I imagine this can get them into tight spots like this.

A website that breathlessly reported Mulgrew’s “Principle” trailer narration said, “To be fair to Kate Mulgrew, she’s not a scientist, and as an actor she’s not required to make sure that her paychecks are coming from factually accurate sources. But you’d hope that she’d be a little more discerning as a former member of the Starfleet Federation. After all, Star Trek did and continues to do so much for the advancement of science and space exploration, and getting involved with a movie that outright denies one of the most fundamental facts about our solar system is upsetting, to say the least.”

On her Facebook page, Mulgrew released a statement disavowing the film. “I am not a geocentrist, nor am I in any way a proponent of geocentrism. More importantly, I do not subscribe to anything Robert Sungenis has written regarding science and history and, had I known of his involvement, would most certainly have avoided this documentary. I was a voice for hire, and a misinformed one, at that. I apologize for any confusion that my voice on this trailer may have caused.”

I’m split on this one.

I’m somewhere between “say it ain’t so, Joe” and “do your homework”. I’m working to find out whether her contribution to this film is anything more than the opening voiceover sentence in the trailer. The Internet Movie Database lists her as “Narrator”, but doesn’t get any more explicit.

The comments that followed Ms. Mulgrew’s Facebook apology post contained an awful lot of (forgivable) blanket-condemnation of the documentary producers and blanket-approval of Ms. Mulgrew. A lot of “Star Trek” fans rose to her defense.

Oh thank God. I felt so betrayed there for a little bit.”

Kate Mulgrew’s part, so far, is that one sentence about everything we know about the universe being wrong, at the very beginning of the trailer. And, again, that sentence could be about anything. All they have to do is fill the narration with vague statements like that, then put any images they want over it. And include commentary by geocentrists making it look like she’s supporting their statements. … Because the only part of the script that she’s going to get is the narration. And since the documentary isn’t out, and all you have to go on is the trailer, those of you who insist on giving her crap about it really have no idea what you’re talking about. You just like kicking people when they’re down. You gotta be mad about something, and this is it.”

The trailer I saw was a blatant hack job. You shouldn’t need to apologise, you’re a victim of a fraudster and should have support from your fans. Thank you for clearing it up, I hope you aren’t too badly affected by this.”

[E]veryone makes mistakes and gets reeled in by the worst of people, accidents happen. [T]he fact that you admitted your [sic] wrong and told us you don’t believe in what was said is enough. [L]ive long and prosper[.]”

No need to apologize. You’re an actor. It’s what actors do. If Patrick Stewart narrated Doctor Seuss, that wouldn’t mean he’s promoting a fear of green eggs and ham. Your fans understand. Don’t sweat it.”

Additionally, the follow-up post by the website which had initially posted about Mulgrew’s involvement with the project was entitled “OH THANK GOD: Kate Mulgrew Is Mad About the Geocentric Documentary, Too”.

Some Facebook commenters weren’t quite as starry-eyed though.

I think sometimes people forget that actors, by definition, say things they don’t believe for a living.”

Didn’t you read the words on the page? I get you did this for the money, but still do not claim to be ‘misinformed’ when the words were on the page you were READING!”

Finally, this comment was combination reality check and fanboy defense:

This reminds me of the Congressional committee that had Meryl Streep testify on agricultural matters. She was an expert because she played a farm wife in a movie. Come on, people. You regard Kate Mulgrew as a Voice of Science because she played a starship captain once? And it’s her *duty to you* to do in-depth research on *every* script she’s offered so she doesn’t accidentally *deceive* you?”

Maybe not, but it may represent an added layer of responsibility when you’ve been part of “Star Trek” and you’re considered, rightly or not, a science role model.

Perhaps what this boils down to is our desperate discomfort about finding that one of our first impressions might be mistaken, and/or finding that something or someone we admire isn’t as admirable as we thought (if all that indeed turns out to be so). And, justifiable or not, the feeling of betrayal that we as fans feel about the objects of our fandom.

It’s unnerving when it seems possible — even for a moment — that, to paraphrase the tagline of “The Principle” … everything we know about our favorite actor … is wrong.

April 10, 2014 Posted by | celebrity, entertainment, Famous Persons, film, Internet, media, religion, science, science fiction | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Weak Force (or, Moon Doggerel)

My astronomy

Professor called gravity

A fairly weak force”

 

When the Moon is at

Full phase, it’s a brilliant sphere

Of bright blue-white glow

 

But between those times

When the Moon is in new phase

It’s a different thing

 

Then it’s nothing more

Than a curved sliver of light

Or is it really?

 

Imagination

Kicks in, and I envision

The rest of the Moon

 

Sometimes I can see,

Almost, the rest of the sphere

(Which must weigh a lot)

 

A faintly diff’rent shade

of night-sky from the night sky

(Somehow staying Up)

 

Briefly the mind reels

It doesn’t look all that far

For a Moon to fall

 

And I’m six again

Attempting to imagine

What keeps that hulk Up?

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March 13, 2013 Posted by | science | , , , , , | Leave a comment