Stories tagged science fiction

It's Friday. Yes, I know I missed it last week. But it's time for a new Science Friday video.

Science Friday
Science FridayCourtesy Science Friday
This week,
"The latest on the bug beat: To survive floods, fire ants band together to form a raft. They can sail for weeks. But how does the raft stay afloat? Researchers report the answer in PNAS this week. Plus, engineers at Tufts are looking to the caterpillar for inspiration for soft-bodied robots. The problem is that squishy bodies make it difficult to move quickly--but some caterpillars have developed a workaround."

Space travel kills you: Well, probably not you, but it would kill these two BFFs.
Space travel kills you: Well, probably not you, but it would kill these two BFFs.Courtesy JGordon
Heyo, Buzzketeers. Any Starketeer Treketeers out there?

Yes? Well check this bit of fun science out: a Professor at Johns Hopkins says that traveling at near-light speeds in a space ship (as folks often do in science fiction) would have the delightful effect of almost instantly killing everyone on board.

Aw, whoops. Did I say "fun"? I meant the opposite of fun.

See, it'd obviously be no good to run into a big chunk of rock while flying around super fast in outer space, but (fortunately) big chunks of rock are really pretty rare way out in space. That's not the problem. The problem is the tiny stuff. The really, really tiny stuff.

Here on Earth, each cubic centimeter of air has about 30 billion billion atoms in it. (That's right—two "billions.") In outer space, however, each cubic centimeter of space might have 2 atoms in it. Two lonely, harmless little hydrogen atoms, drifting around, looking for friends. That low-density of matter is no problem for a low-speed ship—it'd just zoom right through them—but for a ship approaching the speed of light, they could be a huge problem, according to this professor.

Because the ship would be going so fast, the hydrogen atoms would "appear highly compressed, thereby increasing the number of atoms hitting the craft." There's something here about Einstein's special theory of relativity here, but, you know, blah blah blah.That stuff is complicated. I think if it like going running on a buggy night—if you run fast through a cloud of bugs, more of those bugs are going to hit you, and harder. (The moral there being: run with your mouth closed, and run slowly, especially if you're naked.)

So, because so many of the hydrogen atoms are hitting the ship, and because the ship is going so fast, it would be like turning a giant particle accelerator on the ship (except, in this case, the ship is being accelerated into the particles, not the other way around, but the effect is the same). It would be like getting hit with approximately the same amount of energy as if you stepped into the beam of the Large Hadron Collider. Even with a 4-inch-thick aluminum hull, 99% of the hydrogen would blast through the ship as radiation, frying the electronics and killing the crew in seconds. Sad.

You can't wrestle a particle beam, Kirk.

Still, maybe there are some Trekkies and physicists out there who can make us all feel a little better about this? The Johns Hopkins professor clearly knows a ton about radiation, but maybe he's not such an expert on space, or about the physics of Star Trek. I'm certainly not. Don't they warp space on that show? So that they aren't traveling though billions of miles of space (and all that dangerous hydrogen), but are skipping from one spot to another? Something like that? Help me out here. The image of Spock dying of radiation poisoning (again) makes me cry salty tears.

Science fiction writer Michael Crichton died on Tuesday, November 4. He is famous for such books as The Andromeda Strain, The Terminal Man. And Jurassic Park. In recent years he became an outspoken critic of global warming, pointing out what he saw as the unscientific nature of the debate and the rush to solutions which he argued would do more harm than good.

The Mega Beave Trophy itself: You earned it, Martin.
The Mega Beave Trophy itself: You earned it, Martin.Courtesy zen
A steel-fabricator in Oregon has built an 8-legged, 6 ton, walking vehicle. It seats six, runs on a Chevy V8 engine, and appears to have a mortar mounted on its side. (Or possible it's an exhaust pipe. Whatever.) It's called the Walking Beast.

3 years and $50,000, but you've done something rad, good sir. Something very rad indeed.

I think an award is called for. Let's see...

All right. Science Buzz is proud to present, for the first time ever, The Beaver State Award of Mega, to the very deserving Martin Montesano.


Silent and sinister, they sneak up and attack when you least expect. It's ... the TREES!: Wait a minute…didn’t I see this same plot in Day of the Triffids?
Silent and sinister, they sneak up and attack when you least expect. It's ... the TREES!: Wait a minute…didn’t I see this same plot in Day of the Triffids?Courtesy sjarvinen

OK, so I, like, never go to movies. Nine bucks for the pleasure of driving for miles, sticking to someone else’s timetable, buying over-priced popcorn, sitting through previews, and crowding into a dark, poorly-ventilated fire trap with a bunch of loud strangers? I fail to see the appeal. Unless the movie features a truly spectacular acting talent, such as Scarlett Johansson or Jennifer Aniston. Then I’m all over it. Otherwise, I’ll just wait for the DVD.

And that goes double for science fiction. Is there a more useless genre? Science is fascinating precisely because it’s true. I walk into a sci-fi flick, and within five minutes I can actually feel myself, everyone around me, and the entire Universe, getting dumber.

(I may be the only person in America who has never seen even one of the Star Wars films, and have not even the slightest desire to ever do so. If that makes me a better person than everyone else, I can live with that.)

Well, apparently there’s this film out now called The Happening, in which trees decide to rebel against mankind by emitting poison gas or something. I probably should have said “Spoiler Alert” up there, but, seriously, I’m doing you a favor by discouraging you from wasting your money on this dreck.

Anyway, a bunch of scientists with a selfless love of humanity and far stronger stomachs than I have viewed this alleged “film” and reported back on five major scientific flaws, which, with any luck, will spoil the film for everyone for all time.

To which the critical mind responds: "Only five?"

Meanwhile, the magazine The New Republic ignores the science and looks at the moral world of the movie and declares it the most reprehensible film they’ve ever seen.

Though Zooey Deschanel is kinda cute…

Popular Mechanics has put together a list of 10 movies that made some accurate predictions about the future – including Gattaca, which foresaw some of the bioethics questions we grapple with in the exhibit Deadly Medicine.


Diorama of the first heart transplant surgery: Is this the future of prisoner executions?Courtesy Trygve Berge
Diorama of the first heart transplant surgery: Is this the future of prisoner executions?
Courtesy Trygve Berge
I read a rather fascinating story last night by Larry Niven called The Jigsaw Man. Without giving away the plot completely, it spells out the possible dystopian future we could face as organ transplants become more efficient and common. In the story, society is not able to resist the temptation to harvest organs from criminals who are executed for their crimes. However, as the demand for organs grows, the list of crimes that are punishable by execution grows as well (think traffic offenses). Where does it stop? Well, you can read the story.

This story, written in the late 60s, is a great example of science fiction predicting the future in a small way. We reported recently (Give a kidney, do less time: State deals with organ donation ethics) on California lawmakers considering a law that could give prisoners up to 180 days off their sentence for donating a kidney. If we start trading time of prison terms for organs, why shouldn't we require organ harvesting from executed prisoners? I personally think this would be ethically atrocious but I also know there are allot of people waiting on the list for organ transplants.

What do you think? Do you see any sort of future where prisoners are considered acceptable organ donors, with or without their permission?