Saturday, November 07, 2009

Random Linkage 07/11/09

Data from Kaguya's prime mission to the Moon has been released
'Yesterday, the Japanese space agency announced the public release of the data from the primary mission of the Kaguya (a.k.a. SELENE) lunar orbiter. The release covers the period from December 21, 2007 to October 31, 2008, and includes data from all of the science instruments (which excludes the HD camera, not a science instrument). This release formally opens up the data for use by all scientists and enthusiasts around the world, not just the Kaguya science team, and will be a rich resource for lunar scientists.'

Speed Limit To The Pace Of Evolution, Biologists Say
'Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have developed a theoretical model that informs the understanding of evolution and determines how quickly an organism will evolve using a catalogue of "evolutionary speed limits." The model provides quantitative predictions for the speed of evolution on various "fitness landscapes," the dynamic and varied conditions under which bacteria, viruses and even humans adapt.'

Mass extinction blamed on fiery fountains of coal
'FOSSIL fuels have a new crime to live down. A frenzy of hydrocarbon burning at the end of the Permian period may have led to the most devastating mass extinction Earth has ever seen, as explosive encounters between magma and coal released more carbon dioxide in the course of a few years than in all of human history.'

Neutered HIV Virus Delivers Treatment to Fatally Ill Boys
'Researchers may have taken a step towards curing the rare, inherited brain disease made famous by the movie Lorenzo’s Oil–and also towards ushering a new era of gene therapy. To help two young boys suffering from the disease, researchers tried an experimental treatment using a deactivated version of the HIV virus. The virus delivered working copies of a gene to stem cells from the patients’ bone marrows. The HIV virus, stripped of genetic material that makes it toxic, integrates permanently into the DNA of cells it enters, scientists said. That means the modified gene remains in the blood-forming stem cells for the life of the patient.'

Friday, November 06, 2009

Widescreen Mars

A stunning portfolio of images taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's Hi-Rise camera, selected by the Boston Globe's Big Picture.

Thursday, November 05, 2009


Fulfills every expectation of a Roland Emmerich disaster flick: big, noisy, national monuments in the firing line, totally infused with Emmerich's talent for presenting spectacular CGI destruction as flatly as Powerpoint, and killing billions of people and failing to make you care for any of them. But if it's dumb spectacle you want, he's your man, there's a nice twist in the story, and I can't help but having a sneaking regard for a film whose hero is a failed SF writer.

Most interesting aspect of these films, for me, is the use of found media footage to titivate the mise en scene. We're already in the middle of an apocalypse, and like the frog in the pot on the stove, don't realise the water is growing fatally warm.

Bonus Awful Warning: the Stephen Somers remake of When Worlds Collide due next year: 'Alpha Centauri is on a collision course for Earth, and mass hysteria of biblical proportions breaks out in the streets...'

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Science Fiction That Isn't Science Fiction (3)

Roland Emmerich’s 2012 claims to be inspired by ancient Mayan prophecies, but with its lovingly detailed CGI shots of the destruction of the temples of Mammon and saving of a small band of the blessed, it’s actually square in the Christian apocalyptic tradition - something that’s almost as old as Christianity itself. The last book in the Bible, the Book of Revelation (also known as Apocalypse, from the verb apokalypto, to reveal), was written towards the end of the first century AD. It’s a visionary warning of the End Times, when the damned will flock to the AntiChrist, the Earth will be visited with every kind of destruction, and true believers will at last ascend into the infinite bliss of the New Jerusalem. Outbreaks of apocalypse fever have swept through Christianity ever since, peaking around 1500, when dozens of sects proclaimed the coming of the End Times (see Norman Cohen’s The Pursuit of the Millennium), and again around the end of the last century. Millions of premillennialists (especially Evangelical Christians in the United States; one of the Founding Fathers, Cotton Mather, was an ardent premillennialist) still expect at any moment to experience the Rapture of bodily ascent into Heaven as a prelude to the harrowing of Earth by a returned Christ.

This apocalypse is the subject of Victorian painter John Martin’s ‘The Great Day of His Wrath’ (above); this, and other huge, sensationalist canvases, were allegedly inspired by commercial dioramas animated by use of artificial lighting - precursors of present-day blockbuster movies. While Martin’s themes were biblical, most of the apocalypses in Hollywood movies are secular,with nuclear war, asteroids, or Arnold Swarzenegger as substitutes for God’s wrath. But an outfit outside the Hollywood machine, Cloud Ten Pictures, has been making movies for a Christian audience that deploy the tropes of premillennialism with deadly seriousness. They’ve produced a trilogy based on the bestselling Left Behind series of novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, a literal portrayal of the End Times of the premillennialists, as well as several thrillers that share the same post-Rapture setting, as well as the same villain, UN President Nicolae Carpathia, aka the AntiChrist (played by Gordon Currie - what must his fan mail be like?): Revelation, Apocalypse, and Tribulation (starring Gary Busey and featuring Margot Kidder and Mr T as, er, Mr T).

They look like science fiction, or science thrillers, but they aren't. As far as the people who made them and their intended audience are concerned, they embody a literal truth.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Plume Run

The Cassini Orbiter completed its seventh close encounter with Saturn's small but highly active moon Enceladus yesterday, passing within a hundred kilometres of the south pole and ploughing through the plumes of water ice fired into space by some as yet unknown process deep beneath the surface. For much of the pass, Cassini was using various instruments to sample the plume, but it took pictures before and after the encounter; Emily Lakdwalla has pasted a couple of the best images in her blog over at the Planetary Society's site, including one of fissured and folded terrain that reminds me all over again that despite its small size, just five hundred kilometres in diameter, Enceldaus possesses an extremely varied and geologically active surface. It's easy to imagine climbing one of those ridges and looking out at a tangle of long, low bright hills snaking towards the sharply curved horizon . . .
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