Wildfire? Volcano? Warzone? Hell? All of the above?

wildfires

I think this timelapse video pretty much puts the Station Fire into perspective. The fire has so far destroyed over 120,000 acres of land, gutted dozens of homes and taken the lives of two fire fighters. Although it would appear fire crews are slowly getting a handle on the blaze (it was around 20% contained at time of writing), should there be a change in weather, the fires could flare up once more, but there are hopes that humidity should continue to rise through the night.

Also, it would appear the earlier fires spotted on the summit of Mount Wilson were primarily controlled backfires (i.e. small fires started deliberately by the fire service to burn off brush, thereby removing fuel for an uncontrolled fire). Now, an airborne assault has begun, water and fire retardant being dropped to slow the advance of the Station Fire around the mountain leading to the observatory. And now, the word is that fire crews seem to be winning the fight to save the Mount Wilson Observatory (thank you @palomarskies for the update!).

So, for now, I’ll leave you with this phenomenal HD timelapse video of the Station Fire created by willieworks. The view is of the mountains to the north of LA, from Mulholland Drive, above Universal Studios. It’s a scene that really does belong in the movies. What a sight.

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“Knowing” How Solar Flares Don’t Work

 

knowing-flaming-earth

My wife turned to me as the credits rolled and asked, “Can you sue a production company for inaccurate science in a movie?

Hmmm… good point!” I said. “Unfortunately, though, I think it’s just called ‘being creative.’

But that got me thinking.

Knowing not very much

We’d just sat through the Nicholas Cage disaster movie Knowing after heavily criticising the last hour of magical solar flares, prophecies, silly religious undertones and complete disregard for a little thing called “science.” Oh, and there were aliens. Who would have guessed?!

I would say that apart from these things, it was actually a pretty good film… but I’d be lying. Well, a little. I was actually quite impressed by the assorted disaster CGI and the acting (I’m glad Rose Byrne is getting some big roles, as I think she rocked in Damages), but generally, I was disappointed. I think I would have enjoyed it more if the director Alex Proyas didn’t have such a contempt for asking a science advisor for… I dunno… “advice.”

In fact, I’m not even going to bother researching whether there was a science advisor in the production crew or not, because either a) the rest of the crew didn’t listen to him/her, b) the science advisor was lying about his/her credentials or, c) the science advisor was stoned/drunk while on the set. Therefore, in my mind, there wasn’t a science advisor involved in the making of this film.

Putting the stupid plot, aliens (double-facepalm), Byrne’s character’s death and no science advisor to one side, I still cannot understand how they got solar flares so wrong.

Kaboom! Whoooshhh! Fizzzzz….

I’m not being funny, it’s as if Proyas didn’t bother to Google “solar flare,” just to check to see how solar flares really do work. Hell, go to the self-explanatory HowStuffWorks.com and do a search for “Sun.” If either one of these things were done during pre-production, the science may actually have been plausable.

In a totally forgettable scene, right toward the end of the movie, the uber-scary solar flare waits to be blasted at Earth. Cage gets on the phone to his Dad saying something like, “You know it’s been pretty hot lately? Well, it’s about to get hotter!” That’s an epic solar fail already. For some reason, the world had gotten hotter and everyone just shrugged it off as a warm October? I’m thinking the Sun would need to be whacking out a huge increase in energy, and in which case, those bumbling solar physicists or the N.O.A.A. (or “EN-Oh-Ay-Ay” as the cast painstakingly spells out) might have noticed?

I’m a stickler for realism in movies — so this is just a personal gripe — but why weren’t real images of the Sun from SOHO, TRACE, Yohkoh, Hinode or STEREO (let alone the countless ground-based solar observatories) used at all through the entire film? Instead, we see a strange blob of CGI graphic, shimmering like a corporate logo on computer screens, being referred to as “our Sun.” I’m pretty sure NASA would have happily provided some real pictures of “our Sun” if they were asked.

Solar flares or cosmic death rays?

But the best part of the entire movie is when we get hit by the super flare. Oh dear lord. If you weren’t terrified of the Sun before, you will be now. That thing can incinerate cities! It’s radiation can penetrate the Earth a mile deep! Holy cow, it is like a trillion-billion atomic bombs all going off at the same time!!!

Ah, I stand corrected. The production crew obviously did Google “solar flare,” but only read the bit where it says “…an energy of 100 million Hiroshima bombs is released…” That’s big right? Yep, Earth is toast!

Unfortunately, they didn’t read the bit which points out that this huge explosion occurs deep in the solar corona, 100 million miles away (that’s a long way away).

Also, they didn’t realize that even the biggest solar flares and coronal mass ejections (the latter wasn’t mentioned once for the whole movie) are deflected by our planet’s magnetosphere and thick atmosphere.

The only science that was mentioned was that the “flare” would hit our atmosphere, destroying our ozone, thereby killing everything on the planet. In actuality, if you watched the “flare” hit Earth, I’m not sure what the ozone had to do with anything! That “flare” was like a cosmic ray gun, ripping through the atmosphere and the Empire State Building (oh yes, there was a lot of “famous landmark shredding”) as if it was a hot knife slicing butter. I don’t think we need to worry about excessive UV exposure due to lack of ozone when Earth is on fire.

There’s a list of things that annoyed me about this movie, and I don’t have the patience to mock all points, but after my wife wondered about suing a movie for bad science, I got to thinking what damage movies do to the perception of science. Oh yes, I know it’s sci-fi, I know it’s “just a movie,” I really do know that it’s not real, but wouldn’t it be fun to have a disaster flick that uses some real science for a change?

Real science is sexy too

As I was discussing with solar physicist Alex Young in last week’s filming of the Discovery Channel 2012 documentary, the real threat of a massive solar flare is actually pretty daunting. Granted, the Sun isn’t about to fire a cosmic death ray at us (and let’s face it, the Sun isn’t going to do anything any time soon), setting the planet on fire, but the real physics would be awesome if used in a disaster movie.

Just imagine if we had a disaster movie that depicted a solar flare erupting on the surface of the Sun, just above a highly active region of clustered sunspots and stressed coronal loops. We could see real movies of intense magnetic activity, and then suddenly the blinding burst of electromagnetic radiation. This flare could be the biggest the Earth has seen in modern times. The X-rays from this event knock out solar observatories, stunning the delicate light-collecting CCDs in their cameras. These X-rays immediately slam into our ionosphere, causing a massive surge of electrons, blocking global communications. This may have the knock-on effect of causing our atmosphere to heat up and swell, increasing the drag on our orbiting satellites.

In the first moment when we see the flare, already we see global problems. But this would only be a precursor to something a lot worse…

I can imagine the scene in the perfect movie: Our brave, and smart solar physicists are looking at live data streaming from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), a multi-instrument telescope sitting between the Earth and the Sun. They see an expanding bubble growing well beyond the disk of the Sun. An alert is sent out to the authorities; a CME is coming… and it’s headed straight for us… it will hit in a few hours. Cue the countdown to CME impact (the suspense will be tangible, you won’t be moving from your seat). But wait! Communications are patchy, the ionosphere just blocked the satellite link to the US President… time is running out! Bruce Willis, our hero heliospheric expert, steps in and volunteers to notify the president himself (with a gun in his pocket, as there’s bound to be an assassin or terrorist out there to shoot at).

Planetary mayhem

But the fun would really begin when the CME slams into our magnetosphere. The magnetic field of the CME and that of the Earth’s hit in such a way that they reconnect, flooding the magnetosphere with high energy particles. The Earth’s Van Allen belts become supercharged like radioactive reservoirs. Satellites are overcome by high-energy particle impacts. Global Positioning Satellites (GPS) go offline. Communication satellites suffer drag and literally start to drop out of the sky.

And it gets worse!

The solar particles are deflected toward the poles, but the solar storm is so intense, particles penetrate deeper, generating vast aurorae at low latitudes. Even equatorial regions would see vast light shows as the particles flood in from space. Although amazingly beautiful, this has yet another side-effect, our atmosphere just became a huge conductor, where vast currents flow as electrojets. These electrojets generate massive magnetic fields, in turn overloading our national grids.

We now have no power and no means to communicate. We’re blind and unable to function. Governments are overwhelmed. Imagine Katrina-scale events all over the USA… all over the world. Who can help? Suddenly the $2 trillion damage estimate made by NASA seems too small… after all, we’d be plunged back into the dark ages, how can you count costs in dollars when a financial system no longer exists?

Conclusion

I don’t expect movies to be totally scientifically accurate. However, if you are basing an entire storyline on one harbinger of doom, at least get that right.

A solar flare will hit Earth in the future, there’s even a very good chance that we’ll get hit by a “big one” that could cause some collateral damage. In fact, if we are very unlucky, a large solar storm could be considered “civilization ending.” Yes, asteroids pose a clear and present danger to life on Earth, but don’t forget the Sun, it has a history of getting angry when the Earth is in the orbital firing line.

If that isn’t a great plot for a disaster movie, I don’t know what is.

Special Ops Bunnies

Blood-thirsty bunnies? If only you knew... (The Oatmeal)
Blood-thirsty bunnies? If only you knew... (The Oatmeal)

Thank you Kate (@KateSherrod) for thinking of me and sending me this hilarious post called “8 Ways To Prepare Your Pets For War” from The Oatmeal. No science here, just funny cartoons.

However, do you think Barney could be trained for special ops? You decide:

He has the stealth of a ninja...
He has the stealth of a ninja...
...but the brains of a bunny.
...but the brains of a carrot.

District 9: Grit, Gore and Glorious Science Fiction

Wikus (Sharlto Copley) on the run from the MNU (WingNut Films).

Astroengine District 9 Review.

I managed to watch District 9 last night, and it was awesome. I may as well tell you my conclusion up-front, just in case you don’t want to read on, because I’m not going to be able to avoid mentioning some spoilers. So, if you haven’t already done so, get down the theatre now to watch a unique and enthralling sci-fi docu-action-thriller (but beware, there’s lots of exploding heads and alien gore, so go easy on the popcorn and fizzy drinks).

Generally, it looks like District 9 has received good reviews and a robust nod from the science fiction community, and now I’m going to weigh in with a review from Astroengine.com.

First and foremost, I think D9 surpassed pretty much all of my expectations, which is rare for Hollywood produce these days. It was little surprise then, that this movie wasn’t of the Hollywood brand, it came from the genius mind of the South Africa-born director Neill Blomkamp and Peter Jackson‘s production company Wingnut Films. The whole thing was shot in the gritty South African city of Johannesburg.

Setting the scene

The face of a “prawn.” Kinda cute in a squiddy way.

An alien spaceship breaks down on Earth and comes to a stop over Johannesburg. After several weeks of not seeing any sign of life, the authorities decide to cut their way into the ship. They find hundreds of thousands of malnourished insect-like, human-sized aliens inside. Humans do the right thing by setting up a makeshift shelter in Johannesburg, called District 9 (it is of no coincidence that there’s a similarity with the real events in District Six during the 1966 apartheid government rule). So far, so good.

After a couple of decades of living in the D9 shanty town, the local human populous is getting fed up with their alien neighbours (they derogatively call “prawns”). As it turns out, these aliens don’t appear to be very smart and they are certainly not organized. They have no leader and they are thought to be the “workers” of their alien race. They are far from being the sophisticated invasion party one would expect a technologically advanced race to be like.

Alien underdogs

This is the coolest thing about this movie; the aliens are cast as the unfortunate underdogs that are being forced to stay on Earth by their human captors. Why? Technology, of course.

A military organization called Multinational United (MNU) is put in charge of moving the million-plus alien beings to a new concentration camp housing facility 200 miles away. The whole operation is led by a bumbling MNU field operative called Wikus van der Merwe (played by Sharlto Copley). Wikus is your standard trying-way-too-hard-to-please-and-failing guy with a loving wife (who can somehow see past his many social flaws) and tough father-in-law (who is the head of MNU and responsible for giving Wikus this “big break”). Wikus is almost like a South African hybrid of Steve Carrel, Steve Coogan and Simon Pegg.

Serving alien evictions. Not as easy as it sounds (that sounded easy?!)

There are some fantastic moments when an overly confident Wikus knocks on doors serving eviction notices to the aliens. It is an awkward, yet captivating scenario. The MNU, an organization that obviously has absolute power over the situation, has decided to make the eviction of the aliens seem “legal” by getting them to sign (or “scrawl”) their signature on a small piece of paper. Naturally, the aliens aren’t too happy about all this and Wikus is met with a variety of responses (one where the alien slaps the paper out of his hand and storms off — Wikus triumphantly points out that a tentacle hit the paper, it is therefore signed). Another funny legality is that the aliens have been given human names (such as “Christopher Johnson”) to make their very existence bona fide.

In the first third of the film there are several reminders that the MNU isn’t a tolerant organization. If the armed units are faced with any resistance, they kill on-site. However, they are faced with an impoverished, desparate alien populous that will do anything for a tin of cat food. They are more concerned about chewing on car tires than being shot at. The cat food actually becomes a commodity in District 9, a currency the local Nigerian gangs use to trade for weapons. There is also a hilarious reference to “inter-species prostitution.”

Human-prawn hybrid?

The movie starts off in hand-held documentary style (not in an annoying Blair Witch Project way), following Wikus on his alien eviction adventures, but the atmosphere of the story changes after he accidentally sprays himself in the face with a black fluid in an unidentified cylinder. There is then an altercation with one of “Christopher Johnson’s” friends who tries to distract attention away from the shack that contained Wikus was sprayed in.

Cue alien death, execution style, by the bald-headed bad-ass special unit military guy.

A dodgy stomach and a broken arm later, Wikus is stuck in a situation he can’t get out of. You remember that spray? It turns out that it’s not only a special, highly refined spaceship fuel, it’s also a way to really mess up your day if you breathe it in. Wikus has started to change into an alien.

This is probably one of the weaker parts of the story. How a nasal spray is going to tinker with your genetics in such a way that will turn you into a human-alien hybrid, I don’t know, but District 9 didn’t start with a claim that it was going to be totally scientifically accurate. Somehow Wikus’ left hand also turns into a clawed alien appendage. I’ll turn a blind eye to the fudged human-alien biology lesson.

Guards outside the grim District 9

So we’re locked in a race against time as MNU agents track down and capture Wikus as Wikus becomes more and more prawn-like. From being a flawed MNU officer, he has now become the most valuable human on the planet; he is the only one capable of operating the alien technology (their weapons only react to alien biology).

Prawn purée

During the period when Wikus has been captured and is being experimented on, the MNU shows itself for what it really is; a weapon research facility with little regard for human life, let alone alien life. In one particularly tough scene, Wikus has to fire an assortment of alien weaponry at animal carcasses against his will…

[If you told me before watching District 9 that I would feel shocked by the death of a CGI’d alien being, I’d assume I would have been drinking heavily beforehand. But no, I hadn’t had a beer (although the Pepsi was quite syrupy).]

…At this point, a live alien is dragged out with an X painted on its torso. When stood, shivering at the end of the shooting range, Wikus is ordered to shoot the alien. He refuses, crying. You see that Wikus does have a certain degree of respect for the aliens and he is certainly adverse to killing them. Unfortunately, tied in place, and alien weapon pushed in this hand, he’s forced to fire the gun at the frightened “prawn,” who explodes in a bloody mess.

It’s pretty grizzly and also a little upsetting. I think this is the moment in the movie that you know you are dealing with a different kind of sci-fi storyline and Blomkamp does an amazing job to shock, but not to go over the top.

Agony and terror

Christopher Johnson looks out of the prison van after being captured.

Also, you realize Sharlto Copley’s acting ability is nothing short of outstanding. Before the weapon testing scene, there’s a fair amount of humour angled at his character, afterwards you can feel his agony and terror.

Needless to say, Wikus escapes and runs to the only place he can find refuge: District 9. Fortunately, we are allowed a little time to recuperate after the MNU experiments as Wikus turns into a convict running through his own city.

After a period of making friends with the smart “Christopher Johnson” and little (and quite cute) pint-sized alien son, Wikus and “Christopher” work out they need each other to find a solution to the problems they are facing. “Christopher” needs to retrieve the mysterious cylinder from the MNU HQ to make the command ship (hidden under District 9) function, and Wikus needs alien technology from the mothership hovering overhead to stop him from going 100% prawn.

And so begins an orgy of human-popping. In the best human-alien buddy pairing since Han Solo and Chewbacca, Wikus and “Christopher” assault the MNU HQ with the best alien guns Wikus could steal from those Nigerian “inter-species prostitution” gangs (with a fetish for drinking alien blood and collecting alien junk they can’t use). Of course, now that Wikus can operate these guns, he can have some fun.

A clip from District 9: Wikus uses an alien weapon for the first time (language NSFW):

Many reviews of District 9 are critical of the amount of action in the rest of the film, but I thought it was pretty cool. Science-lite, but it sure was a tour de force of movie action imagination. My particular favourite was Wikus’ energy-lightning-bolt gun that had no difficulty in snuffing out MNU personnel in a cloud of blood vapour.

A few gun battles later, and we return to District 9, plus fuel cylinder. Quite a lot happens, but to cut a long story short… there were a lot of explosions. I don’t want to give away the ending, but it was fairly routine, with a couple of minor plot twists. When I say routine, I don’t mean it was boring, the movie simply went its course without too many surprises. Well, there might have been one or two

Banff Ground Squirrel Witnessed Apollo 11 Landing

Buzz Aldrin poses for Armstrong's camera in 1969. Little did the astronauts realize... they were being watched... (NASA/NatGeo/Ian O'Neill)
Buzz Aldrin poses for Armstrong's camera in 1969. Little did the astronauts realize... they were being watched... (NASA/NatGeo/Ian O'Neill)

Ever wonder why some of the Apollo lunar landing shots are a little out of focus? Ever wonder why chunks of photographs from the Moon have been cut out, leaving a a little squirrel-like shape behind?

Wonder no more, even the Moon has a colony of ground squirrels (plus mini-space helmets, of course), ready to pop out of hiding when they feel the vibration of lunar lander thrusters, astronaut footsteps, and the whine of focusing cameras. This is one Moon conspiracy solved, once and for all!

Don’t worry, I haven’t lost it quite yet, I’ve just been playing with Photoshop. This is in response to the wonderful National Geographic photograph of a curious ground squirrel that managed to pose for the perfect holiday snap in Canada’s Banff National Park. Now the image is going viral, with little squirrel cut-outs appearing in a huge range of photos and videos.

So here’s my effort. The Banff Lunar Squirrel!

Amateur Captures Solar Eclipse, By Io… On Ganymede

io-ganymede-shadow-still

Of all the amazing things I plan to look at through my future telescope (yes, I’m still saving), this event didn’t even cross my mind. Not surprising really, it’s probably never been observed before: Io’s whole shadow transiting across the large Jovian moon, Ganymede.

But on August 16th, that changed when Christopher Go from Cebu, Philippines used his 11-inch Celestron telescope to capture the sequence of events as Io passed in front of the Sun, casting a near-perfect shadow on the large moon of Ganymede. If you were standing on Ganymede’s surface, looking at the Sun, you would have seen an Io solar eclipse.

io-gann-eclipse

My favourite thing about this animation is that both moons are very detailed, even at this resolution. You can see mottled shades on Ganymede, and I think the spin of Io may even have been captured.

A wonderful testament to Christopher Go’s astronomy skills and a fantastic example of how advanced our amateur astronomical equipment is becoming…

Source: Spaceweather.com

UPDATE: It turns out that little Io is getting its own back for last July’s eclipse by Ganymede, plunging the smaller moon into darkness. In the following video by OccultDave on YouTube, over a period of about 16 minutes, Io (the dot to the far-right) dims dramatically as Ganymede (the dot in the middle, next to the bright disk of Jupiter) blocks the sunlight:

Let The Planet Seeding Begin! Comets Have Amino Acids Too…

comet_tempel

Yesterday, NASA announced exciting news about a discovery made by a NASA mission that did a cosmic dance with comet Wild 2 back in 2004. The Stardust mission managed to scoop an amino acid called glycine from the comets dusty tail, thereby proving it’s not just asteroids that contain this critical ingredient for life.

It’s not a particularly unexpected discovery that glycine is in a comet — we’ve found amino acids in meteorites before — but it does show that comets are another way that amino acids could have come to Earth,” lead researcher Jamie Elsila, with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, told Irene Klotz from Discovery News.

Elsila and colleagues are responsible for developing a technique to extract and study the deposits of glycine from the aluminium foil that lined the probe’s collection plates. They confirmed the glycine was in fact of extraterrestrial origin (rather than contamination here on Earth), as the carbon atoms in the glycine molecules had an extra neutron in the nucleus. This means the glycine was formed in space.

We see in this comet that amino acids were forming at the earliest time in our solar system,” Mike Zolensky, a comet dust researcher from NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, said.

Zolensky suspects that heat from the radioactive decay of short-lived particles melted a piece of comet ice laced with organic compounds and water. This may have allowed the cosmic amino acid to form.

Now that an amino acid has been scraped off the collection plate of the Stardust mission, it would appear the building blocks for life are widely available throughout the Solar System (assuming comet Wild 2 isn’t a special case). Asteroids contain amino acids, as do meteorites, now it looks as if comets carry the building blocks for life too. This means early-Earth certainly had plenty of opportunities to acquire extra-terrestrial sources of amino acids…

Source: Irene Klotz, Discovery News Space Correspondent

Deconstructing Doomsday

Alex Young in front of the cameras in the post-Apocalyptic setting of a Brooklyn building site.
Alex Young in front of the cameras in the post-Apocalyptic setting of a Brooklyn building site.

The funny thing about being involved in a doomsday documentary is trying to find a suitable balance between entertainment and science. This is the conclusion I reached after the interview I did for KPI productions in New York for the upcoming 2012 documentary on the Discovery Channel last week (just in case you were wondering why Astroengine.com was being a little quiet these last few days).

Apparently, the Apocalypse will be very dusty.
Apparently, the Apocalypse will be very dusty.

Naturally, the production team was angling for what it might be like to be hit by a “killer” solar flare, what kinds of terror and destruction a brown dwarf could do to Earth and what would happen if our planet’s magnetic poles decided to do a 180°. It’s always fun to speculate after all. However, I wasn’t there to promote half-baked theories of 2012 doom, I was there to bring some reality to the nonsensical doomsday claims. But with real science comes some unexpected concerns for the safety of our planet — not in 2012, but sometime in the future.

An added bonus to my NYC trip was meeting the awesome Alex Young, a solar physicist from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Alex was asked to New York for the same reasons I was, but he has a current and comprehensive understanding of solar dynamics (whereas my solar physics research is so 2006). He actually works with SOHO data, a mission I have massive respect for.

Alex Young and myself... very excited about doomsday.
Alex Young and myself... very excited about doomsday.

My interview was carried out on Wednesday morning, and Alex’s was in the afternoon. The KPI guys were great, a joy to be involved in such a professional project. The documentary producer, Jonathan, asked me the questions in a great location, a huge Brooklyn building that was undergoing renovation. Very dusty with a post-apocalyptic twist. If I was going to shoot a movie about the end of the world, this building would be it.

The KPI documentary will certainly be very different from the Penn & Teller: Bullshit! episode I was involved with, but it was just as much fun, if not more so (it was like a day-long science fest).

Of particular note was Alex’s sobering words about the woeful lack of funds in solar physics (i.e. Earth-damaging solar flares and CMEs). I hope his closing statement about NOAA space weather prediction funding makes the final cut; it was nothing less than chilling.

Jon and Sarah from KPI on the set.
Jon and Sarah from KPI on the set.

Although we both hammered home the point that the fabled Earth-killing solar flare wont happen in 2012 (let’s face it, our Sun is still going through an epic depression, why should solar maximum be anything spectacular?), it is probably the one theory that holds the most scientific merit. In fact, as both Alex and I agreed, for a civilization that depends on sensitive technology in space and on the ground, we really need to prepare for and understand solar storms far better than we do at present.

I won’t go into any more details, but the documentary will be on the Discovery Channel in November, so I’ll give plenty of warning to fire up those DVRs.

Thank you Sarah, Jonathan and the rest of the crew from KPI for making the New York visit so memorable…

Feline Physics

funny-pictures-cat-reaches-critical-mass

I thought this was funny, so I thought I’d share and in the process prove to the intertoobs that Astroengine is still alive and well. Just returned from an uber-cool trip to New York, so I’ll be writing a blog post about that later.

But for now, beware the glowing kittens, a couple of neutrons here or there and more than just fur will fly…

Source: ICanHasCheezburger.com