Universe Sandbox: Smash galaxies together for fun

July 4, 2008

If you hit up the youtube page for the video, I’ve annotated it for better detail.

BLASTING FROM THE FIREWORKS — Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy recently linked to this excellent piece of software and I’ve just been having a ball with it. The program is called Universe Sandbox and it allows you to manipulate and play with planetary objects. By toying with gravity, time, and the mass/density/velocity of objects, the program can create a multitude of situations teaching users about planetary motion.

Developed by Dan Dixon, Universe Sandbox does a great job of making high school physics fun and interesting. There are so many settings and variables that you can mess with that the game will keep you occupied for several hours. It comes with several pre-made systems ranging from simple moon-planetary orbits to full-sized galaxy collisions. Currently you cannot create your own system files in the program, however they are just XML files so you can write your own if you want to do a little coding (it’s pretty simple if you just look at the other examples).

The game can be a little buggy at times, but it’s understandable for a first release. Also, some of the physics can go wacky if you mess with odd situations (black holes, for instance). Your computer might also take a beating if you set some of the variables too high or have to many objects on the screen at any one time. However, the game looks great and is really easy on the eyes. Multiple color schemes give the game a wonderful look as well as wonderful textures for the planets and objects.

Overall, I recommend you take a look at the game. It’s free to download and all Dixon asks is that if you want to pay, give as much or little as you want. And if you pay at least $25 you get spiffy 3D glasses which allow you to use the stereoscopic setting in the game to see 3D images. I highly recommend you check this one out — at least until Spore comes out.


Read This: The Physics of Superheroes

June 11, 2008

Gwen Stacy was killed by Spider-Man’s bad science.

FROM JASON’S TENUOUS GRASP ON PHYSICS — I loved the idea of science when I was in elementary school. The field opened up worlds of amazing discovery and speculation. What I was never so great at was rigor and math.

So when I took a gamble two years ago and picked up James Kakalios’ The Physics of Superheroes, I was impressed at how easy he made very difficult-to-grasp concepts. It was like he wrapped carrots in dark chocolate and got me to eat my veggies.

Conservation of momentum? Caloric conversion to kinetic energy? Thermodynamics? Quantum mechanics? Suddenly, understanding it all was as easy as Superman lifting a Ford.

The author is a comic book geek-turned-scientist who first connected the two worlds in his mind while reading Action Comics #333. In his foreword to the book, Kakalios writes that he “noted that the writers and artists creating superhero comic-book stories get their science right more times than you might expect.”

I suppose you could look at The Physics of Superheroes as a textbook of sorts — Kakalios uses the concepts teaching college physics classes. But I prefer to see it as due diligence to a lot of comics I really liked growing up. What kind of muscle would it take for Superman to leap a tall building? How strong would Spider-Man’s webbing have to be to support him? How much would The Flash have to eat every day to keep up with his metabolism? If Magneto walks, does he generate electricity? If The Atom shrinks to subatomic size, how does he breathe?

And it’s all laced with a sense of humor that’s pretty infectious, and not too well hidden in these great clips uploaded to YouTube:

Look, after reading this book I’m still no physics genius. I’ll be totally honest: I skipped a few math-heavy pages with lots of numbers and symbols, and looked for just the author’s prosaic explanations. But now the theory I remember studying in college is put in a context that’s memorable and much more easily indexed for future use.

Get out there. Buy it. Borrow it. Read it. Trust me.

Whoever thought I would be excited about ice?

May 31, 2008

TRANSMITTING AT THE SPEED OF LIGHT, 422 MILLION MILES AWAY — I’m a huge space geek. While I’ve never owned a telescope (never been far away enough from the city for it to be used in a meaningful way), I’ve always been in awe of what scientists have been able to uncover about the mysteries of our universe.

Well, if you haven’t been in the know recently, NASA has sent yet another lander to Mars. Phoenix is assigned the mission to excavate one of the polar caps of the planet to analyze the surface for habitable zones and look for evidence of past life. It’s not a rover like Spirit or Opportunity so it can’t move around, but it’s got tons of awesome equipment.

After it landed last week it’s spent the past week getting it’s equipment up and running and making sure everything is in working order. To our surprise, once it extended it’s arm (a several day process), it captured several pictures with it’s built in camera. Well guess what they found when the took a peak underneath the lander.

What does it look like? Ice! While they aren’t 100% positive, there is a very good change that this could be evidence that we are very close to an ice sheet just a few inches underneath the surface of the planet! We also don’t know if it’s CO2 or water based ice. Scientists believe that the ice was revealed when the retrorockets were fired during landing, removing a couple of inches of dust from the surface. Hopefully this will mean that there is a lot more ice around the area!

Keep updated by checking out the official NASA website and the Phoenix lander twitter. The most recent episode of Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe Podcast also has a great interview with one of the Phoenix team members at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

JASON’S EDIT: Andrew and I had a brief but excited discussion the other day about Phoenix and ongoing exploration in our solar system. Neither of us can wait to get some real data on Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons, which was made famous in 2010 and 2069, the sequels to Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Clarke imagined that because of excessive geothermal activity on Europa and theory that it, too, might have vast quantities of hydrogen-based ice, Europa could be suitable for life. Of course it was science fiction, but Clarke (RIP) never did anything half-assed; the science was all plausible.

I’d also like to point out something that Andrew taught me: The photo above is in black and white but many photos being beamed back from Mars are colorized using filters. The shots are amazing, and nothing at all like the red-sky Mars we see in films (QUAID! GET YOUR ASS TO MARS!). Nope, the photos seem almost sunny, which is mind-blowingly refreshing.

I have no idea how long this will last.

May 31, 2008

Our forum friends over at Geeknights know I’ve been obsessing over Bitstrips.com and posting some in-joke comics.

I have never considered making a web comic before, because — let’s face it — I’m not much of an artist and I’ve never thought I was that funny. But Andrew keeps asking me if I’m going to do a regular comic after the ones I’ve drafted up this week. Honestly, I think he wants more Andrew-centric comics. Ego!

I’ve been having tremendous fun playing with different layouts and exaggerating certain personalities. One of our forumite buddies, an old fogey who goes by the handle Hungry Joe (or Grandpa Joe, affectionately) is easy to pick on.

Reading recommendation: Gateway by Frederik Pohl

January 8, 2008

gateway.pngFROM JASON’S SAGGING BOOKSHELF — I keep telling Andrew that Rocky isn’t about boxing, Cube isn’t about the traps, and Top Gun isn’t about jets. They are about the characters’ inner conflicts, and the rest is just backdrop.

Just to be clear, though, Jurassic Park is about dinosaurs. (Clever girl!)

Frederik Pohl’s 1977 science fiction novel Gateway isn’t really about space exploration. It’s about psychological scars. The mystery of the alien race known as the Heechee, the plight of Earth’s starving masses, and the strange faster-than-light ships used to explore the universe are just there to shed light on our hero’s repressed memories.

The book takes place largely in three locations — the most important is a psychologist’s office. That the analyst just happens to be a computer named somewhat surreptitiously after Sigmund Freud is just a bonus.

Other parts of the book take place on a space station built by aliens in the shell of a hollowed-out asteroid, and aboard the cramped space pods the aliens docked there thousands of years ago.

With the asteroid (called Gateway) as a launch point, humans are using the spacecraft to explore the universe. The only problems are that we don’t know how the ships work, how to choose a destination, and the chances of coming back from a mission are 50-50.

Pohl gets my respect for that brave decision. In most sci-fi novels, Man is in control of his destiny, roaming the galaxy at will. In Gateway, Earth has become overcrowded and the only way to survive is to take to the stars. Manifest destiny is absolutely necessary, but Man can’t decide how it happens. The passengers who take to the alien spacecraft are helpless and have no influence over their fates.

The real action, though, takes place in the murky confines of Bob Broadhead’s mind — except for one crucial and plot-defining scene against the backdrop of a black hole.

I have nothing but good comments for Gateway. Pohl creates a full and believable universe in a relatively short read, and none of it is clumsily executed. He takes a cue from Jaws and refuses to reveal the elusive Heechee aliens to us (though he does go there in later books). We are left ignorant of their origins, intentions, or whereabouts — and that means it’s much easier to identify with the floundering human explorers.

With that huge mystery unsolved, we’re left only with empirical clues about the Heechee. We know they were here in our solar system, we know that they left advanced equipment behind, we know they were roughly bipedal but physiologically much different than humans, and we know that they are long gone.

That gives Pohl a certain amount of freedom. Rather than have to focus on exotic descriptions of the aliens, their language, and their movements, he can spend his time examining Bob’s choices. Will he brave the dangers of space travel? Will his relationships survive? Does he grow? Why does he have such a strange mental block about very specific memories? What happened out there in the inky black of space, anyway?

The best thing about Gateway by far, though is a gimmick. Interspersed throughout the book are pages that have nothing to do with the story; instead, they are full of excerpts from this future world: Classified ads, instructions on how to use the space station’s showers, safety rules for aboard ships, bits of BASIC-like programming lines from the psychology computer, reports about previous missions, and transcripts from lectures about astrophysics.


Vessel 3-31, Voyage 08D27. Crew C. Pitrin, N. Ginza, J. Krabbe.

Transit time out 19 days 4 hours. Position uncertain, vicinity (+-2 l.y.) Zeta Tauri.

Summary: Emerged in transpolar orbit planet .88 Earth radius at .4 A.U. Planet possessed 3 detected small satellites. Six other planets inferred by computer logic. Primary K7.

*Landing made. This planet has evidently gone through a warming period. There are no ice caps, and the present shorelines do not appear very old. No detected signs of habitation. No intelligent life.

*Finescreen scanning located what appeared to be a Heechee rendezvous station in our orbit. We approached it. It was intact. In forcing an entrance it exploded and N. Ginza was killed. Our vessel was damaged and we returned, J. Krabbe dying en route. No artifacts were secured. Biotic samples from planet destroyed in damage to vessel.

These scraps don’t do anything for the plot but they give a very mundane, very intimate look at the sociological conditions of Pohl’s made-up future. It’s one of those perfect touches that balances the hard science and the lofty concept, like Aunt Beru’s blue milk in Star Wars. Here’s another example that gives Gateway credibility:


AREN’T THERE any English-speaking nonsmokers on Gateway to fill out our crew? Maybe you want to shorten your life (and our life support reserves!)but we two don’t. 88-775.

WE DEMAND prospector representation on Gateway Corporation Board! Mass meeting tomorrow 1300 Level Babe. Everyone welcome!

SELECT FLIGHTS tested, whole-person way from your dreams. 32–page book tells how, $10. Consultations, $25. 88-139.

YouTube Cinema: Scooby Doo, Where Are You?

December 19, 2007

FROM JASON’S ANIMATION-LADEN 1980S — There were The Smurfs, Centurions, Silverhawks, Transformers, He-Man, G.I. Joe, Dinoriders, Battle Beasts, and M.A.S.K.

There were actually a lot more. I’m not even getting into the Disney Afternoon line-up. Truth is, I spent practically half my youth in pajamas on the living room rug, balled up on a beanbag in front of the family television.

But more than any other cartoon, my little brother and I watched Scooby Doo, Where Are You?

It was hard to avoid — there were re-runs every weekday morning, it could usually be found on some channel right after school, and it was impossible to start a Saturday morning without Scooby (and Garfield and Friends) with some Captain Crunch or Fruit Loops.

Scooby blinded me with science

It wasn’t until yesterday, though, as I flipped to Cartoon Network in the morning (I work nights), that I realized just what kind of a great lesson ol’ Scoob and the gang taught to young thinkers. Even though Shaggy and Scooby would panic every single episode over the monster of the week, Fred, Velma, and Daphne would always use skeptical thinking to prove that here be no ghosts.

That was the message again and again: Use logic. Reason through the puzzles. Think for yourself. Let your brain — not your adrenaline — be your guide. There’s always a rational explanation. That, of course, was all chucked out the door with the new direct-to-video (and Cartoon Network) Scooby movies, which put the gang in danger from ACTUAL vampires, ghosts, monsters, zombies, and witches.

There’s no arguing that Scooby Doo was formulaic. The gang would wander into a strange situation and become tangled in danger when a “ghost” or “monster” appeared. They would try to track down the phantom, only to find after a few Hardy Boys-esque chases that the culprit was really just Farmer Jenkins or Mr. Weatherby using some elaborate costume and 1960s technology.

In his book The Demon Haunted World, Carl Sagan even praises the show for its dedication to the scientific method and inquiry. He goes on to say that there needs to be an adult equivalent to Scooby Doo to hammer home the principles of skepticism.

It’s a dichotomy I’ve never understood: My super-religious parents and extended family always thought Scooby Doo was the greatest show ever. They were so happy that it was clean and taught kids how to see through fakery. They never bothered turning that spotlight on their own beliefs.

Had they done that, they might have discovered that god is just a dressed-up myth trying to scam the gullible, too.


Everybody knows that the voice of Shaggy was legendary disc jockey Casey Kasem, but few realize that Fred was done by Frank Welker, voice of Optimus Prime and two-thirds of the Decepticons.

The Mystery Machine was a 1968 Chevy Sportvan 108.

Scooby Doo, Where Are You? was originally going to be titled The Mystery Five. Hooray for the marketing department at Hanna-Barbera.

Each of the characters have last names: Daphne Blake, Velma Dinkley, Scooby Doo, Freddy Jones and Norville “Shaggy” Rogers.

There are only 25 episodes of the original CBS cartoon, but there are also 24 hour-long episodes, 40 of the ABC version, 49 of Scooby Doo and Scrappy Doo, and more than 100 other spin-off shows (including the WB and CW remakes running today).

Episodes available on YouTube

What the Hex Is Going On?

Go Away Ghost Ship!

Scooby Doo and a Mummy Too

Junk science salesman makes my day on the fluff beat a pissy affair

December 3, 2007

NOTE: I’m withholding names and other details that I’d like to include in this entry because of contractual obligations to the newspaper at which I am a reporter.


FROM JASON’S BULLSHIT DETECTOR — An unwitting editor didn’t do due diligence before sending me on a fluff assignment Saturday, and I was livid.

Upon arriving at the church — a dire sign to start — to cover a conference about inner and outer beauty, I found quacks peddling junk science.

My job (ostensibly) was to talk about how women were trying to boost self-esteem by getting makeovers at a “You Are Beautiful” event. I’m normally a cops-and-fire beat guy, so I was already jaded against writing a cheese-filled frill-fest for the “Accent” page. That didn’t help when a publicist greeted me at the door and led me straight to the conference’s star speaker: A “doctor” pushing several natural medicine books he sells online.

His sales pitch started immediately when I met him backstage: He jumped into a wrote speech about how he wants to help women reach their true potential by uncovering all of the “secrets” that “they” don’t want you to know.

That’s when I got wise and asked what kind of “doctor” he is.

“A chiropractor,” he said.

His eyes narrowed when I clarified as a follow-up that he wasn’t a medical doctor and asked whether his dietary advice was backed by studies or FDA research.

He further bristled when asked how his licensing as a chiropractor qualified him to make claims about general health; there started his ranted about how “the AMA is just a fraternity and has no real authority. They just want to keep us down.”

“Doctors just want to prescribe. They don’t want you to have a good diet and they’ll never tell you to change how you eat. They’ll only tell you what chemicals you should put in your body,” he said, ignoring the fact that I was scribbling pretty hard in my notebook.

From there he went on to rail against thyroid medicine, Lipitor, and toxins in everything from bananas to candles to chlorinated city water. He shamelessly plugged ionizers and water filters. He used cheap scare tactics to try to convince these gullible Christian women that everything and anything could kill them.

There are many who accuse the mass media of helping to perpetuate bad science. But my photographer and I decided immediately to ignore the conference “headliner” and interview only women involved in the makeovers. It still wasn’t a meaningful story, by any stretch — it was schlock entertainment at best — but at least it didn’t prop up snake oil shenanigans.