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.

Forumites: Excited Andrew is excited.

May 31, 2008

Phoenix, the Mars probe, has Andrew bouncing off some walls. I briefly considered pulling back the camera another few orders of magnitude to show him devouring the earth like Galactus.

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.

Week of Cartoons – Day 2: The Best of Marvin the Martian

March 24, 2008

marvin01.jpgFROM JASON’S SECRET BASE ON THE RED PLANET — Okay, so I’m cheating. There were only ever five original shorts made starring Marvin the Martian, so a “best of” list is really damned stupid.

Marvin was created by (who else) Chuck Jones in 1948 for Haredevil Hare, which I dislike intensely because the prototype for Marvin’s voice is horrid. It’s a stupid, almost meek voice — not the superior nasal condescension we’ve come to love. You can still watch that episode on YouTube, but I refuse to post it here.

Marvin’s never named in the old shorts; he was supposedly called Commander X-2 around Warner Brothers but his name changed when the company decided to start marketing him in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He had instant appeal to kids like me, who were obsessed with outer space and serialized sci-fi.

Duck Dodgers in the 24th 1/2 Century

Here it is, right at the top — the absolute best Marvin cartoon, and the only one starring Daffy Duck (and Porky, for that matter). The rest star Bugs Bunny, but I think Daffy’s righteous rage is awesome.

The Earth’s supply of Illudium Phosdex, the shaving cream atom, is dangerously low. It’s up to Duck Dodgers to go to Planet X and claim its resources in the name of Earth. The only problem is that Mars sends a certain conquerer as well.

Incidentally, the Martian flag is a red circle on a white background. This proves conclusively that Martians are Japanese. And at 5:53, is that an interociter?

Hare-way to the Stars

Vodpod videos no longer available.

This is the one that gives Duck Dodgers a run for its money. Bugs wanders into a rocket by accident and gets blasted to an Escher-esque world of glass pyramids, antennas, and zig-zagging red space platforms. By a stroke of good timing, he interrupts Marvin just as our Martian legionnaire is getting ready to use Illudium PU-36 to destroy the Earth (it’s blocking his view of Venus).

Apparently, Martians are very long-lived, because Marvin says he’s been working on PU-36 for 2,000 years.

This episode is all about futurist concept art depicted in a very 1960s World’s Fair style. It also features the just-add-water aliens on scooters, which is a priceless sequence.

Mad as a Mars Hare

Astro-rabbit Bugs Bunny is tricked into exploring the surface of Mars and runs into a stubborn native who doesn’t want the red planet befouled by Earthlings. Marvin gets the drop on Bugs but accidentally misfires his time-space gun, mutating Bugs into a Hulk bunny.

The Hasty Hare

Vodpod videos no longer available.

General E=mc² sends Marvin with Commander K-9 on a mission to bring back one live Earth creature to Mars. Bugs Bunny is once again his target and succeeds in the first minute or so in making Marvin say, “You have made me very angry!”

How Buck Rogers can you get, you ask? Well, Marvin and K-9 break out the ACME straight jacket-launching bazooka.

Also, I just want to point out that at the end, when Bugs offers to sell a flying saucer with only 3 billion miles on it, that means the ship has traveled 0.00051 light years. Of course, at its closest, Mars is only 36 million miles from Earth (or 250 million miles at the greatest gap in the planets’ orbits). That means that theoretically Marvin’s ship could have gone from Mars to Earth 83 times already.

Second part of ‘Star Trek: Of Gods and Men’ fan film released

March 16, 2008

FROM JASON’S SMIRK — Tim Russ must have been watching a lot of 24 while making Star Trek: Of Gods and Men Act II, because it’s all close-up face shots and zippy little melodramatic zooms. It also trades a steadycam for hand-held action and — surprise — a “pacifism is better than righteous violence” message.

Andrew and I laughed at the goofiness of the first installment of the fan film, which stars Trek alums like Walter Koenig, Nichelle Nichols, Garrett Wang, Russ, Gary Graham, Alan Ruck, and… Chase Masterson?

Act II is far superior to the first, but in a “this couldn’t ever even get on The Sci-Fi Channel” kind of way. The second part weighs in at 33 minutes and picks up with the destruction of Vulcan by — if you’ll remember — the Death Star an evil Mirror Universe version of Captain Harriman (Ruck). Uhura, Chekov, Tuvok, and Ragnar have to break out of the Enterprise brig before they are executed and manage to take over auxiliary control of the ship. They stumble back to the mysterious planet M-622, where the Guardian of Forever waits.

The big questions are answered, and guess what: It turns out my predictions about the plot were pure money. The psychic, Charlie (from episode 2 of the 1960s series), is in command of the Galactic Order and admits he used the Guardian of Forever to go back in time and terminate John Connor James Kirk. With Kirk gone, the entire galaxy collapses in a fit of collective despotism.

Through it all, we get nods to all the classic Trek tropes: The Vulcan mind-meld, Vulcan neck pinch, a self-destruct sequence that is halted with just one second left on the timer, a shapeshifter, and I’m sure Koenig thought he was very clever spinning McCoy’s trademark line with the Russian Reversal by muttering, “I’m a freedom fighter, not a doctor.”

The costumes are weak and the wigs are worse. The exterior shots are heavily CG (and look quite nice considering the budget) but they don’t match the 1960s interiors stolen from the original set. The dialog is forced, the delivery is mangled, and the ethical message is ham-fistedly obvious.

But I understand that despite the famous faces, this is fan fiction. Low production value should be expected.

In that light, there are several things about Of Gods and Men that I really enjoyed. Nichols is by far the best actor in the piece and her facial expressions are worth far more than her lines. The writers had the guts to kill off a main character (Tuvok — and no, I have no idea if he’s supposed to be the Tuvok since this is long before the Voyager timeline). The hand-cam close-ups I already mentioned, but there are also a few other inventive shots, including one in the brig filmed through a ceiling grate.

And the detail that sticks most prominently in my memory came at 1:57 into the film. Whenever two ships meet in Star Trek they are always flying level with each other on the same plane. But here we have a shuttlecraft sitting next to the Enterprise, which is floating on its vertical axis. The two are parked perpendicular to each other rather than parallel.

It’s a great (computer generated) shot and much more true to how things would work in space since “up” and “down” and “level” and “right-side up” mean absolutely nothing there.

NOTE: Since I was so accurate the first time around, I figure I’ll make a prediction for Act III. This one ends on a cliffhanger with Garrett Wang getting ready to execute Harriman, Uhura, and Chekov. Guess who isn’t in the shot? The shape-shifter.

Wang is the shapeshifter, if you need me to spell it out, Wendy.

Read This: The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke

March 11, 2008

city_and_stars.jpgFROM JASON’S HALF OF THE BOOKSHELF — Genius novelist Jules Verne gets a lot of credit for the his successful futurist predictions about technology.

He anticipated submarines, widespread use of electricity, aqualungs, discovery of Antarctica, practical air travel, television, a space race to the moon — even a crude type of Internet.

I think Arthur C. Clarke is Verne’s successor, but his work is literally eons more future-minded. Forget the hard science roots of 2001: A Space Odyssey and read The City and the Stars, which is a far more fantastic adventure set a billion years from now.

Clarke wrote The City and the Stars 52 years ago and it remains crisply bereft of all those anachronistic 1950s science-fiction-isms you might expect. Too many novels from that time are filled with adventurers from 2200 or 3000 A.D. who still behave like they are in the ’50s and retain their Leave It to Beaver social conventions.

Not this one. Clark managed to skip entire generations of technological achievement, ignoring crude 20th century innovations and going right for what might as well be magic to primitives likes us. It takes a remarkable mind to predict achievements so far-flung from Buck Rogers’ dials and knobs, tickertape computers, leather space helmets, and clunky tape-fed robots. Instead, Clarke spins ideas like:

– Inertia-free rail travel
– Computers that control matter and convert energy and matter freely
– Robots that react to telepathic commands
– Peristaltic fields that whisk people enormous distances at high speeds
– Memory banks that store people in electronic form and reincarnate them every few thousand years
– Gravity manipulation so streets can bend in any degree of freedom
– Holographic avatars that can be sent to do any errand
– Games played in an immersive virtual reality dream-state
– Perfected human bodies that last 1,000 years and do not need fingernails, hair, external reproductive organs, or navels
– “Eternity cells” that hold every atom of a city in place forever without erosion or corrosion
– Art made from pure light
– Sidewalks that can be solids in some places and liquid-like moving walkways in others
– Not only genetic engineering, but psychological engineering as well

Clarke writes so convincingly that those elements fit seamlessly into the story.


Diaspar is the last bastion of humanity’s galactic empire — an enclosed and eternal city that’s remained virtually unchanged for a billion years. The city’s memory banks store all of its citizens, who slumber through the centuries and occasionally are woken to live for a thousand years or so before going back to sleep. Each citizen has lived thousands of lifetimes in Diaspar and death is an obsolete idea.

But every so often, a brand new person is created who has never lived before. Alvin is the first “unique” to walk out of the Hall of Creation in about 100,000 years. He is also the only human who seems unaffected by a universal phobia of the outside world — a phobia induced by a fear of the alien invasion that drove ancient man into hiding.

Alvin longs to leave Diaspar and explore the wilderness of Earth, which has lost its oceans and is covered in desert. With the help of the city’ central computer and a man known as the Jester, he finds a passageway that’s remained hidden for centuries and embarks on a journey to the only other remaining human settlement on the planet — a settlement called Lys, which had been thought long lost.

There, Alvin is confronted with a completely different type of life. Unlike in Diaspar, the people of Lys are telepathic, slightly Luddite, and choose not to conquer death. But Alvin’s journey of exploration doesn’t end there and he soon finds a path to the stars that man was once forced to abandon.

Xantris is free space-shooter-meets-Tetris clone

January 23, 2008

xantris.pngFROM THE DEPTHS OF JASON’S C: DRIVE — From time to time I’ll putter with some very simple game-building mechanics, just to vent my creativity.

Mind you, I’ve been tinkering with computers since the early days of the 286, long before there was such a thing as Windows. I’ve learned that I don’t know squat. I know just enough to know that I know nothing.

So I’ll admit right up front I don’t know anything about coding. But I’ve toyed with WYSIWYG game editors — quite a few of them — and have pieced together a few little coffee break games.

Some number of years ago I was messing with The Games Factory and decided to make a hybrid space shooter and Tetris clone. I slapped it together in about a week. My problem, though, is that once I figure out the basics of how to do something, I don’t feel much compelled to sit and flush it out. So what I somewhat ostentatiously dubbed Xantris is pretty rudimentary.

The goal is to shoot the falling blocks before they hit the bottom of the screen, where they will solidify and build up and gradually cut off your ability to maneuver. I never did figure out how to randomly generate the blocks, so the game is pretty deterministic. Oh well.

There are asteroids, too, which will destroy the blocks when they collide. You can shoot them for points, or blast the larger ones into smaller groups to do more damage. Later levels have some incredibly simple enemy ships flying about, too.

Take it for a spin if you have 10 minutes to kill. It’s only 1.17 mb.