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Friday, 02 December 2016

Posted at 02:48PM under Movies Wot I Have Seen..

The Medium Was The Message

These are some thoughts on Arrival. Warning: spoilers abound.

Cheers to Jess, Morgan and Haydn for helping to form many of the ideas in this review. Seriously - see this movie, and take some friends. You won't be disappointed.

If you haven't seen Arrival, and you don't think you're likely to, the premise is this: Aliens ("Heptapods") arrive on Earth, and we have no idea why they're here. Louise, a linguist, leads the translation effort involved in first contact, and as she learns their language she realises its non-linear nature is rewiring her brain to perceive time differently. By the end of the film, she's able to see into her own future and prevent a crisis. It turns out that teaching us this language is the Heptapods' entire purpose on Earth, because they need our help - in thousands of years from now.


1. Language

The most interesting thing about Arrival is how plausible it all is. You know, apart from the whole massive alien monoliths thing.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, that language shapes the way we think, is a real thing. While linguists like to argue about how strong the effect is, there's a lot of evidence that it actually happens. Moreover, there's some evidence that specifically the metaphors we use to talk about time change the way we see it.

I'm less qualified to talk about the physics, but the fact that most of physics doesn't seem to care about time might go some way to explain what happens in the story, if not in reality.

This is straight up good science fiction. It takes concepts we're familiar with, science that we know, and spins it off into the unknown. Like all good SF, it asks "what if?",

The interesting thing is this: we see the effects of highly advanced physics all the time in science fiction. What we don't see so often is the effects of highly advanced culture - and the merging of the two. Why should creatures with the technology to cross whatever gulf separates them from us (time, space, or dimension) be limited by puny human concepts of what language can and can't be?

first contact

2. Anatomy

Heptapod also makes sense from another perspective - their anatomy matches the properties of their language. The way that humans communicate is tied to the organs we use to do it. When we speak, we can only say one thing at a time, and we have to serialise our ideas before we transmit them. Sounds, words and sentences are all inextricably tied to time, and have to be experienced in correct order for them to make sense. When we sign, we have the same limitations. One sign at a time, deployed in order.

Our written language developed out of our spoken ones, because we speak first. There's specialised hardware and (maybe) software installed on humans to make speaking possible. There's no such specialisation for writing. So when we write, it's as a representation of the way we speak. It's serialised, sequential, and temporal.

Heptapods have no such restrictions, at least not with their writing. The equipment to write is built into their bodies, and the ability to perceive it doesn't depend on receiving it in order. We might imagine cuttlefish, with the chromatophores in their skin, developing a similar way of communicating, transmitting entire complex concepts at once without the need to do things one bit at a time.

Or hey - we do some of this as humans too. Not in our writing, which is so tied to speech, but in the purely visual forms of communication. Art or photography, maybe, but what comes closest is graphs. A graph can show you many data points, multiple variables, and the relationships between all of them all at once, and it does it in a way that's highly conventional. Photos and paintings leave much interpretation up to the viewer, but a language (and a graph) has agreed upon meanings and symbols (like words, or an axis) that make them communicate much the same concept to everyone.

In fact, I think the experience of reading Heptapod would be a lot like reading highly conventionalised, very abstract graphs. Instead of showing data points and the relationships between them, they show concepts and the relationships between them. Whether or not that would give you the ability to see through time is probably something you should ask a mathematician.

heptapod language

3. The Gift

And this is the really interesting part of Arrival for me. We leave Louise right as she's becoming conversant in Heptapod. She has the basics of the language down, but she really isn't truly fluent. The events of the film are resolved, but their consequences aren't.

How much will her ability to see through time grow? What are the nature of her predictions? Can she act to change them, or are they set? Does she see probable timelines, or fixed ones? As she teaches the language to others (as she's shown to be doing), how do their gifts interact? Can she see other people's futures, or just her own? What about changing others' futures? How does human society change when prediction like this is commonplace? Economics? Society? Relationships?

Or, as I like to think, does becoming fluent in a language outside of time render all of those questions meaningless? Does she become so fluent in time that she navigates all that as deftly and unconsciously as we navigate the grammar of our native language, unaware of its rules and yet still following them perfectly?

Are we, ironically, only struggling with these questions because our language doesn't allow us to frame the world as hers now does? Is being bound to time an essential part of the human experience?

And once we don't have to struggle with those questions, to ponder what our past means and our future holds, are we still human? And if we're not, are we caterpillars not understanding how butterflies fly, or locals not comprehending a colonising force?

4. Arrival.

This is why Arrival is such an amazing film, and one that you should see if you haven't already. The film is intense, and well shot, with a beautiful soundtrack - but the best part of the movie is the questions it leaves you with, and the literal hours of discussion that those questions spark. This is the mark of brilliant science fiction, and I wish we had more of it hitting traditional cinemas than we do.


Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Posted at 12:59PM under RantsScience.

Where we're going, we don't need rockets.

Let's be honest. The EM Drive is probably still wishful thinking.

an army of cubesats!

So far in human history, every method of propulsion ever found has involved some application of Newton's 3rd law. That's the famous one - "For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction." Simply put, what this means that if you want to go somewhere, you have to push off something. If you want to take a step forward, you have to push back on the floor. If you want to drive forward, your tires have to push off the road. If you're flying, your engines - and wings - are pushing off the air. And in the vacuum of space, lacking anything else to push off, you push back on your own stuff which you brought up there with you.

The big problem with the EM drive is that it's not pushing off anything. What it's apparently doing is generating some microwaves, bouncing them around inside an appropriately shaped chamber, and hoping. At no point, as far as I can tell from skimming the paper, does anything actually leave the chamber. It seems to be a closed system.

The problem with that is that while yes, these microwaves can impart a force, in this kind of setup it doesn't seem like they can impart a net force. If the microwaves don't actually leave the chamber, they're going to keep bouncing off, and imparting a force to, both ends of that chamber. In Newtonian terms, it's like pushing off something while at the same time trying to hold on to that thing so you don't lose it. You aren't going to go anywhere.

And while there is a lot of "relativistic" and "quantum" being thrown around, this is the big issue with the EM drive. It's trying to get thrust, without throwing propellant. It's trying to get movement, without any reaction. It's breaking not just one, but several, fundamentally important laws of physics.

Which is not to say that such a thing can't happen - but we really need way more than one pre-publication paper to say that it's "confirmed". There are much better breakdowns of what, exactly, the EM drive is supposed to do, and why it probably isn't doing it, at Ars Technica and on Scott Manley's video on the topic.

The fact is that there are a bunch of pretty kickass new propulsion methods floating around out there right now which do obey the laws of physics, and which actually deserve the media attention the EM drive is getting.

The Electrospray Thruster

ion electrospray thruster

We've had ion thrusters before. They err on the velocity, rather than the mass, side of conservation of momentum, using electricity to accelerate a little bit of mass incredibly fast rather than a lot of mass merely very fast. This one is cheap, and more importantly doesn't use superheated plasma, which makes it actually accessible to people outside of major space programs. It uses little blocks of liquid salt instead, spitting out a stream of ions. It's a prime candidate for something like a Cubesat.

(Cubesats are tiny, rad little satellites, which piggyback into orbit on other satellites' launch vehicles. It's a good way to do cheap space science without investing in a launch of your own.)

The reason electrospray thrusters are so cool is because - the creators estimate - some variant of electrospray thruster could have the capability to take a cubesat out of Earth's orbit and into the rest of the solar system. This would be huge. Right now, we see universities and high schools working on cubesats, but they're limited to Low Earth Orbit, at whatever altitude their rocket ends up. With this? They could end up anywhere in the solar system.



As cool as ion engines are, they're still essentially rockets. They throw stuff out the back to go forwards. But the microgravity and vacuum conditions of space open up a whole bunch of unconventional methods of moving your spacecraft around.

One of the weirdest is a device called a magnetorquer. This isn't propulsion so much as attitude control, but how it works is pretty remarkable. By extending a rod or wire some distance from the spacecraft and running a current through it, you can create an electromagnet strong enough to interact with the magnetic field of the earth itself. With a couple of these running through different axes of your satellite and modifying their field strengths, you can turn in any direction you like without expending any fuel.

Which is not to say that you're getting something for nothing. There still needs to be pretty significant energy dumped into those magnets. And Newton's third law still applies - except that your reaction force is being applied to the planet, imperceptibly changing its own motion, through its magnetic field.

Solar Sailing

solar sail

But the coolest not-rocket of all is The Planetary Society's Light Sail project.

The Light Sail is exactly what it sounds like.

It's a giant sail, propelled entirely by the power of light. No, it's not a solar panel generating electricity. It's actually pushed along by sunlight, exploiting a phenomenon called radiation pressure.

Basically, whenever light bounces off something, it loses a little bit of its momentum. The light doesn't slow down, since it's always travelling at the speed of light. But unlike the EM drive, this doesn't violate any of the laws of physics. Rather than coming from the light's velocity, the energy comes from its frequency. It reflects off the sail very slightly redder than when it arrived. The result is a tiny bit of energy imparted to the side of the sail facing the sun which, in the vacuum of space, creates a tiny but measurable amount of acceleration.

Here's the best thing about solar sails though. As far as your payload is concerned, that thrust is totally free. You don't need any propellant, just a big enough sheet of shiny mylar. The applications of this are pretty astounding. For a small enough payload, we could eventually sail anywhere in the solar system. For a larger one, you're looking at massively extending the life of satellites.

Plus, it looks really cool.

What these have in common is that they're everything the EM drive claims to be. They are cheap, easily deployable, and require minimal reaction mass - always a plus, since carting stuff to space is expensive. The difference is that they work. Provably. Experimentally. Operationally. They're out there letting us do cool science right now - and that's worth a thousand curiosities on a thousand workbenches.

More reading:

The latest EM drive paper.

The Planetary Society's Lightsail Project

The Pioneer Anomaly - an interesting case of radiation pressure.

NASA feasibility study on interplanetary cubesats

The MIT paper on electrospray thrusters.


Thursday, 10 November 2016

Posted at 03:06PM under RantsCoursework.

Why are you doing this?

No matter what you do, being flat out asked why you do it is a confronting question.

It's an even harder one when one of the standing debates in your chosen field is "...actually, what are we doing?"

I'm not going to dig into that debate right now, but suffice to say, I think the essence of what science communicators do is quite neatly summarised by a Spongebob .gif.

You take the knowledge from here, and you put it over there

We take the knowledge generated by experts, and we make it accessible to people who aren't experts. There are intricacies and details how and why, about best practices and motivations and techniques and models, and that's going to be different for everyone, and every situation. And sometimes, we do it backwards, teaching stuff to experts too – but I said I wasn’t going to get into that.

But ultimately, when you strip all the debate away, that's what we're doing. How and why is up to me.

And that brings me to the situation in which I actually found myself confronted with that question, with no distractions, no excuses, and nowhere to hide. It was during a weekend-long intensive unit earlier this semester. We had been locked away for a weekend on an island paradise (poor us), and were expected to grapple with everything we'd read over the last couple of weeks, teach a workshop all on our own, and engage with our own and our fellow students ideas on an unprecented level. Also, catch a buttload of Pokemon.

It was one of the most interesting weekends of my life.

We were asked this question on the morning of our first day, and as a bit of a conversational aid, given a series of strips with various potential motivations on them. And we ranked them, not just for ourselves, but for scientists and other communicators as well. And there's something about narrowing your options, about choosing from a list of eight rather than the infinite probability space of human thought, that has a way of crystallising ideas. Even if they're not dead on, they're a nucleation site, where something much more nuanced can grow.

Hedonism, improving decisions, and changing behaviour.

I have never been able to adequately articulate my answer to this question, for myself or anyone else, until now. I think, after having a list of options literally laid out in front of me, I think I've finally figured it out - and I'm going to share it with you. Strap yourselves in, everybody. It's gonna be a fun ride.


Primarily, I do this because it's fun for me. This breaks down into three components, which light up circuits all over my brain and which, not coincidentally, are very conducive to a flow state. There's the process of discovery, of finding something new about the world - even if it's just new to me. There's the process of mastery, of turning that idea over and over in my head until it's smooth, describing it to myself over and over again until I have a perfect model. And then there's sharing: taking that perfectly condensed idea and showing it to someone else, shorting out that whole learning process in their brain and watching it light up behind their eyes as their understanding of the world shifts. The goal isn't retention, it's understanding. Facts can leak away, but if you change how someone thinks, even a tiny amount, that will stay with them for life.

They say 'write what you know.' Screw that. I'd rather write what I don't, and learn along the way.

Secondarily, I want people to be able to make informed decisions. This is something I've believed for a long time. The more relevant ideas, examples and data that you have to draw on when choosing something or forming an opinion, the better that decision will be. It'll be more defensible, and will tend to have a better outcome. As much as I am doing this for myself, because I learning cool new things, I also believe that it's important that people make the best informed decsisions they can, and as far as literally every other person who isn't me goes, that's as good a goal to be aiming for as any.

I feel that it's also important to say why I'm not doing this. I'm not a cheerleader for science. I'm not a publicist for science. I'm not a recruiter for science. That's not to say that any of these aren't science communication, because they are. They just aren't for me. Science is just one component of a wider society. And just like the rest of society, just like economics or ethics or philosophy, you can't just communicate 'the facts' as told to you. Sometimes an outside perspective is useful. Sometimes there are multiple sides to the story. Sometimes commentary and criticism is just as important as education. Sometimes, just like every institution, science needs to be scrutinised and held to account.


The job I'm in right now (presenting planetarium shows, mostly) is not perfectly aligned with where I want to be in my career, but it is in the right ball park. And although from my position at the bottom of the food chain doesn't have the scope for a lot of professional improvement, I can still try to improve myself and the way I approach things. With this in mind, I pledge:
To try to bridge the gap between science communication theory and practice, and be aware of the theoretical underpinnings of what I do.
To be an evidence based communicator, and to try and understand how my job actually works.
To engage in discussion with people, not just be a fact dispenser - because science centers are one of the few places dialogues about science can actually happen.
To be critical, both of science itself and of the science communication practice around me.

One day, though, I'd like to see myself in journalism. Or at least something journalism-adjacent. I want to be discovering, learning, and sharing for a living, to a much greater extent than what I do now. In that field, given my basically self-centered reasons for doing this stuff, I need to remember my audience. There is a risk, in science communication, of assuming nonscientists are idiots who hate science because they're idiots. It is an easy assumption to make, because the act of taking knowledge from one place to another seems to imply that there's [something lacking].

And there is, but it's not because they're morons. That's a sweeping generalisation. All it means is that they don't know that one bit of knowledge, and it's because they haven't needed it yet, and that maybe their opinions on things are informed by other parts of their lives. When they do need it, making sure that that knowledge is available, comprehensible, useful and considered critically is our role as science communicators.

So while I can't tell what I'll be doing in the future, and I can't make any guesses about how I should approach it, I can say this - I pledge to remember and respect my audience.

The Take-home Message

So that's what I learned in the first year of my Master's degree. It's something that, arguably, I should have known going in to the degree, but maybe learning it this way was better. I still don't know where I'm headed, when I'll get there, or if I'll change my mind once I do. But I know what I'm doing, and how to do it, and why I want to. Hopefully, as long as I have that, I'll always be going in the right direction.


Saturday, 05 November 2016

Posted at 03:13PM under CourseworkInfographics.

Talking to Mars

What's the internet like on Mars?

(If you like raw data and sources, you can find 'em in the table at the bottom.)

high speeeed

For a while, NASA was actually planning a dedicated communications satellite for Mars, but evidently decided to just roll that in to MRO instead.

Let's not even start on the fact that NASA can download things from Mars faster than most of us can download a movie. And by download, I of course mean legally stream. And by faster, I of course mean downstream bitrate - the latency is still awful, and the process of sending data to Mars is slower than a tortoise running through molasses.

Spacecraft Arrival date Max Downlink Min Downlink End of mission Source
Mars Global Surveyor 11/09/1997 85 21 2/11/2006
2001 Mars Odyssey 24/10/2001 110 28 ongoing
Mars Express 25/12/2003 184 28 ongoing
Mars Reconaissance Orbiter 10/03/2006 6000 500 ongoing
Curiosity 6/08/2012 32 0.5 ongoing


Sunday, 23 October 2016

Posted at 10:27AM under Meta.


So I made a discovery. I loaded up my blog backend...

[rockym93 /home/public/blog]$ python
Python 2.7.12 (default, Jul  6 2016, 20:24:53) 
Type "help", "copyright", "credits" or "license" for more information.
>>> import blogtools

...did some sorting...

>>> so = []
>>> for i in blogtools.postlist:
...     f = file(blogtools.postlist[i][2] + '.txt')
...     s = f.readline()
...     f.close()
...     if s.split(' ')[0] == "So":
...             so.append(blogtools.postlist[i][0])

...and some counting...

>>> len(blogtools.postlist)
>>> len(so)
>>> float(len(so)) / float(len(blogtools.postlist))

...and found a pattern that I always knew was there.

>>> for i in so:
...     print i
Book in a day
Holidays, internets, and exchanges
Imagine a golf ball...
I are teh WINNAR!
On Charity day and Star Trek and being totally snowed under.
Doctor Who! And a rant.
The Purge
[Entry 1] Airports are weird.
[Entry 3] Oh Look, A Citadel!
[Entry 7] Pyramids!
[Entry 20] Lost in Spezia
[Entry 24] So we're in Annecy.
On a bus
The Goddamned English Language
Probably the geekiest thing anyone has ever written about football
Five years?!
Happy New Year!
The fault with 'fault'.
Orbital Analogy
[PAX] Play the damn games.
The Stack.
The Glitch
Snap map.
Starting XBMC when a Raspberry Pi's HDMI is connected
How Triple J Sold Me A Spotify
Skiing by Subheadings
Cold Hard Numbers
"The Docs, girl. They need some love."
An architecture lesson from the Brooklyn Bridge
"We hope you have a meaningful visit."
Talent Scout
Continuous Consumption
Lightspeed Delay

If you can't quite follow that code: There are 43 posts on this blog that start with the word 'So', out of a total of 456. That's now 44 out of 457. Almost 10% of my writing here starts with everybody's favourite conjunction.

I honestly expected it to be higher.

(Happy (belated) tenth bloggiversary, everyone.)


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