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Posts tagged as “Sith Park”

[twenty twenty-four day forty-five]: level but not even

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So back in the day (and on the Left Coast) I had a couple of swords mounted on my bookcases. We hadn't done that here because we were busy ... but two years is too long to be busy, so my wife and I decided it was time to set up the swords again, starting with the Kylo "Kylo Ren is Best Sith" Ren cross-lightsaber.

Only ... it ain't that simple. We had to buy new brackets as the previous ones disappeared in the move. We found those at Lowe's, but it turned out that we could not install the mounting diamonds as the old bookcases were solid wood and these were hollow - the screws would have pulled straight out.

Eventually we used bolts and washers and I was able to finish the installation after my wife left town.

A little duct tape and an old Amazon delivery bag protect the books in the case. There's only one problem:

Despite our careful measuring, it was not possible to make it both level (up-and-down) and even (side-to-side) at the same time. It may be that the bookcase itself is leaning (see the top of the previous picture) and since it is screwed into the bookcase next to it for stability, well, we're stuck with that.

Still, I like how it came out.

1 of 2. Next: Excalibur.

-the Centaur

Day 105 (and Camp Nano Day 9)

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capaldi sketch Sharpie sketch of Peter Capaldi from the Doctor Who episode "The Pilot," which is lightweight in tone and stakes but stands up surprisingly well to repeated viewings, especially Capaldi's knockout speech about time in the beginning, the Doctor's amazing office, and the introduction of the TARDIS. The sketch is ... OK. Slightly squashed, and I'm still doing eyes too big (likely a function of the Sharpie sketches, which put a minimum size on the features I can draw). But it ... kinda looks like him? His head's not turned the right way, and I still have trouble getting the "landscape" of the face right. capaldi drawing Still, drawing every day. -the Centaur P. S. Only got ~50 words on Camp Nano, but I feel good about those words, as they're stitching parts of a scene together so I can really roll with it tomorrow. 11K words behind, but I've been behind worse.

VAC-CI-NATE! (and Drawing Every Day #103, and Camp Nano …)

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vac-ci-nate So! I got my first shot today, and other than a little arm soreness, a headache which may or may not be related, and some tiredness which may just be because it's 3:21am, I have not yet had any ill effects. I was totally lied to by my album covers though, and have not been able to hack into Bill Gates' secret global network through the tiny implanted computer chip in the vaccine, maybe because neither exists. centaur, vaccine 1 Ouch. First picture failed for some reason, so we get this charming shot of the needle coming OUT rather than going in. But it didn't really hurt at all, maybe because I was fiddling with my camera. Our Dalek friend below is proud that he was able to contribute his catchphrase to our cause: dalek toy ~500 words on Camp Nano, still behind, but I am too wiped to write more. Drawing, writing, being a good citizen every day. -the Centaur

Day 052

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spock sketch As Spock says: it's 2am, but if it was an hour earlier I'd have done another whole sketch before rendering. The side to side tilt is right, but I've leaned his head way down from what it is, making his face look bashed in. This is sort of the opposite problem from what I was having earlier, so ... yay? spock picture One of the things about learning is that regular, immediate feedback is important for progress. That's why, when I have reference material for what I'm drawing, that I post both of those here so I can compare and judge what I've done, looking for things to improve. Drawing every day. -the Centaur

Day 045

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Googley Eyes Sketch As it says on the tin: it's late, I'm tired, and I have early meetings tomorrow (fine, fine, FINE, 10am Pacific, which is 1pm my time, but it's 3am already) so here's a quick sketch of the Fourth Doctor on Strathmore using a dry erase marker, because damnit, the point is not to perfect the drawings, but to not break the streak. This one could really have used a preliminary sketch and a normal render though: Googley Eyes Original I'm happier with the jaw, but the hair could have extended about another 10%. Another thing to watch out for (though it's easier to get right when you're doing preliminary sketches before diving in, instead of jumping straight out of the airplane with nothing but a dry erase marker and hope). Drawing every day. -the Centaur

Day 044

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Wibbly Head Traced To see what was wrong with the previous day's drawing, I traced - literally traced - the outlines of the image and then rendered it as before. To facilitate this process, I spent a good part of the day yelling at my drawing table, Photoshop, and Google Chrome. Oh wait, that came before and after what I did to facilitate the process - I took the Matt Smith image and Photoshop filtered it to bring up the outlines: Wibbly Head Filtered This process of mine, which you've probably seen on other art such as the current banner to the Library, involves duplicating the background layer, smart blurring it to create a softer look (and to make the outlining features work better), then duplicating it 3 more times and applying the following filters:
  • Top layer, set to Darken, Opacity ~75%: Filter Gallery > Stylize > Glowing Edges, then Inverse This creates a heightened set of outlines.
  • Middle layer, set to Darken, Opacity ~50%: Filter Gallery > Graphic Pen, often Inverted This creates a shading layer. You may need to play with levels, contrast, or lightness, possibly with other filters, to create the necessary dark and light areas for this filter to give good results.
  • Back layer, set to Normal, Opacity ~90%: Filter Gallery > Poster Edges This creates a cartoony layer; a 75% to 90% opacity lets part of the original image through to fill in tiny details to create a slightly more realistic look.
This combination creates the impression of a colored drawing. I like how it turns out, though your mileage may vary. Regardless, in this case, it punched up much of the outlines and dark/light areas of the drawing, which facilitated doing the tracing layer. The Drawing Table The screaming and yelling came in when I tried to compare today's work to yesterday's. Well, actually, it started when I tried to make a minor upgrade to my drawing setup above, a lip to prevent things from falling off; this was a pain in the ass because my nice but cheap drawing "table" had a lip so short that not only would notebooks and such fall off it, it was hard even to attach something to extend it. Yelling ensued. But eventually I did extend it, using a thin lip of oak held on by carefully angled screws: The Hinged Table It's a little too deep now, but that can be compensated for with a mat, whereas not having a decent lip can't really be compensated for at all. Regardless, I drew on that tonight, and when I was done, I scanned the image and compared it. Or tried to, as I hit a wall in my Photoshop knowledge, right when my disk filled up so I could neither undo changes, nor save files, nor really look anything up online. More screaming ensued, followed by an exhaustive closing of apps and Chrome windows. (Note to self: clean off the hard drive of your main computer, there must be some free space somewheres). I hit the place I call "stuck in molasses" where every attempt to fix a problem creates a new obstacle (down to Chrome not even wanting to close web pages when I'm trying to free space, or web pages popping up "Would you like to sign up for my newsletter" right over the instructions as I'm reading them). This is often related to "the novice penalty" where you have all the general knowledge needed to tackle a problem but none of the specifics, so nothing you try getting started works; it can also happen to experts working in an area where they've grown rusty or the equipment, real or virtual, has bitrotted through disuse. The solution, I've found, is staying with it, focusing on an area of work, constantly seeking ways to either improve your skills, streamline your process, or eliminate blockers. As you build up this library of solutions, you reach a point where making progress is quick and easy, despite blockers. In the end, ears ringing from yelling, I did manage to find the solution I wanted - to lighten "black" ink layers to a midscale grey prior to trying to colorize them - and that enabled me to produce this: Wibby Head vs Head Red is yesterday's drawing; blue is today's rendered trace. Trying to line this up by matching nose to chin, I discovered various things:
  • I got the top of the head pretty OK: Matt's hair is roughly in the right place. That doesn't surprise me: I like drawing hair, as all my favorite character creations are well-coiffed.
  • I was correct in thinking I'd gotten the eyes too wide.
  • I tend to exaggerate chin shapes, or at least I did here (and even in the trace before I caught it), leading to the too-wide original face. Human heads are narrower than I tend to draw them.
  • I underestimate shoulder shapes, or at least I did here, or, more accurately, only Matt Smith could make someone as totally ripped as he is look like a goobery old professor.
Well, now I have some more things to work on. Onward! Drawing every day. -the Centaur P.S. You may be wondering, "Yelling until your ears are ringing ... are you OK?" No, no I'm not. Welcome to the pandemic, which is actually the least of my problems. Thanks for asking!

Day 043

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11th Doctor Sketch 11th Doctor sketch, done with much tighter pencils than normal. Forget the crosshatched shadingo on the coat - wasn't trying to get that right, it was just a means to the end - but as for the face ... Meh. Much about this sketch is better than many of my previous ones, but there are still proportionality issues - the left side of his jaw is lopsided, the eyes are too big and too far apart, and the whole proportions make the head too big and too squat despite my attempts to get the rough proportions right before I started the detailed pencils. The real Matt Smith is ... shall we say ... more lantern-like: 11th Doctor Original Not quite sure what I'm doing wrong there, but it's something to pay attention to. While I could do some work on proportions and drawings with graph paper, or read more books on anatomy, I think the real solution is to draw a heck of a lot of faces and keep doing this analysis to them. Which is why I am ... drawing every day. -the Centaur

Day 036

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Tiny Lion As it says on the tin. Quick sketched with a dry erase marker on 9x12 paper, then rapidly colored / filtered / rendered in Photoshop. Subject: one of the plush lions from my vast collection of genre toys that I once had on my desk at work - with the excuse that these were my motivation to keep working. "This is why I'm doing this: to be able to afford to enjoy that."  So far, the motivational experiment seems to be working. Drawing every day. -the Centaur

Day 035

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Sketch of Zendaya in Dune A quick sketch of Zendaya portraying the character Chani in Dune. (Yes, I put a lot of effort into this sketch, but I call it a "quick sketch" because I specifically optimized getting the sketch done for its purpose - making faces that look like particular faces - rather than solving all problems, e.g. developing a strategy for rendering her woven shawl with crosshatching). As for making a face look like a face ... Picture of Zendaya from Dune ... I give me a "meh" on this one. Still, I think she'd make a good Cinnamon Frost. Drawing every day. -the Centaur

Day 032

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Star Trek The Official Fan Club An attempt to recreate the March/April 1988 issue of "Star Trek: The Official Fan Club". Could have matched the cover more closely, but, really, this was an exercise in trying to make a face look like a particular face. Comparing with the original cover, I don't think human eyes are supposed to be that large - it's interesting how your mind distorts what you're seeing when you try to recreate it on the page. Drawing every day. -the Centaur

Happy Freedom Day

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fireworks at the end of the street

Recently, I had a potentially bad interaction with a powerful person. I didn't lose my head in the encounter, and I didn't lose my head as the result of the encounter. What's even better, both of us were in the encounter because we wanted to be: neither of us were trapped by vassalage or nobility. Both of us were free to walk away at any time. So ultimately I did the right thing in that situation, and ultimately they made the right decision required by the situation and we both walked away winners.

That's the kind of thing that can happen when people are free.

So yesterday, while our cats were hiding under the bed because of the rumblings echoing through the valley, my wife and I paused our preparation of our holiday dinner and went outside to watch the fireworks sparking at the end of the street … beyond the end of the street … and in all directions around us that we could hear or see.

Fourth of July is an American celebration, and yes, technically it's a celebration of our independence from England, but the idea behind the celebration is far more important than that history. We're celebrating freedom: the right for each individual to do what they want with their lives as long as they're not directly harming anyone else.

And that's an idea which belongs to everyone in the world.

It may be a long time before freedom is implemented for everyone in practice, equitably, with sensitivity to each culture's unique sensibilities. It's tricky, because many people in this world think that they have the right to control others, or think that they're being actually harmed when someone else's choices simply make them feel uncomfortable. We have a lot of work to do.

But we knew all that. The Fourth isn't a time to mourn for victories not yet achieved; it's a time to celebrate, and cherish, the victories we have in hand. So hugged, and smiled, and watched the fireworks, and then went inside and called our neighbors to make sure they'd left their garage door open on purpose (they had; they were also watching the fireworks, just up the street). Then we had tabbouleh and vegan crab cakes and watched a Doctor Who story about haunted houses, time travel and love.

It was a good day to be free.

-the Centaur

The Science of Airships, Redux

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Once again, I will be giving a talk on The Science of Airships at Clockwork Alchemy this year, this time at 11AM on Monday. I had to suffer doing all the airship research for THE CLOCKWORK TIME MACHINE, so you should too! Seriously, I hope the panel is fun and informative and it was received well at previous presentations. From the online description:

Steampunk isn't just brown, boots and buttons: our adventurers need glorious flying machines! This panel will unpack the science of lift, the innovations of Count Zeppelin, how airships went down in flames, and how we might still have cruise liners of the air if things had gone a bit differently. Anthony Francis is a science fiction author best known for his Dakota Frost urban fantasy series, beginning with the award winning FROST MOON. His forays into Steampunk include two stories and the forthcoming novel THE CLOCKWORK TIME MACHINE.

Yes, yes, I know THE CLOCKWORK TIME MACHINE is long in forthcoming, but at least it's closer now. I'll also be appearing on two panels, "Facts with Your Fiction" moderated by Sharon Cathcartat 5pm on Saturday and "Multi-cultural Influences in Steampunk" moderated by Madeline Holly at 5pm on Sunday. With that, BayCon and Fanime, looks to be a busy weekend.

-the Centaur

Dragon Con, Dragon Con, Jiggety Jig

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Well, it's back again to Dragon*Con, my home away from home in the magical city of Atlanta.


Like Comic-Con, the show at Dragon*Con begins even before you get inside.


Unlike Comic-Con, however, the architecture of Dragon*Con is not awesomely mega, but mega awesome.


From the floor to the ceiling, the hotels of Dragon*Con, especially the Marriott, are awe-inspiring.


It's simply hard to take them in all at once.


In the midafternoon, things are just getting started...


... but don't worry, things will fill up soon enough.


I'll be at the Bell Bridge Books author spotlight on Sunday, hawking STRANDED, the anthology of which I have not yet seen a copy, but whose cover looks like this.

Stranded - print.jpg

What's even more awesome is the con officially hasn't started yet ... and the costumes are amazing.






I mean, AMAZING.




Seriously ... you know.


So, on this first night of Dragon*Con, I've had a great meal...


Powered up with caffeine...


And filled out this, my traditional first post of Dragon*Con!


-the Centaur

Prometheus is the movie you show your kids to teach them how not to do science

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Too Diplomatic for My Own Good

I recently watched Ridley Scott's Prometheus. I wanted to love it, and ultimately didn't, but this isn't a post about how smart characters doing dumb things to advance a plot can destroy my appreciation of a movie. Prometheus is a spiritual prequel to Alien, my second favorite movie of all time, and Alien's characters often had similar afflictions, including numerous violations of the First Rule of Horror Movies: "Don't Go Down a Dark Passageway Where No One Can Hear You if You Call For Help". Prometheus is a big, smart movie filled with grand ideas, beautiful imagery, grotesque monsters and terrifying scares. If I'd seen it before seeing a sequence of movies like Alien maybe I would have cut it more slack.

I could also critique its scientific accuracy, but I'm not going to do that. Prometheus is a space opera: very early on in the movie we see a starship boldly plying its way through the deeps, rockets blazing as it shoots towards its distant destination. If you know a lot of science, that's a big waving flag that says "don't take the science in this movie too seriously." If you want hard science, go see Avatar. Yes, I know it's a mystical tale featuring giant blue people, but the furniture of the movie --- the spaceship, the base, the equipment they use --- is so well thought out it could have been taken from Hal Clement. Even concepts like the rock-lifting "flux tube," while highly exaggerated, are based on real scientific ideas. Prometheus is not Avatar. Prometheus is like a darker cousin to Star Trek: you know, the scary cousin from the other branch you only see at the family Halloween party, the one that occasionally forgets to take his medication. He may have flunked college physics, but he can sure spin a hell of a ghost story.

What I want to do is hold up Prometheus as a bad example of how to do science. I'm not saying Ridley Scott or the screenwriters don't know science, or even that they didn't think of or even film sequences which showed more science, sequences that unfortunately ended up on the cutting room floor --- and with that I'm going to shelve my caveats. What I'm saying is that the released version of Prometheus presents a set of characters who are really poor scientists, and to show just how bad they are I'd like to compare them with the scientists in the 2011 version of The Thing, who, in contrast, do everything just about right.

But Wait ... What's a "Scientist"?

Good question. You can define them by what they do, which I'm going to try to do with this article.

But one thing scientists do is share their preliminary results with their colleagues to smoke out errors before they submit work for publication. While I make a living twiddling bits and juggling words, I was trained as (and still fancy myself as) a scientist, so I shared an early version of this essay with colleagues also trained as a scientist --- and one of them, a good friend, pointed out that there's a whole spectrum of real life scientists, from the careful to the irresponsible to the insane.

He noted "there's the platonic ideal of the Scientist, there's real-life science with its dirty little secrets, and then there's Hollywood science which is often and regrettably neither one of the previous two." So, to be clear, what I'm talking when I say scientist is the ideal scientist, Scientist-with-a-Capital-S, who does science the right way.

But to understand how the two groups of scientists in the two movies operate ... I'm going to have to spoil their plots.

Shh ... Spoilers

SPOILERS follow. If you don't want to know the plots of Prometheus and The Thing, stop reading as there are SPOILERS.

Both Prometheus and The Thing are "prequels" to classic horror movies, but the similarities don't stop there: both are stories about scientific expeditions to a remote place to study alien artifacts that prove unexpectedly dangerous when virulent, mutagenic alien life is found among the ruins. The Thing even begins with a tractor plowing through snow towards a mysterious, haunting signal, a shot which makes the tractor and its track look like a space probe rocketing towards its target --- a shot directly paralleling the early scenes of Prometheus that I mentioned earlier.

Both expeditions launch in secrecy, understandably concerned someone might "scoop" the discovery, and so both feature scientists "thrown off the deep end" with a problem. Because they're both horror movies challenging humans with existential threats, and not quasi-documentaries about how science might really work, both groups of scientists must first practice science in a "normal" mode, dealing with the expectedly unexpected, and then must shift to "abnormal" mode, dealing with unknown unknowns. "Normal" and "abnormal" science are my own definitions for the purpose of this article, to denote the two different modes in which science seems to get done in oh so many science fiction and horror movies --- science in the lab, and science when running screaming from the monster. However, as I'll explain later, even though abnormal science seems like a feature of horror movies, it's actually something that real scientists actually have a lot of experience with in the real world.

But even before the scientists in Prometheus shift to "abnormal" mode --- heck, even before they get to "normal" mode --- they go off the rails: first in how they picked the project in the first place, and second, in how they picked their team.

Why Scientists Pick Projects

You may believe Earth's Moon is made of cheese, but you're unlikely to convince NASA to dump millions into an expedition to verify your claims. Pictures of a swiss cheese wheel compared with the Moon's pockmarked surface won't get you there. Detailed mathematical models showing the correlations between the distribution of craters and cheese holes are still not likely to get you a probe atop a rocket; at best you'll get some polite smiles, because that hypothesis contradicts what we already know about the lunar surface. If, on the other hand, you cough up a spectrograph reading showing fragments of casein protein spread across the lunar surface, side by side with replication by an independent lab --- well, get packing, you're going to the Moon. What I'm getting at is that scientists are selective in picking projects --- and the more expensive the project, the more selective they get.

In one sense, science is the search for the truth, but if we look at the history of science, it isn't about proving the correctness of just any old idea: ideas are a dime a dozen. Science isn't about validating random speculations sparked by why different things look similar - for every alignment between the shoreline of Africa and South America that leads to a discovery like plate tectonics, there's a spurious match between the shape of the Pacific and the shape of the Moon that leads nowhere. (Believe it or not, this theory, which sounds ridiculous to us now, was a serious contender for the origin of the Moon many years, first proposed in 1881 by Osmond Fisher). Science is about following leads --- real evidence that leads to testable predictions, like not just a shape match between continents, but actual rock formations which are mirrored, down to their layering and fossils.

There's some subtlety to this. Nearly everybody who's not a scientist thinks that science is about finding evidence that confirms our ideas. Unfortunately, that's wrong: humans are spectacularly good at latching on evidence that confirms our ideas and spectacularly bad at picking up on evidence that disconfirms them. So we teach budding scientists in school that the scientific method depends on finding disconfirming evidence that proves bad ideas wrong. But experienced scientists funding expeditions follow follow precisely the opposite principle, at least at first: we need to find initial evidence that supports a speculation before we follow it up by looking for disconfirming evidence.

That's not to say an individual scientist can't test out even a wild and crazy idea, but even an individual scientist only has one life. In practice, we want to spend our limited resources on likely bets. For example, Einstein spent the entire latter half of his life trying to unify gravitation and quantum mechanics, but he'd probably have been better off spending a decade each on three problems rather than spending thirty years in complete failure. When it gets to a scientific expedition with millions invested and lives on the line, the effect is more pronounced. We can't simply follow every idea: we need good leads.

Prometheus fails this test, at least in part. The scientists begin with a good lead: in a series of ancient human cultures, none of whom have had prior contact, they find almost identical pictures, all of which depict an odd tall creature pointing to a specific constellation in the sky not visible without a telescope, a constellation with a star harboring an Earthlike planet. As leads go, that's pretty good: better than mathematical mappings between Swiss cheese holes and lunar crater sizes, but not quite as good as a spectrograph reading. It's clearly worth conducting astronomical studies or sending a probe to learn more.

But where the scientists fail is they launch a trillion dollar expedition to investigate this distant planet, an expedition which, we learn later, was actually bankrolled not because of the good lead but because of a speculation by Elizabeth, one of the paleontologists, that the tall figure in the ancient illustration is an "Engineer" who is responsible for engineering humanity, thousands of years ago. This speculation is firmly back in the lunar cheese realm because, as one character points out, it contradicts an enormous amount of biological evidence. What makes it worse is that Elizabeth has no mathematical model or analogy or even myth to point to on why she believes it: she says she simply chooses to believe it.

If I was funding the Prometheus expedition, I'd have to ask: why? Simply saying she later proves to be right is no answer: right answers reached the wrong way still aren't good science. Simply saying she has faith is not an answer; that explains why she continues to hold the belief, but not how she formed it in the first place. Or, more accurately, how she justified her belief: as one of of my colleagues reading this article pointed out, it really doesn't matter why she came to believe it, only how she came to support it. After all, the chemist Kekulé supposedly figured out benzene's ring shape after dreaming about a snake biting its tail --- but he had a lot of accumulated evidence to support that idea once he had it. So, what evidence led Elizabeth to believe that her intuition was correct?

Was there some feature of the target planet that makes it look like it is the origin of life on Earth? No, from the descriptions, it doesn't seem Earthlike enough. Was there some feature of the rock painting that makes the tall figures seem like they created humans? No, the figure looks more like a herald. So what sparked this idea in her? We just don't know. If there was some myth or inscription or pictogram or message or signal or sign or spectrogram or artifact that hinted in that direction, we could understand the genesis of her big idea, but she doesn't tell us, even though she's directly asked, and has more than enough time to say why using at least one of those words. Instead, because the filmmakers are playing with big questions without really understanding how those kinds of questions are asked or answered, she just says it's what she chooses to believe.

But that's not a good reason to fund a trillion dollar scientific expedition. Too many people choose to believe too many things for us to send spacecraft to every distant star that someone happens to wish upon --- we simply don't have enough scientists, much less trillions. If you want to spend a trillion dollars on your own idea, of course, please knock yourself out.

Now, if we didn't know the whole story of the movie, we could cut them slack based on their other scientific lead, and I'll do so because I'm not trying to bash the movie, but to bash the scientists that it depicts. And while for the rest of this article I'm going to be comparing Prometheus with The Thing, that isn't fair in this case. The team from Prometheus follows up a scientific lead for a combination of reasons, one pretty good, one pretty bad. The team from The Thing finds a fricking alien spacecraft, or, if you want to roll it back further, they find an unexplained radio signal in the middle of a desert which has been dead for millions of years and virtually uninhabited by humans in its whole history. This is one major non-parallel between the two movies: unlike the scientists of Prometheus, who had to work hard for their meager scraps of leads, the scientists in The Thing had their discovery handed to them on a silver platter.

How Scientists Pick Teams

Science is an organized body of knowledge based on the collection and analysis of data, but it isn't just the product of any old data collection and analysis: it's based on a method, a method which is based on analyzing empirical data objectively in a way which can be readily duplicated by others. Science is subtle and hard to get right. Even smart, educated, well-meaning people can fool themselves, so it's important for the people doing it to be well trained so that common mistakes in evidence collection and reasoning can be avoided.

Both movies begin with real research to establish the scientific credibility of the investigators. Early in Prometheus, the scientists Elizabeth and Charlie are shown at an archaeological dig, and later the android David practices some very real linguistics --- studying Schleicher's Fable, a highly speculative but non-fictional attempt to reconstruct early human languages --- to prepare for a possible meeting with the Engineers that Elizabeth and Charlie believe they've found. Early in The Thing, Edvard's team is shown carefully following up on a spurious radio signal found near their site, and the paleontologist Kate uses an endoscope to inspect the interior of a specimen extracted from pack ice (just to be clear, one not related to Edvard's discovery).

But in Prometheus, things almost immediately begin to go wrong. The team which made the initial discovery is marginalized, and the expedition to study their results is run by a corporate executive, Meredith, who selects a crew based on personal loyalty or willingness to accept hazard pay. Later, we find there are good reasons why Meredith picked who she did --- within the movie's logic, well worth the trillion dollars her company spent bankrolling the expedition --- but those criteria aren't scientific, and they produce an uninformed, disorganized crew whose expedition certainly explores a new world, but doesn't really do science.

The lead scientist of The Thing, Edvard, in contrast, is a scientist in charge of a substantial team on a mission of its own when he makes the discovery that starts the movie. He studies it carefully before calling in help, and when he does call in help, he calls in a close friend --- Sander, a dedicated scientist in his own right, so world-renowned that Kate recognizes him on sight. He in turn selects Kate based on another personal recommendation, because he's trying to select a team of high caliber. Sander clashes with Kate when she questions his judgment, but these are just disagreements and don't lead to foul consequences.

In short, The Thing picks scientists to do science, and this difference from Prometheus shows up almost immediately in how they choose to attack their problems.

Why Scientists Don't Bungee Jump Into Random Volcanoes

Normal science is the study of things that aren't unexpectedly trying to kill you. There may be a hazardous environment, like radiation or vacuum or political unrest, and your subject itself might be able to kill you, like a virus or a bear or a volcano, but in normal science, you know all this going in, and can take adequate precaution. Scaredycats who aren't willing to study radioactive bears on the surface of Mount Explodo while dodging the rebel soldiers of Remotistan should just stay home and do something safe, like simulate bear populations on their laptops using Mathematica. The rest of us know the risks.

Because risk is known, it's important to do science the right way. To collect data not just for the purposes of collecting it, but to do so in context. If I've seen a dozen bees today, what conclusions can you draw? Nothing. You don't know if I'm in a jungle or a desert or even if I'm a beekeeper. Even if I told you I was a beekeeper and I'd just visited a hive, you don't even know if a dozen bees is a low number, a high number, or totally unexpected. Is it a new hive just getting started, or an old hive dying out? Is it summer or winter? Did I record at noon or midnight? Was I counting inside or outside the hive? Even if you knew all that, you can interpret the number better if you know the recent and typical statistics for beehives in that region, plus maybe the weather, plus ...

What I'm getting at that it does you no good as a scientist to bungee jump into random volcanoes to snap pictures of bubbling lava, no matter how photogenic that looks on the cover of National Geographic or Scientific American. Science works when we record observations in context, so we can organize the data appropriately and develop models of its patterns, explanations of its origins and theories about its meaning. Once again, there's a big difference in the kind of normal-science data collection depicted in Prometheus and The Thing. With one or two notable exceptions, the explorers in Prometheus don't do organized data collection at all - they blunder around almost completely without context.

How (Not) to Do Normal Science

In Prometheus, after spending two whole years approaching the alien world LV223, the crew lands and begins exploring without more than a cursory survey. We know this because the ship arrives on Christmas, breaks orbit, flies around seemingly at random until one of our heroes leaps from his chair because he's sighted a straight line formation, and then the ship lands, disgorging a crew of explorers eager to open their Christmas presents. We can deduce from this that less than a day has passed from arrival to landing, which is not enough time to do enough orbits to complete a full planetary survey. We can furthermore deduce that the ship had no preplanned route because then the destination would not have been enough of a surprise for our hero to leap out of his chair (despite the seat-belt sign) and redirect the landing. Once the Prometheus lands, the crew performs only a modest atmospheric survey before striking out for the nearest ruin. In true heroic space opera style this ruin just happens to have a full stock of all the interesting things that they might want to encounter, and as a moviegoer, I wasn't bothered by that. But it's not science.

Planets are big. Really big. The surface area of the Earth is half a billon square kilometers. The surface area of a smaller world, one possibly more like LV223, is just under a hundred fifty million square kilometers. You're not likely to find anything interesting just by wandering around for a few hours at roughly the speed of sound. The crew is shown to encounter a nasty storm because they don't plan ahead, but even an archaeological site is too big to stumble about hoping to find something, much less the mammoth Valley of the Kings style complex the Prometheus lands in. Here the movie both fails and succeeds at showing the protagonists doing science: they blunder out on the surface despite having perfectly good mapping technology (well, speaking as this is one of my actual areas of expertise, really awesome mapping technology), which they later use to map the inside of a structure, enabling one of the movie's key discoveries. (The other key discovery is made as a result of David spending two years studying ancient languages so he can decipher and act on alien hieroglyphs, and he has his own motives for deliberately keeping the other characters in the dark, so props to the filmmakers there: he's doing bad science for his team, but shown to be doing good science on his own, for clearly explained motives).

SO ANYWAY, a scientific expedition would have been mapping from the beginning to provide context for observations and to direct explorations. A scientific expedition would have released an army of small satellites to map the surface; left them up to predict weather; launched a probe to assess ground conditions; and, once they landed, launched that awesome flock of mapping drones to guide them to the target. The structure of the movie could have remained the same - and still shown science.

The Thing provides an example of precisely this behavior. The explorers in The Thing don't stumble across it. They're in Antarctica on a long geological survey expedition to extract ice cores. They've mapped the region so thoroughly that spurious radio transmissions spark their curiosity. Once the ship and alien are found, they survey the area carefully in both horizontal and vertical elevation, build maps, assess the structure of the ice, and set up a careful archeological dig. When the paleontologist Kate arrives, they can tell her where the spacecraft and alien are, roughly how long the spacecraft has been there, and even estimate the fracturability of the ice is like around the specimen based on geological surveys, and already have collected all the necessary equipment. Kate is so impressed she exclaims that the crew of the base doesn't really need her. And maybe they don't. But they're careful scientists on the verge of a momentous discovery, and they don't want to screw it up.

Real Scientists Don't Take off Their Helmets

Speaking of screwing up momentous discoveries, here's a pro tip: don't take off your helmet on an alien world, even if you think the atmosphere is safe, if you later plan to collect biological samples and compare them with human DNA, as the crew does in Prometheus. Humans are constantly flaking off bits of skin and breathing out droplets of moisture filled with cells and fragments of cells, and taking off a helmet could irrevocably contaminate the environment. The filmmakers can't even point to the idea that you could tell human from alien DNA because ultimately chemicals are chemicals: the way you tell human from alien DNA is to collect and sequence it, and in an alien environment filled with unknown chemicals, human-deposited samples could quickly break down into something that looked alien. You might get lucky ... but you probably won't. Upon reading this article, one of my colleagues complained to me that this was an unfair criticism because it's a simply a filmmaker's convention to let the audience see the faces of the actors, but regardless of whether you buy that for the purpose of making an engaging space opera with great performances by fine actors, it nevertheless portrays these scientists in a very bad light. No crew of careful scientists is going to take off their helmets, even if they think they've mysteriously found a breathable atmosphere.

The movie Avatar gets this right when, even in a dense jungle, one character notices another open a sample container with his mouth (to keep his hands free) and points out that he's contaminated the sample. The Thing also addresses the same issue: one key point of contention between paleontologist Kate and her superior Sander is that Sander wants to take a sample to confirm that their find is alien and that Kate does not because she doesn't want the sample to be contaminated. Both are right: Kate's more cautious approach preserves the sample, while Sander's more experienced approach would have protected the priority of his discovery from other labs if it really was alien, or let them all down early if the sample just was some oddly frozen Earth animal. My sympathy is with Kate, but my money is actually on Sander here: with a discovery as important as finding alien life on Earth, it's critically important to exclude as soon as possible the chance that what we've found is actually a contorted yak. More than enough of the sample remained undisturbed, and likely uncontaminated, to guard against Kate's fears.

Unfortunately, neither the crew of Prometheus or The Thing get the chance to be proved lucky or right.

How (Not) to Do Abnormal Science

Abnormal science is my term for what scientists do when "everything's gone to pot" and lives are on the line. This happens more often than you might think: the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill are two recent examples. Strictly speaking, what happens in abnormal science isn't science, that is, the controlled collection of data designed to enhance the state of human knowledge. Instead, it's crisis mitigation, a mixture of first responses, disaster management and improvisational engineering designed to blunt the unfolding harm. Even engineering isn't science; it's a procedure for tackling a problem by methodically collecting what's known to set constraints on a library of best practices that are used to develop solutions. The tools of science may get used in the improvisational engineering that happens after a disaster, but it's rarely a controlled study: instead, what gets used are the collected data, the models, the experimental methods and more importantly the precautions that scientists use to keep themselves from getting hurt.

One scientific precaution often applied in abnormal science which Prometheus and The Thing both get right is quarantine. When dealing with a destructive transmissible condition, like an infectious organism or a poisonous material, the first thing to do is to quarantine it: isolate the destructive force until it's neutralized, until the vector of spread is stopped, or until the potential targets are hardened or inoculated. After understandable moments of incredulity, both the crew of the Prometheus and The Thing implement quarantines to stop the spread of the biological agent and then decisively up the ante once its full spread is known.

The next scientific precaution applied in abnormal science is putting the health of team members first. So, for goodness's sake, if you've opened your helmet on an alien world, start feeling under the weather, and then see a tentacle poke out of your eye, don't shrug it off, put your helmet back on and venture out onto a hostile alien world as part of a rescue mission! On scientific expeditions, ill crewmembers do not go on data collection missions, nor do they go on rescue missions. That's just putting yourself and everyone else around you in danger - and the character in question in Prometheus pays with his life for it. In The Thing, in contrast, when a character gets mildly sick after an initial altercation, the team immediately prepares to medivac him to safety (this is before the need for a quarantine is known).

Another precaution observed in abnormal science is full information sharing. In both the Fukushima Daiishi and Deepwater Horizon disasters, lack of information sharing slowed down the potential response to the disaster - though in the Fukushima case it was a result of the general chaos of a country-rocking earthquake while in the Deepwater Horizon case it was a deliberate and in some cases criminal effort at information hiding in an attempt to create positive spin. The Prometheus crew has even the Deepwater Horizon event beat. On a relatively small ship, there are no less than seven distinct groups, all of whom hide critical information from each other - sometimes when there's not even a good motivation to. (For the record, these groups are (1) the mission sponsor Weyland who hides himself and the real mission from the crew, (2) the mission leader Meredith who's working for and against Weyland, (3) the android David who's both working with and hiding information from Weyland, Meredith, the crew and everyone else, (4) the regular scientific crew trying to do their jobs, (5) the Captain who then directs the crew via a comlink and then hides information for no clear reason, (6) the scientist Charlie who hides information about his illness from the crew and his colleague and lover Elizabeth, and finally (7) Elizabeth, who like the crew is just trying to do her job, but ends up having to hide information about her alien "pregnancy" from them to retain freedom of action). There are good story reasons why everyone ends up being so opposed, but as an example of how to do science or manage a disaster ... well, let's say predictable shenanigans ensue.

In The Thing, in contrast, there are three groups: Kate, who has a conservative approach, Sander, who has a studious approach, and everyone else. Once the shit hits the fan, both Kate and Sander share their views with everyone in multiple all-hands meetings (though Sander does at one point try to have a closed door meeting with Kate to sort things out). Sander pushes for a calm, methodical approach, which Kate initially resists but then participates with, helping her make key discoveries which end up detecting the alien presence relatively early. Then Kate pushes for a quarantine approach, which Sander resists but then participates in, volunteering key ideas which the alien force thinks are good enough to try to sabotage. Only at the end, when Kate suggests a test that the uninfected Sander knows full well will result in a false positive result for him, do they really get at serious loggerheads - but they're not given a chance to resolve this, as the science ends and the action movie starts at that point.

The Importance of Peer Review

I enjoyed Prometheus. I saw it twice. I'll buy it on DVD or Blu-Ray or something. I loved its focus on big questions, which it raised and explored and didn't always answer. It was pretty and gory and pretty gory. It pulled off the fair trick of adding absolute classic scenes to the horror genre, like Elizabeth's self-administered Ceasarean section, and absolute classic scenes to the scifi genre, like the David in the star map sequence - and perhaps even the crashing alien spacecraft inexorably rolling towards our heroes counts as both classic horror and classic science fiction at the same time.

But as Ridley Scott was quoted as saying, Prometheus was a movie, not a science lesson. The Thing is too. Like Prometheus, the accuracy of the scientific backdrop of The Thing is a full spectrum mixture of dead on correct (the vastness of space) to questionable (where do the biological constructs created by the black goo in Prometheus get their added mass? how can the Thing possibly be so smart that it can simulate whole humans so well that no-one can tell them apart?) to genre tropes (faster than light travel, alien life being compatible with human life) to downright absurd (humanoid aliens creating human life on Earth, hyperintelligent alien monsters expert at imitation screaming and physically assaulting people rather than simply making them coffee laced with Thing cells).

I'm not going to pretend either movie got it right. Neither Prometheus nor The Thing are good sources of scientific facts --- both include a great deal of cinematic fantasy.

But one of them can teach you how to do science.

-the Centaur

Pictured: a mashup of The Thing and Prometheus's movie posters, salsa'd under fair use guidelines.

Thanks to: Jim Davies, Keiko O'Leary, and Gordon Shippey for commenting on early drafts of this article. Many of the good ideas are theirs, but the remaining errors are my own.

Five Favorite Noises

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My friend Keiko started a meme over at Write to The End: what are your five favorite noises? The rules:

Don’t take too long on it. I’d say post your list within 24 hours. And don’t worry about trying to get your absolute top 5 favorite sounds ever. When you’ve collected 5 sounds you love, just post the list. We know this is just for fun, and we won’t hold you to any of your stated favorites. (And if you think of 5 more, you can post those, too!)

My favorite noises are:


Gabby's Purr


Dad's Whistle


The Enterprise Going to Warp


The Sound of a Lightsaber


The Engines of the TARDIS

Runner up goes to the weird noise I can make in my throat.

-the Centaur

Back home again…

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Blogging from the convention floor at Dragon*Con right now ... 11:45pm, it's hopping, and it hasn't officially started yet! No pictures right now because of equipment failures, but since I've arrived I've hit registration, had a great dinner at Sear, hit the guest con suite and picked the brain of a ninja, hit a drum circle and speculated on anorexia, wandered through a concert room between bands tearing down and setting up, helped a Minecraft cube through a pair of double doors and crossing the street, and seen Mister T twice. I've seen about five TARDIS dresses, half a dozen half naked people, dozens of anime characters, an absolutely spectacular furry just walked by, seen several great Doctors including a superb 10th and a passable 8th, and run into several con friends. I've taken pictures in places I take them every year and taken pictures of things I've never seen before. Every year is slightly different, slightly better, as the facilities of the hotels (now five!) get better, skybridges are added, and people routing policies are improved. We'll see how all that holds out when the zoo starts tomorrow. First panel on my list is 10am, so I'd better crash soon if I want breakfast. Or, hey, I could stay up all night writing. The night is young, and you're always as young as you feel. -the Centaur UPDATE: You may not feel so young the night after you flew in on a redeye. :-)


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skepticat skepticals your integrity I had this thought after reading a long critical blogpost on a recent scifi novel: The longer, more detailed, and, especially, the more clever you make your negative criticism of something, the more I suspect that you're doing a hatchet job on a work that's actually good, but simply something you don't personally like ... and that you've lost the ability to tell the difference. -the Centaur