Heartland Institute

You may have never heard of the Heartland Institute, but if you are a teacher, politician, or even a scientist -especially in the Midwest- you might have received some of their “informational” material through the mail. However, don’t be fooled by their “science.” -Take note of all the quotes- The Heartland Institute is a conservative and libertarian think tank whose past donors have included Exxon Mobil, Philip Morris, and even the infamous Koch Brothers. So as we gear up this week to March for Science, let’s take a look at one of the reasons why the upcoming marches are necessary.

Climate Change Reconsidered(?)
In 2011, the Heartland Institute released their Climate Change Reconsidered: 2011 Interim Report. In this report Heartland, and the authors: S. Fred Singer, Craig Idso, and Robert M. Carter contend the scientific consensus that climate change is due to man made activity. Among its major claims it states:

  • “Models over-estimate the amount of warming that occurred during the twentieth century.” (wrong)
  • Research finds less melting of ice in the Arctic, Antarctic, and on mountaintops than previously feared, no sign of acceleration of sea-level rise in recent decades.” (absurd)
  • “Research suggests corals and other forms of aquatic life have effective adaptive responses to climate change enabling them to flourish despite or even because of climate change.” (ridiculous)
  • “The net effect of continued warming and rising carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere is most likely to be beneficial to humans, plants, and wildlife.” (dangerous)

At best these claims are pseudo-science and at worst they are outright propaganda meant to push a political agenda. For the record, climate change is very real, and very man-made. It is causing all sorts of ecological disasters including Arctic ice melting, extreme weather conditions, coral bleaching, ocean acidification, and the World Health Organization is anticipating 250,000 additional deaths over the next 20 years in developing areas affected most by climate change.The Heartland Institute uses a combination of specious reasoning, cherry picked results, and they willfully exploit the reasonable uncertainty found in any scientific understanding.

Think of the Heartland Institute like an anti-science/anti-climate lobbying firm. According to their own website: elected officials are their “key audience.” Though they claim their lobbying expenses have been “trivial,” organizations like SourceWatch, have noted that they spent $415,935 on lobbying in 2011, and $350,348 on lobbying in 2012. They also contributed $612,000 to Scott Walker and four GOP senators in their 2012 recall elections. Additionally, their Climate Change Reconsidered: 2011 Interim Report is sent not only to senators and congressional representatives, but also to schools, colleges, and any place they feel they can affect public opinion against climate change and the majority scientific consensus. The Heartland Institute is a “think tank” in the same way Barney was a “real dinosaur,” and both do their best to influence impressionable minds.

Motives and Motivators
Now, some people may still look at organizations like the Heartland Institute and ask, “why do you question their scientific findings?” Putting aside the fact that real science has already shown us the dangers and origins of climate change, there are other factors -and people- that lead us to this assertion.  According to SourceWatch, one of the Heartland Institute’s leading and often cited “experts” on the environment is James M. Taylor, a lawyer from Florida who is the head of the Environment and Climate News organization, which consistently takes environmental positions that are contrary to the majority scientific opinion. However, he is not alone.

The Climate Change Reconsidered: 2011 Interim Report, created by the NIPCC -which is an organization Heartland created- was authored by three men. The most prominent, Fred Singer, has worked in everything from aerospace to weather. However, he is also a staunch believer in the free market, conservative values, and over the years has made a career arguing against everything from the health-risks of second hand smoke to why UV-B sunlight does not cause skin cancer. He also has possible ties to the Koch Brothers and other conservative policy centers. Craig D. Isdo, the second author of the report, is the founder of the Center for Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change. Don’t let the name fool you, this geologist and his group are at least partially funded by ExxonMobil. He has worked closely with the American Legislative Executive Council, where corporate lobbyists and special interest groups craft bills that are then handed to federal and state legislators for implementation.  The last author of the report, Robert M. Carter, who -before his death in 2016- was a marine geologist, and a well-known Australian climate change denier. He was on the Heartland Institute’s payroll as well as the the payroll of the Institute of Public Affairs, an Australian conservative institution funded by the mining, tobacco, oil, and pesticide industries -among others. All of this makes the judgement and findings of these men suspect, and worth remembering when one is reading their “report” on climate change.

As for the Heartland Institute itself, its CEO is Joseph Bast, an economics dropout from the University of Chicago. He has written several articles and other writings for Heartland on everything from healthcare to school reform. Most recently, in 2014, Bast wrote a viral editorial for the Wall Street Journal, which was aimed at denying basic climate science. It is also worth mentioning that under his watch the Heartland Institute thought it was a good idea to create THIS billboard, but we’ll just leave that there and let you form your own opinions.

A Track Record of Wrongness
Many may argue that some of the few people we selected to highlight were actual scientists and “who are we to say that their views are not as valid as the scientists who argue that climate change is man made and dangerous.” We are not making Ad hominem attacks. We are only highlighting the -dubiously- credible people that support the Heartland Institute, and are trying to remind you that these people are in the scientific minority. It is also worth mentioning that most of them have been wrong on every major health crisis from climate change to smoking to skin cancer. Yet, the conservative side still often treats this small minority of scientists as infallible sources of knowledge.

The Heartland Institute itself has taken several positions it now denies. Its most prominent role has been in denying and obscuring the health-risks of tobacco. This was, of course, helped by the fact that they received thousands of dollars annually from the tobacco industry. They are also advocates of privatizing federal services, increasing federal funding for charter schools, opposing federal healthcare regulation, and have also advocated for hydraulic fracking. Yet, those wrong-headed assertions aren’t the most terrifying thing about the Heartland Institute. That would be its constant campaigns of misinformation, which they create to obscure actual/important scientific fact and findings.

In 2012, leaked documents showed that the Heartland Institute not only funded the works of well known climate-deniers, such as Fred Singer and Craig Idso, but actively worked to dissuade teachers and K-12 curriculum advisors from promoting climate change consensus, and instead pushed for teachers to claim that there was no clear scientific consensus on the subject. -For the record: That is factually wrong, but also not the point– To further their political goals, Heartland sponsored the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change to put out a report that undermined the findings of the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change. Also, the fact that the two names are so similiar is not a coincidence, NIPCC vs IPCC.

The problem is, when people talk science -real science- they rarely talk in absolutes, because science does not always lend itself to 100% certainty. Most scientifically literate people can understand that, but other politically motivated groups can use that gap of 3% or 4% of reasonable uncertainty to push their own agendas and obfuscate real issues and real scientific findings. That is exactly what the Heartland Institute and other political scientific organizations are doing with the issue of climate change, using tactics of misdirection, inflated doubt, and flat-out denial.

This is why we march…

Science Denial

Kypton was a planet of peace and prosperity. It’s technology was unrivaled, its philosophy beyond thought. It was truly a paradise for the just and a haven for the curious. Yet, among all that knowledge and advancement there was still a blindness. Jor-El, one of their greatest scientists warned of the chain reaction collapsing the planet’s core. The people of Krytpon had pushed their home to the limit. Their utopia was built upon sand and denial, and when Jor-El pointed out their imminent doom they chose to close their ears to the truth. A society that values science chose to deny the findings of their most prominent scientist because they were inconvenient. Krypton paid the price for their silencing of science, so what chance does our planet have?

The Ranting Zone
As you may or may not be aware, this past week Donald Trump and his administration imposed a gag order on several US Government agencies, prominently the EPA, USDA, and the National Parks Service. The order prevented the agencies from sharing things like science findings and climate data with the public. Almost intermediately, most of -if not all of- the gagged agencies created unofficial twitters and rebelled against the order, but that is not the point we are talking about. What is worrisome here is the unprecedented and coordinated move by General Zod… err Trump and his conspirators to silence the scientific community. In fact, the order was so egregious that enough scientists actually rebelled. Now, we do not want to paint all scientists with a broad brush, but politics is not exactly something most scientists willingly engage in. This newest move, however, does not exist in isolation. It comes on the heels of the Trump transition team’s McCarthyian call for the names of people at the Department of Energy who had worked on Climate Change.

What all of this paints is a picture of a Presidential administration that is actively and personally opposed to science. Unfortunately, this tacit and willful misunderstanding is not anything new in American politics. Politicians have been known to deny everything from evolution to Climate Change, but what this new administration brings is a sort of denial-first policy, as if Donald Trump is immune or indifferent to objective facts. This stance would be an incredibly dangerous one for a high school teacher to take, let alone the leader of the free world.

The leaders of Krypton denied the findings of Jor-El, when he brought them proof of the planet’s imminent destruction. They, instead, chose to silence him, and disregarded his findings and his recommendations. When it turned out he was right, it was too late, and only one person survived -well maybe more depending if we’re counting Supergirl, or Krypto, or that stupid monkey. The point is that denying verifiable and quantifiable data has the potential to lead to disaster. Ignoring science and silencing scientists is a road toward ruin and bad SyFy spinoffs. Having a President that doesn’t even want the public to hear the opinions of science agencies because it might contradict what he believes to be fact is the first step toward a scientifically uniformed society. By the way, it is also the first step toward a society that is easily controllable.

The Bottle City of Denier
So, why would an administration or a planetary society want to ignore science? What would they gain from doing so? For Krypton, the answer was peace of mind. According to Paul Applebaum, former head of the American Psychiatric Association, “Denial is the deliberate, often psychologically motivated, neglect of information that would be too upsetting or anxiety-proving to allow into one’s belief system.” For example, look at climate denial. The idea of Climate Change is incredibly scary and an incredibly large issue. As one person, living a comfortable life, it is almost mind-mindbogglingly daunting to think about, let alone begin to make sacrifices for. It is the sort of nebulous boogeyman that most people would simply rather pretend was not hiding under their bed, because the alternative would be too incomprehensible and terrifying. Quite frankly, it is also hard to blame people for their denial. If you’re mind is full of momentary worries: paying the bills, keeping your journalism job, making sure the government doesn’t find out you’re secretly an alien visitor from another planet, etc… It’s hard to keep such larger and uncontrollable worries straight in your head. Its much less taxing to deny that they even exist.

The rulers of Krypton didn’t deny Jor-El’s findings because they were stupid or they hated him. No, they denied what he said because to do otherwise would have meant being force to change from their daily routine. Remember Krypton was a paradise. The people were happy. There was no want or discomfort. It was a utopia and that’s a hard thing to give up, especially in the face of vague threats you can barely perceive. Jor-El wanted the Kryptonian people to evacuate to the Phantom Zone, to leave their luxurious and easy life behind for the harsh unknown of a hostile dimension. When faced with those two choices the Kryptonian rulers chose to simply reject Jor-El’s findings. “He’s highly overrated. Very Sad,” they might have said. “He is not smart. I’m the smartest. I think the best thoughts. I know better,” another might claim. It’s easier to discredit the source than integrate the findings into your own mindset. That is just how denial works. It has nothing to do with intelligence.

The Last Son of a Denying World
Of course, intelligence is hardly a concern in Trump’s America. Anti-intellectualism has been on the rise in this nation ever since Thomas Jefferson proclaimed a fondness for the “wisdom of the common man,” then through the administration of the barely literate Andrew Jackson, and now culminating with the Trump presidency. There has been a myth in America that the college educated elite somehow do not have the best interest of the country at heart, and this label of “elites” very much includes scientists. That is why Trump is now able to do as he wants, including ban Muslim immigration and refugees, which also include foreign scientists and doctors.

Now, we are not saying there is anything wrong with the folksy wisdom of the common man, but there also must come a point where we acknowledge that the prominence of the United States is not built upon the gleeful deniers of science. No, the promise of America -our technology, our accomplishments, our prosperity, the fact that we were able to land humans on the moon- was made possible because of science. In fact, the very concept of America, our Revolution, our way of life is a product of the Age of Enlightenment. We are a country created by college educated elites, and in some ways we have been running away from that fact ever since.

Trump’s attack on the US government science community -and Climate Change in particular- is just another in a long line of science denial. Heck it is almost an America tradition, but it is one we can no longer sustain. This particular tradition needs to be discarded if we are to break the bonds of our self-imposed ignorance. Krypton ignored the findings of their top scientist and it cost them dearly. Their people died along with their planet, but for the United States the end will not be that quick or that painless. No, our fall will be much slower and more prominent. We will slide from the national stage, our leadership and innovation replaced by that of Germany or China. We will become more insular and less willing to accept the criticism of others, holding desperately to the belief that we alone are correct, and that we alone hold the answers to all questions. We will delude ourselves into believing that we are the bearers of absolute truth and anyone who says otherwise will be ridiculed and demonized. In a sense, the country will come to embody our thin-skinned, barely literate President. That will be the new orange face of America if we continue silencing scientist and denying what is in front of us.

Yet, unlike Trump our willful ignorance will catch up with us. The world will warm whether we believe it or not. Sea levels will rise regardless of how much we hide our heads. Then we will finally become like Krypton, nothing but a memory written in the stars of a distant world… With Donald Trump in charge maybe its time we start investing in rocket technology for our infant children.

Climate

We’ve tried this before, and it got a fairly good reception. Now with a Trump presidency looming and the fact that his pick for the head of the Environmental Protection Agency is Scott Pruitt -a decidedly anti-EPA type of guy– we thought it was time to try this again. We have talked a lot about climate change and the environment here at The NYRD. We have equated it with everything from Pixar to Game of Thrones. Unfortunately, maybe we have not been clear enough. Sometimes our tendency to try and entertain as well as inform ends up resulting in you being neither entertained or informed. -Personally, we blame the gas leak in our office-

So, let’s drop all the gimmicks, the pop culture references, and even our cutesy -parenthetical- humor. Instead, we want to offer you just the straight facts on Climate Change and how our globe is not only warming, but doing so at an alarming rate. Please understand that we are not giving you “politicized science” here. Climate Change is legitimately happening and it is legitimately being caused by human endeavors. This one thing you must accept or nothing past this will seem believable or urgent in any way. These are the facts of the matter as we know them:

Global Warming
Global Warming “is the gradual heating of Earth’s surface, oceans and atmosphere.” It is a part of Climate Change, but not the same thing.

  • Global temperature averages have been on the rise since the earl 1900’s, and the past decade has been the warmest ever on record.
  • Earth’s 2015 surface temperatures were the warmest since modern record keeping began in 1880.
  • Over the last 35 years the sun has shown a cooling trend, while global temperatures continue to increase.
  • Solar output reached a deep solar minimum in 2007-2009, yet surface temperatures continued to increase during those year.
  • The top 700 meters (2,300 feet) of ocean have grown warmer by about 0.18°F (0.1°C) since 1969.
  • 80% to 90% of the heat from Global Warming is going into the oceans.
  • Antarctic ice shelves lost 2,921 trillion pounds (1,325 trillion kilograms) of ice per year in 2003 to 2008.
  • Sea levels have risen 17 centimeters (6.7 inches) in a century, and the rate in the last decade has been nearly double that of the last century.
  • Greenland lost 150 to 250 cubic kilometers (36 to 60 cubic miles) of ice per year between 2002 and 2006
  • Antarctica lost about 152 cubic kilometers (36 cubic miles) of ice between 2002 and 2005.
  • September Arctic sea ice is declining at a rate of 13.3% per decade, relative to the 1981 to 2010 average.
  • Abrupt Global Warming patterns, such as the one we are experiencing in modern times, are responsible for mass extinction events, such as the one at the end of the Permian Period, 250 million years ago, that killed over 90% of all species on planet Earth.

Climate Change
Climate Change is a “change in the usual weather found in a place,” of which Global Warming is one part.

  • There is a difference between weather and Climate. New records for cold weather will continue to be set, but Global Warming’s gradual influence will make them increasingly rare.
  • The number of record high temperature events in the US has been increasing, while the number of record low temperature events has been decreasing, since 1950.
  • The US has witnessed increasing numbers of intense rainfall events.
  • In 2011, Texas had the driest year since 1895. In 2013, California had the driest year on record.
  • Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the acidity of surface ocean waters has increased by about 30%.
  • The amount of CO2 absorbed by the upper layer of the oceans is increasing by about 2 billion tons per year.
  • According to ice core sampling, CO2 has increased by 20 parts per million in the past 400,000 years, and 100 parts per million in the past 50.
  • Estimates of future CO2 levels, based on “business as usual emission scenarios,” indicate that by the end of this century the surface waters of the ocean could be nearly 150% more acidic.
  • If current CO2 emissions continue the Great Barrier Reef will be dead by 2025.
  • The amount of spring snow cover in the Northern Hemisphere has decreased over the past five decades and that snow is now melting earlier.
  • The intensity, frequency and duration of North Atlantic hurricanes have all increased since the early 1980s.
  • The Earth’s oceans can absorb 1000% more heat than the atmosphere.
  • Sea level rise is caused primarily by two factors: the added water from melting land ice and the expansion of sea water as it warms.
  • Sea levels projected to rise another 1 to 4 feet by 2100.
  • 97% or more of publishing Climate scientists agree that Climate warming trends over the past century are extremely likely due to human activity.

How Will You Be Affected
These are some of the impacts that are currently happening and will increase in frequency  throughout the US going forward, according to the Third National Climate Assessment Report:

  • Northeast. Heat waves, heavy downpours and sea level rise pose growing challenges to many aspects of life in the Northeast. Infrastructure, agriculture, fisheries and ecosystems will be increasingly compromised. Many states and cities are beginning to incorporate climate change into their planning.
  • Northwest. Changes in the timing of streamflow reduce water supplies for competing demands. Sea level rise, erosion, inundation, risks to infrastructure and increasing ocean acidity pose major threats. Increasing wildfire, insect outbreaks and tree diseases are causing widespread tree die-off.
  • Southeast. Sea level rise poses widespread and continuing threats to the region’s economy and environment. Extreme heat will affect health, energy, agriculture and more. Decreased water availability will have economic and environmental impacts.
  • Midwest. Extreme heat, heavy downpours and flooding will affect infrastructure, health, agriculture, forestry, transportation, air and water quality, and more. Climate change will also exacerbate a range of risks to the Great Lakes.
  • Southwest. Increased heat, drought and insect outbreaks, all linked to Climate change, have increased wildfires. Declining water supplies, reduced agricultural yields, health impacts in cities due to heat, and flooding and erosion in coastal areas are additional concerns.

If after reading all that your first instinct is to reject it as “bunk” or “politicized science,” than that’s probably because you’re scared. It is a big issue to think about and one that has a lot of terrifying implications. It’s okay to be a little freaked out by it. That just means you’re rational, but don’t try to rationalize away the dangers of our Climate problems. Don’t try to ignore them. All we ask is that you take the time to read the statistics and follow the links.

Raising Climate literacy is one of the best ways we know of motivating people to get out there and do something. With our new Climate-Denier-Elect coming into office it is more important than ever that the public be rightly informed about the dangers and possible disasters of Climate Change and Global Warming. We now stand at the beginning of a critical time where our actions over the next ten years will either tip the scale toward inevitable disaster or pull us back from the brink. We are going to need everyone’s attention and help, or we are going to experience another mass extinction event and that’s very bad.

The last time the Earth experienced rapid Global Warming, it took 10 million years to recover. We don’t know about you, but we don’t have that kind of time.

barrier-reef

There has been a lot of buzz lately about the Great Barrier Reef, between Outside Magazines viral article and at least two Pixar movies. The barrier reef is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has been declared the greatest aquatic wonder in the world. The GBR is firmly ingrained in our collective human consciousness, and in Australia’s annual tourism brochures. Unfortunately, 22% of the reef is already dead, and we have no one to blame but ourselves. Climate change is an undeniable fact, and we now have a 1,400 miles long mound of evidence that we can no longer ignore.

Mr. Ray’s Science Class
The Great Barrier Reef is made up of 2,900 individual reefs and 1,050 islands. It is larger than the United Kingdom, has more biodiversity than all of Europe, and can be seen from space. It is home to 1,625 species of fish, 3,000 species of mollusk, 450 species of coral, 220 species of birds, and 30 species of whales and dolphins. It is also the largest breeding ground for green turtles and has the largest population of dugong -or sea cows- in the world. The  is roughly 25 million years old, and is one of the most vibrant and beautiful places on the planet. We speak that last part from experience.

In 1975, Australia designated large parts of the GBR  as the Great Barrier Reef Maritime Park. This move limited fishing and other activities in the area that could be considered harmful. In 1981, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization declared the area a World Heritage Site. This designation further came with a lot privileges and protections. Unfortunately, also in 1981 the first mass bleaching occured, meaning that the coral lost its color due to soaring ocean temperatures. It would only the be the first in a long line of such incidents, enough over the 35 years to make UNESCO question if they should put the barrier reef on their World Heritage in Danger list as well. We cannot deny the facts any longer, because like a character at the beginning of a Pixar movie, the GBR is dying.

A Crush-ing Reality
During the past 27 years the barrier reef has lost half of its coral covering. Sitting about 1,250 miles off the coast of Queensland, Australia it has been affected by severe storms, invasive species, pollution run-off, coastal port development, dredging, and increased coal shipping. However, even those factors are minimum compared to the coral bleaching that has been caused by massive shifts in ocean temperature, thanks to climate change. The color of coral -as well as their nourishment- comes from the algae that live on their surfaces. The algae photosynthesize the sunlight and make sugars that the coral feeds on. But when temperatures are too high the algae produce too much oxygen. That can be toxic in high concentrations, and the coral are then forced to discard the algae to survive. Unfortunately, that leaves them without their main source of nutrients until new algae can grow back. These coral bleaching events have become incredibly common in the past 35 years, and if they happen in rapid succession the coral starves and dies. Currently, it has been happening every two to three years since the turn of the millennium.

This is compounded by other related factors, such as the explosive growth of seaweed, which thrives in warmer waters. As ocean temperatures increase so does seaweed, and much how trees compete for sunlight in a forest so do the algae and the seaweed. When the seaweed begin to thrive the algae does not and the coral beneath it begin to die and break apart because they are not getting the nutrients they need. The acidity level of the ocean has also been increasing over the past two decades, thanks to an increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. CO2 emissions are absorbed by the ocean and they then eat away at the coral itself, weakening the reef structure.

It’s hard to really fathom the ecological impacts of what the world will look like if -or when- the Great Barrier Reef finally does die. We have already seen what happens on smaller scales. Sections of the barrier reef are already dead. When the coral of an area dies the algae actually starts to consume it. After that, the whole structure is doomed to collapse, along with the entire ecosystem. Small fish -like Nemo and Marlin- that eat the coral no longer have a food source or a place to live/hide from larger predators. Larger fish who eat those smaller fish eventually wipe out their prey, and then they too start to die off without a food source. The same happens to the larger fish and birds that eat them. Without coral acting as homes and breeding grounds for fish and other aquatic creatures the entire landscape of an area undergoes a radical change within only a few years. If that happens to the entire GBR, you are talking an ecological disaster that will affect hundreds of thousands of species up the food chain… including humans.

Finding Common Sense
Maybe that is fitting, considering that it is humans that started this slowly rolling environmental disaster. There is no more way for us to deny that the carbon dioxide levels in our atmosphere are increasing, and have been increasing exponentially over the past decade. We are the factor. We’re sorry if that upsets you, but it is the overwhelming scientific consensus. Our factories, cars, and even farming has dramatically increased CO2 levels. This means that more sunlight is being trapped in our atmosphere and warming the planet, and a lot of that heat is absorbed by the oceans. Yet, that is not our only problem. As we mentioned earlier, the oceans -which are three-quarters of our planet’s surface- are very good at absorbing CO2 from the atmosphere. This increases not only the acidity of our high seas, but also speeds up the process of ocean warming and the growth of nutrient choking life forms, like seaweed.

Thankfully, those aren’t the only things we’re doing. There are also many people on this planet working hard to try and save natural landmarks like the Great Barrier Reef. Leading the charge in this area is Australia itself, which makes sense. The Land Down Under receives almost $6 billion in tourism revenue from the barrier reef each year and that means they have an economically invested interest in saving it as well as ecological. The Reef 2050 Plan is a report of a 151 actions that need to be taken to save the GBR. It also constitutes a $2 billion dollar investment of resources aimed at improving the barrier reef’s health. So far they have accomplished 29 of the stated 151 actions, but it has been acknowledged that the process needs to be accelerated if we truly do hope to save the GBR from destruction.

You see, if the the CO2 levels in our atmosphere reach 450 parts per million -which is estimated to happen in 2025- than there will be no saving the Great Barrier Reef. It will be gone forever and our children will not only live in a world with less biodiversity, warmer oceans, and less seafood buffets, but in a world where they will never get to experience the beauty and wonder of the barrier reef. To them it will just remain as some fantastical and unreal setting in old Pixars movie.

Star Trek

Star Trek is turning 50 this week. The classic franchise that has always been about future people doing future things in a Galaxy far far… oh wrong one… where Kirk, Spock, McCoy and all the rest boldly go where no split infinitives have gone before. The Original Series spawned eleven movies, four more TV shows –plus one more coming in the Fall– and has become a cultural touchstone. The series’ message of hope for humanity and its ability to tackle weighty matters through classic science fiction storytelling has become a staple of the franchise, unless Jar Jar Abrams is in charge. Over the past five decades Star Trek has had its stumbles and flops -aka The Final Frontier– but it has always given us more than enough quality to make-up for the bad.

However, it has also given us something else, incorrect predictions about our future. By the very nature of a show like Star Trek, it had to make some assumptions about where humanity was heading. That means through backstory, set details, and other clues Star Trek has predicted some strange things for our present world. Some of them were not far off, some of them were very far off, and some were just strange. So in honor of fifty years of living long and prospering, let’s take a look at 50 years of predictions that Star Trek has made about our own time.

1968 Orbital Nuclear Weapons
According to Assignment Earth The Unites States of America launches a nuclear weapons platform into orbit above Earth. In the real world this didn’t happen, obviously. A nuclear weapons platform in orbit would have unbalanced the Cold War and possibly ignited a global war. In the episode it was done so that the Enterprise -which had traveled back in time- had something to contend with and use as a lesson to show the “primitive” 1960’s humans that nuclear weapons are bad. It also, worth mentioning that the episode aired on March, 29, 1968. So we’re also hoping that no one on the writing staff had government clearance enough to know something we don’t.

1986 Transparent Aluminum
During another time traveling escapade Kirk and crew travel back to 1986 to steal two whales… because reasons. However, in order to accomplish that Scotty gives an manufacturer the blueprints to design transparent aluminum, which is basically a tougher form of glass. Scotty needs to manufacture the material as a tank for the whales… again for reasons… so he gives the formula to humans of 1986. This whole thing was treated basically as a gag for the movie, The Voyage Home, but it is worthy of this list because in 2015 the US Naval Research Lab actually invented Transparent Aluminum. So Star Trek was right, they were just 19 years off.

1987 The New York Times Closes
Another throw away line from The Voyage Home claims that the New York Times Magazine closes its doors in 1987, as one of the last newspaper magazines of its time, which is a pretty ballsy statement considering the movie came out in 1986. Maybe the producers just didn’t like the New York Times. It is also worth noting that they were not completely wrong, just a little too early. Newspapers and news magazines are closing up shop quicker than ever these days thanks to the Internet, however the New York Times Magazine is actually still in production.

1992 Eugenics and Genetic Engineering
The biggest glaring prediction for Star Trek was their prophecy of the widespread use of genetic engineering by the year 1992. That is the year Khan Noonien Singh… KHAN!!!… rises to power in the Middle East and the Eugenics Wars begin. According to Space Seed and Wrath of Khan, humanity created a race of augmented humans, called Augments. These genetic supermen rose to power in various Middle Eastern and Asian countries the in 1990’s… because Bill Clinton… maybe… Khan at one point held power over a “quarter of the world.” The Eugenics Wars were a series of conflicts between the various Augment dictators of some forty nations. Normal humans eventually rose up and overthrew the Augments in 1996, condemning most of them to die as war criminals. Khan and 84 of his followers escaped Earth aboard the cryogenic-ship SS Botany Bay.

As you can tell none of this actually happened. In fact, the biggest news in genetic engineering to happen in 1992 was that China was the first country to introduce a virus-resistant tobacco plant. With the mapping of the human genome the benefits and risks of Human genetic engineering are still being debated in the science community today, but we are no closer to actually creating genetic supermen than Kirk is to successfully resisting the temptations of any green-skinned woman.

1994 Cryonics and Cryogenics
Speaking of cryogenics… According the Star Trek: Next Generation episode: The Neutral Zone, by 1994 cryogenics are so widespread and safe that people are willing to having themselves frozen at the time of death, and even stored on satellites until cures for their diseases can be found sometime in the future. As you may have guessed, we have not quite perfected cryonics or cryogenic preservation for humans. The closest we have come is being able to freeze human embryos in cryogenic stasis. There is however that portion of people freeze who their brains when they die, Walt Disney style… which our lawyer has reminded us to tell you is actually a myth.

1996 Life on Mars
In the Star Trek Voyager episode: Future’s End, it is briefly implied that scientists discovered ancient microscopic Martian life in 1996. The episode was filmed several days after the NASA announcement in August of 1996 of possible fossilized evidence of microscopic life from a Martian meteorite. However, that claim has never been confirmed fully and as of this article there is still no solid evidence of life ever existing on Mars.

marslife_96-12299

2001 The Millennium Gate
Another Voyager episode: 11:59, depicted the construction of the Millennium Gate. Construction began in 2001 and it was completed in 2011 as a way to commemorate the beginning of the 21st century. For some reason it was built in Portage Creek, Indiana and was a tower 1 kilometer high and 3.2 kilometers wide. The building was a self-contained biosphere with its own ecosystem and over six-hundred stores for shoppers to enjoy. It was covered in solar panels and eventually served a model for the first Martian colony. The Millennium Gate became a national landmark on par with the St. Louis Arch or the Empire State Building and it could be seen from space. This marvel of modern engineering was -of course- never actually built. The tallest building in the world is currently Burj Khalifa in Dubai, standing tall at only 830 meters in height. it is also doubtful that anyone will be looking toward it as a model for a Martian colony.

2002 The Nomad Interstellar Probe
According to Star Trek: The Original Series, in their episode: The Changeling, in 2002 Earth launched the Nomad probe, as our planet’s first interstellar probe with the mission to seek out extraterrestrial life. Of course in typical Star Trek fashion this comes back to bite Kirk and crew when the probe encounters an alien intelligence, gains sentience, and goes on a killing spree. However, as of 2016 we have yet to launch the Nomad, but Voyager 1 entered interstellar space in 2014, making it the first man made object to leave our solar system. And currently there are talks about creating the Starshot project, which might be able to propel a series of small probes to Alpha Centuari in a single human lifetime.

2015 Planetary Baseball League
In the Star Trek Universe by 2015 baseball had become such a popular worldwide sport that Major League Baseball was supplanted by the Planetary Baseball League, which included teams from across the planet, such as the London Kings, the Crenshaw Monarchs, and the Gotham City Bats. -Most likely that last one was meant as a Batman joke- One of the most notable players is Buck Bukai who breaks Joe DiMaggio’s 56 consecutive game hitting streak in 2026. In 2032 the Yankees win the World Series, and the last world series is officially held in 2042, after people’s interest in baseball fades. It is almost humorous that Star Trek created a world where baseball became anything but an American sport, especially since the last time baseball was played in the Olympics was in 2008. As Star Trek predicted the sport is growing less popular, but we doubt it will ever have enough fame to actually get a professional team from cricket-loving London.

2018 Sublight Propulsion
We suppose this one might be true, but it seems doubtful. In Space Seed, it is said that by 2018 sublight propulsion makes cryogenic sleeper ships obsolete. This could be true, considering that “sublight” is literally any sort of propulsion that goes slower than lightspeed. We have some pretty ingenuous forms of propulsion in space, including light-sails and ion drives. However, the bulk of our propulsion is still done through chemical rockets and we still do not have an engine that could get us to another star system in a shorter time than it would take to make the trip using the -also still fictional- cryogenic sleeper ships.

Other Future Predictions
Star Trek also has a few predictions for the coming years including:

  • 2024: Ireland Reunification – Northern Ireland becomes part of the Irish Republic, which could happen thanks to Brexit.
  • 2024: French Political Strife – France becomes unsafe for tourists thanks to battles between “Neo-Trotskyists” and “Gaullists.” Ironically, -and chillingly- France is currently facing similiar declines in tourism thanks to recent terrorism.
  • 2024: Sanctuary Districts – Sanctuary Districts are set up in major cities across the US and the homeless and poor are separated from the rest of the population and put into ghettos for the destitute and jobless. This is the strongest evidence to show that in the Star Trek Universe, Donald Trump was elected President.
  • 2026: World War III – The Third World War lasts until 2053 and results in nuclear genocide, population cleansings, and the near destruction of most world governments… Thank you, President Trump.

So we can look forward to that, but -all in all- Star Trek has been an amazing and sometimes weird ride though history, science, and imagination. Despite the fact that their history and our present don’t always line up we can still take the lessons of Kirk, Picard, Sisko, and the rest and apply them to our time. After all, warnings of a fictional World War III might be the best way to prevent it from actually happening. Our Earth has not suffered through or created the same things as Star Trek’s Earth, but that does not mean we cannot share in their sense of hope for the future. We may not have had the Eugenics Wars, but who knows what the future might hold? One day we might have space travel, Starfleet, the Federation… and maybe even a London baseball team.

July 4th is coming up and that means, barbecues, fireworks, and an annual re-watching of the Jeff Goldblum/Bill Pullman classic, Independence Day. Yet, even though July 4, 1996 is a historic date in humanity’s contact with extraterrestrial life, it is not the only entry in the history of alien invasions on this planet. People have been seeing little green menaces for years and, unfortunately, not all of them have been welcomed to Earth with a Will Smith-sized fist.

Mars Attacks
In order to understand humanity’s fascination with aliens we should really turn the clock back to Percival Lowell, who in his 1895 book, Mars, proclaimed that the Martian surface was covered in canals created by an advanced Martian civilization. Lowell, was not the first person to talk about these “canals,” that honor goes to Giovanni Schiaparelli, who first discovered the “canali” or channels, by observing the planet through his telescope. However, Schiaparelli stopped short of attributing them to any sort of civilization or sentient construction effort. Lowell, on the other hand, wrote three books on that very subject and captured the imagination of the public with the possibility of alien life. It wasn’t long after that when H.G. Wells -the British Roland Emmerich- published War of the Worlds, taking the idea of a Martian civilization to new and London destroying heights.

Suddenly, beings from the sky no longer seemed as friendly or as inviting. The populace was given images of alien walkers parading through Europe, blowing up landmarks, and generally being rude house guests. In response, the people of Earth were suddenly seeing Martians everywhere. In 1897, Alexander Hamilton, a farmer from Kansas -and not the founding father/rapper- reported the first incident of a UFO cow abduction and mutilation. Hamilton told of witnessing an actual alien craft that took his cows and left them butchered. The story was first run in the local newspaper, but was eventually picked up nationwide. It wasn’t debunked until 80 years later when an elderly Kansas woman admitted that she had heard Hamilton bragging about how he had made the whole thing. Yet, the damage had been done. In the popular subconscious, Martians and little green men were on Earth and they had a taste for beef.

On October 30, 1938, Orson Welles -no relation to HG- and his Mercury Theater troop performed an updated version of War of the Worlds as a fake newscast on the radio. The broadcast began at 8:00 pm, but being the golden age of radio, most Americans were listening to the ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy “Charlie McCarthy” on NBC and only turned to CBS at 8:12 pm after the act was over. That means they missed the announcement at the beginning of the show that marked the production as a “fake broadcast.” So, what American listeners found when they switched the channel was what sounded like an extremely convincing emergency newscast. As many as a million Americans believed what they were hearing -obviously forgetting that it was the night before Halloween. Panic broke out, especially in New Jersey, where the first “alien walker” had been said to land. One woman in Indianapolis was even reported as running into a local church where services were being held and yelled out, “New York has been destroyed! It’s the end of the world! Go home and prepare to die!”

Battle: Los Angeles
The biggest twist in the story of War of the Worlds is that each version -the Wells and the Welles version- were in some way prophetic of events to come. HG Wells talked about a massive war that would engulf Europe and destroy its cities. More than a decade later the planet found itself fighting just such a war, The Great War. Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds talked about a foreign enemy invading and reeking havoc on a peaceful and isolated America. Less than a five years later, the United States would be embroiled in World War II after just such an attack at Pearl Harbor. Even Steven Spielberg’s version seemed to predict Tom Cruise’s religious views, but in the end that has always been kind of the point of good science fiction. It often works as a reflection of ourselves and the tensions in our society. Maybe that same concept is also why we are most vulnerable to stories and hoaxes during times of turmoil.

BattleLosAngelesAt 3:16 am, on the morning of February 25, 1942, the skies over Los Angeles lit up with anti-aircraft fire. When all was said and done, the military had fired more than 1,400 rounds, and eight people were dead, five from falling shrapnel and three from heart-attacks. Yet, no aircraft wreckage was ever found and there was no indication that anything had been attacked -other than by falling shrapnel. A picture published by the LA Times showed search beams focused on a patterns of light, possibly emanating from the bottom of some massive craft. This is what became known as the Battle of Los Angeles, and to this day people still claim it was an alien spaceship that triggered the air raid response.

World War II saw an increase in UFO or “Foo Fighter” activity. That was partially because of the stresses of war, partially because air superiority was so important, -and everyone was looking up for possible threats- partially because of possible Nazi super-weapons, but mostly because of a time traveling Dave Grohl. However, most Foo Fighters have been explained away over the years and the Battle of Los Angeles is no different. Experts seem to agree that the air raid was triggered by a weather balloon that was sighted by a nervous sky watcher. The massive response was actually understandable. It had only been 79 days sine the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and 24 hours since a Japanese submarine has surfaced near Santa Barbara and shelled the oil fields in that location. The city was on high alert, America was expecting another attack, and it only took one sighting of a balloon to set a match to the tinder. Most experts believe that the balloon probably popped and sank into the Pacific. The famous photo of the alien craft, on the other hand, can be explained by lens flares that had been “touched” up by a photo artist at the Los Angeles Times, a common practice before the invention of Photoshop.

The Day the Earth Stood Still
The sad truth is that Earth has never been invaded by aliens and we will probably never get a chance to use snappy one-liners as we casually defeat them with a computer virus that infects their oddly MS-DOS based computer systems. However, that does not mean we have stopped looking. The SETI program was established by NASA in 1959 to begin searching for signs of intelligent life elsewhere in the cosmos. In its time it went through several funding problems and eventually became a private endeavor, but it is still alive and kicking today, and mostly likely manned by a Hawaiian shirt-wearing geek playing office golf while listen to REM. On Aug. 15, 1977, the Big Ear radio observatory at Ohio State University received a 72-second transmission coming from the direction of the constellation Sagittarius. The signal was 30 times more powerful than the average radiation from deep space, and Jerry Ehman, who was watching the stat printout at the time, circled the anomaly and wrote “Wow,” next to it. This became known as the Wow Signal, but it was never duplicated or found again, and there were no links ever established to an alien civilization.

SETI is not the only tool humans are using to look for aliens that can be seduced by Jeff Goldblum’s chest hair. The Keplar spacecraft is a telescope that NASA is using to identify extra-solar planets, and its been pretty damn good at it’s job so far. It has currently identified and confirmed 1,284 extra-solar planets. It also may have inadvertently identified an alien megastructure. In October of 2015, Keplar discoverd an odd intermittant signal around the star, KIC 8462852. Keplar identifies planets by plotting the dimming and brightening of stars as planets pace in front of them. However, the dimming discovered at KIC 8462952 is irregular and random. The problem is unsatisfactorily explainable by most known natural celestial bodies. There are still some possibilities, such a swarm of comets, but the discovery still has most experts asking questions rather than finding answers. Listen, we’re not saying it was aliens, but… Also, don’t strap on your flight suit and 1990’s aviator glasses just yet. The star in question is 1,500 light away from the Earth, which means the 8462852ians have a long way to go before they mind control our President and throw Mr. Data across a room.

Still, according to recent findings it is becoming incredibly more and more likely that aliens existed, at least at some point in the history of the universe. This comes from Astronomer Woodruff Sullivan, who not only won the Best Name in Astrophysics award, but published a paper recently, basically proclaiming that aliens existed… at some point. Don’t get too excited because he didn’t get visited during the night by little grey men with big eyes. No, he proves this all through math and with the help of the famous Drake Equation. This equation was first created by Dr. Frank Drake as a hypothetical way to determine the odds of extraterrestrial life in the universe. It takes into account things like the average rate of star formation, the number of planetary bodies around stars, the amount of planets that might be able to host life, etc. What Woodruff Sullivan basically claims, -Do his friends call him ‘Woody’ or ‘Sully’- is that a lot of these factors are actually becoming known to us through science. With the rate of extra-solar planetary discovery and our ever increasing knowledge and catalogs of stars and the rate at which they form, we are filling in a lot of the factors that Drake himself could only estimate, and the numbers are looking very much in favor of the existence of extraterrestrial life.

Life among the stars is an exciting and scary prospect, and that is kind of the point of all this. Humans have been wondering what might be out there since Giovanni Schiaparelli aimed his telescope at the red planet. The rest has been pure human imagination. You see, the existence of alien life, hostile or friendly, is as much about our own feelings and ideas as it is about any actual science involved. Much like Wells and Welles we project our own ambitions, fears, and motives on what we think alien invaders should be. In 1942 they were the Japanese, and in 1897 they were cattle rustlers, because those were things that we feared during those eras of our history. So aliens may exist in the constellation Sagittarius or it may be radioactive comets. Aliens may exist around KIC 8462852, or it may be a swarm of comets -come to think of it comets kind of explain a lot of things- but even if there is life out there we will probably never meet them. Our aliens are the ones we see in films that like to blow up national monuments, not because they are strategic targets or because of their military value, but simply because Roland Emmerich knows that stories about alien invasions are more about us than about them.


Image courtesy: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jason-apuzzo/the-time-a-ufo-invaded-lo_b_6749734.html

For those of you out there who aren’t literary majors -we forgive you- you may not be entirely certain of the story of Jason and the Golden Fleece. Brave Prince Jason, in order to prove his worth to be king, sets out on an impossible task to capture the Golden Fleece. Many believed it be a fool’s errand, like sending someone to find headlight fluid or to define the appeal of Nicholas Cage’s acting ability. People just saw it as a waste of time and money, and that is exactly what some people believe about Government science funding. We’re not talking about the exciting stuff, like Tony Stark blowing up a mountain. No we’re talking about the minutia of research that gets done every year on the taxpayer’s dime, such as studying the mating habits of the screwworm. After all, how can we justify millions of dollars in research when we have terrorism, poverty, and crumbling infrastructure? Our only answer is: Because no one else will do it.

The Golden Fleece Award
The above example of “studying the mating habits of the screwworm,” was not just a random hyperbolic anecdote, with a comically named twist. It was a real study conducted by the US Government to understand the sex-life of a parasitic fly that targeted cattle. It was awarded the Golden Fleece Award by Wisconsin Senator, William Proxmire. He started the award to call out government waste, often by citing some “silly” research being done by the National Science Foundation, NASA, or others. Such as the time in 1978 when NASA proposed to spend $15 million on searching for extraterrestrial life, or when the Smithsonian spent $89,000 to make a dictionary of Tzotil, an obscure Mayan language spoken by 120,000 farmers in rural Mexico. Other recipients of the award included a $500,000 study in 1975 to determine why rats, monkeys, and humans clench their jaws, and another study to determine why drunk fish are more aggressive than sober fish. These were the kinds of things that Senator Proxmire laughed at, and cited as a waste of good taxpayer dollars.

Yet, here’s the thing… The study on drunk fish ultimately resulted in significant insights into how alcohol affects and impairs humans, and has helped shape our understanding of how to save lives. The jaw clenching study was later used by NASA and the Navy to help improve the quality of life for humans kept in confined spaces for long periods of times, such as in spaceships and in submarines. Those are not the only examples, either. Studying acoustic trauma in guinea pigs resulted in a way to treat hearing loss in infants. Another study on dog urine taught scientists the effects of hormones on the human kidney especially for patients with diabetes. All of these seemingly inconsequential and “silly” studies won the Golden Fleece Award at one time or another and they all turned around to pay massive dividends both economically and in quality of life. In fact, the study that was conducted on the mating habits of the screwworm -still a great name- cost the US taxpayer about $25,000 dollars. In turn, the research was used to save the US cattle industry more than $20 billion dollars. By studying the mating habits scientists were able to create a sterile population that they introduced into the wild that ultimately resulted in the eradication of the screwworm pest.

That’s the thing with science. You never really know where the wind will lead until you open your sails and try. Creating something like the Golden Fleece Award and then taking a study out of context to ridicule it is not only a complete misrepresentation of the scientific process, but it is dangerous and runs the risk of demonizing and isolating scientists that are doing important and groundbreaking research-based study. In fact, we find ourselves agreeing with Ed Catmull, the founder of Pixar, when he said that things like the Golden Fleece Award have a “chilling effect on research” It could render researchers and government agencies so terrified of being “awarded” that they take fewer risks and innovate less. The idea that the government should not be wasting money on research -even funny sounding research- is a triumph of ignorance over progress. These projects are important, even when they are failures.

What we Learned from SETI
You may have heard of SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. Aside from being the first people to notice when we are being invaded at the start of Independence Day, SETI is also one of the programs we talked about in the first section. In 1978, Senator Proxmire heavily criticized NASA for wanting to spend $15 million on searching for aliens. The idea sounded crazy, and in 1981 he succeeded in getting funding pulled for the project. It took Demigod Carl Sagan himself to convince Proxmire to restore funding a few years later. It was ultimately killed again in 1993 and is currently funded by private donations, but that’s not the point. Searching for extraterrestrial life is probably the biggest scientific longshot there is, and as of the publishing of this article the project is still a failure. -And if by some chance you are reading this in the future and it no longer is a failure, we here at The NYRD want to be the first to apologize to our alien overlords for ever doubting them- Yet, is any science ever really a failure?

That is thing some people don’t always understand about science. Just because an experiment fails to confirm a theory does not mean the experiment itself is a failure. In fact, any experiment that disproves a theory is just as valuable as one that proves it. That is the nature of science, it is subjective and not driven by positive results alone. So far we have failed to prove the existence -or at least the proof- of intelligent alien life, but those failures continue to teach us new things, not just about how we conduct our experimentation, but about how we see the world. After all, Jason and the Argonauts did not find the Golden Fleece on the first island they checked, but they persevered and learned from their failures. In the same way, science’s failures drive our knowledge as much as its successes. It also drives our imagination and creativity. SETI especially challenges our views of the world, forcing us to ask “are we alone,” and to confront fundamental truths about ourselves. We look out into the night sky and wonder what might be staring back at us. We wonder who they might be. Do they love? Do they hate? What are their opinions on Jar Jar Binks? Science, even in its failures, makes us grow in ways we never thought possible, but science and innovation are not built in a bubble. We have Google because we have the Internet. We have the Internet because we have home computers. We have home computers because we have electricity, and so on down the line. Science works in the same way and that means it has to all start somewhere.

Discovering a New World
Unfortunately, when it comes to the US Budget, organizations like NASA, the National Science Foundation, and other pure science programs are usually the first to get cut, usually in the face of military or social security spending. In 2009, Scientific research only received $111,664 million in federal spending. That is a total for all departments across the board: Health and Human Services, The National Nuclear Security Administration, etc. Defense got the largest chunk at $56,224 million. The National Science Foundation only received $4,156 million. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration got even less at $567 million. Those are the people, by the way, who manage our National Weather Service, and who study the effects of things like extreme climate… which is something we should probably consider putting more money into. Thankfully, the Federal Research Budget has been increasing again after it dipped in the 2000’s. Things are looking up for science, but some people still wonder why the government has to fund seemingly useless projects. Why not private industry or universities?

The truth is that private industries and universities do contribute to research based science, but only so far as it supports an end goal. Businesses are not going to spend money without expecting a return on investment. Universities are a little better, but professors still need to produce results to publish papers to keep their jobs. That means a lot of university scientists will tend to stick to “sexier” topics, ones that will guarantee them a published paper and another few years of tenure and unpaid undergrad assistants. It is an environment of “publish or perish.” Government funded projects are different. Research funded by the National Science Foundation or other government agencies are often not so focused on positive results as they are on the science behind the process. It is science for science’s sake and that is unmistakably important.

Take Space X for example. We all love the musk of Elon, but without NASA and government funding he would never have gotten into the space game. NASA was the first to chart near-Earth orbit and learn the necessary science that it takes to get rockets into the sky and put create stable satellites. Governments always have to go first. They are the entities that take the risks for the sake of science. Private industry then follows in their footsteps, taking the lessons and mistakes of governments and streamlining them. A private corporation would never risk billions on an untested theory. It was not the East India Company that first sent ships to the new world. It was not Elon Musk who put a man in orbit, but he is perfecting the process and making it cheaper, accessible, and more profitable. Private companies cannot be relied on to conduct science for science’s sake. There is no profit in it. That is why national funding for science is so important, but much like Queen Isabella, that does not mean the US Government is always doing it out of the kindness of their hearts.

The End of Dividends
Despite what some senators may want you to think the government is not just throwing away money on useless research. They do evaluate the projects and determine what sort of results it can have, and that pays off in big ways. Everything from the Internet to vaccines have come from government research. In fact, investment in research has -what statisticians have called- a very “heavy-tailed” distribution. That means given the amount of government funded research that has taken place over the years statistics would predict a certain average amount of positive benefits to result from the work. In reality, a significantly more amount of positive benefits have resulted from these studies, much higher than the expected average. Everything from the atomic bomb to modern electronics have flourished from government funded research. In fact, studies have shown that investment in basic research -low level screwworm research- can produce returns between 20% and 60% annually, which becomes a positive feedback loop. Scientific progress begets scientific progress.

America may not be as old or as wise as some of our European cousins, but we have always had a leg up because of our focus on innovation. The “American Century” was made possible by our dedication to science and technology, but we’re starting to lose our competitive edge. Less students are going into fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, in part because there are less job opportunities there. This is where funding and big ideas can really help. Creating science jobs and inspiring kids to love science will help restore our flagging scientific deficit. If we, as a nation, want to remain competitive, we need to start funding research and science.

Remember, King Pelias sent Jason on the quest to find the Golden Fleece because he thought it foolish, but like drunk fish and screwworms, the endeavour proved to be extraordinarily fruitful. That is the moral of the Golden Fleece and the the Golden Fleece awards.

“It takes a long time to say anything in Old Entish. And we never say anything unless it is worth taking a long time to say.”

Like Treebeard we here at The NYRD know that we can be long winded at times, but we try not to write unless we have something worth reading -or something about Superman, because apparently we cover him a lot… Yet, perhaps the most important issue we try talk about is climate change. Like a dark power growing in the south it’s going to affect us all, men, elves, hobbits -and even those terrifying giant spiders in Mirkwood- and just like the writings of Tolkein, we may find ourselves looking to the trees to save us and extinguish the fires of global warming… At least if we don’t succumb to the power of deforestation.

An Entmoot Point
Did you ever stop to wonder how many trees there are in the world? Well you can stop wondering. According to the best estimates of scientists there are about 3 trillion trees on the planet Earth. That is about 400 trees for every human, but that is actually the lowest number of trees in the history of humanity’s existence on this planet. The global tree count has fallen 46% since the beginning of human civilization. Estimates say that 12,000 years ago there were more than 6 trillion trees on Earth. Currently, more than 43% of the trees that exist today are in tropical and sub-tropical regions, such as the Amazon. However, the sheer number of trees on the planet is actually irrelevant, as the more important statistic is that they are disappearing, thanks in no small part to human-led deforestation.

Treebeard and his kind would not be happy with us. We have been using forests for everything from generating electrical power to building IKEA furniture, but the good thing about trees is that they grow back. We are not discouraging the use of our greatest natural resource, only the rate at which we are clear cutting forests, such as the Amazon. Deforestation that makes way for things like agriculture, mining, and city building has meant that 17% of the Amazon has been cut down in the past fifty years. Globally, we are losing about 48 football fields worth of trees every minute. Remember, to a centuries old Ent a minute is not a very long of a time at all, unless they’re screaming in horrible pain under the chainsaw of some condo developer.

Please know that we’re not knocking condos or agriculture or even IKEA, because those are important too. We are just are trying to give you all the facts, and the saddest fact is that even if every person on the Earth planted one tree -so, 7 billion trees- that would not even cut our annual tree loss in half. Every year we cut down 15 billion trees. That is remarkable considering that 80% of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity -mammals, birds, insects, etc- call forests their home, and 1.6 billion people worldwide depend on forests for their livelihood. Yet, maybe you’re not an Ent or even an elf. Maybe you are just some hobbit or dwarf living in the big city, working your 9 to 5 desk job. Maybe you’re more worried about whether the king is going to raise taxes this year on horse parking or who is going to win the big joust tournament this weekend? Trees don’t affect you. In fact, if you live in the Shire of Brooklyn you probably haven’t seen a tree in weeks. Why should you care?

The Pollutants of Isengard
In Tolkein’s Middle-Earth, the Ents are the shepherds of the forest. They were created to protect the trees from orcs and corporate strip mining, because even the old god, Yavanna, recognized that trees did more than just provide shade and the occasional place to mark the young love of “A&A 4EVR.” Forest loss is a contributor to climate change. Scientists have found that deforestation and changes to the land account for 23% of current man-made CO2 emissions. Though, the exact impact usually varies based upon the type of forest and even latitude, ultimately this still makes sense. Much like how the Ents attacked Isengard, trees attack the C02 in the air. They absorb it to use as nutrients along with sunlight. So, less trees means that less things are absorbing the Co2 in our atmosphere, but it goes deeper than even that.

Fewer trees also lead to less rain. With a process called evapotranspiration, trees and forests take water out of the soil through their roots to use as nutrients. That water is then evaporated by the sun and brought up into the atmosphere. This helps create more rain and greater areas of cooling, which is something that places like California are going to need in the coming summer months. Water can be trapped far beneath the surface, and without the help of tree roots much of that moisture would not normally be able to reach the surface on its own. Thus, it would remain trapped in the ground instead of being evaporated into the atmosphere where it could be used for rain and clouds. In fact, rain forests are especially good at this. Places like the Amazon and the Congo are some of our best natural resources against warming because the water they help to recycle creates albedo, which is a measure of the reflectivity of a surface. The dense clouds of rain forests reflect and absorb sunlight. This actually helps to reduce the overall temperature of the area and generate more rainfall. Remember its not the heat but the humidity that gets yous… also malaria.

Trees also help mitigate already existing climate dangers. They act as a barrier against flooding and mudslides, two things that are becoming increasingly more frequent and dangerous as our planet suffers the affects of climate change. They are very good at holding the soil in place with their roots and they can help drink up excess water before flooding becomes a problem. Similarly, without the help of sun blocking trees, land can dry out quicker and begin to crack, causing once rich soil to turn to useless dust. All of these benefits help battle against the Dark Lord of global warming, and they provide an overall better standard of living for the humans and animals that inhabit the area.

Wisdom of Fangron
“It is easier to shout ‘Stop’, than to do it”

We obviously cannot stop all deforestation in the world, and even if we did it would not solve all our climate change problem. The USA releases 6.2 tons of carbon per person per year. That is roughly about 1.82 billion tons of carbon annually. Even if the US were to plant 44 million more trees in urban areas per year for the next 50 years -for a total of 2.2 billion trees- those new trees would only store an additional 150 million tons of carbon. That means that planting trees alone is not going to be the answer that will solve our current crisis, but it is also a good start. Attacking the problem of climate change is going to be a long and multifaceted process, and though cutting back on deforestation won’t solve all our problems it will have tangible effects on things like helping to stabilize weather patterns and increasing tire-swing-related childhood fun.

After all, if we were to actually dedicate ourselves to planting 44 million more trees annually for the next five decades than we would be able to replace all the trees already lost and increase urban tree cover by 5%. That would help fight soil erosion, flooding, and giant eagle attacks. We here at The NYRD are not advocating that you give your life up and go all Johnny Appleseed -though we’re not not advocating that either- but we do think its time you appreciated everything that trees do for us.

So the next time you have to decide between buying non-recycled paper or raising an orc army, maybe you should stop and remember that Treebeard is watching you… He is always watching you… And if we’re not nice to the trees, there may come a day when they stand up and return the favor.

A movement on the rooftop. Soft running footsteps, and then suddenly he’s there, a man dressed in red, like the devil himself, Daredevil to be more exact. The guardian of Hell’s Kitchen cannot see, at least not like you or we can, but that does not stop him from defending the neighborhood he loves and fighting for justice in a world full of gods and super soldiers. With the hit Netflix Marvel series returning this weekend for its second season, we here at The NYRD thought it would be a good time to blindly dive into the science of Daredevil and the differently-abled -pun intended.

The Man Without Fear (or Sight)
The accident that left Matt Murdock blind also gave him heightened senses, but Daredevil is not alone in this phenomena and most blind people don’t need chemical waste to sharpen their other senses. It comes down to simple brain chemistry. Our brains are magnificent pieces of equipment that adapt and change to help us survive. It is not so much that blind people learn to use their other senses better, but that the brain actually rewires itself to compensate for the loss. This is called cross-modal neuroplasticity, but that’s just a fancy way of saying that your brain finds ways to use your other senses  more efficiently. In some ways it is similar to the condition known as synesthesia, which is when the input from one sense triggers another sense automatically, such as how some people can hear a color, or taste a sound.

Tests conducted in Canada found that blindfolded individuals could identify more layers of harmonicity in music notes than their non-blindfolded counterparts, even only after a few minutes without vision. Another study recently published in The Journal of Neuroscience, gives functional MRI evidence that people who are born deaf still use the parts of their brain that normally process sounds, called Heschl’s gyrus. Instead of processing sound, however, they use those areas to instead process other stimuli like taste or touch, almost literally hearing the world through another sense. Blind people like Daredevil also experience the world differently. Their visual cortex is still active only it becomes used to process information from things like sound and even smells. . All of this amounts to what many might a real-life superpower, but don’t crack open the mask and devil horns just yet.

Unfortunately -and despite the incredible capabilities of the human brain- there are limits to our brain plasticity. Being born deaf or blind, or becoming differently-abled at an early age -like Matt Murdock- gives a person their best chance of adapting to the condition. Brains are more pliable in youth, especially during particularly sensitive periods of development, like language acquisition. However, adults have a harder time adapting. Certain pathways have already been formed and experiences have already been learned. The truth is that neuroplasticity only goes so far, and the enhanced senses of Daredevil are still well beyond the capability of any human brain. His “sight” is very much an invention of comic books, but that does not mean that many real-life differently-abled individuals are not extraordinary in their own ways.

Blind as a Batfleck
Daniel Kish, has been blind since he was a baby, but that has not stopped him from doing things like hiking and even riding a bike. If we are looking for a real-world equivilant of Daredevil than Daniel might fit the bill. Through a technique of clicking his tongue, Daniel is able to use a process of echolocation that is similair to that of a bat. This kind of power was portrayed poorly by Ben Affleck in the 2004 flop, Daredevil, where Murdock is able to bang objects or use the rain to “see” the world around him. Daniel, however, does not throw pots at the wall every time he needs to find a doorway.

There are two types of echolocation, active and passive, and even sighted people employ its use in their day to day lives. Hearing footsteps growing louder, or sensing that there is a wall in front of you in a darkened room can all be forms of passive echolocation. The human brain is wired to interpret sound vibrations spatially. It is part of the reason why we have two ears placed on different sides of our head. Our brains naturally take in the sound around us, and then use the information from each ear to determine certain factors, like location, proximity and even size of the object we are hearing. In other words, if a car is coming at us on our left side, our left ear will hear it at a slightly louder volume than our right ear. Due to the Doppler effect, the car will sound progressively higher-pitched as it approaches and then lower-pitched as it travels further away from the observer. The brain then uses all that information to place the object in our mental landscape. People like Daniel Kish and Matt Murdock use this technique, except they don’t always wait for the world to give them a passive sound to do so. Instead, they make their own.

Human echolocation has been formally studied since at least the 1950s, and those that employ it have the ability to detect objects in their environment by sensing the echoes which bounce back to them, often by tapping a cane or making clicking noises with their mouths, as is the case with Daniel Kish. Differently-abled people with this ability have likely rewired their brains to actually interpret sound waves reflected by nearby objects, allowing them to orient themselves in a world they cannot see through typical human means. It has been inferred, and even outright stated, over the years that Daredevil “sees” very similiar to this technique, whether it be the sonar of Ben Affleck or the “world on fire” explanation that we get in the new Netflix series.

The Kingpin of Perception
A lot of this comes down to our own personal perceptions of the world. As sighted humans we put a lot of emphasis on out ability to see, sometimes at the determent of our other senses. “Seeing is believe,” “eye witness,” and “stop looking while I use the urinal,” are all common sayings that we hear daily at The NYRD office. When we think about the world we often do it through visual terms, even memories are often “visualized” in our minds as pictures or moving images, but human sight is remarkably limited. Only a miniscule fraction of light waves are perceptible to our eyes. For instance, snakes are capable of seeing infrared spectrum light, and many game animals can see ultraviolet light. Going beyond sight, there are many creatures that experience the world -or even more of it- than your average human.

A dog’s sense of smell is 10,000 to 100,000 times more acute than our own, but their eyesight is weaker. They are animals that experience the world through their nostrils, and in many cases often more sharply than us and our eyes. According to James Walker, former director of the Sensory Research Institute at Florida State University, “If you make the analogy to vision, what you and I can see at a third of a mile, a dog could see more than 3,000 miles away and still see as well. As humans we like to prioritize our own experiences over the experiences of others -which also explains politics. We tend to extrapolate that the way we “perceive” the world is the universal way -that it is the “normal” way- to experience the world around us. Yet, that is so far from the truth it is almost laughable. Human eyesight isn’t even that great, just ask anyone who has to wear glasses. We can’t see into extreme spectrums of light, and there are literally colors that exist that we have never seen and will never see.

This brings us back to Daredevil. We often call what he experiences a superpower, but the truth is that it is just another way to experience the world. His perception of reality may not be the same as Daniel Kish’s or even yours, but it is no less or more limiting. In fact, Matt Murdock’s true superpower is not so much his ability to “see” differently, but his dedication to not allowing his lost visual sense to get him down. Instead, of giving up he trained himself to peak human condition through perseverance and crazy martial arts.

As superheroes in the Marvel Universe go, he is not a thunder god, or a raging green hulk monster. He does not get his powers from a robotic suit or a super soldier serum. His superpower only lets him see the world around him differently. Daredevil is a hero because he dedicates himself to being one. He didn’t give up, even when the world told him that he was different or “broken,” and in our opinion, there is no better analogy for what it truly means to live as a differently-abled person.


We would like to thank our expert consultant, Dr. Douglas Smith, MD, for his help on writing this article.

It is that time of the year again, actually it is that time of the “every four years” again. Because this year is a leap year, a year when everybody wakes up on March 1st only to remember that it is actually February 29th. So why is this a thing? Well the story of our calendar is one of intrigue and murder… Okay, maybe not murder, but there were Romans involved so we’re thinking at least one killing and probably a few orgies, but that’s not what we want to talk about today. Instead, let’s take a closer look at this thing we call a leap year. So step with us into the Quantum Leap Accelerator and vanish… Oh boy.

Leap Back
For almost the entirety of human history, we humans have been obsessed with keeping track of the year. To understand this obsession we need to leap back, and unlike Dr. Samuel Beckett, we need to go a little farther back than any one of our single lifetimes, or even that of our parents or great grandparents. Our leap takes us back to the dawn of human history when our ancestors needed to keep track of the seasons in order to survive. Winter meant cold, Summer meant hot, and Spring meant it was time for… well you know. As early as 9000 BCE, humans were using notches on wood and bones to keep track of lunar phases in order to correctly count out the year. It became even more important to keep track of these things when we moved from a hunter gatherer species to an agrarian one. We needed way to know when to plant and when to harvest, and that is when things got trickier.

Keeping track of the seasons by how many full moons you see is fine, but imprecise. Even the concept of a “day” is hard to measure as the amount of sunlight and darkness vary from place to place and day to day. It took ancient humans awhile to figure out that you need to calculate the length of a day from high noon to high noon. That is why ancient calendars often varied from region to region. As you might imagine winters are a lot longer in Siberia than they are in Greece. So what does all this have to do with a leap year? Well, according to Ziggy, the ancient Egyptians were among the first to calculate the 365-day length of a year, and among the first to realize that we needed a leap year in order to keep us on track.

You see the solar year or tropical year is actually 365.2422 days long. As you can imagine it can be hard to account for that extra -almost- a quarter of a day. Some ancient societies like ancient Rome and China originally adapted lunar calendars, which meant that each month was 29.5 days long, but that meant the full year came up 11 days short. Other civilizations, like the Sumerians just divided their calendar into 12 months of 30 days and were done with it. That was problematic too, because if you are good at math you might notice that only amounts to 360 days and even Al can tell you that is about a week short. Now, our ancestors were aware of this and some civilizations often declared week-long holiday festivals or other extra-calendar activities to try and keep the year on track, but it was sometimes messy, and we’re not talking about the feasts themselves.

Leaping on a String
By the time Julius Caesar came to power Rome’s calendar was off by about 4 months. September was in summer, February was in the fall, and so the Romans found themselves leaping from year to year, striving to put right what once went wrong, and hoping each time that their next year would be the leap home… or something like that. Thankfully, Caesar was walking like an Egyptian with Cleopatra and observed their 365-day long calendar, and realized its potential to fix Rome’s own quantum-related problems. First, he had to fix the time lag, so in 46 BCE he decreed the Year of Confusion, a 445-day long year meant to get the Roman calendar back on track. He then changed the calendar to a 365-day calendar -conveniently giving himself a month in the process- and every four years he declared it to be a leap year to account for that discrepancy of almost a quarter of the day.

Now we say “almost,” because if you remember it is only .2422 of a full day. So adding a full day ever 4 years actually adds too much time onto the calendar. That’s why 128 years later, the Romans and everyone else who were living by the Julian Calendar found themselves off the solar calendar by an extra day’s worth of time. Leaping forward to the 16th century this discrepancy had caused important Christian holidays to slide forward by ten days or so, and Pope Gregory XIII decided he wasn’t going to be having anymore of that. So in 1582 he unveiled his Gregorian Calendar. First he cut the month of October short by 10 days, to fix the immediate problem, because screw October. Then the Pope decreed that every 100 years would not be a leap year. So there was no leap year on the years of 1700, 1800, 1900, but we did have one in 2000. Here is where it gets complicated, because 100 year intervals that are divisible by 400 -we are not kidding- do not skip their leap year. If you think that fixed the problem completely, then hold onto your Pope hat because we need to leap again.

This time we are leaping to the future. The Gregorian Calendar isn’t perfect. Factor in that the Earth’s rotation is actually slowing down, which is part of the reason why we arbitrarily add leap seconds to the clock, and you get a system of telling time is only ever going to be “good enough.” In the future, our ancestors may choose to change the calendar and the leap year tradition, because in about 10,000 year the remaining discrepancies will start to show through again, but who knows. Maybe by that time we will need to find a new solar calendar that accounts for the orbits and rotations of many worlds and moon colonies, or we may all be dead. For now the Gregorian Calendar is the best we have. After all, the calendar year is merely a human construct meant to try and keep track of something that does not work by our clocks or calendars, and yet that fact has not stopped people from letting their imaginations run wild with the possibilities of the leap year.

The Leap Home
There is a lot superstition and frustrations that surround a leap year. For instance, being born on February 29th in a leap year is confusing. You either celebrate your birthday every four years or you have to do it on a calendar date that isn’t your actual date of birth, and other traditions have taken the day further. February 29th is sometimes associated with the day that women propose marriage to men, because for most of history women taking charge was crazy talk. Other people believed that the leap year ruins the natural cycle of things and such superstitions arose as the Scottish saying, “Leap year was ne’er a good sheep year.” Greeks thought that making contracts or getting married on a leap year doomed the union to failure, which may explain some of their current relationship problems with the rest of Europe. Some notable things about February 29th is that Superman was fictionally born on that day, and Hatti McDaniel famously accepted the first Oscar awarded to an African American. Also, in 1504 Christopher Columbus used a lunar eclipse on February 29th to scare a population of local natives into giving his men supplies and food. So, you know, its a mixed bag sort of day.

However, there is possibly no other day that lives in so much infamy and awe in our collective imaginations. A leap year is not something we see everyday, but regardless of our superstitions or superhero birthdays, we need February 29th. Without a leap year we would still all be trapped in the past facing mirror images of our seasons that are not our own. We have come a long way in our calendar and who knows what the future holds. We may never be fully rid of our own little quantum leap.

2016

It is 2016, a shiny new year in the 21st century. There is no denying that we are in the future, a time when our sock hopping ancestors believed we would have things like jet packs and underwater cities. Instead all we have are underwater pollution and -criminally mislabeled- “hoverboards.” Still, our modern era is not all bad, and we here at The NYRD are optimistic about what is yet to come. 2016 holds a lot of promise and we thought it would be best to start the year off right and talk about all the good possibilities, trends, and breakthroughs for the coming year, because we all know there will inevitably be bad enough ones too.

Virtually All Reality
2016 will mark the beginning of consumer virtual reality. VR headsets are set to become the next big “thing” in the technology and gaming world. This year will see the release of the Oculus Rift as well as several other devices. These new VR sets will range from premium high end models to cardboard boxes that can be fit around your smart phone, but rest assured our reality will never look the same again. Whether it will be playing games, watching movies, or even experiencing news stories first hand, the world is going to start to look  a lot different in ways even we cannot imagine.

Franchise, Franchise, Franchise
We would be remiss if we did not use this opportunity to bring up some of the most anticipated video games, movies, and TV shows coming out in 2016. This new year will most assuredly be the year of the shared universe, with movies like Batman V. Superman, Captain America: Civil War, Doctor Strange, Suicide Squad, X-Men: Apocalypse, Ghostbusters and of course, Star Wars: Rogue One. Disney will be certainly looking to shove even more Star Wars and Marvel down our collective gullets, and -truth be told- we are sort of okay with that. On the small screen side there will be plenty of old and new shows to look forward to, including the return of Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, and Sherlock. However, we are also looking forward to new Agent Carter and Daredevil, not to mention a possible Luke Cage show near the end of the year. Meanwhile, other shows like Preacher and the new X-Files have our interest piqued, and, of course, we would hate to leave out that 2016 will mark the last season of Mythbusters.

In the literary world, everyone is talking about a possible 2016 release date for The Winds of Winter, George R. R. Martin’s next installment in the Song of Ice and Fire series. Unfortunately, we would advise that you don’t hold your breath, unless you want to be just another causality in the long list of deaths attributed to the blood soaked career of Martin. JK Rowling is also getting back into the Harry Potter game with her newest movie Fantastical Beasts and Where to Find Them, and a new stage-play following the adult Harry Potter titled, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

On the video game side, there is only one title we here at The NYRD want to talk about, No Man’s Sky. This self-creating infinite galaxy MMO has the possibility to blow the lid off the immersive video game genre, and has the potential to pave the way for all new gaming experiences. Last year, NMS “stole the show” at every conference and convention where it was previewed. This could mark the next leap forward in video game experiences and we fully expect that we will have to shut down our office for a week just to get a grip on it.

Juno, the Dragon, and Beyond
This year in space exploration will see the Juno probe visit Jupiter in hopes of unlocking more of the gas giant’s secrets, including the moisture content of its atmosphere and how it was originally formed. There is still a lot we don’t know about the largest planetary body in our solar system and Juno is going to help us figure it out. We should also see the first manned launch of SpaceX’s Dragon V2.  SpaceX just ended 2015 with the successful landing of reusable rocket boosters that have the potential to dramatically cut costs of space launches. If everything remains on schedule American astronauts will no longer have to be dependent on Russia to reach the International Space Station. Instead NASA will buy them tickets on the Dragon, much like one might buy a bus ticket, except with more explosions and more leg room. Lastly, the Five hundred meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST) will be completed this September in Guizhou Province of China. The largest single-aperture telescope in the world it will be able to gaze three-times further into space than its predecessor, the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico.

Weathering the New Year
We ended 2015 on a high note, the Paris Climate Summit was an unmitigated success, but in 2016 the real work begins. There is a lot of reason to be hopeful. In June all the states of the USA need to submit their plans to reduce emissions from power plants. The US Energy Commission is predicting an impressive increase in all renewable energy sources, and a steadying of CO2 based emissions in comparison with the past four years. This includes a 14% growth for solar and wind energy. With hybrids and electric cars becoming more affordable and commonplace, and with increasing EPA emissions standards even car manufacturers and other big businesses are starting to think green.

Around the world places like India and China are starting to slow their pollution. China has even suspended new mining endeavours, which gives real hope that we can stay under the 1.5 degree mark for global warming. One could even say the winds are starting to change, at least as long as that person doesn’t mind using terrible cliched puns. We at the NYRD are completely above all that, of course.

The End of the Rainbow Discrimination
With both Hilary Clinton and Barry Sanders -who co-sponsored the amendment to the Civil Rights Act of 1964– have expressed deep concern for the fact that 31 states have no explicit law  against firing members of the LGBTQ community for their gender or sexual identity. This is despite the fact that it is now legal for gay and lesbian couples to marry in all 50 states. There is a strong hope that 2016 will see an end to this type of discrimination. With the two front-running democrats both claiming they will push for a more protection for LGBTQ people we have high hopes that something will get done this year on this issue. At the very least it should become a topic of major debate both for Presidential nominees and members of Congress.

50 Shades of Gun Metal Gray
President Obama recently announced that he will be enacting an executive order to tighten existing gun laws in the country. This comes after a 2015 filled with mass shooting and nonsensical rhetoric. In fact, 27 Americans were killed by guns on Christmas. We will not go into the specifics of the President’s plan -as he still has yet to announce the majority of it- but hopefully more regulated gun control can make 2016 a much less violent year. Unfortunately we are already off to a rocky start. With any luck things can only improve.

Another hope for less violence comes in the form of an announcement that the Justice Department will begin keeping track of how many individuals are killed by law enforcement officials. In the past, the data collection on either purposeful or accidental deaths caused by police and other law enforcement were voluntary. In other words, it was near impossible to get clear statistics, data, and accountability on the rise and decline of police violence in certain areas. This is only one small piece that has led to more mistrust of law enforcement by citizens, especially by black Americans, in a year already riddled by alleged brutality and possible police misconduct. Having greater statistical accountability is only a small step, but it is one in the right direction. With any luck, in 2016 we will heal the wounds of the previous year and help us move forward not as black or white but as citizens and neighbors.

No Country for Old Politics
Currently, the American political landscape is a mess. The Republican primaries are more bloated than Jabba the Hutt after a large meal, and the front-runners are more extreme and perverse than even some of Jabba’s tastes. On the Democratic side a David and Goliath battle is being waged between the party establishment-hopeful, Clinton, and the social media darling, Sanders. Even worse everybody on your Facebook seems to have an opinion and none of them are completely satisfying, but there is a possible silver lining to this darkening and maddening cloud.

The popularity of Sanders, Trump, and Carson -despite what anyone may think of their politics- is actually a hopeful sign. The Democratic and Republican parties have been controlled for too long by party elders and big donors, all of which seem out of touch with what the common American wants. The fact that any of the “fringe candidates” are still polling competitively at this point in the race shows that things are starting to change. Trump and Carson are especially interesting, because even though they couuld never win a general election, they are exposing cracks in the normal GOP/Tea Party rhetoric. There has been speculation that this could even lead to the dissolution of the party or at the very least to a radical changing of the Republican party in America. That may be an extreme example, but either way nothing is ever going to be the same again for the conservatives.

Bear in mind, that we have made our opinions on Trump and his hate-mongering known before, but he does prove that the power of the people can outweigh the power of the corporations and the lobbyists. Bernie Sanders, too, has practically financed his entire campaign from donors giving $200 or less. Whenever anyone talks about the political system these days it is always in tones of how much worse things have gotten, but for once, let’s take a step back and see the positives of what is going on.

All the Rest
Finally, we cannot forget that 2016 marks the Summer Olympics in Rio, where -surprisingly- the USA Rugby team has a decent chance at winning the gold. -We bet you didn’t even know that the US had a rugby team- Of course, there is also San Diego Comic Con, New York Comic Con, and all the other great conventions and annual events look forward to as well. As it stands the coming year offers a lot of promise for a better, stronger, and nerdier America and the world. However, these things are never easy and the path is almost never clear. That is why it takes people like you and us to forge it.

So, if you are looking for a resolution, let us offer this suggestion. Do everything you can to read and educate yourself on the important changes, topics, and events going on around you this year. Use your knowledge to take an active role and not sit on the sidelines. Get out and vote, or volunteer, or even just offer a helping hand to a friend in distress. 2016 can be a truly amazing year, but only with your help. As for us, we here at The NYRD promise to do our part to try and keep you informed and entertained this new year. So stay tuned, because the best is yet to come.

Have a Happy and Hopeful New Year.

Do you remember the Genesis Planet from Star Trek: The Search for Spock? It was created by Dr. Carol Marcus and the Genesis device. Ecologically the planet contained every possible weather system of Earth all “within a few hours walk,” from one another. That meant you could literally stroll from desert conditions to frozen tundras to hurricane level storms all in one leisurely -albeit- wardrobe defying journey. Well the past few weeks have left us here at the The NYRD feeling as if we are living on Genesis with its crazy weather and possible Vulcan graveyard. One day is hot, the next is cold, on the next it’s like Ceti Alpha VI exploded. Looking out the window these days makes us wonder if we should step outside in shorts or a parka, and it has us worried that we may not always “live long and prosper.”

A United Federation of Commitment
Last week, 150 countries made a pledge to cut carbon emissions, lending optimism to supporters that a real climate treaty could be a possibility for France’s 2015 Climate Summit. The United Kingdom, France, and Germany have promised to double their climate spending by 2020. President Obama has laid out a comprehensive plan to cut carbon emissions in the US by regulating power plants and their output of CO2, and more than 80 companies pledged to make big cuts to their emissions. Even more encouraging, a group of countries have agreed to create a $100 billion-a-year green climate fund, which will help fund climate projects around the world, especially in developing nations. These are all very good signs, but unfortunately they are only a start. The truth is that we have yet to feel the full impact of what is to come, and we are still short of realizing any real goals that will be necessary to save the planet from being just another cosmic redshirt.

The commitment of the international community is only going to halt the warming of our planet to about 3 degrees Celsius. Unfortunately, most scientists seem to agree that if the temperature of Earth raises by more than 2 degrees the damage to our planet could be catastrophic. It is hoped by many that the estimates of carbon reduction given by the countries are conservative and those amount will increase going forward with better technology and a growing sense of international urgency. More bad news, because damage has already been done. Even containing our levels of global warming below that 2 degree mark still means that we have changed the very balance of our planet’s climate.

The Neutral Zone
Even staying below the 2 degree neutral zone will still mean big changes for the way we live. According to the Proceedings of Natural Sciences who has mined the data of a large selection of different computerized models, they have identified a possible 18 different abrupt climate changes we could experience between now and 2100, even if we stay within conservative warming estimates. The 2 degree limit has been a guardrail of international climate discussions for decades, but we are beginning to realize that any warming -much like any incursion into the Romulan Neutral Zone- could have varying levels of repercussions.

Many simulated models produced events such as: rapid melting of Arctic sea ice, partial or full shutdown of North Atlantic current circulation, and even one model that showed an increased in growth of Indian Ocean sea algae. It is worth noting that other experts have expressed caution about these findings, but they acknowledge that they are not inconsistent with other collected climate change evidence. Messing with Earth’s climate is like letting James T. Kirk monkey around in the past, even the slightest change could alter our future. In fact, if oceans rise a mere meter -3 feet- that still spells a lot of problems for waterfront communities and island nations that could and will lose their homes. Worst of all, this isn’t some future occurrence, this is happening right now. The population of the small island country of Kiribati needs to be evacuated because the country is already sinking and the Maldives could be next.

Climate change is already here and it is already happening. Parts of the Arctic have warmed as much as 15 degrees Fahrenheit since 1960. Droughts and desserts are expanding all over the world, -just ask California- including place such as the Amazon, which is slowly losing its ability to cleanse the air of Co2. Miami is on the verge of sinking, having already lost 3.7 inches of beachfront. 2015 is on track to be the hottest year ever recorded in human history and the top 5 warmest years ever recorded have happened in the past decade. This is not a problem for just Miamians, the Kiribati, Andorians, Arctic polar bears, or people in the developing world -though developing countries will be disproportionately affected by climate change. It is a problem for everyone, “but Captain, what can we do?”


To Boldly Go
The nerd and geek community has never been shy about showing their commitment to anything. Just ask any Klingon at a Star Trek convention. Well, it is time we get involved again, and not just for us but for all the future Trekkies. What can you do to help? Well there is always the mainstays of recycling, conserving household energy, and carpooling to work, but there is  also much more we can do as individuals to help the problem, and the first step is being informed.

One of the most important things you can do is to stay up to date on the science and changes going on in our world today. So much of the climate debate is happening because people are taking what is said on cable news channels at face value. The Internet provides us all with a sort of universal translator. We can take what we hear on the news and certain nerdy/informational websites and go further. We can find out the answers for ourselves. Trust us, it doesn’t take a lot of time to come up with a wealth of resources and opinions on any subject just by doing a simple Google search. The more informed the public is about this -hugely important- topic the harder it will be to fall for misinformation or the scare tactics of the news media.

Secondly, get involved. There are multiple bills currently being considered by the US Congress, and not the least of them is the Keystone Pipeline, or the coming vote to ratify the Paris climate treaty. Let your representatives and congresspeople know how you feel. Remember, back in 1997 the United States signed the Kyoto Protocol on the environment, but it was never submitted for ratification by the Senate. In essence it became just a piece of paper with no binding legal authority. Eighteen years later we have to make sure that doesn’t happen again, because the world followed our example in 1997 and with any luck we can get them to follow it again in 2015. If you do not know who your representative is you can look up their contact information at OpenCongress.org.

I’m a Doctor Not a Weatherman
Regardless of who you are, you can do something, because this planet is worth fighting for. The Federation has the technological ability to terraform planets and heal environmental damage, but we do not. We have to work with what we have and that means slowing and stopping global climate change before it is too late. Our world is going through a change even as you read this, but we can still lessen the severity of those changes and save our world and our civilization from climate chaos. We want to believe that humans have good intentions, even if they sometimes lead us down the path to Gre’Thor.

In the time of Star Trek, the Federation and Starfleet travel the stars. They explore strange new worlds, and seek out new life and new civilizations, but Earth is still their home. Humanity, despite all its technological prowess and drive to go out into the galaxy still cherishes our small blue marble above all else. Perhaps it is ironic that those humans of a fictional future hold Earth in the highest of regards and yet we, a people who are still stuck upon its surface and depend on it for our own lives and health, only rank it as a mild concern or just another political talking point.

Remember the Genesis project resulted in an unstable world of drastic weather and geological shifts. We can’t just let our planet become that, another human failure borne of the best intentions. Green energy independence and other new innovations for slowing carbon emissions are already possible. We just need to have the will to implement them, because this problem can’t be left to The Next Generation. The recent flood of commitments from local, international, and business communities is encouraging, but there needs to be more. If we all do our part, then we can achieve a carbon neutral world. “Yes we KHAAAAAN!”

The science fiction novel, The Martian, by Andy Weir is a love letter to NASA and the human desire for space exploration. It is also one of the most plausible and scientifically accurate sci-fi novels in recent memory. Now, this weekend, the movie adaption comes to theaters and we here at the NYRD couldn’t be more excited, but then again we have always been big fans of journeying to the red planet. So to celebrate the opening of a movie that has its foundation in real science, we thought we would take you through some of the technology and aspects that you will be sure to see if you venture to the theaters to watch two-hours of Matt Damon trapped alone, without even a volleyball for company.

Hab Sweet Home
In the book and movie the story’s hero, Mark Watney, is stranded on Mars, but at least he has some things going for him. First of all, he has the habitation module or Hab for short. This is good because we all need a roof overhead, whether it be a one room studio walk up in downtown Manhattan or a multi-room state of the art module on the surface of Mars. Even if development of a real Hab is still a few years off, NASA has been testing crews in the Human Exploration Research Analog (HERA). This analog helps crews learn to work and live together in a simulated deep-space mission. The two-story habitat is complete with living quarters, work spaces, a hygiene module, and a simulated airlock. Currently NASA is running just 14-day duration missions with crews but that will soon be increased to 60-days.

While on Mars, Watney is also forced to grow food in the inhospitable soil of Mars. He accomplishes this by mixing the Martian soil with nutrients and samples from Earth soil, along with his own special brand of compost… eww… Eventually he even yields a full crop of potatoes, but he is not the first person to grow plants beyond the limits of our little blue orb. Vegetables are grown everyday on the International Space Station, but lettuce is the staple of choice for our real-life astronauts. In fact, last year aboard the ISS they even grew Romain lettuce and ate it. That sounds unremarkable, but it is a big step in sustained space living. The vegetables are grown under red, yellow, and green lights in bags of soil mixed with fertilizer, which harvested by the astronauts… eww.

Of course now that Watney has all those potatoes to eat he needs something to wash it down with, and that is where the water recycling system would come in. The one used in the book is a bit more sophisticated than what we have today but still entirely plausible. The Environmental Control and Life Support System aboard the ISS recovers water from sweat, hand washing, tooth brushing, and even urine… eww… However, current methods of water reclamation return only about 85% of pre-used water. The WRS runs water through a series of filters and a centrifuge, since micro-gravity makes separation of gasses and liquids tricky in zero-G. Even better, the technology is being put to use here on Earth, to help developing countries and communities have safe and reusable drinking water.

One Small Breath for Man
Things like water, food, and a roof are only the creature comforts of a Martian stay. In the book and movie Watney needs to work and sweat for every accomplishment he makes, and one of his biggest problems is getting more oxygen. He uses a method of electrolysis to create more for himself, by splitting carbon dioxide to release the oxygen. On the ISS astronauts use a very similar process, except with water but where Watney was the air around him, the ISS just uses water. The excess hydrogen is then bled out into space or pumped back to the Sabatier System which uses it to create more water.

In 2020, the organization will sending a rover to Mars that will test taking in Martian atmosphere and applying electrolysis to produce oxygen right from the air itself. Also, NASA is now looking to get a leg up on their fictional counterparts. Since the writing of the book it has been discovered that water may be more prevalent in the red planet’s soil than originally thought. That would mean they could actually create oxygen straight from the ground.

A Walk on the Martian Side
However, if astronauts want to go outside they will still need to carry the majority of their oxygen with them. The atmosphere of Mars is cold and inhospitable. Mark Watney’s space suit, though it is still bulky and obnoxious is years ahead of the suits employed by astronauts today. Watney spends hours in his suit doing strenuous work and making long journeys. Current suits have too limited of a life span and are way too heavy to allow much work to get accomplished. Yet, NASA is currently testing the Z-2 suit prototype. This is by no means the final design, but the tests being conducted with it will help in the creation of the Z-3 suit, which will then help with the creation of the real suit that astronauts will wear on the surface of Mars.

Our future Martians are going to need a set of banging wheels, though, if they want to get anywhere worth going. We’re talking chrome rims, cherry red chassis, and maybe even a moon roof -considering Mars has two moons. Watney has two rovers in The Martian, which he cannibalizes and alters quite extensively to suit his purposes. NASA is currently testing the Multi-Mission Space Exploration Vehicle (MMSEV). With a top speed of a blazing 6 miles per hour (10 kph), the vehicle has six wheels for stability and is being developed not just for use on Mars, but also on asteroids and moons. Some of the technologies are still begin perfected, such as lighter weight and more powerful batteries, but the MMSEV seems to be pretty close to what Watney uses on his little adventure.

However, one of the biggest problems with going outside on Mars is the dust. The soil in places can be very fine and it gets everywhere. Think, glitter except more annoying. The Martian dust can do everything from muck up sensitive equipment to cover energy-giving solar panels. Dust storms can last for weeks at a time and be as large as countries on Earth. They can even change the face of the planet in a matter of days. Currently the probes we have on Mars can wait out any dust storms before resuming there mission, but humans may not have that luxury. Going weeks without power in the middle of dust cloud that blocks out your solar panels is a death sentence. Watney encounter this situation later in the book, and currently NASA uses Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators (RTG), which doesn’t rely on solar power, and instead uses the decay of plutonium-238 to generate electricity for Curiosity and the upcoming 2020 rover, but we may not be too keen on having a radiation battery so close to our men and women on Mars.

Getting There
In The Martian, Watney and his crew are brought to Mars by the Hermes, a reusable ion-drive ship that was created expressly for making the round trip from Earth to Mars and back again. Ion thrusters are a very real thing. They use beams of ions -electrically charged atoms or molecules- to create thrust in accordance with momentum conservation, and though NASA has yet to develop a wing of TIE fighters -TIE stands for twin ion engines– it does present a very reliable source of thrust for spacecraft, albeit a very slow one. Relative to chemical engines the ion engine is lumbering, but way more efficient. NASA’s Evolutionary Xenon Thruster (NEXT) has a fuel efficiency of 10 to 12 times great than that of chemical rockets. Unfortunately, it needs to operate in excess of 10,000 hours to accelerate any space-bound object fast enough to reach even the asteroid belt.

Any ion engine will never be enough to get rockets off the ground, but once in space you can turn them on and leave them on, generating acceleration over time. In fact, we already have probes that use ion thrusters, including Deep Space 1, a project so named because I can only assume the geeks at NASA had hoped we could make at least 8 more of them. The Hermes follows the same principal, a small amount of applying a constant thrust to speed the craft up, but it takes the same amount of reverse thrust to slow the ship down, thus braking takes as long as acceleration. It becomes a factor in the movie, but we won’t spoil anymore of it for you.

Our recommendation is that yuo go see the movie, and if anything sparks your interest NASA has a whole lot of information about everything that is going on with our current plans or Mars. They are hoping to have a human on the red planet by the 2030’s, but that is going to take a massive investment of time, money, and passion by the American people, and the people of the world at large. With any luck movies like, The Martian, can help lay the ground work for the enthusiasm we need to get there. All the technological problems and challenges can be overcome, but without a willingness to go, we may never get off the ground.

Humanity needs to be able to fly or we will fall.

One of our great modern adventurers once said, “It’s a dangerous business going out of your door. You step into the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.” The name of that explorer was none other than Bilbo Baggins, and he is someone who knows a thing or two about dangerous and far-off expeditions. In fact, to a hobbit who is standing at the door of his comfortable and well furnished hole in the ground, a journey to the Lonely Mountain must seem as impossible as a trip to another planet.

2015 marks 50 years since humans have been exploring the red planet, Mars. Mariner 4 was the first human made craft to successfully approach the planet on July 15, 1965, giving humans our first real view of the Martian surface. Since that day we have been sending probes, satellites, and rovers, but we have yet to set our big hairy feet on the planet’s surface. This is the dream of space exploration, the golden ring that NASA and others are reaching for. Our precious. However, to achieve it we need to embark on a journey unlike we have ever undertaken. We will face goblins and spiders, there will be peril and discovery. Yet we cannot turn away, because the riches we will find will be greater than any dragon treasure or magic ring.

Riddles in the Dark
There are many questions we must answer if we hope to get humans to Mars, and not the least of them has to do with the distance. Any communication between Earth and Mars could face a delay of up to 40 minutes and that means if our astronauts run into trouble anywhere between home and that far off land there will be no eagles there to catch them. Self-sufficiency and training is going to be key. Right now the plans for sending humans to Mars calls for a six person mission. Each crew member will not only need to have a specialty, such as mechanical engineering, flight training, Elven archery, or medical training, but also a good amount of cross training as well, because if you only have one doctor and he/she falls to the Balrog what do you do then? Additionally, the distance means that the crew does not have the ability to resupply. Any journey between Earth and the red planet could take anywhere between 150 to 300 days, depending on how the orbits of Mars and Earth line up. Astronauts will need to take all the water, air, and food they need to survive with them. It is true that we can recycle water from human waste and oxygen from the air we exhale, but the return is not 100%.

Of course, bringing all this extra oxygen, water, and food adds extra weight, and we’re not even talking about hobbit-meals with the option for second breakfast. At the bare minimum, NASA estimates that a crewed mission to Mars would need to lift twice the mass of the International Space Station, about 1.76 million pounds (800 metric tons.) Even worse a need for back ups and secondary expendables like air filters and spare parts also adds more weight. These are the types of things that, if broken, the astronauts would not be able to repair on their own, and are mission – if not survival- critical.

Then of course there are the more intangible dangers, the subtle Sauron-esque black magics of the universe. Environmental hazards, isolation-based psychological issues, and possible long-term health problems. Mars is a lot like Mordor except instead of orcs and the Dead Marshes, you would probably be more worried about things like freezing to death or getting microwaved. In fact, the planet has an average temperature of about -75 degree Fahrenheit (-60 degree Centigrade) which is colder than the average temperatures in northern Russia. There is also very little protection offered from solar activity. Mars does not have a magnetic field like Earth and the atmosphere is too thin to breathe, let alone absorb UV radiation. Even the gravity can be a problem, being only 38% of Earth normal. When humans are exposed to weak gravity for too long our muscles and bones degenerate, growing weaker and atrophied. Astronauts on the space station exercise constantly to combat the effects, and even then they still come back and go through months of physical rehabilitation, so you can imagine what an extended trip to and stay on the red planet might do to the humans who undertake it. Combine all that with the isolation, possibly claustrophobic travel/living conditions, and constant danger and our astronauts are going to be have to made of mental mithril just to make it through one mission, which could last up to two years.

Barrels Out of Bonds
The good news is that, much like Biblo, we can handle the journey, even if we don’t realize it yet. Any adventure starts with putting one foot in front of the other and we have already been doing that for more than fifty years. Everything we have learned from the Apollo missions, the Mars probes, the International Space Station, and more are being applied to vanquishing these trolls. New technologies are being developed every day, nano-tech materials that are harder and lighter than anything we currently have, new power and engine solutions, and even renewable food sources. Some of our best and brightest are already close to making breakthroughs in several of these fields, and most top thinkers believe that we will have the solutions by the time we are ready to finally face down the dragon that is the red planet.

That is not to say we have been sitting around and waiting. We already have a lot of the answers we are looking for. First of all, no Mars mission will happen in one blast-off, which means that the weight can be distributed over several rocket launches and trips to Mars. Equipment will be sent ahead of the manned crew capsule and will be waiting for the astronauts upon their arrival. We even have techniques for possibly extracting air and rocket fuel from the Martian environment for the return journey. That means we can send a return rocket to the Martian surface and let it collect fuel and confirm remotely that it is working and safe before we ever even send any humans into space.

Secondly, NASA has also been testing the Orion capsule and the SLS rocket, both of which are on track to get humans to Mars by the 2030’s. The Orion capsule will hold a crew of six people but will need to work in conjunction with a larger trans-planetary vessel. The Orion is little more than a modern version of the Apollo capsule and it will be too cramped for six people to spend four or five months making the journey to Mars. After all, even Bilbo had more personal space with thirteen dwarves and Ian McKellen always hanging around on his journey. So a larger ship with room to move about and some personal space could go a long way to helping our brave adventures keep fit both physically and menatally. That vessel is still begin designed.

Over the Hill Under the Hill
Human beings have been obsessed with the red planet for as long as we have had the capability to look up into the sky. Mars has always held a special place in our legends and stories, and that is odd when you think about it. Mars is not the closest planet to our own, that is Venus. It is not particularly large either, at least as planetary bodies go. Yet, we have had an obsession with it for at least 120 years, when Percival Lowell first believed that he discovered the canals of an extraterrestrial civilization. Much like Thorin Oakenshield and his Lonely Mountain there is something compelling us to go, as if it was our destiny all along, but we still need to find the will to undertake this incredible endeavor.

Gandalf pushed Biblo Baggins into his journey because he knew he was ready. The hobbit was more than comfortable to stay at home and live out a peaceful, if uninteresting life, among the creature comforts of the Shire. Like Bilbo we too could stay on Earth, biding out time with iPhones and blackberry tarts with slabs of butter, or we can accept the calling that has been set before us. Gandalf recognized something special in the small hobbit, and though we may not have a wandering gray wizard to give us a kick in the right direction, this is an adventure we know we must undertake. We can feel its pull as keenly as Bilbo did.

Chalk it up to curiosity, stupidity, or the human need to explore, but Mars is the next logical step, and not just for NASA but all of us. We went to the moon with Apollo, to prove that one country was better than another. Now we need to go to Mars to prove that humanity is better than what we once were. The goal of any journey is the destination, but the experiences along the way are what change us. There will be challenges and hardships, triumphs and cheers, but if we choose not to take the road laid out before us we will regret it. The Bilbo Baggins that returned to the Shire was not the same one who left it. Like the hobbit, humanity will emerge from this great endeavor bolder, wiser, and with a new understanding about what we are capable of accomplishing. Watching members of our own species set foot on an alien world and shift the red sands of Mars will remind us of how small we really are and the amazing things we can achieve together.

On the Doorstep
We are going to Mars. NASA has the plans laid out, and have been underway with preparations for years. In our lifetimes we will see a human being touch the surface of another planet. There are still a lot of questions about budget and technology, but those can be resolved. Our science, our understanding of the universe, and even our drive have never been higher. The journey will not be an easy one, but the best ones never are. We do not yet have all the answers to escape the goblins and slay the dragons that lay ahead, but we will learn. Whether it be a magic glowing sword, or an answer for artificial gravity we will discover new solutions for whatever stands in our way, and we will be better for it.

We are not saying that humanity will change all at once, but it will happen. We have already come so far from the world that once sent three men to the moon, that one small step for man. It would be easy to rest there, to not push on. We have already reached Rivendale, a milestone in our greater journey, a place we could stop and say look what we have already done. Yet, we must once again set out into a cold world full of danger and possibility. Mars is the destination, and even that is just another step in some greater journey. Humanity will expand our reach to another planet and beyond, because that is where the road is leading and it is one we must follow:

The Road goes ever on and on,
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And [we all] must follow, if [we] can.

“Oxygen levels, seven percent,” said the tinny emotionless voice.

Two days since the accident. Two days, since the death of the crew. Sometimes I can almost see a face, soft and warm with red lips, like roses, and the greenest eyes of spring lawn. A man could lie in them for hours and forget the world. A man could almost feel the grass blades between bare toes, and the cool nighttime breeze across goose-pimpled skin, like when I was a kid, left to lay for hours gazing at the stars.

The stars, I could never get enough of them, sitting outside till I was dragged to bed. The irony has not escaped even my oxygen starved brain. I suppose the universe does have a sense of humor. Those stars will be the last thing I ever see. Still, they are beautiful.

The sky outside rotates slowly, an endless cycle of glittering diamonds. The explosion that kicked me clear must have sent me into a spin, slow enough to not be dizzying, but fast enough that I can trace the movements of constellations across my viewplate. I have become a world unto myself, small and alone, floating through the void and surrounded by billions of tiny reminders of light and possibility. Some are known to me and others still deeply unfamiliar. If only I had an eternity to unlock their secrets, but I am down to mere hours.

Hair as soft as silk and as dark as the endless void, it smelled of lunch meat, but that was only in the morning. The kids used to laugh as we played rocketship, while she made their lunch. I can almost see her face. James, I love you, come home to me. It floats before me, obscured and distorted, like a figure trapped under the ice, kicking and screaming for air, but it’s gone. Now, I am alone.

The only thing real is the groan of my stomach, louder than before. The only image I can hold is the tube of paste I ate for breakfast so many days ago. I think it was banana. It tasted like metal. They always tasted like metal. I’m thirsty, but not “I just ran five-miles thirsty,” just “I could use a drink” thirsty. A beer would be nice. The saline indicator on my helmet is below zero. The emergency supply ran out hours ago, or days ago. There is no difference anymore.

Saturn rises across my field of vision. Its rings are back-lit by the sun and the powdery blue dust that surrounds the god-planet’s rings are shining like a thin wire of razor, beautiful and bright. It gives the whole planet the illusion of a motion faster than any purported by science. The great orb is like a spinning top on a whirling axis. It was my obsession, my only religion for so many years. All I wanted to do was see it with my own eyes, and now my eyes turn beyond it. In the distance, sits a bright blue dot.

Home is not a place, it’s a feeling, it’s family. Whenever you think of us, you’ll be home. The words come distant and half-remembered. My father spoke them on the day I left for college or was it the academy. He is dead now, and when I think of his face I see nothing. I feel only the cold in my fingertips. I never made it home for the funeral, a six month mission made it an impossibility. Everyone said they understood, of course they did. Maybe I never could.

“I’m sorry, Dad.”

Never say you’re sorry for that which is beyond your control. I am proud of you, son. Was it in my head? Was it my imagination? Did the suit’s communication system just come to life? It’s not possible. There is no one within a billion kilometers. I am the only human, the only thing alive out here. I am truly alone, and I am delusional.

“Oxygen levels, five percent.”

The flames, the rush of air, the silence. I come awake with a start from the half remembered dream, or was it a half-dreamt memory. Saturn is in full view. Even at this distance it dwarfs everything. Distantly, I hope I get to see it one more time, before I finally let go.

Hold on, son. Hold on to life. As long as you draw breath there is hope. I remember when he first said that me. His voice echoed from below, through the winter trees. We were camping and I had slipped from a tree limb. I had climbed too high. The limbs were too weak to support me. I have been trying to reach something, but the goal itself is beyond memory. Only the climb remains.

Hope is everything. Never lose it. This time the comm indicator sprang to life. The words weren’t imagined. They were real, spoken over the short distance channel.

“Dad?” my voice is raw and cracked. It hurts to speak, but it is maddening to stay silent. “Dad, is that you? Where are you?”

The only reply is my own breathing. I am beginning to slip. The isolation has taken its toll. Hypothermia is beginning to set in. The suit’s internal life support is slowly shutting down, like a deer succumbing to snow and frost, stumbling ignorantly towards its cold lonely end.

“Oxygen level, three percent.”

I wake. “Dad.” I don’t know if I screamed it. It’s hard to gauge how loud something is inside a helmet of plastic and metal. I struggle to get control of my flailing limbs. They no longer feel like part of my body. They no longer feel like flesh, just wood, nothing more than useless branches attached to a dying and forgotten tree.

I remember his eyes. They were bluer than the sky, bluer than the icicles that used to form on our garage.

I’m here, son. The LED indicators on my helmet are dead. There is no way of verifying the transmission source, but I am certain it is a transmission all the same. Saturn is gone now, replaced again with the endless ocean of stars.

“How is this possible?”

Moments fade, even memories die away, but love remains. Suddenly, there is light and color and I can see his face. It is a distant memory. I must have been very young. He still had his hair and that stupid mustache, but it was the same toothy grin.

“You’re not here. You’re dead. Gone.” I close my eyes and the light fades. Only the stars remain, eternal and fixed.

Everything must end. Even the stars are not forever. Their light is older than we can imagine. Most are dead even as they shine down on us. He is older now. His face shaded beneath the nighttime sky, only half facing me. His eyes sit transfixed on something above us.

“Dead.” I let the word hang there. Maybe for the first time I truly begin to question its meaning. Death, the concept seems almost beyond the scope of imagining, if not understanding. How can one word hold so much meaning and so much abstraction?

“Oxygen level, two percent,” says the computer as if in rebuttal to my musings, but even its voice of certainty is beginning to grow slow with the frost. I never considered what might happen to that voice. It will die with me, without ever having been alive. For some reason the thought saddens me. Man and machine will meet their end together.

But just because something ends, doesn’t mean it goes away. Look at the stars. Even after they have disappeared from the universe their light continues to shine. They continue to inspire and drive us. They are still beautiful. So why does death need to be any different? I could almost feel his hand on my shoulder as we stood before the casket of my mother. His face is blurry, but only because I watch him through tears.

“You’re not here. There is no life after death. No heaven or hell.” Such fantasies were sweet lies told to children to give comfort in times of grief. I know that. I’m a scientist and I know what happens to a person after death. Neural pathways shut down, the body stops pumping blood, cells starve for oxygen. They die, nothing less and nothing more. There is no light. Their isn’t even a tunnel.

My son, the scientist. You know so much. What do you know? Nothing. Quantum mechanics, string theory, dark energy? His face is angry, distorted somewhere between rage and pity. Fancy words to mean that for as much as you think you know, you still know nothing. Maybe God isn’t in the sky. Maybe he’s in us, tangled in the places between quarks, or unseen in the fifth, or sixth, or even thirteenth dimension? What if he is speaking to us now through the vibrations of a quantum string or calling to us through cosmic radiation?

“There is no God. We live. We die.” My mouth moves mechanically, rehashing the old argument, but the words just feel cold in my mouth, as if they too have been frozen by the void around me.

What good is your science if it only dashes hope? Hope is everything.

“We’re dead particles, brought to life for a brief second through a freak accident of nature. Dust to dust and ash to ash.”

Stardust and cosmic ash, perhaps. Those particles were forged in stars, created at the beginning of time itself. We are the universe made manifest, trying to figure itself out. There is a spark of the cosmos in us and that is no accident. We are part of something greater. How can that mean nothing?

“I miss you, Dad.”

“Oxygen level, one percent.” The hum of the air filters quiets. I had grown so accustomed to them I didn’t even realize they were still on. Now there is no sound. All the suit’s systems are dead. I am not far behind. My eyes feel heavy. I close them to rest, if only for a moment

Death is nothing to fear. Take it from a dead man.

“I want to believe you. I wish you were here.”

I am always with you. If space and time are one, then do any of us truly ever exist, ever truly stop existing? Maybe we never really go away. Maybe we are always here, like faint echoes bouncing around the great vastness.

“Even after you’re dead you’re still lecturing me.” I try to put the joke to my voice, but it comes out flat especially in the lonely dome of my helmet.

Only trying to show you the way. Like a light from a long-gone star.

Could the voice be right? Time is an illusion tethered by gravity, and if there is one thing I am lacking, it’s gravity. Then why am I so short on time? I open my eyes. Saturn has returned and I can almost feel it smiling down on me, like an eternal deity. In that moment, I remember my mythology. My father would have laughed. Saturn is the god of time.

I wait, but the voice says no more. Real or imagined, it’s gone. The only sound is my shallow breathing. I know am breathing in my own CO2. Each slow gasp seems more unsatisfactory than the last, but those are distant sensations. My body seems suddenly unimportant, because my eyes are growing heavy and before they close the last thing I see is my god.

Have you ever heard someone make the argument, “technology is making students dumber.” It’s a statement you may hear a lot these days, among family, friends, co-workers, on the Internet, from that guy who holds up that sign on the subway. Most point to how no one can remember telephone numbers or how to navigate without a GPS, but the argument is too simplistic. The truth of these sorts of things tends to be way weirder and more convoluted than the plot to Pirates of the Caribbean III: Johnny Depp Yells at Himself.

Generation Google
Some scientists actually believe that human intelligence may be decreasing, and we’re not just talking about Generation Z. Stanford University researcher, Gerald Crabtree, conducted a study that shows that our ancestors probably had higher IQ’s than we do, with human intelligence peaking during our hunter/gather stage. In fact, according to the Stanford research the average person’s IQ today is lower than that of the average Victorian-era person’s IQ by 14 points. So how come common belief tends to be the opposite?

The only answer we can find is, because technology. We point to our computers, our space program, and all the rest as examples of why we are in fact smarter than Mr. Darcey or Jane Eyre, but that may also be part of the problem. For instance, when writing was invented many people, including Socrates, decried it’s use, believing that having a system of writing would make humans dumber. To a world where memorization and recall were probably ten times sharper than they are today, they feared what would happen if you could write something down and forget it. Well, they were right. People started to forget more because they could. Yet, if these ancients with their near-photographic memory were so intelligent, how come they never went to the moon?

That last statement is not some sarcastic joke, because the real answer is, they could not. The kinds of calculations it takes to construct a rocket and a lander device capable of landing on the moon requires that you write something down, if only for simplicity sake. Imagine going through all the math every time you needed to explain your progress to the other scientists. So what we seem to have is a new innovation, writing, that made individual people dumber, but it made society as a whole smarter. The same is true of the Internet, a world wide interconnected web where people share information, jokes, bad NYRD articles and more. Individuals retain less information but growing more intelligent as a species. It seems paradoxical, but that is only because of the way we tend to rigidly think of intelligence.

Testing the Test
Much like Schrodinger’s Cat, the very act of trying to quantify things, like “intelligence,” skews the results one receives. We tend to judge intelligence with the prejudicial parameters we know and already understand, such as the Intelligence Quotient (IQ.) We have been using that as a scale to rank “smarty-ness” for generations. In fact, we even used it three paragraphs ago to do just that. We use IQ as if it was something that could be pointed to and held up as a defining scale of intelligence, as if human intellect were a thermometer.

The truth is that intelligence is way more complicated than that, and we know it. Think about the people in your life. Who is insanely good at trivia but cannot quite figure out how to tie his shoe? Who seems dumber than modern George Lucas dialogue but can still talk his way out of any situation he wants? Who can fix your computer in under ten seconds but gets lost every time she drives to the supermarket? That’s because these are all forms of different intelligence. Yet, only one type is actually ranked according to any IQ test, and like the contestants on Jeopardy, that is the only type we always seem to when gauging how dumb or smart people are. All answers must be phrased in the form of an Intelligent Quotient.

If you take Socrates, who was an incredibly brilliant man, and plop him down in modern day New York he is more likely to end up begging for money in the subway than rise to the top of the intellectual crust of society. Yes, there would be a language barrier, probably some future-shock, and a steep learning curve of “how is this chariot propelled without horses?” but we are talking beyond all of that. Our society has evolved to award success based an intelligence that no longer fits with Socrates’ classical definition. Remember, he was illiterate, and the ability to write and read has become so ingrained in our current definition of intelligence it is considered a precursor to being “smart.” Without the ability to read or write our favorite Grecian time traveler would be considered less employable than most second graders. Thus, there is more to “intelligence” than just learning facts.

The Intelligence of Fluid
A lot of what we are talking about is Crystallized Intelligence versus Fluid Intelligence. Simply put, crystallized intelligence is static memory. It’s where we store information, and it has also been what we, historically, have used to judge the level of people intelligence. Thanks to technology this part of our mind has been decreasing ever since the invention of the abacus. Fluid intelligence, however, is our ability to process and comprehend information. In terms of computers, it is our processing speed, and the rate at which we learn and adapt to new information and apply it. It is also the part of our intelligence that has been on the rise ever since the days of our hemlock-eating philosopher.

Technology not only frees up our brain from having to remember a lot of information at once, but challenges our internal processors to move faster with each new year and each new breakthrough. More than ever before we are now multi-taskers and deep thinkers. For instance, take this very article. Our facts and statistics -such as they are- are coming from the Internet. We here at The NYRD did not have to waste years getting a degree in psychology, education, and sociology. Instead, we spent 60-ish minutes reading and bookmarking articles on the web, watching a few TED talks, and taking those results to form a theory based upon our study. Maybe we are less intelligent -for a lot of reasons- mostly because we cannot quote our statistics off the top of the head, but we no longer need to. Human beings literally have the Internet everywhere they go. Thus, in today’s society the “what,” “when,” and “where,” is becoming less important than the “why,” and “how.”

It is natural that people feel concerned. This new age of computers and processors is still relatively new. We are now only seeing the first generation born that we can consider true “technology natives.” It is also natural that their view of the world and the way they learn will be completely different from those that came before, but it is not necessarily worse or even “less intelligent.” In fact, it is more likely that what people see as the “dumbing down” of today’s students is actually a failure to appreciate those students based upon the intelligence they have, instead of the type of intelligence we think they should have.

A Brave New Something… Something
Did you know that 65% of Generation Z will occupy jobs that don’t even exist yet. That means we are trying to force a new generation of round pegs into square holes that will not even exist by the time they are ready to graduate sixth grade.

It also important that we recognize the failure of our educational model in dealing with this new breed of humans. The current educational system does not always do enough to teach to these new students in ways they understand, and it fails to evaluate them based upon their actual intellectual strengths. For instance, 43% of students today find it easier to learn skills and lessons from the Internet, and unlike any generation before, Generation Z are graphic learners. That means they learn not just visually but through interactive movement, color, and design, because that is the world they were brought up in. Lastly, current students are much better multi-taskers than their parents’ generation.

Now take all this and remember that most students today are used to customization in all their experiences, (phones, computers, etc,) but not in their education. No, the education system remains rigid and stagnant, having changed very little since the days of Henry Ford. It is still based upon memorization and even some of our more innovative schools still base their principals of learning on crystallized intelligence. Yet, the things that this youngest generation of students are good at, such as games, searching the Internet, or even hacking rule-based systems, are not recognized as accomplishments by teachers and educators. In fact, many of those things are seen as a waste of time, useless, and even downright cheating. That kind of attitude fails to recognize the value that can be found in such exercises, and devalues the strengths of Generation Z. If their skill sets are deemed unimportant in our rigid model of what is and is not intelligent, than it will turn a lot of students off of education and learning in general.

Maybe we need to adjust our way of thinking and judgements about what is “smart” and “dumb.” Much the same way writing and reading have become part of our modern requirement for what we consider “intelligent,” in a 100 or even 50 years technological adaptability may be seen the same way. Please be clear, we at The NYRD are not advocating some kind of extreme form of reformation that makes schools into video game clubs, but by failing to adapt to the interests and skill sets of Generation Z, many of our schools are only exacerbating the already growing gap between what is taught and what is learned. The fluid intelligence of our youngest generation could be one of the keys to making them the best generation of global citizens in human history.

As any politician can tell you, facts and statistics can be manipulated, but fluid intelligence allows us to process, question, and evaluate what we are learning. It’s why children ask, “why is the sky blue?” instead of just accepting that it is. So, yes maybe we are losing the ability to memorize long equations, volumes of epic poetry, or even telephone numbers, but we are gaining something more. Like a computer outsourcing its memory to the “cloud,” we are using our technology to free up memory in our brains to increase our ability to question the worldays around us.

Fluid intelligence is the intelligence that will take mankind further than ever before, and it is increasing with every new generation, not just despite technology, but because of it.

A lot is being said about artificial intelligence lately, but not in the context of the newest Terminator movie. No one is talking about that. Prominent technologists and scientists such as Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking, Steve Wozniak, and others recently presented an open letter at the International Joint Conferences on Artificial Intelligence in Buenos Aires. The missive, endorsed by some of the world’s leading thinkers, calls for a ban on AI weaponry, which they warn could be possible within ten years.

“If any major military power pushes ahead with AI weapon development, a global arms race is virtually inevitable, and the endpoint of this technological trajectory is obvious: autonomous weapons will become the Kalashnikovs of tomorrow,” reads the open letter.

Now weapons of any kind are bad news, especially ones that can think and kill without any confirmation from an outside human source, but how close are we really to having truly artificially intelligent tanks, planes, or even washing machines? For many the thoughts conjure images of Terminators or Agent Smith, but we at The NYRD do not think the process of AI will be that black and white. Like humans, intelligent robots will most likely be more than meets the eye.

Dinobots
Bill Gates gave a talk on Reddit on a series of subjects but touched heavily on artificial intelligence and automation. Our current level of smart technology is relatively dumb by comparison to what will be coming in the future. Military drones still require human pilots and even current weak artificial intelligence still needs to follow a complex set of coded instructions.

The phone in your pocket, and more advanced systems like IBM’s Watson, perform rudimentary self-driven thinking, but their intelligence is based in very narrow and limited fields. Watson, and to a lesser extent Siri, can pull data from thousands of sources and make educated guesses on how it all fits together according to very specific preprogramed code. In layman’s terms, they are glitch-heads compared to what is on the horizon. That is not say that your GPS is not intelligent to an extent. It is very good at its defined job, better than a human, in fact. Watson may even be more capable than Starscream, but will never be as ambitious, at least not yet. Robo-evolution is coming. Basically, Siri is to Bumblebee as homo erectus was to modern humans, but robots will evolve not in the space of millenniums but decades, and they may do it along some familiar patterns.

According to Gates, “In the next ten years, problems like vision and speech understanding and translation will be very good. Mechanical robot tasks like picking fruit or moving a hospital patient will be solved. Once computers/robots get to a level of capability where seeing and moving is easy for them then they will be used very extensively.” These smarter machines will still not be self-aware, but they will be everywhere, cutting down human labor and need dramatically, which in itself will present other problems. However, futurist, Ray Kurzweil, believes that we will see a strong artificial intelligence in the next two to three decades. He also believe that by 2045 we will have a robot capable of passing the Turing Test, which was devised by Alan Turing -played by Benedict Cumberbatch- one of the fathers of modern computer science.

The most current advancements into building the All-Spark is called deep learning. It is a sophisticated algorithm which allows machines to learn, similar to the way humans learn. The project has its roots in work conducted in the 1950’s by Frank Rosenblatt, who built a type of mechanical brain called the Perceptron, a name of a Transformer ancestor is we have ever heard one. The goal of deep learning is to give robots the tools and abilities to learn about the world themselves, making artificial intelligence less about programming and more about natural development. The concept is similar to how a human children grows to  explore and understand the world around them, but hopefully with less diaper changes. Personally, we also would like to skip the teething stage if we could. This is just one of many theories being tested, but it shows a lot of promise even if it has its critics.

Decepticons
It also means that the way we have always looked at artificial intelligence is somewhat deceptive. The science fiction author David Brin argues that the problem in all our dystopian future scenarios, involving artificial intelligence, is that we usually only get to see the end point. We rarely talk about the journey that was involved to get there, and the journey could be important. Maybe our language of talking about AI is all wrong. After all, what we are really discussing is not the toaster coming to life, no matter what Michael Bay tells you, but the evolution of an entirely new sentient species. In essence, we will answer the question, “Are we alone in the universe?” And the answer will be, “Not anymore.”

The legendary science fiction writer Isaac Asimov attempted to solve the AI problem by createing the Three Laws of Robotics. These laws have been modified a bit over the years but they are still talked about even today by roboticists, science fiction writers, and amateurs alike.

AI Graph

There are a few problems with even these seemingly flawless laws. First, we are still unaware of how robotic intelligence will evolve and preprogramming anything into a thinking and possibly feeling machine could be problematic and even morally questionable. At what point can a truly intelligent and questioning robot disregard its programming? After all, we humans disregard our instincts all the time. Could it be the same for an intelligent robot? Even worse, would the simple attempt cause them to view us as tyrannical. Does it not make us the Megatron in this scenario?

If AI robots are truly alive and sentient, do we have any right to impose our will on them. Apply the Asimov Laws to a human and think about it’s consquences. The problem is not so much with Law 1, but Law 2, and the fact that Law 3, which talks about self preservation, is overridden by Law 2. Ultimately, the inclusion of these laws would mean that no matter how intelligent, feeling, and/or human-like a robot is they will always be subject to the will of us, even when it comes to their own well being. Does that make them our tools or our slaves? If we gave them life, does that mean we have the right to control that life or even take it away again? Can they die, and if so will it be in a traumatically childhood scarring way to the soundtrack of the most 80’s bands you may ever hear?

Autobots
The truth is that if and when we create artificial intelligence, it will be something completely new and completely different. It is unlikely that it will fall absolutely under our control. This new being’s thought process and views of the world will be its own. Will it have morality? Will it question its own existence? What sort of vehicle mode will it choose? It could be influenced by human thought, but we would be foolish to think that this new species will be completely human in their views and actions. The needs of a machine are not the same as the needs of a flesh and blood creature.

In this way, the Transformers, gives us a good glimpse into what we may be facing. They are not Earth-created machines. Instead they are aliens. Neither Decepticons nor Autobots bend their will to humans or our needs, and whatever we create could be just as alien. Yet, another important key is that the Transformers are as different from one another as humans are. Optimus Prime is noble and self sacrificing, and has a high regard for life and freedom. Megatron is concerned with power and greed. He sees all other beings as lesser creatures. They are the same, but the way they act and talk are different, not programmed but learned. Each is also very human in their own way.

In a sense, they may be made of metal parts, but they are not robots in the way a Roomba is. They are individuals with different hopes and goals. However, even our language is problematic. The word robot comes from the Czech word, robota, which basically means forced labor or serf. It literally means repressed worker. Is that what we will expect of our creations, to be nothing more than laborers to suit our needs? Maybe it is time we stop and readjust our own thoughts on the subject.

Whenever we talk about AI, we always think about it in very human terms. These new AI machines will evolve on our planet and in ways similar to us but their priorities may differ wildly from our own. Hawking and others have suggested that the real danger is not so much in the violence they could do toward us but the indifference they could show us. Just as the Transformers have come to Earth for energon, these new fast evolving artificial beings could potentially use up the resources of our planet faster, and with as much regard for our needs as we currently show for the needs of animals and insects. Thinking machines could see us as their gods, or as their equals, or as their pets. It is possible that AI robots might rise up, but they could just as easily decide to leave us and our world for the stars, until they evolve into a living world with the voice of Orson Welles. Maybe the real danger is not so much that they will destroy us, but that they will fail to notice us at all.

The truth of this issue is that we do not know. There are so many questions and right now we do not have any good answers. We can guess and debate, but ultimately any ideas we have on the reality of AI are completely human. The simple fact that we continuously depict robots as something that will revolt against us says more about ourselves than it does about any potential intelligent machine. Maybe our real fear is that these new thinking machines will not kill us, but judge us for who and what we really are, and maybe that is a lot scarier. Optimus and his ilk accept humanity’s flaws, but the Decepticons point to them as a reason why we are inferior. Perhaps we fear these new beings because we know ourselves and our history, and we fear they could be right.

However, it is worth remaining cautiously optimistic about the future, because our relationship with an AI machines could come down to us and the way we treat this new species. They could be friend or foe, Autobot or Decepticon. It may depend entirely on us. More to the point, we may not get just one type of intelligent robot but a diverse and rich mixture, much like humans. For every Starscream a Wheeljack. For every Soundwave a Bumblebee. For every Ramjet a Ratchet. -We had a lot of the toys as kids,- but the point is that it we will be the ones to set the expectations. That is why Hawkins and Musk helped create that letter in the first place. If we go looking to make weapons, then we should not be surprised if eventually our creations transform into the very things we feared.

It’s been a good week for NASA. We got our first look at Pluto and now the scientists on the Kepler Project have just announced their discovery of a new Earth like planet found in the habitable zone of a distant star system. The imaginatively names Kepler 452 is a G type yellow dwarf, just like our own, and it is about 1,400 light years from Earth. In other words, we won’t be stopping by anytime soon to drop off a quiche and meet the new neighbors. The planet in question, Kepler 452b, is estimated to be 5 times larger than Earth, which means it would have twice our gravity… So we are thinking planet of the Dwarves?

Interestingly, the size seems to be the main difference between our small blue orb and the world of the distant bearded warrior race that is surely living in their mountain palaces on Kepler 452b. The planet is in an almost near identical orbit as Earth, only about 5 percent further from its host star. That means the length of a Dwarven year on the planet is almost the same as our own, about 386 days. We at The NYRD like to believe they have a longer summer break. Additionally, the amount of energy that the planet receives is only slightly higher than what Earth gets, only about 10% more energy, which might explain why the space Dwarves have to live underground in their mountain homes. They don’t tan well.

What is really awesome about this discovery is that Kepler 452b is older than Earth. It has been circling its star in the habitable zone for about 6 billions years, and that is plenty of time for not just life, but advanced life to form. For right now there is no way to confirm if the planet is actually habitable or not. Remember Mars is also in our sun’s “goldilocks” zone, and it is a rocky barren world, but this is an amazing step forward in exo-planetary science.

All this was discovered using the Kepler Space Telescope. Our new favorite floating planet hound was launched in 2009. With sophisticated and very sensitive equipment it measures the light coming from distant stars and makes note of fractional decreases in that light as a world orbits in front of that star. Finding possible Earth-like planets is the trickiest as their size and relatively close orbits make them the hardest to observe. It then uses a very complicated set of computers and computations -which we of course understand but feel it best not to go into right now- to determine the size and distance of the planet to the star. By measuring both the mass and size of any planet, NASA can then try to calculate its density and from that try to estimate what it is made out of, of rock, water, or gas. Scientists have a pretty good feeling that Kepler 452b is rocky.

NASA also announced 11 more Earth-like candidates that have yet to be confirmed. So far the number of confirmed exo-planets is 1,030. There are still a lot more worlds to map and a lot more questions to be answered. Like will our new Dwarven neighbors be friendly? Could we communicate with them? Are they already dead, annihilated by some sort of dragon-super-weapon of their own making? Is there a also a nearby planet of Elves that they have a grudge with? What is up with the beards, is it biological or simple a hipster fashion?

Then again, maybe the planet is not full or dwarves, but Ewoks, or Tellarites? And most importantly, what should we name Kepler 452? Let us know what you think in the comments below.


Image courtesy: https://www.nasa.gov/press-release/nasa-kepler-mission-discovers-bigger-older-cousin-to-earth

Marvel never quite knew what to do with Hank Pym in the comics. The man changed alter-egos more often than the Hulk changed purple pants. So maybe it is not a surprise that for the movie version they went with petty-thief, Scott Lang, to be the cinematic universe’s Ant-Man. After all, he is a sympathetic character who has yet to show any history of spousal abuse. Yet regardless of who is under the helmet, the powers of Ant-Man remain the same, and if you think the ability to shrink and talk with ants is weird now, hold onto your thorax because the science gets a whole lot weirder.

Since we here at NYRD Labs have yet to see what explanation the movie has to offer for the miraculous powers of Paul Rudd, and we mean besides the spell he casts on us with those dreamy eyes, we have to rely on the comic book source material to start our fantastic voyage into the science of miniaturization. By the way, that last sentence was a pun, ask you parent to explain it.

Size-Shifting
In the comics, Pym and Lang shrink and grow due to their exposure to Pym particles. This is a fictional particle that basically shunts the mass of an object from one dimension of space to another. Thus, when Ant-Man wants to shrink down he moves his mass to a different dimension, decreasing his physicality in this one, and maybe creating some kind of freaky ball of headless mass in the other. When Pym becomes Giant Man or Goliath or Yellow Jacket -he has had some identity issues over the years- he takes mass from this extra dimension to increase his size.

Surprisingly, there is a force that might be used to help humans gain or lose mass. You may have heard of it. It’s called the Higgs-Boson particle. Jim Kakalios explains the physics behind this idea much better than we can at NYRD Laboratories, but the cliff note version goes like this: The Higgs-Boson is an elementary particle that was discovered back in 2012, and allows scientists to explore the Higgs Field. Think of this field like a tasty wall of Jello. Some particles are able to pass through it, and come out the other side with very little gelatin residue, if none at all. Thus, they would have less mass. However, other particles get stuck in the Jello, and move slowly through it, coming out encased in goo. They would have more mass. However, even this example is a bit simplistic and misleading -insert Bill Cosby joke. Just because a particle has more mass does not mean that it is larger, just denser.

We can think of a Pym particle like the Higgs-Boson, but for some reason the Pym Field is able to reduce the physical size of particles that passes through it, not the mass. Really, that is an important distinction, because part of Ant-Man’s power is his increased strength relative to his size. If Pym or Lang were to lose mass as they shrank they would be even more fragile than their insect namesakes. So, Ant-Man would need to be able to shrink in size but not lose too much mass, and that would help explain how he keeps the strength of a normal human, even when he is an inch and a half high.

Unfortunately, most atoms are uniformed in size. They are governed by a set of constants such as the mass and charge of the electron and Planck’s constant. Dr. Pym would need to find a way to overcome these restrictions if he really wanted to shrink all his atoms down to the size of a dime. Nerdist sat down with Dr. Spiros Michalakis, a quantum physicist at Caltech, and science adviser to the movie Ant-Man. Dr. Michalakis seemed reluctant to give too much away but he did hint that we should think of it like satellites above Earth, some of which probably say Stark Enterprises on them. Since the electron cloud and the atom nucleus are one system, you could increase the mass of the electrons and decrease their orbits, or what is called their Bohr’s radius. This would shrink the atom, but allow it to keep the same relative potential energy. What we are really saying is that it would be theoretically possible, but let’s just say for right now, in comparison, Thor is looking less farfetched.

That is mainly because there are a multitude of problems that come along with this idea of quantum shrinking. First of all, Pym and Lang would not be able to breathe. Just because their own atoms have shrunk down, does not mean that the atoms in the air particles have. In essence the oxygen around them would be too big to breathe. They physically could not fit it in their lungs. Lungs at such small sizes are impractical. In fact, ants themselves breathe through openings in their abdomens called spiracles, which is much more efficient at smaller sizes.

Ant-Man would also have a problem with overheating. When we do activity and sweat, our bodies heat up. Thankfully our skin is a large organ spread out over our entire body. If you were to stretch out the skin of the average adult, it be about 22 square feet and weigh 8 pounds. Blood vessels all over your body are constricting and opening to regulate your temperature and because your skin is so massive it has a lot of surface area to work with in terms of heat dissipation. Heat can be distributed and removed more efficiently over the large area of your skin. When you shrink, you lose a lot of space for that excess heat to go. It’s probably why you don’t see ants running sprint races. At ant-like sizes poor Paul Rudd might get overheated even after only one lovable but zany antic.

Lastly, but most importantly, When Pym and Lang shrink their density increases. Shrinking down to their size would mean they would have the equivalent density of a dwarf star, which is a lot of matter compacted into a small area. Essentially, Ant-Man would become so heavy he would literally fall through the Earth, pavement, dirt, the Earth’s crust, etc. They planet not be able to physically hold the weight, let alone whatever poor ant Lang choses to ride on. Gravity would pull him down quicker than the box office ratings of Green Lantern.

The movie will explain these problems away by saying that the suit that Lang wears is able to provide oxygen, regulate body heat, and who knows what else. Mostly, because a movie of Paul Rudd making cute comments as he slides further and further down through the Earth would probably make for a dull movie, or at the very least an Adam Sandler movie.

Talking with Ants
Even more interesting is the potential ways Lang and Pym could communicate with the ants. Again, we at NYRD Labs are not sure how the movie will explain this power, but we can take a few guesses. Ironically, of all of Paul Rudd’s new found powers, including how he can keep his hair so smooth and silky looking even during action scenes, this is one is the least farfetched.

Ants do talk to each other. In fact, they follow orders just like good little soldiers. Ants scrape their legs across their abdomens to create sounds which they use to communicate with other ants. British and Spanish scientists placed 4mm microphones inside the nest of 400 red ants, because in Europe ants have no right to privacy. What they discovered was that the sounds created varied depending on what was going on. The scientists were even able to play sounds back to the ants and watch them respond. Any sound made by the queen usually caused an en masse reaction: march, attack, etc.

All Lang would have to do would be to reproduce the queen’s sounds to get armies of ants to obey his commands. Unfortunately, he would also need a full vocabulary of commands and words, and we have been experimenting on ants for years and we still don’t know how you tell an ant to fly in formation or spin a coin. Admittedly, we have not moved very far pass the magnifying glass/sun test, but we are applying for more funding.

Additionally, Ant-Man would need to create chemical pheromones in order to identify himself to any ants he would like to control. Each colony uses different chemicals to mark themselves, like flags on a battlefield. We are not being cute with that analogy either, that’s Paul Rudd’s job, ants literally have wars between themselves, much like humans. That is why it would be so important for Ant-Man to mark himself with the correct pheromones before trying to communicate with an unknown colony of ants. They might mistake him for an enemy soldier and attack him rather than help him.

Our Findings
All and all, Ant-Man may not be the best known member of the Avengers, but he is no less formidable. His size shifting powers along with his increased strength and agility mean that he can walk right up to people and sock them in the nose before they even realize he is there. It is only a bonus he can talk with ants and use their own flight and tunneling abilities to move quickly though heavily guarded areas. Shrinking to smaller and smaller sizes means that Ant-Man might even have to potential to reach the quantum level where he could potentially mess with the laws of the universe, and then things would get really freaky, but we are personally hoping the movie is not going to go in that direction.

Sufficed to say, we here at NYRD Laboratories cannot wait to see this superhero portrayed on the big screen. We will be there on opening night, even if the theater is sold out. We have ways of sneaking into places. So, if you feel a slight tickle on your shoulder while in the theater, please do not swat at it. It might be once of our scientists just trying to get a better view of the screen.

LAST UPDATED: 12/15/15

Captain’s log, stardate 147.15

After a nine year mission we have finally reached our destination, the dwarf planet Pluto. We are more than 3 billion miles from Earth and moving more than 30,000 miles per hour, which means we only have a very brief window which to study the icy ball which has taken so long for us to reach. We are also finding that we must be alert, as even the smallest of debris could severely impair our mission and destroy our craft. However, the crew is in good spirits. My first officer has even grown a beard for the occasion. Personally, I think it looks a bit hipster, but he says that it’s “in” now with the kids.

These Are the Voyages
After almost ten years the NASA probe New Horizons reached Pluto early in the morning on Tuesday, July 14, 2015. At its closest point the probe came within 7,750 miles of the dwarf planet’s surface. That is the distance from New York to Mumbai. The New Horizon is the first ever craft to explore Pluto, and it makes Pluto the most distant object to ever be explored thoroughly by humans. This mission is the capstone to NASA’s exploration of our solar system. Humans have now studied all of the major nine bodies that orbit our son, as well as a few other bodies, such as the dwarf planets Ceres and Vesta in the Asteroid Belt.

Due to the immense technical requirements of studying and sending data back to Earth from 3 billion miles away, New Horizons can only take pictures or conduct scientific research, but not do both simultaneously. Even once the probe has collected the data it will take 16 months to send the full cache of data back to NASA, ten years worth of information.

The pictures that New Horizons has sent back so far are simply stunning, but the data that it has collected will be invaluable, and not just for furthering our understanding of Pluto, proto-planets, and the Kupier Belt, but for advancing NASA’s mission to put humans on Mars. Every new piece of information we learn brings us closer to the stars, both figuratively and literally. New Horizons has so far given us the most clear pictures of Pluto we have ever seen. Previous to these photos all we ever had were blurry, splotched images taken by Hubble.

A Class P World
Pluto, the former ninth planet of the solar system, is made up of rock, water ice, and frozen nitrogen. So far the New Horizons probe has discovered that the dwarf is bigger than expected, confirming that it is the largest object in the Kupier Belt, even if Eris is denser. However, don’t get your hopes up, it is still classified as a dwarf planet. If you don’t like it, you can always send more angry tweets to Neil deGrasse Tyson. It won’t change anything, but maybe it will make you feel better. What is amazing is that preliminary data may show that there is geological activity going on through some process on the dwarf planet, which is billions of miles from the Sun. That would have some amazing implications for exo-geology. We have also confirmed that Pluto has a thin atmosphere which is capable of bending light. Not that it matters as much on the farthest reaches of the solar system where our own sun looks like nothing more than another distant star in the sky. We have also found that the planet is leaking nitrogen into space, at a faster rate than scientists predicted. This also seems to imply that Pluto might have a geological way of replenishing the nitrogen from within its own crust.

Pluto has five moons that we know of, and two of those moons were only discovered after New Horizons launched in January 2006. There could be more, which we have yet to discover, but that is both exciting and scary. If New Horizons were to impact with an unknown Plutonian moon, we would have no idea what happened to it.

Set Course…
On a more sentimental note, New Horizons is also carrying the ashes of Clyde Tombaugh aboard. He was the man who discovered Pluto in 193o, and put to rest theories about a mysterious Planet X orbiting out beyond Neptune. His children were also in attendance on Tuesday for the eventful moment when New Horizons made its flyby of the dwarf planet.

This probe is just another in a recent string of accomplishments for NASA, from the Curiosity rover to the Messenger probe. The space organization will look to use this to help springboard its success to even greater heights, the ultimate goal being a manned mission to Mars.

The New Horizons is going too fast to make orbit around Pluto, but it will have a few days to collect data and incredible pictures. It will also give us our first glimpse of the dark side of Pluto, let’s hope there are no alien civilizations hiding on the other side biding their time until they can invade, not that we’re saying that is a possibility… but you never know.

Afterwards the New Horizons will be off into the Kupier Belt following in the footsteps of the Voyager probes. Some estimates say that this most current probe could last for another twenty years, taking readings of our farthest asteroid belt before maybe even making it into interstellar space. I guess we will just have to wait and see what new exciting findings the New Horizons will have in store as it boldly goes where no man has gone before, literally.

End Captain’s Log


Sources: http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/newhorizons/main/index.html
Sources: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/15/science/space/nasa-new-horizons-spacecraft-reaches-pluto.html

The words of the Stark family are pretty straightforward. Unlike the other great houses they don’t “roar” or “not sow” or whatever it is the Tully’s do… swim, we’re assuming… Instead, the Stark words are a call to action and a reminder to never forget what waits just beyond the Wall. Yet, despite the ominous family motto, most of their southern and even northern cousins tend to forget that winter is indeed coming, and of all the fantastical elements in Game of Thrones, this denial of the inevitable is perhaps one of the most understandable. After all, it is a crime we are all guilty of in one form or another, and the people in Kings Landing and in other places have their hands full with worries other than snow and ice zombies.

Watchers on the Wall
The only group of people in all of Westeros who take the threat of the White Walkers seriously is the Night’s Watch. This chaste order of outcasts was established to maintain the Wall and “guard the realms of men.” The things they have been charged to guard against, White Walkers -or the Others- have mostly been relegated to fable and childhood nightmares. The Long Night occurred thousands of years in the past and most people in Westeros believe the tales to be nothing more than fantasy, like ghosts, goblins, or grumpkins. So even as the order urgently calls for more men and supply their pleas go unanswered by the great nations of the world.

It is unknown how many members of the Night’s Watch agree that the coming winter will bring a return of the White Walkers, but after the events of the past several seasons, we could probably agree that it would be at least 97%. Coincidentally, that is also the percentage of scientists that agree that climate change is real and it is happening. Like the Night’s Watch, our own chaste order of outcasts could also be considered a sort of “watcher on the wall.” It is their job to range the forests that lie north of all that is known. They are often forced to combat uncivilized wildling ideas in their quest to keep us safe, and worst of all they are seen as a necessary and minor annoyance by the ruling and the powerful of our land.

Perhaps, the allegory is a stretch, and George R. R. Martin never intended the connection to be made between his masterpiece work and the looming threat of global warming. However, authorial intent aside, the similarities are striking. His seminal work is based on an invisible looming force of change that is ultimately connected to intense and strange weather. The coming threat is slow and unbelievable, yet it threatens the known world, while politicians and armies squabble away unaffected and ultimately resistant to the knowledge of the approaching chaos.

You Know Nothing, Jon Snow
The threat in the fictional world is both staggering and real. Neither the Night’s Watch nor the audience can deny the existence of the White Walkers, but neither can we fault the Lannisters or the Tyrells for their willful ignorance. There is plenty we can fault them for, but maybe not for this. According to papers published by the Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law, it is not simply a matter of “knowledge illiteracy” that stops a rational understanding of science fact. Most people unwittingly shape their world view and their identity based upon a multitude of ideologies, especially politics. Thus, when a person of an opposing view point presents arguments and even cold icy facts that prove something like White Walkers, certain people will tend to reject it and employ a confirmation bias. They will analyze the problem and extract the details that strengthen their already existing world view. In other words, people shape facts to confirm their opinions, instead of the other way around.

Even worse, confirmation bias seems to only get stronger with technology, like the Internet, where people can find like-minded individuals to shelter and grow their opinions from any opposition. In this way, we don’t really get a debate, so much as two separate jousting matches where each opponent is basically facing a straw man. Each knight may sometimes briefly pause in between charges to glare across a wide field at the opposing side, but there is never really any meaningful engagement or change.

Maybe where this analogy falls apart is the fact that the reluctance of the belief for the humans of Game of Thrones is almost understandable. With medieval level education and slow lines of bird-driven communication and rumor, they have the excuse of ignorance to ignore the fact that supposed make-believe monsters are in fact coming for them on the winds of a long winter chill. People in Dorn or the Riverlands, have no evidence to prove the existence of the Others. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for us and our looming threat. The evidence is all around us, and mounting faster than snow in Winterfell.

The Rains of Castamere
CO2 has passed the 400 part per million mark, which is the highest level since it has been in over 800,000 years, which only slightly longer ago than when Martin began writing his book series. Since the year 1900 temperatures around the world have increased almost a full degree, with the majority of the increase happening between 1970 and today. Even more damning, it is only the lower levels of the atmospheres that are increasing in temperature, thus confirming that it isn’t our sun that is getting hotter. If our current temperature change were due to solar activity then we would see a uniformed temperature increase throughout all levels of the atmosphere. The lower levels of the atmosphere is where the majority of CO2 is becoming trapped, and humans are responsible for 2,000 gigatons of it since 1870.

Much like the great houses of Game of Thrones, our own leaders have made it clear by their actions that they have more important things to worry about. Washington D. C. may not have the Sept of Baelor or the Red Keep, but the political maneuvering is no less real. Elections, wars, policy and cultural debates, sports, gun violence, and racism, we have no shortage of immediate problems that require attention. Climate change is nothing but a vague wind blowing down from the north. It seems like nothing to worry about, and nothing that can harm us, especially when there is so much around that can do us real harm. This kind of attitude is often classified as Optimism Bias, which is the belief that we, as individuals, are in less danger than those around us.

Optimism bias is why we think we will never get cancer or be in a plane crash. It’s why we think bad things only happen to other people and Sean Bean characters, and why we believe that any climate change problems will ultimately be a problem for the next generation and not us. Basically, if we can’t see the White Walkers than we do not believe they will do us any harm. That is just how our brain works, because our mental space is only so big.

Human beings only have so much concern they can fit in their head, whether it be about getting the kids to soccer practice, not getting fired from work, or making sure you are not shot to death by the musicians at your uncle’s wedding. Regardless of the reasons, it means we prioritize threats to our happiness and immediate well-being over future ones that seem distant and uncontrollable.

You Either Win or You Die
In 2011, 17 US citizens were killed worldwide in terrorist attacks, but 596,339 American were killed by heart disease, yet when it comes to issues that Americans care about from their elected officials most people will focus on terrorism as opposed to the vague fear of heart disease despite one being noticeably more likely than the other. It is also worth noting that approximately 600,000 deaths occurred worldwide as a result of weather-related natural disasters in the 90s, but again that is a statistic connected to a vague and uncontrollable menace. Our minds do not like thinking about problems we feel are out of our ability to influence. Our brain does not like to deal with problems we feel powerless to stop. That’s why we call it, an “Act of the God.” So we ignore them, and that means even people who acknowledge global warming may not see it as a threat. According to Scientific American, only 33% of the American general public believes climate change to be a serious problem, as opposed to 77% of scientists who say that is a serious problem.

Our leaders may not lose their head, but they know that in the Game of Elections you either win or you lose your pension. So, when every political move you make or enemy you create could mean your very real and immediate end in public office, it’s hard to push to for any real change against some far off threat, especially when their own constituency doesn’t even acknowledge it as a problem. Yet, rest assured, the night is dark and full of carbon dioxide, because if trends continue like this, by the end of this century Earth will be 4.7 F to 8.6 F degrees hotter (2.6 C to 4.8 C). The oceans will be a meter higher, and one third of all ocean life will be extinct. Unfortunately, unlike the Night’s Watch we will not be able to beat back our foes with weapons and dragon glass.

We like to talk to about George R. R. Martin’s epic tale in the light of our own past, equating situations, characters, and happenings to their historic counterparts, such as the events of the English War of the Roses. However, what if A Song of Ice and Fire and its subsequent HBO series is is not so much a nod to history but a true warning of what is to come? Any change will take all of us working together, and forcing this issue into prominence on the national stage. We will need to have an even greater resolve and a greater capacity for sacrifice and ingenuity, because our Wall will not stand forever.

“A long time ago in a galaxy far far away” is a lot like saying “once upon a time.” It signals to us that we are heading on a journey that takes place in a different place where we will need to suspend our belief in reality and accept a world of magic, sorcery, and even the belief that George Lucas can still write a Star Wars script. Yet, how much of the impossible must we accept? Is the Force real? Did Han really shoot first? Are we actually seeing the events of a different and distant galaxy? That last one just might be the most fantastical of the bunch. What is more likely is that Star Wars takes place in a different universe, one governed by  physical laws that are completely different than our own.

There is nothing more exciting than Luke Skywalker screaming down that Death Star trench, Darth Vader hot on his heels, or Lando Calrissian spinning the Millennium Falcon through death defying maneuvers as he avoid star destroyers and TIE fighters over Endor. However, as any scientist can tell you, space battles like that are not possible, at least not in our galaxy.

The Darkside of Dogfighting
Star Wars dogfighting was based on World War II dogfighting, right down to the distinctive shape of the X-wings. The aerodynamic X-wings would work very well in an atmosphere, but would be irrelevant in space, almost impractical. Even the way the starfighters move are similar to atmospheric fighter craft. They wing over, dive, roll, and rocket around on full thrusters as if they were fighting wind or gravity. They even do a barrel roll, though that’s not what you think it is.

In truth, Newton’s First Law, an object either remains at rest or continues to move at a constant velocity, unless acted upon by an external force, would mean that an X-wing or TIE fighter would not need to keep their engines thrusting them forward the entire time. It would be a waste of fuel. Unfortunately, that also means they would be moving in only one direction. To make any turns or maneuvers they would need precision maneuvering jets all over their spacecraft, or some sort of internal gyroscopic system, and even then their turns would be lazier as their momentum kept them moving forward even as they rotated their craft along a different point.

Newton’s First Law doesn’t just apply to the spacecraft. It also applies to the pilots. Thankfully, TIE fighter pilots seem to be strapped in tight, because if they weren’t their bodies would want to keep moving in the same forward direction, even as their craft began moving in an opposite one. If not for the straps, the first time a TIE fighter made even a lazy turn the pilot would run the risk of being rammed against the bulkhead, like a brain being concussed against the inside of your skull. Canonically, X-wings have an internal atmosphere, oxygen and inertial dampeners, though to what limit that is never specified in the movies. It’s why Luke and the rest of Rogue Squadron do not have to wear respirators when they are piloting, unlike their TIE fighter counterparts, who have to wear full survival suits. Similarly, if it wasn’t for the artificial gravity inside the larger starships like star destroyers or Mon Calamari cruisers, crew and equipment would be smashing against the walls like Ewoks at a Wookiee frat part. As an example, in our current spacecraft, who for some reason have failed to master the concept of “artificial gravity,” astronauts need to be strapped in for any maneuver they make, no matter how tiny.

On the plus side, Newton’s First Law also means that a fighter craft could rotate independently of its lateral or vertical movement. So an X-wing could do a full thruster burn, then turn 90 degrees and strafe an Imperial frigate without ever losing significant forward momentum, of course it also means that they would be traveling on a predictable trajectory for Imperial gunners to target, but that is actually a whole separate problem.

In atmosphere-based dogfights, the longer you stay moving in one direction, or if you are moving in a predictable manner, the more likely it is that you will wind up full of bullet holes faster than you can say “Grandma Yoda’s Famous Applesauce.” Yet, at certain times in space combat predictability of movement would be unavoidable. Gizmodo has an incredibly interesting article on the subject where they talk more in-depth about orbits and trajectories, but sufficed to say there are only a limited number of ways a starship could enter into a solar system or make orbit around a planet, and we can predict them based upon mathematical equations.

Gravity and Hokey Religions
Star Wars even acknowledges this, as traveling through hyperspace requires an intense amount of calculation and precision or any object with a large gravitational mass, such as a planet, star, or blackhole, can forcibly pull a ship out of hyperspace or prevent them from entering. To put that another way, it ain’t like dusting crops. This means that fleets entering into star systems do so along predictable routes that can be mined, guarded, or even just observed. Even worse fleets guarding a planet or solar system will be stuck in predictable and calculable orbits.

Any battles taking place near a planet or moon-sized space station would, ironically, need to follow at least one adage of atmospheric dogfighting rules. The higher you are from the center of the gravitational mass, the more advantage you have. Fighting from a higher orbital path down to a lower orbital path would give you a significant leg-up, literally. Essentially, much like Obi-Wan, you would have the high ground, and the force of gravity to help in any attack you make against a lower orbital path, which is important.

Newton’s Second Law, the vector sum of the external forces F on an object is equal to the mass m of that object multiplied by the acceleration vector a of the object: F = ma. In other words, if you fire a proton torpedo at a Nebulon B-frigate, but it misses and continues toward the planet below, the missile’s trust plus the force of gravity acting on it, means that your small meter long projectile could impact the planet below with the force of several nuclear blasts. And we mean that literally, as proton torpedoes most likely utilize radiation.

In space, explosives are useless. Fires burn out before they even begin. Radiation is more effective as it can travel through a vacuum. Yet, the most effective weapon is actually Newton’s equation of force. If you get an object going fast enough, even if it is small, it can do an excessive amount of damage upon impact, and in the void of space where there is no air friction or terminal velocity limit (just the lightspeed limit,) a magnetized railgun fired at the right velocity could do a heck of a lot of damage against a ship’s hull. For anyone who has seen Gravity, as poor as some of its science was, they did a good job of highlighting the dangers of even small space debris moving at incredible speeds.

A More Elegant Weapon
Unfortunately, rail guns or even projectile missiles have a possible drawback in Newton’s Third Law, when one body exerts a force on a second body, the second body simultaneously exerts a force equal in magnitude and opposite in direction on the first body, or every action has an equal and opposite reaction. So when you fire a railgun, or a missile or even a laser in space, there will be an equal amount of force that presses back on your ship, changing your heading or slowing your trajectory. However, with lasers that opposite force would be significantly insignificant.

Of course, lasers have other drawbacks. Mainly, lasers are invisible, so there will be no spectacular light show, like you see in Star Wars, and no cool laser sounds, since space is a vacuum. Also, lasers only stay focused for so long. If you fire a laser at a distant target by the time it gets there your concentrated beam of death could look like nothing more than a flashlight to your intended target. That is because light spreads out over distances and even more so if it has to penetrate an atmosphere. Still for close range battles, it is a pretty good weapon, but close range in space combat is a relative term.

The Lightside of Space Warfare
Star Wars depicts battles in small areas with tightly packed swarms of ships duking it out, capital ships firing broadside turbolaser blasts into one another. It is very exciting, but the truth is that with such a tight space and no room to maneuver it is more likely that all the ships would wind up crashing into one another if they were actually that close. Real space battles will need to be fought at extreme ranges, with no visual contact whatsoever. Even worse, when you are aiming your giant cannons you would not be able to aim directly at your target. You would need to aim in front of it, using math to predict its course and trajectory, because the target you would be seeing on your screens would only be a shadow of where the ship had been previously, even if it was only light-seconds away.

For example, the light of the Sun, which is about 92,960,000 miles (149,600,000 km) away,  takes eight minutes to reach Earth. That means the sun we see in our sky everyday, is no longer where we see it. Its light is eight minutes old and the actual sun has moved eight minutes along its given path. And the distance from the sun to the Earth, one AU, is not an extreme distance in space. Even the light from Venus takes 134 seconds on average to reach Earth, and Venus is only about 162 million miles (261 million km) away. In a life and death space battle those seconds could mean the difference between a fatal blow and a near miss.

These distances would also wreak havoc with communications, even if we knew how to send them at the speed of light. Orders would have to be given in advance and then individual captains and commanders would have to be trusted to know their part in the attack plan. Admiral Piett could not call Vader in the middle of a battle to get additional instructions, even if he did not fear being choked to death for his failures.

In the end, space battles would more realistically resemble nineteenth century naval battles. You would know your enemy was coming, you would sit off from each other, each hoping to calculate the right avenue of attack. Fighter craft would less resemble mustang warplanes and probably closer resemble spheres or cubes. A starfighter would probably have jets on every side of it, so that it could turn one way or another, with the pilot rotating inside the craft. This means that the pilot could orient himself however he or she wanted independent of the ship’s exterior and fire lasers that were mounted on all sides of the spacecraft. In the end, it would probably be easier to have droids control fighter craft, instead of just riding on the top of them and screaming when they got hit by an errant laser shot.

Still, it is fun to suspend our knowledge of science and physics, much as we do when we say “once upon a time,” but maybe with Star Wars it would be more accurate to say, “a long time ago in non newtonian-universe far far away.”