Television Review: The Orville

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Seth MacFarlane, best known for Family Guy and Ted, but also the executive producer of the recent Cosmos series has a new live-action science fiction show this year that is described as a “love letter” to Star Trek. This is The Orville.

I’ve waited for a few episodes in to do a review of this one. I don’t like to judge a TV show by its first episode or two. Indeed, it often takes a whole season for a show to find its feet—a phenomenon also known at Early Installment Weirdness. But now that we’re five episodes in, I feel that I can make a fair assessment.

Imagine the first two seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation with occasional sitcom jokes. That’s The Orville. This is, on the whole, a good thing.

My rating: 4 out of 5.

This is no accident, either. The Orville is very consciously styled on The Next Generation. We have a robot science officer, a super-strong alien security officer, a pair of ex-lovers in the command chairs (though in this case, it’s the captain and first officer for comedic effect), and the overall look and feel of the sets is clearly inspired by the Enterprise-D. And like classic Trek, the ship both explores strange new worlds and also tackles weighty real-world issues (albeit sometimes better than others).

MacFarlane himself takes the starring role in this show as Captain Ed Mercer, but the ensemble cast is strong all around. And the behind the scenes talent is just as strong. He’s even had big Star Trek names directing episodes, including Jonathan Frakes (Will Riker), Robert Duncan McNeill (Tom Paris), and Brannon Braga (longtime Trek producer).

And I’m not kidding about the Star Trek comparison. I wrote before with Star Trek: Discovery that I miss the optimistic, exploratory science fiction that Star Trek long embodied. You don’t see enough of that anymore, but The Orville does it as well as Star Trek did a lot of the time, and the way things have been the last few years, dare I say it, The Orville is a better Star Trek than Star Trek right now. Despite blistering critical reviews, I am with the large majority of the audience who really like it.

My biggest criticism of this show is the sitcom-y jokes. They’re not plentiful enough or, honestly, funny enough to make it a true parody, while they feel out of place on a show that otherwise feels so much like the actual Star Trek, leaving the show feeling like it’s stuck in the middle.

On the whole, though, the storytelling is very good. There are some low points, of course; the characterization of Lt. Commander Bortus’s male-chauvinist planet of Moclus as a parody of conservatives was just too Anvilicious for me to take. But on the other hand, there are some brilliant high points. For example, Alara’s character arc in the second episode as an inexperienced officer thrust into a command position was really well done, not to mention the punchline at the end of that episode, which was easily the funniest of the whole series so far.

There are some problems, to be sure, but I really hope The Orville can find its niche and succeed as a show. The ratings so far are comparable to Star Trek: Enterprise and the later seasons of Voyager, and with just a little tweaking, it could become a truly great show that fills a void that has lasted for too long on television; and so, I wish Seth MacFarlane and everyone else on the show good luck.

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Elon Musk Wants to Send People to Mars…in 2025!

On Friday, at the International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide, Australia, Elon Musk of PayPal and Tesla Motors fame announced his plans for the future of his rocket company, SpaceX. And it’s pretty epic.

SpaceX has come a long way—from having trouble getting off the ground a few years ago to making regular supply deliveries to the International Space Station and satellite launches by last year. But even when Elon spoke a year ago, SpaceX had been suffering failure after failure at its self-appointed task of landing a rocket booster after launch. This year, they’ve had 16 successful landings in a row, and Elon is ready to dream bigger.

The Falcon Heavy, with triple the power of the current Falcon 9, is set for its first test flight in a few months, but this is not the endgame. On Friday, Elon announced his new project, one that will eventually serve the purposes of the Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy, and much more. It doesn’t have an official name yet, but he calls it the BFR (short for Big %#@$ing Rocket).

The BFR will be the largest rocket ever built by far, including NASA’s upcoming Space Launch System (SLS). 9 meters (30 feet) in diameter, 106 meters (348 feet) tall, with a payload to Low Earth Orbit of 150 metric tons reusable, and 250 metric tons expendable—twice the power of the Saturn V—and it will of course land on its engines.

The upper stage will be a configurable, vaguely shuttle-like spaceship with a pressurized volume larger than an Airbus A380, capable of carrying 100 people fully supplied to Mars. And that is exactly what Elon wants to do. He mapped out an ambitious, “aspirational” timeline to launch cargo missions to Mars in 2022 and manned missions—and colonists, not just explorers—in 2024. With flight time, he means to put humans on Mars in 2025.

(Seriously, parts of Elon’s talk made me think he read Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars and said, “Let’s do that.”)

Is this possible? I have to say yes. Elon has mapped it out and believes he can pay for the BFR with Falcon launches, and they’ve already started manufacturing. It’s a real plan now, not just a pipe dream.

Will they make it to Mars in 2025? Probably not. Will they make in 2027? Probably not. SpaceX has had loads of setbacks in the past. Will they make it in 2030? I don’t know. Maybe. But the important question is, will they make it there before NASA? I’d bet good money that they can and will. NASA’s track record over the past 15 years if much worse—not because of quality, but because of money and bureaucracy.

Elon Musk wants the BFR to fly in 2022. NASA wants SLS to fly in 2019, but crewed flights won’t start until possibly 2023. Elon wants to go to Mars in 2024, but there’s a good chance he’ll miss that deadline. Meanwhile, NASA has been doing a decent job for the past decade of keeping a target date to go to Mars in the early 2030s, but the fact is, the funding doesn’t exist to do it…pretty much ever. And personally, I’d bet good money that either the Falcon Heavy or the BFR will replace SLS, maybe even before it gets a single manned flight off the ground.

And that’s not the only possible use of the BFR. A 9-meter diameter means that it could launch a telescope bigger than the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope as a single piece instead of NASA’s crazy folding design. It could launch space station components far larger than NASA can. And in what I think might be an even wilder plan than his Mars aspirations, Elon says that an entire fleet of BFRs could be used for a commercial “airline” service to fly anywhere on Earth in under an hour.

Bottom line: this timeline is wildly optimistic, but the fact that Elon Musk wants to put humans on Mars in 2025 and has a remotely plausible plan to do it puts him so far ahead of everyone else on this planet, including every major government, that it’s just ridiculous. But maybe he’s just the kick in the pants the rest of the world needs to get serious about space again.

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Television Review: Star Trek: Discovery

Against a beige background featuring the Starfleet logo, the words Star Trek are written in red with the word Discovery written in black underneath.

Sunday night marked the first return of Star Trek to television in 12 years with the release of the pilot of Star Trek: Discovery. Star Trek has always been my favorite science fiction franchise. (Yes, better than Star Wars. I regret nothing!) I absolutely love what I call “strange new worlds” sci-fi that Star Trek exemplifies, and it is a franchise that has sadly fallen by the wayside in recent years. Despite a trio of reboot movies, which average out to be pretty good, I like the original Trek timeline better, and I really want to see the serial format again instead of yet another big action plot.

I was really excited when the new Star Trek: Discovery series was announced—and then less excited as I learned the details, but I still watched the pilot, and I liked it. It was more of a dark, Deep Space Nine-style wartime Star Trek, but I know from experience that that can be pretty good, too.

Short version: in the year 2256, nine years before Captain Kirk’s five-year mission begins, the Federation is locked in a cold war with the Klingons, who haven’t been seen in person for 100 years and are known only as brutal and intractable warriors. Commander Michael Burnham (a female Michael), First Officer of the USS Shenzhou, who happens to be Spock’s adoptive sister, encounters a Klingon warrior on an Object of Unknown Origin and semi-accidentally kills him in a scuffle. It turns out the Klingons are back, which is bad news for the Federation.

On its merits, I give it 3.5 out of 5. Decent, but not great.

Now, for the deeper problems.

There were a lot of nasty rumors of executive meddling swirling around this release. I won’t bother digging up the links because they honestly aren’t that important, but I personally heard, among other things, that they were moving the show from the original timeline to the reboot timeline (False), that they replaced a lot of the actors and writers halfway through production with choices the fans disliked (I don’t know), and that they changed things up to unnecessarily politicize it (Mostly False). It is true that the Klingons we see are a weird, breakaway, purist religious sect and have had a serious makeup redesign…Yeah, there are some issues. But I really don’t think the show deserved the rumors that were being told about it.

No, this was not the show’s great failing. In my opinion, and that of many other fans, the greatest drawback of Star Trek: Discovery is that it’s available exclusively on CBS’s paid streaming service, All Access. In other words, it’s not available on broadcast, nor is it available on any generic paid platform like iTunes or Amazon Prime, and you instead have to subscribe to a separate service to watch it. (It is on Netflix, but only overseas.)

I suppose CBS All Access is not all that expensive: only $6 per month. But there are also only 15 episodes in a season. (Season lengths have been annoyingly going down for a long time. I remember when 26 episodes per season was standard, then 22, then 20.) If you keep your subscription continuously, that’s $4.80 an episode over the course of the year. For comparison, can buy TV shows on iTunes for $3 an episode in HD. Even so, for most people, it’s probably not a great burden.


But it’s still drastically reducing the fan base that will actually see it! Just because most people can afford to subscribe to All Access doesn’t mean that they will, even among fans—especially since the entire franchise has really been hit-or-miss on quality since Deep Space Nine ended in 1999. There’s not a lot of trust there. CBS All Access only has 2 million subscribers, not all of whom are Trekkies, whereas the last time Star Trek aired on TV with the final season of Enterprise in 2005, it was regularly getting over 3 million viewers. Just like that, they’re cutting in half the ability for a new generation of fans to see one of the most beloved sci-fi franchises of all time.

That is why I fundamentally disagree with the decision to move Star Trek to All Access: not because you have to pay extra to see it or even because it’s a clear moneymaking move, but because hiding the show behind a paywall restricts the audience, ultimately hurting both the franchise and the fan base, even if the wall itself isn’t that high.

Maybe I’m fighting a losing battle here. After all, exclusive online content platforms like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime are the wave of the future. But you know what? I haven’t signed up to any of those, either. It’s funny: I may be a nerdy astrophysicist, but I’m a late adopter when it comes to the latest technology. I didn’t even buy a smartphone until 2016, and that was only because my old flip phone couldn’t handle modern text message protocols. I never spent more than a few minutes a day on Facebook, even at its height, and this blog is the closest thing I have to a real social media presence right now. I’m just not interested in paying for All Access. People who either aren’t tech savvy or who don’t want to bother with so many online subscriptions, like me, aren’t going to get into it.

But even discounting that, I personally have not signed up for All Access to see Star Trek: Discovery for exactly the reason I cited above: too much of the Star Trek produced in this century has been sub-par. To be sure, there were many great moments in Voyager and Enterprise and most recently the excellent Star Trek Beyond, but it’s been a long time since we’ve seen the consistent quality of the TNG and DS9 years. I just don’t trust the studio to put out a quality show that’s worth paying for until I see proof. Once the reviews for a few more episodes come in, I will reevaluate my decision.

Until then, live long and prosper.

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The End of the Cassini Mission

Cassini Saturn Orbit Insertion.jpg

Yesterday morning, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft at Saturn was deorbited into the planet’s atmosphere in the Grand Finale of an epic 20-year mission. Cassini observed Venus, Earth, and Jupiter while it was in transit and has spent the past 13 years orbiting Saturn, taking constant observations of the planet and its moons. Even its fiery demise was not devoid of scientific value. As it made its final descent, Cassini was able to take the first direct measurements of the giant planet’s notoriously enigmatic atmosphere, reporting its finding back to Earth live to the very last second.

I’ve been with this mission not quite from the beginning, but absolutely since its arrival at Saturn. I remember being 14 years old and staying up until 3:00 in the morning of July 1, 2004 to watch the live stream of the original orbital insertion. And this was before YouTube, which feels hard to believe as I write it. If you’re too young to remember (something else that feels weird to write), internet video back then was sketchy at best, unusable at worst. Personally, I remember NASA TV’s online stream being unreliable well into this decade, but I’m happy to say they had worked the kinks out for yesterday morning as I watch the live stream of Cassini’s final act.

It may seem strange to end a mission that took 20 years and cost over $3 billion by crashing the spacecraft, but in fact, this is standard practice. Cassini was out of fuel, so it couldn’t be maneuvered anymore. NASA has strict rules about not contaminating other worlds that could possibly have life on them, even when it’s very unlikely. In fact, they are bound to this by the Outer Space Treaty. That means they don’t want Cassini flying around Saturn, out of fuel and out of control, where it could possibly crash into one of the moons, especially Enceladus, which is known to have liquid water and organic chemicals.

It’s theoretically possible that Saturn could have life in its atmosphere as well, but it’s much less likely, and the heat as Cassini burns up in the atmosphere should do a good job of sterilizing it…probably. Considering how much of the Space Shuttle Columbia made it through reentry, I’m not convinced, but it’s really the best option they have.

In any case, Cassini has been one of NASA’s great successes among its interplanetary missions. It has increased our knowledge of Saturn, its moons, and the entire Outer Solar System by leaps and bounds, all on the computer technology of the early 1990s. It’s sad to see it go, but it’s done a great job, and here’s hoping the next Outer Solar System missions, the Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer and the Europa Clipper, go just as well.

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What If? Rejects #7.2: Kisses

Previous post in this series: Thor’s Hammer

Next post in this series: Nuke it from Orbit!

Q: If you saved a whole life’s worth of kissing and used all of that suction on one single kiss, how much suction force would that single kiss have?

Randall’s response: No response.

My response: Um… I’m not entirely sure what this means, much less why. And how do you measure a kiss? Does duration count? Are we counting all kisses or just kisses on the lips?

Okay, Fermi problem time! We’ll have to make a few assumptions, but I think we can compute a “suction force.”

First, let’s say that we’re taking the average duration of an ordinary kiss for our one super-kiss instead of adding them one after the other. That sounds more in the spirit of the question. We’ll include kisses anywhere on the body, not just the mouth, but based on the wording, that is specifically kisses given, not received. Next, the question said “suction force”. There are two factors that go into the force exerted by a kiss: pressure and area of contact. An open-mouthed kiss will have both greater pressure and greater area of contact than a simple peck, so we’ll have to consider a wide range of both.

Now, how many kisses does the average person give over the course of their life? For that matter, how many kisses does the average person give per day? There’s going to be a big range there, too. For parents with babies, I’m sure it’s a lot. For tweens who are embarrassed by their parents, very few. Hormonal teenagers might not give that many, but they’ll probably rack up a lot of “suction force” when they do.

It will vary with the person, too. Does gender affect the number? Are husbands more likely to kiss their wives, or vice versa? Are mothers more likely to kiss their children than fathers? Are daughters of any age more likely to kiss their parents? Or alternatively, what about personality? Do extraverts give more kisses than introverts? What about nationality? If you’re in Europe, where kissing is a greeting, you might give several times as many kisses as here in America, where we like our personal space (although those are frequently air kisses, which probably shouldn’t count).

Let’s say the average human gives 100,000 kisses in their lifetime. That’s an average of 3.4 kisses per day over 80 years, which is probably good for an order of magnitude estimate. The majority of those will probably be closed-mouthed, so let’s say 10 square centimeters for the average area of contact. And let’s give them an average duration of 1 second. These are very rough numbers, but for a Fermi problem, they only need to be within a factor of 10, so they’re good enough.

Now, what about suction pressure? That’s a bit trickier and can also vary a lot. One important fact to keep in mind is that pressures in the human body rarely go above a couple of PSI, generally less than blood pressure. Any more than that, and you start to tear stuff that you don’t want torn. Since the large majority of kisses probably don’t put a lot of effort into suction, I’m going to lowball it. Let’s say 1 kPa, or about 1/7th of a PSI.

Let’s multiply these numbers together!

100,000 kisses x 0.001 m2 x 1 kPa x 1 s = 100,000 N*s

That’s 100,000 newton-seconds—that is, a suction force of 100,000 newtons (about 20,000 pounds) delivered for a period of 1 second.

Newton-seconds are a measure of momentum and, similarly, a measure of impulse (which happens to be how rocket engines are rated). 100,000 newton-seconds represents the momentum (note that this is different from kinetic energy) of a large car barreling down the highway at 100 miles per hour. It’s also the amount of impulse needed to launch a 10 kilogram satellite into space. Both of those are done by thrusting force, not suction force, and it neglects air resistance, but it gets the idea across. A lifetime of kissing represents a surprisingly large amount of suction. Use it wisely.

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Movie Review: Dunkirk

Dunkirk Film poster.jpg

France, 1940. A British army of 300,000 men is stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk. With the Luftwaffe bearing down on them and not enough naval forces to evacuate, England is desperate to bring just a tenth of them home to defend the homeland against the inevitable German invasion. The call goes out to send every civilian vessel that can cross the English Channel to bring the troops home, and many civilian sailors answer the call. The Royal Air Force sends what reinforcements they can, but they also have to maintain a reserve for when the Luftwaffe comes calling at the Battle of Britain.

Christopher Nolan’s newest film, Dunkirk, tells the harrowing tale of the evacuation of the British Army as only Christopher Nolan can. And I am happy to say that after the mess that was Interstellar, he is back in top form.

My rating 4.5 out of 5.

Dunkirk is a little tricky to follow, I admit, but it’s really masterfully done. It tells the story from three different perspectives over three different time periods in parallel: a week at the Mole (that is, the pier at the beach), where a trio of desperate soldiers are among the many trying to escape the Luftwaffe’s bombardment; a day on the sea, where an older Englishman and two boys take their private boat across the Channel to the beach; and an hour-long battle in the air between a pair of Spitfire pilots and a Luftwaffe bomber. As the movie progresses, all three stories converge in one dramatic moment.

I’m not usually a fan of war movies, but I really liked this film. Even though he’s hit-or-miss, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Christopher Nolan is one of the few true visionaries in this era of sequels and reboots. He manages to tell an engaging story while breaking all the usual rules. You don’t need linear time (this is one of the most non-linear movies I’ve ever seen). You hardly need any dialogue (there’s not much of it). And you don’t need to know the character’s names. (I honestly couldn’t tell you any of them with as little dialogue as there was, but unlike Rogue One, it didn’t detract from the story.) You can just experience the war as it happens, and it feels real enough.

And of course, I couldn’t talk about a Chris Nolan film without mentioning that he once again teamed up with Hans Zimmer for the music. Mr. Zimmer’s music is a constant presence, with almost every track, loud or soft, driven by the rhythm of the ticking clock, giving that much more of a sense of urgency to the story. It’s not as good as the Interstellar soundtrack, which I still consider possibly the best soundtrack of all time; and it’s perhaps not even as good as the Inception soundtrack, but it’s still some of his best work.

Dunkirk is an excellent film in terms of cinematography; it’s an important piece of history, and if you’re interested in either of those things, or you just like war movies, it’s well worth seeing.

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Movie Review: War for the Planet of the Apes

Caesar, with a rifle and Nova behind his back, on a horse with the film's logo and "Witness the End July 14" at the bottom.

The third installment in the latest Planet of the Apes series has come out, and the world has only gotten darker. By the time of War for the Planet of the Apes, Caesar, the genetically modified chimpanzee ruler of the apes, has been fighting a long war with the human survivors of the great plague that wiped out civilization. Now, a brutal human leader known only as the Colonel has found the apes’ hideout and is moving in for a final strike.

That’s how the story starts, but there’s a lot more to it—a complex plot, many references to other films, and thought-provoking questions raised about the difference between human and animal. Overall, I’d say it’s maybe not as good as the first film, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, but better than the second, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and well worth watching.

My rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Spoilers below.

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