Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Your daily dose of "Holy living crap!"


Stolen from Zooillogix, which has become one of my favorite blogs ever since they announced E.O. Wilson's upcoming book, Suck It!

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Saturday, January 19, 2008

Go see Cloverfield

I have never been scared by a monster movie before. It's just not a scary genre. Even the best eventually devolve into logistical exercises: will the military force/secret weapon/overloading powerplant/competing monster be enough to kick the monster's ass, or not? Usually in monster movies you have a ringside seat for the devastation. Ringside is not a scary place to be.

Cloverfield puts you in the ring. For me, it was profoundly unnerving. It does not look or feel like a monster movie. It does not look or feel like a movie at all. It looks and feels like what it purports to be--some poor schmuck's camcorder ride through hell.

In the forward to Dinosaur Tales, Ray Bradbury confesses that he and Ray Harryhausen and their wives once went to see a production of Siegfried just to see Fafnir, the dragon. I went to Cloverfield to see the monster, natch. Only monster has become waaay too familiar and cuddly a word to describe this thing. It's a monster the way things you imagined would come in the night and get you when you were five are monsters. As a reviewer on Ain't It Cool News said, "What you're looking at quite simply registers in your brain as an abomination."

Yuck. Who knows, maybe you'll see it and think it sucks, but I've been out of the theater for almost an hour and the hairs are still up on the back of my neck. I spent the whole drive home expecting to hear/feel ungodly huge footsteps and see flaming cars and pieces of buildings flying through the air. I don't want to go to bed. I haven't been this heebed out by a movie in ages, maybe ever.

In short, I loved it.

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Saturday, January 12, 2008

Quick, grab your brain--before it explodes!

NGC 6543

I am a big fan of big explosions. And I'm not ashamed about it.

I also like to stare into the abyss, and I like having my mind blown by things that are unimaginably old and inconceivably immense. So maybe it was my destiny to work on sauropods. But if I wasn't so attached to dinosaurs, I'd be an astronomer for sure.

Supernovas are good. It's hard to beat a big ole whammy-kablammy. But lately I've been drawn to planetary nebulas. Despite the name, planetary nebulas have nothing to do with planets, they just look a bit like planets through small telescopes, like mine, or the ones around a hundred years ago when they were named. In fact, planetary nebulas are shells of gas blown off over hundreds of thousands or millions of years by the death throes of dying stars. Some of these stars later go whammy-kablammy, which is probably the ultimate cosmic twofer for any observers with a few million years to spend watching. A good candidate for that is Eta Carinae, which has already blown off a sweet planetary nebula that looks like twin mushroom clouds, and which will probably go supernova or hypernova in the next million or so years.

Eta Carinae

One of the best planetary nebulas is NGC 6543, the Cat's Eye Nebula,shown at the top of this post. I've had it as my desktop background since last June. Completely by coincidence, it is one of the things I got to see through the awe-inspiring and hellanormous Lick refractor last September.


Centaurus A

Supergiant stars blowing off immense glowing clouds of gas over millennia are pretty good, but even better are giant jets of crap blasted out by galaxies. That's right, folks. Galaxies. Active galaxies, like Centaurus A here (awesome composite stolen from APOD), emit huge jets of energy from their cores. These jets have their origins in the accretion discs around the central black holes, which eat stars for breakfast.

Just think about that for a while.

And look at the pretty pictures, which are of real things that really exist in our universe.

And try not to let your brain explode.

I dare you.

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Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Walking With Dinosaurs Live

On the evening of January 3rd, I got to see Walking With Dinosaurs: The Live Experience in Sacramento, courtesy of the folks at Insight Management.

I loved the show. It was just a whole lot of fun. Even after I had seen some preview videos, the smoothness of the animatronics was a pleasant surprise and the whole thing was pulled off with--no other word for it--panache.

Now, these dinosaurs are essentially big puppets. Really big, really smooth, really well-done puppets, but still puppets. You're not going to be completely fooled into believing that these things are real. But if you just go with it--just watch the show, just enjoy what's going on--you may find yourself suspending disbelief more than you thought you would. I found myself flip-flopping between being interested in what the animals were doing and being fascinated by how the technicians were pulling it off.

Fortunately, the technical achievements are impressive enough that in those moments when you are not swept away to the world of the Mesozoic, there is still plenty to admire and even wonder at. There are some excellent bits of stagecraft that I won't spoil for you, and the lighting and music work to enhance and punctuate what is transpiring on stage fairly seamlessly. And the robots and suits are very cool in themselves. They were light years beyond any other animatronic dinosaurs I've ever seen, and that includes the latest generation of standing robots, such as those featured in the Big Dinos Return exhibit at the Lawrence Hall of Science (I should know, I helped write the signage).

Scientifically, much of Walking With Dinosaurs Live was not just good, but surprisingly good. Early on there was a discussion of footprints and other trace fossils and why they are so important to paleontologists: because they give us glimpses of the living animals in a way that bones--no matter how well preserved--simply can't. And in the Early Cretaceous segment there was a great description of plant-insect coevolution and the rise of flowering plants, using those terms. (Lamentably, the frank, accurate, and un-mangled discussion of evolution shows that this was not an American production....) Most of the science was as good as or better than what you get in the average television documentary.

Most. Not all. Stegosaurus lived in the Late Jurassic, not the Middle. The dromaeosaurs were unfeathered, which is in keeping with the television series but absolutely at odds with everything that we now know about their appearance in real life. Regarding Stegosaurus plates, the narrator mentioned the hypotheses that they were for thermoregulation (now pretty much destroyed) or defense (now looking pretty good, thanks to some sweet fossils), before pooh-poohing both in favor of the unlikely, unsupported, WWD-only idea that they flushed red as a warning device.

There was also one outright howler, when the narrator stated that, "another group of dinosaurs has taken to the skies: pterosaurs." Now, pterosaurs are very close relatives of dinosaurs, but they are not dinosaurs. In fact, I think the first thing you learn about pterosaurs in any kid's dinosaur book is that they are not dinosaurs. Possibly the narrator meant to say "another group of animals has taken to the skies"--I'd like to think that--but it's not what came out of his mouth.

Although irksome, the scientific errors were few and they didn't ruin the show for me. It is mainly about watching life-size robot dinosaurs stomp around and roar, and on that front WWD:TLE is great fun. I loved it, my three-year-old loved it, and I wish I could see it again.

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Thursday, January 03, 2008

The long-promised, oft-delayed Lick refractor post


...is not here. I ended up saying everything I wanted to say when I put the photos up on my Flickr page. If you have no idea what the heck I'm talking about, see here and here and here. The upshot is that on Sept. 15 last fall I got to put my eyeball on the end of this 57-foot-long telescope, and saw some stuff that is still blowing my mind four months later.

The observatory is open to the public. If you get a chance, go.

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