See The Light With Science Goes To The Movies

The tenth episode of Science Goes to the Movies was released online this weekend.  Hosts Faith Salie and Doctor Heather Berlin are joined by City College Physics Professor Vinod Menon.  The topic of the episode is light, or more broadly the electromagnetic spectrum.  Works covered in the episode include Star Trek, Star Wars, the now-cancelled television show Extant and The Fantastic Four.

While each episode has been focused on a theme, I think this episode approaches things a bit differently.  Compared to previous episodes the topic is more in the foreground of the conversation than the cultural works being referenced.  I think you get more science out of this approach, but that may not work with every topic.  A work of science fiction may or may not be engaged with something as fundamental to science as light, but it’s not likely to be as integral to the drama or comedy of the piece as other scientific topics.  I think the show benefits from mixing its approaches, and I would encourage the producers and hosts to do so.

Of note is that during Faith Salie’s November 21 appearance as a panelist on Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me, host Peter Sagal indicated that Science Goes to the Movies will premiere on PBS in January.  I can’t find confirmation of this with either PBS or the City University of New York, which currently produces the program (and may well continue to when it moves to PBS).

Fifth Flame Challenge Asks Scientists To Explain Sound

One of the guests on Science Friday this week is science communicator (and sometimes actor) Alan Alda.  He announced the topic for the Fifth Flame Challenge, a project he administers through the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University.  (The American Chemical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science help sponsor the event.)

The Flame Challenge is where scientists explain a basic concept (in this case, sound) in a way that is appropriate for 11 year old kids.  Students are encouraged to register to serve as judges, and scientists can compete in either written or video form.  Written entries are limited to 300 words, and video entries must be no longer than five minutes (and submitted through Vimeo).  Winners in each category will receive $1,000 and a trip to the 2016 World Science Festival.

If you’re seeking inspiration for a possible entry, may I suggest two people who have possible expertise in this area.  Randall Munroe, the artist and writer of the xkcd comic,  released his second book this week – Thing Explainer.  It explains many scientific and technical things using the 1000 most common words.  David Rees, the host of Going Deep on The Esquire Network, has been looking at very fundamental tasks and analyzing them quite thoroughly.

Entries are due by 11:59 Eastern time on January 19.  Good luck!

More From The Astronaut Troubadour

Chris Hadfield, the ‘retired’ Canadian astronaut, has an album out, Space Sessions: Songs from a Tin Can.  It’s available through his website and the usual places, and Hadfield has released a few videos to help promote it.  Proceeds from the album will be used to support music education in Canada.

What I didn’t note at the time I first heard about it is that all the songs on the album were recorded while on the International Space Station (H/T GeekWire).  As he described it, Hadfield created a makeshift studio out of his sleeping pod for most of his tracks, working with a producer planetside.  As with most everything else, playing guitar and singing in zero-gravity required some adjustments.  I can’t tell, but I don’t have professional-grade ears.  Here’s the latest video, for Beyond the Terra.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Science and Technology Guests on Late Night, Week of November 23

With the Thanksgiving holiday on Friday in the U.S. many shows are off or in reruns for at least part of the week.  Repeats of note this week are the Tuesday and Wednesday editions of The Nightly Show, when you can see the latest appearances of Neil deGrasse Tyson (Tuesday) and Bill Nye (Wednesday).  On Thursday you can watch Aaron Sorkin, writer of the recent Steve Jobs biographical film, sit with James Corden.  That same night you can see the CEO of GoPro perform camera tricks with Stephen Colbert.  You can rewatch mathematician Dr. Eugenia Chang with Stephen on Friday.

Also worth catching up with is the segment Stephen Colbert ran last week focusing on the influence of new technology on one of the oldest sports – curling.  This segment ran last Friday night.

Ted Koppel continues to promote his new book on cyberattacks (for which he apparently consulted no experts).  He’ll visit The Late Show on Monday (tonight).

There will be a new episode of Going Deep with David Rees, which I think has taken an even more scientific approach to its how-to topics this season.  This week’s episode (Wednesday night on The Esquire Network) is “How to Get Punched”

Coming Up On StarTalk

StarTalk is not premiering a new television episode tonight, but will return next week for what should be the last six episodes of its second season.  You can watch earlier episodes on video if you have an account with a participating cable system.  However, each episode will be released as a podcast.  Four episodes of this season have been broadcast on the National Geographic Channel, and the first three are currently available via podcast.  Each podcast version has a few minutes more material than what was broadcast.  But if you want extra video material, it is available on the show’s website.

There is currently information for only the next three episodes. I am expecting that the show will continue to have an unannounced guest join the in-studio portion of the show via video chat, but as these guests have been unannounced, I can’t tell you who they will be.

Next Sunday (November 29) the main interview guest will be actress Susan Sarandon, and host Neil deGrasse Tyson will be joined in studio by astrophysicist Emily Rice and comedian Maeve Higgins.

On December 6 the main interview guest will be musician David Byrne.  Tyson will be joined in studio by Maeve Higgins and Monica Lopez-Gonzalez, a cognitive scientist and playwright.

The December 13th episode could be particularly interesting, as the main guest is Mars One co-founder Bas Lansdorp.  Joining Tyson in studio will be comedian Eugene Mirman and retired astronaut Mike Massimino.

New episodes of StarTalk are supposed to run through January 3.

NPR Lets Dark Matter Get In The Way Of Dinosaurs

Lisa Randall, physicist and author, is on this weekend’s edition of Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me.  Depending on your local station you may be able to listen to her on Sunday, if you missed her today.  It is, of course, also available online.  As is the case with most celebrity guests on Wait Wait, she was there to answer questions quite unrelated to her expertise in a segment called Not My Job.

Randall is currently promoting her book Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs, which uses a theory about the extinction of the dinosaurs to explain the current state of understanding of dark matter.  Randall was about to get into the specifics of this theory when host Peter Sagal took the conversation deep into the idea of dark matter.  As distractions go, it was quite a pleasant one, and since Randall’s book is more about dark matter than the dinosaurs, I doubt she minded.

Randall did note on Twitter that some of the discussion was cut – likely for time.  Maybe they did explain the dinosaur part of this and just cut it for broadcast.  Also of interest is the conversation around how Randall dealt with being a woman earning a Ph.D. in a predominantly male field.  (And I think the panel nails how certain scientists would deal with a ‘sexiest scientist’ designation.)

I recommend Wait Wait for a regular listen.  It doesn’t have a science guest every week, but panelists frequently question the methodology of various studies used as question fodder.  It’s a nice reminder that simple bullet points for explaining scientific studies are hard.

Behavioral Economist To Write Star Wars Book, Insert Force Joke Here

Academic analyses of various works of fiction aren’t new.  I have at least a shelf’s worth of books that look at Star Trek from a field-specific perspective.  Star Wars is no exception to the efforts to expose new concepts in the midst of popular culture.

However, the announcement that Cass Sunstein, noted behavioral economist and former Obama Administration official, is writing a Star Wars book, is a bit out of the ordinary.  While Sunstein and his publisher are being vague on the theme of the book, the announcement suggests it could be wide raging.  Whether or not it will conduct the kinds of behaviorally tinged analyses some desire remains to be seen.

The most extensive writing I’ve found Sunstein do on Star Wars are two pieces reviewing a history of the franchise (one is essentially an expansion of the other).  Both have titles referencing constitutional law, reflecting how the pieces try to compare certain dramatic revelations in two of the films with notable legal decisions.  He’s trying to compare the way in which George Lucas worked from idea to final films to the way laws and legal interpretations of those laws change from start to current judicial understanding.

If these reviews are an indication of how Sunstein might right a book for a general audience involving a big cultural force, I’d be concerned about his publisher making back the advance.  He makes a decent point, but the effort to do so through the narrative of making a particular set of films doesn’t mesh well with the underlying message.  I don’t think he uses a tortured metaphor, I simply think the effort resembles walking through a swamp when a raft is available.