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Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

Rendering of Gliese 581g (National Science Foundation and NASA)

A few weeks ago, a couple of astronomers made headlines when they announced that they’d found a planet orbiting a distant star. It was hardly the first: since 1995, about 500 planets have been discovered in orbit around stars beyond the Sun. What made this one extraordinary was, first of all, that it wasn’t all that much bigger than Earth, where the earlier finds have been mostly giant balls of gas, like Jupiter.

More important, it orbited smack in the middle of the “Goldilocks zone” — at just the right distance from its star where temperatures would be not too hot, not too cold, but just right for the existence of life as we know it.  (That balmy location is more properly called the “habitable zone;” in our solar system, only Earth qualifies.) Sadly, for me, there’s now serious doubt that the planet exists at all; the “discovery” may have been announced prematurely.

Speculation about extraterrestrial life left the realm of philosophy for astronomy in 1960, when a young astronomer named Frank Drake wondered if it would be worth his time to search for radio signals from alien civilizations. He understood that it might not be worth his reputation: the golden age of flying saucers was in full swing; “The Twilight Zone” was a hot new show; and Ed Wood had just produced “Plan 9 from Outer Space”, often rated the worst movie of all time.

A still from "Plan 9 from Outer Space" (1958)

So Drake was cautious. He came up with a formula — which came to be known as the Drake Equation — to calculate how many planets might have life.  It was more or less a checklist: How many stars are there in the Milky Way? How many of them have planets?  How many of the planets might be suitable for life, based on their distance from stars? And so on.

Nobody had an answer to anything more than the first question — planets are dark, and too far away to be seen — until 1995,  when astronomers finally began to find planets by the hundreds. The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence wasn’t necessarily crazy. There’s still a way to go, of course. In this planet-searching endeavor, the caveat is a biggie: finding a planet that could harbor life isn’t the same as finding one that does —  and it’s very possible that the only aliens living there are bacteria, which don’t build radios.

But more news is waiting in the wings.  For almost two years now, a space telescope called Kepler has been staring unblinking at more than 100,000 stars, looking for a planet, and the team has an announcement scheduled for February 1.

Rendering of the Kepler spacecraft (NASA/Kepler mission/Wendy Stenzel)

It’s a big secret, and when I spoke with Kepler’s inventor, Bill Borucki, he wouldn’t reveal what they’ve found. But I asked him, “If there’s an Earth-size planet out there, would Kepler have seen it by now?” His answer: “Yes.”

Kepler was built to detect objects (like planets) passing in front of stars.  Depending on how much the starlight dims, they can say how big the planet is; depending on how often it happens, they can tell how long the planet takes to complete an orbit, which tells you how far it is from its sun.  Here’s the trick: Kepler mission rules say it doesn’t count until you’ve seen it pass by three times, to avoid the embarrassment of another retracted ‘discovery.’ In less than two years of operation, Kepler can’t have seen three passes separated by a full year each, so any Earthlike planet they do announce will be in less than a year-long orbit. But that key discovery could well come in the following year.

I for one am praying for front-page headlines when the Kepler crew steps up to the microphone in February.  I’m working on a book, and I rashly promised my editors that Earthlike planets would be found before I turn in the manuscript next August.  Either the planets come out, or I go into hiding.

—Michael D. Lemonick

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This summer, Luke Geissbuhler, the cinematographer behind the mokumentary-style movie Bruno and the upcoming film The Virginity Hit, masterminded a very different kind of movie.  With nothing more than a weather balloon, an HD camera and a GPS device, Gessbuhler and his 9-year old son created a homemade spacecraft and set out to capture its journey on video. The duo encased the camera, GPS and a parachute in a foam container, tied it to the end of the balloon and released it near their home in Newburgh, New York. Hoping to view the video once the balloon fell back to earth, Geissbuhler tucked a note inside the foam container promising a reward to anyone who returned the spacecraft to its rightful creators.

Turns out, the spacecraft was found in a tree later that night, not far from where it was released. But when Geissbuhler and his son watched the video they were amazed to find out that their experiment was a tremendous success. Their makeshift spacecraft had spent the afternoon in space!

To me, the video is a testament to the adage that anything is possible. With a bit of tenacity, research, and a few “flight tests,”  the duo engineered a device that overcame huge odds. Their tiny balloon made it through 100mph winds, reached the upper stratosphere of Earth in only an hour, and managed to land only 30 miles from where it was released! Oh yeah and the resulting film is pretty fantastic too.  Geissbuhler managed to tailor the spacecraft to keep it from spinning and the result is a steady and watchable short film.  When the balloon first breaks past the white clouds and reaches the blackness of space, the view is truly breathtaking. For all of you who wondered as a kid what happened to those birthday balloons that got away, you now have your answer.

-Julia Botero

 


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The vinyl grooves of the Beatles's "Eleanor Rigby" (Photographed by Felice C. Frankel)

Ready for an extreme close-up?

Felice C. Frankel has spent 20 years photographing objects outside the range of conventional microscopes — bits of matter 1/100,000th the size of a baby’s eyelashes.  Nanoscience is one of the frontiers of technology, and with her book No Small Matter (co-written by Harvard chemist George Whitesides), Frankel hopes to inspire exploration and understanding of the nanoscale.

Studio 360’s Sarah Lilley produced a short piece about Frankel and her work for last weekend’s show — but she realized that some of this stuff had to be seen to be believed:

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HTML5 is here, and if you’re like me you have no idea what that means.  Thankfully, (and in a sentence I never thought I’d write), Arcade Fire and Google are here to help.  The indie band and the internet behemoth teamed up to make a music video called “The Wilderness Downtown” with HTML5, showing just what the internet of the future looks like.

The latest version of the standard markup language used for building websites, HTML5 allows designers to choreograph extra content to pop up in moving windows, sync that content to a user’s actions, and personalize the overall browsing experience.  But Google didn’t settle for explaining what HTML5 does or how it works via boring press releases and guided demos.  Rather, they had writer/director Chris Milk showcase the kind of thing we can expect ambitious developers to create with it.  The result is the most comprehensive audiovisual experience since Purple Rain.

Download the Google Chrome browser — the animation will run on other browsers, but not as cleanly — then go to The Wilderness Downtown, where you’ll be prompted to enter the address of the house in which you grew up.  The website then embeds images of your childhood home taken from Google Maps and Street View.  Sure enough, that’s your street and your house being pixilated and set to the music of Arcade Fire.  It’s an effective way of evoking nostalgia for the simpler days of youth, while reminding you that you’re not in Kansas anymore.

The video reminds me with a kick to the face just how quickly technology is accelerating, and how many doors that opens for artists.  Choreographed pop-ups, augmented reality animation, personalized content: This will be standard fare in no time, and not just for websites, but for movies, live concerts, and even print.  The possibilities are absolutely staggering — a little scary, but amazing to think it’s just the beginning.

-Stephen Reader

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Sure, YouTube is great for kitten videos, but one of its most consistent sweet spots is fake movie trailers.  Viral video fans take note — the western epic The Oregon Trail is “coming soon” to a theater near you:

To the delight of millions of American twenty- and thirty-somethings, this trailer parodies the computer game of the same name created by the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium.  The object of the game?  Getting your virtual 19th-century frontier family successfully settled in the West.  In just two and a half minutes, the trailer (produced by Half Day Today!) touches on the game’s most memorable elements.  Characters get ridiculous names like “Poop Face” or “Mac’n’Cheese”?  Check.  Shooting 1400 pounds of buffalo but only being able to carry 100 pounds back to the wagon?  Check.  And someone coming down with dysentery? Check, of course.  Miraculously, the family in the “movie” makes it to Oregon entirely intact, an ending I could never achieve — somebody was almost certain to die of the measles or getting swept away by a river after inadvisably choosing “caulk the wagon and float.”

The Oregon Trail‘s ubiquity in elementary schools in the 1980s and ’90s has resulted in dozens of nostalgic references to the game in today’s pop culture: t-shirts, comics, music, and you can even buy an Oregon Trail iPhone app.  But this trailer — complete with an arrangement of the theme music from The Oregon Trail II — certainly tops them all.

Which gets me thinking: what are the chances that an awesome educational computer game from our childhoods could actually be converted into a (likely terrible) movie?  Some (I’m looking at you, Number Munchers) might be a bit of a stretch, but it seems to me that the world of floppy disk games is ripe for Hollywood’s picking.  Could we be seeing a film adaptation of Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?  If  Tron Legacy is any indication, Hollywood knows how to cash in on the pop culture nostalgia of Gen X and Y — so there’s still hope a film adaptation of The Oregon Trail might actually materialize.  But for now, we’ll have to get our elementary school computer time fix by playing the game online (8-bit sound effects included!).

— Becky Sullivan

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The Winnebago Man video is the granddaddy of all viral. Foul-mouthed, vitriolic outtakes from a real promotional shoot starring an RV salesman named Jack Rebney, it circulated underground on VHS tapes in the 1990s, before YouTube turned “the angriest man in the world” into a phenomenon. Spike Jonze is rumored to have sent out copies of the video as Christmas gifts; Conan O’Brien named it as one of his all-time favorites; and Larry David cited Rebney as inspiration for Curb Your Enthusiam.

Documentary director Ben Steinbauer found Rebney not just hilarious but sympathetic and relatable.  (One wonders what Steinbauer’s outtakes might look like.) He found Rebney living alone in the woods, unwilling to talk about how he got there, and unaware of his fame among the millions.

What good American doesn’t want to get famous for doing nothing much?  But who wants to be remembered for such a low, low moment? In Winnebago Man, Rebney struggles to choose between privacy and celebrity; now he has embraced the role of anti-star for the digital age, and is making the talk show rounds. The film is a surprisingly moving exploration of one man’s 15 minutes; it’s in select theaters this summer.

-Britta Conroy-Randall

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Be careful what you wish for. New York’s MoMA thought it had commissioned a group of artists and architects to create a farm in the courtyard of it’s Queens outpost, P.S.1.  And on opening day they didn’t disappoint.

Surprise! Unbeknownst to MoMA, a “tool shed” the architects were building was actually a chicken coop. On the day of the opening they smuggled in six chickens and a dozen chirping chicks.

But all chickens aside, P.F.1 (Public Farm 1) was a very impressive achievement. This urban farm supported more than 30 varieties of vegetables, herbs, and flowers — it also included a solar-powered phone-charging station and even a juicer for fresh veggie cocktails. A project this ambitious took a team of architects, farmers, politicians, artists, and scientists several months to put together.  The video below (by architecture partners WORK) gives you a sense of the logistics required for a project of this scale.

The team’s efforts are chronicled in Above the Pavement – The Farm!

P.F.1 reminded me of another outrageously ambitious urban farm project: “Wheatfield – a Confrontation“.  In the summer of 1982, a flourishing field of wheat sprung up in a vacant lot near the World Trade Center. It was the work of ecological artist Agnes Denes.

It took two assistants and a bunch of volunteers to help her remove trash from the land, spread truckloads of topsoil, and plant nearly two acres of wheat. The result: a beautiful field of golden wheat planted among the sleek steel skyscrapers of downtown Manhattan. After harvesting, the hay was fed to the horses stabled by the New York City Police department and the grain traveled around the world as part of an art exhibition organized by the Minnesota Museum of Art.

Dene’s art and efforts like the P.F.1 project prove that we can use our cities as laboratories for experimentation, and that even the most impossibly utopian visions of green city living may be within our reach.

-Britta Conroy-Randall

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