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Posts Tagged ‘The Twilight Zone’

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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Harlan Ellison is a lot like the stories he writes: intense, ingenious, and slightly deranged.  Ellison has made a career writing “speculative fiction” (a title he prefers to the more mainstream “sci-fi”).  He’s also had a prolific career in Hollywood, working on groundbreaking TV shows like “Star Trek“, “The Twilight Zone“, and “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.“.

Ellison is also notorious for extreme behavior. Like many great rebels, he ran away from home at 13 to join the carnival. And during college he was expelled for punching an overly critical professor.

At age 76, he hasn’t calmed down much.  He’s taken up the normally sleepy hobby of collecting books – but even this he does to the extreme. In fact, his library has grown so large it’s now become necessary for Ellison and his wife to launch the third edition of The Great Ellison Book Purge. A three-day sale of rare items from the Ellisons’ personal archives in California ends tomorrow. (Thanks to A.V. Club for the tip.)

Among the items on “The Big, Big List of Ellison Goodies”: an original screenplay for an episode of “The Outer Limits” and two personally inscribed copies of Sandman: Book of Dreams (birthday presents from author and friend Neil Gaiman).   You can see the full list here.

Ellison dropped in to Studio 360 in 2008 to discuss his books, his beginnings, and his notoriety. He read from his Hugo Award-winning short story “Jeffty is Five” (published later in his collection Shatterday).  Moreover, the man is a world class talker with amazing, stranger-than-fiction stories about his own life:

– Britta Conroy-Randall

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"Mirror Image; Nightmare at 20,000 Feet; The Hitch-Hiker"

"Mirror Image"; "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet"; "The Hitch-Hiker"

Errant kid-carrying balloons, planes that overshoot the runway by 150 miles — these days, preternatural occurrences are the stuff of cable news. But 50 years ago, viewers tuned in to “The Twilight Zone” to get their weekly eeriness fix. Before the “The Twilight Saga,” and before “Paris Hilton’s My New BFF” became the creepiest show in TV history, Rod Sterling’s groundbreaking sci-fi series premiered on a Friday night in October 1959. Not only did it offer far-fetched premises and unexpected twists; there was also a heavy dose of social commentary shrouded in all of the fantasy and suspense.

[YouTube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bhKiqo-nqm0]

This month has been full of “Twilight Zone” 50th anniversary commemorations across the country. Regional theaters in places like Tuscumbia, Alabama and Ben Lomond, California have produced stage versions of some of the show’s classic episodes. Binghamton, New York, Sterling’s hometown, hosted its own celebration. And if you’re reading this from Los Angeles, consider checking out tonight’s panel discussion and screening at the Egyptian Theatre. There’s also a lot to look forward to: Warner Brothers, in conjunction with Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company, is developing a new “Twilight Zone” feature film for 2011.

And on a different sci-fi note, “Studio 360” is planning its first ever live show in WNYC’s Greene Space on November 17, and it’s about time. The time travel-themed show will feature astrophysicist David Goldberg and forward-thinking funk singer Janelle Monae (along with her alter-ego Cindi Mayweather). We’ll broadcast the show later in the year, so you’ll literally be glimpsing into the future by joining us: tickets info here.

– Jordan Sayle

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