Movie Review: Avengers: Infinity War

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This is it. The one we’ve all been waiting for. Avengers: Infinity War!

Eighteen movies have led up to this point, the culmination of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. We first saw the villain, Thanos, all the way back in Avengers 1 in 2012, and with a major role in Guardians of the Galaxy. Now, he’s back and badder than ever, wielding the universe-destroying power of the Infinity Stones, and it’s going to take all of the Avengers to stop him. It’s a wild ride. Full of action from start to finish. Its biggest flaw is that you have to have seen so many of the earlier movies to understand it, but if you have, it’s very well done, especially the ending.

My rating: 5 out of 5.

Massive Spoilers Below

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TESS Lifts Off

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NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) lifted off on a SpaceX rocket last night. TESS is a follow-up to the wildly successful Kepler mission that will hunt for transiting planets—that is, planets that pass in front of their stars, blocking some of the light. TESS is a bigger and better missing that is expected to discover five times as many planets (20,000 compared with Kepler’s 4,000) and around closer stars. Even the nearest stars to Earth will be observed by TESS (although only a small fraction of planets orbit at the right angle to be seen in transit).

I say “bigger”, but it’s actually more complicated than that. Kepler used one medium-size telescope (by spacecraft standards) to look at a single 10 x 10 degree patch of sky for years on end. TESS uses four small telescopes only 10 cm (4 inches) wide, each of which images an area 24 degrees wide, and which rotates to a new part of the sky every month. Over the course of a year, it will image an amazing 85% of the southern sky, followed by 85% of the northern sky the following year. Most parts of the sky will be observed for only one month, but areas near the celestial poles watched for the full year to look for longer-period planets.

This is a counterintuitive spacecraft. A 10 cm telescope is tiny. It’s the kind you can buy on Amazon for a couple hundred bucks. Compared with the 2.5 meter (8 foot) mirror of the Hubble Space Telescope, it seems like it would be useless. So how does it work? The difference between TESS and your average backyard telescope is—well,  it’s in space, where there’s no air and no light pollution—but the main difference is having really, really good electronics.

This isn’t your cell phone camera that NASA’s using. It’s not even your fancy DSLR if you’re a photographer. True, it’s the same CCD technology, but NASA gets the best-quality chips that can read light levels extremely accurately—to one part in ten thousand—and that’s enough to spot an Earth-sized planet.

The other thing to remember about TESS is that it’s looking only at bright stars. For bright stars, having a very big telescope is actually a disadvantage because as faint as the stars are, a big telescope collects so much light that they’ll saturate the chip. There will be a big white splotch, and you won’t get good readings. This also sounds counterintuitive. Your cell phone camera can function in broad daylight, after all. But your cell phone camera is exposed for a hundredth of a second to take a photo in daylight. Maybe a whole second in low light, but TESS’s cameras are exposed for a full 2 minutes to take a single photo.

Looking at bright stars is especially important because we need bright stars to easily measure the masses of planets by radial velocity, which is what we need to tell planets that look like Earth, but bigger, apart from planets that look like Neptune, but smaller. So while it probably won’t turn up any potentially habitable planets, it will still give us a much better estimate of how many of them there are out there.

TESS has to go through a weird flight path including a gravity assist around the Moon to get to an orbit that is ideal for its operations, so observations will not start until June, but I’m eager to see what new discoveries it turns up starting this summer.

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Movie Review: Ready Player One

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Ready Player One is Steven Spielberg’s newest film based on the 2011 novel by Zak Penn and Ernest Cline. The story is set in a dystopian 2045 where economic decline has caused millions of people to seek escape in a virtual reality world known as the OASIS. Upon his death, James Halliday, the creator of the OASIS, willed his vast fortune and control of the game to the first person who could complete his three challenges and find the hidden Easter egg in the game.

Five years later, Wade Watts, known by his screen name Parzival, cracks the code of the first challenge and takes the lead, only to be targeted by Nolen Sorrento of the IOI corporation, who has an army of gamers searching for the Egg for himself.

Simply put, this was brilliant. This was easily the best movie I’ve seen since Star Wars: The Last Jedi. And if you’re one of those people who didn’t like The Last Jedi, I’ll say it was easily on par with Coco and Wonder Woman.

My rating: 5 out of 5.

Spoilers below.

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Book Review: The Return by Joseph Helmreich

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The Return is the first novel by journalist and screenwriter Joseph Helmreich—a sci-fi thriller with a fresh take on an old trope: Alien Abduction. After years of conspiracy theories, physicist Andrew Leland unwittingly proves the absolute existence of aliens when he is abducted on live television. Seven years later, he is found mysteriously wandering in the desert with no memory of the event. What follows is a tangled web of alien schemes, the obligatory shadowy government organizations, and a determined physics student who doesn’t know when to leave well enough alone.

This was one of those books that I read cold, and honestly, I wasn’t all that impressed. It was generally enjoyable, but it I didn’t think it lived up to its premise. The plot felt disjointed, and it wasn’t clear to me why some things were happening. The central conflict of the humans and the aliens fighting over their mysterious (and somehow unique and irreplaceable) cold fusion source to try to destroy each other was generally fuzzy, and the ending was rushed and just seemed unsatisfying to me. I get the impression that Helmreich was going for the Inscrutable Aliens angle, but it didn’t quite mesh with the rest of the plot.

The government conspiracy angle didn’t help either. I can understand the secret government conspiracy existing, but when a twenty-first century western country starts kidnapping and murdering its own citizens to maintain that conspiracy, it strains credulity.

Overall, I was entertained by The Return, but I can’t honestly say that it’s up to the standards of the truly great books out there.

My rating: 3 out of 5.

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Happy Amerigo Vespucci Day

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Today is the birthday of Amerigo Vespucci (1454-1512), an Italian navigator who explored the newly-discovered Americas, got his name attached to them, and arguably deserves his own holiday more than that other Italian navigator you might be thinking of.

Columbus Day has become highly controversial in recent years among the Native American community and others, and beyond his personal flaws (which are many), people argue that you can’t really discover a place where people already live. Now, as for the second point, the fact that the Europeans didn’t know there was a continent here in 1491 and this event being such an important part of world history, means it’s perfectly plausible to have a holiday for it if you want. But I agree that Columbus himself does not deserve it. Columbus wasn’t exactly a genocidal monster (if there was ever any plausible way to prevent smallpox from wiping out most of the Americas, I don’t see it), but he was most definitely a jerk. And more to the point, he certainly was not the paragon of perseverance in the face of ridicule that he’s been made out to be.

Some people suggest Leif Erikson Day (October 9) should replace Columbus Day. And while it’s true that Leif Erikson was the first (confirmed) European to reach America, the fact that the rest of Europe forgot all about it suggests that maybe he wasn’t notable enough to serve the role.

Amerigo Vespucci, however, presents a good case. He made four voyages to the Americas between 1497 and 1504, and he actually knew what he was doing. Vespucci was the first explorer to prove that the Americas were not East Asia, as Columbus said. Meanwhile Columbus insisted till the day he died, in the face of mounting evidence, that he’d discovered a new route to Asia. Vespucci was also the man who coined the phrase “the New World” (“Mundus Novus”) in a letter to Lorenzo de’ Medici in 1504. As a result when German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller created a new world map in 1507, he didn’t name it Columbia after Columbus; he named it America after Amerigo.

Unfortunately, in the years following his Vespucci’s death, Columbus’s supporters disparaged him for undermining Columbus’s legacy. Later, in the 1700s, the United States appropriated Columbia as the female personification of itself (much like how we use Lady Liberty today), and Columbus became such a part of the American mythos that he got his own holiday—one that also became tied up with the desire of Italian-Americans to celebrate their heritage. Maybe it’s time for a change. (And Vespucci was also Italian.)

Just as a disclaimer, there is definitely dispute about the veracity of Vespucci’s exploits. However, at least one of his voyages, the third, is considered unassailable, and the America name dates from within his lifetime, so it’s a valid point. Besides, people think Columbus was the Only Sane Man who believed the world was round when in fact he was the clueless one*, so I’m not too worried about honest uncertainty here.

So happy Amerigo Vespucci Day to all!

* People knew the Earth was round and how large it was since Eratosthenes first measured it in 240 BC. Columbus believed due to various errors that it was about 25% smaller, and that what would have been an impossibly long voyage to Asia would have been plausible. Washington Irving invented the “flat Earth” myth around Columbus from whole cloth in his “biography” of the man in 1828.

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Movie Review: Black Panther

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Black Panther is being hyped as the movie of the year, and it’s certainly making an impact. It’s opening weekend was the fifth-largest of all time and it’s breaking lots of box office records. But how does this Africa-set superhero movie stack up? Pretty well, it turns out.

I have to say, I don’t think Black Panther was as transcendentally brilliant as the media hype says. It’s in the top tier of Marvel movies, for sure, and that puts it in a lot of good company. But at the same time, it puts it up against a lot of stiff competition if you want to rank them, especially since Marvel has really hit its stride in the past year and a half. I don’t think Black Panther stands out head and shoulders above its peers, and if I had to choose, I’d probably still put Avengers 1 on top. But it’s an excellent movie all the same.

My rating: 5 out of 5.

Spoilers below.

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Falcon Heavy Blasts Off

SpaceX successfully completed the maiden flight of its new rocket, the Falcon Heavy, earlier today. This new heavy lifter can launch 63.8 metric tons to low Earth orbit, compared with 22.8 metric tons for the Falcon 9, making it officially the most powerful rocket in the world today—twice as powerful as the runner-up, the Delta IV Heavy. In doing so, it puts itself in the same club as the Saturn V, the Space Shuttle, and the Soviet space shuttle knock-off, Buran, as the only larger rockets to successfully launch.

And it launched a Tesla Roadster into space.

 

The Falcon Heavy is basically three Falcon 9’s strapped together, which as any rocketeer knows, means more than three times as many things that can go wrong. As it happens, the launch wasn’t completely successful. The first stage center core failed to land on the drone ship in the Atlantic due to an engine failure in a rare miss for the usually successful SpaceX. Nonetheless, they did successfully land the two boosters on adjacent launch pads within seconds of each other, which is pretty cool by itself.

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What impressed me the most about this launch was how smooth it was. I remember seeing Space Shuttle launches back in the day, and they were an ordeal to sit through—stopping the countdown clock at 20 minutes and again at 9 minutes and ever more if anything went wrong. Maybe SpaceX will be slower when they actually start launching people (hopefully later this year), but at least they keep the clock running and let 20 minutes actually mean 20 minutes.

But it really goes further than that. Think about it. Elon Musk just launched a car into space on the most powerful rocket in the world just because he could. In doing so, SpaceX orchestrated its most complex launch yet including a twin booster landing where major governments use parachutes and fish them out of the ocean, and despite the failure of the third landing, they made it look easy.

NASA wants a new heavy lifter that’s twice as powerful as the Falcon Heavy. But I’ve been thinking this to myself since about 2011, and I’m going on record: SLS is going to be cancelled, and SpaceX (or maybe a competitor) will take over for it before it ever gets a crewed flight. I’m far more optimistic about SpaceX than I am about NASA (at least on the human spaceflight side), and I hope to see more milestones from them very soon.

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