Book Review: An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green

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John Green is the famed young adult author of hits such as The Fault in Our Stars—but this post isn’t about him. His brother Hank Green, on the other hand, is an internet-famous science communicator and musician and co-host with his brother of the Vlogbrothers YouTube channel and a bunch of other stuff. But now, Hank has also joined his brother in the ranks of novelists with his debut, An Absolutely Remarkable Thing, which is equal parts sci-fi thriller and commentary on our modern internet and social media culture.

April May (yes, really), a twenty-three-year-old graphic designer, discovers a ten-foot sculpture of a robot that mysteriously appears on the streets of Manhattan at two in the morning. She names it Carl and makes a YouTube video about it, and she wakes up the next morning to find that she’s gone viral. It turns out there are sixty-four Carls in cities all over the world; no one knows where they came from or how they got there, and she got the first video of it.

Things only get weirder from there as it becomes increasingly clear that the Carls are not of this world, and April’s fame takes on a life of its own in this thrilling tale of social media and the state of our culture today.

No, really. It’s better than that makes it sound.

My rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Mild Spoilers Below

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Who is Credence Barebone?

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Warning: MAJOR spoilers for Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald below. This is my take on breaking down the big end-of-the-movie reveal, so if you haven’t seen it, click away now.

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Movie Review: Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

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Well, this is the moment fellow Harry Potter fans have been waiting for: the second Fantastic Beasts movie: The Crimes of Grindelwald. Now we see the continued adventures of Newt Scamander and the evil schemes of Gellert Grindelwald. So how was it? Honestly, not as good as I was hoping. I believe J. K. Rowling fell into the same trap in writing this film that she did in Order of the Phoenix and parts of Deathly Hallows: trying to do too much at once. The storyline was cluttered with too many extraneous elements. Not to mention all the continuity problems she introduced.

Unfortunately, The Crimes of Grindelwald just doesn’t measure up to its predecessor, I rated that one a 4.5 out of 5, but I don’t think I can fairly give this one even a 4. It’s entertaining enough, and if you’re a Wizarding World fan like me, you should absolutely see it, but…

My rating: 3.5 out of 5.

I feel like this movie needs a bit more of a detailed treatment, so in the style of my review of The Last Jedi, let’s break it down.

Spoilers Below (#keepthesecrets)

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The Kilogram Is Redefined (and Other Units, too)

The International Prototype Kilogram, which until next May 20 is the definition of the kilogram.

The kilogram, as my international readers will know is the official unit of mass in the metric system—or more precisely, the International System of Units (SI). But less well known is that until today, the kilogram has been defined not as some universal value, but as the mass of a physical object: a chunk of platinum-iridium alloy in a triple bell jar in a secure vault in Paris.

Last week, however, the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM—it’s French) redefined the kilogram and three others of the seven “base units” from which all other units of measure are derived to make them more reliable and more universal. The new definitions come into effect on May 20. The BBC has a nice analysis of the kilogram in particular here.

The problem with the kilogram is that the official kilogram (pictured above) has been losing weight. As hard as platinum and iridium are, it’s lost atoms over the years when they take it out to clean it—about 50 micrograms, we think. And because this cylinder is the definition of a kilogram, the unit itself has been changing.

This affects us in America, too. American units are defined by law in terms of SI or metric units. That means when the kilogram changes, the pound legally changes (technically the slug, but it’s basically the pound), as does every other unit that’s defined in terms of pounds, including some that you wouldn’t expect. The psi, the horsepower, the kilowatt-hour, the volt, and even the calorie have hidden kilograms in them, so they have been legally changing, too. Only by 0.000005%, but still.

That’s why the BIPM decided they needed to change the definition of the kilogram to make it completely fixed, by tying it to one of the constants of nature. They chose Planck’s constant. This is a number that gets used a lot in particle physics. It happens to be 4π times the smallest angular momentum a particle can have, and it also shows up in Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. The BIPM redefined the kilogram not to a direct measurement of mass, but such that Planck’s constant is exactly 6.62607015×10-34 J×s.

Joules (J) have kilograms in them, and you can measure Planck’s constant with something called a Kibble balance (better known as a watt balance), which balances a weight against the force of an electromagnet. It’s not as intuitive unless you’re a particle physicist, but it’s a lot more reliable, especially when you need things to be precise (and some things do need to be) to 0.000001%. And better yet, anyone with the right equipment can measure the kilogram for themselves. They don’t have to go measure against a reference weight in a vault somewhere. This redefinition democratizes the kilograms.

The BIPM redefined some of the other units too, to fix them to other physical constants. The ampere, the unit of electric current, used to be defined in terms of the magnetic forces around a flowing current—not very intuitive when it just measures flowing electrons. Now, they’ve defined it as a certain number of electrons per second—or rather, that one electron per second is exactly 1.602176634×10-19 amperes.

The kelvin, the unit of temperature, used to be defined be the triple point of water, a thermodynamic point very close to the freezing point. That was reasonable, but the purity and isotopic composition of water can affect the triple point, and it could only be measured so precisely. Now, they’ve defined it so that Boltzmann’s constant, a number used to compute the average energy of molecules, is exactly 1.380639×10-23 J/K.

And finally, we have the mole, (not the animal) which is a measure of the number of atoms or molecules in a given sample. You see it a lot in chemistry. It used to be defined as the number of atoms in 12 grams of carbon-12, also known as Avogadro’s constant. Again, isotopes are the problem. It had to be pure carbon-12 because atomic weights vary slightly even after accounting for the number of protons and neutrons because of their different nuclear energies. So now, they just picked a number that was as close as they could get to the current measurements: 6.02214076×1023 atoms or molecules.

Most people will never notice this redefinition in their daily lives. Some units will change a tiny bit, but it will be too small for most measurement devices to even register it. However, in high-precision physics, where measurements sometimes need to be made to one part in a trillion, or even to one part in a sextillion, it’s very important to have your units defined exactly so there is no ambiguity. This redefinition solves a longstanding problem in that regard and sets up a system of measurement that can truly be permanent, and that even aliens on the other side of the universe could use just as well. The metric system has well and truly been brought into the twenty-first century.

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Book Review: Only Human by Sylvain Neuvel

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Only Human is the conclusion to the Themis Files trilogy by Sylvain Neuvel, following Sleeping Giants and Waking Gods. In this installment, trouble with the aliens who built the giant robot Themis leads to trouble on Earth, and three kidnapped humans making their way back find themselves in home they don’t recognize anymore. While it’s not that different in tone from the first two books, I have to admit, the premise of the world stereotypically collapsing into fascism and war grated a little. But even so, I enjoyed the story, and I’d still put this book in the middle of the trilogy in quality.

My rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Big Spoilers Below

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Elon Musk’s BFR Update and Yusaku Maezawa, the First Lunar Tourist

The latest version of the BFR.

Last night, Galactic President CEO of SpaceX Elon Musk gave an update on his big future projects, the BFR (Big Falcon Rocket), BFS (which he says he needs to rename), and his planned tourist flight around the Moon. Video here.

Musk also introduced the first paying customer for his lunar flight, Japanese billionaire and fashion guru Yusaka Maezawa. But the big news of the night was that Maezawa didn’t just buy a seat. He bought out the entire flight! Maezawa wants to offer free rides around the Moon to half a dozen or so artists to inspire artistic creations upon returning to Earth. And that is pretty cool.

Maezawa at the SpaceX press conference.

You can read all about this in other places, and if you’ve read it this far, odds are you have. But I have a few particular thoughts on this that I wanted to talk about here.

First, Elon Musk. Mr. Musk has gotten a lot of criticism lately, from defaming one of the divers from the recent heroic rescue mission in Thailand to smoking pot live on YouTube to the boondoggle that Tesla is becoming. Even SpaceX has been kind of shaky for much of its history. He consistently fails to meet deadlines, and people made fun of him for launching his car into space. But you know what?

He’s still doing better than everyone else right now, including NASA.

SpaceX has competition, to be sure, but that competition is years behind the curve. When it comes to launch capability, SpaceX can launch more rockets reliably for less money than any other company or space agency in the world. And if Boeing and Lockheed or Blue Origin manages to beat him out? Great! As he says, bring it on. At least he’ll have kicked the industry into high gear. For now, though, he’s still doing pretty good work.

Second, Yusaka Maezawa. Mr. Maezawa clearly cares deeply about this project. That he is willing to buy out the whole flight and give the rest of the seats away says a lot, but I’d like to dig a bit deeper. Maezawa is worth about $3.6 billion, according to Forbes, and while we don’t know how much he has paid to SpaceX, the final launch cost for the BFR is estimated at $335 million. The point is that this is not small change to him, where buying a single seat arguably would be. I say this because it shows he’s really serious about it, and I appreciate his contribution to the project.

Third, the idea of the art project itself. Sure, it sounds cool, but I believe it’s actually vitally important. Combining art and science is a powerful thing. I look back to Richard Feynman on this matter. Speaking back in 1955, he said, “Is no one inspired by our present picture of the universe? The value of science remains unsung by singers, you are reduced to hearing not a song or a poem, but an evening lecture about it. This is not yet a scientific age.”

Of course, this isn’t true anymore. Songs about space exploration topped the charts within Feynman’s lifetime. Star Wars is mainstream. People like Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson are superstars. And even the most successful sitcom on TV is about scientists. But I think Feynman’s sentiment still rings true, especially in the area of space exploration, which has stagnated in recent years. We still need this kind of art, and once again, I thank Mr. Maezawa for making the effort to patronize it. Godspeed.

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Book Review: Artemis by Andy Weir

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Andy Weir, author of The Martian, put out his second novel late last year: Artemis. Artemis is another space-based adventure for the one-time computer programmer, but he takes it in a different direction this time. While The Martian is a one-man tale of survival on Mars, Artemis is a high-stakes caper on the Moon. And it’s a great ride all around.

My rating: 5 out of 5.

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