Sunday, 12 March 2017

C'est un petit pas pour un homme [Review: From The Earth To The Moon]

The members of the Baltimore Gun Club, bitterly disappointed by the outbreak of peace seek a new outlet for their passion - a cannon that will fire a shot to the Moon. Buoyed by public support across the US and around the world they defeat obstacle after obstacle in their quest to build and fire the cannon - until they are thrown an even greater challenge by a French explorer Michel Ardan who wishes to ride inside the shot and emigrate to the Moon, along with Barbicane, the President of the Gun Club and his lifelong nemesis Nicholls.

Jules Verne's novel, De la Terre à la Lune, was written in 1865, almost exactly 100 years before the actual Moon landing. The novel deals with the engineering and human challenges in designing, constructing and preparing the cannon, leading to the firing and then the voyage itself which is the subject of the sequel, Around The Moon. Verne is neither the first nor the only writer to send fictional astronauts to the Moon but most of these lunar romances rely on magical or unexplained methods of transport - Verne's genius was to come up with a credible means of getting there, indeed the novel could almost be used as an engineering manual for aspiring rocketeers. Amongst the challenges faced by the engineers include the shape, size and construction of the cannon and shell, the position, date and timing of the shot, mediating the shock of launch to prevent the crew from being crushed, providing air, water, heat and food to the crew, slowing the craft for landing, and how to monitor the voyage and landing from Earth. One challenge that is simply thrown aside is that of returning the astronauts - the plan is for a one-way trip.

Verne also takes on scientific uncertainties - the crew hope to find an atmosphere and water on the moon, but this is by no means certain as the authorities of the time held differing views, played out in Michel's debate with Nicholls.

Verne notably criticised H.G.Wells' novel, The First Men In The Moon written in 1901, a few years before Verne's death, for exactly this reason - Wells' voyage is made possible by a fantastic element (the gravity-defying Cavorite). However to give Wells his credit, when a few years earlier in 1897 he wrote of his Martians crossing the expanses of space to wage war on Earth, they did so in cylinders fired from a gun.

Like many science fiction writers Verne never saw his work as a prediction of the future - he is on record as saying that the ideas featured in his books are there to facilitate his character's journeys - for example, imagining a steerable hot air balloon as a way for his heroes to traverse the whole of Africa. Many of Verne's novels depict physical journeys and are full of speculative vehicles from floating islands to the formidable Nautilus.

However, intentional or not, when we compare Verne's novel to the actual NASA moon shot a century later, Verne was absolutely right about a lot of things:
  • Military engineering drives the space programme
  • The launch site in Florida, together with the intense competition between states to host the enterprise
  • The national and international excitement that follows the mission and turns its' figureheads into celebrities
  • The three-man crew
  • The 3-day voyage
Some aspects don't quite ring true in the same way - whoever heard of Americans obsessed with guns? Verne was also a little optimistic with the price-tag as well - his cost estimate is for 5 million dollars, whereas the Apollo programme cost about 25 billion. Of course, coming in a century late and five thousand times the original budget isn't so unusual for the space programme...

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Top Three Songs Inspired By Scientific Equations

"The Drake Equation" Helion Prime In third place: Helion Prime are a metal band who use science and sci-fi imagery the way other bands use Satanism. So this is a song about the Drake Equation. While I love the song, it only gets the bronze for two reasons: there's no video yet, and they don't actually sing the equation. With thanks to Big D of the Assorted Thoughts blog who first introduced me to Helion Prime.

"Mandelbrot Set" Jonathan Coulton In second place: Lyrics sadly became outdated as Benoit Mandelbrot passed away in 2010, but still... Here's a chalk-based animation that illustrates the song nicely, although it's a shortened version. Or if you prefer, there are about a million YouTube videos of fractal animations set to the song. Bonus points for spelling out the equation. Bonus points subsequently deducted as, obviously, the equation used in the song actually describes the Julia Set. D'oh...

"The First and Second Laws Of Thermodynamics" Flanders and Swann And the winner is: Flanders and Swann, those rapscallion 50s and 60s music hall entertainers. Michael and Donald were no strangers to science - songs about the mating habits of hippopotami made them the Discovery Channel of their day, while their revelations about the spiral growth of the honeysuckle (right-handed) and the bindweed (left-handed) were worthy of a PhD. Bonus points for spelling out and actually understanding the Laws, and for squeezing in the Third Law as well. There's no actual video of Flanders and Swann performing this so here's a version accompanied by random pictures and some bad jokes from teachers. Polar! Lol.

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

The Rocky Horror Evolution Centipede Hotel California Show [Review: A Cure For Wellness]

Received my invitation to the Evil Medical School reunion. Think I'll give it a miss this year - it would just be too embarrassing meeting up with classmates Dr. Evil, Dr. Heiter and Dr. Ledgard, and having to admit I've still not achieved anything on a par with their nefariousness.

Some of the comments below could be considered minor spoilers. Read on at your peril.


Dr. Volmer, head of the Volmer Institute, would fare better in comparison, although he's still no Dr. Frank'n'Furter. His institute, an aquatherapy centre for rich guilt-stricken investment bankers and suchlike hidden in the Swiss mountains that hides a sinister history and even more sinister purpose, is the setting for A Cure For Wellness directed by Gore Verbinski. Ambitious young banker Lockheart is sent there to bring back a senior partner currently "taking the waters" but discovers what first appears to be a strict and eccentric health regime but develops into a gothic myth.

A Cure For Wellness is that rare thing - a mainstream Hollywood horror movie that really goes there. I thought some early scenes were tame and predictable, but by the final third of the movie I was on the edge of my seat and even had to cover my eyes once or twice, which is definitely not consistent with my backstory.

This is partly due to some superb worldbuilding and cinematography - the Volmer Institute with it's maze-like steam rooms, swimming pools, green coridoors and treatment rooms is a beautiful example of the creepy hospital subgenre. Cast is also mostly excellent, headed by Dane Dehaan as Lockheart and the aptly named Mia Goth as mysterious orphan and "special case" Hannah. I hope that's a screen name. Jason Isaacs as Dr. Volmer mostly hits the right note and is convincing as a threat, but sometimes veers a little towards pantomime villain. Supporting cast are excellent and it's nice to see an ensemble covering the whole age range rather than just pretty young students (yes, The Sand, I'm looking at you). Celia Imrie as the puzzle-obsessed Victoria stands out.

This film reminded me of other creepy-hospital or medical horror films, and there may be some deliberate tributes going on here. This does mean that at least the first third of the film feels unoriginal. The setting is three parts Rocky Horror to one part Hotel California - it's spelled out to Lockheart over and over that no-one ever leaves. Unnecessary. As well as Rocky Horror, at its best the film channels The Skin I Live In or Evolution, but there's also a hint of The Human Centipede, and even one or two scenes harking back to The Dentist. As with Evolution, there's a creature element; but where Evolution is a French Japanese puzzle-box to be unpacked slowly, here the creature's role in the horror is spelled out in detail and perhaps shoved down the viewer's throat - this is not an understated or subtle film. The last part of the film switches from horror a little too far into action - Lockheart almost becomes a martial arts-type hero at one point, which jars a little as there's no prior evidence his yuppie character has any fighting ability.

Overall this film is flawed in a few places but it's still a well-crafted horror movie - proof that Hollywood is still capable of creating something artistic, scary and utterly bonkers.

Saturday, 18 February 2017

Boy You Turnin' Me [Review: Upside Down]

Adam and Eden, the hero and heroine of French film “Upside Down” are star-crossed lovers, the poor boy and the rich girl. Just like Romeo and Juliet, Laura and Alec or Megashark and Giant Octopus, they live in different worlds – no, they literally live in different worlds, one suspended above the other and each with its’ own gravity. 

When Adam (Jim Sturgess) last saw Eden (Kirsten Dunst) she was falling upwards towards her own world and to her death.  Years later, when Adam discovers that Eden is still alive and working for Transcorp, a mysterious company whose offices link the two worlds, he comes up with a crazy plan to win her back.



Adam and Eden strive to escape the limitations of their societies and geometries, so Upside Down is Science Fiction.

“Upside Down” tells a simple and rather traditional story of love across the class divide, with a crude and obvious use of metaphor. Good performances from Sturgess and Dunst can’t cover over the lack of depth in the writing. I don’t care. Like Tron: Legacy, Mad Max: Fury Road and Daybreakers, this film is an example of near-perfect worldbuilding. It would work with or without the humans, although arguably any film where Kirsten Dunst kisses someone upside down is by definition a good film. The genius of “Upside Down” is the extraordinary environment of the twin worlds. It's thought out, designed and filmed in a way that every scene is visually striking, and every detail of every scene tells a chapter of the story, the history of the characters and their societies - a story far more rich and nuanced than the melodramatic script.

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Countdown [Review: Hidden Figures]

“Hidden Figures” tells the story of three mathematicians who became crucial to the US space programme, and who faced down sexists and racists in the segregated America of the 1960s along the way. The three lead characters, Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan, all strived to escape the limitations of what to all intents and purposes was a dystopian society, so “Hidden Figures” is Science Fiction – it just happens to be true as well.


This film could have been as bleak or serious as its’ subject matter. However the obstacles faced by Katherine Johnson (Taraji Henson, superb in “Person of Interest”) and her fellow “computers” would not be out of place in a Kafka play or a Douglas Adams novel. Appropriately the film is light and humorous in places, although there’s plenty of black humour too. It works - it's easy to ridicule and show up the behaviour of the bigots, played by Jim Parsons and Kirsten Dunst, while the lighter moments show Johnson, Vaughan and Jackson as human. They were never woad-painted freedom fighters, rather they fought and won their battles with their brains, sticking it to the Man from the inside, and by using humour the film does the same.