Category Archives: Science

Interstellar (2014)


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poster**WARNING – Major Spoiler Alerts**

I’ve been face down writing AntiHelix for the last month so I’ve neglected this blog a little, but having seen Interstellar on its opening night yesterday I thought I’d jot down my thoughts. It’s a curate’s egg – some parts are very good, other parts are disappointing and I came out of it feeling that it was a bit of a wasted opportunity. In clearly referencing Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Christopher Nolan was stepping into very big shoes and sadly they kept falling off. It’s essentially another attempt at a realistic space movie (like Europa Report) and has all the standard cliches of that genre (crew member cocks up, crew member mopes around, crew member goes barmy, people say things like ‘Doobry Flange Q5226 is out of alignment with the Thargalator’ and everyone bursts into tears and shouts because this is really important somehow). I’ve listed down the good points and the bad points, and now realise there’s more of the latter. That’s probably unfair because it was enjoyable and definitely worth seeing, if only for the accurate physics bits, but ultimately it’s a frustrating film.

The Good.

1) The science they got right. Much was made of the film employing the astrophysicist Kip Thorne to make sure the cosmic stuff was accurate. Having modelled a black hole in Mathematica he even found out new things about gravitational lensing, which meant that the aptly name Gargantua has rings of distorted light around its middle as well as round the edge. There’s a sub-genre of YouTube videos dedicated to trying to visualise higher dimensions and hyperbolic space – they’re fascinating to watch and the last part of the movie had the hero floating around a vast 5 dimensional tesseract which looked extremely impressive on the huge screen. The wormhole was also brilliant, and again apparently what the inside of one would really look like.


2) Getting around in space is bloody hard, especially when time dilation and strange gravitational influences kick in. The human cost of travelling to new worlds was shown particularly well, especially in the scene when the hero and heroine drop down to a planet for an hour or two, returning to find that the poor bugger they left behind has had to twiddle his thumbs in orbit for 23 years. None of this ‘Let’s go to Tatooine – woosh – here we are!’ – each trip to a planet was a hard slog costing energy, time (as in Time!) and the lives of Supporting Actors I Don’t Know What To Do With (see 1 below). The planets themselves were particularly grim affairs – uninhabitable Giant Wave world, uninhabitable Ice Cloud world with abandoned loony, and Tunisia – which is how it probably will be, and not welcoming civilisations of Gangsters, Romans or Nazis with slightly different noses.


3) The spectacle. It’s a jaw-dropping movie and once they get off Earth it’s more or less constant eye candy but without the incessant fizzy-pop fuelled explosions and noise of your standard blockbuster. Despite its faults it didn’t actually drag – the exciting explorer bits were fascinating and the drippy schmaltz was annoying instead of tedious. This is definitely one to see on IMAX if you can.

The Bad

1) None of the characters are that engaging and most play to ill-concealed stereotypes. Anne Hathaway is irritating as the slightly thick emotional woman who comes out with a completely left-field argument about how ‘lurv transcends space and time’ which somehow ends up being the core message of the movie. Michael Caine does Avuncular Old Scientist and Jessica Chastain phones in Resentful Abandoned Daughter. Nolan doesn’t seem to know what to do with the rest of the cast – token black guy can’t handle space travel, an uncredited Matt Damon rolls up as Marooned Nutjob. Matthew McConaughey is particularly charmless as the Chuck Yeager clone hero. The most interesting character ended up being the sarcastic robot TARS. He wasn’t your standard humanoid like Marvyn the Paranoid Android or Bender, but a cool articulated rubik cube that looked like a fridge designed by Apple. Some of the scenes where he went charging through the water were impressive but it’s hard to think of a worse design for the cramped confines of space capsule. You’d be forever stubbing your toes or barking your shins on the damn thing.


2) America is the world and only NASA can save the day. The complete lack of any sizable reference to foreign parts or Folks From Not Round Here (apart for Michael Caine) means that the film offers up a depressingly Tea Party-esque vision of a universe in which the only people who matter, or even exist, are Okies who will save the day with homespun wisdom and a test-pilot suspicion of panty-waist city slickers. If a wormhole turned up near Saturn with a promise of human salvation the considerably less risk-averse Chinese government would be cheerfully tossing astronauts in by the hundred. In fact why send humans at all? Given that TARS the robot was infinitely more likable and spent most of the time saving idiot humans why not just send him through to set up tents and get the place swept ready for mankind to follow?

3) The plot – which ended up being a) confusing and b) underwhelming. Part of the problem was that the Oh My God denouement was flagged five minutes after the film started (‘Dad, there’s a ghost in the bedroom and he keeps sending me data about gravity in binary!’ ‘Sorry dear, I can’t sort it out right now because I’ve got to go into a wormhole but I promise I will reach back to you from the other side of Beyond and communicate with you somehow’). Thinking it through this morning I still don’t understand how anything got fixed, though clearly something good happened because mankind ended up in groovy space habitats floating near Saturn – apparently the result of Resentful Abandoned Daughter reaching a breakthrough that connected gravity with quantum mechanics, or something like that – it’s not really clear at all.


4) Scratch the surface and you find 2001: A Space Odyssey, but without the apes and Joe the Plumber instead of the Starchild. Hyper beings send message to humans – humans go through portal – weird shit happens – human comes back with revelation. Most of this was rapidly lost in the irritating ‘I will return to my daughter’ plot but there was enough of it there for tribute to wander over into plagiarism. The insistence on playing the last note of the opening riff to Also Sprach Zarathustra whenever something big happened was clearly intentional, but to my mind just underlined the gap between Nolan’s vision and Kubrick’s.

So all in all a mixed bag. Definitely worth watching but I wouldn’t class this as a serious hard science fiction movie. The intelligent bits are hard to find in the mess of a plot, and the lazy characterisation just serves to reinforce the prejudice that SF struggles with people – a fatuous myth exploded by the first ten minutes of the infinitely better Solaris (the Tarkovsky one, not the rubbish George Clooney vehicle).

Soviet Space Art


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Our triumph in Space is a hymn to the Soviet nation!

Our triumph in Space is a hymn to the Soviet nation!

Last week I was working in Russia. I attended a conference in Tver, halfway between Moscow and St Petersburg where I was set on fire. I was also asked to be one of the judges for a final graduation film for one of the students at the All Russian Cinematography University (VGIK for short). As a thank-you present I received a set of 25 posters from the Soviet space race, mostly dated from the early 1960s. Funnily enough on the plane there and back I watched the movie Gagarin: First in Space, a Russian biopic of the first spaceman released in 2013. It’s a fascinating yet oddly unsatisfying movie, largely because its an unashamedly hagiographic portrait of the man. Others have commented that it feels like a Soviet Realist propaganda film of the era, where the bold Cosmonauts can do no wrong in their dedication to the cause. Gagarin, who in real life was clearly a complex man frustrated by the fact he wasn’t allowed anywhere near a rocket after his one flight, comes across as so too good to be true you want to punch him. It’s not The Right Stuff, and lacks all that movie’s acerbic portrayal of inter-astronaut rivalry, political shenanigans and down-right ludicrous training scenes (which it clearly tries to copy). It also suffers from Realistic Space Movie syndrome, whereby crises tend to be involve people shouting things like ‘There’s no signal from KP-3′ at which point everyone goes white as a sheet and runs round panicking and pointing at ticker tapes until someone says, ‘There is a signal from KP-3′, everyone breaks down into tears of relief and the audience go ‘Huh?’.

In the name of peace and progress!

In the name of peace and progress!

Having said that, overall it’s a great slice of Soviet space history with some very cool effects showing the Vostok I capsule whizzing over the earth. It also shows two things that were never mentioned at the time. Firstly Gagarin’s capsule didn’t separate properly before re-entry and they had to rely on atmospheric friction burning off the back half of module before the whole assembly destabilised. Secondly Gagarin ejected from the capsule before it hit the ground. This was planned all along but hushed up because for the flight to be recognised as a proper space flight the astronaut was supposed to accompany the vehicle from point of take off to point of landing.

Anyway – film aside, the posters, produced in the set Space Will Be Ours! by Kontakt Publishers of  Moscow are a wonderful record of the optimism and enthusiasm of the space age seen from the Soviet perspective. I’ve chosen my favourites and here they are for you to enjoy:


Soviet Art017medium

Soviet citizen be proud! The way to the distant stars has been discovered!

Soviet Art004Medium

Long live the Soviet people – the space pioneers!

Soviet Art012medium

Long live the first woman cosmonaut!

Soviet Art020medium

We are born to make dreams come true!

Soviet Art024medium

We are creative, friendly and clever. We’re making Space peaceful forever!

Soviet Art019medium

Let’s conquer Space!

Soviet Art014medium

Long live the first cosmonaut, Yu. A. Gagarin!

Soviet Art013medium

For the glory of Communism!

Soviet Art011medium

Long live Soviet science! Long live the Soviet man – the first cosmonaut!

Soviet Art008Medium

Space is going to serve the people!

Soviet Art002Medium

The distance to the furthest planet is not that far!

Soviet Art001Medium

We’ll pave the way to distant worlds, and solve the mysteries of the Universe!


Europa Report (2013)


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EuropaReportPosterSpoiler Alert

News from Space last week confirmed the existence of an ocean underneath the icy surface of Enceladus. Furthermore it seems that this immense body of water is in contact with the moon’s rocky core, allowing minerals to leach into the sea. Chemicals, water and tidal heating caused by Saturn’s gravity point to the tantalising possibility of life. The only way to find out, of course, is to drill through the ice and have a look, a plan that’s been on the cards for Jupiter’s moon Europa for many years, and which forms the background to the found-footage SF movie Europa Report.

For a while it seemed that the completely ridiculous Apollo 18, with its moon rock spiders, had pretty well put the nail in the coffin of the found-footage SF genre and the horror versions were tying themselves in increasing knots. I know modern dads sometimes hide behind the video camera to avoid engaging with their families but if I’m rescuing my daughter from a coven of witches I want one hand to hold the kid, and one hand to hold the tyre iron, not a bloody handy cam, but hey ho. Anyway just when we all thought grainy video footage had had its day as a plot device, Europa Report breathes fresh life into the conceit, combining hard realism with a pretty engaging story.

The Mission Crew - slightly more competent than the BBC's band of muppets.

The Mission Crew – slightly more competent than the BBC’s band of muppets.

The release schedule of Europa Report was frustratingly odd. It came out on the US iTunes in 2013 as a download but wasn’t available here until this Spring, probably to coincide with the release of Gravity on DVD so it could ride on the coattails of that movie. Apart from obvious similarities to 2001, Sunshine and Gravity in its hard science approach to near-space exploration the closest ancestor is the BBC TV series Space Odyssey: A Voyage to the Planets, produced by the BBC in 2004 as a quasi-documentary tour of the universe taking in Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, a fictional comet and Pluto. It was an oddly unsatisfying two-part series that didn’t really work as science or drama, and underscored a lot of the problems facing film makers trying to create realistic space journeys that have enough drama and interest to sustain a couple of hours.

The sheer terrifying loneliness of space.

The sheer terrifying loneliness of space.

The basic problem is that in between taking off and landing space flight is deadly dull and the writers are left with very little to work on. The choices are

a) Things Go Wrong – which can be pretty exciting and spectacular in the case of Gravity or Apollo 13 where things go really wrong. For the BBC documentary and Europa Report things can’t go too wrong, because then you’ve lost the mission. So things go a bit wrong and people gather anxiously around readouts muttering things like ‘I’m seeing a voltage spike on the KU-BAND Circuit Breakers on Panel R15’, which means bugger-all to anyone. The only alternative to this is Crewman Spectacularly Cocks Up

b) Crewman Spectacularly Cocks Up – and boy did they cock up in the BBC documentary. Whoever put this lot in charge of a multi-trillion dollar spaceship needs a quiet talking to. Nearly everything went wrong and a lot of it was down to human error – i.e. dithering around in lethal radiation zones, getting too close to the asteroid so the ship nearly got atomised, staying too long on Venus/Mars/the Comet etc etc. Inevitably this triggers the Crewman Dies scenario, followed by the Guilty Crewman Mopes Around. This can trigger Crewman Goes Barmy but then you are into the realm of Apollo 18 as real astronauts just sit on bunks and sulk instead of chasing the others round the ship with a hammer or a knife and fork like Big Jim in Chaplin’s The Gold Rush.

Landing on Europa

Landing on Europa

So in Europa Report we get Crewman Spectacularly Cocks Up when Sharlto Copley gets Hydrazine all over his suit while performing a routine EVA and so has to be left to die in space, followed by Guilty Crewman Mopes Around when Michael Nyqvist’s character goes all Scandinavian and broody because he thinks it was his fault. We almost get Crewman Goes Barmy because he sees things moving around outside when they land on Europa and everyone else exchanges glances and twiddles their fingers next to their temples. Of course anyone with a fraction of a brain would be going ‘Bloody hell, where?’ but this is Seriously Real Space Stuff so instead they gather round readouts going ‘Maybe it’s a voltage spike on the KU-BAND Circuit Breakers on Panel R15’. From then on the film is just one string of disasters after another, people falling through the ice, engines going wrong, the ship falling back onto the ice, everyone else falling through the ice again until we get the final OMG scene at the very end, which to be honest was expected all along but is still impressive despite that.

Stepping onto the surface.

Stepping onto the surface.

To be fair, although the film, like every Lovecraft story ever written, rides well-worn tracks to the final reveal it is still an impressive and eminently watchable movie, and before Gravity came along a delightfully refreshing break from overblown action SF spectaculars like Oblivion and Pacific Rim. The cast, on the whole, act well even if their roles are a bit obvious. Sharlto Copley reprises his goofily enthusiastic Wikus from District 9, Michael Nyqvist does Gloomy Swede and Christian Camargo looks and sounds like Mr Spock as the science officer. The real star of the show is, for me, Anamaria Marinca as the pilot Rosa. The way she switches between I’m Going To Die terror and sheer, wondrous curiosity in the final few moments is very moving, flattened somewhat by Embeth Daviditz’s wholly unecessary ‘Well that really shook up our understanding of the universe, didn’t it?’ speech in which she seems to be trying to channel Margaret Thatcher’s accent.

In terms of cinematography and pacing, the film is spot on. Although ultra realistic space flight tends to consist of scrapyard vessels motionless against a black background, the special effects and imagery work beautifully to give a real sense of a journey travelling far beyond the limits of what’s decent. While the film might now be completely overshadowed by Gravity, it’s an unfair comparison as it has its own intelligent and considered pace that rewards careful watching.

Flatland 2: Sphereland


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FlatlandSpherelandFlatland 2: Sphereland is the sequel to the movie Flatland which I mentioned in a blog post last year. It’s a charming 36 minute animated short based on the original novel by Edwin Abbott, and one of the book’s own sequels Sphereland: A Fantasy About Curved Spaces and an Expanding Universe, written in 1965 by the Dutch mathematician Dionys Burger.

The story takes place twenty years after the original, in which the Flatlander Arthur Square (Martin Sheen) and his daughter Hex (Kristen Bell) discovered the third dimension with the help of Spherius, a denizen of that realm voiced by Michael York. Her grandfather is now dead and Hex is ridiculed by the inhabitants of Flatland who still refuse to believe in the existence of dimensions beyond their own. Outcast from society, she waits for the return of the portal that will lead to the higher realms, and Spherius who has disappeared. At the same time the Flatlanders are preparing to launch a spaceship to take advantage of a rare alignment of planets in their flat universe.The ship will fly in a parallel line to the worlds so the crew can make observations.

The Flatlander's rocket ship

The Flatlander’s rocket ship

However one of the navigators, Puncto, has found an anomaly. Whenever he triangulates the position of distant planets his triangle’s angles add up to more than 180 degrees, and the discrepancy gets bigger the further the planet, the implication being that the parallel course plotted for the ship may end up being anything but. Anyone with a familiarity with maths and geometry can probably figure out the reason why. If not, it’s another reason to watch the movie. The discovery about the true nature of the Flatland’s universe coincides with the return of Spherius and the revelation that there are even more dimensions beyond the third.

Hex and Puncto discuss the triangulation anomaly

Hex and Puncto discuss the triangulation anomaly

Flatland 2: Sphereland is aimed at the educational market, and so it’s very much a kid’s film punctuated by brief, but clear, explanations of fundamental principles of geometry. The felt need to make it appealing to contemporary students occasionally grates, although there’s less of the more irritating modern elements that crept into the first film (Flatland skateboards, the King of Lineland shouting ‘Dude you’re freaking me out’ when Arthur Square enters his world). The simple story has enough pace and tension in it to keep the audience engaged and the visual feel of the film is fantastic. Flatland is especially stunning and I loved the retro diesel punk rocket its inhabitants are sending into space. Indeed Flatland is more impressive than the third dimension, which serves up a fairly standard pageantry of abstract and semi-organic 3D landscapes.

Spherius visits the fourth dimension

Spherius visits the fourth dimension

Part of the story revolves around the discovery of even higher dimensions than the third. Spherius is visited by a denizen of the fourth dimension, an Oversphere (voiced by Voyager captain Kate Mulgrew). At this point the film becomes a little unstrung and confusing. Obviously the biggest problem is representing the Fourth Dimension, which Spherius visits. Apart from telling us that he can see the inside and outside of everything simultaneously, and showing us a lot of fluorescent floaty seaweed, the film avoids tackling any of the mathematics head on. Instead it gives us tantalising views of a Tesseract and a Clifford Torus before taking a left turn into the more science fictional world of the Multiverse, with multiple copies of the spaceship appearing each from an alternate time line. It may be that the filmmakers decided that multidimensional geometry was one step too far for its young audience and decided to go for the Sense of Wonder angle instead. It’s not a bad call, but it would have been nice to have had at least one mathematical principle of four dimensional space explained with the same clarity as the trigonometry lesson earlier in the movie.

All in all Flatland 2: Sphereland is a great little film, beautifully designed, very clever and adept at explaining most of the maths behind its straightforward but entertaining story. Unless you are a teacher looking to buy a school-wide license for $149.95 you’ll probably be content with the personal edition. This can be purchased as a DVD ($24.95) or digital download for instant viewing ($19.95) from the website here.

Minecraft Memory Palace


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Minecraft is limited only by your imagination

Minecraft is limited only by your imagination

I’ve been a fan of memory systems for years, especially the Memory Palace method of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Known as the ‘System of Locii’ this is based on the principle of using places to remember things. This is how it works – you think of somewhere you know (such as your house) and in your imagination you divide it into specific locations (bathroom, bedroom etc.). When you want to memorise things you create exaggerated images or symbols and, in your imagination, place them in the locations you’ve chosen. When the time comes to recall the information you mentally walk through your chosen place and as you enter each room you will ‘see’ the images of the things you want to remember. To give a really pedestrian example – let’s say you need to buy oranges, chicken and milk. In your imagination you might fill your bath with oranges, have a giant chicken sitting on your bed and a cow being milked on the landing. When you visit the shops you imagine you’re back at home and when you see the images in your mind you remember what you wanted to buy.


Renaissance memory palace in the form of a theatre.

The system is incredibly powerful, and was developed and used for thousands of years. The advent of print meant that people no longer had to commit huge amounts of information to memory and the ‘art’ went underground (it was also associated with Alchemy, and therefore regarded with suspicion by the Church). It became a trade secret among stage magicians and others who continued to tap into its amazing ability to fix information in our heads. Most card counters use a variation of the Memory Palace system to make huge amounts of money in the casinos, before they get found out and their photos circulated on the banned lists. Recent discoveries in neuroscience suggests that it taps into fundamental structures of the human mind, our ability to navigate space combined with our imagination, which is why it works so well.

The example of a shopping list I gave above is not particularly interesting, but the Memory Palace can be used to remember incredible amounts of data. At the moment I’m using it to memorise European history on a year by year basis from 0 AD (I’m up to 1500). To give another example, in my imagination I can see a Mafia boss eating an ant pie in Ilkley Station in Yorkshire. This tells me that the Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius ascended the throne in 138AD (I’ve introduced a second memory system here which is used for numbers, the Mafia boss represents the number 38). Now, when I get bored with long train journeys, I can ‘walk’ through history in my head.

Minecraft - limitless sandbox for building memory palaces.

Minecraft – limitless sandbox for building memory palaces.

Creating a Memory Palace takes time and practice and there are disadvantages to using real places. Typically you will associate a whole range of extraneous information with a location in the actual world. I can’t think of my home without including my family and the cats, and they can get in the way of the things I want to remember. The problem is exacerbated in public spaces. I have to make the mental effort of emptying Ilkley Station of people before I stick my image on the platform. The alternative is to create imaginary locations – palaces and villas of the mind – but these can often be difficult to visualise as accurately as a real place, and so the associated imagery is weaker. These were two things I struggled with until I came across Minecraft.

For anyone who’s been living in a cave for the last few years, Minecraft is a sandbox game that allows you to build anything you like in an infinite world using simple blocks. It’s essentially a virtual version of Lego, though you are limited entirely to cubes. It has two modes – Survival and Creative. In Survival mode you have to mine for materials to make things to defend yourself against randomly spawned monsters. In Creative mode you have access to all the building blocks, and don’t have to struggle against enemies. I’m using Creative Mode to build memory palaces and the results are fantastic. It gets round the problems of random association you get with real places, and gives concrete form to imaginary buildings, making them more ‘real’. Right now I’m using it to learn the periodic table of elements – here’s a quick tour of a section of my Minecraft Memory Palace:

Transitional Metals in the Periodic Table

Transitional Metals in the Periodic Table

This is part of the palace devoted to Transitional Metals on the periodic table (hence the big TM on the wall).


This room contains images for four elements. The tree represents Tantalum, it’s the tree from Hades that held the fruit that blew out of reach whenever Tantalus reached up to eat it. The big pink tongue is Tungsten, and the blue box is a box of Rennies indigestion tablets (Rhenium). Through the archway is Osmium.



Below is the cave of the Sybil, deep underground where I have built a complex of rooms for the Alkaline Earth Metals. In here is Beryllium.


Minecraft is crude and blocky, and you have to use your imagination to fill in the details. This is actually a good thing because, in the end, the information sits in your brain. That means I can review my knowledge of the periodic table by ‘walking’ through my Memory Palace in Minecraft, or in my head when I have nothing else to do. Each walkthrough reinforces the information, embedding it in my long-term memory. This is only the beginning, Minecraft is such fun to play with I’m adding rooms for all sorts of things I need to remember for work, my writing and my own learning. You could use this system to build entire plots for novels, for example. You can also add information as you come across it. I’m using a memory system for remembering numbers that uses famous people. For example, King Arthur is the number 74. By having him stick Excalibur in the big pink tongue I remember that the Atomic Number of Tungsten is 74.

The classic book on Memory Palaces is Francis Yates’ The Art of Memory. The best contemporary guide I’ve come across on how to build such a palace is Dominic O’Brien’s How to Pass Exams. Minecraft can be downloaded from here.


Life Before Man


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LifeBeforeMan On my last trip up to Yorkshire I found one of my favourite childhood books, Life Before Man, by Zdenek Burian (pictures) and Zdenek V. Spinar (text), published in 1972 by Thames and Hudson. I bought this when it first came out and it entranced me for years.

Nowadays photorealistic dinosaurs are de rigueur, thanks to Jurassic Park (1993) and TV series like Walking with Dinosaurs (1999) but in the 60s and 70s making prehistoric beasts come to life was a real challenge. Films went for two approaches to the problem – either using stop motion rubber models (Valley of the Gwangi (1969) and A Million Years BC (1966)) or gluing fins onto real lizards, poking them with a stick and filming them in slow motion (The Lost World (1960) and Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1959)). They also tended to mess things up historically by introducing women who ran about screaming and spraining their ankles mid-flight, as was required by the artistic sensibilities of the time. Only the Stravinsky sequence in Fantasia (1940) came anywhere near a decent attempt at scientific accuracy.


A gala dinner held inside a wildly inaccurate dinosaur in 1853

Artists had been trying to recreate the beasts since Victorians fell in love with the monsters in the middle of the 19th century, though first attempts came up with some spectacular errors. Most famous of these was the sculpture of the Iguanadon intended for Crystal Palace gardens. The artist knew the monster had a spiky bit but was at a loss where to put it, so he stuck it on the end of the creature’s nose (it belongs on its thumb). He also made it four-legged, not bipedal, though this did help when a gala dinner was held inside the mould in 1853.

The obligatory Tyrannosaurus Rex

The obligatory Tyrannosaurus Rex

Zdenek Burian’s paintings were revolutionary because of their obsessive attention to detail, and the almost near-photographic execution. Many of them are also ‘action shots’ rather than the rather dull static images of the day. Scientific discoveries have rendered some of the images inaccurate, his biped dinosaurs appear to walk like humans dragging big tails, rather than like birds with their rear ends stuck out for balance. Yet both his dinosaurs and their surroundings appeared completely believable, so much so that one foil-hatted UFO-hoaxer used Burian’s picture of Pteranadon as a ‘photograph’ proving he’d journeyed back in time with the help of his alien chums.

Burian's painting of a Pteranodon used as photographic 'proof' of Billy Meier's time travel.

Burian’s painting of a Pteranodon used as photographic ‘proof’ of Billy Meier’s time travel.

Life Before Man is also remarkable for the sheer number and scope of the pictures. The book is chronological and spans prehistory from the cratered volcanic wilderness of 4600 million years ago, through the Precambrian all the way through to the Quaternary era and the New Stone Age. Not only does it show prehistoric monsters in all their glory but also the rise of the mammals, and eventually the different stages of man’s evolution.

Neanderthal man makes something to poke Homo Sapiens with.

Neanderthal man makes something to poke Homo Sapiens with.

After the dinosaurs the mammals are a bit dull; big cats, hairy elephants and odd looking rinoceri, but Burian comes into his own again with wonderfully evocative images of early people engaged in various prehistoric pursuits such as Chipping Flints or Pointing at Things and Grunting in Alarm. Here the quality of the images is patchy, but when he’s at his best you could believe you are looking at portraits of living beings. Here’s his rendition of Homo Erectus from half a million years ago.

Homo Erectus (Peking Man)

Homo Erectus (Peking Man)

Sadly Life Before Man is currently out of print but stray copies occasionally appear on Amazon.

Here’s a link to Billy Meier’s website in which he answers accusations that the photo of a Pteranodon he took while time travelling was simply a copy of Burian’s painting. He backs up his argument with a letter from Ptaah the Plejaran of the Andromeda Council who blames it on Quetzal, another alien, for going off on one and stealing all the original negatives.

Under the Moons of Mars


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I’ve just got back from a trip to Moscow and was planning to write a few posts on some of the things I found there; especially the wonderful Symbolist Art of Nicholas Roerich. Then Curiosity sent back one of the most amazing space photos I’ve seen. It’s not much to look at, but for anyone who has an abiding interest in Mars, both the real and the fictional versions, this really is incredible. Have a look at the top right corner of the image below. See that white crescent? That is the moon Phobos photographed from the surface of Mars by NASA’s Curiosity Rover. It is an image taken from the surface of another world, looking up into the sky at one of two moons. If both were in the sky that would be even more mind-blowing, but this is amazing enough, I think.

A few weeks ago Curiosity also took a photograph of a partial eclipse on Mars, again with the moon Phobos. Here is the image below:

As Phobos is only a big rock it doesn’t take much of a bite out of the sun. You can learn more about the above picture in this Guardian report.

The original title for Edgar Rice Burrough’s first Martian novel, A Princess of Mars, was Under the Moons of Mars, published in the magazine All Story in 1911 under the pen-name ‘Normal Bean’. Phobos appeared in the eighth book in the series, Swords of Mars, where it’s called Thuria by the inhabitants of Mars. It’s about 15,700 Haads from Mars to Phobos, and it takes round about five Zodes to get there, just in case you were wondering. Here’s Bruce Pennington’s cover for the New English Library edition of 1972 showing one of the inhabitants of Phobos.

The reality, though uninhabited, is just as dramatic. This is a NASA photograph of Phobos taken from close up:

Of course the first picture above would be much enhanced by the silhouette of Tars Tarkas on a Thoat looking up at it. As that’s not going to happen, to finish with here’s one of Frank Frazetta’s paintings of John Carter and Dejah Thoris on Mars with both moons, Phobos and Deimos, in the background.

Update: My mistake, that’s a painting of Princess Thuvia of Mars and Carthoris of Helium, John Carter’s son, as any fule kno.

Frontiers of Space – in memory of Neil Armstrong


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Neil Armstrong, 1930 – 2012

For me the years 1968 – 1969 were a perfect storm for three reasons. Firstly I saw Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey at the age of seven. Not only was I entranced by the movie’s images but also beside myself with excitement at the thought that I would be alive at the grand old age of 40 when the new century rolled around, and would experience all the things happening in the film (except, I hoped, the weird hippy bit at the end). Secondly my mum banned me from watching Star Trek because she thought it was rubbish. So my sole purpose in life became, surprisingly enough, watching Star Trek, when I wasn’t playing at being Mr Spock, because he was the one I most identified with.

The third reason was, of course, the moon landing. At 8pm on July 20th 1969 I sat in front of a black and white TV and tried to make out what was happening from those fuzzy images of Neil Armstrong climbing down the leg of the LEM to stand on the Moon’s surface. One worry at the time was that the surface might be dust to the depth of several meters so when he didn’t disappear into grey quicksand I was mightily relieved.

It’s hard to explain just how profound an impact the moon landings had on people (especially boys) who were my age at the time. Every newspaper, magazine, comic and toy store sold us a vision of a near-future space age. 2001: A Space Odyssey already revealed what it would look like, pretty much the same as our own 1960s but in orbit. My dad was an architect and interior designer and we already had some of the Scandinavian designed chairs and tables that littered the interior of Kubrick’s space wheel. This was the beginning of the road that would take us at least to a moon colony, and probably the exploration of Mars.

What the future should have been. I used to eat my tea off tables like those.

Of course it never happened, and now the moon landings are history, along with the sleek formica and steel interiors of my childhood home.

In 1985 J. G. Ballard published a story ‘The Man Who Walked on the Moon’ in Interzone. In the tale the narrator meets a beggar in Rio de Janeiro who claims to be an Apollo astronaut and who scrounges money from tourists in return for tales of his experiences. When the man dies the narrator takes his place. The UK adult comic Viz did a hilarious but poignant fake newspaper report about Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins in their post-Apollo 11 days re-forming as a comedy act called The Astronutties and performing out-of-season pier-end shows in faded UK coastal resorts. Finally here’s an intriguing anecdote by the SF/Fantasy writer Lucius Shepard about a possible encounter with Armstrong at the Neil Armstrong Museum where, according to the curator, he occasionally liked to sleep in their model of the lunar lander.

These tales carry a strong resonance for me because, in true Ballardian fashion, the remaining Apollo astronauts have become living ghosts of a future that was dead long before the last LEM touched down on the moon. Staggeringly brave, resourceful and intelligent men, they really were heroes in all senses of the word. For this reason they seem out of place in a world where manufactured celebs make up our media pantheon and ignorance is seen as cool. When I was eight I wanted to be an astronaut. Now kids want to be celebrities, but with no idea what they will do to become one.

‘That’s How It Felt To Walk On The Moon’ by Al Bean, Apollo 12 astronaut.

Andrew Smith’s book Moondust: In Search of the Men Who Fell to Earth is a wonderful series of interview-based portraits of the Apollo astronauts, each one a very different personality and each one affected in a different way by their adventure. My favourite is Alan Bean from Apollo 12. He has spent a lot of his post-space days repeatedly painting scenes of astronauts on the moon, and you can see his work online at the Alan Bean Gallery. Other astronauts found god, became obsessed with the paranormal or suffered from alcoholism.  Neil Armstrong simply kept himself to himself. By all accounts he saw his own role as minor in the context of the vast efforts that put him at the foot of the LEM’s ladder, and refused to condone the hagiography that surrounded him. Yet the first man on the moon wasn’t quite the mad recluse he was sometimes made out to be. This TV profile shows that he was perfectly happy to give detailed answers to intelligent questions in a 60 minute interview.

In 1969 I had two books, Manned Spacecraft and Frontiers of Space. The first one covered spaceflight up to that point. The second one foretold the future. What made it different from other books of this kind was its rigorously serious engineering focus. It tried, in all seriousness, to predict what would come after Apollo, based on the various projects then sitting on NASA drawing boards. The text was too dry and confusing for an 8-year old but the pictures were entrancing and entirely believable. Here are a couple of two-page spreads showing the next stages of moon and Mars exploration. The execution is scrappy but I didn’t care, to me this was my future.

Moon base circa 1978

Mars base circa 1980

For a fascinating account of how the dream of the space age was destroyed by NASA bureaucracy and Senatorial pork-barrel politics have a look at Lost in Space: The Fall of NASA and the Dream of a New Space Age by Greg Klerkx

I used to say that I didn’t want to die until I’d seen an astronaut on Mars. I don’t think that wish will come true. The way I see it now is that the Apollo missions were like Leif Erickson going to America in the 11th century. Viking exploration budgets and project management expertise weren’t really able to exploit the discovery and it was a few centuries before Europeans went back. We will send astronauts to Mars and those other places, but it may be a few hundred years away.

A thousand miles an hour – the Bloodhound SSC


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The Bloodhound supersonic car

This week I attended a one-day education conference in Lancaster House, hosted by the British Government as part of the diplomatic activities surrounding the Olympic Games. I spent a while chatting to Wing Commander Andy Green who is the current land speed record holder. In 1997 he reached 763 miles an hour in the car Thrust SSC.

Wing Commander Andy Green

He’s now preparing to break that record in the Bloodhound SSC (Bloodhound supersonic car), which he will attempt to drive at a 1,000 miles per hour. The project involves some breathtaking engineering and Andy Green really will be entering unknown territory. The motivation behind the attempt is to try to recreate the ‘Apollo effect’ in education. During the moon landings there was a surge in Physics and Engineering Ph.Ds in America as the Apollo program captured the imaginations of US students. The Bloodhound project wants to do the same, so there’s a whole outreach program to schools designed to stoke kids’ enthusiasm for the mind-blowing engineering that the project is developing.

To give some idea of the extreme science involved here’s some of the more dramatic facts about the Bloodhound SSC:

1. The main jet engine is from a Eurofighter. In addition the car also has a hybrid rocket so the car will actually be able to outrace one of the planes.

2. The fuel pump alone is the engine from a Formula 1 racing car.

3. When the car accelerates Andy will be hit by a force of 2.5G, on deceleration it’ll be 3G in the opposite direction.

4. The wheels have to rotate at over 10,000 RPM, creating a stress force of 50,000G at the wheel rims (to put that in perspective, the gravitational force on the surface of the Sun is about 30G).

Basically because no-one has driven a car at this speed once it gets above the current record it’s entering unknown territory. Flying a plane or a rocket at 1000 miles an hour is relatively easy because you have the same medium above and below the vehicle. With a supersonic car the ground is a few inches below the chassis and calculating the aerodynamics between the body, the wheels and the earth’s surface is a massive mathematical challenge.

The car will be driven on Hakskeen Pan in South Africa, the only salt lake large enough for the car to complete its 10 mile run. A team of 300 people spent months picking up every stone larger than a tiny pebble to make sure that the surface will be perfectly smooth.

The official website for the Bloodhound project is here:

To give you an idea of the challenges and amazing science behind the project here’s a video:

A simulation of the race between the Bloodhound and a Eurofighter

At the conference Andy Green showed us a video of a test run on the salt lake. Two things were absolutely amazing, firstly the lake is so flat you could see the curvature of the earth. As the car appeared in the distance, coming towards the camera, it popped over the horizon. Secondly it outruns its own sound, so when it drives past it’s silent. The ear-splitting din comes a few seconds later!

Bugs of the Empire


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A little while ago I wrote about the Eagle Comic in the early 1960s. The Captain was a similar magazine from the beginning of the twentieth century. The upsurge in adventure books for boys in the late Victorian and Edwardian eras paved the way for the first periodicals aimed at the Empire builders of tomorrow. The Captain‘s strap line is A Magazine for Boys and Old Boys, though judging from the letters pages quite a few girls read it as well. The content is as you would expect, ripping tales of derring do in an Empire populated by plucky young Englishmen and lots of dodgy foreigners. The latter fall into two camps, simple and treacherous if they come from the less developed colonies, or clever, sinister and fiendishly treacherous if they come from civilisations that matched Europe’s (i.e., China).

The Captain, therefore, has its fair share of atrociously racist imperial tales, mingled with stories of various chaps’ tribulations at their new school. Interspersed with these are the regular features and the letters page, all of which give a fascinating insight into the world of boys (and girls) in the Victorian and Edwardian age. I’ve got the bound edition for 1907, presented to a George Henshaw by the Headmaster for “Regularity and Progress”. Inside there is the Naturalist’s Corner, the Cycling Corner  and answers to readers’ correspondence by the editor. All the features sport photographs of the columnists. They all have enormous moustaches, high wing collars and constipated expressions. This is ‘getting down with the kids’ circa 1907.

Edward Step, F.L.S. runs the Naturalist’s Corner. This largely consisted of readers sending him samples through the post for him to examine, or asking him to diagnose their pets’ ailments. His responses get increasingly tetchy as a steady procession of bugs, dead pets and exotic turds arrive on his doorstep for his analysis. One typical example reads thus:

G.A.P. (Windsor) has a green parrot his pater brought from India about eighteen years ago. It has always been a remarkably healthy bird, until quite recently , “when he gave a scream and fell from his perch.” … I do not think this condition has any relation to the use of a new kind of bird-sand, as G. A. P. suggests might be the case ; on the contrary, the symptoms appear to be unmistakably those of an apoplectic fit… All I can advise is to keep the bird quiet, and free from excitement and stimulating food.

A few issues later and the steady stream of specimens through the post is starting to fray Edward’s nerves…

“Bee, Wasp or Fly?” is the query propounded by ‘Jones’ (Blackheath) who sends me an insect unpleasantly squashed on a piece of paper, and asks for its name… Further investigation into its identity I must decline to make, because if readers are so thoughtless as to send specimens in a repulsive condition, it is evident they cannot seriously require the information asked for.

By July 1907 he is clearly losing the plot. He has a new photo in which his beard looks decidedly unkempt and his eyes have a mad, desperate gleam about them. This is probably why:

In spite of my repeated disclaimer, A. M. T. (Mill Hill) sends me yet another dead canary and invites me to state why it died. All things die even pets, and so far as one can base an opinion upon an external examination, I should say the present case is one of old age. But these dead pets should be handed over to the family doctor, who, by examination of the internal organs, might be able to speak with certainty.

While Edward Step was disappearing under a mountain of dead pets and repulsive specimens, the editor was replying to the readers’ more general questions. At this time, most magazines would respond directly to letters sent in, but to save time and space wouldn’t print the original enquiries. The result is a series of comments and advice to questions we can only guess at. The mind boggles as to what was going on in the heads of some of the correspondents. Some queries were as expected:

“Railway Notes” wants me to discuss, in an editorial article, the question of boys meeting girls. Boys should not meet girls without the sanction of parents on both sides and even then the girl should be properly chaperoned.

Some letters hint at a darker side to Edwardian boyhood:

J Robertson – I have been asked many things, but I never have I been asked how a guillotine is made. I have only seen one, and that was at Madame Tussaud’s. Next time you come to London, go there and examine the ghastly thing. Mr. John Tussaud, the sculptor of the exhibition, is a kind man, and possibly would give you the information you require if you wrote to him nicely.

While some provide enough implied content to fill several novels, probably for serialisation in the Victorian underground porn magazine The Pearl:

T.M. Yes you have sinned, and that grievously, but look into your heart and pray to our Lord for forgiveness. In the meantime, a clean mouth and a clean mind is always the best advice for a growing fellow like yourself. There is a great shortage of good and willing men in Australia. I suggest you write to the Foreign Office for more information.

The overwhelming tone of The Captain is of a bunch of well-intentioned men desperately trying to steer the nation’s youth  down the right path, speaking to the readers with an odd mixture of school-masterly admonition and embarrassing chumminess. Their resolute ‘Come on chaps!’ call to decency and right-thinking is frequently combined with a sense of confusion and bewilderment when their readers don’t always respond as expected. It’s a bit like a Latin master trying to persuade his class of wayward 1907 pupils that translating Plutarch really is jolly fun, if only they would sit down, pay attention and stop thinking about petticoats. I do feel sorry for Edward Step, though I’m sure his Edwardian sense of moral purpose and dedication to the Empire kept him going.

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