Treknology looks at Star Trek gizmos

Star Trek first hit the airwaves over a half century ago, and Dr. Ethan Siegel finds it amazing how many of the gizmos, gadgets, and technologies imagined by the various Trek television series have become reality. Siegel, theoretical astrophysicist and science writer, is author of the new book Treknology: The Science of Star Trek from Tricorders to Warp Drive (Voyageur Press, 2017). Treknology is scheduled for release on October 15 and is available for pre-order on Amazon now.

Siegel, a Trek fan since discovering The Next Generation (TNG) as a kid, figures he was just the guy to dig into Star Trek’s technology.

“That intersection of an interest in Star Trek and Sci-fi, of an interest in what it means for humanity, and a knowledge of physics, all of those have come together to make this book possible,” Siegel said.

Treknology devotes a separate chapter to 28 different technologies that were used in the various series.

“These technologies that were so futuristic that they were imagined centuries in the future, some of them don’t appear to be that far off,” Siegel noted. “Some of them are already here and in widespread use. Others that we thought just a few years ago were going to be far-future technologies look like they’re coming to fruition.”

We’ve got that Treknology already

Siegel noted that it was The Original Series (TOS) that came up with the automatic sliding door, now a staple in every airport and supermarket. Your tablet is also cooler than anything Trek came up with.

“What you’ve got in your smart phone is much more impressive that anything that were on those touch-screen pads that Star Trek envisioned,” Siegel said. “Here we are with something that’s smaller, that’s more compact.”

That goes for pretty much all of the computers, he noted.

“We’ve gone way beyond what Star Trek would have envisioned much more quickly than anything that came about in the original series,” Siegel said. At the time of TOS in real life we had room-sized computers that had less computing oomph than today’s pocket calculators. When TNG came around, they figured they had to jazz up the computing and came up with something new and fancy—digital storage.

“Your flash drive is more powerful than a Star Trek isolinear chip,” Sigel noted. “As far as computation goes—ships computer, pads, isolinear chips—we’ve blown away what Star Trek would have envisioned.”

Medical technology

Siegel

Dr. Ethan Siegel, author of Treknology, during a lecture in Portland last year. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

As an astronomy and physics guy, Siegel said he was especially interested in learning about the medical technologies and biological situations that Star Trek dreamed up. He noted that we may soon be able to use synthehol, a substance with the positive effects of booze without the negative impacts.

“Synthehol is on track pharmacologically to become real,” Siegel said.

We may also be close to helping sightless people see, ala Geordi La Forge—the TNG character played by LeVar Burton—who wore a special visor that allowed him to see the entire electromagnetic spectrum.

“If we can make an implant somewhere in your brain’s visual cortex, and we can wirelessly feed an external signal to that implant,” Siegel said, “this is a potential way to restore sight to the blind,” even if they have no eyes or optic nerves at all. NASA actually tinkered with sight-improving technology in the late 1990s, and called its project JORDY: Joint Optical Reflective DisplaY.

Not there yet

There are other Treknologies that aren’t so close yet. Warp drive is at the top of that list. He says it’s mathematically possible, but it will be tough to make it work in our universe.

“It depends on if you can either have negative gravitational mass or negative energy,” Siegel explained. “If you can, then great, we can build warp drive. If that’s a physical impossibility—and we haven’t discovered anything like that yet—then I don’t know how warp drive can be possible.”

“This is probalbly one of the most difficult technologies to acheive, but I still don’t want to rule it out and say it’s impossible,” he added. “I want to look at what it would take to make it possible.”

A few other technologies such as subspace communication and transporters would require “extensions” to our current physics to become reality, Siegel said, and we’re a ways from life-like androids and holodecks, too.

Sigel has written widely. His first book was Beyond the Galaxy: How Humanity Looked Beyond Our Milky Way and Discovered the Entire Universe (World Scientific Publishing Co., 2015). He writes the Starts With a Bang blog on Forbes, and produces a podcast of the same name. Siegel can be found under that handle on Twitter and Facebook. He expects to be touring conventions and bookstores around the country in support of Treknology. We look forward to the book’s release next month.

Podcast of our interview with Ethan Siegel:

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Astro Biz: Moon Drops grapes

Moon Drops grapesMany businesses, products, and places have names rooted in space and astronomy. We’re featuring one every Tuesday on Seattle Astronomy.

This week’s Astro Biz is Moon Drops grapes from Grapery out of Shafter, California. Grapery gets into the Astro Biz spirit by declaring that “you and your favorite earthlings will agree – Moon Drops are truly stellar.”

We spotted Moon Drops at our local supermarket this week.

More info:

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Calendar: TJO wraps open houses for the season

A handful of astronomy club meetings and the final open house of the year at the Theodor Jacobsen Observatory are the highlights of this week’s astronomy calendar.

TJO

Theodor Jacobsen ObservatoryThe University of Washington hosts open houses at the Theodor Jacobsen Observatory on the first and third Wednesdays of each month from April through September. The open house at 8 p.m. this Wednesday, September 20, will be the last for 2017.

UW students give talks at the open houses. We haven’t been plugging these much this year because the free talks have been filled well in advance; the talks are free, but reservations are needed, as the classroom can accommodate just 45 people. Volunteers from the Seattle Astronomical Society staff the dome and its vintage telescope. There are also typically telescopes on hand outside for those who don’t get a chance to get inside.

Astronomy clubs

A quick rundown of the regional astronomy club meetings this week:

Mark your calendars

One of our favorite monthly events is coming up next week: Astronomy on Tap Seattle will meet at 8 p.m. Wednesday, September 27 at Peddler Brewing in Ballard. The topic will be “What the Heck is Polarimetry?”, and the speakers will be Dr. Jamie Lomax, who will talk about her research on detecting the almost-invisible material around stars, and Dr. Kim Bott, who uses polarimetry to hunt for signs of habitable worlds.

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Planning for the 2024 total solar eclipse

Last month’s total solar eclipse was the first one I had ever seen. Like many newly minted and experienced umbraphiles alike, I’m already thinking about the next total solar eclipse to cross the United States, which will happen on April 8, 2024. It seems like a long time off, but you don’t want to be like those folks who were frantically looking for eclipse glasses the day before the event!

As I ponder the last two years of planning for 2017, I realize that the advice received in the course of the enterprise was somewhat contradictory. In summary, when preparing for a total solar eclipse, one should plan carefully and well in advance, always have a plan B, and be ready to chuck it all and just wing it in the case of bad weather or other opportunities and circumstances.

Plan ahead

Fred Espenak

Fred Espenak. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Our first tutorial in eclipse planning came from Mr. Eclipse himself, Fred Espenak, who spoke at the Seattle Astronomical Society banquet in January 2016. (Here’s our recap of that talk.) Espenak and his weather guru partner, Jay Anderson of Eclipsophile, scouted the entire path of totality for viewing and weather conditions. It was Espenak’s declaration of Madras, Oregon as having the best clear-sky prospects for eclipse day that drove thousands of people to central Oregon. My favorite remark from Espenak from that talk: “On eclipse day you don’t get climate, you get weather.” Oregon had the best odds, many of us rolled the dice on that and came out winners.

Have a plan B

For many eclipse chasers plan B amounts to watching the weather forecast in the days and weeks leading up to the eclipse and, if things look dicey, going somewhere else. Many choose their preferred viewing site based on the ability to get away. That’s one reason that Espenak viewed last month’s eclipse from Casper, Wyoming: the weather prospects there were good, and major highways running east and west along the path of totality meant a good chance to run to find a break in any clouds that might move in. The Astronomical League held its annual convention there, too.

O'Meara

Seattle Astronomy’s Greg Scheiderer with Stephen O’Meara at the Seattle Astronomical Society meeting Aug. 16, 2017.

The week before the eclipse Steven O’Meara, a columnist for Astronomy magazine and an avid eclipse chaser, gave a talk to the Seattle Astronomical Society. He recounted how, as a young child, his mother showed him little eclipses reflected through the holes in their home’s window blinds.

“Partial eclipses have been dear to me ever since I was a child,” O’Meara said. He noted that a thought struck him after a recent similar presentation.

“I realized how wonderful partial eclipses are and how much more fun I have at partial eclipses, because there’s no pressure,” O’Meara said. We think he actually thrives on the pressure though, and he told a number of entertaining stories about last-ditch efforts to beat the clouds and catch at least a glimpse of an elusive eclipse. Some of the more interesting ones involved Pop Tarts and essentially hijacking a boat in Indonesia when it appeared there would be no eclipse viewing on land. He may well be the king of plan B.

My own plan

Writing the Seattle Astronomy blog and producing our podcast was my research and planning for last month’s eclipse. I’ve done 27 posts (including this one) and did 15 podcasts about the eclipse, with the subject of many being the question of why one would choose Stapleton, Nebraska or Nashville for eclipse watching over the other places in the path of totality. I learned a lot about the activities each community had planned, and what else there was to do there once an eclipse was over. With all of that information, I ended up picking Salem, Oregon. I had three reasons: proximity, population, and weather.

cloud chart

Data by NASA/GSFC. Graph courtesy Jay Anderson, Eclipsophile.com

Proximity. I reasoned that, if I lived in the Salem area, I probably would not have gone anywhere else. I’d have gone to a local park, or sat in my own back yard, to watch the eclipse. One short move may have been to get a little closer to the center line. With Salem just a four-hour drive from Seattle, this seemed a sensible option.

Population. At some point in my deliberations, I decided that I preferred a more urban setting to a rural one. It seemed that accommodations, the ability to get around, and access to stuff like food and a porta-potty might be more likely in a setting with more infrastructure.

Weather. Yes, many people would and did laugh about this. Walk up to anyone and tell them that you plan to watch a solar eclipse in western Oregon, and about 80 percent of them will immediately laugh and declare that, “It will rain.”

Looking at Anderson’s chart above of weather along the path of totality revealed a different story, however. While, statistically, the weather in Salem on August 21 of any year isn’t as good as that in Madras, it’s still pretty close, and a far sight better than just about any place east of Missouri. Salem seemed a good bet. When the date arrived and climate turned into weather, it helped that we were in the middle of the driest, clearest summer anyone can remember.

Chuck it

As I asked people along the path if accommodations were available in their town or city, most of them noted that hotels don’t even book for more than a year in advance. In fact, I heard several funny stories about innkeepers befuddled by someone wanting to book a room five years ahead of time! Naturally, when I went online to look for reservations in Salem 13 months prior to the eclipse, everything was completely sold out. Some time later I stumbled across an available motel room in Lebanon, Oregon and snapped up the reservation. I got tickets to OMSI’s eclipse event at the fairgrounds in Salem, and I was ready to go.

Back in December I published a post and podcast interviewing Elaine Cuyler of Orbit Oregon, publisher of the kids’ book The Big Eclipse. Cuyler, a former marketing director for Eola Hills Winery near Salem, was putting together the Wine Country Eclipse festival at the Polk County Fairgrounds. She invited me to speak at the festival, complete with gratis lodging in a residence hall at nearby Western Oregon University in Monmouth. It seemed like a no-brainer, and I jumped at the chance. I cancelled my motel reservation and gladly stayed in the dorms at WOU (pronounced “woo”, according to the staff.)

So, after about 20 months of planning, I ended up doing something that was only finalized about two or three weeks ahead of the eclipse. As noted in my post about eclipse weekend, it couldn’t have worked out better.

Total solar eclipse, 2024

Eclipse map 2024

Map courtesy Michael Zeiler, GreatAmericanEclipse.com

If this year’s was “The Great American Eclipse,” then some are already dubbing the 2024 event “The Great North American Eclipse.” As you can see from the map at left, this one will first hit land in Mexico, swoop up through Texas, cross the path of the 2017 eclipse in Carbondale, Illinois, and zip northeast until it crosses Maine and the maritime provinces of Canada. Thanks to Micheal Zeiler of GreatAmericanEclipse.com for the map; Zeiler was one of our interview subjects, too! Check out our post and podcast.

So, where will you be in April 2024? I’ve been looking at Jay Anderson’s weather maps already, and it seems the best weather prospects will be in Mexico, but I’m leaning toward Texas right now. I’d try to make hotel reservations, but nobody books more than a year in advance. And some cool opportunity might turn up at the last minute.

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Astro Biz: Orbit gum

Many businesses, products, and places have names rooted in space and astronomy. We’re featuring one every Tuesday on Seattle Astronomy.

This week’s Astro Biz is Orbit® gum. Orbit is a brand of sugarless gum made by the Wrigley company. It comes in a wide variety of flavors. According to Wikipedia, Orbit originated back during World War II, when traditional gum-making ingredients were in short supply. After the war it went away, coming back in the late 1970s. It left the U.S. market in the ’80s because of concerns about artificial sweeteners, but returned to the states in 2001.

More info:

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Cool app: Cosmic Watch

Often astronomers speak of an appreciation of the clockwork of the solar system, whether it’s the movement of the planets around the Sun or of moons and other objects in their trajectories through our neighborhood. An app called Cosmic Watch is a gorgeous representation of that clockwork for your smart phone or other iOS device.

Cosmic Watch, created by Celestial Dynamics LTD out of Switzerland—where else would you have your watch made?—is billed by the company as “the world’s first 3D interactive astronomical clock.” But they flip the concept upside down; while most astronomy apps have a point of view of looking up from the planet at the sky, Cosmic Watch gives you the view of Earth from out in space, and allows you to see the movement of everything around it.

Cosmic Watch screenshotI took the screenshot at left just as I was starting to write this article (click it to see it bigger). In this basic view, the face of the clock runs around the ecliptic, and the Moon, Sun, and planets are shown in the spots where they’re directly overhead. You can spin this view to look at the lineup from any angle. Change the settings and you can show the outlines of the constellations, or switch between views of the celestial sphere representation or a more open sky.

There are three other main views.

The astronomy view depicts the locations of the planets and constellations and allows you to decide if you’d like to view equatorial coordinates and various rings such as the ecliptic, the celestial equator, or Earth’s equator and tropics.

The astrology view takes a look at how solar system objects are moving through the zodiac.

solar system view lets you track the orbits of the planets around the Sun. These features are not limited to your current time or place. You can set Cosmic Watch to any time and date and any location on Earth, and you can set it spinning at a quicker pace to enjoy the motions of the cosmos.

Oh, and you can tell time with it, too! In fact, it’s essentially a graphical representation of what “time” is for us: the pace of Earth’s rotation with respect to the Sun.

It’s quite a versatile tool. The Cosmic Watch website points out that you can use it as “a realtime worldclock, time travel machine, an astrolabe, an antikythera mechanism, an orrery, an armillary sphere, or an astral-chart generator.” It has made the “best app” lists of Wired and The New York Times, among others.

My device is an iPhone 6. I imagine that the app would be even more enjoyable on devices with larger screens.

There’s a trailer about Cosmic Watch below. It’s available on Google Play and the iTunes Store. We recommend it!

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Astro Biz: Starball, the dreamy musical astronomy show

Many businesses, products, and places have names rooted in space and astronomy. We’re featuring one every Tuesday on Seattle Astronomy.

This week’s Astro Biz is Starball, the dreamy musical astronomy show. Starball opens this week and runs September 7–11 at West of Lenin in Fremont. The show was created and is performed by John Kaufmann and Dan Dennis, and is directed by Rachel Katz Carey. Starball was first performed in 2002 and returns to Seattle for the first time since 2003.

We did an article and podcast about Starball last week. Check it out!

More info:

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