Dune-ish

Dune-ish

A trifecta of blockbuster Sci-Fi and fantasy shows are scheduled to be coming to your local streaming services this fall. They include adaptations of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation (September, Apple TV), Frank Herbert’s Dune (October, HBO) and Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time (November, Amazon) famous books. All three projects will be serialized, allowing for a more in-depth treatment of each work’s original voluminous storylines. Apple is planning on some eighty episodes, to be produced over ten years for the Foundation series. Amazon has produced eight episodes for this season’s showing of the first Wheel of Time novel, Eye of the World. Jordan wrote twelve books in his series, so this project too could run for many years.

Dune, the one that has generated the most buzz of these three projects premiered at Cannes this week, to mixed reviews. It seems to have the highest production values and the most star-studded cast of the three and apparently is also serialized like the other ones. Although this fact wasn’t much heralded and this appears to be the source of most of the complaints. Cannes audience members sat down expecting a complete retelling of the book, but only got to see the first one of who knows how many episodes. They were left hanging after two and a half hours when the movie just stopped. Billed for months as the Dune movie, its onscreen title was Dune: Part One.

Dune has twice before made the leap from the printed page to the screen. David Lynch infamously tried and failed in his camp adaptation of the book. Later the Syfy network was more successful with its miniseries format that was closer to the source material, but never captured the grandeur of the novel. Part of the problem in adapting this work to the screen is the large and unwieldly source material of the book. Lots of introspection doesn’t help any either.

It seems clear to me that all three projects are vying to capture the magic that the Game of Thrones series once wielded. I came late to that series; however I had begun reading George R. R. Martin’s books before the TV series debuted. I actually met him once, when he came to a local Sci-Fi convention. I had become disenchanted with Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series after having read eleven of his twelve books. They all seemed to repeat the same plot and have similar endings. I’ve read Dune many times, but I have never read Foundation. I tried once or twice, but could never get into it. I already subscribe to all three streaming platforms and look forward to seeing their new offerings. It remains to be seen, if I will have the patience to follow any of them for ten years.

Starlink

When we were camping at the Grand Canyon last month, we witnessed a most unusual sight in the night sky. We saw a Starlink satellite train. Starlink is a satellite network that Elon Musk’s SpaceX corporation is launching even now. When completed in a few years, it will be composed of thousands of satellites that will blanket the earth’s skies worldwide, bring the internet to every corner of the world. Eventually, each satellite has its own individual orbit, but immediately after launch, because of SpaceX’s unorthodox card-dealing technique for deploying the 60 Starlink broadband satellites that are boosted into space at the same time, they temporarily form a Starlink train.

The Grand Canyon is a dark sky park, the sky was perfectly clear and the timing of the event that we witnessed couldn’t have been better. It was dark, but it wasn’t that long after sundown, allowing the already set sun to illuminate the satellites that were 500 miles above us. I didn’t have the wherewithal to photograph the sight, but plenty of other people have. I chose this example from Twitter, because the scene includes a full moon, so you have an idea of how bright these satellites really are. For us, it was a moonless night and I swear, at the Grand Canyon they seemed even brighter then they appear in this video, brighter than any star in the sky.

As the train passed overhead the campground erupted with cries in the dark of, “Look at that!”, “What the hell?”, “What is it?” Fortunately, I did have the wherewithal to answer these cries in the dark and announced, ” They’re Elon Musk’s Starlink new satellite network.” I’m sure I headed off a UFO panic. Anne was angered by the sight. It is a dark sky park and these satellites are light pollution, but subsequent research has indicated that these train formations are only temporary. The individual satellites will still be bright, but no brighter than the jets flying in and out of the neighboring Albuquerque airport. 

Time Tunnel

Time Tunnel

There is an old curse that goes, may you live in interesting times, which I guess is apt for these times. Except if they’re so interesting, why then are they also so darn boring. We sit home alone, sheltering in place, doing our part to flatten the curve. Our days have fallen into a regular rhythm, governed by a routine that varies little from day-to-day. Each day is so much like the last one that it is all too easy to lose track of time. Which day is today? Is it the weekend? Of course it is, but what you should be asking is it the long weekend or the short weekend? The high point of each day is our walks together. Sometimes we just head out the front door and walk around the neighborhood. Others, we drive a little and then walk in Forest Park. We are lucky in this regard. We have always been lucky to live so close to this park. It is like a bit of the country, in the middle of the city. While the county parks have been closed, it is nice to still have this city park. The closures of its golf courses and some of its roads have only enhanced its enjoyment for us, making our half of the park all that more secluded.

For today’s walk, we added a picnic lunch. Who says that you can’t dine out in the time of pandemic? To enhance our experience and make it more special, I made cucumber sandwiches. It is supposed to get warm today, with the mercury climbing into the eighties, but we’ll stay cool, as cool as a pair of cucumbers.

Desert Trumpet

Desert Trumpet

Eriogonum inflatum is a plant more commonly known as Desert Trumpet, but is also sometimes called Indian Pipe Weed, Bladder Stem or Bottle Stopper. Its most salient feature is a prominent bulging of its central stem. Originally thought to be a gall caused by an insect infestation, it is now believed to be related to regulating the plant’s carbon-dioxide levels. It has small yellow flowers (not shown) that are a primary food source for the Metalmark butterfly. Southwest Native Americans once used the plant to fashion pipes for smoking tobacco mixed with mistletoe. 

It has an unworldly appearance. With its base of petal-like leaves, long sinuous arms and bulbous head, it could easily be reimagined as some alien creature. Imagine it swaying on the high desert plain, while being buffeted by the wind, its arms seemingly grasping every which way. It is the stuff of science fiction.

Goblin Valley Hoodoos

Anne photographed these Desert Trumpets, last year, on the occasion of our visit to Utah’s Goblin Valley State Park. Know for its maze of hoodoo formations, Goblin Valley is just the kind of place that one would expect to find such an unusual species. When we visited the park, it was high noon. The parking lot was situated on a promontory that overlooked the portion of the valley that we had chosen to explore. It had rained heavily the day before and there were still rivulets of water flowing in-between the myriad of standing stones. Running water in the desert is always an incongruitous sight. There were already people down there, as we descended to the valley floor, but they soon disappeared as the hoodoos rose up to meet us. The shouts and laughter of the nearby children was pretty much all that remained of their neighboring presence. 

We had left Moab that morning and still had a drive of several hours, before reaching Capitol Reef, the evening’s destination. So, we only had a couple of hours to explore Goblin, but since we had skipped it two years earlier, I didn’t want to miss it this time around. We used what time that we had to wander among the hoodoos, photographing them and marveling at their naked weirdness. All the while, I kept my bearings, by keeping an eye out for the parking lot promontory that we had originally descended from.

As we progressed across the valley floor, towards the gray topped ridge of rock that demarcated the other side of this immediate valley, we talked about further exploring the next valley over. That would have been nice, because the number of people that we could still occasionally glimpse had decreased markedly from the start, but thoughts of miles yet to go and then a campsite to erect cautioned us against such an endeavor. Besides, with the dwindling human companionship there was something a little spooky about the place.

In the next valley over, the promontory where the Prius, our home away from home, was parked would be out of sight. I feared us getting lost in another maze, without any familiar landmarks and then I further imagined us out after dark, lost among the hoodoos, with only a new moon and our iPhones for light. What if instead of seeing more of the just few foot high Desert Trumpets, we ran into their gigantic queen? Would she call out to us using the melodious tones of her trumpeter’s voice and in her siren’s song, demand we, “Feed me, Seymour!” 

Graphene

Graphene

Graphene

Even though it is still only January and as such it is still well within the depths of winter, colleges and university across the country have reconvened and begun this year’s spring semester. Along with this beginning, Cynthia Wichelman MD restarted her Science on Tap speaker series. In conjunction with her Washington University in Saint Louis colleagues, Wichelman holds a monthly talk on the last Wednesday of most months of the regular school year. We met last night at the Kirkwood Station Brewing Company. The evening’s speaker was Erik Henriksen, PhD, an Assistant Professor of Physics at WashU. His talk was entitled, Graphene: Particle Physics in Pencil Lead.

Graphene is a relatively newly isolated and novel form of carbon. Other more common forms of carbon, like diamonds and coal have been around forever. Even graphite, also known as pencil lead, which is another form of carbon has been known about for a while. Graphene is a single atom thick sheet of carbon. The molecular bonds between the carbon atoms in these sheets are extremely strong. It turns out that graphite is composed of many layers of graphene. In graphite, the weak bonds between the many layers of graphene allow those layers to be easily sheared apart from each other, like when you drag a pencil across a piece of paper. Graphene as a material has some interesting properties. It is much stronger than steel. Likewise, it is a far superior electrical and thermal conductor than copper. A single layer of graphene is also transparent.

In his talk, Henriksen, introduced us to Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, the Nobel Prize winners who first isolated graphene. They called their technique micro-mechanical cleavage, but it was soon dubbed the Scotch tape method and was surprisingly simple. Starting from a block of graphite, Geim and company would apply ordinary Scotch tape to it and then peel off a thin layer from it. This technique would be repeated on this thin layer, until only one layer was left. In science, Geim is relatively unique, because he not only won the Noble, but also the Ig-Nobel. The Ig-Nobel is a parody prize given to scientists for conducting trivial experiments. Geim had suspended a frog is a magnetic field. Last night, in his own parody of this experiment Henriksen suspended a sheet of graphene is a magnetic field.

The particle physics aspect of Henriksen’s talk is the crux of his research into graphene. Per his on tap bio, in this 2D material, electrons move from one atom to the next as if they have no mass, acting like ultra-relativistic particles despite having an actual velocity that is just a fraction of the speed of light. Physicists like Henriksen are using this quasi-relativistic system to investigate some long-held predictions about the theory of relativity.

While following up on last night’s talk, I learned that Geim at his University of Manchester institute has added a new wrinkle in the design of the ultimate little black dress. It is made entirely of graphene. This is a dress that reacts to the person wearing it. It responds to the breathing rates of the wearer, changing color and illuminating in different ways. Oh, and it is incredibly light weight.