Friday, January 1, 2021

Star Wars Gonna Star War

 2020: the year all SciFi events were wiped off our calendar. Our R2-D2 is currently beneath a dust cover, unable to attend the Galactic Outpost, SW Celebration, or even small Comic Cons. 2021 is no  huge improvement, but we have high hopes that we might get the droid out of the house by... autumn (?)

I try not to ramble about Star Trek or Star Wars too much on my social media, because many of my dedicated readers come here for NASA updates, but until the Mars Perseverance Rover lands in February, the only true highlight of the New Year is the ongoing splash in the Star Wars Galaxy.

In our bored isolation, we clung to Disney+ and spent months re-watching all the films, delving deeper into Clone Wars lore, and hunting down Easter eggs in Star Wars Rebels. Since we’d seen all these properties before, we were really just filling time between new episodes of The Mandalorian

Can I just say, Grogu healed us in ways we could neither describe nor define. It went beyond the whole “death by cuteness” memes of Instagram, Twitter emoji-ography, or cooing in the watch parties. Overall, I think the key to “Baby Yoda” was the appeal of innocence: he was helpless, but a fearsome firestarter. He was sneaky in charming, goofy ways, but saved the day with masterful heroics in desperate moments.  *No obvious spoilers* to the mind-blowing finale that we’ve now viewed three times, but we weren’t going to rest for a whole ‘nother year before we knew he was in good hand. Pun intended.

True to form, the voice of Grogu (Sound Engineer Dave Acord) broke our hearts. It was often said in the 1980s that half the audience watches Star Wars for the explosions, but the other half watches for tragedy. But, before leaving us hanging, producers kept the dearest portions of innocence intact among the players. Din Djarin initially saw himself reflected in this tiny, abandoned, endangered foundling – and it may have been the only thing in his adult life to convert his customary stoicism into emotional investment. His tangle with the Dark Saber of Clan Vizsla seemed like an optional storyline, but has now clearly set up Season 3. We now all have a year to worry that Grogu will be absent, unless they craft ways for the duo to cross paths again.

It didn’t escape my attention that in the quick, explodey flashbacks of Djarin as a child, he and his parents both dressed in scarlet robes. Might they, like Lyra Erso and Chirrut Îmwe in Rogue One,  been connected somehow to the Whills? Had they lived on planet Jedha? I didn’t want to overthink the inferences, but couldn’t help wondering if the Mandalorian would eventually join Djarin and Grogu’s paths by concluding they were “destined” to find one another, by virtue of connections to Force guardians, like the Brotherhood of the Beatific Countenance.

Crafters of Star Wars stories, in particular Lucas-worshippers and combinatorial storytellers like Jon Favreau, do not utilize details in an incidental manner. There’s always a can of worms waiting to be placed on a fishhook somewhere. 

I still cannot believe my friends at Lucasfilm kept these secrets for yeeeeears at a time – but above all, Star Wars creators are dedicated to shock value. Part of the joy of watching Grogu’s story unfold was that it packed the same punch that Yoda did in The Empire Strikes Back (1980), where amid a decade of macho bullet-laden movies, we all had to wrap our brains around the most powerful magical samurai in the cosmos being a little green hermit who just wanted peace and quiet. Forty years later, his origins are still a mystery. But is it a mystery we even want solved? 

I’m torn. I’d rather know how Sabine lost the Darksaber and why Bo-Katan of Clan Kryze was so keen to find it. I’d also perhaps rather see Din Djarin land on Mandalore with the Fett, and stir up the shenanigans we know are sure to follow in that austere, fractured culture. I suspect they will lose a fair amount of viewers from the show if they simply pick up where SW Rebels left off, and don’t find some way to incorporate Grogu into the tale.

One thing is certain: this tiny character LANDED, like few others did in the most recent film trilogy. Getting Star Wars fandom to agree on any single point is nearly impossible these days, and Disney would be missing a serious opportunity if they did not design a new trilogy around this infant Force wielder who faced down a Moff and traveled the Outer Rim before his first day of school.

Are there more Little Green Men on a faraway home world somewhere, or is only one of these Jedi born every millennia or so? Will we ever get a name for the species of Yoda, Yaddle, and Grogu? Given that The Child was born the same year as Anakin, perhaps he was the fabled creature who would bring balance to The Force, and not the Skywalker clan.  The story could take any number of turns in the wider story timeline (click to embiggen):

I can’t imagine a world where the idea of a Grogu trilogy isn’t already generating scripts or at least meetings in slick Los Angeles conference rooms, high in the sky where the people who make the big decisions find ways to have Star Wars ask all the big questions about good and evil, light and dark, and… are we each products of destiny or free will? 

In the meantime, 2021 will bring us fully twelve new Star Wars shows to fill our quarantine hours. Which one are you most excited about? 

I’ll start. “The Bad Batch” !!

See other reviews of films, television shows, and books.

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Space Science Trilogy - The Formist Series

Exciting News! And just in time for Christmas. I used to do a full recommendation of sciency type gifts, including the galactic chocolates, cosmological music selections, and of course my favorite NERD product of all time... knee Spocks!

Har har. I'll show myself out... but not before I let everyone know about the newest book release by Matthew Williams of Castrum Press. If you are interested in accurate hard science in your #SciFi reading selections, I cannot recommend this trilogy enough. 

The author, whom you may follow on Twitter at @StoryByWill, is a science teacher who conducted absolutely bonkers amounts of research into our planets and satellites (those most likely to support life once we have a serious leap forward in propulsion technology). 

I reviewed the first and second books, The Cronian Incident and The Jovian Manifesto, which both received high stars on Amazon and Goodreads. I'm flattered to say I was contacted by the author, whereupon we had some delightful conversations about his very accurate depictions of space science throughout our Solar System. I got a sneak preview of his newest novel, and conclusion of the series, The Frost Line Fracture.

Of particular interest is the theme of pioneering -- a favorite among exploration enthusiasts -- and hypotheses of what sorts of cultures would arise on our inner planets versus the outer worlds.

From bio-implants to solar system stations to the particular engineering environments in each system, this is a well-developed story with believable settings and characters. The author has a firm grasp of exobiology and extremophiles that will please scientists who enjoy 'realism' in their reading, but enough possible future tech that will also please the space-opera crowd. 

Don't be afraid of methanogenic hydrocarbons -- the hard science is never overwhelming, but neither does Williams assume is audience is dumb by over-explaining anything. A nice balance is struck, here. The novel assumes you know the basics of aerospace, but even if you don't, you'll follow the heroes because you want to, as his reluctance transforms into purpose. 

The standout in terms of detail is the uniquely, culturally distinct factions, which could only be created with competent research on each environment, and projecting the imagination into the framework of what it would truly take to colonize places like Mercury, Titan, or Callisto. 

Join the Interplanetary Accord! Or bless the astronomer in your life with one book or all three. 

Merry Christmas everyone!

And may 2021 suck just a little bit less...

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

The Little Boy in the Library

Ronald McNair was African-American. For this reason, he was asked to leave a segregated library. He later became a NASA astronaut and the very same library is now named after him.


Space Force, or The Force in space??

McNair's richly complex and accomplished life deserves a biopic more than most, and I’m not just saying that because I’m bored with the actor they got to play Neil Armstrong. Overall, I could easily stand on top of a mountain and shout MOAR SPACE TRAVELER MOVIES until I get lava-larynx.

Having charted the missions & birth place and birth date of every astronaut who ever flew a mission, I've known the basics of Ronald McNair's career for years: he was the first to play a saxophone in space on STS-41-B (1984), he was the first astronaut of the Bahá'í Faith to fly a mission, and he was in charge of chemical experiments and Cinema 360 filming about the Space Shuttle. He was also a Trekkie, and I feel a kinship with all fellow Trekkies, of course. I even visited his center at the Aeronautics & Astronautics Department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he earned his PhD in Physics.

Ronald McNair Building MIT Boston

However, it wasn’t until I researched libraries for Nerdglorious Trivia that I learned of his civil rights resistance at the once-segregated Lake City Public Library in South Carolina. In 1959, around the time he was in fourth grade, McNair attempted to gather science-based materials, whereupon a Caucasian woman told him "This library is not for coloreds," and called the local police.

I'll repeat that. A librarian called the police. On a 9-year-old boy. For trying to check out SCIENCE BOOKS. 

Long before Permit Patty and Barbecue Becky, Library Lisa was on the job! Unfortunately, officers could have easily sided with her in this era, and lawfully removed Ronald from the public space, because signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was still half a decade away. His mother, Pearl, was also summoned; both she and the officers encouraged the librarian to issue Ronald a library card as she did for the white children. Pearl McNair assured the librarian that her son would take good care of the books, and the librarian reluctantly let the elementary-schooler borrow the ones about flight that he had chosen.

Ronald's Big Mission - Children's Book

Decades later, after his untimely death in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, the library was dedicated to his memory. In addition, a children's book called "Ron's Big Mission" offers a fictionalized account of the library encounter.

Other things named in his honor? McNair Crater on Earth’s Moon, his hometown public memorial, a chapel, 2 streets, 4 University buildings, 2 parks, 20 schools, 152 scholarships, a theatre, a Masonic Lodge, and a public playground.

Can't seem to find the actual name of that librarian.

Ronald McNair playing saxophone in space
Ronald Erwin McNair (October 21, 1950 – January 28, 1986)
(click for video of life + mission photographs)

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Ancient Moon Shadows

Is everyone ready for the Annular Solar Eclipse this Sunday, June 21st?  Charted a viewing spot? Got your glasses? Tracked the path of totality and calculated obscuration?

Now imagine that if you didn't fully prepare and estimate those facts accurately, you could be beheaded. Not a typo. Beheaded. Because history is wild. 

On October 22, 2136 BC, astronomers in China noted what is now the oldest surviving record of a total solar eclipse, which occurs when the moon passes between the Earth and the sun, causing the moon's shadow to fall upon Earth and block the sun from view.

In ancient China, astronomy was a government-mandated pursuit, and state astronomers had quite sophisticated observatories for their time. Good thing too, for observing solar and lunar eclipses, as well as tracking planetary orbits, were divination tools for predicting the fate of the Emperor.

If an Emperor could predict a solar eclipse, such was a good omen for his health; accuracy was helpful in validating that he was the ordained link between heaven and his subjects on Earth, endorsing his divine right to rule. Imprecise predictions could be seen as evil omens, or even result in a new ruler, whereby rivals for power might use the eclipse as a sign that they could overthrow one who had lost the blessing of the gods. Careful records were made of all solar eclipses. (Lunar eclipses were only haphazardly noted, being so common as to merit lesser import.)

Solar Eclipse
As early as 2650 BC, a star-gazer named Li Shu wrote about celestial bodies, in particular noting that the sun, earth, and moon moved in harmonious ways. Technology in ensuing years revolved around trying to forecast when certain events might occur so as to keep their political successions and societies more stable.

The fascinating field of "Archaeoastronomy" shed light on the Oracle Bones of the Shang Dynasty (1600 – 1050 BC), unearthed in Anyang, Henan Province. Hailed as the bones of dragons (though actually turtles or oxen), they represent some of the earliest Chinese writings. One such gem tells us that the failure to correctly predict the timing of a total solar eclipse resulted in beheadings:
"Here lie the bodies of Ho and Hi,
Whose fate, though sad, is risible;
Being slain because they could not spy
Th' eclipse which was invisible."

Surely these weren't the only two state astronomers to lose their heads, given how erratic solar eclipses can be in any specific geographic location. With so much at stake, precision was well sought after. By 720 BC, some Chou Dynasty astronomers recognized eclipses as "naturally" occurring phenomena, and not heavenly commentary on who held any particular throne. Still, diligent record-keeping continued up through the ages.

Oracle Bone
By the turn of the millennium, the Chinese had a firm grasp of what actually caused eclipses, and by 206 AD, they were predicting cycles by analyzing lunar orbits. Their records show that between 600 and 1300 AD, their solar eclipse timing predictions were often accurate to within about 20 minutes!

To see how it's done in the modern day, see the NASA Eclipse Website.

Also be sure to join me on Twitter tomorrow for my #TriviaThursday series, with everything you need to know about #Eclipse dynamics and safe viewing this weekend!