November 24, 2013

Doctor Who is 50

My favorite television show has turned fifty.  On November 23, 1963, Doctor Who aired for the first time.  There has been a borderline obnoxious amount of media coverage about this (at least in British media, which is admittedly what I read more than American media), so I wasn't going to blog about it.  However, I watched the anniversary special this weekend, and it reminded me of how deeply I love this show.  And so, on a blog named Reversing the Polarity, at least some mention should be made of the big 50th anniversary.  

the first opening credits

I have watched and loved Doctor Who for as long as I remember watching television.  When I was a kid, two local PBS stations aired the show.  This was long before the days when everything was accessible via the internet.  I could see Doctor Who twice a week, and I was lucky to get that.  I have vivid memories of Saturday nights spent in front of the tv, watching NJN, seeing the Prydonians of Princeton man the phones during pledge drives.  I wanted to BE a Prydonian of Princeton, dammit.  I doubt they admitted ten-year-olds to their ranks.  I remember bonding with friends over Doctor Who, like being a Whovian was belonging to a secret club.  We had found this special show that no one else knew about.  I still bond with my friends over Doctor Who!  

four Doctors; from left- 1st, 5th, 3rd, 2nd

What makes the Doctor resonate with me is that he is a thinking hero.  He uses his intelligence to solve problems and get out of trouble.  He very rarely fights or uses a gun (except the 3rd Doctor, who did sometimes use Venusian karate).  He prefers diplomacy to battle.  He is good, in the truest sense of the word.  He helps those who need it.  The Doctor cares.  He does what is right.  The Doctor made my younger self want to be a Time Lord.  I still want to be a Time Lord, but it's probably not as acceptable to admit that when you are in your thirties.  

the Doctor in formal Gallifreyan garb

When I discovered the episodes with Romana, a female Time Lord just as clever as the Doctor, I grew even more enamored of the show.  Being a fan of science fiction when you are a woman means you get used to reading books and watching tv shows and movies without women in them.  If women are present, they are there to be saved, not do the saving.  Princess Leias and Wonder Women are rare.  Here was my favorite show giving me exactly what I yearned for- Romana was the Doctor's equal.  She didn't run around screaming in fear at everything.  She wasn't there for the sole purpose of being rescued.  She was a hero, too.  

the 4th Doctor and Romana

Sometimes I grumble that I like old Who better than the new version.  Well, of course I do.  I grew up with Classic Who.  The wobbly sets, bad special effects, and endless running through corridors and quarries don't bother me one bit.  The stories and characters are still great.  I dare anyone to watch the episode "City of Death" and not love it, even if the part with Scaroth's ship looks like it could have been me filming my Star Wars toys.  

Scaroth's Jaggaroth ship

Truthfully, I wasn't especially excited for the anniversary episode, "The Day of the Doctor."  From what I had heard in advance, I didn't think it was going to be anything special.  Was I ever wrong.  It was wonderful.  It had little references to Classic Who, it was funny, and it made me excited for the future direction of the show.  It had all the goodness of the previous multiple-Doctor episodes.  

10th and 11th Doctors (r to l); David Tennant = still cute

Doctor Who has been with me my whole life.  It's my go-to show when I'm down or bored or don't know what to watch.  Here's to fifty more years!  

November 20, 2013

Let's go to Europa

Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist, has said that he wants to go ice fishing on Europa.  I do, too.  I started thinking about this again recently after watching a stupid movie.  I thought it was going to be a good space flick, and it ended up being a lame found-footage movie.  The surprising thing about this movie was that it got a lot of the science right.  There was even a clip of Neil deGrasse Tyson and his ice fishing comment.  Europa is one of the moons of the planet Jupiter.  It's slightly smaller than Earth's Moon, but it's big enough so that when looking at Jupiter through my small telescope, I can see it along with Jupiter's three other large moons.  Pretty cool.

Europa (top right) with her sister Galilean moons; image courtesy NASA/JPL

I am an insane astronomy junkie and got completely sidetracked while looking for NASA images of Europa.  I could look at NASA photos for hours.  I'm mesmerized by the planets and their moons.  Anyway, the above is a composite photo showing Jupiter's four largest moons, called the Galilean moons because they were discovered by Galileo.  Clockwise from the top left, they are Io, Europa, Callisto, and Ganymede.  They're beautiful.

So, Europa.  Why is Europa so interesting?  Europa is one of the two top candidates for finding life outside of Earth in our solar system.  (Enceladus, moon of Saturn, is the other.)  Europa is covered in ice.  The same extreme tidal forces from Jupiter that make Io the most volcanically active piece of real estate in the solar system generate enough heat in Europa to melt the ice and create an ocean of water under the surface.  Every place on Earth in which people have found water, no matter how hostile the environment, people have found life.  The ice on the surface of Europa is several miles thick, which should be thick enough to shield living things from the massive amount of radiation emitted by Jupiter.  Microbial life.  Possibly multicellular life.  In my wildest dreams, the Europan equivalent of fish.  I'm not talking about intelligent life that could communicate with us.

Europa's cracked ice surface; image courtesy NASA/JPL

The premise of this bad movie I saw was that astronauts were sent from Earth to land on Europa and seek out life.  I wish!  We don't have the technology right now to do that, and NASA has become so risk-adverse that they wouldn't even if we did.  We could send a robotic lander, though.  Several missions like this have been proposed only to be shot down in favor of yet more Mars missions.  Once MAVEN reaches Mars, NASA will have two rovers on the surface and three satellites in orbit.  NASA has become fixated on Mars to the detriment of the rest of the solar system.  There is not one mission in preparation with funding that would visit the outer planets.  New Horizons is on its way to Pluto, and Juno is on its way to Jupiter, but nothing is in the pipeline to follow them.  I was disappointed that in the latest round of approvals, a mission to Uranus was shelved.  It takes a long time to plan and execute these missions because of the vast amount of time it takes to travel so far away.  They need to get on this before I die!  I'm serious.  If they approved a mission to Neptune or Uranus this year, it probably wouldn't get there until I was retirement age.  I'm already never going to see people walk on Mars or even the Moon.  I'd like to see more photos of Neptune and Uranus and find out more about these mysterious ice giants.  The only mission to visit them was Voyager 2 in the 80s.  We have a couple of photos and a little bit of data from flybys of each planet.  That's it.  So many questions!  No answers.  No way to get answers without going there.  

I digress.  Europa.  I firmly believe there is some kind of life there.  Those ruddy stains on the surface- scientists believe that they come from the subsurface ocean bursting out through the cracks in the ice.  What is making it that color??  As Carl Sagan said, "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."  A mission to Europa could find it.  I came across something interesting- Objective Europa.  It looks like this group wants to make the bad movie come true, as a one-way trip.  Go for it, Objective Europa!  There's no way people could survive the intense radiation that deep in the Jovian magnetosphere, but since they aren't planning on coming back, I suppose that's not an issue.  Not that I think Objective Europa will happen, but we need something to inspire people.  The current generation of astronauts and engineers saw Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walk on the Moon.  That was supposed to be our first step out into space.  We need to get out there if our species is to survive.  Low Earth orbit isn't good enough.  There's a reason the Drake Equation has a spot for how long civilizations last.  Odds are, they don't.  Ah, nothing like pessimism to end a blog post.  So, here is a random astronomy factoid that rattles around my brain.

The Moon is far away.  

Yeah, Jen, of course the Moon is far away, you say.  No, but it really is far.  Let's say that a basketball is the Earth and a tennis ball is the Moon.  That's to scale.  How far away would they have to be to accurately represent the distance between the Moon and the Earth?  Stop and think about your answer before you read on.  Most people would probably hold them one to two feet apart.  Not even close.  Think of your average classroom.  I'll hold the basketball and stand at the front.  You take the tennis ball and walk to the back.  That's about right- almost twenty-five feet away.  See, the Moon is far away.  So the next time the media is freaking out because an asteroid is passing between the Earth and the Moon, don't worry.  The Moon is 238,900 miles away.  That's a lot of space.  

I love photos like this.  Image courtesy NASA/JPL

November 6, 2013

The road to Rhode Island

A few friends of mine went to the Rhode Island Comic Con last weekend and invited me along.  One of my friends has already written two posts on his blog about our trip, which can be found here and here.  Josh is a great writer and a much better blogger than me, so if you want a better account of the trip, follow the links to his blog!

We went to the con on Saturday.  I hadn't been to any sci-fi or comic convention since high school, so I wasn't sure what to expect.  It was fantastic!  There were lots of talented artists there, as well as vendors selling interesting, geeky things.  I also saw Lando Calrissian.  I thought it would be creepy/stalkery to take a photo of Billy Dee Williams from a few feet away, so I don't have one.  Sorry.  Still, it was kind of cool to see Lando in person.  I was already familiar with one of the artists I met there.  Her name was Karen Hallion, and I have a few t-shirts with her work on it.

I have this on a blue tee.
Another artist I met was Chrissie Zullo.  She was very friendly, and I loved her work so much that it was hard to pick just one print.  So I got two.

A lot of people were dressed up in amazing costumes that obviously took a lot of effort.  My friends' daughter wanted photos of quite a few of them.  People were always very nice about having their picture taken.  Sometimes they'd strike a pose.  I know I'd think it was neat if I dressed up and people thought it was so cool that they wanted a photo.  The con had a great atmosphere.  It's wonderful that people can celebrate stuff that they love with other people who love the same.  Ray Bradbury once advised, "Love what YOU love."  That sentiment was in abundance.  Now that I'm addicted to Neil Gaiman's Sandman series, maybe one day I'll be able to convince my friends to cosplay as the Endless with me- as long as I get to be Death.

On Sunday, we went to Swan Point Cemetery to visit the grave of H.P. Lovecraft.  The cemetery is enormous.  We had to drive around a bit before we found him.

"I am Providence."
One friend did several gravestone rubbings and was kind enough to let me have a green one.  My friends' daughter did a couple of them, too.  Hers were multicolored.

Leaving the cemetery, we drove past Brown's stadium.  I had never seen it before.  I think this amused my friends a great deal.  IN MY DEFENSE...the stadium isn't very close to campus, and I was always competing on Saturdays when they held football games.  Truthfully, I don't like college football, so I never would have gone, anyway.  It was nice to be back in my old stomping ground.  I miss the area very much.

Some other highlights from the weekend?  My friends came up with my ultimate Jeopardy board- Jane Austen, photography, and bars in New England.  My friends' daughter does great high fives.  One time she told me to put my hand higher.  She jumped up to reach it, yelling "SKYSCRAPER FIVE!"  She's awesome like that.  It was a fun weekend.
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