Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Battle: Los Angeles - (2011) - Cinema Review (5/10)

Unoriginal and Repetitive
The plot is pretty straight forward. Mix a primary dose of modern American war movie set in Iraq or Afghanistan, such as The Hurt Locker, then mix in a little Independence Day, Aliens and the original 'V', with a heavy dash of District 9, and voila, Battle: Los Angeles.

The star, Aaron Eckhart (The Core, The Dark Knight, Love Happens), plays a Staff Sergeant who is on the verge of retiring after the usual 'traumatic experience from his last battle'. The rest of the cast are a practically non-existent mix of one-dimensional stereotypes. We have the soldier about to get married, the soldier who's wife is pregnant, the soldier who is green and inexperienced, the soldier who's brother was killed in battle with the man now commanding him, the inexperienced Lieutenant who must rise to the call before a tragic end... All stereotypes. The problem is, they're stereotypes that go no further. We get to know and care for none of them, apart for the possible exception of the Sergeant. They are canon fodder in the most literal sense. So much so, that setting up their characters was itself pointless time-wasting.

Aaron Eckhart waiting for another shoot-out
Then there's the science fiction element of the film. This is merely an excuse for the 'story' and action. There is nothing original or even vaguely different about the aliens or their motivations. In fact, the invaders could be replaced with any human enemy and the story would be the same. I love science fiction, but this film only scrapes into the genre by having alien antagonists.

In fact, Battle: Los Angeles goes out of its way to avoid showing you the aliens in any real detail. It's as though they're afraid of showing them. The concept design for the creatures, their equipment and their vehicles appears to lack any theme or consistent aesthetic (not that we get to see much of them anyway). It's all very standard and unoriginal.

The alien invaders
The cast apparently went to 'boot camp' to go through professional training in readiness, but it seems to have made little difference in how the film was made. All too often they're busy shouting in situations where common sense would tell you to keep quiet, or standing around exposed when they should be staying low behind cover, or simply not moving when their position has clearly been spotted by an enemy.

Flying into battle
As for the way it was filmed, again, Battle: Los Angeles is an experiment in lack of originality. We are treated to yet another movie in which the camera sways and wobbles and zooms and swish-pans every which way it can. It's not as horribly intrusive as it could have been, but it's more than sufficient to be annoying, distracting and pointless. The style is supposed to provide that 'documentary feel'. When did you last watch a documentary in the depths of a war-zone, in which the camera constantly moves and cuts so you can't really get a good view of anything? The technique is supposed to increase the sense of 'realism' for the viewer, but is simply repetitive and distracting.

Once the action kicks in, the film is very much a couple of hours filled with the same thing again and again, with minor variations. Aliens approach, marines shoot back. The odds appear overwhelming, a few marines get killed, then they heroically triumph until the next engagement. Each of these scenes progress almost geometrically in scale until the climax.

Michelle Rodriguez clearly rebelling against stereotype
That's Battle: Los Angeles in a nut shell. There really isn't a lot else to it. It's well enough acted, though Eckhart comes over as his usual emotionless self, and the rest of the cast have little else to do than shout a lot. It's all entertaining fun, and it will just about keep you interested enough to watch, but within the first half hour of leaving the cinema, after the effects of the adrenaline pumping action have worn off, you suddenly realise something. Battle: Los Angeles is a well made film that says and does absolutely nothing. I've seen many films that are worse, but usually they've at least tried to be more than they were, even if they failed badly. Battle: Los Angeles tries nothing and ultimately is nothing. It just is. A noisy war movie with a collection of battle scenes, filmed in a modern style with a big budget.


All work is the © copyright of W.D.Lee and/or the respective companies, individuals or organisations to which the work is related. No infringement is intentional. No reproduction or copying is permitted without express permission.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Voyager 1 - Between the Stars

Going the Distance
An artist's illustration of the Voyager spacecraft
17.4 billion km. That's the current distance (As of March 2011) of the Voyager 1 probe from our little blue world. The most distant man-made object. There's something rather poignant about its lonely place in our culture. Along with the moon landings, it's one of the main pinnacles of human achievement. What makes it all the more impressive, is that it's still going. Voyager 1 and 2 are still sending back important information, still transmitting data from their late 70s-based technology.

What have we done since, to equal these achievements? What are we even planning? There's a lesson to be learnt from the forward-looking optimism and dreams that bore such fruit. We're a species that appears to be going backward. Or at best, we're maintaining a kind of cultural stasis, in which our progress moves sideways. Some things improve, others decay, but tragically so few of them still look forward into our distant future.

Interstellar Space
The Voyager 1 Record Cover
Voyager 1 is thought to be reaching that final point at which the influence of our sun ceases to be anything more than another star in the night sky. Then Voyager 1 will enter true interstellar space, the empty vastness between the stars (You can read more detail here). When it can no longer function, I fear that mankind will take far too long to reach a similar level of intrepid exploration and achievement once again.

Its power source is expected to cease providing enough energy to operate the craft, by 2020. 2025 at absolute best. When it stops, the most distant achievement of mankind's glorious exploits will have effectively reached the end of its operational life, but it will still be a message in a bottle. It carries its golden record of images, video and sounds of earth, with a cover of instructions. It would be fitting if one day it got the chance to perform its final and most incredible task...

Read more about the Voyager mission here: http://voyager.jpl.nasa.gov/spacecraft/index.html

Image Credit: NASA/JPL (http://www.nasaimages.org)

All work is the © copyright of W.D.Lee and/or the respective companies, individuals or organisations to which the work is related. No infringement is intentional. No reproduction or copying is permitted without express permission.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

How Might We Discover We Are Not Alone? Part 4 – Remnants And Artefacts

Monoliths to Asteroids
What might we find, hiding under our noses?
I did toy with calling this part '2001 Syndrome'. One popular theory, as expounded in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, is this: considering the timespan of our planet's existence, alien life may well have visited in the past and left items behind for us to discover when we have advanced sufficiently to find and understand them.

I like this possibility. Given the enormity of the Universe, it makes a kind of sense that any aliens who may have visited, will have done so during the early 'hours' that our planet has existed with life, rather than last few 'seconds' in which humanity popped up.

If aliens visited our solar system and found our planet, seeing its clear potential to harbour intelligent life one day, it seems logical that they would leave some sign for us to discover at a later point. As in the film, it would make sense for such a sign to be located somewhere that we can only reach with reasonably advanced space-faring technology (For now, I won't get into the idea that they may have influenced our development). It's almost pointless discussing what it could be, because it could be anything. A ruin, a buried object with an obvious radioactive or magnetic halo to signal its presence on a planet or moon, a lifeless floating spaceship, or asteroid core... Who knows? The point being that it would be reasonably obvious to find once we had the required technology to look for it. The question, is what level of technology the species in question thought was required.

Taking a Step Back
Will we ever get back here?
Although I find this possibility plausible, even likely, I don't believe it will be the way we find alien life. Not for a long, long time, at any rate. Our society has become too insular, too concerned with the small pictures and forgetting the big ones. Look at how long it's been since we went to the moon. Even recent plans to go back, have since been scuppered.

As always, the excuse is 'wasted' money. I don't want to get on my high-horse, but it's too easy for politicians to cancel expensive projects related to space exploration. Average Joe Public doesn't care, because he or she does not see immediate benefits. Politicians in turn do not want to look at the wider picture, when their terms of office are so fleeting. They want to keep Joe Public happy for those small handful of years required to get back into office. How better, than to loudly announce the cancellation of space exploration projects that sound horrendously expensive (Never mind that they're usually a drop in the ocean compared to money wasted in other areas). Given the politically correct high-horse Joe Public likes to be on, he or she can look at space exploration, and say “Why are we wasting money in space, when we should be spending it fixing our problems here?”

People can also say “What's the point in going back to the moon?” Like any long-term project, the benefits may not be immediately apparent, but it would be the first step to getting humanity back out into a wider universe (forgetting the research and knowledge we would gain even on this small venture). Of course the lack of immediate benefit, especially for manned space travel, means the public tend to think: “Pah, stop wasting money! Just send probes! And we'll cut the money on them, too!”

Politicians and Joe Public will never consider that we're on a small planet, to which numerous disasters could occur at any time. We have all our eggs in one basket, and if something happens on a large enough scale, it could easily be goodbye to the human race. Of course, those issues all seem like the stuff of science fiction or scientific scaremongering that won't occur in our lifetime. So the world carries on, oblivious and caring less and less about space exploration.

What does this mean? That we're very unlikely to get out into our solar system, to even have a chance of finding signs left by another race. In my personal opinion, we'll be lucky if humanity makes it back to the moon this century, let alone anywhere else. It's possible that private industry, through financing anything from tourism to the gathering new raw materials, may be the area to make the big changes, but we'll have to wait and see. Big Business doesn't like to invest unless they can see clear progress, and space exploration isn't really an area that can make progress without big funding in the first place. It's a vicious circle. Luckily there are a few entrepreneur's such as Richard Branson, who are visionary enough to buck the trend, and fund research. Let's just hope they get somewhere.

Any Other Chances?
Might we discover something akin to what we
hoped the 'Face on Mars' was going to be?
In the meantime, what other potential is there for discovering these ancient signs? Perhaps one of the Mars orbiting satellites, or other planetary/moon probes could photograph something (Of course, the possibility exists that they already have). Though due to the scales at which these spacecraft take their photographs, it would have to be an ancient structures or similar large sized object, implying not only the past(?) existence of life, but intelligent life.

The sad truth is that in a very short time, we've lost our vision and pulled back to excruciatingly slow baby steps at our current point in history. Apart from the forms of probe mentioned above (which are themselves suffering increasing budget cuts), as a species we're doing very little to get out there. We're becoming increasingly insular and short sighted. Goals are always set in the near future, to ensure financing and public acceptance. We've stopped being a race that dreams of greatness in our children's future, in exchange for brooding self-blame and dwelling on the transitory. In short, while I find it quite probable that some race has left behind signs for us to discover, I don't believe it will be something we find any time soon.

Next, we shall explore the more controversial theories... first, 'Ancient Memories'

Click here for:
Part 1 - Equations and Paradoxes
Part 2 - Signals from Beyond
Part 3 - Something Small
Part 4 - Remnants and Arefacts

Image Credit:
2001: A space Odyssey - MGM / Warner Bros.
NASA - http://www.nasaimages.org

All work is the © copyright of W.D.Lee and/or the respective companies, individuals or organisations to which the work is related. No infringement is intentional. No reproduction or copying is permitted without express permission.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

How Might We Discover We Are Not Alone? Part 3 – Something Small

Microbes and Worms
Possible Martian microbial life?
One possibility for the discovery of alien life, that is considered the most likely by many people, is that of microbial or at least small-scale life.

How might we find it? There are a few select ways. We might discover a fossilised sample in a meteor fragment from another planet, that has arrived on Earth itself. This possibility almost happened in 1996 (Click here to read more on the NASA website), when tiny worm-like shapes were found in what is thought to be a sample of Martian meteorite. However, the question of contaminated samples soon arose, as well as the suggestion that the shapes could have occurred through natural processes. New techniques recently put to use, suggest the existence of chemicals which could indicate the signature of life, thus strengthening the case for the worm-like shapes once again.

3D representation of a Mars Rover
Keeping with Mars, perhaps one of the Rovers or other probes might find something. Science Fiction especially, tends to jump toward Mars as the most likely suspect due to its historic expectations, but there are still good reasons to consider it. Mars is the only extraterrestrial planet on which we have regularly operating probes at ground level searching out new material. If the discovery is a small one, it is very possible that the Rovers would be the first suspects to find it. If they do find anything, chances are it would be a simple microbial life-form. But wouldn't it be fun if they caught a tiny Martian insect on camera? Perhaps they may find a simple moss-like substance on a rock, or even photograph a fossil fragment.

It seems unlikely that'll we'll find something like this anywhere else, though. We just haven't been sending out enough probes to the other planets and their moons, with the ability to investigate at this level. There have been a few others with potential, though.

Other Places
The surface of Titan
It's possible that recent spacecraft such as the Japanese Hayabusa probe that collected particles from the Itokawa asteroid, might find something. Perhaps some of the key chemical building blocks of life or even fossilised microbial samples may be discovered in its captured particles. The only other possibility that I can think of, is the Cassini-Huygens probe that landed on Titan, one of Saturn's moons. Further analysis of the photos and data it sent back may provide new evidence, but it seems unlikely, given the landing occurred some time ago.

The drawback with a discovery of this nature, is that it still leaves a lot of the doors open. For those interested in the subject of alien life, it would be of enormous import. It is a discovery that would make the headlines, and alter our perspective on the likelihood of life having evolved elsewhere in the universe. Unfortunately, it wouldn't make much difference to the everyday populace. The world would go on as normal. Proof of intelligent life is what will make the big change.

Next, we shall discuss 'Remnants And Artefacts'

Click here for:
Part 1 - Equations and Paradoxes
Part 2 - Signals from Beyond
Part 3 - Something Small
Part 4 - Remnants and Arefacts

Image Credit: NASA - http://www.nasaimages.org
Some text modified from my previous article 'NASA Announcement - Possible Proof of Life Out There?'

All work is the © copyright of W.D.Lee and/or the respective companies, individuals or organisations to which the work is related. No infringement is intentional. No reproduction or copying is permitted without express permission.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

How Might We Discover We Are Not Alone? Part 2 – Signals From Beyond

The Arecibo Radio Telescope, most commonly
associated with the SETI project
Probably the single greatest public effort to detect signals from beyond our world, is the SETI ('Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence') project. We've all heard of it, and on the off chance you haven't, you should have, so click here. Aside from being used in numerous science fiction stories, it also crops up in almost any serious discussion about the existence of alien life.

This kind of search is probably one of the only mainstream and publicly acceptable outlooks on potential alien contact, next to the discovery of microbial or simple life somewhere close-by. Essentially it works on the principle “We think they might be out there, but even if they are, they're nowhere near us.” For some reason, this logic makes the subject more palatable to most people, organisations and governments. It's the 'polite' side of looking for ET. Most humans will only imagine what's beyond, in the context of their current level of socially-acceptable knowledge. So our belief that there could be life, combined with our disbelief that anyone out there would be capable of traversing the distances, makes it the seemingly 'logical' method. Not to mention, it is more comforting. If we do find anything, it's safe. Confined by distance and our belief that said distance makes physical contact nigh on impossible.

However, don't make any mistakes. Regardless of the reasons, the SETI project and those like it are a good thing. They're at least trying, but there are some serious problems.

The (in)famous 'WOW' signal
Firstly, even if we run with the idea that other planets are putting out signals in the form we are looking for, it's a needle in a haystack. A signal must be regular enough and strong enough, that when astronomers look at the right portion of sky, they can detect it. Famously, they did once pick up something referred to as the 'WOW' signal (called such, because one of the astronomers wrote the word 'wow' beside the numerical print-out). The signal itself provided little information, except that the frequency number closely matches that at which hydrogen resonates. The thought is, that Hydrogen being the most common element in the Universe, the number could be used by different species as a baseline of mutual knowledge from which to begin communication. Unfortunately, even after repeated checks of the same portion of space with more powerful telescopes, it was never repeated. SETI has since had very little luck.

When, Where, How
Who's sending, and who's receiving?
The sceptic perspective, is of course usually based around the Fermi Paradox. “We've not found anything yet, after so much searching. Obviously it's because there's nothing out there.” If you've read 'Part 1', you already know why I think this is a complete misfire of logic.

Having said that, I also don't think we'll have much luck with this kind of search. For starters, it is perhaps a mistake to assume that other cultures will use communication methods akin to our own. You could argue that some are bound to, but then I believe another problem creeps into the mix. There has been a logical progression to our human communications technology that possibly implies similar races would find similar solutions. Of course I could be completely wrong, but it makes sense (to me, at any rate). If their progression follows a similar path, we have an obvious and simple difficulty.

Everyone from scientists to science fiction writers, love to talk about how we have been sending signals out into the distant reaches of space for the last hundred years. If science fiction is to be believed, they're either fascinated by repeats of 'I Love Lucy' or deciding to eradicate us because of old broadcasts of Hitler, war atrocities, and our 'destruction' of the planet.

The thing is, our communication methods are changing. Television signals are increasingly broadcast via satellite, a medium that transmits inward, not outward. Meanwhile the ever-growing internet is primarily transmitted via cable. While our transmissions are increasing, their methods are becoming refined and targeted. If this progresses, our civilisation will soon have very few broad, outward transmissions. The logical conclusion is that we will have had a short one-to-two hundred year window during which we have output hoards of signals for aliens to eventually pick up.

On a cosmic scale, imagine a thin circle radiating out from a small dot, eventually passing over other tiny dots very quickly. Now imagine that each of those dots has to be at a sufficient technological level and just happen to be listening at the right time, to pick up those faint messages radiating out from a tiny blue planet.

Reverse the situation. Imagine that a few of those worlds send signals out in a similar way to ours. What are the odds that we will be listening at just the right time, to pick up such a short period of transmission? Especially given the absurdly huge length of time that our world and others have been around, in comparison to the period we've had the technology to listen?

Whilst I think it's great that we're listening, I believe the odds of our discovering something through these methods are so low (even if the universe is teeming with life), that we shouldn't expect to hear anything. Even so, it is important that we don't make snap judgements based on our lack of success in this area. Detecting nothing should not make us believe we are alone, or be used as an excuse to give up the search.

Tomorrow, we shall discuss 'Something Small', the possibilities of microbial or primitive life.

Click here for:
Part 1 - Equations and Paradoxes
Part 2 - Signals from Beyond
Part 3 - Something Small
Part 4 - Remnants and Arefacts

WOW signal image credit: The Ohio State University Radio Observatory and the North American AstroPhysical Observatory (NAAPO).
Arecibo Radio Telescope and Adromeda Galaxy image credit: http://www.nsf.gov/news/special_reports/astronomy/downloads.jsp

All work is the © copyright of W.D.Lee and/or the respective companies, individuals or organisations to which the work is related. No infringement is intentional. No reproduction or copying is permitted without express permission.

Saturday, 5 March 2011

How Might We Discover We Are Not Alone? Part 1 – Equations and Paradoxes

What Do I Know?
One of my illustrations
There seem to be an ever growing number of articles lately, discussing the possibilities of alien life. Whether they're asking if it's here already, discussing the likelihood of finding it via radio signals, or everything in between (perhaps my recent resurgence of interest has simply helped me notice and search them out more).

Either way, I thought it would be interesting to discuss the pros and cons of some of the established arguments. I'm no expert and I've not spent years researching the subject in great depth, so why do I feel the need to give my opinion? Because I thought it might be of interest to read the main issues, explained (hopefully logically) with the level of knowledge and understanding that most of us standard grunts on the ground have.

I'll deal with the main cases from 'Part 2' onward, but first let me get a couple of issues off my chest. Any person interested in UFOs or even just the possibility of extraterrestrial life, will know of the Drake Equation and the Fermi Paradox. These are oft-quoted arguments in almost any discussion of alien life, and I would like to get them out of the way before delving into anything else. They can be applied both positively and negatively to many of the arguments, so rather than repeat myself or get sidetracked, I will refer to these sections instead.

The Drake Equation
Frank Drake
The Drake Equation is a pseudo-mathematical equation that many individuals love to quote. It supposedly takes a number of variables, using them to estimate the number of extraterrestrial civilisations out there (just click here to look at it).  In my opinion, it unfortunately means nothing. The Drake Equation is based upon estimates of so many unknowns that it becomes worthless. Even the few factors that could be estimated, are exactly that. Estimates that we still have very little knowledge of (e.g. 'The number of Earth-like worlds per planetary system'). I may as well ask you to use an equation to come up with a reasonable answer for the number of grains of sand on a beach you've never seen, where you do not know and can only estimate a) The size of the beach, b) the depth of the beach before hitting bedrock, c) the amount of grains per metre vs the number of rocks, d) the tidal forces on the beach, etc...

Unfortunately, the Drake Equation has become quite established and entrenched even with scientists of note, having itself been created by the respected professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics, Frank Drake. It has probably helped a lot of research programs like SETI (which I'll cover in 'Part 2'), by giving 'numbers' and 'statistics' that can be shown to the money-sources, convincing them to back projects in a way that they understand. On the flip side, it adds unjustified weight to a lot of arguments and discussions about alien life, often with sceptics who wish to invalidate the ideas proposed by those they are countering.

So in all, I will state that I don't believe the Drake Equation can be used as a pro or con argument either way. It just doesn't have enough weight. It sounds nice because it looks scientific and can provide numerical answers, but it is essentially meaningless.

The Fermi Paradox
Enrico Fermi
The Fermi Paradox was proposed in 1950 by Enrico Fermi, a renowned physicist probably best known for his work on the first nuclear reactor and atomic bomb, alongside J. Robert Oppenheimer. Put simply, the Fermi Paradox says that statistically, given the age and scale of the universe, even with the most cynical estimates it should be teeming with technologically advanced civilisations. If so, we should have discovered some sign of their existence by now.

I'll admit, I prefer the Fermi Paradox to the Drake Equation because in essence it is simply asking a viable question. It is not trying to pull an answer out of thin air. The problem is that sceptics and non-sceptics alike, tend to forget that it is essentially a very good question. Not an answer or proof.

For example, many a sceptic will say “There is no life out there. Just look at the Fermi Paradox! It's proof that if there was life, we would've heard about it by now.” Perhaps most sensible sceptics wouldn't put it so bluntly, but often that is the thrust of their argument when they refer to the Fermi Paradox.

Using that logic, imagine an ancient scientist or philosopher, let's call him Fred Bloggs (A British equivalent of John Doe, for those wondering). He puts together some anecdotal facts about his world, before there are any real proofs, and concludes that it is probably spherical or at least round. He has a paradox, though. When he looks around, it's all flat. He puzzles over this, but at least he's still smart enough to wonder why his world facts don't quite match up. It becomes known as the Bloggs Paradox. Meanwhile, a man who only likes to believe the established safe view that the world is flat, hears of this Paradox. Next thing you know, he's in a discussion with friends who wonder about the nature of the world. He says “Ahh, but it's the Bloggs Paradox! You can't prove in any way that the world is spherical, with all the evidence around you. So it must be flat. The Paradox proves it!”

So to repeat, what I'm trying to say is that the Fermi Paradox is simply an unanswered question regarding current knowledge that seemingly contradicts. It is not a proof of anything.

So with those out of the way, let's move on to the good stuff... Next, we shall discuss 'Signals From Beyond'

Click here for:
Part 1 - Equations and Paradoxes
Part 2 - Signals from Beyond
Part 3 - Something Small
Part 4 - Remnants and Arefacts

All work is the © copyright of W.D.Lee and/or the respective companies, individuals or organisations to which the work is related. No infringement is intentional. No reproduction or copying is permitted without express permission.