Best. Science. Fiction. Show. Ever.
"The Expanse" is the best vision I've ever seen of a space-faring future that may be just a few generations away.
Adam Frank is a professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester and a leading expert on the final stages of evolution for stars like the sun. Frank's computational research group at the University of Rochester has developed advanced supercomputer tools for studying how stars form and how they die. A self-described “evangelist of science," he is the author of four books and the co-founder of 13.8, where he explores the beauty and power of science in culture with physicist Marcelo Gleiser.
- Want three reasons why that headline is justified? Characters and acting, universe building, and science.
- For those who don't know, "The Expanse" is a series that's run on SyFy and Amazon Prime set about 200 years in the future in a mostly settled solar system with three waring factions: Earth, Mars, and Belters.
- No other show I know of manages to use real science so adeptly in the service of its story and its grand universe building.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know: Best science fiction show ever. That is a pretty audacious claim and it means I've got some explaining to do. But with 58.5 years of nerdom behind me, including years of watching "Star Trek", "UFO", "Space 1999", "Battlestar Galactica" (the original one that sucked except for the special effects), "Stargate", "The X-Files", "Farscape", "Battlestar Galactica" (the new one that didn't suck) and Firefly I have seen a thing or two concerning science fiction on TV. That's why I'm here ready to stand my ground and proclaim for all nerdom to hear…
"The Expanse" is the greatest science fiction TV show ever. EVER!
For those of you who don't know, "The Expanse" is a series that's run on SyFy and Amazon Prime set about 200 years in the future in a mostly settled solar system (slight spoiler alerts follow). Based on an amazing book series by SA Corey, in this future there are three major political factions in constant conflict with each other. First, there is Earth which remains powerful but is stretched thin by climate change and overpopulation. Then there is Mars, a former colony of Earth, that's now an independent militaristic republic whose technology generally outpaces that of humanity's homeworld. The final faction is "The Belt" which refers to the asteroids and moons of the giant planets. Belters are resource extractors, and they are the oppressed underclass. After generations living on ships and in low-gravity environments, their bodies have changed, making it impossible for many of them to handle the crush of gravity on the inner planets.
The story begins with all three factions at each other's throats. Mars and Earth are in the midst of a long cold war that, occasionally, turns hot. What Earth and Mars have in common, however, is keeping their boot on the neck of the Belters who are, themselves, poised for bloody rebellion. This simmering political, social and military conflict would be enough for a hundred episodes but it's into this pile of dynamite "The Expanse" drops an alien artifact that changes everything and propels the narrative.
Now, the individual elements in what I described above are not really that original. You can find many versions of them in many TV shows across many decades. So, what does "The Expanse" do with these elements that makes it so special? For me the excellence of the show manifests in three distinct ways: characters and acting; universe building; science.
The level of attempted scientific realism in the show is wonderful, extending even to little details like how whiskey spirals out of its bottle due to the Coriolis effect when poured on a rotating space station.
Let's start with characters and acting. No matter how good your science fiction ideas may be, you have to tell your stories through actors pretending to be characters interacting with each other. By its nature, science fiction shows can ask a lot of actors. They have to stare at green screens, pretending to be in awe of an alien mothership that won't get added till post-production CGI; or they dangle from wires emoting through a screen set in the weightlessness of space. It takes serious acting chops to maintain the gravity (or levity) that makes it all believable or better yet relatable. That's why the depth of performances in The Expanse is its best surprise. The recent season, for example, had actor Dominique Tipper killing it across three episodes as Belter engineer Naomi Nagata. Nagata is caught alone on a booby-trapped ship, exhausting herself trying to signal her friends to not attempt a rescue. It's a solo performance reminiscent of Tom Hanks' great work in "Castaway".
Across the seasons, other actors have also filled out their characters with an empathy that's comparable to anything else in any other genre on TV. Thomas Jane's detective Josephus Miller was an epic noir depiction of a man broken by circumstance but still moving towards something better. Shohreh Aghdashloo's foul-mouthed UN leader Chrisjen Avasarala is a skilled politician who will kick your ass and save your world at the same time. And, perhaps best of all, is Wes Chatham's Amos Burton. Born in the worst the streets can offer he became a killer then escaped to become a spaceship mechanic. Chatham plays Burton as simultaneously dangerous, kind, and slightly bewildered, always wanting to do the right thing if he just knew what that was. And don't even get me started on how good Cara Gee is as Belter captain Camina Drummer.
Next, we come to what's called 'universe building' in science fiction. All the great acting needs a fully fleshed out, lived-in world to ground it. How, for example, do the trams work on a hollowed out, spinning asteroid like Ceres that's used as a space settlement? This isn't a physics question. Instead, it means if you arrived on Ceres, where would you find the tram station? What do the maps look like that would help you get around? These are the kind of details that fall both to the writers and the art department. Getting these details wrong means the world your show inhabits will either look cheesy or, worse, sterile, as if all your expensive sets never had anyone live in them.
Happily, everything in "The Expanse" looks lived in. Everything looks like part of an organic whole. The sets and scenes give us a world built by humans for human purposes even if it's a city built into the side of a Martian cliff. From visions of New York City under siege from climate change to the claustrophobic interiors of Belter ships (all webbing, ductwork and grimy computer screens), the universe of "The Expanse" is endlessly rich, interesting, and believable (Adam Savage has a great set of videos on production design in "The Expanse").
Finally, we come to the science, because, after all, this is science fiction. I am not one who demands that my science fiction always get the science right. What matters is that the writers create a self-consistent universe where whatever "science" is invoked remains constant as constraints imposed to provide obstacles and make the story work. But, to my joy, for the most part the "science" used in "The Expanse" is the science I teach in my physics classes. For example, there is no imaginary "artificial gravity" babble. Instead, there is thrust gravity when the engines are on, accelerating spaceships. There is also spin gravity when you're on the inside of something rotating. Other than that, you are "on the float." Just like what will happen in real spaceships and space stations in the future.
The level of attempted scientific realism in the show is wonderful, extending even to little details like how whiskey spirals out of its bottle due to the Coriolis effect when poured on a rotating space station. Most importantly, the writers use the real physics real people will really encounter in real space travel as a kind of extra character in the show. During space battles, as ships roll and pivot, Newton's first law (inertia) means unsecured tools are sent flying across the cabin. That makes them dangerous projectiles our brave heroes must dodge while fighting evil and advancing the storyline. It all makes my physicist's heart weep in gratitude.
Of course, not all the science in "The Expanse" is valid or accurate or correct. But that's OK. No other show I know of manages to use real science so adeptly in the service of its story and its grand universe building. I often rewatch episodes of "The Expanse" just to get a sense of "Oh yeah, that's how it might look." In a way, the show is the best vision I've ever seen of a space-faring future that may be just a few generations away.
Credit: "The Expanse" / Syfy
Now, I get it if you don't agree with me. I love "Star Trek" and I thought "Battlestar Galactica" (the new one) was amazing and I do adore "The Mandalorian". They are all fun and important and worth watching and thinking about. And maybe you love them more than anything else. But when you sum up the acting, the universe building, and the use of real science where it matters, I think nothing can beat "The Expanse". And with a Rotten Tomato average rating of 93%, I'm clearly not the only one who feels this way.
How the British obsession with tea triggered wars, led to bizarre espionage, and changed the world — many times.
- Today, tea is the single most popular drink worldwide, with a global market that outstrips all the nearest rivals combined.
- The British Empire went to war over tea, ultimately losing its American colonies and twice beating the Chinese in the "Opium Wars."
- The British desire to secure homegrown tea resulted in their sending botanist Robert Fortune on a Hollywood-worthy mission to secure Chinese tea plants and steal horticultural secrets.
After water, tea is the most common drink in the world. It is more popular than coffee, soft drinks, and alcohol combined. 84 percent of Brits enjoy a daily "cuppa," but this is a mere bagatelle against the Turks, who drink on average three to four cups every day. The tea industry is worth $200 billion worldwide and is set to grow by half by 2025.
Tea is such a huge part of many cultures, that it even has origin myths. For instance, one involves the Buddha waking up after falling asleep during his meditation. Disgusted at his lack of self-discipline, he cut off his eyelids and threw them to the ground. These lids then grew into tea plants to help future meditators stay awake.
Tea really matters to a lot of people. And, it mattered so much to the British and their empire that it directed their entire foreign policy. It also inspired one of the most incredible and ridiculous tales of 19th century espionage.
A spot of tea
When the European powers of the 16th century first traded with, then militarily colonized, various East Asian nations, it was impossible not to come across tea. Since the 9th century, the Tang Dynasty of China had already popularized tea across the region. Tea was already firmly entrenched when the Portuguese became the first Europeans to sample it (in 1557), followed by the Dutch, who first shipped a batch back to mainland Europe.
Britain was relatively late to the tea party, not arriving until well into the 17th century. In fact, in Samuel Pepys' 1660 diaries, he makes reference to "a cup of tee (a China drink) of which I had never drunk before." It was only after King Charles II's Portuguese wife popularized it at court that tea became a fashionable societal drink.
After the Brits got going, there was no stopping them. Tea became a huge business. However, since tea was monopolized by the East India Company and the government imposed a whopping 120 percent tax on it, an army of smuggler gangs opened back channels to get tea to the poorer masses. Eventually, in 1784, Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger got wise to the popular cry for tea. To stamp out the black market, he slashed the tax on the leaf to just 12.5 percent. From then on, tea became the everyman's drink — marketed as medicinal, invigorating, and tasty.
A cup, a cup, my kingdom for a cup!
Tea became so important to the British that it even sparked wars across the empire.
Most famously, when the British imposed a three pennies per pound tax on all tea the East India Company exported to America, it led to the outraged destruction of an entire ship's tea cargo. The "Boston Tea Party" was the first major defiant act of the American colonies and led ultimately to ham-fisted and insensitive countermeasures from the London government. These, in turn, sparked the U.S. War of Independence.
Less well known is how Britain went to war with China over tea. Twice.
Credit: Ingo Doerrie via Unsplash
Back then, tea was only being grown and exported from China to British India and then around the empire. As such, it led to a massive trade imbalance, where the largely self-sufficient China only wanted British silver in return for their famous and delicious homegrown tea leaves. This sort of economic policy, known as mercantilism, made Britain really mad.
In retaliation, Britain grew opium and flooded China with the drug. When China (quite understandably) objected to this, Britain sent in the gunboats. The subsequent "Opium Wars" were only ever going to go one way, and when China sued for peace, they were lumped with $20 million worth of reparations — and had to cede Hong Kong to Britain (which only returned in 1997).
The tea spy: on her majesty's secret service
But even these wars did not resolve the trade deficit with China. The attempts to make tea in British India resulted in insipid rubbish, and the British needed the good stuff. So, they turned to a Scottish botanist named Robert Fortune, whose mission was simple: cross the border into China, integrate himself amongst Chinese tea farmers, and smuggle out both their expertise and preferably their tea plants.
Fortune accepted the mission, even though he could not speak a word of Chinese and had barely left his native Britain. (A forefather of 007 he was not.) But not one to let these details get in the way, he shaved his hair, plaited a pigtail that resembled those worn by the Chinese, and then set off on his adventure.
And what an adventure it was. He came under attack by bandits and brigands, his ship was bombarded by pirates, and he had to endure fever, tropical storms, and typhoons. In spite of all this, Fortune not only managed to learn Chinese and travel around the forbidden City of Suzhou and its surrounding tea-farming land, but he also integrated himself into secluded peasant communities. When the skeptical tea farmers challenged Fortune on why he was so tall, he fooled them by claiming that he was a very important state official — all of whom were tall, apparently.
An Indian speciali-tea
Amazingly, Fortune had good fortune and got away with it. Over the course of his three-year mission, he secreted out several shipments of new tea plants to Britain as well as the art of bonsai (previously, a closely held secret). Most of the smuggled tea leaves died from mold and moisture in transit, but Fortune persisted, and eventually the British began to cultivate their own tea plants using Chinese tea farming techniques in their colonial Indian soils.
It was not long until an Indian variant, almost indistinguishable from the stolen Chinese one, began to dominate the market, not least for Britain's huge and growing empire. Within 20 years of Fortune's remarkable mission, the East India Company had more than fifty contractors pumping out tea worldwide.
Today, things have reverted back. China now produces not only substantially more than India (in second place) but more than the top ten countries combined. In total, 40 percent of the world's tea comes from China. But it was British tea — and Robert Fortune's incredible and unlikely mission — which catalyzed the huge global market. Without this overly confident Scottish plant-lover, the world's love of tea might look very different.
Before it fueled Woodstock and the Summer of Love, LSD was brought to America to make spying easier.
- The CIA's Project MK-Ultra was designed to investigate the potential of drugs for intelligence operations.
- LSD was thought to be a truth serum and was used on unwitting citizens.
- The full extent of the CIA's unethical human experiments may never be known.
LSD has a long, storied history in America. It is most famously associated with the counterculture of the 1960s, but modern medical science has brought it (and other psychedelics like DMT and psilocybin) into the mainstream as possible therapeutic agents for the treatment of mental illness and addiction.
A slightly less well-known story is when the CIA tried to employ LSD as a tool in spycraft and tested its applications on unwitting Americans and Canadians.
The specter of international communism made America paranoid during the 1950s. Communist infiltration was thought to be lurking behind every corner, and the USSR was considered capable of just about anything in its goal of achieving worldwide dominance. It is within this milieu that one can understand why, when faced with instances of soldiers in the Korean War defecting to the North or denouncing war crimes that didn't happen, the U.S. government suddenly became convinced that the commies had developed some form of mind control.
The CIA thought it imperative that similar capacities be achieved by the U.S. If the Reds did not actually have that ability, all the better. So a project dubbed MK-Ultra was started in 1953 with the goal of finding a drug that could be used as a truth serum and a tool of mind control. Many drugs were tested, not just LSD, often on people without their knowledge or consent.
The head of the program, Sidney Gottlieb, thought LSD may be the wonder-drug he was looking for. So, he had the U.S. buy the entire global supply of LSD, at the time only produced by the Swiss company Sandoz, for a cool $240,000. The massive stockpile was immediately put to use.
The CIA set up front organizations to finance research of the drug at a number of universities, including Stanford and MIT, to see how typical test subjects would react to the drug in a clinical setting without making the CIA's interest in the drug known.
Less ethically and less voluntarily, some prisoners in the American penal system were given the drug daily for months on end. The CIA even drugged its own employees, hoping to learn what would happen if an intelligence asset was slipped a drug they knew nothing about. This resulted in at least one death.
And it only got stranger, less voluntary, and more illegal after that.
Operation Midnight Climax (yes, it was really called that)
In one of the more bizarre "experiments" during the project, the CIA had prostitutes in New York and San Francisco bring their clients back to a safehouse where they would be slipped LSD. After the conclusion of business, the prostitutes would ask questions of their clients, who would be tripping, in an attempt to determine how much LSD was required to get men talking. All of this was observed through a one-way glass by CIA operatives with no scientific backgrounds who drank martinis by the pitcher.
The use of the drug in interrogations also was investigated at safehouses in Europe and East Asia. Suspected foreign intelligence assets were given massive doses of LSD before interrogation to cause emotional trauma "at levels that can only be called torture," according to Raffi Khatchadourian. Some subjects were told that their bad trips would never end if they did not talk. Related tests were done to see if an LSD trip would make lies show up more clearly on a polygraph test. The results were inconclusive.
A similar program was going on inside the U.S. Army as well. The Edgewood Arsenal human experiments examined the use of several drugs, including LSD, in warfare and information gathering. As with the CIA, army officers drugged random soldiers to observe their reactions. While plans were drawn up to use the drug on captured Vietcong to aid in interrogations (which would have been a war crime), they were not enacted for reasons unknown.
Other ideas on how to use the powerful psychedelic included drugging foreign leaders the U.S. did not like before they had to give a speech or chair an important meeting. The hope was that the drug would cause erratic behavior, which would then lead to a decline in their popularity or to poor decision-making. Gottlieb even devised a plan to spray a radio station from which Fidel Castro was scheduled to give an address with aerosolized LSD in the hope of achieving similar ends. The plan was never carried out.
The spy who drugged me
In what may be one of the great understatements of the 20th century, the CIA concluded that LSD was too "unpredictable" in its results to be the single super-drug they sought. However, the CIA still thought LSD had its place in spycraft.
For his part, Gottlieb considered the project a failure and concluded that no possible combination of drugs or psychiatric interventions could accomplish the program's goals. He went on to work on other CIA projects and retired in 1973 after he destroyed most of the already spotty records of the program. In retirement, he helped lepers in India, raised goats, and constructed one of the first solar powered homes in the state of Virginia.
However, that was hardly the end of things. Gottlieb forgot to burn the financial records, and in the mid-1970s, the Church Committee of the U.S. Senate investigated the program, though the lack of data meant that very few of the people who were drugged without their consent were ever compensated, and a great deal about the program (and others like it) remain unknown.
Notable recorded and voluntary test subjects of MK-Ultra who were given LSD included the poet Alan Ginsburg, writer Ken Kesey (author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest), and Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter. All three would later tout the benefits of psychedelics and the broader drug culture in the years that followed their involvement with the program.
Their activities, as well as those of other LSD advocates in the 1960s, would undermine the very vision of American society that the CIA was trying to protect in the first place — using a tool the CIA itself provided. The irony of this was not lost on Beatle John Lennon, who mused, "We must always remember to thank the CIA and the Army for LSD. That's what people forget… They invented LSD to control people and what they did was give us freedom."
While the level of "freedom" LSD provides is debatable, the story of how the counterculture first got a taste of the stuff demonstrates even that freedom comes at a price.
What was the universe like one-trillionth of a second after the Big Bang? Science has an answer.
- Following Steven Weinberg's lead, we plunge further back into cosmic history, beyond the formation of atomic nuclei.
- Today, we discuss the origin of the quark-gluon plasma and the properties of the famous Higgs boson, the "God Particle."
- Is there a limit? How far can we go back in time?
Last week, we celebrated the great physicist Steven Weinberg, bringing back his masterful book The First Three Minutes: A Modern View of the Origin of the Universe, where he tells the story of how, in the first moments after the Big Bang, matter started to organize into the first atomic nuclei and atoms. This week we continue to follow Weinberg's lead, plunging further back in time, as close to the beginning as we reliably can.
But first, a quick refresher. The first light atomic nuclei — aggregates of protons and neutrons — emerged during the very short time window between one-hundredth of a second and 3 minutes after the bang. This explains Weinberg's book title. Recall that atoms are identified by the number of protons in their nuclei (the atomic number) — from hydrogen (with a single proton) to carbon (with six) and all the way to uranium (with 92). The early cosmic furnace forged only chemical elements 1, 2, and 3 — hydrogen, helium, and lithium (as well as their isotopes, which contain the same number of protons but different numbers of neutrons). All heavier elements are forged in dying stars.
The hypothesis that the universe was the alchemist responsible for the lightest elements has been beautifully confirmed by numerous observations during the past decades, including improving a lingering discrepancy with lithium-7. (The "7" represents three protons and four neutrons for this lithium isotope, its most abundant in nature.) This primordial nucleosynthesis is one of the three key observational pillars of the Big Bang model of cosmology. The other two are the expansion of the universe — measured as galaxies recede form one another — and the microwave background radiation — the radiation leftover after the birth of hydrogen atoms, some 400,000 years after the bang.
The primordial soup of particle physics
At about one minute after the bang, the matter in the universe included light atomic nuclei, electrons, protons, neutrons, photons, and neutrinos: the primordial soup. What about earlier? Going back in cosmic time means a smaller universe, that is, matter squeezed into smaller volumes. Smaller volumes mean higher pressures and temperatures. The recipe for the soup changes. In physics, temperature is akin to motion and agitation. Hot things move fast and, when they cannot because they are stuck together, they vibrate more. Eventually, as the temperature increases, the bonds that keep things together break. As we go back in time, matter is dissociated into its simplest components. First, molecules become atoms. Then, atoms become nuclei and free electrons. Then, nuclei become free protons and neutrons. Then what?
Since the 1960s, we have known that protons and neutrons are not elementary particles. They are made of other particles — called quarks — bound together by the strong nuclear force, which is about 100 times stronger than electric attraction (that is, electromagnetism). But for high enough temperatures, not even the strong force can hold protons and neutrons together. When the universe was a mere one-hundred-thousandth of a second (10-5 second) old, it was hot enough to dissociate protons and neutrons into a hot plasma of quarks and gluons. Gluons, as the name implies, are the particles that stitch quarks into protons and neutrons (as well as hundreds of other particles held together by the strong force commonly seen in particle accelerators). Amazingly, such strange quark-gluon plasma has been created in high-energy particle collisions that generate energies one million degrees hotter than the heart of the sun. (Here is a video about it.) For a fleeting moment, the early universe re-emerges in a human-made machine, an awesome scientific and technological feat.
Remember the Higgs boson?
Is that it? Or can we go further back? Now we are contemplating a universe that is younger than one-millionth of a second old. For us, that's a ridiculously small amount of time. But not for elementary particles, zooming about close to the speed of light. As we keep going back toward t = 0, something remarkable happens. At about one-trillionth of a second (10-12 second or 0.000000000001 second) after the bang, a new particle commands the show, the famous Higgs boson. If you remember, this particle became both famous and infamous when it was discovered in 2012 at the European Center for Particle Physics, and the media decided to call it the "God Particle."
For this, we can blame Nobel Prize Laureate Leon Lederman, who was my boss when I was a postdoc at Fermilab, the biggest particle accelerator in the U.S. Leon told me that he was writing a book about the elusive Higgs, which he tried to but could not find at Fermilab. He wanted to call the book The God-Damn Particle, but his editor suggested taking out the "damn" from the title to increase sales. It worked.
The Higgs goes through a strange transition as the universe heats up. It loses its mass, becoming what we call a massless particle, like the photon. Why is this important? Because the Higgs plays a key role in the drama of particle physics. It is the mass-giver to all particles: if you hug the Higgs or (more scientifically) if a particle interacts with the Higgs boson, it gets a mass. The stronger the interaction, the larger the mass. So, the electron, being light, interacts less strongly with the Higgs than, say, the tau lepton or the charm quark. But if the Higgs loses its mass as it gets hotter, what happens to all the particles it interacts with? They also lose their mass!
Approaching t = 0
Think about the implication. Before one-trillionth of a second after the bang, all known particles were massless. As the universe expands and cools, the Higgs gets a mass and gives mass to all other particles it interacts with. This explains why the "God Particle" nickname stuck. The Higgs explains the origin of masses.
Kind of. We do not know what determines the strengths of all these different hugs (interactions), for instance, why the electron mass is different from the quarks' masses. These are parameters of the model, known as the Standard Model, a compilation of all that we know about the world of the very, very small. These all-important parameters determine the world as we know it. But we do not know what, if anything, determines them.
Okay, so we are at one-trillionth of a second after the bang. Can we keep going back? We can, but we must dive into the realm of speculation. We can talk of other particles, other dimensions of space and superstrings, the unification of all forces of nature, and the multiverse. Or we can invoke a pearl the great physicist Freeman Dyson once told me: most speculations are wrong. Readers are best served if we stick to what we know first. Then, with care, we dive into the unknown.
So, we stop here for now, knowing that there is much new territory of the "Here Be Dragons" type to cover in this fleeting one-trillionth of a second. We will go there soon enough.
SMARTER FASTER trademarks owned by Freethink Media, Inc. All rights reserved.