"The Expanse" is the best vision I've ever seen of a space-faring future that may be just a few generations away.
- 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.
Their goal is a digital model of the Earth that depicts climate change in all of its complexity.
- The European Union envisions an ambitious digital twin of the Earth to simulate climate change.
- The project is a unique collaboration between Earth science and computer experts.
- The digital twin will allow policymakers to audition expansive geoengineering projects meant to address climate change.
A number of massive geo-engineering schemes have been proposed for dealing with climate change. These range from brightening the sun by pumping seawater spray up through ship masts, to dimming it by injecting calcium carbonate dust into the atmosphere. These ideas may or may not work, but they also may or may not backfire.
We can hardly afford to make things worse, and Earth is a big, interwoven set of complex systems. Wouldn't it be great if we had a sort of practice Earth on which we could try out such potentially high-impact solutions without risking additional harm to our planet?
We may soon have one, thanks to the European Union's new Destination Earth project. Climate scientists and computer experts are attempting to create Earth's digital twin: A virtual Earth that mirrors the real one closely enough that policymakers can audition planet-changing geo-engineering proposals to see if they'll work before deploying them for real.
Their project is described in a study published in the journal Nature Climate Change.
Who are the planet-builders?
Destination Earth is the brainchild of the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF), the European Space Agency (ESA), and the European Organization for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites (EUMETSAT).
The project manager and lead author of the study is Peter Bauer of the ECMWF. His contribution to the project has to do with the climate science aspects of Earth's virtual twin. The computer side of things will be the domain of Torsten Hoefler of ETH Zurich and Thomas Schulthess of the Swiss National Supercomputing Centre (CSCS).
Watching time go by on the digital Earth
Credit: Logan Armstrong/Unsplash
The basic idea of the digital twin is that it will allow scientists to observe climate change in motion as it progresses. "If you are planning a two-meter high dike in The Netherlands, for example," says Bauer in an ETH press release, "I can run through the data in my digital twin and check whether the dike will in all likelihood still protect against expected extreme events in 2050."
Most important will be trying out geo-engineering ideas and seeing how they track over time. The press release specifically notes the value the twin will bring to "strategic planning of fresh water and food supplies or wind farms and solar plants."
Aging models and AI
Capturing the subtleties and intricacies of our planet faithfully in order to model plausible outcomes is going to require an equally complex computer model. Construction of the digital Earth begins with the refinement of current weather models, with a goal of eventually being able to simulate conditions in as small an area as a kilometer. Current models are not nearly as fine-grained, a shortcoming that hampers their ability to make accurate predictions given that the large weather systems are really aggregates of many smaller meteorological systems influencing each other.
The authors of the paper assert that today's meteorological models fall far short of what's possible, their development having basically become stuck in place about a decade ago. They say that current models take advantage of only about 5 percent of today's available processing power. The solution is the tight collaboration between Earth scientists and computer scientists at the heart of Destination Earth to develop cutting-edge models.
The twin will also be able to take advantage of rapidly advancing developments in artificial intelligence. Obviously, AI is very good at detecting patterns in large amounts of data. The study anticipates multiple roles for AI here, including the promotion of operational efficiency with new ways of accurately representing physical processes, as well as the development of novel data-compression strategies.
A massive endeavor
The team will feed the twin massive amounts of weather data—as well as data regarding human activity—to get the digital planet going and then continually as new data emerge, making the model more and more complex and more and more accurate.
At full scale, a digital twin of an entire planet would require a suitably massive amount of horsepower. The authors of the study propose a system with 20,000 GPUs that will require 20 megawatts to run. And since the ultimate goal is to help the Earth and not make things worse, they say they'd like to site its digital twin in an area power from a CO2-netural electrical source.
At the height of the first wave, many people took heart from the drop in air pollution resulting from global lockdowns.
Experts agree that the legacy of the COVID-19 pandemic will be with us for years, even after the immediate threat has passed.
The way we live may have changed, perhaps for ever, but what about the impact on our planet? Here are 7 perspectives on what's happening – and what we can do about it.
1. COVID-19 may have cut air pollution but we haven't beaten climate change
At the height of the pandemic, many people took heart from the drop in air pollution resulting from global lockdowns. The reduction in economic activity took us back to daily levels last seen in 2006. But concentrations of CO2 in the Earth's atmosphere are still rising.
Larissa Basso, a postdoctoral fellow at Stockholm University, says that's because CO2 molecules can persist in the atmosphere for up to 200 years. And, regardless, she says the drop in emissions will only be temporary unless we address the root causes by changing the way we live.
The International Energy Agency has called for a global investment of $1 trillion to accelerate the move to zero-carbon energy. Its plan would create 9 million jobs a year, reduce emissions by 4.5 billion tonnes globally and deliver a sustainable recovery.
2. The food waste problem has been made worse
Mountains of food have been thrown away because the pandemic has closed restaurants, shops and takeaway food outlets. And, with much of the waste dumped in landfills, methane levels could rise as a result.
Methane is 20 times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas and is thought to have been responsible for approaching a fifth of historic global warming. It makes up at least half of all emissions from landfills.
The World Economic Forum initiative 'The Great Reset' calls for urgent action to manage the consequences of the COVID-19 crisis, including food waste at a time of rising global poverty. "We must invest in the future and transform our food systems to build a more inclusive and sustainable world," the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations said recently.
3. Single-use plastics are on the rise too
Plastic has played a vital role in keeping us safe and treating people suffering from COVID-19 – think masks and plastic cups. But some experts say it's being used so much that we are storing up a plastics crisis for the future.
The pandemic threatens to stall or even reverse progress to reduce global plastic waste, says Jacob Duer, President and CEO, Alliance to End Plastic Waste. In the UK, illegal dumping of trash has risen 300% during the crisis.
In Thailand, the Environment Institute blames soaring home food deliveries for increasing levels of plastic waste from about 1,500 tonnes a day to about 6,000 tonnes. Duer urges companies and governments to work together to reduce plastic use and improve waste management.
4. Millions more people will be driven into poverty
The World Bank says as many as 100 million extra people could be pushed into extreme poverty by the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on the global economy. That's 100 million people forced to live on less than $1.90 a day.
Shrinking global GDP risks reversing recent progress in reducing the numbers of the world's poorest people. A total of half a billion people could be pushed into poverty by COVID-19, according to Oxfam.
Of the 176 million people the World Bank expects to be pushed into poverty with an income below $3.20 a day, two-thirds are in South Asia. Only a robust global recovery will reverse this trend, it says.
5. Immunization has been set back by the pandemic
While the world has been focused on fighting coronavirus, deadly diseases have not gone away. But efforts to combat them by immunization have taken a back seat to combatting COVID-19, and the results could be serious unless inoculations pick up the pace.
UNICEF estimates that 80 million children under the age of one could go unvaccinated due to the disruption of immunization programmes. "Immunization is one of the most powerful and fundamental disease prevention tools in the history of public health," says Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, World Health Organization Director-General.
"Disruption to immunization programmes from the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to unwind decades of progress against vaccine-preventable diseases like measles," he adds. UNICEF agrees: "As we recover from COVID-19, our aim should not be to just make up lost ground, but to break through the long stagnation that has held us back for the last decade."
6. 'Building back better' must put the environment and fairness first
IKEA may be best known around the word for its flat-pack furniture. But Per Heggenes, CEO of the IKEA Foundation, wants us all to collectively work to build something bigger – a better world for future generations.
Writing for the World Economic Forum, Heggenes set out a five-point programme for a fairer and more sustainable post-COVID world: protect the planet; renewable energy for all; a changed relationship to food; dignified work and entrepreneurship; and leave no one behind.
"Challenging situations can bring out the best in people. Solidarity, unprecedented collaboration and new ways of thinking can help us emerge stronger and smarter from this pandemic," Heggenes says.
7. Looking after the environment could help prevent future pandemics
Protecting nature is the key to avoiding future pandemics, scientists believe. Writing in a guest article for the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, four leading biodiversity experts lay the blame for the current crisis at the door of humanity.
Warning that 1.7 million viruses, known to infect humans, exist in mammals and water birds, they say deforestation, intensive farming, mining and development, coupled with the exploitation of wild species have created a "perfect storm" for the spillover of diseases from wildlife to people.
But if we are the problem we can also be the solution. "We can build back better and emerge from the current crisis stronger and more resilient than ever – but to do so means choosing policies and actions that protect nature – so that nature can help to protect us," they say.
A new study shows our planet is much closer to the supermassive black hole at the galaxy's center than previously estimated.
If you think Earthly matters haven't been going well already, it also turns out that our planet is much closer to the supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy than we imagined. New observation data allowed researchers to improve the modeling of the Milky Way Galaxy, showing Earth is moving 7 km/s (~16,000 mph) faster and is 2,000 light years closer to the supermassive black hole Sagittarius A*.
The more precise information came from 15 years worth of data collected by the Japanese radio astronomy project VERA, which is a collection of acronyms standing for VLBI Exploration of Radio Astrometry (with "VLBI" meaning Very Long Baseline Interferometry). The project started in 2000 and has the goal of mapping the Milky Way's three-dimensional velocity and spatial structures.
VERA employs interferometry to pull together and combine data from radio telescopes all over the Japanese archipelago. This technique allows the project to get astounding resolution, as good as a telescope with a 2300 km diameter. The measurement is so accurate at this precise resolution of 10 micro-arcseconds, that it would be sufficiently sharp to pick out a U.S. penny if it was somehow left on the Moon's surface.
The VERA Astrometry Catalog and observations made recently by other researchers allowed the astronomers to put together a position and velocity map with a new center for the Galaxy. It's a point around which everything in the Galaxy revolves.
Arrows on this map show position and velocity data for the 224 objects utilized to model the Milky Way Galaxy. The solid black lines point to the positions of the spiral arms of the Galaxy. Colors reflect groups of objects that are part of the same arm, while the background is a simulation image.
The new map claims this center, along with the supermassive black hole it contains, is about 25,800 light-years away from Earth. Notably, this is closer than the distance of 27,700 light years established as the official value in 1985 by the International Astronomical Union.
The new map's velocity component also differentiated the velocity of the planet, showing that it's traveling at 227 km/s in its orbit around the Galactic Center. That's 7 km/s faster than the previously "official" speed of 220 km/s.
VERA next turns its attention to other objects, especially those close to the supermassive black hole at the galaxy's center.
Interactive globe shows where your hometown was at various stages of Earth's deep geological past.
- If you love travelling, a pandemic like this is not the greatest of times.
- But here's a way to go somewhere else without even leaving the house.
- This interactive tool lets you travel up to 750 million years back in time.
Travels in the fourth dimension
Image: Ancient Earth Globe, reproduced with kind permission.
Berlin in deep time. Left to right: in the Neocene Period (20 million years ago), Berlin is on a vast plain that includes what would become the Baltic Sea; in the Devonian (400 million years ago), it's on the southern edge of a turtle-shaped continent; and in the Ordovician (470 million years ago), Berlin is on an island south of what was to become, many millions of years later, the Black Sea.
No matter where in the world you are, the virus continues to be out there somewhere, as keen as ever on making your acquaintance. The best policy remains: avoid contact with others, avoid unnecessary travel. In short: we're all stuck at home a whole lot more than we'd like to.
After the better part of a year spent under various forms of lockdowns and other restrictions, many are suffering from an increasingly itchy version of wanderlust – the urge to travel – and it's becoming harder and harder not to scratch.
Here's an interesting alternative: instead of traveling through space, why not stay put in the first three dimensions and travel through the fourth one instead? It's a trick performed to great acclaim by H.G. Wells in "The Time Machine."
The protagonist in Wells' 1895 novella travels to the terrifying future populated by Eloi and Morlocks and even further forward to the final days of Earth, without having to leave the laboratory attached to his house.
750 million years into the past
Image: Ancient Earth Globe, reproduced with kind permission.
New York City through the ages. Left to right: Early Triassic (240 million years ago), in the middle of a megacontinent opposite future Morocco; Carboniferous (340 million years ago), still coastal, but mirrored – the ocean to the west, the land to the east; Late Ordovician (450 million years ago), near the tip of a very Long Island indeed.
And thanks to the Ancient Earth Globe, you can now travel 750 million years in the other direction, also without leaving your house. You don't even need a lab; just go to the interactive map built by paleontologist Ian Webster. Here's how it works.
- Type in the name of your hometown.
- Its coordinates are 'geolocked' onto the globe.
- As you scroll through the past ages of the Earth, the continents shift shape and change place.
- Watch the surroundings of your location modify accordingly. Now you're high up in the mountains. And now you're getting your feet wet in the middle of a nameless ocean.
- From the drop-down menu on top, you can pick one of 25 specific times, from zero to 750 million years ago.
- Or pull one of 19 significant events from the menu on the right-hand side: the time of the first dinosaurs or the first flowers, the time of the supercontinents of Pangaea or Pannotia, the Jurassic or Cretaceous era.
- Or you can time-travel casual style, by using the left and right arrows on your keyboard to flip through prehistory.
The map of the world isn't 'fixed'
Image: Ancient Earth Globe, reproduced with kind permission.
Time travel in Buenos Aires. Left to right: Late Jurassic (150 million years ago), glued to Southern Africa; Carboniferous (340 million years ago), in the middle of a giant bay; Silurian (430 million years ago), on the north shore of a large continent, facing a Hawaiian-like chain of islands.
The purpose of the Ancient Earth Globe is to provide its users with an appreciation of the dynamic nature of our planet's appearance. The map of the world that we experience as 'fixed' is anything but. The tectonic forces that shift, split and collide entire continents are constantly at work. Except that our lives are too short to really experience the changes they bring about.
But go back far enough into the past, and what's familiar becomes strange. Dry land transforms into ocean floor. Seaside towns move to the middle of strange continents. Cold climes turn tropical, and vice versa. Imagining such exotic pasts may not be the same as actually going there. But it sure beats watching the news in this Groundhog Day of a year.
Images from the Ancient Earth Globe reproduced with kind permission by Ian Webster
Strange Maps #1052
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