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Tag Archive: Real Science


Review by C.J. Bunce

When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

— From The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

It isn’t enough to tell us what a man did.  You’ve got to tell us who he was.

— From Citizen Kane

The battle between these two ideas becomes the screenwriter’s dilemma, particularly for a historical drama recounting actual documented events.  First, there are stories of famous people and events that touch so many that the details become less important than the mythology.  Whether peppered with embellishment and puffery, it’s what the multitudes think of as the hero.  Next, there is the desire to use the archival record to fill in all the details you know, to get as much of the story as technically accurate as possible.  For these movies, the detail often distorts the impact of the story or event, minimizing what makes the actions of a man or woman or event so historic or triumphant.  And that’s the struggle evident in First Man: The Annotated Screenplay, a new book that includes the consolidated draft script of the new film chronicling astronaut Neil Armstrong’s life leading up to the Apollo 11 moon landing in July 1969.

The beauty of the book is the full disclosure of the thoughts of two people, the screenwriter Josh Singer (The Post, The Fifth Estate, Fringe), and James R. Hansen, the historian and author of the only biography of Neil Armstrong authorized by Armstrong, First Man: the Life of Neil Armstrong.  Fans of NASA, of the history of spaceflight, science and technology will appreciate so many scenes that include verbatim text from the actual events.  For researchers and enthusiasts alike, Singer and Hansen include numerous reference citations showing the source of these scenes.  Yet even the bulk of these were edited for time and the needs of telling Singer’s story.  As revealed by both Singer and Hansen, the embellishments filling in the story between these sequences are many, so many that no scene seems to exclude artistic license by Singer–license that Singer freely acknowledges and defends as sincerely as someone defending a finely researched graduate thesis.  The scenes may be well-researched, educated, and heavily vetted speculation, but they aren’t reality.

Is it relevant, and does the final script reflect something of the aura missing from the space race and Moonshot that neither the director (born in 1985) nor the screen writer (born in 1972) were yet alive to witness?  Does the difference come down to the creative visions behind these movies, and established space race classics: bestselling author Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff that became the box office and critical hit The Right Stuff (directed by Philip Kaufman, who wrote Raiders of the Lost Ark), and the first-hand account by Jim Lovell in his book Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13, that became the box office and critical hit Apollo 13 (directed by popular filmmaker Ron Howard)?

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Each member of Queen was on another career path when they formed their band at the beginning of the 1970s: Freddie Mercury had been in art school, guitar player Roger Deakins studied electrical engineering, drummer Roger Taylor was in dental school, and guitarist Brian May studied astrophysics.  Years later May would go on to earn his doctorate in the field, and the rock star comes full circle this week blending a childhood hobby with his band and his passion for space science with the release of two new books: Mission Moon 3-D: A New Perspective on the Space Race and Queen in 3-D: Second Edition Many fans of Queen may not be aware that May had a unique passion for taking three-dimensional photographs.  He took 3-D photos as a young boy and transitioned to a 3-D camera as they became popular in the 1950s, and when Queen started to tour he continued.  The result is 300 previously unpublished 3-D photographs, capturing the history of Queen from the early 1970s to present day.  May has updated the book with more 3-D images, including images he took on the set of the new biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, and the premiere release of this updated edition is timed with the release of the film this week in the UK and next week in the U.S.

The first history of any rock group created in 3-D and written by a band member, Queen in 3-D was a labor of love for May.  The photographs include shots taken on stage, behind the scenes, on the road, and during leisure time.  May shares recollections of his bandmates for the first time.  The book is particularly unique in its coverage of Freddie Mercury, who was normally shy and private, but comfortable and even playful when May brought out his camera.  The book is the result of a project he worked on during nights while touring with the band, and continuing on with a company he founded, The London Stereoscopic Company Ltd (check it out at www.londonstereo.com), which sells books, viewers, and more, sharing a passion for 3-D imagery across every subject.

Dr. May put his astrophysics knowledge and interest in the space race to good use as we approach next summer’s 50th anniversary of the first moon landing, releasing this week his next 3-D book project, Mission Moon 3-D: A New Perspective on the Space RaceWritten by May and David J. Eicher (editor of Astronomy Magazine), the authors narrate the story of Apollo and space travel leading to Apollo 11’s lunar landing in July 1969.  The Apollo astronauts were trained to take 3-D images, but primarily Dr. May researched NASA archives to sort thousands of images to present the same image in stereoscope form which, when viewed with his patented Lite Owl viewer (a viewer accompanies each book), provide full, detailed 3-D images.  The same science behind the human eye and camera fundamentals applied to the 19th century with the popularity of the stereoscope camera and viewer as with May’s use of 3-D images included in his books.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

You can approach a new chronicle of an artist and her design and creation of a 2,500 square foot mural encompassing all the known bird families in many ways.  For one, science illustrator and museum artist Jane Kim thoroughly researched each of the 243 families of birds before adding a drop of paint to a hallway over the visitor center at the highly regarded Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York, and so her new book The Wall of Birds is an educational tool for anyone who has the bug to learn more about the diversity of these remarkable creatures.  Kim, tapped to design and complete a mural of all the families of the world’s birds in full 1:1 scale, decided to include an evolutionary thread through her design, and so five extinct bird families appear to haunt her wall in ghostly muted tones, along with a stairway that recounts the evolutionary steps toward modern birds over 375 million years, complete with a surprise crocodile (crocs share a common ancestor with birds 240 million years ago).  If you’ve visited any natural history museum you’ve probably encountered beautiful painted murals to support the displays that stand as centerpieces, but with Kim’s Wall of Birds a common space was transformed with maximum effect into a centerpiece itself.

Completed in January 2016 after 12 months of research and 17 months of on site painting, Kim now takes her art a step further by presenting her process, development of ideas, and execution of the final work in a full-color 232-page volume.  Co-written with Kim’s husband Thayer Walker, The Wall of Birds: One Planet, 240 Families, 375 Million Years, available in hardcover for pre-order now here at Amazon and available next week, is the kind of view into the mind of an artist that readers, fans, and enthusiasts of any subject long for.  How often have you wondered why a costume designer used these colors and fabrics to represent an alien being?  How often have you wondered why you can recognize your favorite comic book artist in an instant through some stylistic choice?  Kim details her process from idea to layout, stencils, color layering, detail work, scientific review by ornithologists, revision, and final presentation.  She even created her own “aviary Pantone” color palette with 51 created latex interior house paints finished with 13 acrylic paint colors.

Kim recounts the most difficult birds she worked on for several days to simpler projects, like the “little brown jobs” that dot our bird-covered planet, which were completed in less than a day.  Since all the birds were life-sized and her mural included each bird featured adjacent to one of its geographical habitats, she used a movable lift to be able to paint high and low on her giant wall canvas.  Some of the difficult projects were the larger birds, but not always, as the smallest birds had to incorporate their colors, plumage, wings, beaks, and legs in a much smaller space to work with.  The artist also recounts the planning required to make the work not only scientifically accurate, but also reflect a work of fine art and be aesthetically pleasing.  Some larger birds, like the Great Gray Owl, required Kim to paint feather-by-feather the bird’s enormous wings, often working overnight in the lab alone.  Take a look at some preview pages from the book courtesy of publisher Harper Design:

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Review by C.J. Bunce

Family of Humming-birds, completed in six volumes in 1887, was the culmination of a fifty-year career of John Gould, one of the earliest and most renowned ornithologists.  A publication of 418 hand-colored illustrations representing all the known species of hummingbirds of the day, it was considered the definitive scientific reference of the era on the subject.  The volume also reflected one of the most attractive species of animal that would appeal to some of the world’s most elite collectors, scientists, and educators.   With 39 pages of introductory information written by Joel and Laura Oppenheimer, Rizzoli Electa is reprinting the entirety of Gould’s six volumes of prints in the new publication The Family of Hummingbirds: The Complete Prints of John Gould, to be released at the end of this month.

When the HMS Beagle naturalist Charles Darwin returned to England in 1836 from the Galapagos with crates of samples of animal life for scientific study, under special dispensation from the Crown he was allowed to determine which scientists received what families of animals for study, instead of depositing them all with the British Museum as was common practice.  For the bird collection, he selected John Gould, a rising star of both avian study, taxidermy, and illustration.  Darwin’s theory of the transmutation of species and later his theory on natural selection in part came from findings shared by Gould.  The third volume of Darwin’s findings from his exploration included 50 illustrations by Gould’s wife Elizabeth and text written by Gould.  Nearly 20 years before Darwin’s landmark text On the Origin of Species, this earlier work provided some of the ground work for the theory of evolution, despite Gould not publicly endorsing Darwin’s theories.  After his wife passed away on their expedition to chronicle birds and mammals in Australia, Mr. Gould would continue publishing folios on the birds of the world, ultimately amassing several publications covering birds, as well as other animals, across the globe.

 

Nearest to Gould’s heart was the fascinating hummingbird, which he referred to as “this family of living gems.”  According to the foreword in The Family of Hummingbirds: The Complete Prints of John Gould provided by naturalist and historian Robert McCracken Peck, Family of Humming-birds “represented a family of birds of remarkable grace and beauty that lived in exotic habitats unlikely to be seen even by collectors wealthy enough to afford the book Gould devoted to them.”  Artist H.C Richter would expand upon John Gould’s sketches and ideas for plates–Gould would first draw a male and female of each species with a plant native to its habitat, ultimately creating all 360 plates in the book’s first five volumes, released piecemeal via subscriptions ultimately with the recipients to have the completed work formally bound.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

If the Scots abandoned Scotland to nature, it would be the birch that would be the first tree to seize its chance, and a birch forest would walk the streets of Edinburgh.

Thomas Pakenham was referring to a gigantic pioneer birch tree in Rothiemarchus, Scotland, but he may have well been writing about the Ents, the grand, wise, old leafed characters of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth.  In his book Meetings with Remarkable Trees, Pakenham reproduces his real-life journey across continents meeting some of the oldest inhabitants of the planet, even if they never actually “walked” the Earth.  In beautiful photographs and stories, he introduces readers to the most noble of Earth’s elders, a chance to marvel in awe at their enormous height, or breadth, of their obvious beauty or strikingly twisted, meandering, slim, or expansive forms.  Pakenham, the 8th Earl of Longford, an Anglo-Irish writer, historian, and tree enthusiast, selected trees “mostly very large, and mainly very ancient, and all with a strong personality,” highlighting the unique qualities unique to each remarkable individual.  His folksy speech and storytelling is refreshingly regional, providing an herbivorous mirror to fellow Brit James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small.

To visit these trees, to step beneath their domes and vaults, is to pay homage at a mysterious shrine.  But tread lightly.  Even these giants have delicate roots.  And be warned that this may be your farewell visit.  No one can say if this prodigious trunk will survive the next Atlantic storm–or outlive us all by centuries.

Thomas Pakenham’s photograph of the great Fredville oak, named “Majesty” at least as early as 1820 when it was sketched by artist Jacob Strutt.

And, indeed, even some of the trees pictured in Meetings with Remarkable Trees are no longer around, having succumbed to storm or man-made destruction.  Pakenham’s tome is something profoundly sacred or spiritual.  It’s peppered with historical references, literary allusions to specific trees, and including some very famous trees, whether a thousand years old or more than 200 feet tall.  It seems preposterous humans travel the globe to see manmade creations when we could be on pilgrimages to commune with these ancient living beings.  Sixty trees are grouped by personality: Natives, Travellers, Shrines, Fantasies, and Survivors.  Once you’ve met Pakenham and his craggy acquaintances in this book, you’ll want to move on to accompany the champion of trees on a year in his life in his book, The Company of Trees: A Year in a Lifetime’s Quest.

A different approach to individual trees can be found in photographer Diane Cook and Len Jenshel’s Wise Trees (you’ll find a 16-page preview below).  Some ancient and many not so ancient, the trees in this book include 50 selected from five continents and identified for their historic or inspirational stories.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

As you’re planning to attend the upcoming return of Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park to theaters, a new book released this week is going to take readers of all ages on a tour of the history of real dinosaurs and the history of the study of dinosaurs itself.  A fresh look at the science of paleontology and the resulting knowledge about the life, environment, and structure of the major species of dinosaurs is the subject of Dinosaurs: A Journey to the Lost Kingdom.  Authors Christine Argot and Luc Vivès, researchers at The French National Museum of Natural History in Paris, use the museum’s own paleontology gallery as the starting point to tell how scientists developed the study and reconstruction of dinosaurs since the gallery first opened in 1898.  Everyone has a favorite dinosaur, and whether yours is a stegosaurus, triceratops, diplodocus, allosaurus, iguanodon, brontosaurus, megalosaurus, or tyrannosaurus, you’ll marvel at the spectacular images of their skeletons on display as scientists have updated them consistent with improved knowledge and techniques across the years.

Interlacing the work of paleontologists, geologists, museum curators, and other scientists around the world, and changing views of remarkable fossil discoveries (like placement, stance, and presence of feathers) over nearly 150 years, the authors combine photographs of their collection with images resulting from digs, artists’ interpretations, magazine articles, and museum archives.  From tales of dragons and mythical beasts to speculative works from John Milton’s Paradise Lost to Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, from Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ The Land That Time Forgot, and Ray Bradbury’s A Sound of Thunder to Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, ideas of fantasy have informed science and vice versa.  Movements and individuals have changed our outlook into history, via wealthy benefactors, scholars, educators, and artisans.  From lost displays in the Crystal Palace to the artistry of Charles R. Knight, the history of dinosaurs is also the evolution of the thinking of mankind.  The result will fascinate both young and old readers, whether Dinosaurs: A Journey to the Lost Kingdom will be your kid’s first book of dinosaurs or a companion book for a high school or college museum studies course, or simply a resource for you to enjoy.

One story recounts the misidentification of an iguanodon finger bone as a nose bone.  Another story describes the excavation of a pit in Belgium in the 1870s that netted 130 tons of bones.  Preservation and conservation methods are discussed throughout, plus improvements in museum display, like the use of 3D printing to allow an original tyrannosaurus rex from the States to be replicated and put on display at the Paris museum this summer.

Here is a preview of Dinosaurs: A Journey to the Lost Kingdom courtesy of the publisher:

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Four artists are helping a UK company’s bionic arms become the functioning hands of many with the benefit of stylish designs.  Open Bionics is an entrepreneurial company that has created and fitted hundreds with its advanced, multi-grip bionic arms since their release this April.  Called the Hero Arm,  it’s the next step toward true borg technology and it’s been called a game-changer in health technology alongside genome sequencing, Fitbit, and smartphones.  From kids as young as nine years old who haven’t had arms and hands since birth to amputees of all ages, the 3D printed devices go beyond prosthetics of the past.  With the slogan “We turn disabilities into superpowers,” the company is doing that in more ways than one.  Instead of making the arms look like real arms, they are adding eye-popping designs–a feature praised by their users, who have remarked, “This is a cool way to stand out for all the right reasons.”  Instead of asking “what happened to your hand?” those seeing the Hero Arm on a person for the first time ask “how does that work?”  “Can we shake hands, can we do a fist bump, can I have a photo?”  The difference is a big one for wearers.

Open Bionics boasts the Hero Arm as “the first medically approved 3D printed arm.”  The Hero Arm is a lightweight, powered bionic hand controlled by the wearer’s muscles.  Because muscles generate small electrical signals when they contract, electrodes placed on the surface of the skin can measure muscle movements.  A full suite of tools provides feedback to the user, including posable wrist, posable thumb, and a freeze mode (for use when holding something like a glass), plus proportional control for varying tasks.  Comfortable, adjustable and breathable, the arm can lift more than 15 pounds of weight.  According to the company, the Hero Arm is half the price of its closest competitor.  Still, Open Bionics has stated that it has received donations to be able to provide free Hero Arms for qualifying children residing in the UK–the only place the bionic arms have been approved for sale.  They aren’t covered by the nation’s healthcare system yet and can cost about U.S. $2,500 on up.  Compare that to similar functioning U.S. electrical prosthetics with a cost upward of $50,000 to $100,000, and anyone can see why this product looks like the future of cybernetics.  (You can help a woman get her own Hero Arm via crowdfunding.  Learn more about her story below).

Hero Arms can also be worn with swappable custom covers.  And now Open Bionics has four new styles for wearers to get a Hero Arm that best fits their personality.  Each work shown (above, top, in order), was designed by an artist in Bristol: “Handala” by Daniel Bowler, “Tree Rex” by TRex, “Palette of Patterns” by J West, “Nebular” by Cheba, and “Open Bionics Doodles” by Kid Crayon.  Even more covers are available for the Hero Arm, like the futuristic Deux Ex design (above).  The Deus Ex video games explore human augmentation in a near future world.  Open Bionics partnered with Eidos Montreal, basing the Deux Ex cover on the game’s protagonist Adam Jensen.  (But they issue a disclaimer: It won’t give you the power to smash through walls!).  Check out the future of this technology at the partnership website AugmentedFuture.com.  Candidates for the Hero Arm can see customization options at the Open Bionics website here.

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Creek Stewart balances the appeal, insight, intelligence, and demonstration skills of outdoorsmen like Steve Irwin and Jeff Corwin in his Weather Channel series, SOS: How to Survive.  Much more than the typical reality show, Stewart takes viewers on a real outdoor how-to adventure in each hour of the series.  It’s like scouting for adults (and kids, too).  Eagle Scout, survival instructor, and author of more than six non-fiction survival guides, Stewart brings science into the survival discussion, often demonstrating in the simplest terms how anyone can get out of tough trials.  SOS: How to Survive is now in its second season on the Weather Channel with new episodes airing Sundays at 7 p.m. Central.

And it’s not just about life-saving measures.  Some of what you learn on the show may just help you get your car out of the mud in town, or get the fire going at your vacation spot when someone forgot to bring the matches.  For those fans of post-apocalypse science fiction, you’ll have more knowledge after watching a few episodes of the series to challenge the next plot of your favorite TV show.  Focusing on a real-life, true story tragedy including interviews with the survivors, Stewart demonstrates what was a success about the survival and what the victims could have done along the way that they didn’t think of to improve their circumstances.

Stewart has published more than a few survival guides, including pocket field guides to Survival Trees, Survival Knots, Survival Tarp Shelters, Mastering the Bow Drill, Wilderness Survival Drinks, Survival Food, and How to Survive Being Stranded in Your Vehicle Plus he’s created a book on Survival Hacks, 365 Essential Survival Skills, a how-to Survival Kit, and he even wrote The Unofficial Hunger Games Wilderness Survival Guide.

Here is a preview of his series:

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“The new phone book’s here!  The new phone book’s here!” 

The reaction of Navin R. Johnson (from The Jerk) to getting the new phone book was similar to kids of yesteryear getting their hands on the annual Christmas catalog, or for Estes Industries model rocketry enthusiasts–the release of the next Estes product catalog.  As we enter the dog days of summer, across the country when it’s not raining or storming it’s time to take the rockets to the empty field on the edge of town for some launches.  These aren’t the volatile Fourth of July variety of rockets where you’re likely to lose eyebrows or fingers.  These are the hobbyist rockets that families have enjoyed for decades.  Ready for summer fun, Estes Industries released its 60th anniversary catalog online this weekend, 88 pages and many more rockets and products than you remember from the pamphlet you once could roll-up and carry in your back pocket.

Since 1958 when Denver inventor Vern Estes first discovered a way to mass-produce solid propellant model rocket engines, kids and adults alike found a new way to do something more than just dream of soaring to the stars.  For three generations families have taken to the hobby that takes its fans from building and painting to launching and recovery of replica rockets using similar principles as NASA, over the years adding payloads and devices to record the voyages.  The smell of burned out engines, starter paper and recovery wadding is like the smell of Play-Doh and Crayola crayons for anyone who has flown an Estes rocket–pure nostalgia.

But Estes almost didn’t make it to this year.  Years after a merger with the similarly well-regarded radio-control hobby brand Cox, the company hit the wall, taking itself into a chapter 7 liquidation.  Out of the ashes the RC division splintered off, and the Estes brand and rocket division was only recently purchased by a new family of life-long Estes fans, with a few dozen of the staff members still around to continue designing and creating.  The new company released the latest catalog and is readying for next year, which should be a big year for the rocket hobby: It will be the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11’s moonshot.

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Just shy of her 47th birthday, Koko the gorilla passed away Tuesday in her sleep at the Gorilla Foundation’s preserve in Woodside, California, in the Santa Cruz Mountains.  Koko represents a giant leap in the future of humanity’s relationship with the animal kingdom–she could sign more than a thousand of words of American Sign Language and understood 2,000 words of spoken English, she liked to rhyme words, she could read and paint (painting not only real objects but expressions of her thoughts and emotions, even naming her paintings), and could play a musical instrument–the recorder.  She proved years of human scientists wrong, conveying clearly to the world that she had complex thoughts and feelings, sharing compassion, laughter, love, and care for others.  And she became famous for all she showed the world, and had well-known friendships with the likes of Mr. Rogers and Robin Williams.

Born on the Fourth of July in 1971 at the San Francisco Zoo, the western lowland gorilla was named Hanabi-ko, which is Japanese for “fireworks child.”  Koko’s ability to communicate with humans via American Sign Language put her twice on the cover of National Geographic, one photo featuring her own selfie (long before selfie was a term).  That was thanks to her long-time friend and researcher Dr. Francine “Penny” Patterson, who began teaching Koko in 1974 when she was three years old.  Over the course of her incredible life she proved that gorillas could communicate about objects that weren’t present, had the ability to recognize themselves in a mirror, and further, they could convey personal memories.  Koko invented new sign-language words for things she didn’t know the word for, she knew the meaning of what she was communicating, and she was even a teacher–another primate learned sign language by watching videos of Koko signing.

Her relationship with her first cat was covered by the mainstream press.  For her twelfth Christmas she wanted a pet cat, and for her following birthday she was allowed to select one from a litter of abandoned kittens, which she named All Ball, reflecting the roundness of the cat and her own fondness for alliteration.  All Ball died when she sneaked out of her room and was hit by a car that year, and Koko reacted like any human would, with profound grief, which she conveyed in words via signing.  Koko adopted several more cats over the next 30 years, adopting two most recently in 2015 that she named Miss Black and Miss Grey.  Koko was preceded in death by her friend Michael, her gorilla friend who also could sign, who passed away in 2000.  She was living with her friend Ndume, a male gorilla, when she passed away.

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