Friday, July 24, 2015

Star Wars Countdown II: Attack of the Clones

As the time of Star Wars: The Force Awakens approaches, the monthly countdown continues with Episode II: Attack of the Clones. In agreement with most of the fans who took this IMDb survey, Attack of the Clones ranks worst on my list of Star Wars movies. It had a few good qualities, like the introduction of a new soaring and swelling orchestral music track, but the sacrifice of character depth and plot consistency for fan service was an irrecoverable mistake.

Notable John Williams music debut: "Across the Stars"

This musical masterpiece is clearly the shining light of the film; other than it, Attack of the Clones’s only redeemable feature was its contribution to the overarching story. It springboarded off of The Phantom Menace, taking the mystery of the Sith and revealing that goes is much deeper than the Jedi thought. Obi-Wan’s discovery of first the clone army, revealing that the plot has been going for at least a decade. Even though it surprised no one, the reveal at the end that Tyrannus, who commissioned Jango Fett as the source of the clone army; and Count Dooku, the leader of the Seperatists, are the same person was one of those moments where we could really see the pieces of the puzzle coming together.

Other than these two things, the movie really did not have anything to offer. It did not capture the spiritual vibe that Episode I had, and as I said in the previous discussion, the essence of Star Wars is a spiritual tone in a sci-fi world. The Phantom Menace conveyed this by the mannerisms of the Jedi Council and Qui-Gon Jinn, as well as by Darth Maul’s red and black tattooed face. The Attack of the Clones, on the other hand, was all about the politics between the Republic and the Seperatists, and the battle between lightsabers and droids. Character depth was virtually nonexistent, except for Anakin, who has to deal with problems similar to borderline personality disorder—probably by accident, as a result of bad acting. All in all, the movie is just missing everything that makes movies good.

The final major reason I found this movie a disappointment was Lucas’s unapologetic use of fan service. Even one situation, one allusion, one line spoken in direct reference to the original trilogy breaks the flow, ruins the immersion, and is tantamount to breaking the fourth wall. I spoke about this in my talk on Episode I, focusing on how Anakin did everything Luke did, but at a younger age, and I presented the Force as a reasonable excuse to get away with it. But in Episode II the fan service is mostly about C-3PO and R2D2—droids, supposedly disconnected from the Force. In fact, as I noted earlier, the Force is much less apparent in Episode II than in the other movies, so this time Lucas simply has no excuse.

"It seems he is carrying a message from an 'Obi-Wan Kenobi.' 
Master Anakin, does that name mean anything to you?"No.
Cut that scene. In fact, cut 3PO from the whole movie; he ruins

the immersion. You know what? Cut both droids from the whole

prequel trilogy. I love the two of them as much as any fan, but

all they do is create plot holes and make the universe look small.

In response to Attack of the Clones’s half-hearted flop, Michael Barryte took the bare bones of the story and crafted his own version of it, like he did for The Phantom Menace. I think his version of Episode II would not only be better than the movie, but be better than most of the movies I have seen. You can watch his YouTube video by clicking here.

Star Wars Countdown:
Attack of the Clones

Friday, July 17, 2015

Choosing a Canvas: Books

We’ve all had a time when we went with high expectations to see a movie. As the opening scene appeared, however, we felt a twinge of disappointment, which repeated itself throughout the whole showing, and at the end, led us to say, “The book was better.” Of course, by the phenomenon of nostalgia this could be simply because we read the book first, but it could also be because the story really does work better in written form. If we allow ourselves to experience stories in many forms, giving ourselves a broad perspective, it becomes obvious that the right medium must be chosen to tell any story, whether it be a book, a movie, a video game, or a play. That is why I started this new series called Choosing a Canvas, in which I’ll pick a storytelling medium and discuss its unique features and drawbacks and what kind of stories are best told in its form. The topic of today is books.

When I pick up a book, it feels to me like I’m holding a treasure in my hands, its hundreds of pages containing an accumulation of someone else’s imagination, creative thoughts and ideas, emotional wellsprings, currents, and tides. Before I even lift the cover I feel it, as if the magic aura of the story has seeped out from between the pages and osmosed through the skin of my hands into my body. Though I sometimes have similar types of experiences when I hold other forms of story, such as movies or video games, none is nearly as significant as what comes from holding a book.

A book uses only words, which is both its greatest drawback and its greatest strength. Words cannot show you with sights or sounds what is happening like a movie does, but they can paint the picture in your imagination. Words are not restricted to these two perceptions, but can present touch, smells, thoughts, and even emotions, not only in the meanings of the words, the sentences and contexts they are found in, but also at a deeper level in the subtleties between the lines. The specific sounds chosen can set the stage, the mood molded by writer’s word the way a melody breathes, or rises, or roars like a raging typhoon whipping through your core. Words are the single major tool books can use, and the best books wield that tool with the power to shake the earth.

 A book is easy to take with you. Books have no sound, so even though it is easy to get lost in their worlds of imagination, a tiny part of your mind is able to remain aware of your surroundings so you can react appropriately to things happening around you. By using bookmarks, you can stop and start whenever you want, as well as keep track of the places of quotes you want to remember. Books last longer than movies, giving you time to take in each scene, and allowing for fleshed-out descriptions and explanations. You can read a book at your own pace, taking extra time to savor a scene that resonates with you, or to try to figure out if the part you are reading is foreshadowing something. You can also skim over the parts that bore you.

The stories that work best as books are stories that focus on the emotions, thoughts, and experiences of the main characters, as words can craft an empathetic bond between reader and character like nothing else can—not even music. Medieval fantasy works very well in the form of books, partly because books would have been the only medium available to record the stories in the time period which they take place, and partly because fantasy is usually built upon a system of magic, which is founded in an emotional-spiritual basis.

Cover art of Wizard's First Rule, by Terry Goodkind
I have found some of my favorite, most emotionally-touching, thought-inspiring stories in books, namely The Kingkiller Chronicle by Patrick Rothfuss, and Mistborn and The Stormlight Archive by Brandon Sanderson. I also enjoy many of the Star Wars Legends books that take place after the movies. As a child, I read many 100-200 page books, including young adult versions of classics like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne and The Time Machine by H. G. Wells. I have also found gems like The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. Books have given me so much pleasure, joy, and food for thought that I have made it a goal of my life to publish at least a few science fiction novels, built upon the knowledge I have gained training as a scientist. Though a picture may be worth a thousand words, a book is worth a thousand pictures.

Choosing a Canvas:
Video Games

Friday, July 10, 2015

There Could Be a Star Wars-Scale Galactic Republic in the Milky Way

According to legend, the events of Star Wars happened a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. But what if I told you that there could be a Star Wars-scale galactic republic right here in our own Milky Way galaxy?

See that blank spot on the left? That could be us.
If there were a civilization spread throughout our own galaxy, you might think we would have noticed it by now. After all, such a civilization would be zipping around through hyperspace, sending messages, and all-around being busy doing things that intelligent life does. Surely if we with our present-day technology can figure out the age and size of the entire universe, we should know our own back yard pretty well. However, we really don’t; when it comes to faraway objects, the bigger something is, the easier it is to see. Even with the Hubble space telescope, besides our sun there is only one star, Betelgeuse, big enough and close enough to be resolved as a disk instead of a singular point, so we are far away from being able to see extrasolar planets directly. On the other hand, we can detect planets indirectly by observing their effects on their host stars. We all know that a star exerts gravitational force on its planet, but the planet also exerts gravitational force on the star. Both the star and the planet orbit their combined center of gravity, which is almost, but not quite, the center of the star. The motion of the star causes its light to shift frequency ever so slightly. The Kepler space telescope was designed specifically to measure these shifts, and it has found over 1,000 planets to date, but Kepler is just barely not sensitive enough to detect earth-sized planets in stars’ habitable zones, so we really don’t know how common they are.

All stars have a "habitable zone," a distance where the temperature is
right for liquid water.
Image credit: University of Nebraska-Lincoln,
To appreciate why detecting habitable planets is so difficult, we need to look at some numbers. First, the speed of light. Light goes so fast, that with a proper mirror system light could travel around the circumference of the earth 7 times in one second. The nearest star system, Alpha Centauri, on the other hand, is over 4 light years away. That means it takes light four years to get from there to here, and anything we see in that light happened four years ago. And that is only the beginning; the farthest stars in the galaxy are 75,000 light years away. It is no wonder, then, that it is difficult to find earthlike planets!

Note: from here on, I will be using order of magnitude estimation math. It is not very precise, but it is useful for hypothesizing.

But if there are advanced alien races, we reason, we might be able to pick up their radio signals. This is the idea behind SETI, the Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence, which uses a radio telescope array to scour the skies for radio transmissions from other star systems. So far, they have found nothing (if they had, you would know; it would be on every news headline around the world). Does this mean that there are no radio-broadcasting aliens out there? Not exactly. We should note that we have only been using radio signals to communicate for 100 years, and there is no telling how long an alien civilization may have been doing so. Radio waves are a kind of light, so they take as long to get to us as the distance in light years the star system they came from is. This means in order for us to detect an alien signal today, a civilization 10 light years away must have been using radio communication for at least 10 years, a civilization 100 light years away for 100 years, a civilization 1,000 years away for 1,000 years, and so on. In addition, SETI has limited sensitivity and has only been able to monitor around 1,000 stars, and only a few at one time. With SETI’s limitations it is discouraging, but not surprising that we have not found any sign of alien intelligence yet.

But even noting how hard it is to find habitable planets and intelligent life, we are talking about Star Wars here. Doesn’t the Republic span the entire galaxy, and therefore if it existed it would have a presence close to and around us? Not necessarily. I could not find a canonical figure for how many planets the Republic had, but sources seem to agree it was on the order of 50,000,000. Does this number work with the possible number of habitable planets with intelligent life in the Milky Way? Recall that SETI has searched over 1,000 star systems with no luck, but that only allows us to conclude that the density of inhabited systems near us is less than 1/1,000. The density of habitable planets may be much higher, and it would stand to reason that a Galactic Republic would terraform and colonize all habitable planets within reach. On the other hand, we must account for the fact that billions of stars near the galactic core are uninhabitable, so we will go with 1/1000 as the average over the whole galaxy anyway. Our galaxy has between 200 billion and 400 billion stars, so that gives us 200 million habitable planets, around 4 times more than the number of planets in the Republic. Thus a Milky Way Republic would only need to take up a fourth of the galaxy.

What about age? Could the Milky Way Republic be as old as The Star Wars Republic, yet its communication signals not have reached us yet? The Star Wars Republic was 25,000 years old by the time of the movies, so to be on the safe side let’s say that if a similar Milky Way Republic exists, the nearest planet that is a part of it would have to be over 25,000 light years away. Coincidentally, that is about as far as it is from Earth to the galactic core, the entire Milky Way being 100,000 light years across. This eliminates the region near Earth, about 1/3 of the galaxy, which leaves 2/3 of the galaxy remaining, which we estimate reduces to 2/5 when we eliminate the core. Remember, the Republic would only take up 1/4 of the galaxy, so if it is concentrated on the far side of the Milky Way, we have no problem.

Home sweet home
Despite the fact that our best efforts to search the cosmos for extraterrestrial life have so far turned up empty, the sheer size of the Milky Way and the distances between stars provide a task so great that even with our sophisticated technology we have barely been able to poke a dent in the galaxy. As such, with hundreds of millions of possibly habitable planets beyond our range of detection, it is not impossible that a Galactic Republic of the same size and age as that found in Star Wars could exist right this moment somewhere in our own Milky Way.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Four Types of Magic

Magic series:
Four Types of Magic
What is Not Science?
What if Nothing is Real?

Those of you who have been following me know by now that there are two genres of fiction that I especially like: fantasy and science fiction. Setting aside for the moment hard science fiction (or as I like to call it, true science fiction), both of these genres include incredible devices, inexplicable phenomena, and characters with extraordinary abilities. The only difference between the two genres is that fantasy claims that these are a result of something called “magic,” while science fiction insists that it is not magic. The fact that the two systems cannot be otherwise told apart is exactly what sci-fi author Arthur C . Clarke meant when he said “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” When I first heard this, I agreed. But within the past two years, as I was thinking about this topic, I was suddenly baffled. What was this “magic” that kept coming up, and why was it so important for characters from advanced civilizations, like the Doctor, to insist that it was not?

To find the answer, I looked at why and how writers use magic (or “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Magic”) in their stories. The general trend, I have found, is that it brings with it the deep sense of wonder and/or fear that comes with a mystery that appears to have no solution or explanation. But this sense can also be achieved by naturalistic means, by simply withholding understanding from the characters and readers. For example, when Stargate Atlantis introduces the Wraith, they appear to have supernatural abilities, but it is later revealed to be simply a feature of their biology. So why call something “magic” at all? Is it simply a cop-out, an excuse to sweep technical details under the rug? No, the idea of something called “magic” is exciting, and so doing so can be a powerful tool in story writing. So that brings us back to the original question, what is magic? As I looked at the ways various writers use the word, I have come to the realization that the reason it was so confusing is that there is a variety of different things that people mean when they say “magic.” In an attempt to break down the complexity, I have grouped magic into four types: functional, supernatural, natural, and sympathetic.

Functional Magic

In order to understand the first category, functional magic, we need to understand the relationship between function and existence. Let’s look at the difference between a real object, a cell phone, and an imaginary object of functional magic, Harry Potter’s wand. For the sake of explanation, let’s look at a function that they both have: to emit light. For the real object, the cell phone, we start at its function and ask why until we run out of answers. Why does a cell phone emit light? Because the materials that are used to make it are arranged in a specific way. Why are the materials arranged this way? Because they have properties that can be harnessed. Why do the materials have properties? Because they exist. This is as far as we can go and still be talking about a cell phone. So we have come to the conclusion that a cell phone emits light because it exists.

For Harry Potter’s wand, on the other hand, we start with existence. Why does it exist? Because it emits light (among other things). Why does it emit light? It just does; there is no further mechanism to be understood. So we have come to conclusions about both the cell phone and the wand. The cell phone emits light because it exists, whereas Harry Potter’s wand exists because it emits light. The point of importance is in the order of explanation: real objects do things because they exist, while functional magical objects exist because they do things. The world in the Harry Potter novels is full of functional magic, teeming with things that “do something, therefore they exist.” Another classic example is C. S. Lewis’s Narnia, where animals talk, a pool turns everything that touches its water to gold, rings transport you to different worlds, and witches conjure up Turkish delight out of nothingness.


The second category, the supernatural, is the idea that there exist two levels of reality, the natural and the supernatural (sometimes called the spiritual). The natural world follows the laws of the sciences, while the supernatural follows only self-consistency and can affect the natural world by breaking natural laws. This type of magic states that natural creatures like humans have no supernatural abilities, but there are also partially supernatural beings—like the elves and wizards in The Lord of the Rings—as well as fully supernatural beings, like ghosts, demons, and gods. If humans or other natural beings need or wish to use supernatural abilities, they must get a supernatural being to do it for them, either by petition, such as prayer, or by forceful control, usually accomplished by a summoning ritual. In some stories, humans do have supernatural abilities, but they must find a way to unlock them before they can use them.

However, the idea of a supernatural world brings a question to my mind: what really makes something supernatural? If it is defined as something that is not bound by physical laws, then what is to stop every supernatural creature from being as powerful as God? If there are limits placed upon them, then those limits are just another form of natural law, and suddenly the supernatural world is just an extension of the natural. This doesn’t stop us from using supernatural magic in our stories as long as we don’t try to go into much detail about it, but in that case supernatural magic is just a version of functional magic. This brings us to the next category . . .


Natural magic is the partial replacement of or addition to the laws of nature. If you ask why a natural magical phenomenon happens, you will get an answer. In fact, a creative writer can devise a small number of natural magic axioms, and then build a complex, self-consistent structure upon those axioms. One example would be to imagine a material that has specific, nontraditional gravitational properties, and then imagine what technologies the people in that world would develop from it. Fantasy author Brandon Sanderson is known for his many “magic systems,” or structures of natural magic, the most notable of which is found in his Mistborn novels. The technologies of many science fiction stories would fall under this category as well.

Interestingly, by our definition, the only reason the real universe does not operate on natural magic is because it is the standard against which magic is measured. The relevant factor here is that the real world exists. However, it is shortsighted to lump everything that does not pertain to us into one category, so there is no good reason why reality should be an exception when it comes to natural magic. Therefore, if we wish to have a meaningful generalization, we must either say that natural magic is not magic at all or that the real laws of nature count as natural magic. Sanderson insists that his systems are magic, and I feel no need to disagree, so it follows that physics is a form of natural magic: the magic of reality.


Finally, we have sympathetic magic. For a sympathetic magic system, the world is full of consciousness. Depending on the story, a person who knows how or has the ability can extend their own consciousness to interact with this field of consciousness and do things such as move objects from a distance or communicate mentally. This type of magic can be seen in two forms in Patrick Rothfuss’s The Kingkiller Chronicle: sympathy, which is similar to what was just described; and sygaldry, the crafting of technological devices that use sympathetic principles. And of course, we cannot forget everyone’s favorite example of sympathetic magic, the Force.

So there you have it, four broad categories of how the strange, annoying little word “magic” is used. I still think that the word is too vague to be meaningful, and we would have an easier time discussing the various different things that are meant by it if we stopped using the word altogether. But who am I kidding? The real meaning of “it’s magic” in today’s society is “don’t ask, it just is how it is.” And once in a while, when you see twinkling lights in the sky or hear sleigh bells on a cold winter night, then maybe, for just a moment, that’s okay.