A new premise.

gaia

Hello.

Something a little bit different today for this week’s blog.

I was watching ‘stargazing’ live the other day where a scientist man was talking through the technology of the new ‘Gaia’ telescope/satellite that will be imaging our galaxy to the highest level of detail yet, enabling us to ‘build up’ a 3D model when it is done. (Check out the website for the science stuff: http://sci.esa.int/gaia/). This also reminded me of a Brian Cox lecture where he said that we are actually able to find the composition of celestial bodies by monitoring the returned light to our sensors (that carry back a kind of ‘signature’ that allows us to know what the light particles been in contact with?!)… it’s all baffling and very exciting.

That got me thinking, as I am prone to do, about the future. A future where we are far more advanced at imaging and representing our Universe than we are able to reach it in physical space. Also a future where our (resurging) interest in immersion video games and entertainment (virtual reality and suchlike) has continued apace.

So, as a new premise that I may or may not run with to write some new Sci-Fi stories (or one big story – or a script), I projected these thoughts a few hundred years or so into the future, and wrote a speech introducing a concept in which to base a world. This is a good exercise for science fiction which is so often based around a technological premise. In this instance, however, I thought I would share this very early stage of writing with you, and see what you think. Cheers.

 

Transcript of speech by Dr. Raelan W. Krueger (NASA Head Administrator)

Introducing ‘The Great Connection’ project.

Y. 2567

“For time immemorial we have been looking to the stars, to distant galaxies, to the very edges of our known Universe. Like a captain with his telescope, looking out ahead for new lands, we have developed the most amazing techniques to observe our Universe in exquisite detail. Where once we saw planets as simple dips in light as they passed by their suns, we can now see the mountains, see the rocks, see the particles of dust as they settle on extraterrestrial plains. With our network of telescopes and sensors we have built a moving picture of our world, far beyond our reach, but within our sights.

Unlike the Captain who spies land, however, we cannot sail our ships to these places. While we have excelled in our ability to observe, we have barely travelled beyond our own solar system, restricted by laws of nature that we currently cannot bend or break. This leaves us with a question: “If we cannot travel to the places we can see, how do we explore them?”

Before now, two answers were posited. Firstly the pessimist would say, “we will never explore them – it is beyond us”, whereas the optimist would say “we will break through the physical restrictions one day, we will make it.” While I favour the optimist, that mantra has persisted for generations, and yet the breakthrough never comes. Today, I propose a third option. If we can’t travel to the farthest reaches of the observable Universe, we will  bring the Universe to us.

The data we reap, in real time, from our satellite and imaging network is vast. Our computers can store and analyse this data, but they cannot induce from it, they cannot marvel at it, they cannot explore in the way that you and I would understand that to mean. What computers do, very well, is represent precisely and follow instructions – instructions that until now were usually relayed via very dry, impersonal methods: symbols on a screen and complicated patterns of data that only a trained observer could comprehend with a degree of difficulty. While we are finding more and more potential signs of life in the Universe, we are pouring over them in such minute detail it could take us another thousand years to realise they are insignificant, while just over there, where the computer didn’t think to look, in the corner of the eye, are the answers we have been searching for.

Alongside the advancement in how we observe our outward universe, so too have we developed how we immerse ourselves in simulation. From the less invasive virtual experience centres, to the sensory direct link systems that we now find in almost every living-room, we have been stepping into our fantasy and fiction worlds for a generation now. At first we were scared, sceptical of this new level of interaction between us and technology. Game players loved it, parents loathed it, but one way or the other we all came to accept it as the value offered for education and expression far outweighed our reservations.

And so now we are drawing a line between dots that were already in place. We have developed a method whereby we can now relay the data into an incredibly detailed and accurate simulated model that can be explored via the same technology used for immersion entertainment. Teams of explorers, of simunaughts, can now enter and explore the landscapes of a changing Universe.

But we need your help. You may already be familiar with the concept of citizen science. It is a technique we have used for centuries to sift through and classify large quantities of data in the way that only we humans can. Typically it involves experts compiling and making available a database for the general public to either interrogate or contribute towards, helping to identify and flag points of interest for further scrutiny by specialists. Some of the earliest examples around the 20th Century were for spotting birds or surveying the insects living in and around our homes. This potential was expanded so that rather than just logging our own observations, we could help to classify the findings of others. In this way, people from across the world came together to help the scientists of the 21st century and beyond to survey the ocean beds, unlock DNA sequences, and yes, even explore the stars.

So what’s different about this project to what has gone before? Three things: scale, immersion and potential. We’re not going to be looking at stills on a view screen here. We need you to plug in and move around. Our galaxy alone has 100 billion stars. Each of those stars probably has a planetary system. Each of those planets may have moons. Currently, we have the data available for over a million galaxies – a figure that is increasing daily.

The task is vast. One hundred billion stars in our galaxy alone, it sounds inconceivably big, but then that is just two star systems for each person living on this planet today. If we could get everyone on the earth to spend just a little time connected, we could have the milky way mapped in a month. Of course, we don’t expect everyone will want to help, and access to the required technology is not universal. But if every user of immersion entertainment were to plug in for just a fraction of the time they already spend in worlds of fiction, and contribute to the world of fact, we could make great strides, very quickly.

So what happens when you plug in? Firstly you will be asked to form or join a team of other simunaughts, because together we are better. Each of the teams who enter the simulation will be assigned a ship of sorts, a kind of virtual vessel that will help induce the feeling of exploration as you investigate uncharted worlds assigned to you by our mission computers. You will land and walk on these moons and planets, traverse through a resolution that can only be described as near-reality, almost indistinguishable from the real thing. If you find anything of interest, assisted by an array of simulated vehicles and equipment, you will flag this for further study. Back in the real world more resources will be trained on your marked locations, increasing fidelity and detail even further in the simulated landscapes.

We’re not talking about gathering rock samples here, we’re talking about finding the extraordinary. The possibilities are as endless as there are stars in the Universe. Imagine finding a planet with golden mountains, volcanoes of diamonds and clouds of fire. Imagine finding forests and seas teeming with alien life, or even finding the planet that brings us our first signs of highly intelligent life. Great cities in the stars. It is all possible.

What we do, is what no computer can yet achieve: think creatively and move impulsively towards discovery. No computer has yet spotted something out of the corner of its eye, no computer has had a thought of its own, and we will harness this unique gift of ours to our advantage. Human kind will become an explorer of worlds, without having even left our own.

So I endorse to you, I commend your support and raise my hand in contemplation to the stars that are now in our grasp, and I ask you to sign up, log in and join me in ‘The Great Connection’.”

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Not good enough for the BBC Returns!

Well it’s that time again. The BBC radio 4 Extra series ‘Newsjack’ has returned, and with it, equal amounts of excitement, rejection and frustration.

For those of you who don’t know, ‘Newsjack’ is a weekly topical comedy that has an open-door submission policy, so basically, it is written my members of the public rather than an established and closed writing team.

I was lucky enough to get two ‘one-liners’ broadcast during the last series and I’m hoping for at least one ‘hit’ again this time around. However, as with all writing, it is tip of the iceberg stuff. I must have submitted nearly 50 jokes last time and a handful of sketches, just to get two very quick puns into the script. I don’t mind this, and if I fail to get anymore on, that’s fine, there are literally hundreds of people doing the same each week, so it’s not easy or statistically very likely.

However, the whole process is enjoyable (if frustrating) and examining your misses can be fun. I’m yet to have a sketch broadcast, and I don’t write very many anyway (favouring puns), but I do have a go now and again. Last week I was struck by the idea of the news that Voyager 1 had left our solar system as being a bit of a ‘sounds-exciting-but-is-actually-quite-dull’ story, and tried to write something. I ended up with two versions of the sketch, both of which I have reproduced below for you lovely people.

Firstly, I wanted to do a Star Trek parody based on Voyager 1 – so I did:

***

 

Voyager 1 Sketch – Garry Abbott

Cast:

Host –              Newsjack host.

V/O –               Star Trek style voice over

Robot –           Monotone robotic voice of Voyager 1 probe.

Host:              People often say fact is stranger than fiction, but is this really true? As the   unmanned space probe Voyager 1 officially left our solar system last week and heads off to the nearest star, is science fact really stranger than science fiction?

ATMOSPHERIC MUSIC

V/O:                Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of er, Voyager. Its 40,000        year mission to explore strange new worlds, well one strange new world, maybe, if it ever gets there, and if it has any power left to tell us what it’s like, which it won’t, and we’ll all be dead by then, and even if it did, it would take years for any signals to reach us, but anyway…To seek out new life and new civilizations, scratch that, to seek out                       fluctuations in radiation from our sun and measure the density of charged protons amongst other low level spectral analysis by instruments designed in the early Seventies. To boldly go, no that’s not technically right is it, split infinitive, to go boldly? Whatever. Just to go out into interstellar space where no unmanned space probe has gone before,                             possibly because, well, there’s nothing there is there?

DRAMATIC MUSIC INTRO

FX – BEEPS / SPACE SOUNDS

Robot:             Voyager Log. Star-date 19th September 2013. Thursday. Reading an                    increased density of charged particles in my vicinity, thus indicating I have reached             interstellar space. All instruments normal. Power levels holding within acceptable parameters. Nothing additional to report.

PAUSE

DRAMATIC MUSIC

V/O:                Join us next week for another exciting adventure when the unmanned             space probe voyager encounters what appears to be a slight reduction in solar wind activity and runs its regularly scheduled self diagnostic.

THE END.

***

The idea behind that was that it is short and sweet and the joke comes from the under-whelming notion of a battered old 70s space probe being placed in the dramatic ‘Star Trek’ setting.

Next up, I wanted to write a sketch of a reporter being sent to live cover the exciting event and being similarly underwhelmed. I have to admit I had a very strong Alan Partridge style reporter in mind when writing this, so to play this down, I changed the gender of the news reporter.

***

Live from Houston Sketch by Garry Abbott

Cast

Justin – Newsjack Host.

Mazy – Exasperated science correspondent.

Prof –    Boring pedantic NASA scientist.

Justin:             Marking a giant step in space travel, scientists confirmed this week that           the Voyager 1 probe has officially entered interstellar space. To bring you all the exciting, up-to-the-minute developments, we’ve sent our correspondent Mazy Upton to the NASA control centre in Houston for this special live report.

Mazy:              Yes thank you Justin. I’m here with Professor Derek Hedger who has all             the latest information live from the voyager probe.

Prof:                It’s not live actually.  Because of the vast distances involved it takes at               least seventeen hours before the signals reach us here in control.

Reporter:       Seventeen hours? What network are you with? You know what, it doesn’t           matter. What we really want to know is, have you found any aliens yet?

Prof:                No, no aliens I’m afraid.

Reporter:       Well what about strange new worlds then?

Prof:                No new worlds yet, strange or otherwise.

Reporter:       Really? No new planets? But I thought you’d got like, really far away?

Prof:                Yes, but basically we’re now in the space between solar systems, having           just left ours. That’s what interstellar means.

Reporter:       You’ve only just left our solar system? When did it set off?

Prof:               Voyager 1 was launched in 1977.

Reporter:       That’s rubbish.

Prof:                Excuse me?

Reporter:       That’s like, 36 years and you’ve not found any aliens or new planets yet?

Prof:                We’ve found out lots of very important things during the mission.

Reporter:       Like what? Go on. Amaze me.

Prof:                Well, for example, recently we’ve seen a hundred fold jump in protons per       cubic square of space, that’s actually how we knew that-

Reporter:       Protons? We have those on Earth don’t we?

Prof:                Yes of course, but –

Reporter:       No. Not good enough. This isn’t working. When will it reach the next interesting thing? Anytime in the next 30 seconds by any chance? Just a little something to make my two day journey from Surrey to Texas worth the effort, and the licence fee?

Prof:                Well, it will reach the nearest star in around 40,000 years.

Reporter:       40,000 years? Are you kidding?

Prof:                But by then the power will have ran out so the probe won’t be sending              any signals.

Reporter:       Hang on. So it’s taken it over 30 years to get out of the bit of space we               already know about, and now it takes seventeen hours to tell you that it’s in a bit of new space that’s empty anyway, and it will take forty thousand years to reach anything interesting, by which time we’ll all be dead and even our descendants won’t be able to contact it?

Prof:                Well, when you put it like that, I suppose but –

Reporter:       Actually, come to think of it, since Voyager was launched, Pluto’s been               declassified as a planet hasn’t it? So the net gain of interesting things found by Voyager is minus one planet. Is that what you’re telling me?

Prof:                It picked up some interesting fluctuations in radiation levels from the sun       once-

Reporter:       Stop. It’s just not enough Professor. Too little, too late. We’re out of time.

Prof:                Sorry.

Reporter:       Well there you go, Space. Big, boring and void of life, just like the                       Professor here. Back to the studio Justin.  I’ll see you in two days you Bast-

Justin:             Yes thank you Mazy.

THE END.

***

Reading this back it’s a lot of waffle to get to the joke that actually we are minus one planet since voyager launched, and we’re not going to be able to contact it anyway once it gets anywhere exciting!

As I said, sketches seem a lot harder, and even though I could ‘hear’ the delivery of the lines in my head, it’s hard to know if anyone reading it could get the same idea from the plain words on the page. That’s always a problem though, someone like Steve Coogan could make the words ‘Ford Cortina’ sound funny by his delivery, but on the page it wouldn’t ‘seem’ like a joke.

So there you have it, the only two sketches I’ve written for the current series, neither of which got in, and probably rightly so, they just aren’t yet good enough. Turning an idea into a reality that properly represent it seems to be the key to this, and I guess, most other things!

I will keep you updated over the next few weeks with any successes and failures that I think are worthy of a bit of re-examination.