You Should be Excited About Proxima Centauri b

Artist Impression of the planet (from Wikipedia)

 

You might have heard the news a few weeks ago that astronomers had discovered a new exoplanet, Proxima Centauri b, and you should be excited about it. Given that a few months previously the space telescope Kepler announced it had discovered over a thousand new exoplanets, you might be curious as to why this particular one merits more excitement than all the others (which also merit a lot of excitement). I’m here to tell you why it does, and why it’s a damn near perfect exoplanet discovery.

An exoplanet is any planet outside of our solar system (so not orbiting our star, the Sun). Until about 25 years ago, none were known to exist. It was entirely possible that our star was the only one in the universe with any planets orbiting it. It took a long time to become confident of their existence, but now we know of the existence of thousands. We also know enough to confidently say that practically every star in the universe probably has at least one planet around it, likely more.

The logical next question is whether any of these planets are habitable, and, indeed, whether any are inhabited. There’s several problems with this line of thought, however. “Habitable” is a very loaded word, with lots of implications about the nature of planets and of life itself. The trouble is, of course, we only know of one inhabited planet in the universe: ours. All life on Earth comes from a common ancestor: LUCA, and so has a lot in common biochemically. Must life evolve the way it has here, or could it look totally different? We need to find examples of truly alien life to find out, but in the meantime our best choice is to find and explore “Earth-like” planets which can host life like ours.

Finding Earth-like exoplanets is difficult, though, even relative to the difficulties of finding exoplanets in general. The methods we use to find exoplanets are more effective the bigger the planet is, meaning that most discovered exoplanets are gas giants many times the size of Earth. Not exactly prime real estate.

From FiveThirtyEight's excellent exoplanet article
From FiveThirtyEight’s excellent exoplanet article

Of course, so far we’ve only talked about looking at exoplanets. But if we’re ever to truly understand alien life, some day we’re going to have to actually go to one of these planets. The problem there, of course, is that space is big. Really big. Not just in the sense that it has big things in it (though that’s certainly true), but in the sense that things in it are really far apart. Travelling at the speed of light, the fastest speed physically possible, 670 million miles per hour, it takes eight minutes to go from the Earth to the Sun, a few hours to go from Earth to Pluto, and four years to reach the closest star to ours. Our fastest spacecraft go at about 38,000 mph, meaning it will take 70,000 years to travel that distance.

So if we ever want to do biological field work on an alien world, we need to find a planet that’s a) potentially habitable, and b) as close as possible.

Proxima Centauri b is both of those things.

It’s almost the luckiest break we could ask for in astrophysics. Proxima Centauri is the closest star to ours (hence the name), at only four light years away (as implied above). Hence the new exoplanet discovered around it has automatically become the closest exoplanet to Earth. So the fact that it’s “potentially habitable” is close to a goddamn miracle.

But what does “potentially habitable” mean in this context? For a start it means its mass is low — between one and three times Earth’s mass. This means it’s probably not gaseous but rocky, like Earth, and probably about the same size as the Earth. More excitingly, though, it’s at the right distance from its host star for liquid water to exist – not too hot, not too cold. (Yes, people do call this the Goldilocks Zone.) There’s not much more we know now, but it’s already ticking a lot of boxes for life as we know it to exist on its surface. Very few planets we know of tick all these boxes. This is why it’s so exciting.

It’s not all great news, however. Whilst it has some of the best odds of hosting life out of all the exoplanets we know, they’re still not good odds. It has a few things working against it. For a start, Proxima Centauri is a red dwarf, meaning it’s smaller and cooler relative to other stars (it’s still about 40,000 times the Earth’s mass). It’s actually so dim that it’s not visible to the naked eye in the night sky. (That’s why its planet was so hard to find, too.)

This means the star’s Goldilocks Zone is much closer to it (you need to stand nearer a cooler flame to feel the same heat), and indeed, our new planet friend is very close to Proxima Centauri.

This is bad because red dwarfs are known to eject violent, high energy x-rays very frequently, meaning the planet is getting big doses of radiation quite frequently. This kind of radiation means its atmosphere would get blasted away into space quite quickly, so odds are the planet doesn’t have any substantial atmosphere. (Not to mention the bad stuff that radiation is known to do to life on Earth.) Water can only exist as a liquid when the atmospheric pressure around it is sufficiently high, so the odds of a surface ocean are probably quite low.

We always see the same side of the Moon, even though it does rotate. That’s because it’s tidally locked to Earth (as we are to it). The same is probably true of Proxima Centauri and its planet: one side of the planet will always be facing the star. This can cause massive temperature differences on the different sides of the planet, meaning it probably only has water-friendly temperatures in a literal “twilight zone” in the middle of the planet.

Time and tide: Wikipedia illustration of tidal locking

So ok, it’s not looking great for life. But could we at least go and check? Can we ever hope to visit the planet? Well, surprisingly, despite the aforementioned vastness of space, there already is a plan to send a probe to the star within a human lifetime. Announced earlier this year, Breakthrough Starshot is an ambitious plan to accelerate microchip-sized probes to near light speed, meaning they could reach the star in a few decades, scan it, and send data back. It requires some, shall we say, “engineering innovations” (to put it very mildly) to work, but it’s theoretically plausible, and could easily be launched in a few decades. I fully believe I will see the first grainy, low-res images of this planet before I die, and given the technological challenges involved in that, it’s really, really exciting.

New Year’s resolution: Our best view of Pluto before and after we sent a probe to study it

There’s so much more to say on this story. Exoplanetary research is a very new field. I expect this year’s physics Nobel Prize to go to something exoplanet related, and that’s only the beginning of what we’re going to discover about the distant worlds out there in the heavens. Closer to home, my supervisor and research group are involved in exoplanet research. We’re even involved in a mission to launch a small exoplanet-hunting satellite, TWINKLE, ourselves. Check it out!

Don’t ask us what TWINKLE stands for…

Are we alone in the cosmos? It’s arguably the most profound unanswered question in science. The day we find out is getting closer all the time.

Labour

 

I believe the leader of the Labour Party should be a proud socialist who believes in social justice, wealth redistribution, liberation movements, public ownership, public investment, renationalisation, and, of course, equality.

That’s why I’ll be voting for Owen Smith for Labour leader.


Look, I know, ok? I voted for Corbyn last year, too, y’know? I know his policies are good for the country. I know there’s been a concerted effort by a number of MPs from day one to undermine him. I know the media’s been supremely biased against him. I know he’s revitalised the party, saved it from stagnation, and brought in hundreds of thousands of supporters.

But here’s a crazy idea: maybe all of those things can be true, and it can still also be true that the 179 MPs who passed a vote of no confidence in him are right to, well, not have confidence in him. At some point these true facts about how hard a job he’s had stop just being facts and start being excuses for fundamental inadequacies in his leadership. There is a strong case to be made for him being the wrong person to lead Labour, even if you agree with all of his policies and love what he’s done for the party.

First, let’s talk about his challenger, Mr Smith. When the coup started I was still very much on the fence (a Corbyn-agnostic, if you will). My first thought was that I wasn’t going to think anything until a challenger actually revealed themselves. If Eagle had been the final candidate, this would be a very different blog post. It would have shown the party had genuinely learned nothing from Corbyn’s victory. It would have meant a desire to return to business as usual, which was clearly unacceptable.

But when Owen Smith stepped into the fray, I remembered a comment that stuck with me during last year’s leadership election. It was a comment that significantly pushed me towards voting for Corbyn (ok disclosure I put Cooper first and Corbyn second). The comment was “don’t vote for the whisper when you can vote for the shout”. Only one candidate was shouting last year. Why vote for anyone else?

This year is different. Smith is screaming at the top of his lungs. Smith is showing that he, and Labour, have very clearly learned their lessons about the direction the party should be going. How many quotes do I need to list? Smith says Corbyn has helped Labour “rediscover its radical roots”, he wants to rewrite Clause IV to explicitly mention tackling inequality. He wants to renationalise the rails, possibly steel too. He wants massive public infrastructure investment. He wants to give more significant positions of power to women. He wants more humane foreign policy. The list goes on. Yes, I know he was a Pfizer PR guy 11 years ago. Yes, this is very bad. No, in light of his other attributes it’s not bad enough to matter, in my view.

His platform is almost indistinguishable from Corbyn’s. Smith doesn’t plan to erode Corbyn’s massive improvements to the party — he wants to expand on them. Surely a candidate with a platform like this is worthy of your consideration. Go on theyworkforyou.com, a website which lists every MP’s voting record. Compare Corbyn’s and Smith’s. They’re almost identical (so is Eagle’s, incidentally). The only substantial difference is some defence issues like Trident. If you have strong feelings about Trident, that’s good, you should. I do too. But, given it’s already been voted on, is it really the hill you want to die on? Do you want to decide the entire future of the Labour Party on a policy the majority of the country disagrees with you on anyway?

Smith doesn’t even want to be rid of Corbyn. Just this week he said he’d give Corbyn a significant position in his Shadow Cabinet (after Corbyn rejected the idea of being given a new ‘president’ role). This is a clear olive branch to the Corbyn wing of the party, and vital if the party is to not split. (This is something Smith’s on record as wanting to avoid, much more explicitly than Corbyn… do I have to explain why splitting the party is bad?)

Secondly, there’s the polls. Now, I know what you’re thinking: polls have been super wrong recently. Well, you’re right, they have. They’ve consistently overestimated support for Labour (and Remain, I guess). So when the latest opinion polls put the Tories almost 20 points ahead, we should remember this is an optimistic assumption (ignoring that polling folks have learned their lessons and made significant improvements over the last year). And it’s not an outlier; Labour’s been behind in almost every single poll over the last year, sometimes by dramatic amounts. You cannot ignore these atrocious polls forever.

Is this entirely Jeremy’s fault? Of course not. But who cares? Apportioning blame doesn’t make problems go away. This is still a problem and it’ll get worse when a general election cycle actually starts. Corbyn has a monumental hill to climb to win over the British public. This Medium piece from last year by Owen Jones (that’s Jones the pro-Corbyn journalist, not Smith!) is vital reading. How many of the things in his checklist have actually happened? How many do you genuinely think Corbyn can actually make happen?

Thirdly, let’s look at the people who signed the no confidence motion. The main point I want to stress here is it’s not just the usual suspects. It’s every Labour MEP and a large number of Lords, for a start. But among the MPs, most who signed the no confidence are not Blairite shills. Many of them are just as socialist as Corbyn himself. For every cretin like John Mann and Jess Phillips, there’s loads of dedicated socialists who genuinely wanted to make this work, who really did give him a chance, and who found him lacking.

These are people whose opinions are worth considering if they differ from yours. It’s people like Lisa Nandy (whose interview with Owen Jones I strongly recommend), my local MP Andy Slaughter (a fantastic, intelligent, dedicated public servant I’ve campaigned with many times and have immense respect for, and who described himself as a ‘comrade’ of Corbyn in his resignation letter), and, yes, Owen Smith.

I’ve never felt more despair about the future of British politics than I do now. I don’t know if electing Smith will solve even half of the problems Labour face. We could still easily be crushed with him in charge in 2020. All I know is Smith has genuinely given me a sliver of hope for the first time in ages. Please don’t let that go to waste.

 

My Case for Remaining

I realise I haven’t posted here in a while. Sorry about that. I’ve been busy. I’m back to talk about the EU, though. This was going to be a Facebook status, but it ballooned to 1400 words, so I felt it deserved a blog post. Here it goes:


Polling has consistently shown that leave is winning in this referendum. With less than a week until polls open, I’m hoping to reach out to any undecided people who follow me: Please, I beg you, please vote to REMAIN in the European Union on the 23rd June.

EU-logo

 
I believe people are intrinsically self-interested, and ‘principles’ are just ways for people to justify conclusions they’ve already reached, so I’m going to lay my cards on the table here: my research group is EU funded. I’m UK funded, but most of my group critically depends on a huge ERC grant, so I can’t really help but be pro-EU. But self-interest is the driving force behind this whole campaign, so I think it’s fair. UK voters are being asked by both sides to consider “what’s in it for me?” The rest of the continent (who very clearly stand to lose out if we leave) can get buggered. In that spirit, here’s my case for remaining:
 
Pretty much everything I’m going to say will be through the lens of working as a UK scientist, whilst touching on wider issues. This isn’t just the result of me reading a bunch of articles on The Guardian, either. This is the result of months of talking to scientists about what they think about this issue, and directly experiencing these effects as a first-year PhD student in London.
 
First of all, a vote to remain would save my group a lot of uncertainty and fear about our future as a research group. If you don’t care about the future of exoplanetary research this may not matter to you, but to the people I see at work every day, it matters a lot. Their story isn’t unique, either. Somewhere between 5 and 10% of UK science is EU funded in some way.
One of the most recent group photos of the ExoMol group. We come from all over the UK, the EU, and beyond.
One of the most recent group photos of my research group: ExoMol. We come from all over the UK, the EU, and beyond.
 
Crucially, EU funding for UK science is INCREASING, as opposed to UK funding which was frozen from 2010-2015 (we were relieved with this at the time — most public bodies got off much worse), then promised a miserly increase to catch up with inflation from 2016-2020. Of course, the UK is a net contributor to the EU (duh. One of the whole points of the EU is so richer countries can contribute to the development of poorer ones), so in theory a vote to leave could free up more money to devote to UK science. But let’s face it, even in the most optimistic economic forecasts after we leave (i.e. the ones where our cash isn’t sucked into a black hole, as is already happening), where is the EU cash going to go?
 
“Reassuringly,” leave campaigners have promised money WILL go to UK science, but they’re not in charge, Cameron and Osborne are, and they’re both promising that leaving will mean cuts, cuts, cuts (i.e. business as usual). Maybe they won’t be in charge in a few weeks. Then who will? A Tory who actually cares about public spending? Come on. Some leave-leaning Tories have suddenly decided they don’t like the idea of another round of cuts after we leave. Corbyn was (unusually…) eloquent when he expressed bemusement at their “Damascene conversion.” I don’t buy it.
Politicians across the spectrum are united for remaining.
Politicians across the spectrum are united for remaining.
 
But, in the immortal words of Jessie J, “it’s not [all] about the money (money money).” If only 10% of UK science money comes from the EU, why do 85% of UK scientists support remain? It’s because we benefit from the very thing the majority of leave voters are voting on: immigration. Current UK immigration laws for non-EU countries are, in my view, outrageous. The fact that there’s a WAGE LIMIT on potential migrants is absurd. It’s also terrible for UK science because many early career science jobs fall below that threshold, meaning institutions have to go out of their way to prove the potential migrant in question is absolutely vital for their job. That can be difficult. It’s not a perfect system, and many of the best and brightest who absolutely should be here have been frozen out. Frankly, it’s a system designed to keep out poor people, and early career scientists aren’t exactly rolling in money. EU free movement makes the lives of every UK scientist much, much easier. It also goes both ways, with UK and other EU institutions able to more easily hire brilliant scientists from across the continent.
Scientists for EU represents the views of almost every UK scientist.
Scientists for EU represents the views of the vast majority of UK scientists.
And there’s more. It also makes collaboration easier. We can (and do!) set up bilateral research coordination agreements with non-EU states, but they must be done on a case-by-case basis, and if you want more than one other country involved at once, it’s a pain in the ass. CERN, ESO, and other massive, multi-state, non-EU projects do exist, of course, but it’s in spite of, not because of, the current state of non-EU international collaboration. The EU provides a framework for allowing collaboration between (in theory) up to 28 countries at once. Sure, we COULD negotiate bilaterals with every EU country when we leave, but you can’t deny that’s a much less desirable option than the current one. You have to promise us something much better in return for that.
 
And I don’t think we have been promised anywhere near enough in return. If we’re losing out on money, our access to skilled non-UK scientists, and the ease with which we can collaborate with our neighbours, what are we getting? The promise of setting up more research agreements with Australia, Brazil, China, the US. Great, fine. Sounds good. But none of those places are right next door. You may think in an internet age that shouldn’t matter, but it DOES.
CkrosPIWEAAUkfv.jpg:large
 
I’ve seen it first-hand. It’s much, much easier to collaborate with countries closer to you than further away, even non-EU ones like Switzerland. For one thing: flying further is still more expensive. That’s not changing any time soon. When looking at conferences to go to on my travel grant, I can maybe go to two non-European conferences in my entire PhD, but I’m planning on going to two French conferences in the next MONTH! That’s not an EU thing, that’s a “they’re literally right next door” thing. We absolutely SHOULD be making it as easy as possible to work with our neighbours.
 
We should, of course, be making it easier to work with our non-neighbours, too. If we want to collaborate more with growing sciences bases like those in the East, we shouldn’t do that by arbitrarily making it harder to work with established nearby ones. If the EU is stopping us from easily arranging research agreements with the US or whatever, let’s bring the case for that to the EU to get them to change, instead of just abandoning it altogether. You may think we can’t. I’m not as pessimistic about the state of EU reform.
 
CkLshVKWgAAo6h3.jpg:large
Front left to right: Lord Alf Dubs, Chuka Umunna MP, Andy Slaughter MP (my local MP), all Labour, all out campaigning. (I’m there too!)
 
I’ve set out my self-interested case for remaining, but, as I’ve tried to stress, it’s about more than just me. This affects all of UK, EU, and global science. That’s why so many of us support remaining. The “Scientists for EU” group is a massive, diverse group of many scientists for all over the political spectrum. Some are ideologues who love the EU (far too much in my opinion), some are just self-interested like me. Scientists for Britain, meanwhile, is run by a former UKIP candidate and neoliberal economic ideologue. If that isn’t a microcosm of the whole debate I don’t know what is.
 
I haven’t touched at all on the sovereignty and democracy issues surrounding the EU (I’m already over 1k words). I think there’s some merit to them, but they’re way overblown (you want more democracy? Abolish the House of Lords. More sovereignty? Let’s get rid of the IMF whilst we’re at it). If your primary reason for voting to leave rests somewhere there, firstly you’re in the minority; this is an immigration referendum (I’ve seen as much on the doorstep), but secondly I can’t really say much to stop you, even if I think you’re misguided. All I can do is convince you that I will lose out mightily if we vote to leave, and hope you consider that when casting your vote. Thank you for your time.

Steven Universe is Made of Love

In my last post I briefly mentioned Steven Universe, a Cartoon Network animated show. I want to give it a more in-depth review, though, because this is a show I’m currently absolutely smitten with, and I want to share the love!

From left to right: Steven, Amethyst, Pearl, Garnet… and Steven!

As I mentioned in the last post, Steven Universe was created by a former Adventure Time writer: the whimsically named Rebecca Sugar. If I had to sum up the show’s themes in one word, it’d be love. Steven Universe is about love in all its forms. Every character is motivated in all they do by at least one kind of love, be it romantic love, parental love, love between friends, or even love for humanity and Earth.

A great example of the kind of charming interactions you can expect from a given episode.

The love isn’t restricted to the characters, though. It’s clear that a tremendous amount of love goes into the show from the people working on it. You can always tell when creators are pouring their hearts into what they’re making, and this show has that kind of love in spades. The visuals, art style and music are all evocative of a very specific mood the show is trying to create, and they’ve clearly been very carefully chosen to synergise perfectly. The writers clearly draw inspiration from old animes, video games, other cartoons, and various movies and TV shows, and they let it inform their work.

As for the premise, it’s an 11-minute-format animation about three magical warriors called the Crystal Gems, who are sworn to protect the Earth, and Steven, their half-human-half-gem family member, who must learn to be a Crystal Gem. The plot of most early episodes involve light-hearted hijinks based around Steven’s powers and his interactions with the other characters. (Is there also a supporting cast of quirky, loveable side characters? You bet there is.)

Later episodes, however, mostly connect more to a wider story arc, with recurring villains emerging, possibly with a connection to the Crystal Gem’s mysterious origins. More and more of the surprisingly deep lore, history and backstory of the Gems and the show’s universe (heh) are also revealed as time goes on.

Character development!

Steven Universe is great whether it’s just chilling with side characters, exploring the lore of the world it’s set in, or advancing the main plot of the series. Every type of episode has different strengths, and the diversity makes the show always feel fresh. They can vary a fair amount in tone, whilst still maintaining a core aesthetic and feel for the series overall. Sometimes Steven (and the other Gems) mourn the loss of Steven’s Gem mother, sometimes Steven makes terrible (amazing) puns, sometimes the Gems are in mortal peril, and sometimes Steven’s fingers turn into cats. No matter what, though, the tone is always pitched in just the right way to sell the emotion they’re putting out there.

Of course, no review of the show would be complete without mentioning its staunch endorsement of various liberation movements. The feminist nature of the show should go without saying, and the commitment to racial diversity in its characters is commendable (both in the show and behind the scenes), but there’s more. Without wanting to spoil too much, I’ll just say LGBT representation is addressed. For children’s animation, this is still extremely novel, building and expanding on the ground The Legend of Korra broke in 2014. There’s also a less overt but still important discussion of gender identity, not just through the subversion of traditional gender roles in its characters, but also in a more direct way I don’t want to spoil!

Steven has three mommies: This isn’t the only way the show addresses LGBT representation.

I’ll end the review by summarising my favourite episode, The Test. In this episode, Steven learns a previous mission he went on with the Gems was less important than they’d made it seem; they’d used it as a test for him. Indignant, and thinking he’d failed, he insists they give him a new test so he can prove himself, so the Gems design a short custom “dungeon” for him to traverse, filled with traps (and a puzzle).

It’s hard not to notice the similarities between the dungeon and a video game level, specifically the kind of “dungeon” you’d expect in a Legend of Zelda game. Even the music takes on the kind of 8-bit aesthetic indicative of the older video games the writers clearly grew up with.

After much struggle, Steven gets to the last trap, which almost kills him. Then he realises the trap is rigged to never hit him. Frustrated, he goes back and checks the other traps, all of which refuse to harm him (even the puzzle was impossible to not solve). He then finds a way to access the roof of the dungeon (by “clipping” through it, like he’s in a buggy video game), and overhears the Gems talk about why they made the test un-failable. They express their exasperation at not knowing what they’re doing when raising him. They wanted to set the test to give him a confidence boost, because they saw him doubt himself.

After overhearing this, Steven runs through the dungeon again, reaches the exit, and confronts the Gems. Instead of getting mad at them, though, he plays along. He pretends he didn’t know the test was rigged, and thanks the Gems for setting up the test: “This was just what I needed.” But of course, it’s not what he needed, it’s what the Gems needed. They may be his guardians/surrogate mums, but they’re still fallible people, who sometimes need to be told they’re doing ok, too.

The Gems celebrating his “victory”

I can’t remember ever seeing that kind of reciprocal parent-child love in children’s television before. Imagine the kind of message that sends to kids: sometimes your parents need your encouragement as much as you need theirs. That’s just one small example of the countless positive and healthy life messages/morals Steven Universe gives to its viewers. If this is the kind of show today’s kids are growing up with, there’s hope for the future. That’s why the people of this world believe in Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl (and Steven!)

How Adventure Time Saved Cartoon Network

I haven’t been writing here as much as I’d like, so here’s an old piece of writing of mine from my days writing for Felix, Imperial’s student newspaper. It’s probably my best piece for Felix. I’m quite proud of it:

How Adventure Time Saved Cartoon Network, from Felix Issue 1597, Feb. 12th, 2015. (Full issue here if you want to see it in its original print form.)

Here’s the link to where this adorable fanart came from!

 

BAHFest London Big Science 2016

Yesterday, I gave a talk at BAHFest London Big Science 2016, held at Imperial College. BAHFest is the Bad Ad Hoc Hypotheses Festival, which invites speakers to give talks on plausible-sounding but totally bogus scientific ideas. The theme of the show was Big Science: every speaker made a proposal for a Big Science collaboration project in the vein of projects like CERN or the Apollo Missions… except unlike those noble quests, the dumber the idea, the better at BAHFest!

The event itself was super fun. I got to hang out with the other speakers before and afterwards, and they were all super lovely. I got to meet maths-themed-comedian Matt Parker, Simon Singh (again!), Zach Weinersmith of SMBC comics fame, and Helen Arney from Festival of the Spoken Nerd, among others. Matt Parker and Simon Singh even signed their books for me:

 

The binary just says “Tom.”

 

And of course the night wouldn’t be complete without a selfie with fellow ginger Zach Weinersmith!

And finally, an invitation to step up my Twitter game:

 

Oh yeah, that happened!

I was mentioned in a book

So here’s something fun I found out today: in Simon Singh’s The Simpsons and their Mathematical Secrets, a collection of maths references in The Simpsons and Futurama, well, see for yourself:

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12494949_10156362838025005_3183922064211477828_n

Not bad, eh? Turns out this was in the 2013 edition of the book, so it’s been over two years and I’ve only just found out! How did I find out? Well…

simon singh

Not bad at all!

 

Oh yeah and did I mention I’m talking at BAHFest tomorrow?

Home

I’ll tell all after the show!

The Existential Crisis of Loot Crate

If it’s not clear already, I’m a nerd. And usually I’m ok with that. But something’s been bugging me lately…

I like nerdy academic disciplines like science, maths, and computing. I do vector calculus just for fun. But I also invest a lot of my time in, and thoughts and Tweets on nerdy media. I love Star Wars. I think deeply about the impact of the new films on the Expanded Universe. I’ve seen and enjoyed basically every comic book adaptation from the last decade (except Gotham. Fuck Gotham), including every Marvel TV show and movie. I actively speculate over the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I’ve got a Zelda-themed Wii U. I’m only barely scratching the surface. I’ve already subjected this blog to an epic two-part rant about Pokémon (pretending to wrap it up in science hahaha)… and, of course, I was chair of Imperial College’s Science Fiction Society.

What I’m trying to say is, “nerd” is a label I wear with pride. A large part of my own self-identity is invested in enjoyment and consuming of various “franchises.” I like to maintain the illusion that despite these properties being created, owned, and propagated by massive TNCs, somehow I have a personal connection to them. They were made for me to enjoy. I’ve been rewarded for my devotion to minutiae of Marvel comic book continuity by their adaptations on the big screen, etc. etc.

So what’s been bugging me? Loot Crate.

What’s Loot Crate? How it works is, you pay a monthly subscription fee (up to £20 a month), pick from one of a small number of pre-set options, and once a month Loot Crate delivers to you a box filled with what it describes as “awesome geek and gamer gear.” What kind of gear? Mostly, it’s figurines, toys, posters, t-shirts, mugs, and other, generic, kitschy paraphernalia that other people apparently have room in their not-hovels for.

Car Boot Crate: An example of the kinds of things they send out each month.

Now, to be clear, I’m not having a go at Loot Crate, its customers, or anything like that. If you get pleasure out of using this service, that’s awesome. Enjoy your cool stuff. I’m jealous. I also think it can be a great present for your nerdy friend or S.O. What bugs me is what the existence and success of this business says about me and my interests.

Think about it. For a random collection of kitschy items from dozens, if not hundreds, of entertainment franchises and brands, spanning film, TV, comics, video games, board games, books, and more, to be a successful business model, an assumption has to be made: every single fuckin’ nerd likes exactly the same shit.

Now, to. be. clear. although presented caustically, that fact alone isn’t intrinsically bad. I’m just making it sound bad because it feels bad to me. If it doesn’t to you, that’s fine! And remember “every single fuckin’ nerd” includes me! For reference, this is my room:

And that's only half of it!
And that’s only half of it!

The thing about it that bugs me is it makes me question my autonomy. I have a worldview in my head of me choosing carefully, and with love, every franchise I follow. I’d like to believe I don’t like The Legend of Zelda because everyone else does, I’d like to believe I like it because it’s a good series of games. It was worth investing time into, because in exchange I’ve received a lot of joy from it. I’d like to believe I’ve made a similar choice for Back to the Future, Batman, The Avengers, Futurama, and all of the other myriad franchises I can look at the dozens of posters in my room to remind myself of.

But if you can hand out goodies from basically any of the franchises I mentioned, and loads more, and still expect the person buying it to be pleased with it, enough to spend £20 a month, then that has to bring into question the degree of autonomy involved in choosing to follow a franchise, right? Why do I love Ghostbusters? Because it’s good, or because being part of the Nerd Club requires that I like it? You have to be willing to ask that to yourself.

I know on some level I’m just being silly. There’s a few good counterarguments. Firstly, not every franchise I see in the Loot Crates interests me. I have no interest in almost all anime, I don’t follow most major video game franchises like FalloutCall of Duty, Skyrim… and I actively hate horror movies. There’s a lottery aspect to it: you’re not guaranteed to get what you want in the crate. That’s part of the fun of opening it, I imagine. (I do think it wouldn’t work if most people weren’t interested in most of the things in the crate, though.)

Similarly, there’s lots of franchises I like that aren’t “mainstream” enough in the nerd community to ever be in the crate: my favourite TV show right now is Steven Universe, a cartoon on Cartoon Network. I’d be very surprised to see characters from that in a Loot Crate. Why do I like that show? Because it’s amazing. No one told me to like that. (I told my friends to like it, though!)

On some level, talking at all about stuff this nerdy being mainstream is still surreal to me, even though we’ve accepted the Marvel movies dominating the box office, Game of Thrones smashing the Home Box Office, and eSports beating football in TV ratings. Nerd is mainstream now. Sure, I “liked it before it was cool.” Sure, I remember getting teased in school for playing Yu-Gi-Oh! cards, but you don’t get a bloody medal for that! That’s not something that makes me special; none of these franchises are.

So where does that leave Loot Crate? I think the take-home message is take pride in being a “nerd,” but keep it in perspective; you’re not the only one!

Women in Science: Hedy Lamarr

No, really.

Hedwig “Hedy” Kiesler is best known for a long career as an actress in Hollywood’s Golden Age, going by the stage name Hedy Lamarr, and having appeared alongside the likes of Clark Gable and Judy Garland in films throughout the 1940s. At the time she was marketed as the “world’s most beautiful woman” by her talent scout. As far as I’m concerned, being an actor in Hollywood’s Golden Age counts as having an interesting life, but for Lamarr, it counts among the less interesting parts of her career.

Her background merits a brief mention before I get to the science. She was born to a Jewish family in Austria in 1914, but raised Catholic. At 19 years old she married a wealthy Austrian arms merchant, Friedrich Mandl, who was also an ardent fascist. She would later describe him as being very controlling, and it’s likely she was being generous with that description, given that she engineered an escape to Paris in 1937 to be free of him. From Paris, she moved on to Hollywood, where she began her aforementioned film career.

She had been interested in science since she was a child, and her interest grew when she was married to Mandl, who would take her to business meetings, which often involved military science. At the height of her acting career, during the war, she tinkered with a few inventions. She followed through on one of them, which ended up being important in the history of radio technology. Her invention was called Frequency-Hopping Spread Spectrum (FHSS) technology.

Technically she wasn’t the first to come up with the idea, but (as far as I can tell) it was her version of it which ended up in US Navy ships and submarines. That didn’t happen until the 1960s, however (after the patent expired). Despite patenting the invention in 1942, the Navy was a bit slow to respond. It was of vital importance to their ships by the Cuban Missile Crisis, though. An updated version of this technology exists in several civilian applications to this day, including GPS, Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi.

What the technology actually does is provide a way to transmit radio signals without fear of deliberate jamming by enemy forces. Lamarr had radio-controlled torpedoes in mind when she worked on it. Had her ideas been implemented during the war, it would’ve been well, pretty useful, I suppose.

So, radio waves are sinusoids, or sine waves:

Sine of the times: One period of the function sin(x)

They are oscillating excitations in electromagnetic fields, which radio transmitters can generate, and receivers can detect. Signals can be encoded in these oscillations in clever ways I won’t get into here. These oscillations/sine waves have a frequency associated with them. which is just how many oscillations happen per second. This is measured in Hertz (Hz). BBC Radio 1, for example, transmits at a frequency of about 98 MHz, or 98 million oscillations per second. All radio signals are transmitted and received at a certain frequency (technically in a small range of frequencies). This is the number you dial your radio to to receive a signal. (98 FM in the BBC case. FM is a description of how the information is encoded in the radio signal.)

The “frequency-hopping” part of the name of Lamarr’s invention comes from the fact that the radio transmitter (pseudo-)randomises which frequency it transmits its signal at, in a way pre-determined such that the target always knows which frequency to receive signals from. So, many times a second, the frequency you’re transmitting at will change. This is useful because if you’re transmitting at a certain frequency, that signal can be jammed by someone else with a strong radio transmitter transmitting at that frequency. You could overcome this by just blasting the same signal louder, or over a larger range, but both of these are expensive to do.

What FHSS means, as far as potential jammers are concerned, is that you are transmitting over a very wide range of frequencies. This means if someone wants to jam the signal, but doesn’t know the sequence of frequencies the source and target have agreed on, then they need to jam a very large range of frequencies in order to stop the signal. You, however only need to transmit over one frequency at a given time.

She didn’t contribute much to the scientific community, but what she did contribute was forgotten for a long time. It was only in the 1980s that her achievements were recognised, and in 1997 she received the Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award, along with her co-inventor George Antheil. She died three years later.

I suppose I should end with some sort of “don’t judge a book by its cover” spiel. Yes, she was amazingly beautiful, and yes, clearly she was a talented intellectual, so all of those lessons apply. She’s not even the only actress I know of with a scientific side: Natalie Portman isn’t just Queen of Naboo, she’s a published author in a Neurology journal. (Erdős number of 5!) But the more interesting side of Hedy Lamarr’s story, for me, is how she escaped a clearly abusive relationship, not to mention impending Nazi occupation, and built a better life for herself. And that life happened to include science, technology, and invention, alongside stardom.