Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving!

"The Turkey that Ate St. Louis" (1969)

This Thanksgiving, the dinner tables are turned as we bring back this turkey of a film to feast on you.

Seth comments:

One of the many doubtful activities of my youth was making films. I started doing this at age 11, and by the time I was a teenager, my buddy Jerry Rebold and I had already constructed a sound system that occasionally worked with our wind-up, 16mm camera.

In 1967, while in grad school, fellow student Bob O’Connell, Jerry Rebold and I made a half-hour film entitled “The Teenage Monster Blob from Outer Space, Which I Was.” This parody of 1950s sci-fi films starred six pounds of Play-Doh.

The film bombed. It was, as O’Connell called it, “a turkey.” This disgusting failure prompted us to change our cinematic strategy in two ways: (1) our next film was just going to be a trailer, rather than a complete film – that way we could save money and just put in the good parts, and (2) if we were making turkeys, why not make a REAL turkey?

Ergo, this short “preview” film, shot mostly at Caltech and at that school’s Owens Valley Radio Observatory. Observant viewers will note then-department chair Jesse Greenstein in the role of Walter Cronkite, and a few other astronomers too (including yours truly).

“The Turkey that Ate St. Louis” was entered in the Baltimore International Film Festival, and automatically inserted into the feature-film category, where it faced competition from major motion pictures from both America and Europe. Despite this uneven playing field, “The Turkey” lost.

“The Teenage Monster Blob” eventually became more popular. Too late.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Happy Birthday SETI Institute!

Twenty five years ago, on November 20, 1984, the SETI Institute was founded. It's history goes much deeper than that, of course. Nearly fifty years ago, Frank Drake conducted the first radio search for extraterrestrial intelligence, known as Project Ozma. Today, the Institute, independent astronomers, home computers, and supporters like you continue to bring SETI closer to the detection of a signal from our celestial neighbors. Hear all about SETI's history, from the Drake equation and the Allen Telescope Array to SETI@home and optical SETI, on this week's show.

Monday, November 9, 2009

This Calendar Weighs an EschaTon

Do you see the part where it says we'll all die on December 21, 2012? Mayan scholars don't see it either. Ancient Mayan glyphs and their concepts of language and time aren't fully understood by anyone, but no one who studies their ancient beliefs is under the impression that they ever forecast the end of anything other than various cycles of time. Like many cultures, the Mayans understood time as being cyclical, rather than linear. Hence, the round calendar. They had short counts of time within long counts of time, just as we do. One of the longest counts, the Baktun, ends on what some argue to be December 21, 2012, just like one of our long counts, the year, ends on December 31, 2009, and then starts over.

In this week's show, Seth and NASA Astrobiologist Dave Morrison discuss some of the unlikely harbingers that some say are the fulfillment of Mayan doomsday prophesy, including those postulated by the marketing campaign of a certain new disaster movie coming out this week.

Note: It has been pointed out that the picture above is an Aztec calendar. Of the many cultures that developed in the Yucatan region in the past three thousand years, the Maya were most instrumental in developing this calendar. The Aztecs just figured out how to make it look pretty.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Check your Babbage

Charles Babbage created Difference Engine Number 2 in the mid 19th century. Created on paper, that is. He never got to see his creation completed, as it wasn't actually built until the early 1990's. In 2008, a second working Difference Engine Number 2 was installed at the Mountain View Computer History Museum, and is pictured above, top, in detail, and above, bottom, with human Molly Bentley. Hear more about Seth and Molly's trip to the Computer History Museum on this week's show.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Don't be so Antikythera

A century ago, a team of Greek divers, exploring the coast off the island of Antikythera, discovered a ship wreck which contained part of what is believed to be the oldest known complex scientific calculator, dated to the first century, BC. The top picture is a reconstruction of the entire mechanism. The bottom picture is the main fragment retrieved from the wreck. The mechanism was used as an astronomical clock, wherein a date was entered and the mechanism would calculate the position of the sun, moon, and other planets. It also provided information about the phases of the moon and was used to predict solar eclipses. Learn more about the Antikythera mechanism on this week's show.