Sep 15, 2017

Magic Numbers and Persuasive Sound

In pinball, when you break the highest score or hit a jackpot, a deeply satisfying racket rings throughout the arcade for all others to hear, and extends the game beyond the machine. A shared experience has been created by sound.  

The sound effects of a game can often subtly affect our emotions as we watch or play. While we engage with our screen, board or "field," we can undergo a musically stimulated range of responses: exultation (we earned new weapons or points), fear (something's about to eat us), or epic fury (we died a "Nooo! I was on the highest level!!!" death). 

According to Dr. Robert Zatorre of the Montreal Neurological Institute, if you've played a game before you might even feel "euphoria" and "craving" before an expected event happens.  In early 2013, Dr. Zatorre used neuroimaging to track the release of the pleasure-related neurotransmitter dopamine in participants' brains. First, he played a popular song for them. Then, when they were about to hear the highly anticipated chorus section, he watched for the release of dopamine. Sure enough, it appeared just as the thrill of their favorite part came on.  
Some video games even have music timed to the same beat as the average human heart rate, to make a person feel "one with the game."  

If you are of a certain era, your introduction to pinball may have been through psychedelic imagery brought to you by Sesame Street, accompanied by the funk beat and harmony of the Pointer Sisters': "1, 2, 3, 4, 5..." 

Oh, yes, you should watch it.

The idea was that if children responded positively to the upbeat sound, it would render them more receptive to learning their numbers. Who wouldn't be, if numbers felt and sounded like that?

Music provokes emotional responses in part because it affects many areas of the brain. As a result, Neurologic music therapy is increasingly used as a tool to  help people regain motor skills, speech, and increase psychological health.

Music is a powerhouse prescription. It can change our perspective, influence how we experience a situation, help us heal, help us learn. Manipulation, in a beautiful form. 

 And for the final word on today's post, William Congreve, from his poem Mourning Bride:

Musick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast,
To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak.
I've read, that things inanimate have mov'd,
And, as with living Souls, have been inform'd,
By Magick Numbers and persuasive Sound.

If you want to hear the magical sounds of pinball yourselves, come on up to Chabot for the Art and Science of Pinball exhibit. Make haste, gamers - only one week left!

Jun 30, 2017

The "Insidious Nickel Stealer" in our midst

It was 1931, and colossal events were changing the face of the United States. Catastrophic drought and dust storms ushered in the Dust Bowl; the Great Depression raged; Dracula and Frankenstein (Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff) terrified an entire nation from movie screens everywhere...
Karloff and Lugosi

Nimoy and Shatner
On a more positive but still-epic note, sci-fi icons William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy both entered the world - mere twinkles in soon-to-be-Trekkies' eyes. And, amidst it all, from small cigar shops, bowling alleys and back-room gaming parlors came a sound...
Clack, clack!
The populace was playing a shiny, new game.

Balyhoo, the first pinball machine produced in the U.S.
It was the simplest formula of fun + physics: lights, sounds, gravity, momentum, kinetic energy. Pinball captured the hearts of Americans as soon as it hit the scene, and was immediately viewed by churches and educational institutions as a menace to society, inviting school children to skip school and squander much-needed lunch money. Plus, this was no game of skill! Flippers wouldn't make an appearance until 1947, so with the exception of "nudging" - using hips and arms to tilt the machines - players had to leave the ball's direction to chance. The decree was that "chance = gambling." Gambling on games was rampant, with a range of tempting prizes including free games, gum, jewelry, fine china and of course, cash. 

Law enforcement looked the other way (and also played fervently) until New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia stepped in and made the “insidious nickel-stealers” his target, citing the games as a waste of time and materials during wartime (copper, aluminum and nickel would be put to better use as bullets). On January 21,1942, at his command, NYC police squads began their raids, confiscating over 2,000 machines, smashing them to bits with sledgehammers, and dumping them ceremoniously into the Hudson River.  

One of LaGuardia's publicity stunt videos for the raids
The pinball community did not take this lightly.

It took them a while to respond, however. Even by 1969, when The Who produced their rock opera album Tommy, featuring its Pinball Wizard, the "deaf, dumb and blind kid who sure plays a mean pinball," it was still considered an act of wild rebellion.  

The Who and Elton John in the 1975 movie version of Tommy

Finally, in 1976, the Amusement and Music Operators Association recruited journalist Roger Sharpe, one of the top players in the country, to show elected NYC officials and media members that the now-flippered game was, without a doubt, a game of true skill. 

Roger Sharpe on the famous day in pinball history, surrounded by reporters

In a moment likened to Babe Ruth’s famous called shot, Sharpe's momentous pinball shot went exactly where he had predicted. “You could call it either skill or divine intervention, but the ball went down that lane,” Sharpe declared. The council overturned the ban, and pinball was again legal in the Big Apple.
In honor of this famous moment, we Lab folk are all about to head out to play all the pinball we can fit into one lunch hour...right outside our Lab door, in Chabot's new Art and Science of Pinball exhibit. All you pinheads* out there should come on up and join us. 

*pinhead: term of endearment (at least how we mean it), indicating a pinball enthusiast.

For now, we'll leave you in good company, with some of pinball's famous fans:
The Jackson 5 

Elton John

Elvis Presley

Evel Knievel
Tina Turner

The Fonz

Joni Mitchell

Alfred Hitchcock


May 19, 2017

Pygmalion's Palapa

In the ancient Greek myth, Pygmalion sculpts a woman out of clay and desperately, achingly, wishes she could become real. 

According to ancient poet Ovid's account, Pygmalion adores the marble-ish lady, compliments her, woos her with "shells and polished pebbles, little birds, lumps of amber..." and the goddess Aphrodite, who never passes up a good romantic scene, takes pity on him and brings her to life. (Our favorite pop culture find: the exact same beginnings - sculpting, hoping, Aphrodite -  brought Wonder Woman into the world).  

Gal Gadot in the new Wonder Woman movie

The most salient human chord struck in this storyline is each creator's ardent sense of conviction.  If you're someone who has ever had a dogged, tunnel-vision, passionate belief in your own creation, you know exactly what we mean.  Over thousands of years, it has morphed the name Pygmalion into a familiar trope of human folly and brilliant inventor's fuel. 

Georges Melies (an old favorite of ours) poked a bit of fun at him (us?) in his 1898 trick film Pygmalion and Galatea, where the sculptor attempts to embrace his statue-love. The top half of her repeatedly disappears, leaving a skirt in the foreground as she materializes in another spot in the room and stands aloof, observing his frenzy.  
                                                                     Georges Melies' Pygmalion and Galatea

"Bodacious," Buzz Aldrin lobbed the descriptor at one of our era's most high profile and determined inventors.  Elon Musk had been chatting with him about Mars colonization over lunch, and Aldrin had concerns. The swarthy, historic (second human to set foot on the moon) ex-astronaut was fully in favor of Musk creating spacecraft that can transport humans to Mars, but worried that important details are being upstaged by the grand vision: he was skeptical of plans for what happens once they land. "You have got to live in something. You have to prepare for all of that." 

Buzz Aldrin

Aldrin's lens has been traditionally pragmatic, unglossed. When he and Neil Armstrong stepped down onto the moon in 1969, Armstrong uttered the famous “one small step” quote, but Aldrin's first words on this epic occasion?  

“Beautiful view, magnificent desolation.”

At the root of his caution is a true impediment to Martian happiness: habitability.  Mars is ripe with potential, but there are also eons of radiation to contend with. About 3.5 billion years ago it may have been temperate, springs bubbling with surface water, but 90 percent of its atmosphere would have since been stripped away by solar particles. Present radiation levels on Mars could, for humans, cause cancer, mutations, infertility, and death. Astronauts on the ISS endure the same radiation as workers at a nuclear power plant, but the longest stint up there thus far has been just over 200 days. How would humans survive being bombarded with high energy solar particles, for the rest of their lives? 

At the Planetary Science Vision 2050 Workshop in Feb-March 2017, Jim Green, NASA's Planetary Science Division Director, outlined a plan for deflecting solar energy particles by launching a gigantic "magnetic shield," an artificial magnetosphere that would encompass the entire planet, shielding it from solar wind and radiation.

Artist's rendering of a solar storm hitting Mars and stripping ions from the planet's upper atmosphere. Credits: NASA/GSFC 

The shield, which we Labfolk have been picturing as a sort of galactic palapa, would ward off the Sun's rays while humans began the slow and steady work of making Mars into a real home. Green acknowledged the "fanciful" sound of the idea, but it is rooted in realtime science: NASA and researchers are presently working to create miniature magnetospheres to protect crews and spacecraft from radiation, which could inform the creation of a planet-sized shield. 

Earth may have its very own space palapa, you'll be happy to know. The wild space weather the Sun sends our way bombards our planet's atmosphere with high energy radiation. Low frequency radio waves emitted by certain human radio communications affect this radiation. The next step scientists are now undertaking is to determine how to manipulate the waves, to design a custom made energy shield that would give us the clout thus far reserved only for other planets and Death Stars.

Han will have that shield down.  

The Lab loves a good palapa. If a science-savvy Pygmalion out there ends up being driven enough to bring one to life we'll happily sit, safe from radiation, and listen to the (33.9 million miles) distant promise of liquid water lapping at the Martian shore. 

For now, if you impatient humans need a Mars fix sooner than 2025 (we're with you!), here's your guide for when to see the red planet in the skies in 2017


May 21, 2015

Mars, Rolling in Ecstasy at Your Feet

“You need not leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen...learn to become quiet, and still, and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked. It has no choice; it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.”

-Franz Kafka

From Peter Capaldi's comic short film Franz Kafka's It's a Wonderful Life
Here on Earth, writing great literature, Kafka savored solitude. Now picture him at his own quiet table on Mars. There, red dust curling at his window edges, would he come up with an even more fantastic combination of disturbingly familiar and alien than his character Gregor Samsa?

There has been no lack of speculation in recent months about how humans might act and think within the solitude on Mars, or the pending potential quiet to surround a select few of the 100 candidates for Elon Musk's one-way journey to Mars. Theories swing wide, offering two visions of the new home planet - a calming landscape and welcome refuge for scientific learning, or a desolate scene of failed human advancement with Ray Bradbury's soft rains pattering in the background. Either way, it will require the astronauts to reach deep within. Maybe it will bring out the philosopher and writer in each of them. 

For starters, the journey is poetic: a new cosmology will emerge for the selected crew  - they'll relinquish deep-seated concepts of "home," rejigger their map of the Universe, call out goodbyes in final puffs of Earth air...and then? 
They have already weighed in.  “I do VERY well with solitude,” said 69-year-old computer programmer/Mars One candidate.

A Reverend/Mars One candidate added, “I have the feeling that spiritual issues would come up among the crew. The early explorers on Earth always took clergy with them.” 

As the ship hurtles toward Mars, idle dinner talk may meander through ethics, love, religion. Introspection can go a long way in tight quarters, and be useful while composing soon-to-be-famous words for the riveting moment when the first boots grind into red Martian gravel. Will the astronauts go big picture Mahatma Gandhi-an, or opt for ambling and poignant Louis C.K.-ish to show us that Mars can be funny, too? There will be plenty of time to come up with something clever during the 7 month trip

To get a better sense of the tight-quarters potential, we researched writers who honed their craft in solitude - Nathaniel Hawthorne (stayed in his bedroom all day), Ernest 
Hemingway (wrote standing up, alone), Marcel Proust (made himself a cork-lined room)... 

Proust wrote in his cork-lined room
Marco Polo dictated the account of his global travels in 1298 while imprisoned in Genoa. Solitude enabled strange revisions. The accounts were so fantastical - one city had 12,000 bridges over its canals, Kublai Khan traveled with 1,000 elephants - that the book became known as Il Milione (The Million Lies) and was, of course, a pop hit in medieval Europe. On his death bed, Polo was urged to save face and retract the tales. His defiant, writerly reply: "I have not told half of what I saw."

And we can't leave out Emily Dickinson: stayed mostly in her parents’ home, would only speak to visitors from behind the closed front door, had neighbors' tongues wagging. But from confinement emerged poetry that still plumbs the depths of the human soul:

                                  I felt a funeral in my brain, 

                                       And mourners to and fro  
                                       Kept treading, treading, till it seemed
                                   That sense was breaking through...

A fantastic mind and a pencil, in a tiny quiet space on Mars. All you'd need?


Because pencils in space, as you may know, are VERY dangerous.

According to NASA, the lack of gravity in flight makes the release of wood shavings, graphite dust, and ink compounds a hazard. Particles can drift, infect the lungs and eyes. Conductive materials can impede electronics. Rubber in erasers is combustible.      

Solutions have come about over the years. In the 1960's Gemini Programs, NASA tried the mechanical pencil (but it still contained lead), the Soviet space program tried grease pencils on plastic slates (messy, didn't last as long as ink), and they both tried ballpoint pens (ink is indelible and subject to outgassing and temperature variations, and there's no gravity to pull it to the ball of the pen)Enter one Mr. Fisher of Fisher Pens, who developed the high tech Space Pen (or Zero Gravity Pen), a gas-charged ball point pen that could stand up to zero gravityvacuums and extreme temperatures. 
NASA noted the high tech wonder of the thing and bought a bunch for the Apollo missions. The cosmonauts soon followed. Nowadays, a combination of Fisher pens, pressurized ballpoint pens, thicker-leaded pencils, and Sharpies are an astronaut's choice.

With a simple (safe!) writing implement, and solitude, the great canon of Martian literature could begin to emerge. Cue moody David Bowie background music: 

                                    "For here 

                                   Am I sitting in a tin can       
                                     Far above the world
                                     Planet Earth is blue
                                  And there's nothing I can do."

Write on, Earthlings.  

May 5, 2015

The Merchant of Venus

In science fictional worlds, humans and aliens need to sort out daily life - warp drive, wormhole issues, money. Money may seem petty compared to the more galactic challenges, but no matter what planet it sidles up to, it begets social strata, commerce, and trade. It makes a world go 'round.
Stefan van Zoggel's Star Wars Stamp
Some sci-fi worlds try to forego the need for money, and run on the post-scarcity model, where goods, services, and information have become free (or practically free) to all inhabitants. As you'd expect with any idealized new economic system, post-scarcity can be more complicated than it seems (is the role of scarcity actually useful to a thriving economic system? what happens to the concept of value?), though "food and resources for all" does seem wildly desirable.

Where this is not the case, though, weird/fun units of currency are necessary:

Latinum  in Star Trek, used by the Ferengi

Cubits  in Battlestar Galactica, used on the planet Caprica
Galactic credit standard  in Star Wars 
Altairian Dollar, Flanian Pobble Bead, Triganic Pu in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
Kongbucks in Snow Crash, used in Mr. Lee's Greater Hong Kong
Solari in Dune
Greedo hoping to collect his bounty, Star Wars

We find out, via Pobble Beads and Kongbucks, how our sci-fi characters act when faced with heart-wrenching issues of fairness, the challenge of cooperating, the bounds of rationality. What would you do if your family didn't have enough Latinum to put food (slugs) on the table? It is much easier to scrutinize even surprisingly familiar actions when we are standing outside, peering into a fictional world, or even jumping in ourselves. It's an important exercise, really.

Humans think and learn differently when placed in fictional contexts. Dr. Tania Lombrozo of the University of California, Berkeley, Psychology Department told the OSLab something we found fascinating...Researchers gave participants a scenario where two parties were in conflict over moral beliefs. They found that participants were more likely to say they could both be right if one was a human and the other a fictional alien, than if both were humans. The boundaries shifted, and an opening was created because they were on another planet. Fiction can potentially act as a social simulation in which we let go of the delirious hold we have on our entrenched beliefs, spread our biases out like personal maps, and maybe change a few features, overlap our map with someone else's. Even better, it is known that people can translate what they learn in a fictional world to the real one, so it's possible to interact in sci-fi, take hold of a good lesson gleaned, and bring it home.

Money is the loud, honking clarion call of human desires. Maybe it is beneficial to play out economic systems in our sci-fi, learn a few things about generosity with money, fairness in trade, empathy in the face of social inequity, and envision a system where these elements are pleasantly rampant. The economies of Earth's future may need some sci-fi mentoring.

Or, as Canadians did in droves after Leonard Nimoy's passing this year, we could simply change our present currency to reflect the alien we'd most like to honor:

a "Spocked" Canadian five dollar bill

Live long and prosper out there, and reflect from time to time on the place we humans truly occupy in space: how much of what we are is sci, and how much is sci-fi? And what are we learning betwixt the two?

Also, if you want to see how your dollars will work in your favorite sci-fi world, hop over to io9's Handy Currency Converter for Alien Money


For more on how sci-fi and science work together, you'll want to be in on the #ScienceIsStory Twitter conversation May 8 and hear Seth Shostak of SETI's Big Picture Science radio show tell great tales of science becoming story on May 9. It's all part of the Interstellar Day of Science and Storytelling, brought to you by Chabot, National Novel Writing Month, and Big Picture Science.