The sci-fi/fantasy movie Avatar has received nine Oscar nominations for this year’s Academy Awards, to be held in Hollywood on 7 March. But the film has generated controversy.
Avatar is a dazzling movie. Set a few centuries into our spacefaring future, it dazzles with technique: firstly with its new 3D effect, then with the lush panoramas and luxuriant fauna and flora of its alien world, Pandora.
But as soon as the house lights came up at the end, the wrongs righted, the lovers reunited, etc., I put my brain back into gear and found I was thinking: this is hackneyed, trite and nonsensical!
Don’t get me wrong: the movie is entertaining, emotionally engaging, action-packed and a visual feast. The effort and care that have gone into its making are stunning. But the pessimistic script concept makes no sense. And as for the aliens – Star-Trek standard-issue English-speaking humans with coloured skin and funny ears ...
Read full review online.
Or: for a different take on the interstellar question in an original movie scenario about an alien encounter in our future (not to mention human and alien spirituality), please visit The Cetaceans.
Contemplating propulsion systems for interstellar exploration, I recently renewed my acquaintance with the concept of zero-point energy, which Aldrin and Barnes use in their epic novel Encounter with Tiber (see page 385).
It sounds attractive. The Heisenberg uncertainty principle reveals that a vacuum is not really empty at all, but bubbling with energy as virtual particles briefly materialise out of nothing and then vanish again. Could this energy be used to drive a laser which generates unlimited thrust for starship propulsion?
The big problem with the concept is that it contravenes the law of conservation of energy.
Certainly, in some cases it is possible to grab energy out of seemingly empty space to drive our machines, thus apparently getting energy for nothing. Sailing ships can tap into this sort of energy, and be propelled without fuel for as long as the wind blows. They can do this because the universe came into being in a state wildly out of thermodynamic equilibrium. For the next several trillion years the potential energy in the stars will continue to be released, causing natural flows of radiation through planetary biospheres which humans and other species can use to drive their metabolisms and their machines.
The question is therefore whether there is an analogous natural flow of energy from one place to another in the vacuum. Suppose, for example, that our universe had been created with its two different sides in the fourth spatial dimension having different potential energies. Then one would expect energy in some form to leak across the infinitesimal four-dimensional width of our universe as the potentials tended to equalise, and a suitably designed machine could get a free ride off some of this energy as it passed through. But the proponents of zero-point energy do not seem to be saying anything like this.
Insofar as zero-point energy is an outcome of quantum mechanics, then the rules are clear: energy can be borrowed out of nowhere – this is the basis of the quantum tunnelling effect – but it has to be paid back, and the more energy you borrow, the sooner it has to be repaid!
Although it’s many years since I studied (if that’s not too strong a word for it) quantum physics, I do recall that the product of energy and time must be no greater than Planck’s constant over 2π, thus one joule can only be borrowed for up to about 10–34 of a second. This would be hopeless for driving even a paper dart across the room, let alone a starship to Proxima Centauri.
If a pair of virtual particles are created just on the event horizon of a black hole, and one falls into the hole while the other remains free, then I believe I’m right in saying that while the particles must now continue to exist, the energy for their creation has to come out of the black hole. So even in this case there’s no free lunch. Or launch.
The December 1997 Scientific American published an investigation into claims that free energy could be extracted from the quantum vacuum, and their staff writer’s conclusion was that zero-point energy was up there with cold fusion and astral projection in the realms of fringe science, if not outright fraudulent pseudo-science.
“Certainly, there should be room for far-out, potentially revolutionary ideas”, he wrote. But “it may be best to keep in mind the old caveat emptor: if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”
[The following was written in response to AstroEv 53 item (3), in which I said that I was unable to understand the idea to link Lord Drayson’s proposed British Space Agency with what I referred to as “the archaic institution of the royal family”.]
I do not see why we can’t have a Royal British Space Agency. The royal family have over the ages been big supporters of astronomy and space.
In 1820 the King founded Scotland’s Royal Observatory. Sir William Herschel received support from the crown. I always remember the Queen’s Christmas broadcast from 1985 which was all about space exploration – it included pictures of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh’s visit to NASA and also a big piece about India (part of the Commonwealth) having a space programme.
In 2004 we had a visit from the Princess Royal to our observatory in Dundee, and she spent almost two hours with us instead of the 30 minutes planned. She thought it was a marvellous place for people to visit. And in 2002, when Airdrie Observatory was under threat of closure, we contacted Prince Charles and got an excellent letter of support, not just for Airdrie but for all Scotland’s public observatories.
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