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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
03/23/07 -- Vol. 25, No. 38, Whole Number 1433
Table of Contents
Space Failure (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Sadly the Persephone Probe, sent to Mars to search for signs of the presence of water, prematurely ceased transmission shortly after splashdown. [-mrl]
Heisenberg's Uncertainty or Schroedinger's Cat? (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Several people have contacted me suggesting that the contention that one cannot observe a phenomenon without affecting it was not taken from the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle but from the Schroedinger's Cat thought experiment. This is a highly counter-intuitive interpretation that certain phenomena do not occur until they are observed. Schroedinger suggests that the observation actually triggers the occurrence, though there is no implication that the observation modifies the final effect. No, I was not mistakenly talking about the Schroedinger's Cat phenomenon. I have not heard that example applied to the macro-world by anyone but me. I referred to a friend as a Schroedinger's Guest. As much as you would ask him, you never knew if he would show up at an event until he actually arrived or the event was over and the wave form collapsed. I realize now that this is much better as an example of true uncertainty.
No, the misapplication of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle to the macro-world does occur as suggested below:
The first points out that it is not true, the second still mis-interprets Heisenberg.
Wikipedia on "Observer Effect" says basically makes the same point I did:
"The Heisenberg uncertainty principle is also frequently, but incorrectly, confused with the 'observer effect'. The uncertainty principle actually describes how precisely we may measure the position and momentum of a particle at the same time."
The Bird and the Bard (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
We are getting to the time of the year I have bird trouble. It is my habit to feed the birds and squirrels in my back yard. Generally they get along with each other. Some of the squirrels can be bullies to the birds and the other squirrels in their territoriality of feeding. A selfish squirrel will chase another one off if that victim has found a patch of ground with good seeds. Well, a little of that is not bad. But there are two things that make life difficult for my birds and squirrels and they only retreat. One is the weekly lawn mower. No animal wants to challenge that. But the other is when my backyard is invaded by a gang in black. It is almost like Marlon Brando's gang coming into town in THE WILD ONE, but in this case they do not come riding in, they come flying.
A vicious pack of marauding birds has moved into our neighborhood. They are entirely the wrong element. Individually they would be fine, but this is a mob and they steal the seed that I leave intended for the locals. They make a real racket also. Like the soundtrack of Hitchcock's THE BIRDS, but not so much electronic enhancement . . . yet. Just what are these ADs (avian delinquents)? They are starlings. And they are a real pain. And it is all the fault of William Shakespeare Fandom. They may just be a curse as bad as the birds. I shouldn't say too much because some of my best friends are Shakies. I know they prefer to be called "Shakers," but they are all Shakies to me. A so-called Shaker is just a Shakie who wants to look down on other Shakies. It isn't bad enough that they DO Shakespeare in the Park, some of them actually try to transform the park.
In seems back around 1890 a drug manufacturer and Shakie named Eugene Scheiffelin wanted to recreate the wonderful world of Shakespeare right in New York's Central Park. Shakespeare talks a lot about birds and particularly singing birds. You know, "where late the sweet birds sang." That sort of thing. Scheiffelin decided that he wanted to turn New York City into a little Shakespearean paradise. He was planning to make it some Avon on the Hudson. He decided it would be really groovy if we had all the varieties of singing birds that Shakespeare knew right here in New York City.
Well, there it was in Henry IV, Part 1, Act I, Scene III. Hotspur says:
He said he would not ransom Mortimer; Forbade my tongue to speak of Mortimer; But I will find him when he lies asleep, And in his ear I'll holla Mortimer! Nay, I'll have a starling shall be taught to speak Nothing but Mortimer, and give it him, To keep his anger still in motion.
That is it. That is the only place that Shakespeare mentions starlings. It was a stupid prank in the play suggested by the aptly-named Hotspur, but Scheiffelin topped it with into a more stupid one. If Shakespeare knew of starlings, we needed them in Central Park. People need to be able to see starlings. So Scheiffelin brought sixty on the little monsters from Europe and released them in Central Park. We lucked out and they died out. (I hate to put it that way. I like birds. But they did not belong here.) Undaunted Scheiffelin brought over forty more starlings and released them in the park. That was it. Thanks a lot, Mr. Scheiffelin. Thank you, Mr. Shakespeare. Hotspur, you are a stupid clot.
Starlings eat just about anything they can put their stupid beaks around. They nest in all sort of places in all kinds of different habitats from tropical to frigid. They swarm in numbers that make them look more like wasps from a hive traveling in flocks numbering in the thousands. There are about 200,000,000 of them in the United States. They get these numbers by fast breeding and pushing other birds out of the habitats they want. They are carriers of histoplasmosis and other diseases. If any animal deserves the nickname "flying rats," it is Starlings.
If there are more fans of Shakespeare out there, may I suggest a trip to Stratford on Avon in England. It is a delightful trip. Do that rather than bringing Shakespeare's birds to the United States. [-mrl]
THE LAST MIMZY (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: A box of toys from the future transforms a young brother and sister into something beyond human. Only one or two ideas were taken from the Lewis Padgett story "Mimsy Were the Borogroves," supposedly the source of the story. The film becomes a sort of low-budget variation on E.T. with a lackluster rag-doll bunny standing in for E.T. The film may work better on the small screen than in theaters. Rating: +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
Lewis Padgett was a pen name used by the husband-and-wife writing team of Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore. Though both were noted science fiction writers in their own right, together they created the third writer Padgett. In 1943 they published what would prove to be one of their most popular stories "Mimsy Were the Borogroves". In that story two contemporary children discover a box of educational toys from the far future. These toys are far beyond their contemporary technology. There is an abacus with beads on wires that seemingly go into other dimensions and a doll that teaches internal anatomy. But the toys also modify the children's thought patterns to something alien. Most of the story is a conversation by adults on how the child's mind works and how alien it can be to the adult mind. The Lewis Carroll poem referred to in the title is used as an example of the result of inscrutable alien thinking. The written story is really seen from the point of view of adults and the intended reading audience is adult. Robert Shaye, usually a film producer, has made a children's film loosely based on this story.
One or two of the original ideas made it into Robert Shaye's film adaptation of the story, THE LAST MIMZY. The point of view mostly moves to the children who are given special powers by the toys in a mystical manner. In the adaptation, the slightly understandable educational toys are turned into what are basically tools of magic. One of which is what appears on the surface to be a rabbit rag doll named Mimzy. Another toy is a collection of rocks that obey mental commands. Chris O'Neil and Rhiannon Leigh Wryn play Noah and Emma Wilder, brother and sister who on a vacation in the Seattle area find a box with mysterious toys that we have been told has been sent back from the far future. It is not entirely clear how these toys are educational, but the effects soon are obvious. Noah finds he has the ability to control spiders with sound and uses it to create a nifty science fair project, perhaps worthy of a Nobel Prize. Emma finds she has telekinetic powers over rocks from the box. And she gets the rabbit doll Mimzy who talks to her in funny sounds, but which has in phenomenal fund of knowledge. Soon adults get involved. Not long afterward the government finds out that something strange is going on and moves in to investigate.
James V. Hart and Carol Skilken are credited with reworking the Padgett story so it could be filmed, with Bruce Joel Rubin and Toby Emmerich writing the screenplay from that story. Rubin wrote JACOB'S LADDER, GHOST, and a personal favorite of mine--at least the first two thirds of it--BRAINSTORM. Toby Emmerich wrote a reasonably good science fiction film, FREQUENCY. That is writing talent, but the story is just a little too much like E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL on a pinchpenny special-effects budget. The rag doll bunny Mimzy just does not have enough personality to really make the audience care for her (him?). The film also takes a turn for some New Age mysticism that complicates the story line but adds little.
The changing of the children, which in the story was at least distressing, is handled in the film as if it is magical and wonderful. The story does have some charm, and if the characters are not fully three-dimensional, they are at least more than one- dimensional. Of particular note is a somewhat overweight babysitter. Now usually (and all too often) such a character would be used for a little comic relief. In this film she endearingly talks to Emma like an equal and is presented positively. A Homeland Security official (played by Michael Clarke Duncan in an ill-fitting suit) may not seem to adults like he is completely competent, but he also seems to have his decent side. The bewildered parents are played by Joely Richardson (of "Nip/Tuck") and Timothy Hutton.
With only a light whiff of the original story this film should be enjoyable enough for children, but will perhaps be not quite enough to enthuse their parents. This is more a children's film than a family film. I rate THE LAST MINZY a +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10.
A list of sources for the original story can be found at: http://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/title.cgi?189840
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0768212/
300 (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: This film shows us why they did not let Robert E. Howard write history books and why they did not allow Frank Frazetta to illustrate them. This is a macho, violent, and very bloody re- telling of the previously-true story of the Battle of Thermopylae. It is overblown with hyperbole that needed computer animation to visualize. This is actually a very bad telling of the story, but it is just the kind of thing to get some of the teenage audience interested in history. Rating: high +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
What the Battle of the Alamo was for Texas history the Battle of Thermopylae was for ancient Greece. This was a time when there was just barely was a Greece. It was more a collection of city- states constantly at war with each other. Meanwhile in Persia, King Xerxes had inherited the Persian Empire from his father. Some of his holdings were in what is now called Turkey and the Athenians had captured and burned Sardis, part of the empire. Xerxes swore revenge and wanted to add Greece to his holdings. He brought what was then the largest army that had ever existed and invaded Greece. Suddenly the warring city-states of Greece had a common enemy. But they did not have the unity to fight it together.
Sparta was the most warlike of the states. The King of Sparta was Leonidas. He took his personal guard of 300 soldiers and decided to face the Persians at the only place where that was possible. Whoever entered Greece had to pass through the natural bottleneck at Thermopylae. There cliffs of stone almost fell off into the sea. There was a narrow pass between rock and water. (That is not how they showed it in the film.) With a team of three hundred Spartans blocking the pass (and a few thousand other defenders from other cities like Thespiae who usually are not mentioned) the Persians could not proceed. They would have to kill the 300 men blocking their way. But the Spartans were probably the best fighting men in the world. Xerxes had quantity but the Spartans had quality.
One of those great films I remember from my youth is Rudolph Maté's THE 300 SPARTANS. In this film Richard Egan played the mighty Leonidas. Probably inspired by the same film I saw, Frank Miller and Lynn Varley adapted the story of the battle to graphic novel form. Now a film has been made from the graphic novel and along the line a very great deal has been changed. The story has become a giant graphic novel for the screen. Somewhere along the way the story seems to have been heavily influenced by stories of Conan the Barbarian. Xerxes (played by Rodrigo Santoro) has become a giant and a sorcerer and wears about three times too much jewelry and far too many piercings. Leonidas is a barrel- chested and bloody fighter (Gerard Butler looking in this a lot like Brian Blessed).
The graphic adaptation combines animation and live-action, making this a sort of a SIN CITY-STATE. The historian Herodotus, who first told the story of the battle, no doubt exaggerated somewhat to make it a better story, but even he would have been dumbfounded to see the images so distorted for excessive dramatic effect. For example Xerxes martials into the battle huge elephants and a rhinoceros used like tanks. (I do not remember anybody in history ever using a rhinoceros in battle.) The treacherous Greek, Ephialtes, is reduced here to looking like Quasimodo with a sword.
Because the filmmakers can completely control the images we see, frequently scenes do not make sense. We see people leaving long dramatic shadows on the floor of a temple, for example, with no light source behind them. The script is amateurish and cribs dialog from better films such as GOLDFINGER ("Choose your next words carefully. They may be your last.") There are barrels of blood spilled in this film and rolling heads. Director Zack Snyder takes out all the stops including several he desperately needed.
How does one rate a film like this? The history is terrible. The visual images are done sloppily so that they do not make sense. Little care was taken to avoid showing things like smallpox vaccinations. What we have is a vulgar and over- dramatic retelling of the Battle of Thermopylae. But as vulgar and over-dramatic retellings of history go, this one is not bad. It is definitely a leader in the vulgar and over-dramatic retellings of history field. It is an entertaining comic book for the screen. It may lose points for inaccuracies, but it is entertaining in a very-Grand Guignol sort of manner. And if I had seen this film as a kid, I might have had much the same reaction I have now as an adult. It would have been, "This can't be history. This can't be what it was like. Now I want to read about it and find out what it really was like and how much of this is really true." Hey, bad history films can do some good. I rate 300 a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10.
Hey kid, do you want to read about some *real* heroes? This is Herodotus on the Battle of Thermopylae. It is where the film 300 started: http://www.shsu.edu/~his_ncp/Herother.html
One historian's take on the errors: http://www.thestar.com/artsentertainment/article/190493
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0416449/fullcredits
The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, Supernovae, and Footballs (letters of comment by Dan Cox, Mike Glyer, Gerald S. Williams, and Peter Rubinstein):
Several people wrote in response to Mark's comments on the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle in the 03/16/07 issue of the MT VOID, and in particular on whether obseving a supernova or a football changes the supernova or football.
Dan Cox gives a historical perspective:
Tycho's supernova was approximately 7,500 light years from Earth (http://antwrp.gsfc.nasa.gov/apod/ap020912.html). Remember, Tycho did his observations without a telescope.
He did build instruments that let him measure parallax of various objects, better than it had been measured to date. Parallax is how an object appears to be in a different position (relative to some background) when observed from different locations. He measured the parallax of a particular comet, and determined that it was further than the moon. Prior to that atmospheric gas was a candidate explanation for comets. He measured the parallax of the 1572 supernova. That is, he observed that whatever parallax it had was too small for his instruments to observe. He got similar results trying to measure parallax for other stars. This led him to conclude that either (1) Copernicus was wrong, and the Earth was not revolving around the Sun, or (2) the stars were an unbelievable distance away. The distance was in fact unbelievable to Tycho, so he chose as his answer (1) the Earth was not revolving around the Sun. (reference: http://csep10.phys.utk.edu/astr161/lect/history/brahe.html).
Shakespeare may have remembered this supernova, as he refers to something like it in Hamlet (see ). http://hubblesite.org/newscenter/archive/releases/2004/34/).
Tycho's observations of Mars provided the data that Kepler used to show that the orbit of Mars was an ellipse, and that the Sun was at one focus of this ellipse. Eventually Isaac Newton derived laws of gravity that explained elliptical orbits. [-dtc]
Mike Glyer writes, "This is a case where I am sympathetic with the point you want to make, though not the analogy used to make it. Here the 'something' that is being observed is the light from the supernova which reached Tycho Brahe's eye, not the supernova event itself." [-mg]
Mark responds, "And with observing the football isn't what you are observing is the light from the football and not the football itself? Visual observation is interacting with light and not the object itself. Isn't the difference between observing the football and the supernova is a question of degree (in this case of distance) and not of difference of character. In fact the football need not even still be in existence the instant it is observed, though it would have to go out of existence in a very, very small fraction of a second earlier, say something less than 40 ft/C, which is a very small interval of time." [-mrl]
Mike responds to Mark, "Then I suppose the light-from-the-football and the light-from-the-supernova have the identical deficiency as exemplars of the uncertainty principle. Neither observation requires a physical interaction with the event. In fact, while it's true that my grasp of theoretical physics isn't a lot better than one of my ancestors wearing an animal skin and banging two rocks together, the Wikipedia would lead me to believe we're both talking about something else--'...observer effect refers to changes that the act of observing will make on the phenomenon being observed. For example, for us to 'see' an electron, a photon must first interact with it, and this interaction will change the path of that electron.' True? Not true?" [-mg]
Mark answers, "Yes, and that was my point. I think you and I would say we observe the football. We can observe some things without affecting them, contrary to popular philosophy. We can observe things like supernovae and footballs in flight. We cannot observe individual electrons without affecting them, perhaps. There are limits to observability, but the people who think that Heisenberg said that you can observe nothing without affecting it are misusing Heisenberg's principle. Now perhaps it is true that if we need to illuminate something (like an electron) in order to observe it then we can illuminate nothing without affecting it. But things you would see without taking any action but observation you have not affected." [-mrl]
Jerry Williams suggests, "Perhaps SN1572/Tycho's Nova was merely in a superposition of states along with Schrodinger's Cat? :-) Seriously, quantum communication methods rely on this type of back-and-forth-through-time operation. As long as there were no other previous observable effects, there's no violation of causality. Of course, it would be a bit of a leap to say that everything that's unknown is really in some form of quantum superposition, but it does make for some interesting thought experiments." [-gsw]
And Pete Rubinstein writes:
However, a remarkable result follows from a variation of the double-slit experiment, in which detectors are placed in each of the two slits, in an attempt to determine which slit the photon passes through on its way to the screen. Placing a detector even in just one of the slits will result in the disappearance of the interference pattern. The detection of a photon involves a physical interaction between the photon and the detector of the sort that physically changes the detector. (If nothing changed in the detector, it would not detect anything.) If two photons of the same frequency were emitted at the same time they would be coherent. If they went through two unobstructed slits then they would remain coherent and arriving at the screen at the same time but laterally displaced from each other they would exhibit interference. However, if one or both of them were to encounter a detector, then they would fall out of step with each other, that is, they would decohere. They would then arrive at the screen at slightly different times and could not interfere because the first to arrive would have already interacted with the screen before the second got there. If only one photon is involved, it must be detected at one or the other detector, and its continued path goes forward only from the slit where it was detected.
The Copenhagen interpretation posits the existence of probability waves which describe the likelihood of finding the particle at a given location. Until the particle is detected at any location along this probability wave, it effectively exists at every point. Thus, when the particle could be passing through either of the two slits, it will actually pass through both, and so an interference pattern results. But if the particle is detected at one of the two slits, then it can no longer be passing through both—its presence must become manifested at one or the other, and so no interference pattern appears.
So, until you observe the football, it's actually everywhere! When you observe it, it is restricted to occupying the space where you have observed it. This also accounts for my favorite team always losing when I watch! [-pir]
Mark responds, "I can't claim I follow all of that, but you are describing a much deeper subatomic phenomenon than the original examined by Heisenberg. It is difficult for me to accept physical universe where behavior is different based on whether the activity is observed or not. In the case of the supernova and the football you are doing nothing to perturb the phenomenon and just observing. That is only intercepting and interpreting the photons coming off of the football. I don't think that Heisenberg ever implied that affected the football itself. In the experiment that you cite there is considerably more interference (no pun intended)." [-mrl]
Puzzle Answer (letter of comment by David Goldfarb):
In response to Evelyn's comments on A HAIRCUT IN HORSE TOWN in the 03/16/07 issue of the MT VOID, David Goldfarb writes:
You knew that when you printed the puzzle, you were going to get people writing in to answer it, right?
[The puzzle was:] "You have fifty black balls, fifty white balls, and two boxes. You are allowed to distribute the balls between the two boxes any way you want. Then the boxes are shuffled. You then >pick a box, and (without looking) a ball out of that book. Is >there any way to improve your odds of choosing a black ball to more than 50%?"
Sure. Put one black ball in one box, and all the rest of the balls in the other. That gives you a 50% chance of a 100% chance of getting black, and a 50% chance of a 49.5% of getting black, raising your overall odds to almost 75%. (To be precise, 148/198.) [-dg]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
INVERTED WORLD by Christopher Priest (ISBN unknown) is an older novel; it was written in 1974. Yet it displays the same complex structure and (possibly) unreliable narrator that his later novels such as THE AFFIRMATION (1981), THE GLAMOUR (1984), THE QUIET WOMAN (1990), THE PRESTIGE (1996), and THE SEPARATION (2003). Trying to discuss it is impossible without giving some spoilers, so if you want to be surprised by the turns and revelations, read no more of my comments on the book.
Helward Mann lives in City Earth, apparently an enclosed city that moves along a track which is picked up from behind the City and re-laid in front of it. Time is measured in distance (the narration begins "I had reached the age of six hundred and fifty miles"), but there is more to it than just a different metric, as Mann discovers when he is sent on a mission "Down Past" (and later, "Up Future"). There is the question of *why* the City needs to keep moving, and a host of other mysteries. One reviewer compared this to Hal Clement's MISSION OF GRAVITY (ISBN-10 0-575-07708-5, ISBN-13 978-0-575-07708-9) in its basis in hard science (physics) as the nature of the "sense of wonder". I found myself reminded of "Into Darkness" by Greg Egan (in AXIOMATIC, ISBN-10 0-061-05265-5, ISBN-13 978-0-061-05265-1), which it's emphasis on strange warpings of space and time. My one objection would be that Priest seems to assume, if not a Lamarckian view, then at least some notion of the exterior environment affecting future generations in a very unlikely way. He also seems to postulate that subjective views can in some sense affect objective reality, or perhaps more precisely, that two observers in the same frame of reference can perceive physical realities such as light and gravity very differently from each other. This may be a hint of things to come in Priest's future novels, full of differences in perception, unreliable narrators, and other disorienting elements. Highly recommended.
BLACK COFFEE by Agatha Christie and Charles Osborne (ISBN-10 0-312-97007-2, ISBN-13 978-0-312-97007-9) is, like THE UNEXPECTED GUEST, a novel expanded by Osborne from a play by Christie. As with that book, this is shorter, more straightforward, and more predictable than novels actually written by Christie. If you're looking for a quick read, though, it will do the trick. (If you wonder why I am reading these, I am trying to catch up on all the Christies I have not read. I think I have read all her works written under her own name except for the collections PROBLEM AT POLLENSA BAY and WHILE THE LIGHT LASTS, and two stories from THE LISTERDALE MYSTERY.) [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: The silliest woman can manage a clever man; but it needs a very clever woman to manage a fool. -- Rudyard Kipling Plain Tales from the Hills
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