Before we get started let me just put this here:
LARGE PLOT SPOILERS BELOW FOR THE NEW STAR WARS MOVIE
There, now that’s out of the way let’s get onto the meat of this post.
I, like all Star Wars fans, had been very much looking forward to the latest movie. Whilst I have my reservations about some aspects of it (which I’ll reserve for a conversation over a couple beers as to avoid a flamewar on here) I still thoroughly enjoyed it. However like most sci-fi movies The Force Awakens plays fast and loose with science. Following the rules of our universe when it suits the plot and sweeping them under the rug when it doesn’t. There are some grievances that I’m willing to let slide in this respect, this is fiction after all, however there’s at least one egregarious scene in which physics is completely thrown out the window when it really didn’t need to be.
My grievance lies with Starkiller base, the bigger and badder version of the Death Star which now encompasses an entire planet rather than just a small artificial moon. Whether such a device is something that could be built is something I’m willing to gloss over however the fact that it’s powered by drawing off mass from its neighbouring star brings with it a few niggling questions. It’s ultimate destruction, which then brings about the resurrection of its parent star, is also not something that would happen and not something I’d be willing to write off with space magic.
We get to see Starkiller base fire once and then begin preparations for firing again. Assuming that it didn’t travel to a new star in the interim (I don’t remember that being indicated as such) then it would’ve consumed half of its parent star’s mass to fire that single shot. That would’ve caused all sorts of grief for everything in orbit around it, not to mention the fact that that mass is now present on Starkiller base itself. Any asteroid or other debris near by should have rocketed down to the surface with incredible speed, laying waste to the surface. I’m willing to give a pass for a “gravity pump” or something else on the inside parts but being able to negate half the mass of a star over the entire planet is pure fantasy rather than a stretch of fiction.
However the final destruction of Starkiller base is the most egregious flaunt of the laws of physics. Putting aside all the mass contained within the star issue for a moment when it was all released the result would not be a new sun just like the old one. Whilst the mass was likely not compressed past its Schwarzschild radius (I’m assuming it’s a Sun like star) it would still be far too compressed to simply balloon back out. Instead it would likely become a white dwarf, that is if the explosion wasn’t violent enough to simply disperse the star’s material across its solar system. Since the system that Starkiller base resides in was never named I’m hazarding a guess it’s not relevant to the future plot so the returning sun just seems like a little bit of laziness more than anything else.
Of course I’m not advocating for 100% scientific accuracy in all films (indeed I don’t think there’s one good sci-fi epic that does) however a few nods here or there wouldn’t go astray. There are certain times where scientific accuracy would harm the plot and in that case I’m fine to relinquish it to induldge in the fantasy. Other times however it would do no harm and provide an interesting talking point as sometimes the physical reality can be far more interesting than the fantasy.
There are some technological ideas that captivate the public consciousness, our want for them to exist outstripping any ideas of practicality or usability. Chief among such ideas is the flying car, the seemingly amazing idea which, should it ever become mainstream, poses far more issues than it could ever solve. Still there have been numerous companies who have worked towards making that idea a reality with nearly all of them meeting the same fate. A close second (or third, if you’re more a jetpack fan) is the hoverboard, a device that replicates the functionality of a skateboard without the wheels. Our collective desire for something like that is what results in videos like the following and, honestly, they give me the shits:
Anyone who’s followed technology like this knows that a hoverboard, one that can glide over any surface, simply isn’t possible with our current understanding of physics and level of technological advancement. However if you grab a couple powerful electromagnets and put them over a metallic surface you can make yourself a decent simulacrum of what a hoverboard might be, it just can’t leave that surface. Indeed there’s been a few of these kinds of prototypes in the past and, whilst they’re cool and everything, they’re not much more than a demonstration of what a magnet can do.
This is where Lexus comes in with their utterly deceptive bullshit.
Just over a month ago Lexus put out this site showing a sleek looking board that was billowing smoke out its sides, serenely hovering a few inches above the ground. The media went ballistic, seemingly forgetting about what would be required to make something of this nature and the several implementations that came before it. Worst still the demonstration videos appeared to show the hoverboard working on regular surfaces, just like the ones in the movies that captured everyone’s imaginations. Like all good publicity stunts however the reality is far from what the pictures might tell and I lay the blame squarely at Lexus for being coy about the details.
You see the Lexus hoverboard is no different to the others that came before it, it still uses magnets and requires a special surface in order to work. Lexus built that entire set just to demonstrate the hoverboard and was mum about the details because they knew no one would care if they knew the truth. Instead they kept everything secret, making many people believe that they had created something new when in reality they hadn’t, all they did was put a larger marketing budget behind it.
Maybe I’ve just become an old cynic who hates fun but, honestly, I really got the shits with Lexus and the wider public’s reaction to this malarkey. Sure it looks cool, what with the slick design and mist cascading over the sides, but that’s about where it ends. Everything past that is Lexus engaging in deceptive marketing tactics to make us think it’s more than it is rather than being straight up about what they did. Of course they likely don’t care about what a ranty blogger on a dark corner of the Internet thinks, especially since he’s mentioned their brand name 10 times in one post, but I felt the need to say my peace, even if it wouldn’t change anything.
It’s hard to understate the significance of the science that has been done because of the Large Hadron Collider. Whilst it’s famously known for discovering the Higgs-Boson, the particle which gives all other particles mass, it has a long list of achievements outside of that singular event. What makes these discoveries even more interesting is that the LHC has been operating at something of a disadvantage since it was first turned on over 6 years ago, operating at around half the potential energy it was capable of. Shortly after the discovery of the Higgs Boson the scientists and engineers at CERN have been working to bring it up to full capacity and with it the potential for some even more radical discoveries.
The doubling of the collision energy increases the potential for the LHC to generate even more exotic particles than it has previously, ones which can give us insights into some of the most perplexing mysteries in particle physics to date. One such source of intrigue is how our universe, which is composed of nearly entirely matter, came to be that way. Another seeks to explain why the universe seems to be riddled with matter that’s not directly observable but is seen through its gravitational effects throughout the universe. These, and many other questions, have potential to find answers in the newly upgraded LHC which is slated to come online this year.
In the beginning, the beginning of everything according to scientific theory, there existed both equal quantities of matter and antimatter. Upon annihilation these two entities should have completely destroyed each other, leaving behind a wake of energy with no matter to speak of. However casual observation will show that our world, and the rest of the universe, is dominated by matter. This strange preference for matter (dubbed the CP Violation) has perplexed scientists for decades however the newly upgraded LHC has the potential to shed some light on where the Universe’s strange preference comes from. The LHCb detector focuses on the decay of the Beauty Quark, a fundamental particle that decays in all manner of strange ways when created in a collider. Studying these decays could grant us insight into where the CP violation comes from and why we live in a matter dominated universe.
However what’s far more interesting (for me at least) is that the LHC could have the potential to generate dark matter, the highly pervasive as-of-yet unobserved substance that binds galaxies together via its gravitational influence. There’s numerous theories that posit dark matter being made up of WIMPs (Weakly Interacting Massive Particles) which could potentially be generated in the LHC. It’s highly unlikely that we’ll be able to detect them directly, their very nature means that they’re far more likely to simply pass through the detectors, however should we generate them their signature will be left on the reactions. Essentially we’ll be looking for a reaction that’s missing energy and then seeing if that can be explained by a WIMP being generated. Should we find that we’ll have a solid basis to further investigate this elusive form of matter, furthering our understanding of just what makes up our universe.
It’ll likely be another few years before we hear any further news from the LHC as it’s going to take time to generate the data and even longer to sift through it to find the reactions we’re looking for. However I’m very confident that the results will forever change the scientific landscape as either confirmation of current theories or evidence against them will provide dozens of more avenues for further research. That, to me, is the beauty of science, the never ending search for answers that inevitably lead to more questions, starting the process of discovery all over again.
If you’re reading this article, which is only available through the Internet, then you’re basking in a tsunami of electromagnetic radiation. Don’t worry though, the vast majority of these waves are so low power that they don’t make it through the first layer of your skin before dissipating harmlessly. Still they do carry power, enough so that this article can worm its way from the server all the way to the device that you’re reading it on. Considering just how pervasive wireless signals are in our modern lives it then follows that there’s a potential source of energy there, one that’s essentially free and nigh on omnipresent. Whilst this is true, to some extent, actually harvesting a useful amount of it is a best impractical but that hasn’t stopped people from trying.
If you’re a longtime fan of Mythbusters like myself you’ll likely remember the episode they did on Free Energy back in 2004. In that episode they tested a myriad of devices to generate electricity, one of them being a radio wave extractor that managed to power half of a wristwatch. In an unaired segment they even rigged up a large coil of wire and placed it next to a high voltage power line and were able to generate a whopping 8mV. The result of all this testing was to show that, whilst there is some power available for harvesting, it’s not a usable quantity by any stretch of the imagination.
So you can imagine my surprise when a product like iFind makes claims like “battery free” and “never needs recharging” based around the concept of harvesting energy from the air.
The fundamental functionality of the iFind isn’t anything new, it’s just yet another Bluetooth tag system so you don’t lose whatever you attach the tag to. It’s claim to fame, and one that’s earned it a rather ridiculous half a million dollars, is that it doesn’t have a battery (which it does, unless you want to get into a semantic argument about what “battery” actually means) and that it charges off the electromagnetic waves around you. They’ve even gone as far to provide some technical documentation that shows the power generated from various signals. Suffice to say I think their idea is unworkable at best and, at worst, outright fraud.
The graphs they show in this comment would seem to indicate that it’s capable of charging even under very weak signal conditions, all the way down to -6dBm. That sounds great in principle until you take in account what a typical charging scenario for a device like this would be, like the “ideal” one that they talk about in some of their literature: a strong wifi signal. The graph shown above is the signal strength of my home wifi connection (an ASUS RT-N66U for reference) with the peak readings being from when I had my phone right next to the antennas. That gives a peak power output of some -22dBM, which sounds fine right? Well since those power ratings are logarithmic in nature the amount of power output is about 200 times weaker which puts the actual charge time at about 1000 days. If you had a focused RF source you could probably provide it with enough power to charge quickly but I doubt anyone has them in their house.
There’s also the issue of what kind of power source they have as the size precludes it from being anything hefty and they’re just referring to it as a “power bank”. Non-rechargeable batteries that fit within that form factor are usually on the order of a couple hundred milliamps with rechargeable variants having a much smaller capacity. Similar devices like Tile, which includes a non-rechargeable non-replaceable battery, lasts about a year before it dies which suggests a minimum power drain of at least a couple mAh per day. Considering iFind is smaller and rechargeable I wouldn’t expect it to last more than a couple weeks before giving it up, Of course since there’s no specifications on either of them it’s hard to judge but the laws of physics don’t differ between products.
However I will stop short of calling iFind a scam, more I think it’s a completely misguided exercise that will never deliver on its promises. They’ve probably designed something that does work under their lab circumstances but the performance will just not hold up in the real world. There’s a lot of questions that have been asked of them that are still unanswered which would go a long way to assuring people that what they’re making isn’t vaporware. Until they’re forthcoming with more information however I’d steer clear of giving them your money as it’s highly unlikely that the final product will perform as advertised.
I can think of a few titles where bugs or glitches were not only expected they were also thought of being one of the many sources of enjoyment of the game. The Elder Scrolls series is a prime example of this as their titles are almost always riddled with numerous bugs on release and Bethesda’s stance of not fixing the fun (but not game breaking) shows that many players get an awful lot of enjoyment out of their game behaing unexpectedly. I had yet to see a game where bugs, glitches and weird physics were actually the game itself until I came across Goat Simulator, a title from indie game developer Coffee Stain Studios. Whilst it’s definitely an unique concept there’s a limit to how much whacky physics fun you can have before you start to tire of it.
You’re a goat (surprise surprise) and the game centers around you being a goat in a section of a small town. Strictly speaking there are no objectives, there’s no over-arching plot to drive you forward nor any motivation provided for you being where you are, and so you’re free to roam the world doing as you wish. In traditional Goat spirit this of course means destroying anything and everything in your path, headbutting anything that might get in your way. Once you tire of that though there are many hidden challenges for you to unlock, some of which provide you access to powers beyond your wildest goaty dreams.
For a game that was slapped together in the space of a couple months Goat Simulator has a level of graphical fidelity that I honestly didn’t expect. It uses the Unreal 3 engine so you wouldn’t expect graphical miracles from it but the incorporation of atmospheric effects and modern lighting has Goat Simulator punching well above its weight class in terms of graphics. It still runs perfectly fine most of the time too (until you’re intentionally trying to break it, of course) something which, again, I wasn’t expecting. In all honesty for a game that was being touted as a bug ridden, hastily slapped together prototype there’s an incredible amount of polish. Much more than I’d come to expect from other developers of similar calibre.
Goat Simulator revolves around you being a goat that causes all sorts of carnage around the small suburban area that you find yourself in. In the beginning this will be pretty vanilla kind of stuff, destroying fences, headbutting people and generally running amok in the various areas available to you. This is all scored though so whilst your initial inclination will be to just ram things at random eventually you’ll try to figure out how to maximise your score. That’s when you’ll start to add a little strategy into your carnage, looking for places with a cornucopia of objects that you can goat your way through. Of course along the way you’ll run into the hastily slapped together physics that provides much of Goat Simulator’s entertainment.
I started out by just following the prompts to try out different things which serves as a solid, light touch tutorial that doesn’t get in the way if you just want to rampage through the town. This introduces you to how the scoring mechanics work which are pretty similar to what I remember Tony Hawk Pro Skating being like when I last played it almost a decade ago. So whilst you can headbutt that box 100 times in a row your score probably won’t go up by much as the game wants you to try a variety of different whacky things. This helps to add a little direction to a game that would otherwise have been thoroughly confusing without trying to impose on those who couldn’t care less about it.
After a while though there’s really only 2 things that will keep you playing: score and achievements. For the most part getting the highest score is just a matter of patience and not breaking the game too hard (as that can lead to you needing to restart it or the game crashing). something which can only take you so far. The achievements provide some fresh perspective on the game by giving you access to “powers” which can be anything from dropping dead goats from the sky to an impossible to control jetpack. If you’re like me though once you’ve done most of these the rest of the achievements don’t really seem that appealing and all you’re left with is a haphazard physics simulator.
Which, I have to say, is an awful lot less buggy than I thought it would be. You can make the physics engine do some crazy things but they’re really nothing above what I’ve seen in other games that were supposedly coded with good physics engines. You can get people stuck in the wall and launch yourself into the stratosphere but other than that there’s really not much else to speak of. Even when I was deliberately trying to make the game crash (by spawning dozens of other goats and using the console to fiddle with engine settings) all I could accomplish was making the physics engine and game slow to crawl. So if you were expecting a game that was absolutely riddled with bugs you might be disappointed as it’s really anything but.
Goat Simulator is a fun distraction that showcases the enjoyment that gamers can get from emergent game play. Whilst it’s far from the bug laden, glitch filled adventure that many touted it as the core game mechanics are still fun with the added benefit of a whacky physics engine just adding to the mix. It’s a short lived adventure however as whilst it’s fun to rack up a high score there’s nothing really to keep you interested once the achievements are gone and you’ve played with all the powers. If the idea piqued your interest then I definitely recommend grabbing it but otherwise you’re not really missing out on anything if you decide not to play it.
Goat Simulator is available on PC right now for $9.99. Total play time was 2 hours with 62% of the achievements unlocked.
The quest to understand our origins is an innate part of our psyche as humans. You can see evidence of this stretching as far back as we kept records as our ancestors grappled with the idea of where they originated from, whether it was a (relatively) simple question of lineage or the larger question of where we, and all that we know of, came from. Modern science has made incredible leaps in this area, expanding our understanding to show that we live in a universe that is old beyond any of our wildest guesses and is home to more wonders than any could have dreamed of. Still the ultimate question, of where everything began, still puzzles us although as of today we’ve begun to lay down the first few pieces in this puzzle and they’re magnificent.
You’re likely familiar with the concept of the Big Bang, the theorized event that gave birth to our universe and marked the beginning of time. However the specifics of what happened during that time are the subject of intense debate among the scientific community and there are many theories that model what may have happened. One of the most popular theories is that during the Big Bang the universe underwent a period of massive inflation in the tiny fractions of a second after it began, expanding faster than the speed of light. There was a lot of indirect evidence to support this (like the fact that our universe is still expanding) but direct proof of this occurring had been elusive.
That was until the telescope picture above, called BICEP-2, caught a picture of something that could only exist if that theory was correct.
Our universe still has remnants of the Big Bang hanging around in something called the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB). It’s a kind of radiation that’s pretty much uniform not matter which direction you look into, something which is pretty peculiar when you consider just how wide and varied everything else we can observe is. BICEP-2 was searching for something in particular though, a pattern in this radiation that could only have happened should the early universe undergone a period of rapid inflation. The technical term for this is primordial B-mode polarization and was widely believed to have a value of below 0.11 based on previous maps of the CMB. BICEP-2 on the other hand has come in at a 5 sigma confidence level (1 in 3.5 million chance of being random, the gold standard for confirmation in this field of physics) as 0.2, excluding many models and theories that were based on that assumption. It opens up a whole new world of physics and is the first direct proof of the inflationary model.
To understand just how huge of an impact this is going to have on the world of physics you just have to see the reaction of Andrei Linde, one of the first to propose such a model, and his wife Renata Kallosh (also a well renowned theoretical physicist) reacting to the news:
It’s one thing to find proof of something and it’s another thing entirely to show something can not be. This discovery is powerful not because it shows us that a certain model is correct more it has shown us that the widely held belief was in fact wrong and we need to start heading in another direction. Confirmation of this shouldn’t be far off (indeed the team behind the discovery held onto the results for a year to make sure) and with that we’ll enter into a new world scientific debate, one that was so much more informed than before.
I’m sure everyone has heard of the idea of an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object. For anyone who’s interested in scientific principles it can be a pretty irritating thought experiment as you wrangle with definitions, principles and the limitations of your own knowledge of science. Personally I never really thought about it much past the point of thinking that they’d both be converted to pure energy (this makes the assumption they’re both physical objects with mass) but as it turns out there’s a much, much better explanation. One that makes me feel a little dumb for not researching it a little further:
The idea itself is in fact a paradox since the existence of one or the other of the two parts of the equation means that the other simply can not exist. If you have something that is immovable then its impossible for an unstoppable force to exist and vice versa. Indeed diving into the semantics of it like the video does makes their existence even more problematic, even if we ignore the energy requirements and just go by the laws of physics. I have to say that the end result of them simply passing through each other was not something that I would have expected but then again I only did 6 months worth of physics at university.
It sounds ludicrous right? Being able to travel faster than the wind using only the wind sounds like an incredibly crazy idea as for it to work there has to be some kind of other external force acting on it for that to work. Indeed the idea perplexed me for quite a while, in a much similar way as the airplane on a treadmill problem did, but once you get your head around the idea of apparent wind it starts to get a bit easier. Of course nothing beats a good example and it just so happens that there’s been a cracker of one to cross my decks recently.
The video above shows an intriguing vehicle called Sailrocket 2, a sail boat that has a rather intriguing design that allows it to travel at almost 3 times the current speed of the wind its in. The simplest way to explain this is that, as the design kind of suggests, it’s not travelling directly down the wind. It’s in fact travelling across the wind which causes it to experience another apparent wind due to the direction its travelling in which allows it to gain speed. Although this sounds a bit perpetual-motiony things like the hull resistance, efficiency of the sail and how close the boat can sail to the apparent wind it generates. Done right however you can get up to 6 times the speed of the prevailing winds which can be pretty damn fast as Sailrocket 2 demonstrates.
But what if I told you that, through some engineering trickery, similar things can happen travelling directly down the wind?
That my friends is a vehicle that is capable of just such a feat. The concept had been making waves for quite some time as whilst the idea of going faster than the wind whilst travelling across it is well known and proven doing the same thing travelling with the wind was seen as impossible. 2 years ago however a team headed by Rick Cavallaro built one of them and proceeded to set records with it not long after. It works by actually being two cars in one with its first mode of operation being directly driven by the wind and the second using the wind as a power source to drive the wheels directly (at least that’s my understanding anyway). This is what allows it to travel faster than the wind that’s driving it and makes for a pretty neat piece of engineering.
It’s this kind of non-intuitive science and engineering that really gets me going. I spent hours trying to understand all the principles behind this when I first heard of them and even now I’m still not 100% on them. That’s part of the fun though as the more I read about it the more I understand and the more interesting projects based on those ideas I uncover. It’s a rather deep rabbit hole to fall into however and I wouldn’t recommend it unless you’re as fascinated with science as I am.
Keen readers have noticed that my last couple months worth of game reviews are following a trend. Quite a lot of the titles are from independent developers and the vast majority of them have been shorter, simpler titles who’s play time doesn’t exceed more than 4 hours. I’ll be honest and say that the reason behind this is mostly because I’ve been thoroughly enjoying countless hours in DOTA 2 but it’s also because we’re in that lull that happens in the middle of the year where AAA titles have already been released or are due to be released soon. For me this lull used to be filled with MMORPGs and replaying old titles but the indie scene doesn’t care as much about marketing cycles as their publisher backed brethren do and that means I’m usually flooded with all sorts of interesting titles to have a crack at. Unmechanical is one such title that just happened to cross my path late Friday evening and based purely off the fact that it reminded me of Machinarium I felt it was worth a look in.
You play as small, propeller headed robot just casually going about your business with what I assume is your family of other propeller headed robots. Out of nowhere a pipe, very reminiscent of the ones in the Mario Brothers series of games, abducts you away from your family who seem to be blissfully unaware that this is going on. You then wake up in a cave deep underground which you then spend the entire game attempting to get out of.
Unmechanical is quite visually pleasing thanks in part to its development on the Unreal Developer’s Kit which it will constantly mention during the non-game events. It felt very reminiscent of Trine in that regard even though Trine uses its own in house engine but the visual styles seemed very comparable. The graphics aren’t exactly cutting edge and they have most definitely been heavily optimized for the 2D game play but the heavy use of stylization, modern lighting effects and vibrant colour palette mean that Unmechanical is always a pleasure to look at.
Physics based puzzle solving is the core game mechanic of Unmechanical. There’s nothing particularly unique about this particular mechanic, nearly every game with a physics engine these days incorporates some kind of puzzle solving element in it, but that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable. For the most part you’ll be picking up objects, moving them around and even doing a couple timed events that require precision placement in order to get everything working just right. In terms of the actual mechanics its pretty seamless as I never had any of the puzzles break on me but I did feel like there was a more subtle issue that could cause some people to get frustrated with Unmechanical.
Unmechanical is an incredibly simple game and this is by design. There’s no dialogue to speak of nor is there much in the way of explanation given for many of the things happening on the screen. This is fine however it also means that the way that most things work in this world are based around typical gaming conventions. Now depending on what kind of gamer you are some of these will be obvious and some will not. For me many of the puzzles made sense the second I saw them however there were a few where I had no idea what Unmechanical wanted me to do, leaving me to move wildly around trying to move everything in sight to see what would work. This could very well be part of the challenge but its one of those design choices that could very well lead to people dropping the game long before finishing it. I guess its not a fault per se, more something you need to be aware of going into it.
What really got me about Unmechanical though was just how good it was at telling a story without a whiff of dialogue. The screenshots don’t really do it justice and I won’t go into details about the actual story itself but suffice to say that there are enough visual clues to lead you to draw your own conclusions about the situation the main character is in, the world that surrounds it and ultimately the decision you make about how your journey ends. In essence the story can be as intricate and complex as you like or you can ignore it completely and just enjoy the puzzles. Both of these play styles would be rewarding in my view.
Unmechanical then was one of those pleasant surprises that I get every so often when I take a risk on buying a game that I know almost nothing about. The game mechanics might have been decidedly simplistic but the visual style and storytelling captivated me, enough so that I can’t bring myself to write it off as just another physics based puzzler with decent graphics. The heavy reliance on gaming conventions might make it something of a chore for some but for those who’ve got a few years of gaming experience under their belts I can’t see you struggling that much and indeed I believe there will be something in Unmechanical for nearly all gamers to enjoy.
Unmechanical is available on PC right now for $9.99. Game was completed in approximately 2.3 hours with 40% of the achievements unlocked.
This video is awesome not just because they built a water slide that lets you do a loop the loop but because it’s a very simple demonstration of the centripetal forces that are in play. You’ll notice that there’s quite a bit of lead up to the actual loop itself, a requirement so that when you start to loop up the sum of the forces ensures that you can overcome the effects of gravity. Too little and you’d only find yourself getting part way around the loop before tumbling down. Too much and you’d risk breaking the supporting structure but you’d have to be going at quite a clip to accomplish that.
If you want to see a good demo of the forces in action the Physics Classroom has a good post on it.