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The Dayside : Physics at San Diego Comic-Con International IV

By: Charles Day
01 August 2014

San Diego Comic-Con International

Long-time readers of this blog might know that I attend San Diego Comic-Con International, the annual celebration of superheroes, anime characters, flying sharks, and other fictional features of worlds whose resemblance to the real version is creatively arbitrary.

Besides enjoying the spectacle and discovering new comics and graphic novels, I also seek interesting manifestations of physics. And because you can read my previous Comic-Con reports (from 2013, 2012, and 2011), I try to look for new examples. This year, explored virtual reality with an Oculus Rift headset and interviewed both the screenwriter of the new superhero movie Guardians of the Galaxy and the cast members and screenwriter of the SyFy Network's upcoming TV drama, Ascension.

Sleepy Holodeck

To promote the second season of its TV series Sleepy Hollow, the Fox Network collaborated with Oculus VR to create a virtual reality installation that, in the words of the press release, "transports the user deep into the heart of Sleepy Hollow where the fans receive an ominous warning from Ichabod Crane and then a terrifying encounter with the Headless Horseman."

I declined the opportunity to interview members of the show's cast, but I did try Oculus Rift. The headset weighs about 380 grams (13 ounces) and is a bit bigger than a scuba diver's facemask. It fitted comfortably over my glasses, which I needed for focusing on the headset's two screens, one for each eye.

When I donned the headset and a pair of headphones, I found myself standing at night in a fog-shrouded churchyard. A flock of bats flew noisily past me. When I moved my head to survey the scene, the headset's gyros and accelerometers tracked where my gaze would naturally fall. With an almost imperceptible delay, the headset calculated the corresponding scene and displayed it.

Oculus Rift's thin-film transistor screens provide a resolution of 680 × 800 pixel2 per eye. Although I could perceive the granularity, the images were clear enough to suspend my disbelief. Indeed, the live-action scene, which featured two human actors, looked more realistic than a higher-resolution video game. And Oculus Rift was certainly more immersive than a video game.

The action was a few minutes long. After the bats had flown off, Ichabod Crane walked into the churchyard to tell me of a dangerous intruder. His warning was in vain. After he left, the Headless Horseman strode toward me. I could see him swing his ax at my head. The blow evidently decapitated me, because my point of view jumped to that of a disembodied head tumbling in the air. My virtual head landed on the ground with a thud. Then the screen went black.

Before I experienced virtual Sleepy Hollow and my own decapitation, my photo was taken and used for this visual souvenir.

Before I experienced virtual Sleepy Hollow and my own decapitation, my photo was taken and used for this visual souvenir.

In the June issue of Wired, the magazine's entertainment editor, Peter Rubin, recounted Oculus Rift's history. The technology that underlies the device is not especially revolutionary. Rather, Oculus Rift relies on a cleverly optimized combination of existing software and hardware.

But Rubin's article did include one example of inspired brilliance. Because the periphery of the flat screens is farther from the users' eyes than the center is, images displayed on them would suffer the pincushion effect if uncorrected. The distortion could be compensated by software, but video game engineer John Carmack, who had received an early prototype, devised a simpler and computationally cheaper solution: Install lenses over the screens.

Movie physics

Marvel Studios' latest movie, Guardians of the Galaxy, went into general US release today. Reviewing it for the New York Times, Manohla Dargis praised the space opera's wit, beauty, and special effects.

In Guardians of the Galaxy, misfit extraterrestrials work uneasily together to fight evil. CREDIT: Marvel Studios

In Guardians of the Galaxy, misfit extraterrestrials work uneasily together to fight evil. CREDIT: Marvel Studios

Among the people I interviewed at Comic-Con was Nicole Perlman, who wrote the movie's screenplay with director James Gunn. What was the most flagrant violation of the laws of physics? I asked. "At one point, during a prison break, gravity is turned off," she replied.

Perlman also told me that she takes advantage of the Science & Entertainment Exchange, a program run by the National Academy of Sciences that

connects entertainment industry professionals with top scientists and engineers to create a synergy between accurate science and engaging storylines in both film and TV programming.

Whether the Science & Entertainment Exchange succeeds is hard to evaluate. Among the projects listed on the program's website is Ridley Scott's 2012 movie Prometheus, whose science and scientists were largely preposterous. Still, the science in Prometheus might have been even sillier if the Science & Entertainment Exchange had not been involved.


The most intriguing new show that I learned about at Comic-Con was Ascension. The TV drama is scheduled to run on the SyFy Network starting in November.

Although the series is set in the present day, its plot reaches back to 1963, when the US secretly launched a huge, nuclear-powered spacecraft on a 100-year journey to Proxima Centauri. The 600 passengers and crew—or, rather, their descendants—will colonize the star's planet to preserve humanity in the event a nuclear war between the US and the Soviet Union renders Earth uninhabitable.

The eponymous spacecraft in the upcoming TV drama Ascension. CREDIT: SyFy Channel

The eponymous spacecraft in the upcoming TV drama Ascension. CREDIT: SyFy Channel

The series has several rich sources of dramatic tension. By 2014 the spacecraft is halfway on its journey and is nearing its point of no return; some passengers want the ship to turn back. The original passengers and crew were volunteers; their children, who are now adults, did not choose to make the journey to the Proxima system, nor will they chose their adult jobs on the ship. Ascension was launched one year before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin; without the influence of a wider, national society, social attitudes aboard the spacecraft are largely frozen in time. And if that's not tense enough, episode one begins with a murder, the first aboard the spacecraft.

At a press conference, the series' creator and screenwriter, Philip Levens, explained that Ascension was inspired by real events. In 1946, soon after they had conceived the first atomic bombs, physicists in the US wondered if the high energy density of nuclear fission could be exploited to power spacecraft. By 1958 the idea had become Project Orion, a fully funded feasibility study carried out by defense contractor General Atomics. Freeman Dyson was the project's chief physicist.

As envisioned by Dyson, nuclear propulsion would entail exploding nuclear bombs at a safe distance behind a spacecraft equipped with a huge "pusher plate" at its rear. Radiation from each blast would strike the pusher plate and ionize its surface. Ions would shoot backwards to impart a huge collective impulse to the plate. Massive shock absorbers would ensure that the impulses would not crush the spacecraft and its inhabitants. Dyson calculated that the acceleration could be damped to a tolerable 3–4g. The voyage to Mars would take a week.

Project Orion never came to fruition. NASA favored chemical propulsion. And the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963 banned the detonation of nuclear warheads anywhere except underground. But as a propulsion system for fictional spacecraft launched in 1963, it's a more plausible idea than switching off gravity.

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