This article was originally written for the ScienceRewired blog in the lead up to their launch event, “Connect, Collaborate and Communicate for Change” at the Science Exchange in Adelaide on October 11, 2012. It is reprinted here with their permission, in part as a late tribute to Ada Lovelace Day - the team behind the Curiosity twitter account are certainly all women I consider heroines of science!
The Curiosity mission is one of the great successes of current science. Oh, sure, it’s impressive they landed a nuclear-powered science-lab-in-a-robot safely on the surface of Mars – but I’m talking about their success at capturing – and more importantly, keeping – an audience.
Millions of people around the world stopped to watch, listen or read about the Curiosity landing as it happened (or rather, about 14 minutes after it happened; Mars is a long way away). But many – myself included – knew about Curiosity’s safe set down thanks not to television, radio or even world wide web – but straight from the rover herself, via Twitter:
I’m safely on the surface of Mars. GALE CRATER I AM IN YOU!!! #MSL
Now, of course Curiosity isn’t composing and sending tweets across those 570 million kilometres (though it’s a tiny data packet, so I suppose she could if she wanted to), but the official Twitter account was a stroke of genius: @MarsCuriosity picked up over half a million extra followers on the day of the landing, and continues to grow in popularity. She’s made it into the top 1,000 most followed Twitter accounts, with nearly 1.2 million followers.
As if that weren’t enough, Curiosity’s twitter account also succeeded in that other important Twitterati metric: spoof accounts. Spoof accounts subsist on the popularity of their target; sometimes they are loving, sometimes scathing, but the Curiosity spoof accounts all served to boost the signal of their parent – and none more so than the still very successful @SarcasticRover. With almost 100,000 followers, it’s doing its bit to connect real science to everyday people – with jokes.
What if it’s a red sky at night and in the morning?! WHAT THEN SAILORS?
…okay, most of its tweets aren’t about actual science. But the jokes do often reflect the images sent back from (and tweeted by) the real deal, and it adds extra emotional context to the mission.
And that’s what makes these fake Twitter accounts of a real robot on another planet succeed: emotion. Personality. After all, it’s the characters that really make a story connect with us: no matter how well told the tale, it’s when we care about the people in it that we truly care about the story. You see it in the continuing cult of personality surrounding the few true celebrity scientists; in the fond memories people share of The Curiosity Show; in “NASA Mohawk Guy” (aka Bobak Ferdowsi) stealing the show during the live video stream of the Curiosity landing. And you definitely see it in the way people love an anthropomorphised Mars exploration robot, mediated by Courtney O’Connor, Stephanie L. Smith, and Veronica McGregor. Facts are important, and science should aim to be objective, but science engagement succeeds best with a personal, emotional tone – something at which social media, and Twitter in particular, excels.
On Friday I was privileged to be MC for the launch of Geek Mook, the latest anthology of new writing from Vignette Press, edited by the very talented Aaron Mannion and Julian Novitz. I tried to help out as much as I could for the launch, and one thing I realised as we were about to start having people arrive was that we needed house music! (By this, I mean music played when the house lights are on and the audience are entering, mingling or leaving, not the Chicago-born genre of electronic music.) I sprang into action – which is to say, I took out my trusty 64GB iPhone (I bought the largest size specifically so it could carry my entire music collection) and set to work making a quick tracklist of appropriately geeky-yet-eclectic music.
This is that list. It’s short – only 19 tracks – but played on repeat and shuffle it did the job. It’s been a while since I posted, so I thought I’d write about these tracks, why they’re geeky, and why I picked them for the night. So I’ve put them on shuffle and I’m listening to them while writing this, in the order they come up.
The Transformers (Theme) – Lion
There are two great things about the Transformers: one is the toy line itself, a genius idea that, in its original incarnation at least, was incredibly well realised. We all wanted an Optimus Prime. But the other thing is Transformers: The Movie, which before Michael Bay and Steven Spielberg, took a bunch of robots which could turn into trucks, jet planes and dinosaurs and told a truly epic story of heroism and sacrifice in the face of potential apocalypse. (It was famously Orson Welles’ last film; he provides the voice of the gigantic, planet-eating antagonist, Unicron.) This version of the original cartoon theme song, but Lion, gets it exactly right: it truly rocks without taking the piss, and incorporates new lyrics drawing on the plot and themes of the film. The rest of the soundtrack is pretty good too, both the score and the music, which includes the unforgettable “The Touch” by Stan Bush. You know the one: “You’ve got the touch…you’ve got the pooweeeeeeeer…”
Life’s a Happy Song – Mickey Rooney, Feist, Amy Adams, Jason Segel & Walter
One of my rules in life is not to trust anyone who doesn’t love the Muppets. While it wasn’t to everyone’s tastes, I thought the recent The Muppets movie really nailed the essence of the loveable little felt monsters. Brett McKenzie – who, incidentally, I’m very excited to be seeing in concert tonight – won an Academy Award for one of the other songs in the film, Man Or Muppet?, but for my money this big showtune from the start of the film is the killer number. Just try singing it and not being filled with joy. I dare you.
Thanks for Your Time – Gotye
Wally De Backer released two albums before Somebody That I Used To Know propelled Making Mirrors to the top of the charts across the world, and this track is a great sample of his nerdy obsession. From his second album, Like Drawing Blood, it’s a distillation of every frustrating moment we’ve ever spent on hold trying to speak to someone at any large company. If you’ve ever had to phone Telstra or Optus, or worked in a call centre, you’ll immediately identify with this beautifully layered track, featuring samples, dialogue and great harmonies.
Game of Thrones Theme - WhiteNoise Lab
A rock cover of one of the greatest television themes in recent history. I wrote about it last year, and for those keeping score, iTunes says I’ve now listened to it 224 times. Here’s the YouTube video:
The Mesopotamians - They Might Be Giants The Else
Of course I had to include something from the original geek rock band, They Might Be Giants. This track is my favourite from 2007′s The Else, one of the first albums I ever bought as a download. I picked it because it’s incredibly nerdy, super catchy, and a great excuse to mention that you should head to Melbourne Museum to check out their current special exhibition: Mesopotamia.
Who Needs Sleep? – Barenaked Ladies
I was introduced to the Barenaked Ladies back in the late 90s, not long before the release of Stunt, the album which featured their first big-outside-of-Canada hit, One Week. Before then, none of their albums were released in Australia; I remember the Australian One Week single included four additional tracks, one lead single from each of their four previous albums, as a way of saying “see what we’ve done?” But even the juggernaut that was One Week didn’t bring this folk rock powerhouse into the mainstream, and their subsequent albums never got a local release. Still, I love them, even if they have lost their iconic lead vocalist Steven Page. This track is also from Stunt – for a few years my favourite BNL album, until the release of Everything to Everyone – and it features a slight disconnect between the lyrical content and the mood of the music, something very typical of the band and one of the reasons I’m such a fan.
Jimmy Olsen’s Blues – Spin Doctors
The Spin Doctors were that 90s rarity – a three-hit wonder. This song, Two Princes and What Time Is It? all did really well, and all came from the same album, Pocketful of Kryptonite, but afterwards they vanished without a trace. The album gets its title from this track, about a Jimmy Olsen in love with Lois Lane who laments that he is competing for her affections against a literal Superman. (It’s a bit of the archetypal nerd vs jock story, though of course in this story, both are genuinely nice guys.) There’s a pretty rich tradition of songs about Superman, but this one is the only one I know to be written from another character’s perspective.
Code Monkey - Jonathan Coulton
Jonathan Coulton is the king of geek rock, having risen to fame on the Internet by writing and recording a new song every week for a year after quitting his job as a programmer. This song is probably his most famous, and is – as he says at the start of this slower, more heartfelt live version from Best. Convert. Ever. - “how it feels to write software for a living”. It speaks to the IT professional experience on many levels, not least the frustration at doing what should be recognised as a creative job in a bureaucratic and soulless environment where no-one in charge really understands what you do. It’s a sweet song, while not overly romanticising the fast-food-eating, disrespectful-of-his-boss, awkwardly-hitting-on-the-receptionist protagonist.
The Ballad Of Osiris Stark - Scott Edgar and the Universe
Scott Edgar is, of course, one third of Tripod, but this is from his other band, the Universe, whom I also love. The Ballad of Osiris Stark is an ode to one of Scott’s Dungeons & Dragons characters – possibly his first, if I remember the pre-song banter correctly – but he plays it straight, with the result that this is a truly lovely tribute to a beloved hero. Playing an actual campaign RPG, you spend more time with your own characters than any you can encounter in film or television (well, maybe with the exception of the Doctor), so it’s hardly surprising this comes so clearly from the heart. I’m not sure why, but I always think of Osiris as a Drow (Dark Elf) Ranger…perhaps it’s his backstory of being exiled from his home, though his home seems to be above ground, so that’s probably wrong. You can find it on the Universe’s self-titled debut album.
(I’m the One That’s) Cool - The Guild
This was the first track to go into this list. Produced to celebrate the launch of Felicia Day and Wil Weaton’s Geek & Sundry online channel of nerdy television, it’s an out-and-out, unapologetic geek revenge fantasy. “Try and cop my style, but I’m the real thing: while you played sports I played Magic: The Gathering” sings Day, in lyrics expertly rhymed by Jed Whedon, explaining that now “geek is chic” the people who bullied her in school are now out of style and shouldn’t try to get in on the nerd fashion action. I think it could have benefited from a little more introspection and a little less nerd-was-bullied-now-bullies-norms (“prom queen bitches” still seems too harsh, but maybe it’s the gendered insult that bothers me), and if you’ve ever heard me talk about geeks and nerds, you know I think our strength is bucking the very nature of “cool”. Still, it’s a rocking great tune that anyone who was ever picked on for being a nerd will love.
Katamari on the Rock - Masayuki Tanaka
The fairly bizarre “puzzle-action” game Katamari Damacy is…well, it’s hard to know where to start. You play as one of the sons or nephews of the King of All Cosmos, who after a galactic bender, has accidentally knocked all the stars out of the sky. For some reason, the only way to fix them is to roll your “katamari” – a sort of magical spiky ball thing – around planet Earth, picking up random objects as you go to increase the katamari’s size until the King is happy with your progress. This is as bonkers as it sounds, but is also immensely entertaining and a visual treat for the eyes – and to go along with the visuals is an amazing soundtrack. I have the soundtrack albums for the first two games in the series, but this track is the shorter, in-game audio from the intro video to the original game, which I found on the Internet somewhere. It’s brilliant. Oh, and did you know that “Katamari Damacy” roughly translates as “soul clump”? Of course you did.
Princes Of The Universe - Queen
It’s Queen. It’s the best track from the Highlander soundtrack. It will rock your face off. Find it, along with the other songs from Highlander, on It’s A Kind of Magic.
The Power of Love – I Fight Dragons
I heard about I Fight Dragons long ago; someone linked them to Dungeon Crawl for some reason. I forget, but I never listened to any of their music until this track was featured on a recent Huey Lewis episode of my favourite music podcast, Coverville. IFD expertly combine traditional “chiptune” sounds – music made with the kind of music technology found in the 8-bit era of videogames – with traditional instruments and a great lead vocalist. This track even incorporates an a capella rendition Alan Silvestri’s iconic Back to the Future score in the intro. Highly recommended; you can find it on their EP Welcome to the Breakdown.
Maybe I’m A Lion – THE BLACK MAGES
Nobeo Uematsu is the genius composer behind the amazing music you hear during most of the Final Fantasy games, and I have a few of his soundtracks, including an album of him playing the songs on real instruments (the earlier games, especially, use software synths, rather than pre-recorded music). This, though, is a little different – one of the most rocking battle themes from Final Fantasy VIII, played by The Black Mages, a rock band formed by Uematsu and two other composers working for Square Enix, the company behind the Final Fantasy games. It’s a bit hair metal, a bit prog rock, but all badass. This one is from their second album, The Black Mages II: The Skies Above.
Some Things Man Was Not Meant To Know - The Darkest of the Hillside Thickets
H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos is never far from the mind of most of us who’ve read any of it; indeed this morning I tucked into some delicious Anathoth jam, and couldn’t help but wonder if it had anything to do with the foul star daemon Azathoth, mentioned in The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. Canadian punk band The Darkest of the Hillside Thickets have embraced the rich themes of cosmic horror – that there are vastly powerful, unknowable beings beyond our understanding, the very knowledge of whom may drive us mad – and have made it into a darkly humorous career. This track is from their latest album, and my favourite, The Shadow Out Of Tim, which is sort of a rock opera/concept album adapted from my favourite Lovecraft story, The Shadow Out of Time. It’s a slow, brooding track, forming a sort of combined overture and epilogue to the story, and I picked it as a change of pace from some of the other stuff in the list.
Ghostbusters – Run-D.M.C.
Angela Meyer, one of the Geek Mook contributors performing at the launch, wrote her piece about her and her sister’s mutual obsession with Ghostbusters. While I didn’t have the original Ray Parker Jr. theme in my library – something I’ve since remedied – I did have the soundtrack to Ghostbusters II, which features this new version by Run-D.M.C. It’s pretty great, frankly, considering how perfect the original was. Sure, they rhyme “ghost busters” with “ghost dusters”, but they also use the line “we are the busters of any G H O S T”, so I’m prepared to forgive.
Spiderman – Moxy Früvous
When my friend Trace introduced me to BNL, she also introduced me to someone a bit more esoteric by way of an extra copy of Bargainville, the debut album of Toronto folk-rock outfit Moxy Früvous. I have since collected all their other albums and as many bootlegs as I could get my hands on, but Bargainville remains a definite favourite. Not only did their track My Baby Loves A Bunch Of Authors provide the impetus for my book-reading blog, but every song is a treasure. Perhaps most unusual is this a capella arrangement of the 1960s Spider-Man cartoon theme, which starts out mostly faithful to the original, but soon veers off into subversive territory. I often find myself singing “Spider-Man’s master plan: build his own little spider clan / in the woods, now they’re troops / fighting for special interest groups”. The random sound effects and narration are also hilarious. It forms an irreverent counterpoint to the other a capella tracks on Bargainville, especially the deeply personal and political Gulf War Song.
Halfway Down the Stairs - Amy Lee
In the lead up to the new Muppets movie, a bunch of artists contributed covers of classic Muppet songs for The Green Album. I will admit to being a bit of an Evanescence fan – I know, I know, but it’s okay, I handed in both my Cool Guy and True Goth cards long ago – and while there are lots of great tracks on the album, I picked this one from Amy Lee because I love the song, and since this track again offers something of different pace and mood to the rest of the list. It’s cute and a little haunting. What’s not to like? Oh, and if you’ve not seen it, here’s the Muppet Show Theme music video from OK Go, from the same album. The cover itself took a few listens to click with me, but the video is an instant classic – watch all the way to the end!
Still Alive (Portal) – missFlag
Another track I discovered via Coverville, this tribute to evil science is a cover of the song Jonathon Coulton wrote for the finale of the game Portal. In the game it’s sung by the defeated, sinister supercomputer GlaDOS, but this version from Israeli rock band missFlag kicks the rock dial up a few notches and adds a few flourishes of its own. You can download it for free from the missFlag web site.
I’ve just been to a park to look through a telescope at the Sun.
Now, this isn’t safe without serious filters in place, and normally you wouldn’t expect to see much more than a big ball of light even so – but today was the transit of Venus, a twice a century or so event in which our sunward neighbour passes directly between the Earth and the Sun. (While the last famous one was in 1874 – people sailed to Australia to see it – they come in pairs: there was a transit in 2004, though most of it wasn’t visible in Australia. The next ones are in 2117 and 2125.) So today, thanks to the sterling work of Stephen Luntz and some uncharacteristic breaks in Melbourne’s cloud cover, I looked at a fairly large dot moving very slowly across the bright disc of the sun. That dot, though our nearest planet, was 41 million kilometres or so away. Blows your mind just a little, right?
To mark the occasion, Stephen gathered a small collection of poets, musicians and one comedian (guess who?) to perform to the gathered astronomy enthusiasts. Rather than do my usual gear about black holes, climate change or dinosaurs, I thought I’d share some of my favourite FUN FACTS! about Venus, and I’ve gathered them here for your pleasure.
Venus, like Mercury, has no moons, but orbitally, it’s a bit of a show off. Not only is its orbit the closest of any solar planet to a circle (they’re all elliptical, but Venus’ is the least elliptical), but it rotates on its axis in the opposite direction to its travel around the Sun. All the planets travel anti-clockwise around the Sun, but Venus and Uranus rotate clockwise. This means that on Venus, the Sun would rise in the West and set in the East – good luck for Daenerys and Drogo. A day there is incredibly long, the longest in the solar system: it rotates on its axis only once every 243 Earth days! Plus, a Venusian year is shorter than a Venusian day, at only 224.65 Earth days – and you thought Mondays at the office were long! Thanks to the backwards (astronomers say “retrograde”) rotation and shorter year, this works out to a solar day (i.e. how long the sun is in the sky) of around 116.75 Earth days, sunrise to sunset.
Venus is thus clearly the best planet for lovers, since you could hold hands and watch the sunset for weeks on end, and wouldn’t have to get up early to see it! Well…okay, you can’t. Venus has worse weather than Melbourne. Or even London. The atmosphere is incredibly dense – at the surface, the atmosphere is 92 times denser than on the surface of Earth. Not very comfortable! The cloud cover is constant, so the surface isn’t visible from orbit. Likewise, you can’t see anything in the sky; it’s like the planet of the Krikkitmen. No sunrises for you, Venusian honeymooners!
But even though you can’t get a tan, you will at least be nice and warm; with the atmosphere made up of 96.5% CO2 (the rest is mostly Nitrogen), the greenhouse effect is extreme on Venus, producing the hottest temperatures of any planet in the solar system, but with enormous range. Venus can be anything from -200°c to 420°c. That’s really hard to pack for.
On the surface, when you can see it – using special cameras from orbital missions – you can see evidence of amazing volcanic activity. Many formations are distinctive of Venus, including ones shaped like circles, stars, pancakes and spiderwebs. There’s no ocean any more – the effect of extreme global warming, which goes poles melt, seas rise, ocean evaporates – but there are two “continents” which stand taller than the surrounding plains. The larger one in the north is named Ishtar, and the southern one Aphrodite. Yes, that’s like naming a continent on Earth “Soil”, but there are rules about these things. The IAU, which oversees the naming of astronomical objects, decided that all geographic features of Venus should be named after mythological women. It’s a nice theme, but one that is broken by one of the first features to be named: Maxwell Montes, the tallest mountain on Venus, is named for Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell, the guy behind classic electromagnetic theory. Yes: the biggest phallic object on the planet is named after an actual man, and its surrounded by goddesses and saints and mythical heroines. (There are only two other male-named features on Venus, both named before the IAU rule was established.)
But as well as being physically interesting, Venus is also fictionally interesting. Though traditionally much less popular in science fiction than Mars, there are two distinct phases in Venusian literature. In the early days of planetary romance and pulpy science fiction, Venus was thought to be a swampy, marshy place; at the same time, the prevailing view of dinosaurs was that they were immense, slow creatures which could only live in swamps.
You can see where this is going, right?
Yes, lots of Venusian tales populated the surface with dinsosaur-like creatures. Or in some cases, actual dinosaurs. As if there was a global conspiracy and they weren’t extinguished in the KT event, but instead migrated en masse, like Adamsian dolphins, leaving fossils behind as a final message of “so long and thanks for all the cycads”. But Venus has also been populated with giant spiders, and – as usual – people who are basically human but in a weird colour (aside from the standard green, the popular colour for Venusians seems to have been blue).
But I’d like to finish with one of my favourite, and most obscure, Venusian references. During his Action Scientist! days working with UNIT, the Third Doctor (John Pertwee) was a master of a martial art he called “Venusian Aikido”. He claimed he was one of only a few beings with four limbs to master the art, but more than that, he would often tell anecdotes of his Venusian friends – who we never met or even had described. But the best bit is the lullaby he learned on Venus, which he sings to soothe Aggedor, the savage beast of Peladon:
It’s all a setup for a gag: when asked, the Doctor claims the first line translates roughly to “Close your eyes, my darling; well three of them at least!” (Much later, in his “Missing Adventures” novel Venusian Lullaby, Paul Leonard fleshed out the Venusian society: turns out that have fivefold radial symmetry (and thus five limbs and five eyes) and can absorb the memories of their dead by eating their brains. I love that book.)
So thanks Venus, thanks Stephen, and thanks to all the other amazing performers at the Transit of Venus event today. See you at the next one! Well, assuming we’ve all uploaded our consciousnesses in iCloud before then, anyway.
It’s been a stupendously (or perhaps stupidly) busy Melbourne International Comedy Festival for me, as evidenced by the list of eight nine shows in which I performed this year! I had this list on the front page, but now the festival is over it seems wise to move it to a post. Here’s a run down all in one place:
The Peer Revue – science comedy with Simon Pampena, Trent McCarthy, Nicholas J Johnson and yours truly!
But now that festival is done, it’s time to look ahead to the next one: the 2012 Emerging Writers Festival begins on May 24, and the EWF events program – launched today – is chock full of great stuff! If you’d like to see me, I’m hosting the “Revenge of the Nerds” slide night at the Workers Club on May 30. A lovely line-up of writers will present pecha kucha style presentations (20 slides, auto-advancing every 20 seconds) about their inner nerds. I, of course, do not have an inner nerd; I’m at least 86% nerd, so if anything, I have an inner cool guy.
I was somewhat disturbed recently to find my dark side laid bare for all the world to see. But, since its out in the open and more than 11,000 people have watched it, I guess I should put it here for all the world to see.
You may find this video shocking, but really, it’s a call to wake up and smell the MediaWatch. It’s the red pill. It’s reality…
For more of my underhanded trickery, you should catch Late Night Letters and Numbers at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival as part of Curtin Comedy.