Monday, April 25, 2011

Beam Me Up, Scotty: Teleportation, Schrődinger’s Cat and Quantum Entanglement

What do the terms squeezing, photon subtraction, entanglement and homodyne detection have in common? Together, they represent the quantum manipulation that researchers used to achieve the first documented case of successful teleportation of quantum light.

In the journal Science last Friday, researchers reported that they had successfully transferred quantum information from one place to another without having to physically move it. It was destroyed in one place and instantly resurrected in another, “alive” again and unchanged. A notion exploited in the film Prestige, based on a teleportation invention by Nikola Tesla. It’s also pretty much what happens in the SF show Star Trek in which an object is “destroyed” atom by atom in one place then built or "beamed" back with the same pattern elsewhere.

Monday, April 18, 2011

What is Your Avatar?

Have you seen James Cameron’s recent blockbuster fantasy, Avatar?

I first watched this visually stunning motion picture in the theatre with some close family friends. What first blew me away about Avatar was how beautifully and thoughtfully the jungle planet and its people were portrayed. I'm an ecologist and I recognized great expertise and detailed effort in the complex designs of the planet’s ecosystems. Upon further reflection, I realized how the simple theme of connectivity and respect was reverently and elegantly portrayed in a fractal relationship from environment to culture to story and from the opening frame of story promise to its eventual story fulfillment at the end. This was no simple action fantasy based on the simple plot of being at one with nature.

The choice of movie title and planet name, Pandora (see Pandora myth below) all figured into the subtle fractal-layered messages buried beneath the obvious tale, aptly described by reviewer Anne Thompson as “disarmingly sincere.” The film’s opening sweeps us into a breathtaking panorama of Pandora’s lush and exotic jungle to the haunting notes of James Horner’s tribal score.

What struck me about the reactions of my friends, others I spoke with, and many reviewers, was that several panned the movie as cliché. “More impressive on a technical level than as a piece of storytelling,” was the consensus of many critics. “Except for the great special effects, there was nothing new,” many lamented. “It’s an old story,” they said. What’s wrong with that? Isn’t everything an old story, which tells a metaphoric rendition of some universal truth? Aren’t the very best stories we tell based on ancient tales of morality? Which brings me to clichés. In Writing 101 we all learn to avoid clichés like the plague (oops, there’s a cliché!). But let’s look at clichés… A cliché is really a ubiquitously recognized metaphor (like the one I just used). Clichés arise, like stereotypes, from cultural and historical truths, told metaphorically through story. Essentially, a cliché is a metaphor. If you think about it, a cliché is a cliché because it represents a core truth in our culture that is repeated over and over because of its relevance to who and what we are. So much so that it becomes ingrained in our cultural expression. The best stories recognize elements of cliché in the telling of story. This does not mean that they avoid the cliché, per se. In fact, the best stories embrace cliché but use it in a refreshing way to provide a new perspective on an old story; one that deserves to be told over and over. This is the case with Avatar.

So, what’s the cliché in Avatar? The core story, of course. It is an ancient tale that explores the emptiness of greed and its cousin, fear. It shows the consequence of lack of connectivity (among ourselves and to all other things), and lack of compassion and openness to the unknown. In some important ways it is also about identity, honor and loyalty; how in choosing how we live our lives—whether risking our identity through obedience or risking safety through dissent—we create a legacy that we leave to our children and the world. On the surface the story is simple and clichéd: humans come to the jungle planet of Pandora inhabited by simple primitives, the Na’vi, who possess little technology (the quick assumption is that because they are not technologically advanced, they are simpletons). Showing the common disrespect and lack of compassion that many of us show animals, the humans willingly set out to destroy the Na’vi land and their homes to exploit the planet’s resources for themselves.

Enter our hero, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic ex-marine who was recruited to replace his dead twin brother in the Avatar program—in which they are meant to inhabit an avatar native to gain the trust of the Na’vi to push them off a coveted mineral deposit. Jake takes the job for the prize of winning his legs back. He ends up getting their trust but at the cost of also falling in love with their culture and place and the chief’s daughter, Neyteri (Zoe Saldana) at the cost of his legs (I’m reminded of Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves). This propels Jake on a collision course with his concepts of loyalty, honor, and justice. And, ultimately, his identity. Okay, so you’re recognizing more plot clichés. Another cliché is the pristine “Nature wisdom” embraced by the natives that strongly reflects our North American native peoples. The Na’vi also worship a “mother” goddess (Eywa; Mother Nature) like many of our ancient pagan cultures.

Cameron’s intention was to create an action fantasy that was both visually stunning and mindful. “The Na’vi represent something that is our higher selves, or our aspirational selves, what we would like to think we are,” said Cameron. And even though there are good humans in the film, the humans “represent what we know to be the parts of ourselves that are trashing our world and maybe condemning ourselves to a grim future.” He acknowledged that Avatar implicitly criticized the United State’s role in the Iraq War. “We know what it feels like to launch the missiles. We don’t know what it feels like for them to land on our home soil, not in America,” said Cameron. “I think it’s very patriotic to question a system that needs to be corralled.”

The human scientists of the film discover that the natives are harmoniously linked to one another and to their environment through Nature’s intelligent “network”. Words like “download” and “link up” suggest another “living” network: the Internet. Which brings us back to the name of the movie and all that it entails: Avatar.

Avatars aren’t anything new (see below). Today, anyone who writes a blog or belongs to Facebook, MySpace or any other online social network has an avatar. Perhaps you have several. If you play 3-D games in virtual worlds, you deal with one to many of them. Avatars are an icon or persona that represents you or an aspect of you on the internet and is usually represented graphically. Mine is SF Girl, which stands for science fiction girl—you guessed it, I write science fiction. Because I’m a writer and speaker, I use a head shot for my image. Many people choose something less “real” to represent their presence on the internet. My friend, Margaret, for instance, uses a little blue alien (Geez! I should have thought of that! LOL!). The point is, your avatar—both image and name—communicates your chosen persona to billions of people in cyberspace. This is how you’ve chosen to be recognized.

What is your avatar?

Meaning and History of Avatar:

In storytelling, an avatar is basically an archetype, representing a concept or quality. Avatar originates from the Sanskrit language in sacred Hindu texts, and is a term for divine beings sent to restore goodness to Earth such as Vishnu, the ever peaceful preserver of the universe, who maintains the cosmic order, Dharma. It translates as “incarnation” or “appearance” or “manifestation”. According to the Hindu texts, good and evil forces are usually evenly matched in the world; but at times the balance is destroyed and evil demons get the upper hand. Vishnu then incarnates in a human or animal form to set the balance right. Cameron’s Avatar (Jake Sully) basically “reincarnated” from one form to another to set the balance right.

The Myth of Pandora:

Cameron chose the name of the planet, Pandora, with deliberation. In Greek mythology, Pandora was the first woman on earth. Zeus ordered Hephaestus, the god of craftsmanship, to create her, so he did—using water and earth. The gods endowed her with many talents: Aphrodite gave her beauty, Apollo music, and Hermes persuasion. Her name Pandora means "all-gifted."

When Prometheus stole fire from heaven, Zeus gave Pandora to Prometheus' brother. Pandora had a jar which she was not to open under any circumstance. Curiousity got the better of her and Pandora opened the jar. All evil escaped and spread over the earth. She quickly closed the lid, but the entire contents of the jar had escaped, except for one thing at the bottom: Hope. Pandora was deeply saddened by what she had done, and feared Zeus' wrath. But Zeus didn’t punish her. Eventually, Pandora heard a voice from inside the jar pleading for her to open it a second time. Pandora did, and fixed her earlier mistake by giving humanity the greatest gift of all: Hope.

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit Visit for more about her writing.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Bruce DePalma and Spinning Fields

The precise application of Newton’s laws … have to be restricted to non-rotating mechanical objects in field-free space. In a gravitational field, the possibility of extraction of greater energy by a new mechanical dimension [rotation] opens up the possibility of an anti-gravitational interaction—Bruce DePalma, March, 1977

Some consider Bruce DePalma a 20th Century “Galileo”; in a single experiment involving rotation and spinning fields, he refuted Newton’s idea of inertia and Einstein’s theories of gravitation. But like many gifted, intuitive and visionary scientists before him, DePalma’s work was met with skepticism and censure by the traditional scientific community. Despite his recognized brilliance and MIT/Harvard background, DePalma’s exotic physics is considered subversive by his mainstream peers and has been ridiculed. It didn’t help that he led an equally exotic life that included experimenting with psycho-active drugs and that he harbored a rather volatile temper. DePalma’s work was applauded by the free energy community; however, he died unexpectedly in his early 60s in 1997 and his theories have remained unverified.

Was DePalma another misguided scientist or a misunderstood visionary? It took twenty years for Lynn Margulis to vindicate her theories and it took over 200 years for Lamarck’s work on soft inheritance to rise victorious from the darkness of scornful condemnation.

DePalma’s experiment with steel balls in 1972 showed that certain physical properties of an object are radically altered—both its mass and inertia—if it is rotated. According to DePalma, rotation produces a force field, specifically around the main axis of the rotating object, that he measured and called a torsion field or spin field. Time-lapse stroboscopic photographs revealed that the steel ball rotating at ~27,000 rpm flew higher and fell faster than the companion ball that was not rotating. DePalma had since conducted experiments on “bodies in rotation” including massive objects (e.g., over 30 lbs), spinning at very high velocities (~7600 revolutions/minute).