What has a love of science-fiction done for me?

Some time ago, in the first chaotic weeks of http://scifi.stackexchange.com, I had a question that I considered asking, but I never did, due to my realization that it wasn’t a great fit for Stack Exchange. I’m now going to post my personal answer to that question here, as this seems like a more appropriate area for discussion. If you don’t want to read my life history, or just get bored, please at least read the last paragraph!

Ever since I was young, I remember reading about space and books about space, and being absolutely fascinated. At the time, I wanted to be an astronaut, to go into space, and make a difference. I read books, many of which I can’t even remember the names of now, and watched TV shows like Star Trek, and thought, “man, would that be awesome or what!”

I realized that in order to even be considered to do such things, I needed to learn more. I started reading sites like Space.com, and added dramatically to my sci-fi reading. I started to realize I needed to excel, which encouraged me to learn as much as I could, especially about science, math, and eventually engineering.

Unfortunate to my astronaut dreams, I learned that I would have to be in tremendous shape. While I’ve always intellectually stretched myself, I’ve never been good at physically stretching myself. So, I decided, what would be the next best thing? To build something that would go into space, of course!

This decision lead me to look for schools that were building satellites as students. I eventually found out about the Space Grant program at the University of Arizona, and decided to go there. For complicated reasons, I never did get into the Space Grant program, but I did find the existence of a student satellite program, building something called CubeSats.

A Cubesat is a 10 cm cube shaped satellite, weighing 1 kg. Yes, that’s extremely tiny, but how big of a satellite do you think that students could launch anyways? I joined the effort quite late, and ended up on the Ground Station team. I was hooked. I learned from my time at this project how to complete a project, how to define requirements, and many other skills that would help me later. We built 2 satellites, named Rincon and SACRED, which we attempted to launch. I’ve included a small picture of one of them, SACRED. The satellite would have solar cells on all 6 faces eventually, but it lets you kind of see what they look like.

On July 26, 2006, I would learn new lessons from this program. Both of these satellites were in a Russian Rocket, the DNEPR, preparing to launch. Well, the launch ended up being a disaster, as is currently discussed in Wikipedia. So, I learned that day how to handle disappointment, and how to do so in a room full of press.

Luckily, my path continued forward. In March of that year, I was in a similar high stress environment. A spacecraft was about to enter Mars Orbit, known as the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Some of you out there might ask, why did I care? Well, a few weeks previously, largely owing to my space excitement from sci-fi reading, and my work with Cubesats, I was offered a job working as a student programmer on this mission, but contingent on just one thing: the program wouldn’t have money to pay us if the spacecraft didn’t orbit Mars. I waited with bated breath in the same room that I would wait 4 months later to see if our satellites would orbit, but this time, waiting to find out if a spacecraft I never touched would orbit a distant world, with a job contingent on the success of the mission, which I had nothing to do with. Luckily for me, and all of us space enthusiasts, the Mars Orbital Insertion was successful, and I could start my job. During my time there, I was able to learn programming constructs that I could carry to a full time job.

The knowledge I gained from both of these student jobs would help me to get my current job, where I am a simulation developer for a defense contractor, helping to defend our nation. I have no doubt that it will continue to help me achieve great things. I still have some time to decide, but I owe much of it to my love of science fiction, which encouraged me to follow a dream.

So, what does all of this have to do with you? I don’t know what your personal stories are. Maybe your love of science fiction has changed you, or maybe it’s only something you wonder. I encourage all of you to do something to help achieve the world of science fiction, so that it can be a reality. Many current technologies we have were first predicted by science fiction authors, who might have inspired the very people who created the real products later. Many mission controllers at NASA, or big executives of space decisions, or even common electronics like cell phones, have all come about as a result of science fiction. So, please encourage children to read science fiction, or watch it. Our world will be a better place because of it.

@stackscifi improvements

Not everyone is interested in manually heading to a website each day to check out what’s new  – we’d rather get pushed any interesting new content when it arrives. Thankfully, there are a number of ways that you can get notified about new scifi.stackexchange.com content:

One of the most convenient ways to get notification of interesting content on the site is via Twitter.  The @stackscifi account has tweeted links to interesting new questions for a while now, but it’s recently had some significant improvements, and if you follow it, you’ll now find out about:
  • Great answers to questions (note that “great” here isn’t the same as in badges).  I find this more useful than even the questions (which I’m likely to notice just browsing the site), since it’s easy to miss a great answer, especially if it gets added after you’ve already read a question.
  • Requests for help (“can you answer”).  If there’s a question that no-one has been able to answer, @stackscifi will put out a call for help.
  • Notification of new blog posts, like this one.
  • Upcoming chat events, like the fortnightly recommendation chat.
Not only is this a great way to keep track of anything interesting appearing on the site, it’s also the easiest way to share this information – all you need to do is tap a retweet button to pass along a link to a great question or answer (note that there are FaceBook, Twitter, and LinkedIn sharing buttons on each question if you prefer to do this the longer way).

Lessons Learned: Lord of the Rings

[In this segment, we discuss a popular tag on the site, and what are some of the most interesting observations made from the topic.]

Lord of the Rings is perhaps one of the most complete fantasy worlds ever created. There are so many unanswered questions, it’s the perfect topic for a Stack Exchange site. I’ve seen questions which have really made me think. Some of the great insights I’ve gained by studying the topic here include:

Who or What was Tom Bombadill? This is actually the single most upvoted question so far on the site. The most popular answer leads through a discussion first on what he isn’t. He isn’t a human, dwarf, elf, magician, doesn’t seem affected by the One Ring, and doesn’t seem to care for much around him, except for his surrounds. The most likely theory: he is one of the Ainur, descendent of Ilúvatar , the creator, or somehow related to them. But, as the second most popular answer quotes from Tolkien himself: “And even in a mythical Age there must be some enigmas, as there always are. Tom Bombadil is one (intentionally).”

What special powers did the Dwarf rings give their users? So, we know there were a total of 20 rings of power, 9 given to humans, 7 to dwarves, 3 to elves, and 1 to Sauron. Of these, all play a significant role in the series, except for the Dwarf Rings. What did they do? It seems likely from various answers that the 16 rings made by Sauron, except for the One Ring, were all very similar in power. The main difference seems to be how they affect a person, given their biology. The main use of the Dwarf Rings was twofold. The advantage by having them was great wealth. The disadvantage was extreme greed. The dwarves who used them were not subject to Sauron’s control, nor did they turn invisible.

Why weren’t the Three Rings for the Elven-kings destroyed as well? We all know the One Ring was destroyed. The human and dwarf rings ceased to function after the destruction of the One Ring. But, the 3 elf rings, free from the corruption of Sauron, still functioned, or is so believed. They were all removed from Middle-earth at the end of the book. Why weren’t they destroyed? From reading this topic, a clear answer is not provided, but it seems likely that the 3 rings lost at least some, if not all, of their powers, that they had some connection to the One Ring, despite the Elves’ best attempts. The rings disappeared from Middle-earth, without us knowing if they still worked. By leaving Middle-earth, it no longer mattered if they were destroyed, and they were in good hands. It seems like it just didn’t matter.

Finally, I’d like to end with an answer that was so amazing, that I can’t even begin to give it any justice, so I’m just going to give the title of the question and a link. I hope you enjoy Lord Of The Rings – what is the important background information contained in the poems?

Review of Another Earth

Another Earth is an indie science-fiction film about a young woman, Rhoda Williams (played by Brit Marling), who on the eve of heading off to MIT gets in a tragic car accident. There’s a remarkable discovery that there’s another planet in our solar system, and that planet is the titular Another Earth. Over the next few years as the other Earth comes closer to our Earth, where the story takes place, we follow the dramatic turns her life takes as a result of her car accident.

As a sort of counter point to movies that use science-fiction to provide a reason for special effects and explosions, this is a quiet film that uses a science-fiction plot element to examine the weight of loss and regret. Here the focus is on the characters. The young Rhoda struggles to determine how to live a life after the accident. We see the damage the accident did to the man in the other car (played by Lost‘s William Mapother), and the hope they both have that a better life is happening above them on the other Earth.

The muted tone and slow, deliberate style of this film isn’t for everyone. However, if you’re a fan of sci-fi where the human condition is dissected, and where fantastical elements are minimal, you owe it to yourself to catch this film. Unfortunately, the film saw a limited release in theaters, so many people won’t be able to catch it until it’s released on streaming, DVD & Blu-ray.

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