SciTechBlog
May 17, 2010

Geek Out! Michael Emerson reflects on 'Lost'

Posted: 08:10 AM ET

Editor's note: Geek Out! posts feature the latest and most interesting in nerd-culture news. From sci-fi and fantasy to gadgets and science, if you can geek out over it, you can find it on Geek Out! Look for Geek Out! posts on CNN's SciTech blog.

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read this interview if you haven't seen the most recent episode of "Lost!"

Now that we have some sense of where Jacob came from - albeit only a vague one - "Lost" will return for two more episodes and hopefully answer some questions about the mysterious island, time travel, timelines, and more. We certainly have not seen the last of Benjamin Linus, nor do we know whose side he's really on anymore.

CNN's Geek Out! chatted with Michael Emerson, who plays Ben Linus, about his experience on the show. We're told he'll have a larger role in this Tuesday's episode than the last two, in which he didn't appear at all. Although the audience feels some sympathy for Ben now, who knows how long that will last?

CNN: Did you know when you first came on "Lost" that you would be a major character?
Michael Emerson: No, thank goodness I didn’t know. It would have made me so nervous. I think I could have possibly screwed it up. As it was, I had no more nerve than you would normally have going to a strange show and doing a guest spot. I was only going to do a few, and then come home. I think I only packed for a month when I first went out there. Now it’s four and a half years later.

What did you think when you read about the alternate universe in the script?
Emerson: Like usual I said, "Well, how does that work, and what does it mean?" Then you start thinking, is it more real than the island narrative? Is it less real? Are they both equally real? Is one some kind of fantasy or dream, or possible alternative in the mind of the creator? You know, it’s still hard to know what a lot of things mean on the show. But also very exciting to me as an actor to get to make an entire second character without leaving the show of 'Lost.' He’s Ben, clearly, but a completely different version of Ben and that was one of the chief pleasures of the final season.

How would you describe the difference between the two Bens?
Emerson: It’s the same Ben but a different complete palette. The Ben of the island is in vivid primary color, and Teacher Ben is in more muted color, more like the real world.

So, he has many of the same impulses, but in a much different amount. So, he has some ambition, but it’s a much smaller ambition. He has some sense of manipulation, but it’s a much milder, a much lighter version. That was what was fun about playing the flash sideways.

Did anyone tell you what the flash sideways meant at the time?
Emerson: No! No one tells you, but then we don’t really ask, either. For years, we’ve been doing this show, and mostly we just do it on faith. I don’t have to know exactly what it means to play it, if you know what I mean. I just show up, do my work, basically play it straight on the day, and then when I see it broadcast, a lot of times, then I’ll figure out what its meaning or context is. But sometimes not even then.

Was there anything scary or weird to you in the show?
Emerson: Sometimes they would shock me by making Ben more villainous than even I imagined. The massacre of the Dharma Initiative was a shock to me, and the strangling of John Locke was a shock to me, but those are great episodes too, and memorable work. So, I perform whatever they write, but sometimes you think, “Wow we’re really going there? OK. Here we go.”

Do you feel your character is inherently good or evil, or in a gray area?
Emerson: He’s definitely in the gray area. He always was, but it’s even grayer now, I think. We’ve reached a place where I think he has a lot of audience sympathy at this point. It may not be permanent. But right now, we’re so much more familiar with him, and he’s definitely not the scariest creature in the show. At this point. (pause) Heh heh heh.

Is there anything you wish your character had done on the show?
Emerson: No, I don’t think so. I think it’s been really complete, and full, and consistent, and I’m very happy with the way Ben is resolved at the end.

Tell us about a funny moment while filming.
Emerson: I will always love the scene where Hurley and I shared a candy bar on a log in the rain forest. That was hilarious. We still talk about it because we keep analyzing it as if it were a comic bit, and we feel like it’s missing one beat to make it truly funny.

What's a portion of the show you're particularly proud of?
Emerson: I’m happy about the scenes where Ben … when the unhappy child in Ben reveals itself. When he gets angry or defensive or loses his customary control. There aren’t many of those kinds of moments. When Ben, for example, kills Jacob, that’s a place where all his adult civilization, he loses it for a moment. And the unhappy teenager … some part of Ben is frozen in development at a young age and never matured, and I like that about the character and I like playing it.

Do you feel like your classical acting training helped you on this show?
Emerson: Sure. I think that having done classical work is always a help. I just think it gives you … it’s a skill set. Once you’ve done that hard work of trying to crack open and illuminate difficult language, then contemporary language seems easier, and you can bring those more highly tuned skills to bear on texts that might not ordinarily seem exceptional, but you may be able to make it exceptional.

How was it having your wife on the show with you?
Emerson: It was fun. I love working with my wife [Carrie Preston, who was in "The Man Behind the Curtain" in Season 3], and it was unique to have her be in Hawaii working on the same show. We didn’t have any scenes together because she was playing my mother, so she had to give birth to a little baby me. It was kind of strange, but it was fun to go to the set, and she’d be clocking out, and I’d be clocking in. It was so crazy to go, "Hello honey, how was your day?” in the middle of this jungle.

Did you do research for your character?

Emerson: I always felt I had instinctively a grasp on this character. It wasn’t that much work to find how to play Ben Linus. But again, I was glad that I have played villains on stage. You play a part like Iago in Othello, and that gives you some ideas about the function of villains in drama, and how they tick, and what makes them exciting for an audience. It was useful that I had the stage background that I do.

Are you friends with other cast members?

Emerson: I hang out a lot with Terry [O’Quinn] and with Jorge [Garcia]. Jorge throws a lot of fun parties at his house so I’m over there a lot. And Terry and I –we’re such a happy acting team that we just get along famously. We’re of similar age and similar background, and I have enjoyed my collaboration with him.

Any plans for acting after Lost?
Emerson: I don’t have anything lined up yet. Something will come, I assume. I’ll be happy if I can do some theater work this year, probably New York, I don’t know what it will be or when. I’ll continue to audition for movies, maybe I can get a little part in a movie some day, and that would be fun.

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May 11, 2010

Geek Out!: Jacob from 'Lost' and the science of living (closer to) forever

Posted: 08:34 AM ET

Editor's note: Geek Out! posts feature the latest and most interesting in nerd-culture news. From sci-fi and fantasy to games and science, if you can geek out over it, you can find it on Geek Out! Look for Geek Out! posts on CNN's SciTech blog.

Tonight on “Lost,” we may finally find out the origins of the perpetual struggle between Jacob and the man in black that has lasted hundreds, if not thousands, of years. These men seem to be immortal, and it appears that Jacob granted Richard Alpert his wish of never dying.

These men have lived through centuries without appearing to age at all. Actor Mark Pellegrino, who plays Jacob, told CNN's Henry Hanks that he would actually love to live forever in real life.

"I don't think it's a curse, I think it would be a wonderful thing. If you have an open mind and a brain, you can only get better with age," he said. "I think given where Richard came from and where he evolved to it came from wisdom - and Jacob too."

In real life, the limit tends to be around 100 to 110 years, said Dr. Robert Butler, president and CEO of the International Longevity Center-USA and professor at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health.

Recently the world’s oldest living person, Kama Chinen, died a week before her 115th birthday. The person with the longest recorded, confirmed lifespan in human history is Jeanne Louise Calment. She was born in 1875 and died in 1997, at age 122 and 164 days, according to Guinness World Records.

The number of long-living people is growing. By 2050, there could be close to 1 million people aged 100 and above in the United States, Butler said.

"So far it’s usually disease that ends our life, but in theory the clock does run out," he said.

Butler's new book "The Longevity Prescription" outlines steps to living a long, healthy life.

Some of the advice is intuitive: a good diet that's low in fat and mostly vegetarian will serve you well, he said. Recent research found that a Mediterranean diet may help stave off cognitive decline. Keeping your drinking moderate, not smoking, and getting physical exercise will help preserve your body and mind.

Having a purpose in life that makes you get up in the morning also helps, he said. Get involved in your community by doing volunteer work, participating in local organizations, and coming up with good deeds for others. It's never too late to follow your passions - for instance, the musical group Young@Heart Chorus started in a housing project for seniors in Northampton, Massachusetts, and has since performed internationally.

Forming strong relationships, reducing stress, and getting a good amount of sleep are all part of the prescription for a long life, he said.

Beyond what you can currently do in your daily life, there is also research going on to scientifically slow the process of aging. Scientists are looking at proteins called sirtuins as the means of extending lifespan. Leonard Guarente at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is studying the connection between sirtuins and caloric restriction. Read more

But don't get too excited - it would be a breakthrough if we could extend life by seven years, as that seems to be the threshold of declines in aging, Butler said. At the cellular and molecular level, the nature of deterioration is such that a 70-year-old is likely to be in worse shape than a 63-year-old.

Still, there's plenty of room for improvement. The average length of an American's life went from 47 years in 1900 to 77 years today. Most of that gain came from public health measures, such as basic hygiene, Butler said. In fact, he attributes only five extra years gained to advances in medicine over the last century.

Today, tragically, some of those gains could be reversing because of trends in obesity, Butler said. The fast food craze has contributed to a large population of severely overweight people who are at higher risk of chronic illnesses such as diabetes.

Bottom line: The idea of living forever is "pretty romantic," Butler said, but in the next hundred years we may be able to slow aging, delay age-related diseases, and live a little bit longer.

Read more health news on Paging Dr. Gupta.

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April 30, 2010

Geek Out!: Crochet sculptures teach higher math

Posted: 09:09 AM ET

Editor's note: Geek Out! posts feature the latest and most interesting in nerd-culture news. From scifi and fantasy to gadgets and science, if you can geek out over it, you can find it on Geek Out! Look for Geek Out! posts on CNN's SciTech blog.

This work of art has a logic to its beauty: It was inspired by a branch of mathematics called hyperbolic geometry. Daina Taimina, adjunct professor at Cornell University, has been making these crochet creations since 1997, both for teaching and for aesthetic value.

Taimina remembers that when she was a student of non-Euclidian geometry, her instructor would tell the class to imagine the concepts being studied. “Why should I trust something I can imagine?” Taimina asks. She wanted to be able to construct something that would represent the complex ideas of higher mathematics. When she began teaching non-Euclidian geometry, crochet allowed her to explain concepts not on a blackboard or computer screen but in something tangible.

Most middle school students are taught Euclidian geometry, which puts forth that if you have a line and a point outside of it, there is only one other line you could draw that would could go through the point and also be parallel to it. This is the case for a two-dimensional plane, on a flat piece of paper, for example. But in hyperbolic space, that is no longer true. “This is something you can really can see only after have crocheted it,” Taimina says. This model illustrates the point: In this space, there are three lines going through the point that will not intersect with the fourth line on the bottom.

The models Taimina uses for instructional purposes take about 10 hours to make. Her largest crochet work took eight months to construct. “In some ways I feel like I’m making sculptures with crocheting,” she said. “I’m interested how long you can crochet the same shape over and over.” The image above is an example of a manifold, which can be folded into an infinite number of shapes without distorting the geometry of the surface.

"Hyperbolic geometry" may sound esoteric, but there are plenty of real-world applications. It describes how skin grows on wounds, so plastic surgeons must be aware of it; for example, in reducing the visibility of scarring after surgery, Taimina said. It also plays a role in computer animation. In nature, you can see hyperbolic geometry in nature all the time, from kale to sea kelp to the holly pictured above.

To learn more, visit Taimina's Web site.

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April 12, 2010

Geek Out!: Big Bang Theory actor is ‘beast’ inside Raj

Posted: 01:31 PM ET
Kunal Nayyar
Kunal Nayyar

Editor's note: Geek Out! posts feature the latest and most interesting in nerd-culture news. From scifi and fantasy to gadgets and science, if you can geek out over it you can find it on Geek Out! Look for Geek Out! posts on CNN's SciTech blog.

Kunal Nayyar plays a shy astrophysicist from India named Raj Koothrappali on the CBS hit sitcom "The Big Bang Theory," which airs Monday nights. In real life, he is also Indian and a geek, but not so timid. CNN's Geek Out! caught up with him a few days after he wrapped up shooting the show's season finale.

Q: How did you get into acting?
A: I had done some stuff when I was in Delhi in high school, but nothing major. When I moved to America, I was studying in a small school in Portland, Oregon, called the University of Portland, and I didn’t really have any friends. So I thought I should audition for a play so I could meet girls. And I auditioned for this play and I got in and I was terrible…

I realized very quickly that I’m just really bad at this, but I want to get better. I started taking all the acting classes – I still ended up getting my degree in business - but I took all of the acting classes and hung out with all of the theater kids, and I was like the theater geek by the end of my undergrad.

Then I went and got my master’s in acting at Temple University in Philly, and then I bounced all over the place and I ended up on the Big Bang Theory.

Q: What about that show appealed to you?
A: It was a Chuck Lorre pilot, and it was a multi-camera show, which is very close to theater - the world that I knew - and it was really funny. I didn’t look at it and say, oh this is a perfect geek comedy, I just read it and said, Oh my God, this is brilliant writing, this is so funny.

Q: How would you describe your character, Raj?
A: Not only does he have trouble mingling with the outside world, he also has trouble mingling because he’s a foreigner… it’s a double-edged sword he’s fighting. He feels very comfortable with these guys because they’re everything to him, you know what I mean? He’s so dependent, especially on Howard, but these guys are his family and his life, because he feels completely at ease with them.

And of course, you know, he suffers from selective mutism, which comes from his pathological shyness, and he can only talk to women when he drinks.

Inside Raj lives a beast, like a rapper or like a player or like a mogul, because every time he drinks he becomes this smooth, suave, picking-up-girls kind of guy. So I think there’s a beast that lives inside him.

Q: To what extent do you think you’re like Raj?

A: I think if Raj could let the beast out, that would be Kunal. I think Kunal is the beast that’s living inside Raj. Not that I am a mogul or a player or anything, but in essence I have the freedoms that he doesn’t.

Kunal is very much like Raj because I also sometimes I have to fight that double-edged sword, fitting in socially as well as internationally. And I think Raj is kind of mischievous and I’m pretty mischievous. Things excite Raj very easily, he gets excited very easily when it comes to video games or women or anything, and I’m sort of like that too.

Q: Do you relate to the geek culture of the show?
A: Yes. 100 percent. I know what it feels like to be passionate about something, and I think what makes these characters so lovable and kind of sexy to people now is that people really respond to people who are passionate about something. And these guys are very passionate about their lifestyle. They’re very passionate about comic books, they’re very passionate about what they wear, they’re very passionate about their work.

So the term ‘geek’ or ‘nerd’ it really just transcends to someone who’s very passionate about a certain lifestyle. You see a lot of people living their lives in the middle. These guys don’t. They don’t live their life in the middle, they go for whatever they want. And of course, according to the regular society it’s really not the norm, but I think I guess we share that similarity: I’m very passionate about my craft and my acting, and these guys are very passionate about astrophysics.

Q: Do you consider yourself a geek in real life?
A: In many ways. You know, like I said, I love video games – I’m in the middle of God of War III and I can’t wait to finish it – and I love video games, but at the same time I love sports. I love playing ping pong – ping pong is my sport, badminton is my sport, which is really geeky in essence. But at the same time I love watching football.

I love Archie and Jughead comics. There’s a board game called Star Wars Epic Duals that’s out of print now, Hasbro used to make it, and I spent one day 36 hours with my friends playing that game. I went to theater school – I’m pretty geeky in certain ways. But not as extreme as the guys in the show.

Q: Did you have to learn any science for the show?
A: I didn’t have to learn it beforehand, but I do keep learning as we go along. We have a real-life scientist who’s a consultant on the show… he’s on set a lot and we have a lot of questions for him, and all the science is real.

Q: What’s an example?
A: If you mix cornstarch and water and you put on top of a bass speaker with cellophane, it like bounces up and down and creates these crazy ghost-like figures. Try it: cornstarch and water. It’ll blow your mind.

Q: Are you planning any other projects?
A: Right now I’m just in the process of sleeping, and when the time is right I will be diving into some stuff. But nothing is solid yet, so I’m not allowed to really say.

Q: Did you wrap up the show?
A: We just wrapped on Tuesday [April 6]. It’s great. It’s nice to have a little break. We’ll be back in August, and we’re going to rock it one more season, and hopefully many seasons beyond.

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April 6, 2010

Geek Out!: 'Lost,' time and quantum mechanics

Posted: 02:43 PM ET

Editor's note: Geek Out! posts feature the latest and most interesting in nerd-culture news. From scifi and fantasy to gadgets and science, if you can geek out over it you can find it on Geek Out! Look for Geek Out! posts on CNN's SciTech blog.

If you're watching "Lost," you're probably wondering how the writers are going to resolve all of the questions about time and parallel existences. Sean Carroll, physicist at California Institute of Technology and "Lost" fan, is wondering the same thing.

But as far-fetched as the show may seem, there are ways in which concepts from modern physics could explain what's happening in terms of time, says Carroll, author of "From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time."

To recap: In the last two seasons of "Lost," characters on the island found themselves jutting through time. Season 5 found the characters transported to different eras on the island again and again thanks to some uncomfortable - even deadly! - white flashes.

At the beginning of Season 6, after Juliet activated the hydrogen bomb at the Dharma Swan site, the characters appeared in a new timeline.

This timeline portrays what happens to the characters on Oceanic Flight 815 had the plane not crashed. But many aspects of their lives are different, suggesting that the detonation of the bomb in the 1970s (after some of them had gone back in time) changed their lives in 2004 in significant ways - Sun and Jin are not married, Benjamin Linus is a schoolteacher, etc. etc.

But we don't know if the bomb actually created this timeline, or if it had always been there.

In real life, physicists think about multiple worlds all the time when it comes to quantum mechanics - the study of matter on atomic and subatomic scales. That's because nature gets freaky when you try to describe the behavior of particles smaller than the eye can see.

In quantum mechanics there is a concept called the the "many-worlds interpretation," Carroll says. The theory goes that the universe splits into multiple "worlds" when we observe a quantum system in which the particles are in multiple places at once.

Let's say we observe a single particle at positions A and B simultaneously. Each place that the particle is in corresponds to a different world - so, there's a world with our particle at A, and a separate world with our particle at B.

"We might imagine that detonating the bomb acted as an especially dramatic quantum event, splitting the universe into two timelines. The show has hinted that there is some sort of connection between the two timelines, so we'll have to see how that plays out," Carroll says.

Also, if time travel were possible, it would have to operate according to a principle that "Lost" characters kept repeating in Season 5: "Whatever happened, happened." That means that if you could go back in time, you wouldn't be able to change anything.

So let's say you go back to 1990 and encounter yourself, saying "Hey, you - I mean, me." That would have always happened, and you would remember now having met yourself then (so it hasn't happened!).

Recall, for instance, that in "Lost," Eloise in present-day Los Angeles clearly remembered that she had met her own time-traveling son Daniel many years earlier, but Eloise on the island in the 1970s did not, because from her perspective it hadn't happened yet.

All this goes to say that the "Lost" creators do have some basis for the sometimes outrageous time travel elements in the show. Still, a lot of underlying ideas haven't been resolved yet. Tune in on Tuesday nights to see if we learn more!

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March 29, 2010

Geek Out!: 'Penny Arcade' writers on geekdom and games

Posted: 11:44 AM ET

Editor's note: Geek Out! posts feature the latest and most interesting in nerd-culture news. From scifi and fantasy to gadgets and science, if you can geek out over it you can find it on Geek Out! Look for Geek Out! posts on CNN's SciTech blog.

PAX East, the Penny Arcade Expo, was the geek buzz this weekend as gaming fans flocked to the event in Boston, Massachusetts. Wil Wheaton of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" was a guest speaker. Before the convention, I chatted with Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins, the writers of the Web comic Penny Arcade, who started it all. Here is an edited version of our conversation.

What do you want people to get out of your convention?

Jerry: We want them to derive nourishment. Nourishment for the geek soul and the enduring sensation that they are not alone.

Do you think that geeks today are more accepted than before?

Jerry: Even if it were true, I would resist it. I don’t want to be accepted. I want to retain my street credentials. There are lots of geeks, and certainly geeks can communicate with one another, but ... do we have an openly geek Senator? Is there a Senator that can speak fluently about Daleks? Maybe not.

I would say that Michael and I are being beat up less. It hasn’t completely abated. It still happens on occasion. But I would say that… the beatings are less severe.

What do you think is the difference between a nerd and a geek?

Jerry: I think being a geek is cool… A geek has an ownership of their geek nature.

And nerds?

Jerry: They don't. It’s my hope that my nerds become geeks via a natural process, that they learn that their inherent nature isn’t something they need to feel ashamed of. I feel like 'nerd' is the epithet, and 'geek' is the inside term.

Mike: Is that like what's written on a tombstone?

Jerry: Mhm. Here lies, you know, Nerd.

How do you geek out?

Jerry: We geek out constantly. I'm geeking out right now. I'm talking to CNN.

Mike: I tend to geek out about gadgets. Pretty much any new gadget that comes out, I get excited for, mostly because I like taking them out of the box, peeling that layer of transparent film off of them ... .

Jerry: The thing that I geek out about most is that specialized cultures, just by necessity, need to develop a lot of customized language. Because Penny Arcade is read by a broad spectrum of people, one of the things that we can do is create bits of useful language and I like to track those words and see if they end up with a happy, healthy life. Like, if they make their way into actual conversation and are used as a tool.

"Bull shot" was a good example that Mike came up with. It's often the case that a case screen shot from a game - obviously screen shots are part of the marketing engine that promotes this medium - but sometimes these shots are obviously fraudulent. Most recently it was with Final Fantasy 13 on the [XBox] 360. There were just some shots that were untrue... The term "bull shot," which we had put in the strip a couple years ago, was leveraged, even today in 2010 to describe that - which, for us, is pretty exciting.

How did you meet and start making comics?

Jerry: We met in journalism class originally and we did a small comic in the paper for Mead High School in Spokane. Through the course of human events, we ended up working on comics there in the apartment. [E]ventually we entered a contest to create comics for a Web site called Next Generation Online, which was connected to a magazine back then. Very prestigious. We failed in that task. We did not win that contest. [But] we had an ample selection of comics, and we found a place to run them.

How did you go from writing comics to selling books to making your own video games to hosting your convention?

Jerry: We tried to make the right decision at each juncture. If there was an opportunity to get books out through Dark Horse or Random House, if there was an opportunity to make a game or make a show or put together a charity, we just tried to make it as good as we could each time. It was a pretty organic process.

How would you describe what Penny Arcade is?

Jerry: It's essentially like a political cartoon for the gaming industry. We essentially catalog gamer culture and pop culture in a thrice-weekly comic strip.

How would you say that it evolved since 1998?

Jerry: We have changed a lot. Essentially the strip – it's about games because that's what we like. But more than that essentially, the strip is about us, it's sort of like a diary in that respect. It's changed along with us... Occasionally, we'll discuss the kids we've had in the interim period, or things like that. We've touched on some more dad issues, and some things that are maybe of a more enduring nature than the releases that week.


Did you think that your franchise would be become so big?

Jerry: One always has the best hopes for their children, but no. It’s a perpetual surprise

What is your favorite video game of all time and why?

Jerry: There have been a lot of games that I’ve played in recent memory that are sort of standing tall. Mass Effect 2 just came out, and we've all in the office played through that, and that had a pretty profound effect on all of us...The original Wasteland on the Commodore 64... that was the first game I ever bought with my own money, so for me, I earned every second of that experience so I was very aware of it. But I really liked the first Shenmue as well on the Dreamcast.

Mike: My favorite video game is probably Kingdom Hearts II, but I also have to go with Jerry and say that Mass Effect 2 is pretty amazing.

How did you come up with the alter egos Gabe and Tycho?

Jerry: We didn't have to work very hard. Gabe and Tycho were our handles... The name that you choose when you play a game in multiplayer or single player, it's just sort of these personas there. Personality wise, the characters in the strip are just sort of exaggerations of our worst qualities.

How did you meet Wil Wheaton and start inviting him to PAX?

Jerry: He's our friend. We had met him at multiple conventions; he often found his way down to San Diego and we had met him there one year and really hit it off. And so when the time came to move PAX from Bellevue, where it started out, into the Washington State Convention Center, a pretty momentous move… we really wanted to identify that shift, that motion into a world-class show, and we thought that Wil would be a good voice for that. We were not wrong; he delivered a really great keynote that year.

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March 12, 2010

Geek Out!: My life with pi

Posted: 03:09 PM ET
Pumpkin pi.
Pumpkin pi.

Editor's note: Geek Out! posts feature the latest and most interesting nerd culture news. From scifi and fantasy to gadgets and science, if you can geek out over it you can find it on Geek Out! Look for Geek Out! posts on CNN's SciTech blog.

Happy (almost) Pi Day, everyone! I'm going to be eating some pie with my friends Sunday to commemorate the day. But Pi Day (see my CNN.com story here) wasn't always so well-recognized.

When I was 13, I thought I was different because several of my hobbies involved the number pi. For me, the ratio of circumference to diameter of a circle held many exciting possibilities. Since no one had proven that the digits were random, yet there were infinitely many of them, I saw this as an amazing opportunity for creative expression, and perhaps some code-cracking too.

For instance, you can put pi to music: using a piano, make middle C=1, D=2, E=3, and so on, you have a song representing pi. At the first instance of "0" the melody breaks down a bit (I wasn’t quite sure what to do with the “0” anyway), but I think there's a natural musical ending ("53421") - ending back on middle C - with the number 1 at digit 95.

I also did a lot of pi-related creative writing back in my teenage years, including this song "American Pi." Here’s a poetry technique you can try too: the number of letters in each word correspond to a digit, so a “pi poem” begins with a three-letter word, a one-letter word, a four-letter word, and so on. Here’s an example I wrote, representing (3.1415926535897932384626433832795).

Why, π? Stop, π! Weird anomalies do behave badly!
You, madly conjured, imperfect, strange, numerical,
Why do you maintain this facade?
In finite time you are barbaric.
You do wonders, mesmerize minds!

It was also fun to memorize digits from the poster in my math classroom. When that poster ran out around digit 50, I turned to books. To remember the digits of pi, I primarily relied on a rhythm in my head that grouped 2, 3, or 4 digits together at a time. To me it was three point one four one five nine two six and so on, although more ambitious pi memorizers may use other methods.

Today, it appears that pi become much more mainstream than when I first fell in love with it. Back in 1997, I had only my books and a few Web sites to draw from for pi inspiration. Now, there are hundreds of pi-related Web resources, not to mention a great deal of enthusiasm on YouTube – you’ll find pi recitations far longer more than my personal record of 178, and pi songs that are more ambitious than my own. It’s on "The Simpsons," in the movies, and a lot of other places you’d least expect. There’s even a Kate Bush song involving the digits of pi. Judging by how many pi-related t-shirts there are, I’d say it’s become a status symbol in this whole "geek is chic" movement.

Apparently it’s not so weird to like pi anymore. In fact, pi has actually brought me closer to other people. One of my good friends, also a pi fan, learned of my existence in 2002 when I published an opinion piece about pi in the Philadelphia Inquirer. A college classmate spent the morning of March 14, 2005, memorizing more than 200 digits so that he could beat me at Princeton’s annual math department Pi Day celebration (he took first place, I took second, we're still friends). In recent years I’ve worn a pi-related outfit at Dragon Con, which is a great ice-breaker among thousands of self-proclaimed geeks.

Clearly, I will not be the only one eating pie in honor of Pi Day on Sunday. What are you doing for Pi Day? Share your ideas in the comments.

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Filed under: Geek Out! • Mathematics


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March 4, 2010

'Hella' proposed as standard scientific prefix

Posted: 06:28 PM ET

"1,000 yottabytes? That's hellabytes."

So proclaims a T-shirt sold by the campaign to make "hella" the prefix for 10^27, an extremely large number written out as a 1 followed by 27 zeroes.

Apparently, there is not yet a standard prefix for this number, in the way that "kilo" is "thousand" and "mega" is "million." That's how you know that a "kilobyte" is 1,000 bytes and a "megabyte" is 1,000,000 bytes. But so far only prefixes for units up to 10^24 ("yotta") have names, according to the International System of Units (SI). Here are the established prefixes.

Now comes a Facebook page (with more than 37,000 fans and counting), and an online petition to get "hella," a hip, Northern California slang term that means "a whole lot of" as a standard prefix for 10^27.

Here's an excerpt from the Facebook page, written by physics student Austin Sendek at the University of California, Davis:

Addressing this issue presents an exciting opportunity. Since the SI system has traditionally adopted the last names of accomplished scientists for unit nomenclature, it follows that prefix designation should do the same. From this tradition comes the chance for the SI system to use nomenclature to honor a constantly overlooked scientific contributor: Northern California.

According to Sendek, since Northern California institutions have contributed greatly to scientific endeavors, it makes sense to honor the region with "hella." Apparently, that's where people originally started saying things like, "there are hella stars out tonight."

Speaking of stars, the word "hella" would be useful to describe the sun's energy, which is 4 x 10^27 watts according to NASA. That would be 4 hellawatts according to the proposal.

What do you think about bringing "hella" into scientific standard practice?

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Filed under: Facebook • Geek Out!


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February 22, 2010

Is this AAAS, or Comic-Con?

Posted: 02:11 PM ET

Actor-turned-White House staffer Kalpen Modi, better known by his former name, Kal Penn, spoke two years ago at the San Diego Convention Center during Comic-Con 2008, promoting the "Harold and Kumar" sequel. This past weekend, he appeared in the very same convention center in a suit and tie, reading a statement from the White House.

Since I was in San Diego last year for Comic-Con, attending the meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in the very same venue this weekend was a little jarring. Instead of thousands of geeks clad in elaborate costumes to celebrate characters from comic books, movies, and TV shows, I was surrounded this time by thousands of scientists. Instead of networks and studios promoting their movies and shows, researchers were here explaining their work.

Seeing Kumar– I mean, Modi, in action as the Associate Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement drove home the point that this was not a costume party anymore. Director Ron Howard also spoke at AAAS, further blurring the line between science and celebrity.

But Modi wasn't the only crossover between Comic-Con and AAAS. James Kakalios, technical consultant on "Watchmen" and a physicist at the University of Minnesota, delivered a version of the very same speech he gave about the science of comic-book heroes at Comic-Con 2008. And I acquired a lot of brochures at AAAS just like I did at Comic-Con, and even came away with some fun, geeky swag (a magnetic button that flashes brightly colored lights in honor of the 50th anniversary of the laser).

Of course, AAAS does not dominate the convention center like Comic-Con did; there are other events going on in various halls of the complex, including a home improvement and landscape show. The huge registration hall for Comic-Con was eerily empty this weekend. AAAS is believed to draw about 6,000 attendees; Comic-Con 2010 is slated for 126,000 people. It's like comparing a small town to the entire city of Hartford, Connecticut.

I would assume that at Comic-Con 2008 Kal Penn was surrounded by giddy fans who waited in line for hours to see him. On Friday, a much more subdued audience listened to him talk about partnerships between science and the arts.

That meant I had comparatively little competition in approaching Modi afterwards and asking the question we all want to know: Does he have any plans for going back into acting?

"Perhaps at some point," he told me, and then explained that many people have come from the private sector to the current administration. "I would hope to continue to serve for the next few years, and you know, after that, I'm not sure. I don’t have any, sort of, set plans after that."

And since this was not Comic-Con, I professionally waited until he walked away to blush, smile, and sigh like a giddy fan.

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Filed under: Movies • science


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February 21, 2010

Lasers may enable fusion

Posted: 05:31 PM ET

Can a swimming pool's worth of water power California for a year?

The answer is yes, assuming all goes according to plan for scientists working on laser-driven fusion, said Ed Moses at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Moses spoke at the annual meeting of the American Association of the Advancement of Science, AAAS, on Sunday.

The sun's heat and light get generated in a fusion reaction, in which two hydrogen atoms combine to make helium. This reaction is driven by gravity, whereas in the proposed fusion reactor, particles come together because of lasers.

Water is the main and virtually limitless ingredient, since the idea is to make use of hydrogen particles in water. This summer and fall, researchers hope to test their technique with tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen that has one proton and two neutrons.

Energy from this fusion machine would be harnessed as follows: The reaction produces neutrons, which are slowed down in a liquid salt. The salt gets hot, and then it's pumped as a heat exchanger, essentially making steam. There are also other advanced ideas about how to get the energy out of the process, including the induction of electric currents.

The capability to get more energy out than is put in should be available in about five to seven years, Moses said. Researchers hope to get a demonstration plant up and running in the next 10 to 15 years.

There are, of course, social challenges in addition to technical challenges, he said. Fusion is one of many approaches being considered for cleaner energy.

To learn more, visit the site of the Laser Inertial Fusion Engine.

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Filed under: Energy


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