Archive for the ‘features’ Category

Mike Brown, Planet Killer: “Mercury is Pissing Me Off”

December 19, 2010

Mike Brown is famous for discovering Eris, a dwarf planet larger than Pluto orbiting out on the far edge of the solar system. Ultimately, Eris’ discovery led to the redefinition of the word “planet” and the eradication of Pluto from children’s lunchboxes.

Brown’s new book, How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming tells the story of his team’s discovery of a complete menagerie out past Neptune – a place most astronomers thought held little but hydrogen, comets, and a few bits of rock that occasionally get flung out there by gas giants.

In an interview from last Wednesday, December 15, Brown told me that his most scientifically-important discovery was not Eris, but Sedna, a large object lying so far away from the gravitational perturbations of Jupiter and friends that its orbit can be traced back to the beginning of the solar system, and whose existence has challenged astronomers’ conception of how the planets formed.

Brown also showed me the sonograms of his embryonic daughter (now 5 years old) to compare side-by-side with photographs of Venus taken by the Venera Lander, and commented on the gravitational influence of my mother.

Part 1 (17 minutes: Hate mail, the process of writing, science of the early solar system)

Part 2 (31 minutes: More science, more writing, international intrigue, Pluto’s appeal and wimpiness)

Caltech and the Collegiate Starleague

April 26, 2009

latest story for The Tech

Hetul Patel is in trouble. Belligerent forces are harassing him constantly, but recently their little forays are getting more and more serious. There are too many demands on his attention. Distracted and pressured, he’s reacting a bit slowly. The little mistakes are accumulating. Also, he’s got something of a gas problem.

Hetul, president of the Caltech Starcraft Club, is giving me a play-by-play as he skirmishes against his teammate Wilson Sung (the gas problem is that you need lots of it in Starcraft, and Hetul is running out). They’re two of the top Starcraft players at Caltech, and recently led their team to the quarterfinals of the first-ever championship of the Collegiate Starleague (CSL).

“The first attack is like an opening move in chess. Your opening moves in chess aren’t meant to kill your opponent. They’re meant to open the game.” As he narrates, a small patrol of Hetul’s marines marches out to do battle with three of Wilson’s dragoons. After a few minutes of watching, I’m beginning to see how the subtleties here really do mimic chess. Just take that 8×8 board and make it enormous and different every time you play. Then give black and white completely different powers, and put up to 200 pieces on a side. And oh yeah, it’s always everybody’s turn.

“I’ll use a lot of small guerrilla tactics,” Hetul says. His cool, matter-of-fact voice-over offsets the pre-recorded death screams of his warriors. “I’m already messing up,” he says with a laugh. “The next one will be better.”

Starcraft is a real time strategy computer game, meaning that if you’re over 30 you will probably never understand it. Players have to collect raw materials, build factories for their war machine, create an army (or four), and go to war. When you’re good, you do all these tasks simultaneously.

Though more than a decade old – ancient for a video game – Starcraft retains a core of dedicated gamers who aren’t interested in the flashier new offerings. Hetul used to play other games, but switched his efforts over to Starcraft along with a few friends last year. “Whenever I play Starcraft, it’s really fast. When I try to switch to something else, I feel like it’s really slow,” he explains. Starcraft’s innovation was to create three completely different races for players to choose from – and to balance their power perfectly.

Hetul plays Terran – humans with Starship Troopers technology. Wilson is a Protoss (once players build their skill, they generally pick one race and stick to it), an alien race with advanced technology. Absent from the match I’m watching are the Zerg – another alien races with really big claws.

Hetul quickly improved after adopting the game. When he learned about the new CSL, he recruited more gamers and signed up. The matches take place online, with four one-on-one and one two-on-two games each time. Twenty-six teams from colleges around the US and Canada played a five-round preliminary bracket, with one new match each week. Caltech won three of their five matches to advance to the eight-team semifinals. Seeded last, they lost a tough battle against the favorite, University of Texas.

“We actually almost beat them,” Hetul says, no doubt reminiscing on that one fatal Zerg rush. I ask about the great, exciting moments in the tournament. There was a two-on-two match, he tells me, where Caltech eliminated one of the opponents to make it 2-1. “Then it wound up we lost. I guess that must have been exciting for the other team.”

Watching practiced players is a shocking experience for someone who may have popped the Starcraft CD in once in high school to see what the craze was about. Hetul and Wilson know every unit and upgrade and building in the game. They know to build siege tanks against Protoss players and marines against Zerg. They know every hotkey, and are personal counterexamples to the theory that people can only keep track of seven things at the same time. Hetul moves at about 200 “APM” actions per minute, meaning that on average he strikes a hotkey or makes a mouse click three or four times per second over the course of a twenty minute game.

“Pro gamers in Korea can get four or five hundred,” he tells me. The mention of South Korea is a refrain among Starcraft players. In the US, Starcraft is popular – students at UC Berkeley even organized their own course on “Game Theory with Applications to Starcraft” – but in South Korea Starcraft is serious business. The best players have corporate sponsors, bring home large salaries, and achieve national celebrity. Have there ever been great Starcraft geniuses who change the way the world sees the game? “Yeah,” Hetul says, “but they’re all Korean.” Could Americans ever beat Koreans if they practiced as much? Hetul looks over at Wilson, who’s joined us after winning a second game, and they share a sort of muffled laugh. “No, no,… no.”

It took several updates and revisions before Blizzard Entertainment finally settled down and finalized Starcraft, but when they did, they wound up with what many devotees consider the most perfectly-balanced real-time strategy game ever. “There’s a lot about Starcraft. It’s really hard to tell you all at once,” Hetul says in way that makes me feel like I’ve traded roles with the English major who once asked me to explain “the universe” to her.

“The strategies keep on evolving,” he tries. “It goes through phases. It’s constantly adapting.” Starcraft 2 is in development, and everyone in the community is wondering whether Blizzard can find the magic formula once more. Make the races too similar and you kill the interest and the role of creativity. Make them too different and they’re impossible to balance fairly. Make the game too simple and you lose richness and discovery. Make it too complicated and you build an insurmountable learning curve.

Already, it takes dedication to learn the game to the core. “It’s something people can’t just pick up and be good at. There’s a huge skill gradient,” Hetul says. But he’s always looking to tack on some newbs to the club’s current nine-player roster. Hetul is the only Terran player.

Wilson and Hetul play only a few times a week due to the demands of school. “It’s definitely less addictive than World of Warcraft,” Wilson says. He and Hetul speculate it may be because each game is a self-contained combat. They improve as players – serious Starcraft players grade themselves by letter, and they both rank at the D+/C- range – but there’s no “leveling up” to draw you in for days at a time.

The CSL will continue in future years, they confidently predict. Already it’s built up considerable membership and drawn attention of the New York Times. The Caltech team is relaxing into club mode now that the competitive season is over, meeting online each Friday evening. Players interested in club play should check out the team’s website at for more information.


October 3, 2008

“Ah, the origin of the universe,” sighs physicist Leonard Susskind from the stage of Beckman Auditorium. “Boy, does that ever take me back.”

An hour later, Paul Davies intoned for the third time, “as Lenny already mentioned…” before explaining again that the universe is in fact quite old, and did or did not, perhaps, depending on your point of view and interpretation of various fine intricacies some small subset of specialists may or may not understand, come from somewhere.

The third physicist to speak, Caltech’s own Sean Carroll, probably couldn’t even tell who to credit before making a point. Was it “as Paul already mentioned,” or “as Lenny alluded,” or “as Paul said that Lenny previously indicated that I might say when it was my turn, about the point Paul made clarifying Lenny’s tangent on my thesis…”

Perhaps you see the difficulty, at something like the Origins conference, in keeping your physicists apart. When it comes to speculating on genesis, they appear to be bosons. (Note to non-physics people: that’s not as mean as you think. “Boson” is the name of a famous circus clown. He invented gravity. To help him juggle.)

Michael Shermer, director of the Skeptic Society, brought a host of eminent scientists to Caltech last Saturday to speak before a lay audience (like me). Ostensibly, their goal was to collectively meditate on whether “science makes belief in God obsolete.”

The scientists involved were as nonplussed by the imponderability of this question as any other reasonable person would be, and proceeded to talk about their research, instead.

Cristof Koch, Caltech’s (literally) colorful neuroscience professor, shocked his audience by explaining that, as a scientist, he thinks consciousness comes from somewhere. He tries to find out where by looking very closely.

For example, in occasional unfortunate instances, it’s medically necessary to stick all sorts of wires in epileptic people’s brains. As long as you’re doing that, you might as well mess around with some science.

It turns out that each concept you can consciously identify, such as “redness”, “pain”, and “Halle Berry-ness”) (a special property shared by her image, text of her name, and a sound recording of her name, but not images of other actresses or anything else researchers can think of), corresponds somewhere in your brain to the binary activity of a neuron. If you are seeing Halle Berry, the neuron fires. If you aren’t it doesn’t.

Sounds simple, right? That’s because it’s from a talk for designed for simple people. Consciousness is complicated, comes in varying degrees, and is notoriously slippy to analyze. But does Koch think the study of consciousness involves theology? No.

Do Susskind, Davies, and Carroll think that God can help explain the origin of the universe? No. If you stretch, it’s a slightly-fuzzy no. But still no.

Does David Prothero, Caltech/Occidental-affiliated expert on the fossil evidence of evolution, think religious considerations aid our understanding of the origin of life, or the Cambrian proliferation of life? Emphatic no.

But frankly, they just don’t seem that worried about it. They were brought in to talk about God. But except for Prothero, whose science is the target of a vigorous attack from certain flavors of Christianity, the speakers at the Origins conference confined their theological ruminations to a couple of bullet points on their final “in conclusion…” slide.

Sean Carroll excitedly delved into Boltzmann’s hypothesis that the universe’s low-entropy past is a statistical blip in an infinite history, then excoriated the idea and presented a new model of baby universes pinching off and “never writing home to their parents.”

Susskind compared the finely-tuned nature of physical constants to the finely-tuned sequence of a human genome to illustrate his idea of how string theory might explain the state of the universe.

Prothero described lab experiments in creating the chemistry of life. Davies speculated on the meta-laws constraining choices among logically-consistent universes. Koch told me I would forget the color of his orange shirt (I think), and that this was based on science.

So imagine that. You work so hard to bring a bunch of great scientists together to have a discussion about some sort of general silliness mankind spends its time fretting over, but they ignore the bait and discuss their scientific passions instead. Well, newly-minted frosh, welcome to Caltech.