Did Ray Bradbury Invent AT&T’s Digital Life?

Photo: CNN

Turn down the thermostat from your office. Lock the back door from the other side of town. Watch live video of your pets from your phone. These are but some of the features that AT&T’s Digital Life offers. The company’s new service (slated to launch this year) aims to equip homeowners with a platform to monitor their homes via smart phones, tablets, and PC’s. These are some of the wirelessly enabled devices that come with the service:

  • Cameras
  • Window/door sensors
  • Smoke, carbon monoxide, motion and glass break sensors
  • Door locks
  • Thermostats
  • Moisture detection and water shut-off
  • Appliance and lighting controls
Just imagine–you can have a house that practically takes care of itself while you’re away. Water leak? Digital Life will shut off the main water source if one is detected.  Cracked window? Digital Life will alert you in case of a potential burglary or robbery. This all sounds like cutting edge stuff, but it also sounds eerily familiar if you’ve read Ray Bradbury’s work.

In 1950, Bradbury published a short story called ‘There Will Come Soft Rains,’ borrowing the title from a poem by Sara Teasdale. The story is about an automated house that continues to function despite its owners’ untimely death from nuclear warfare. All the appliances in the house continue to run as if the house’s tenants were still there to receive its services.

“Until this day, how well the house had kept its peace. How carefully it had inquired, “Who goes there? What’s the password?” and, getting no answer from lonely foxes and whining cats, it had shut up its windows and drawn shades in an old-maidenly preoccupation with self—protection which bordered on mechanical paranoia…The house was an altar with ten thousand attendants, big, small, servicing attending, in choirs. But the gods had gone away, and the ritual of the religion continued senselessly, uselessly.”

This dystopian projection of the future raises an important point. While it may seem that we are slaves to our devices, our technology only exists because it serves a purpose to us. Without our tech, where would we be? Similarly, without us, where would it be? This Socratic discourse leaves us with more questions than answers. Then again, perhaps that’s a good thing as we shift paradigms with the adoption of Digital Life and services like it.

Video animation of “There Will Come Soft Rains”



“From birth, man carries the weight of gravity on his shoulders. He is bolted to earth. But man has only to sink beneath the surface and he is free.”

Jacques-Yves Cousteau was a seasoned scientist, researcher, and author in his own right. Simultaneously, he was an explorer, innovator, filmmaker, and impassioned conservationist. Although Cousteau and the average physicist may disagree on how to escape gravity (see above quote), his view of the sea inspired generations of curious minds to dive deeper.

In 1943, while a refugee in World War II Europe, Cousteau set out to direct and produce Par dix-huit mètres de fond (18 meters deep), the first French underwater documentary. Using a depth-pressure-proof camera case developed by mechanical engineer Léon Vèche, Cousteau and a colleague were able to capture rare footage of what life looked like below the ocean’s surface. That same year, he filmed Épaves (Shipwrecks) using two of the first Aqua-Lung prototypes, the same technology that enabled the development of the first SCUBA tanks. In 1956, his film Silent World required the assistance of Jean Mollard to develop a “diving saucer,” an experimental underwater vehicle that could reach a depth of 350 meters.

800px-Flying-saucer I’m most often drawn to people and ideas that straddle the threshold between science and art. Cousteau is a logical candidate. His body of work not only drove science and technology in terms of catalyzing undersea research, but it also brought the deep sea, an otherwise inaccessible world, to people through film. Though his nascent research may not taken him to the Verne-ian extent of 20,000 leagues below, Cousteau was certainly in a league all his own.

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather, teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” –Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

The Lion, The Witch, and the Wormhole: Einstein-Rosen Bridges in Literature

Imagine two doors connected by a corridor, with each door leading to a different room. Now, imagine the corridor is a conduit through space-time, and the rooms are completely distinct where’s and when’s. This is called a wormhole.

In 1936, Albert Einstein and his colleague Nathan Rosen published a paper about the possibility of wormholes which, in theory, could connect two or more different universes. Although wormholes only exist hypothetically and cannot be observed, they are mathematically proven to be able to occur in nature.

Incidentally, wormholes also occur in literature. In 1871, Lewis Carroll published Through the Looking Glass, a story (later adapted to Alice in Wonderland) about a girl who steps through her mirror and enters a different world. In 1950, C.S. Lewis introduced the literary world to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, in which the characters find a hidden portal to Narnia in an unexpected place. In 1930, Frank L. Baum‘s Wonderful Wizard of Oz hurled an unassuming Dorothy over the rainbow. What exactly did her house pass through en route to Oz? Was it really a tornado, or was it a manipulation of gravity that allowed her to traverse space-time–a wormhole?

Perhaps unwittingly, these authors uncovered an astronomical secret in the process of inventing a literary device to transport their characters. What’s interesting is that in the case of Baum and Carroll, their stories were published well before Einstein and Rosen’s theory was. Did Einstein read Carroll? Did C.S. Lewis study relativity? There’s no way to know for sure, but the idea of wormholes–or enchanted mirrors, wardrobes, or tornadoes–seem to be rooted in the imagination of scientists and artists alike.

Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass

C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

Wizard of Oz tornado

Here’s a helpful video from the History Channel to illustrate how wormholes and black holes work:

[youtube http://youtu.be/HbwvTBaLLqo]

Wormholes are a popular point of discussion in science, but they still remain a cosmic mystery. From what we know of wormholes, it would not be possible for anything to traverse one without it collapsing into itself. There is still much left to be learned of this phenomena, and it still may be quite some time before we unlock the secrets of interstellar travel (if there is one at all).

For more examples of wormholes in fiction, see here

Did Edgar Allan Poe solve Olbers’ Paradox?

Here’s a riddle for you. If the Universe has infinitely many stars, then presumably, the night sky should be filled with light–right? So, then, why isn’t it? Welcome to Olbers’ Paradox.

There are many possible explanations:

  1. There’s too much dust to see the distant stars.
  2. The Universe has only a finite number of stars.
  3. The distribution of stars is not uniform.  So, for example, there could be an infinity of stars,
    but they hide behind one another so that only a finite angular area is subtended by them.
  4. The Universe is expanding, so distant stars are red-shifted into obscurity.
  5. The Universe is young.  Distant light hasn’t even reached us yet.

This idea can be traced as far back as Kepler in 1610. Olbers popularized it in the 19th century, confounding scientists and philosophers alike. But what if I told you that author Edgar Allan Poe was the first who posed a possible solution? Poe wrote the following passage in “Eureka: A Prose Poem,” published in 1848:

“Were the succession of stars endless, then the background of the sky would present us a uniform luminosity, like that displayed by the Galaxy–since there could be absolutely no point, in all that background, at which would not exist a star. The only mode, therefore, in which, under such a state of affairs, we could comprehend the voids which our telescopes find in innumerable directions, would be by supposing that the distance o the invisible background [is] so immense that no ray from it has yet been able to reach us at all.”

Veritably, Poe was not a scientist. He was an author who wrote compelling science fiction that remains salient even in today’s literary landscape. However, it’s interesting to think that even from a speculative standpoint, he was able to provide primitive insight on the answer to this cosmological conundrum.

Here’s a beautiful video from the YouTube series Minute Physics explaining how Olbers’ Paradox works:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gxJ4M7tyLRE]

Edgar Allan Poe has been an abstruse, enigmatic figure in the literary realm as well as in his personal life. Read about his mysterious death (the day he became nevermore), when–perhaps– he took off “to seek a shelter in some happier star.” 


There were several theories about Edgar Allan Poe’s death, all of them just as mysterious and elusive as he was. The last known sighting of Poe was in Baltimore, Maryland, on October 3, 1879. He was dressed in someone else’s clothes and seemed disoriented (possibly drugged or under the influence of something).

I think the most interesting theory is the one proposing Poe was “cooped” on a local election day of that year. When a person is “cooped,” they’re kidnapped, drugged, or bribed to be dressed up as different people, then taken to the polls to vote multiple times–swaying the vote toward a candidate, depending on who’s behind the cooping.

I once drove to Baltimore for no other reason than visiting Poe’s grave. Though historians would likely disagree, I think it’s better that the exact cause of Poe’s death remains unknown. Edgar Allan Poe: poet, author, native Bostonian, science fiction pioneer. Man of the macabre until the very end–’til he was nevermore.

“The Truth” podcast does a great job at reimagining this bizarre situation in an eerie radio drama. I recommend listening to it. Other theories about his death enumerated here via Wikipedia.

Two Wolves

“The one you feed.”

See larger version of comic here.

Gavin Aung Than is quickly becoming one of my favorite comic books artists. Founder of Zen Pencils, he left a corporate graphic design job to go rogue. He’s inspired by the pathos of great minds past and present. He illustrates inspirational quotes from influential people in history (from Carl Sagan to Walt Whitman and beyond), providing a visual supplment for sage wisdom. I’ll admit–I own quite a few of prints myself.

The Most Beautiful Experience

“The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and science.”

–Einstein, What I Believe (1930)

(via ScienceNote)

Listen to RadioLab host Robert Krulwich read Einstein’s credo on NPR’s This I Believe, a radio show based on a 1950s series of the same name. There’s also an essay collection in book form. Foreword by Jay Allison, who may have written the most inspiring benediction known to contemporary radio producers.