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”

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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.” 

Fred Hoyle and the Unsteady Steady State Theory

Fred Hoyle coined the name for the Big Bang Theory during a 1949 BBC Radio debate when he stated,  

“These theories were based on the hypothesis that all the matter in the universe was created in one big bang at a particular time in the remote past.”

Ironically, though he originated this term, Hoyle spent most of his academic career developing  an alternative mathematical model of the Universe called the Steady State theory. In this version of the Universe, unlike in the Big Bang Theory, matter is continuously created at a rate that keeps the average density of the Universe the same as it expands. Though this idea is discredited today, it pushed Big Bang supporters to back up their theory with evidence.

In a 1969 BBC special, Fred Hoyle reflects on his Steady State theory:

Rumor has it that the Steady State Theory was inspired by the 1945 ghost movie Dead of Night. The movie consists of a series of ghost stories, but the final scene contains a twist: the movie ends just like it began. The plot was circular, with no beginning or end–which, Hoyle and his colleagues proposed, was how the Universe worked. Instead of having a beginning or end, the Universe simply “was.”

Thanks to YouTube, I was able to find the full version of Dead of Night online, for anyone curious enough to watch:

 

While Hoyle was a viewed as a repugnant contrarian by his peers, he was warmly accepted by lovers of BBC radio. In the 1950s, the BBC decided to air science lectures every Saturday evening, to which Hoyle contributed five lectures. The series was called “The Nature of the Universe” and ended up mesmerizing the nation, inspiring the next generation of astronomers. (Listen to one of his radio lectures here.)

This post was largely inspired by Michio Kaku’s Parallel Worlds, which keeps my head constantly spinning. Pick up a copy; you won’t be disappointed. More contemporary BBC Science lectures can be found here via podcast.

A Series of Tubes

View the original entry on Public Radio Exchange’s (PRX) blog.

All right, I admit it. I’m in love with steampunk. In October, I attended Bruce Rosenbaum’s talk at Creative Mornings: Boston. (If you don’t know who Bruce Rosenbaum is, don’t fret. I didn’t either before the seminar, but I won’t forget now.) A designer by day and the founder of ModVic, Bruce Rosenbaum has converted his entire house in Sharon, MA, into a steampunk paradise. I’m talking about gadgets with gears, brass-laden furniture, old wood-fire stoves and massive pipe organs repurposed to fit a modern household.

I couldn’t help but think of Roman Mars’ 99% Invisible episode, “A Series of Tubes.” Pneumatic tubes, that is. This refers to an early 20th century system of underground, steam-powered tubes used to deliver messages (almost) instantaneously. (Think of it as an analog form of text messaging.)

Some of you may be thinking, “So what?” Underground tubes and brass gadgets are cool, but isn’t this kind of, well, outdated? What’s the appeal?

Let’s think about it. In a world where things are increasingly digitized, the basis of steampunk’s appeal lies in the fact that it romanticizes tangible technology. It answers the question, “What if the Steam Age and Industrial Revolution happed at the same exact time?” Steampunk re-imagines a reality in which the modern and the antique co-exist artfully and meaningfully. Take a listen to this episode of 99% Invisible for more insight on this retro-futuristic world. You can call it fantasy or science fiction. You can even call it absurd. As for me, I’ll just call it awesome.

If you’re still interested in learning more, check out this PBS special on the genre.

The Kendall Band

“Shake the handle back and forth slowly to sound the bells.”

One of my favorite things about Boston is the Kendall Band, a musical sculpture at the Kendall/MIT stop. The audiophile in me can’t resist. The musical sculpture is composed (no pun intended) of three different musical “instruments” that inquisitive commuters can play. The chimes, named Pythagoras after the mathematician (it is the Kendall/MIT station, after all), are my favorite.

On either side of the T stop are handles that you can swing back and forth to rock the hammers against the chimes. When they sound, a lilting B minor chord reverberates through the station.

“Although the detailed mathematical analysis of motions is quite complex, most visitors quickly and intuitively figure out how to operate the sculpture without any written instructions.”

What I love most about this sculpture is that it invites the curious to interact with it, luring eyes previously glued on backlit screens back toward the physical world. The secret of the chimes is left to the discovery process, and the consequent chord elicits an ambience that starkly contrasts the litany of a typical commute. It triggers almost all the senses–something that you can see, feel, hear, experience, and immediately share with others. When approaching curiosity in this case, don’t knock. Ring the bell.

Other neat public, kinetic art sculptures include the Singing Tree in Lancashire, UK and Sway’d in Salt Lake City, UT.

Hello, Curious World.

Well, hello. Nice to meet you! [firm but gentle handshake] My name is Lily, and I’m a public media junkie interested in transmedia storytelling.

This particular intersection is where my brain likes to hang out:

To me, the pursuit of happiness and the pursuit of knowledge are one in the same, so it’s safe to say that I’m interested in, well, a little bit of everything. I created this blog in order to re-post and write about stuff that tickles my fancy.  And I’m quite ticklish.

Twitter: @dangerbui & @CuriosityCult