Science Corner: Objects in Poster May Be Further Away Than They Appear

Poster for Star Wars film <em>Rogue One</em> showing the Death Star filling the daytime sky of a planet.

The poster in question, with the enormous Death Star dominating the horizon. (© Walt Disney Films)

In the week when nerds make their annual pilgrimage to San Diego Comic-Con, I couldn’t resist this little tidbit on science fiction meets science fact. Last week, a poster was revealed for the upcoming Star Wars movie Rogue One. As you can see, the Death Star looms large over a surface-bound skirmish. While fully acknowledging that the Death Star doesn’t exist as such and so obviously computer graphics and Photoshop were involved in rendering this image for our galaxy, one might wonder if it would be physically possible to ever photograph such an image in the land of Luke and Leia. As it happens, optically speaking the poster is a plausible image–although it raises some red flags about the gravity involved in this scenario. The math and the physics aren’t particularly complicated and the conclusion isn’t terribly profound, but I like to be reminded every now and again that our human intuitions need to be sanity checked.

The trick to capturing a real photo like that poster is getting far away and zooming in, creating an illusion of proximity. And that reminds me of dinosaur proteins. No, really. Conventional wisdom says that dinosaur fossils are far too old to have any soft tissue in them; the only thing left should be mineralized bone. So naturally no one looked for it. Until Mary Schweitzer literally followed her nose as it led her to blood-vessel-like structures and cell-like-structures containing chemicals that act (and sequence) an awful lot like proteins. Her findings remain controversial, partly because they have been used to suggest dinosaur fossils are much younger than conventionally dated. Schweitzer and her group have been working on understanding the chemical mechanism(s) that could preserve such tissues over longer time scales, in order to reconcile the conventional dates (which are supported by a variety of other evidence) with these new findings. It’s really a great opportunity to answer questions we didn’t even know to ask, and to learn how something so far away in time could appear to be from relatively nearby.

Dr. Schweitzer’s personal story is fascinating also. She was interviewed by The Well recently (part 1, part 2). She shares the details of her non-traditional route to academia, her experience as a Christian in a field with relatively few fellow believers, and how she deals with her unsought place in the spotlight. In many ways, Schweitzer is exactly the sort of unexpected outsider you’d paradoxically expect to find something off the beaten track. The interview is an inspiring read whether you currently picture yourself with a career in science or not.

And if you like her story, you might enjoy Rogue One, which looks to be telling the story of another woman who doesn’t exactly fit the usual molds, making her the perfect candidate to pull of a mission everyone thinks is impossible.

Note: Next week we’ll take a break from the usual schedule for a Summer Snapshot while I’m on vacation.

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Andy Walsh

Andy has worn many hats in his life. He knows this is a dreadfully clichéd notion, but since it is also literally true he uses it anyway. Among his current metaphorical hats: husband of one wife, father of two elementary school students, reader of science fiction and science fact, enthusiast of contemporary symphonic music, and chief science officer. Previous metaphorical hats include: comp bio postdoc, molecular biology grad student, InterVarsity chapter president (that one came with a literal hat), music store clerk, house painter, and mosquito trapper. Among his more unique literal hats: British bobby, captain's hats (of varying levels of authenticity) of several specific vessels, a deerstalker from 221B Baker St, and a railroad engineer's cap. His monthly Science in Review is drawn from his weekly Science Corner posts -- Wednesdays, 8am (Eastern) on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog.

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