Category Archives: Science Fiction

Celebrate Isaac Asimov’s Centennial by Reading Some of His Fabulous Books (Again)

Peter Lobner

The birthdate of Isaac Asimov, a famous author best known for his science fiction novels and short stories, is sometime between 4 October 1919 and 2 January 1920.  He was born in Petrovichi in Smolensk Oblast, RSFSR (now Russia), west of Moscow, near the border with Belarus, and he died in New York City on 6 April 1992.  He traditionally celebrated his birthday on 2 January, giving enough reason to mark the centennial of his birth on 2 January 2020. 

You’ll find short biographies of Isaac Asimov at the following links:


Left: Isaac Asimov circa 1959 (Wikipedia)
Right:  Asimov circa 1980s (

I was an avid reader of science fiction during the time when Isaac Asimov’s novels on robots, the Foundation and the Galactic Empire were first being published.  I  was hooked with the first novel I read,  Pebble in the Sky, and waited with anticipation until each new book became available in paperback.

You may remember that Asimov created the basic three laws of robotics:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

These laws were woven into the storyline of many of his books.

Unless you already have your favorite Asimov volumes on your bookshelf, I suggest that you visit the Internet Archive and the Open Library, which provide free access to many Asimov books as well as a vast range of other books and resources.  You can set up a free account on the Internet Archive homepage here:

Log in and you’ll have access to many of Asimov’s books:

In the Open Library, a search for “Isaac Asimov” will take you here:

Now you’re almost ready to look for an available book in the Open Library and start reading.  Note that you may be in a waitlist, because library rules for e-books limit the number of copies that can be checked out at any one time.

If you choose to read about robots, the Foundation and the Galactic Empire (books written over a 52 year period from 1940 to 1992), consider Asimov’s own recommendations regarding the chronological order of the stories, in terms of future history: 

  • The Complete Robot (1982).  This is a collection of 31 robot short stories published between 1940 and 1976 and includes every story in Asimov’s earlier collection: I, Robot (1950).  
  • The Positronic Man (1992):  A stand-alone robot novel set from the 22nd to 24th centuries, co-written with Robert Silverberg, based on Asimov’s 1976 novelette “The Bicentennial Man”
  • Nemesis (1989): A standalone novel, set in the 23rd century in a star system about 2 light years from Earth, when interstellar travel was new
  • Caves of Steel (1954).  This is the 1st  robot novel. 
  • The Naked Sun (1957).  This is the 2nd robot novel. 
  • The Robots of Dawn (1983).  This is the 3rd robot novel.    
  • Robots and Empire (1985).  This is the 4th robot novel.    
  • The Currents of Space (1952).  This is the 1st Empire novel. 
  • The Stars, Like Dust (1951).  This is the 2nd Empire novel.   
  • Pebble in the Sky (1950).  This was Asimov’s first novel.  It is the 3rd Empire novel.     
  • Prelude to Foundation (1988):  This is the 1st Foundation novel, actually a prequel.
  • Forward the Foundation (1992):  Published posthumously, this is the 2nd  Foundation novel, and the 2nd prequel.
  • Foundation (1951).  This is the 3rd Foundation novel.  It is a collection of four stories published between 1942 and 1944, plus an introductory section written in 1949.  
  • Foundation and Empire (1952).  This is the 4th Foundation novel. It is made up of two stories originally published in 1945.
  • Second Foundation (1953): This is the 5th Foundation novel. It is made up of two stories originally published in 1948 and 1949.
  • Foundation’s Edge (1982):  This is the 6th Empire novel.  
  • Foundation and Earth (1986): This is the 7th Empire novel. 
  • The End of Eternity (1955): A standalone novel, about Eternity, an organization “outside time” which aims to improve human happiness by altering history. 

The above list is adapted and updated from the Author’s notes in Prelude to Foundation to account for books published after 1988.

I also recommend that you take the time to watch the following on YouTube:

Search YouTube and you’ll find more Asimov audiobooks. 

Thank you, Isaac Asimov, for inspiring generations of readers, and generations yet to come.

Mechs are not Just for Science Fiction any More

Peter Lobner

Mechs (aka “mechanicals” and “mechas”) are piloted robots that are distinguished from other piloted vehicles by their humanoid / biomorphic appearance (i.e., they emulate the general shape of humans or other living organisms). Mechs can give the pilot super-human strength, mobility, and access to an array of tools or weapons while providing protection from hazardous environments and combat conditions. Many science fiction novels and movies have employed mechs in various roles. Now, technology has advanced to the point that the first practical mech is under development and entering the piloted test phase.

Examples of humanoid mechs in science fiction

If you saw the 2009 James Cameron’s movie Avatar, then you have seen the piloted Amplified Mobility Platform (AMP) suit shown below. In the movie, this multi-purpose mech protects the pilot against hazardous environmental conditions while performing a variety of tasks, including heavy lifting and armed combat. The AMP concept, as applied in Avatar, is described in detail at the following link:

 Avatar AMP suitAvatar AMP suit. Source:

 The 2013 Guillermo del Toro’s movie Pacific Rim featured the much larger piloted Jaeger mechs designed to fight Godzilla-size creatures.

 Pacific Rim JaegersJaegers. Source: Warner Bros Pictures

 Actual fighting mechs

One of the first actual mechs was Kuratas; a rideable, user-operated mech developed in Japan in 2012 by Suidobashi Heavy Industry for fighting mech competitions. Kuratas’ humanoid torso is supported by four legs, each riding on a hydraulically driven wheel. This diesel-powered mech is 4.6 meters (15 feet) tall and weighs about five tons.

kuratas Kuratas. Source:

Suidobashi Heavy Industry uses its own proprietary operating system, V-Sido OS. The system software integrates routines for balance and movement, with the goal of optimizing stability and preventing the mech from falling over on uneven surfaces or during combat. While Kuratas is designed for operation by a single pilot, it also can be operated remotely by an internet-enabled phone.

suidobashi-heavy-industrys-ceo-kogoro-kurataKuratas cockpit. Source IB Times UK

For more information on Kuratas’ design and operation watch the Suidobashi Heavy Industry video at the following link:

Also visit the Suidobashi Heavy Industry website at the following link:

It appears that you can buy your own Kuratas on Amazon Japan for  ¥ 120,000,000 (about $1.023 million) plus shipping charges. Here’s the link in case you are interested in buying a Kuratas.水道橋重工-SHI-KR-01-クラタス-スターターキット/dp/B00H6V3BWA/ref=sr_1_3/351-2349721-0400049?s=hobby&ie=UTF8&qid=1483572701&sr=1-3

You’ll find a new owner’s orientation video at the following link:

A competitor in the fighting mech arena is the 4.6 meter (15 feet) tall, 5.4 ton MegaBot Mark II built by the American company MegaBots, Inc. The Mark II’s torso is supported by an articulated framework driven by two tank treads that provide a stable base and propulsion.

Megabot Mark IIMegaBot Mark II. Source:

Mark II’s controls are built on the widely-used Robot OS (ROS) operating system, which is described by the OS developers as:

“….a flexible framework for writing robot software. It is a collection of tools, libraries, and conventions that aim to simplify the task of creating complex and robust robot behavior across a wide variety of robotic platforms.”

For more information, visit the ROS website at the following link:

An actual battle between Kuratas and MegaBot Mark II has been proposed (since 2014), but has been delayed many times. On October 2016, MegaBots, Inc. determined that the Mark II was unsafe for hand-to-hand mech fighting and announced it was abandoning this design. Its replacement will be a larger (10 ton) Mk III with a safer cockpit, more powerful engine, higher speed (10 mph) and faster-acting hydraulic valves. Development and operation of MegaBot Mark III is shown in a series of 2016 videos at the following link:

Here’s a look at a MegaBot Mark III torso (attached to a test base instead of the actual base) about to pick up a car during development testing.

Megabot Mark IIIMegaBot Mark III. Source: MegaBot

Worldwide  interest in the Kuratas – MegaBot fighting match has spawned interest in a future mech fighting league.

Actual potentially-useful mechs

South Korean firm Hankook Mirae Technology has developed a four-meter-tall (13-foot), 1.5 ton, bipedal humanoid mech named Method v2 as a test-bed for various technologies that can be applied and scaled for future operational mechs. Method v2 does not have an internal power source, but instead receives electric power via a tether from an external power source.

The company chairman Yang Jin-Ho said:

“Our robot is the world’s first manned bipedal robot and is built to work in extreme hazardous areas where humans cannot go (unprotected).”

See details on the Hankook Mirae website at the following link:

As is evident in the photos below, Method v2 has more than a passing resemblance the AMP suit in Avatar.

Method v2Method v2. Source: Hankook Mirae Technology

A pilot sitting inside the robot’s torso makes limb movements that are mimicked by the Method v2 control system.

Method v2 torsoMethod v2 torso mimics pilot’s arm and hand motions. Source: Hankook Mirae Technology

Method v2 cockpitMethod v2 cockpit. Source: Hankook Mirae Technology

The first piloted operation of the Method v2 mech took place on 27 December 2016. Watch a short video of manned testing and an unmanned walking test at the following link:

You can read more about the test at the following link:

Deadline – Espionage or Innocent Coincidence?

Peter Lobner

The March 1944 issue of Astounding Science Fiction magazine contained a short story by Cleve Cartmill entitled, Deadline, that may, or may not have revealed secrets related to the Manhattan Project. This short story was edited by MIT-educated John W. Campbell Jr.

ASF_March 1944 cover                             Source: Astounding Science Fiction

Cleve Cartmill’s notoriety after the publication of Deadline is described in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (

“He is best remembered in the field for one famous (but untypical) story, “Deadline” (March 1944 Astounding),which described the atomic bomb a year before it was dropped: in this near-future fable, the evil Sixa (i.e., Axis) forces are prevented from dropping the Bomb, and the Seilla (Allies) decline to do so, justly fearing its dread potential. US Security subsequently descended on Astounding, but was persuaded (truthfully) by John W.Campbell Jr that Cartmill had used for his research only material available in public libraries. Cartmill’s prediction made sf fans enormously proud, and the story was made a prime exhibit in the arguments about prediction in sf.”

I’ve been unable to find an online source for the full-text of Deadline, but here’s a sample of the March 1944 text:

“U-235 has been separated in quantity sufficient for preliminary atomic-power research and the like. They get it out of uranium ores by new atomic isotope separation methods; they now have quantities measured in pounds….But they have not brought it together, or any major portion of it. Because they are not at all sure that, once started, it would stop before all of it had been consumed….They could end the war overnight with controlled U-235 bombs……So far, they haven’t worked out any way to control the explosion.”

The status of the Manhattan Project’s nuclear weapons infrastructure at the time that Deadline was published in March 1944 is outlined below.

  • The initial criticality at the world’s first nuclear reactor, the CP-1 pile in Chicago, occurred on 2 December 1942.
  • The initial criticality at the world’s second nuclear reactor, the X-10 Graphite Reactor in Oak Ridge (also known as the Clinton pile and the X-10-pile), and the first reactor designed for continuous operation, occurred 4 November 1943. X-10 produced its first plutonium in early 1944.
  • The initial criticality of the first large-scale production reactor, Hanford B, occurred in September 1944. This was followed by Hanford D in December 1944, and Hanford F in February 1945.
  • Initial operation of the first production-scale thermal diffusion plant (S-50 at Oak Ridge) began in January 1945, delivering 0.8 – 1.4% enriched uranium initially to the Y-12 calutrons, and later to the K-25 gaseous diffusion plant.
  • Initial operation of the first production-scale gaseous diffusion plant (K-25 at Oak Ridge) began operation in February 1945, delivering uranium enriched up to about 23% to the Y-12 calutrons
  • The Y-12 calutrons began operation in February 1945 with feed from S-50, and later from K-25. The calutrons provided uranium at the enrichment needed for the first atomic bombs.
  • The Trinity nuclear test occurred on 16 July 1945
  • The Little Boy uranium bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on 6 August 1945
  • The Fat Man plutonium bomb was dropped on Nagasaki on 9 August 1945

You can read more about of Deadline, including reaction at Los Alamos to this short story, on Wikipedia at the following link:

You also can download, “The Astounding Investigation: The Manhattan Project’s Confrontation With Science Fiction,” by Albert Berger at the following link:

This investigation report, prepared by Astounding Science Fiction, identifies a number of sci-fi stories from 1934 to 1944 that included references to atomic weapons in their story lines, so Deadline was not the first to do so. Regarding the source of the technical information used in Deadline, the investigation report notes:

“However, when questioned as to the source of the technical material in “Deadline,” the references to U-235 separation, and to bomb and fuse design, Cartmill ‘explained that he took the major portion of it directly from letters sent to him by John Campbell…and a minor portion of it from his own general knowledge.’”

While Deadline may have angered many Manhattan Project Military Intelligence senior security officers, neither Cartmill nor Campbell were ever charged with a crime. The investigation noted that stories like Deadline could cause unwanted public speculation about actual classified projects. In addition, such stories might help people working in compartmented classified programs to get a better understanding of the broader context of their work.

I don’t think there was any espionage involved, but, for its time, Deadline provided very interesting insights into a fictional nuclear weapons project. What do you think?

Celebrate H. G. Wells 150th Birthday

Peter Lobner

Herbert George Wells was born on 21 September 1866 in Bromley, in southeast England. While he may be best known for his science fiction novels, H.G. Wells was a prolific writer in many genres, including history, politics, social commentary, and textbooks.

HG Wells photoH. H. G. Wells. Source:

His most memorable Victorian-era science fiction novels include:

  • The Time Machine (1895)
  • The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896)
  • The Invisible Man (1897)
  • War of the Worlds (1898)

Wells was a contemporary of Jules Verne (author of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Journey to the Center of the Earth, From the Earth to the Moon and much more) and Hugo Gernsbacher (author and publisher of the first science fiction magazine, Amazing Stories, and namesake for the science fiction Hugo Awards given annually by the World Science Fiction Society). Together, these men commonly are considered as the fathers of modern science fiction. Wells and Verne are strong influences on the modern science fiction subgenre known as steampunk, which incorporates Victorian-era (late 1880s) technology (steam power, early electrical devices) and design aesthetics (costumes, accessories) into a retro-futuristic alternative history of that period.

On 30 October 1938, Orson Welles’ radio adaptation of H. G. Wells War of the Worlds was broadcast on The Mercury Theater of the Air, causing a minor panic among listeners who mistook the broadcast for an actual news report of an alien invasion of Earth.

Several H. G. Wells science fiction novels have been made (and re-made) into movies.

War of the Worlds 1953 movie posterWar of the Worlds movie poster (1953). Source: Paramount Pictures

H.G. Wells also was a futurist, and he wrote extensively on his vision of life and technology in the 20th century. Important titles on this matter are:

  • Anticipation (1901)
  • The Discovery of the Future (1902)
  • The War in the Air (1908)
  • The Shape of Things to Come (1033)

Following is a brief overview of these four titles.

Anticipation (1901)

H. G. Wells’ first popular non-fiction work was entitled, Anticipations of the Reaction of Mechanical and Scientific Progress upon Human Life and Thought, which is commonly known by the shorter title, Anticipations. This work was first published in 1901 in serial form in magazines in the UK and the USA and then in book form later that same year. In Chapter 1, H. G. Wells describes the purpose of Anticipations as follows:

“It is proposed in this book to present as orderly an arrangement as the necessarily diffused nature of the subject admits, certain speculations about the trend of present forces, speculations which, taken all together, will build up an imperfect and very hypothetical, but sincerely intended forecast of the way things will probably go in this new century. Hitherto such forecasts have been presented almost invariably in the form of fiction…..Our utmost aim is a rough sketch of the coming times, a prospectus, as it were, of the joint undertaking of mankind in facing these impending years.”

The complex structure of the first sentence in the above paragraph might have been impressive enough to win H.G. Wells an award in the Bulwer – Lytton Fiction Contest (see my 6 September 2016 post on BLFC).

Anticipations is organized into nine chapters as follows:

  • Chapter 1: Locomotion in the Twentieth Century
  • Chapter 2: The Probable Diffusion of Great Cities
  • Chapter 3: Developing Social Elements
  • Chapter 4: Certain Social Reactions
  • Chapter 5: The Life History of Democracy
  • Chapter 6: War
  • Chapter 7: The Conflict of Language
  • Chapter 8: The Larger Synthesis
  • Chapter 9: The Faith, Morals, and Public Policy of the New Republic

You’ll find the full text of the 4th edition (1902) of Anticipations on the Internet Archive website at the following link:

For a quick synopsis of Anticipations, I refer you to Wikipedia at the following link:

With 115 years of hindsight, many of H. G. Wells’ predictions in Anticipations seem quite accurate, particularly with respect to the evolution of motor vehicles, development of urban sprawl, and the evolution of warfare to adapt to the availability of motor vehicles and aircraft. Within two years of publication, H. G. Wells publically took a stand against eugenics and for human rights, contrary to positions he had taken in Chapter 9 of Anticipations.

The Discovery of the Future (1902)

H. G. Wells provided another perspective on the future in his 1902 lecture at the Royal Institution of London, entitled The Discovery of the Future, which was published in magazines in the UK and USA and later published as a book. His basic thesis is that there are “two divergent types of minds” that can influence the future.

  • “The first of these two types of mind, and it is, I think, the predominant type, the type of the majority of living people, is that which seems scarcely to think about the future at all, which regards it as a sort of blank non-existence upon which the advancing present will presently write events.”
    • Retrospective
    • Interprets the present entirely with relationship to the past
    • Legal or submissive; referring to precedents set
    • Passive; the mind of age
  • “The second type, which is, I think, a more modern and much less abundant type of mind, thinks constantly and by preference of things to come, and of present things mainly in relation to the results that must arise from them.”
    • Constructive
    • Interprets the present entirely in relation to things designed or foreseen
    • Legislative, creative, organizing, masterful; perpetually attacking and altering the established order of things
    • Sees the world as one great workshop, and the present is no more than the material for the future, for the thing that is yet destined to be.
    • Active; the mind of youth

In this book, Wells states:

“I believe that it is not sufficiently recognized just how different in their consequences these two methods are, and just where their difference and where the failure to appreciate their difference takes one.”

Later in this book, Wells states:

“I must confess that I believe quite firmly that an inductive knowledge of a great number of things in the future is becoming a human possibility. I believe that the time is drawing near when it will be possible to suggest a systematic exploration of the future.”

He concludes this book by stating:

“All this world is heavy with the promise of greater things, and a day will come, one day in the unending succession of days, when beings, beings who are now latent in our thoughts and hidden in our loins, shall stand upon this earth as one stands upon a footstool, and shall laugh and reach out their hands amid the stars.”

You’ll find the full text of The Discovery of the Future on the Internet Archive website at the following link:

The War in the Air (1908)

This science fiction novel, serialized and published in 1908, provided a prophetic view of the use of aircraft and airships in warfare. This basic vision of military air power would be realized in less than a decade during World War I (July 1914 – November 1918), though at a much less destructive scale than in the novel.

You can download the audiobook from the Internet Archive at the following link:

You can read a short synopsis of this novel on Wikipedia at the following link:

The Shape of Things to Come (1933)

Coming only 15 years after the end of World War I, this science fiction novel is a cautionary tale that addresses the terrible consequences of a future international war. Following the start of war in 1940, the plot follows the decay of society, the rise of local warlords and their fall following the creation of a benevolent “Dictatorship of the Air” to restore worldwide peace. The story jumps forward in time to the year 2036, where technology provides a high standard of living for all citizens. Nonetheless, there remains a tension between the technical leadership and citizens who are against progress.

A loose adaptation of the novel was made into the science fiction movie Things to Come, which was released in 1936.

Things to Come 1936 movie posterjpgThings to Come movie poster (1936)

The movie portrayed many of the advanced technologies that exist in 2036; many of which have become commonplace in our modern life, including desktop video displays, big flat screen television, global communications, compound helicopters, hydroponics, use of composite materials in building construction instead of steel. Other technologies, such as monorail urban transportation, powerful (laser) mining machines, large-scale holographic projectors, and an electric Space Gun for launching a manned spacecraft on a circumlunar journey from Earth, will have to wait a bit longer.

You can view the complete movie on YouTube at the following link:

You’ll find a good summary of the movie by Mark Bourne at the following link:

Some of the technologies appearing in the movie are discussed in a six-page article in the May 1936 issue of Modern Mechanix & Inventions Magazine. You’ll find the complete Modern Mechanix article at the following link:

Modern Mechanica May 1936

As a writer and futurist, H. G. Wells has enriched our lives in many ways. I hope you’ll follow the links posted above and take some time to get a better understanding of this great man.

Thank You, Gene Roddenberry, for 50 years of Star Trek!

Peter Lobner

By now, everyone knows that Gene Roddenberry originally created Star Trek as a utopian science fiction TV series. The pilot episode, “The Cage,” started filming on 27 November 1964 at the Desilu Productions studios, in Culver City, CA. The main cast members were Jeffrey Hunter (Capt. Christopher Pike), Roddenberry’s wife Majel Barrett (first officer, known as “Number One”), Leonard Nimoy (Mr. Spock), and John Hoyt (ship’s doctor, Dr. Philip Boyce) and their starship was the Enterprise. Filming and post-production were completed in January 1965. However, this pilot was not well received by NBC executives.

Star Trek pilot - The Cage - crewMain cast for “The Cage” pilot. Source:

On the website, Richard Trenholm reported:

“Unfortunately, NBC deemed the pilot episode “too cerebral” with “not enough action” — and demanded that Roddenberry “get rid of the guy with the ears”. But in a then-unprecedented move, NBC commissioned a second pilot. Hunter declined to be involved, so Shatner took over the conn as Capt. Kirk when the series began transmission on 8 September 1966. The rest is history.”

The Cage” finally was released on VHS in 1986 and was broadcast for the first time in November 1988. You can watch the “The Cage,” at the following link:

Lucille Ball (the “lu” in Desilu Studios) is credited with supporting Gene Roddenberry’s plans for the original Star Trek TV series, and doubtless was instrumental in getting NBC to sponsor the second pilot. Thank you, Lucy! The second pilot, “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” had most of the main cast members that became fixtures in the original TV series: William Shatner (Capt. James Kirk), Leonard Nimoy (Science Officer, Mr. Spock), James Doohan (Chief Engineer, Montgomery Scott), and George Takei (Lt. Sulu). Mark Piper preceded series regular DeForest Kelly as the ship’s doctor.   Nichelle Nichols (Communications Officer, Lt. Uhura) had not yet joined the cast. NBC approved the second pilot and the TV series was launched, but not by the second pilot. The second pilot actually was the third Star Trek episode broadcast in the U.S. on 22 September 1966.

The first U.S. broadcast episode of Star Trek was “The Man Trap,” which was the sixth episode filmed. This episode was broadcast by NBC on 8 September 1966 in the U.S., two days after it was broadcast in Canada.

Star-Trek-TOS crew-Star Trek the original series (TOS) crew of the Enterprise. Source:

Confused? Well there’s more. The plot of “The Cage” actually was salvaged and incorporated into Season 1 episodes 11 & 12, “The Menagerie,” with Jeffrey Hunter again playing the part of a now seriously injured Fleet Capt. Christopher Pike.

The original series lasted three seasons and produced 79 episodes by the time the last episode, “Turnabout Intruder,” was broadcast on 3 June 1969. The good news is that there were enough episodes for Star Trek to enter syndication, permitting endless re-runs to entertain a growing fan base for generations after the original series was cancelled.

You’ll find a list of all episodes in the original series at the following link:

From here, you can easily navigate to find details on each individual episode.

The original Star Trek’s series spawned five additional television series, thirteen feature films, a host of books and comics / graphic novels, and a huge variety of “toys,” which by now have become highly collectable treasures.

In 1976, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) named their first space shuttle Enterprise in honor of the starship in the original Star Trek series. The original cast members joined NASA and other officials for the rollout the North American Rockwell facility in Palmdale, CA.

Space shuttle EnterpriseSource: NASA. From left to right they are: NASA Administrator Dr. James D. Fletcher; DeForest Kelley, who portrayed Dr. “Bones” McCoy on the series; George Takei (Mr. Sulu); James Doohan (Chief Engineer Montgomery “Scotty” Scott); Nichelle Nichols (Lt. Uhura); Leonard Nimoy (Mr. Spock); series creator Gene Roddenberry; U.S. Rep. Don Fuqua (D.-Fla.); and, Walter Koenig (Ensign Pavel Chekov)

Gene Roddenberry and the writers of the original Star Trek series deserve a lot of credit for envisioning a very different culture and an optimistic future while creating the series during a period of great political and social strife in the U.S. during the late 1960s. They also deserve credit for conceiving a whole range of advanced technologies that were needed to support their spacefaring mythology. Many of these Star Trek technologies seem to be less science fiction today than they did 50 years ago because we now have many new products and services that embody analogous technologies, or at least some rudimentary aspects of some of the Star Trek technologies.

Star Trek tech T1

Many of the technologies in Star Trek TOS still elude us in 2016, but these will be exciting challenges for scientists and engineers during the next 50 years.

  • Warp drive, for faster-than-light travel
  • Usable power generation from fusion reactions (for the impulse engines)
  • Usable power generation from matter – anti-matter reactions (for the warp drive)
  • Sub-space communications, for faster-than-light communications
  • Gravity plating, to simulate a gravity field inside a starship
  • Inertial dampeners, to counter the effects of rapid acceleration and deceleration
  • Shields, for absorbing the energy from incoming weapons and minimizing damage to the starship and crew
  • Tractor beam, for capturing objects at a distance and reeling them in. A microscopic scale tractor beam has been demonstrated in the laboratory.
  • Transporter, for dematerializing a person or object in one location and rematerializing the same person or object in a different location.
  • Time travel, for moving persons, objects, or whole starships into a different time continuum than our own
  • Suspended animation of humans, for long duration spaceflight
  • Neutronium, for impermeable armor / shielding

Gene Roddenberry and his writing staff incorporated all of these technologies into the original Star Trek mythology in the first year of the series. Later Star Trek series and movies introduced a host of additional technologies, including:

Star Trek tech T2

You can read more on Star Trek technologies at the following links:

NASA, 20 July 2016: “The Science of Star Trek”

Popular Science, 21 July 2016: “Status Report: 7 ‘Star Trek’ Technologies Under Development”

Forbes, 24 June 2014: “8 Star Trek Technologies Moving From Science Fiction To Science Fact”

Thanks again to Gene Roddenberry for creating the original Star Trek series, which led to a whole body of engaging spacefaring mythology that is certain to endure. Happy 50th anniversary!

Gene Roddenberry    Source:

ANOMALY– a Truly Impressive Augmented Reality (AR) Graphic Novel – Demonstrates how AR is Revolutionizing Printed Documents With Digital, Virtual Pop-ups

Peter Lobner

Pop-up books and cards have existed for a very long time, becoming popular in Europe in the late 1800s and in the U.S. in the early 1900s.

Old pop-up book         Source: The Harold M. Goralnick Pop-up Book Collection

You can get a good overview on the history and applications of physical pop-ups at the following Bowdoin College link:

At the above website, you’ll find a link to a short Vimeo video on the 2011 Bowdoin College exhibition: Pop-ups! They’re not JUST for Kids, which you also can access directly at the following link:

At Comic-Con 2016 in San Diego, I was introduced to a remarkable digital, virtual pop-up technology in the form of the large-scale, hard cover graphic novel ANOMALY.

Anomaly-graphic-novel  Source: Anomaly Productions Inc.

The creators of ANOMALY explain:

“ANOMALY is the longest full-color original graphic novel ever created, but that’s not all. It’s also enhanced with state-of-the-art AUGMENTED REALITY technology. Simply point your smartphone or tablet at pages in the book and watch characters come to life with 3D ANIMATION and interactivity!”

A stand-alone free app is needed on your mobile device to bring the selected pages of ANOMALY to life. Hidden AR cues on the printed pages are used to activate the corresponding AR feature in the app. When first published in 2012, there were 50 AR pages in the 370 pages of ANOMALY; now there are 60 AR pages. The capability exists to add AR features via software updates after the physical book has been published.

You can get a sense for what AR brings to a printed document in the following short ANOMALY commercial trailer:

Below are three screenshots from that video to illustrate basic capabilities:

The virtual pop-up feature enables the reader to visualize a 3D interactive model that is animated and can include audio.

Anomaly trailer screenshot 1

Touch features on the virtual page can be used to bring up more detailed written information and animations related to the selected object. This is a drill-down capability that links to information not included on the printed page.

Anomaly trailer screenshot 2

Anomaly trailer screenshot 3

I think you’ll also enjoy the following video demonstration by the co-founder of ANOMALY, Brian Haberlin:

In the above video, you’ll see that this AR technology also can be implemented on small printed items like a postcard.

Below are a few screenshots I took using my copy of the book and the book app. With an iPhone, it was easy to view the complete 3-D model of the spaceship shown below, which was flying through an animated star field. The 3D model has a relatively high level of detail, so you can move in with your mobile device to see small features on the spaceship. Mirror your mobile device to a large screen TV for a really impressive view of the virtual pop-ups.

Anomaly spaceship1Anomaly spaceship2Some objects shown in less detail in the book can be viewed as much more detailed, animated 3-D virtual objects, as shown below:Anomaly example 3-D objectPeople and creatures come to life as animated 3-D models standing on the page. The creature below growled and reacted when touched, but it didn’t bite.Anomaly example 3-D animal

ANOMALY, which was published in 2012, isn’t the first application of VR technology to a printed document. However, it is the first to demonstrate this technology on such a grand scale. James Hoare, writing for the SciFiNow website, noted:

“Marvel Comics have been similarly using (AR) to great effect across their Marvel Wow! titles – a whole world of 3D animation and 2D pop-ups, background details and more open up to you – ranging from the gimmicky, to the genuinely enriching, as critters scuttle across the page, and dossiers on planets and people make themselves available.”

Now imagine the potential applications of this AR technology in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) courses. Given the challenge of attracting young people to these disciplines, modern AR interactive texts and postcard-size flash cards should be able to deliver an engaging environment for both the teacher and the student. Mirroring the teacher’s mobile device to a large flat panel display is a simple means to engage even a large classroom full of students.

If you were teaching a STEM class, what do you think would be a good application of this AR technology for that class (Hint: The answer does not involve sitting in the back of the classroom reading ANOMALY with your own mobile device).

Internet Archive: a Great Access Point to Many Web Resources and Vintage Science Fiction

Peter Lobner

Internet Archive is a non-profit library of millions of free books, audio books, movies, music, software and more, which you can access at the following link:

It’s hard to navigate this site to find out what’s there. The home page presents icons for the “Top Collections in the Archive,” but you have to scroll through many pages to view hundreds of these icons, each of which links to a corresponding collection. Interesting collections I found include:

  • American Libraries
  • The Library of Congress
  • The LibriVox Free Audiobook Collection
  • Software Library: MS-DOS Games
  • Computer Magazine Archives
  • Television Archive
  • Grateful Dead
  • Metropolitan Museum of Art Gallery Images
  • Kahn Academy

Archive icons

There’s a Pulp Magazine Archive at the following link:

Once there, select Topic: “science fiction”, or use the following direct link:

Then you’re on your way to libraries of vintage science fiction.  Below are results from my own searches.

Galaxy Science Fiction:

Galaxy Science Fiction was an American digest-size science fiction magazine published from 1950 to 1980. It was founded by an Italian company, World Editions, to help it break in to the American market. World Editions hired as editor H. L. Gold, who rapidly made Galaxy the leading science fiction magazine of its time, focusing on stories about social issues rather than technology.

The Galaxy Science Fiction archive, with 361 results, is located at the following link:

Galaxy SF archive pic


If was an American science fiction magazine launched in March 1952 by Quinn Publications. The magazine was moderately successful, though it was never regarded as one of the first rank of science fiction magazines. It achieved its greatest success under editor Frederik Pohl, winning the Hugo Award three years running from 1966 to 1968. If was merged into Galaxy Science Fiction after the December 1974 issue, its 175th issue overall.

The If science fiction archive, with 176 results, is located at the following link:

If SF archive pic

Amazing Stories

 Amazing Stories was an American science fiction magazine launched in April 1926 as the first magazine devoted solely to science fiction. Amazing Stories was published, with some interruptions, for almost 80 years. Although Amazing Stories was not considered an influential magazine in the genre, it was nominated for the Hugo award three times in the 1970s. It ceased publication in 2005

The Amazing Stories archive, with 160 results, is located at the following link:

Amazing SF archive pic

The Skylark of Space is one of the earliest novels of interstellar travel and is considered a classic of pulp science fiction. Originally serialized in 1928, it is available as a 9-hour audiobook at the following link:

Skylark of Space

Good luck navigating the Internet Archive website. I hope you find some interesting things.

Is Arthur C. Clarke’s 1953 Short Story “Superiority” a Parable for Today?

Peter Lobner

Sir Arthur Charles Clarke was a British science fiction writer, science writer and futurist who became recognized worldwide for his great many short stories and novels, which have captivated readers since the early 1950s. You might know him best as the author of “Childhood’s End” and “2001: A Space Odyssey.

Sir-Arthur-C.-Clarke  Source:

In the short story “Superiority,” which was published in his 1953 story collection, Expedition to Earth, Clarke describes a spacefaring federation of planets involved in a protracted war with a distant adversary, with both sides using comparable weaponry. The allure of advanced weaponry and “a revolution in warfare” led one side to allocate their resources away from traditional weaponry and invest instead in fewer vessels with advanced weapons systems that were sure to turn the tide of the war: the Sphere of Annihilation, the Battle Analyzer, and the Exponential Field.

As you might guess, the outcome was somewhat different, because:

  • The new systems was “almost perfected in the laboratory”
  • There were unforeseen complications and delays during development of the operational systems
  • There were unforeseen support and training requirements that compromised the operational use of the new systems and introduced new vulnerabilities
  • The new systems failed to deliver the expected “force multiplier” effect
  • There were unforeseen consequences from the operational use of some new weaponry

The adversary won the war with a numerically superior fleet using obsolete weapons based on inferior science.

Take time now to read this short story at the following link:

Bill Sweetman has written an interesting commentary on Arthur C. Clarke’s “Superiority,“ in the 14 March 2016 issue of Aviation Week and Space Technology. His commentary, entitled, “Timeless Insight Into Why Military Programs Go Wrong – The history of defense program failures was foretold in 1953,” finds stunning parallels between the story line in “Superiority” and the history of many real-world defense programs from WW II to the present day. You can read Bill Sweetman’s commentary at the following link:

Considering SAIC’s long-term, significant role in supporting many U.S. advanced war-fighting and intelligence system programs, many of us were the real-world analogs of the thousands of scientists, engineers, and managers working for Professor-General Norden, the Chief of the Research Staff, in “Superiority.” In Bill Sweetman’s commentary, he asks, “Is ‘Superiority’ a parable?” Based on your own experience at SAIC and elsewhere in the military – industrial complex, what do you think?

If you still haven’t read “Superiority,” please do it now. It’s worth your time.

Rise of the Babel Fish

Peter Lobner

In Douglas Adams’ 1978 BBC radio series and 1979 novel, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” we were introduced to the small, yellow, leach-like Babel fish, which feeds on brain wave energy.

Babel fishSource:

Adams stated that, “The practical upshot of all this is that if you stick a Babel fish in your ear you can instantly understand anything in any form of language.”

In Gene Roddenberry’s original Star Trek series, a less compact, but, thankfully, inorganic, universal translator served Captain Kirk and the Enterprise crew well in their many encounters with alien life forms in the mid 2260s. You can see a hand-held version (looking a bit like a light saber) in the following photo from the 1967 episode, “Metamorphosis.”

Universal translatorSource:

A miniaturized universal translator built into each crewmember’s personal communicator soon replaced this version of the universal translator.

At the rate that machine translation technology is advancing here on Earth, its clear that we won’t have to wait very long for our own consumer-grade, portable, “semi-universal” translator that can deliver real-time audio translations of conversations in different languages.

Following is a brief overview of current machine translation tools:


If you just want a free on-line machine translation service, check out my old favorite, BabelFish, originally from SYSTRAN (1999), then Alta Vista (2003), then Yahoo (2003 – 2008), and today at the following link:

With this tool, you can do the following:

  • Translate any language into any one of 75 supported languages
  • Translate entire web pages and blogs
  • Translate full document formats such as Word, PDF and text

When I first was using BabelFish more than a decade ago, I often was surprised by the results of a reverse translation of the text I had just translated into Russian or French.

While BabelFish doesn’t support real-time, bilingual voice translations, it was an important, early machine translation engine that has evolved into a more capable, modern translation tool.

Google Translate

This is a machine translation service / application that you can access at the following link:

Google Translate also is available as an IPhone or Android app and currently can translate text back and forth between any two of 92 languages.

Google Translate has several other very useful modes of operation, including, translating text appearing in an image, translating speech, and translating bilingual conversations.

  • Translate image: You can translate text in images—either in a picture you’ve taken or imported, or just by pointing your camera.
  • Translate speech: You can translate words or phrases by speaking. In some languages, you’ll also hear your translation spoken back to you.
  • Translate bilingual conversation: You can use the app to talk with someone in a different language. You can designate the language or the Translate app will recognize which language is being spoken, thereby allowing you have a (more-or-less) natural conversation.

In a May 2014 paper by Haiying Li, Arthur C. Graesser and Zhiqiang Cai, entitled, “Comparison of Google Translation with Human Translation,” the authors investigated the accuracy of Google Chinese-to-English translations from the perspectives of formality and cohesion. The authors offered the following findings:

“… is possible to make a conclusion that Google translation is close to human translation at the semantic and pragmatic levels. However, at the syntactic level or the grammatical level, it needs improving. In other words, Google translation yields a decipherable and readable translation even if grammatical errors occur. Google translation provides a means for people who need a quick translation to acquire information. Thus, computers provide a fairly good performance at translating individual words and phrases, as well as more global cohesion, but not at translating complex sentences. “

You can read the complete paper at the following link:

A December 2014 article by Sumant Patil and Patrick Davies, entitled, “Use of Google Translate in Medical Communication: Evaluation of Accuracy,” also pointed to current limitations in using machine translations. The authors examined the accuracy of translating 10 common medical phrases into 26 languages (8 Western European, 5 Eastern European, 11 Asian, and 2 African) and reported the following:

“Google Translate has only 57.7% accuracy when used for medical phrase translations and should not be trusted for important medical communications. However, it still remains the most easily available and free initial mode of communication between a doctor and patient when language is a barrier. Although caution is needed when life saving or legal communications are necessary, it can be a useful adjunct to human translation services when these are not available.”

The authors noted that translation accuracy depended on the language, with Swahili scoring lowest with only 10% correct, and Portuguese scoring highest at 90%.

You can read this article at the following link:


ImTranslator, by Smart Link Corporation, is another machine translation service / tool, which you can find at the following link:

ImTranslator uses several machine translation engines, including Google Translate, Microsoft Translator, and Babylon Translator. One mode of ImTranslator operation is called, “Translate and Speak”, which delivers the following functionality:

“….translates texts from 52 languages into 10 voice-supported languages. This … tool is smart enough to detect the language of the text submitted for translation, translate into voice, modify the speed of the voice, and even create an audio link to send a voiced message.”

I’ve done a few basic tests with Translate and Speak and found that it works well with simple sentences.

In conclusion

Machine translation has advanced tremendously over the past decade and improved translation engines are the key for making a universal translator a reality. Coupled with cloud-based resources and powerful smart phone apps, Google Translate is able to deliver an “initial operating capability” (IOC) for a consumer-grade, real-time, bilingual voice translator.

This technology is out of the lab, rapidly improving based on broad experience from performing billions of translations, and seeking commercial applications. Surely in the next decade, we’ll be listening through our ear buds and understanding spoken foreign languages with good accuracy in multi-lingual environments. Making this capability “universal” (at least on Earth) will be a challenge for the developers, but a decade is a long time in this type of technology business.

There may be a downside to the widespread use of real-time universal translation devices. In “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” Douglas Adams noted:

“…..the poor Babel fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation.”

Perhaps foreseeing this possibility, Google Translate includes an “offensive word filter” that doesn’t allow you to translate offensive words by speaking. As you might guess, the app has a menu setting that allows the user to turn off the offensive word filter. Trusting that people always will think before speaking into their unfiltered universal translators may be wishful thinking.

19 May 2016 Update:

Thanks to Teresa Marshall  for bringing to my attention the in-ear, real-time translation device named Pilot, which was developed by the U.S. firm Waverly Labs. For all appearances, Pilot is almost an electronic incarnation of the organic Babel Fish. The initial version of Pilot uses two Bluetooth earbuds (one for you, and one for the person you’re talking to in a different language) and an app that runs locally on your smartphone without requiring web access. The app mediates the conversation in real-time (with a slight processing delay), enabling each user to hear the conversation in their chosen language.

real-time-translator-ear-waverly-labs-3Photo credit: Waverly Labs

As you might guess, the initial version of Pilot will work with the popular Romance languages (i.e., French, Spanish, etc.), with a broader language handling capability coming in later releases.

Check out the short video from Waverly Labs at the following link:

I can imagine that Waverly Labs will develop the capability for the Pilot app to listen to a nearby conversation and provide a translation to one or more users on paired Bluetooth earbuds. This would be a useful tool for international travelers (i.e., on a museum tour in a foreign language) and spies.

You can find more information on Waverly Labs at the following link:

Developing the more advanced technology to provide real-time translations in a noisy crowd with multiple, overlapping speakers will take more time, but at the rate that real-time translation technology is developing, we may be surprised by how quickly advanced translation products enter the market.

Which is More Technologically Advanced: Star Wars or Star Trek?

Peter Lobner

With the new movie, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, being released this week, I thought this would be an appropriate time to consider how Star Wars technology compares to the technology in another popular sci-fi series: Star Trek.

On the surface, the Star Wars Empire has much larger and more imposing faster-than-light starships than the Star Trek Federation. See the relative size comparison below.

StarWars-StarTrek ship comparisonSource:

Of course, there are many other factors to be considered in the technology comparison. Fortunately, there already has been a lot written on this subject. I refer you to two recent articles.

Author Todd Gardiner published a technology comparison on 29 March 2015, which you can read on GIZMODO, at the following link:

StarTrek vs StarWarsSource: GIZMODO

The two sci-fi technologies were compared and ranked in the following categories:

  • Transportation: Tie
  • Energy generation: Tie
  • Communication: Star Trek +1/2
  • Manufacturing: Star Trek +1
  • Construction: Star Wars: +1
  • Military: Tie
  • Medical technology: Tie
  • Robots and computing: Star Wars +1/2
  • Field manipulation (artificial gravity, shields, etc.): Tie
  • Social technology: Not factored into score, but the Star Wars Federation espouses betterment of the all citizens, while the Star Wars Empire is essentially a feudal society on a galactic scale.
  • Size: Not factored into the score, but the Star Trek “universe” (Federation + Klingons + other civilizations) includes much less of our galaxy than the Empire in Star Wars.

The net result of Todd Gardiner’s comparison was a tie between Star Wars and Star Trek technologies.

On 10 April 2015, a similar comparison written by Harry Guinness appeared in MakeUseOf, at the following link:

StarTrek vs StarWars 2Source: MakeUseOf

The author noted that, “Star Trek writers at least attempted to create plausible explanations for the technology. …’s easy to see why some fans consider Star Wars to be an epic space fantasy rather than a science fiction tale”.

Nonetheless, Star Wars and Star Trek technologies were compared and ranked in the following categories:

  • Androids: Star Trek +1
  • Medical: Star Trek +1
  • Engines: Tie
  • Weapons: Star Trek +1
  • Sensors, Shields, Replicators and Transporters: Star Trek +1
  • The Force: Star Wars ± 1/2

In this comparison, Star Trek wins by a large margin.

So, what do you think? In a head-to-head space battle, would you rather be serving on an Imperial Star Destroyer or on one of the Federation’s Galaxy-class or Sovereign-class starships?