Sunday, May 10, 2015

Book Review: The Science of Avatar

I just finished reading The Science of Avatar by British scientist and science-fiction author Stephen Baxter. It was a most excellent read and definitely a book worth talking about.


The film Avatar blew the socks off audiences worldwide back in 2009. Some people were even noted to have become depressed over not being able to personally experience the world that the film created. You've probably seen Avatar. If not, go watch it. You'll be happy you did, but here's a brief overview anyway:

Quick Summary: Avatar is a story about an ex-marine who travels to a world called Pandora to take control of an avatar, a genetically engineered organism that can be linked to a human "driver's" mind, so that he can interface with the indigenous, intelligent alien species (on whom the avatar is mostly based; though there are human components as well). This indigenous species are a humanoid group who call themselves the Na'vi (they are very reminiscent of various ancient Native American tribes). The ex-marine, Jake Sully, not only interfaces the Na'vi, but befriends (and eventually falls in love) with one of them. The conflict of the story is developed through the exploitation of Pandora's resources and disregard for the Na'vi and other wildlife by a company called RDA (Resources Development Administration) and their militarized force of employees (similar to our modern Private Military Contractors). The story develops as Jake Sully sides with the Na'vi in a battle against RDA and their "offense" forces. This is just a brief review of the story. If you haven't seen the film, go watch it. If you haven't seen it in a while, go watch it. I'll be here.

Seen it? Awesome!

I remember the first time I saw Avatar in the theater and thought to myself, "What a fantastical alien environment they've created here for the audience." I was stunned by the visual beauty and depth of the alien world, Pandora, and its similar-yet-alien biosphere (let's face it, most viewers would have a hard time watching the film if Pandora were truly alien - and so there are creatures that are very similar to life as we know it, and that's okay). I also really liked the story. 

It's a fairly typical story of the technologically-advanced bully wreaking destruction upon the indigenous ecology; we've seen this time and again. Many people made associations between the story of Avatar and that of stories such as Ferngully and Dances with Wolves. The blog Madatoms went as far as to create a rather humorous diagram showing some of the basic comparisons between Avatar with Dances with Wolves, Pocahontas, Dune, and Ferngully:

"Avatar Dances in Ferngully's Dune" from Madatoms

Sure, the story of Avatar was not exactly new, but I think James Cameron and the other creators of the film did an excellent job telling the story within the world they created. They gave us a thrilling look at a possible dystopian future for Earth (briefly), interstellar travel, a new biosphere on an alien world, genetically engineered surrogate organisms that we can literally control with our minds, a possible role of mercenaries in future warfare, and, probably coolest of all, a biosphere where organisms can neurologically link together (thus giving the entire biosphere a "brain/mind" of its own). 

Stephen Baxter did a fantastic job reviewing some of these key points in his book on the science of Avatar. I thought I'd share a few of his ideas as well as mine for each of the major sections of the book. 

Science fiction is often inspired by scientific discovery (and vice versa); The background is a painting by willroberts04 on Deviant Art

The Science of Avatar

Stephen Baxter is a fantastic author of hard sci-fi stories. He has a background in mathematics and engineering, but has made a name for himself by writing science fiction stories with alternate history and future history slants. His approach to The Science of Avatar comes from someone who understands sci-fi but who also has a great bearing on modern science. 

The primary sections of Baxter's book are "Earth", "RDA", "Venture Star", "Pandora", "Hell's Gate", "Living World", "Na'vi", and "Avatar"; these sections discuss the possible future of Earth, the resources extracted from Pandora, interstellar travel, the planetary science related to Pandora, the potential future of human colonization of other worlds, the biology developed for Pandora, the tribe of the Na'vi, and finally the nature of the avatars.

By breaking down the film into some key points, Baxter made it easier to tackle some of the more intriguing ideas that were developed by the film's creators. The book considers everything from the ecology of Pandora to the nature of the fictional resource "unobtainium" (which appears in various science fiction stories and in various forms; in Avatar, unobtainium appears to be a mineral that serves as a superconductor at room-temperature).

Credit: Dylan Glynn
We're only given a brief glimpse of the dystopian future of Earth in Avatar, although Jake Sully gives us an idea of what it might be like: "See, the world we come from, there's no green there. They've killed their mother..." Yes, that's a little vague, but it leads us to imagine a future Earth that has succumbed to global pollution, climate change, and sprawl such that ecosystems have been destroyed globally. 

An early draft of Cameron's Avatar screenplay had intended a bit more detail of future Earth: "Jake stares upward at the levels of the city. Maglev trains whoosh overhead on elevated tracks, against a sky of garish advertising... Most of the people wear filter masks to protect them from the toxic air... It is a marching torrent of anonymous, isolated souls." This sounds like a sad future for Earth, but it is by no means unheard of with regard to science fiction. There have been plenty of sci-fi stories that have considered dystopian futures for Earth (including the films Automata, Mad Max, Blade Runner, 12 Monkeys, Cloud Atlas, Elysium, Looper, and WALL-E). 

The future of Earth in Avatar appears to be one where industrial pollution and overpopulation have finally driven the Earth to the verge of global collapse. However, the real industrial trouble we see in the film is the extraction of resources (namely unobtainium) from Pandora without any regard for the ecosystems or intelligent species who live on that world. 

We currently extract an exceedingly large amount of raw material from the Earth each year to support our industrial, technological, and commercial infrastructure and to provide for the lives that many of us enjoy. It's hard to find good estimates of the actual amount of material we mine, but most numbers I've seen range in the billions to hundreds of billions of metric tons (around 60 billion metric tons of raw material each year sounds like a reasonable estimate). Although some nations have implemented various forms of regulation on mining operations to avoid industrial pollution or the devastation of ecosystems, mining across the globe still causes deforestation, acid mine drainage, and a range of other environmental impacts.

This is the Bagger 288. Like the other Bagger mining vehicles, this sucker is one of the largest land vehicles on the planet.

The Resources Development Administration (RDA) plays the "bad guy" in Avatar. They're developed to fit with the stereotypical image of a mining company or tech company that develops their product with little to no interest for the wellbeing of the ecosystem from which they take their goods. In The Science of Avatar, Stephen Baxter does a fantastic job of considering whether or not this is a potential future for resource development. Baxter mentions some of the current plans for resource development in our solar system, especially from asteroids. Given the potential for resource development organizations to act humanely and with vested interest in more than just profits, it's sad to admit that many times in the history of our species we have pushed forward for our own gain without regard for the rest of the natural world. Maybe our future of exploring new worlds will involve companies like RDA, though I hope by that point we'd learn to act better, especially when encountering new worlds.

The Hallelujah Mountains from Avatar

One of the cooler story points in Avatar is the nature of the Hallelujah Mountains. Much like the the floating island of Laputa in Jonathan Swift's Gullivers Travels, the Hallelujah Mountains fit with a common fantasy of islands floating in the sky, but in Avatar they give these floating mountains a scientific basis. The Hallelujah Mountains are composed mostly of the mineral unobtainium. The creators of Avatar built a backstory for the origination of unobtainium along with the formation of the moon Pandora and the planet it orbits (Polyphemus, in the Alpha Centauri system) - an object (either a planetary body or maybe a neutron star) impacted Pandora early in its formation causing an enrichment in the moon with the mineral unobtainium. As Stephen Baxter points out in the book, though, with a back-of-the-envelope calculation one could see that the magnetic field required to raise the Hallelujah Mountains into the air is thousands of times greater than the magnetic field here on Earth (not only that, but it would be far stronger than the magnetic fields produced by our Sun). Although the film's creators have built a Polyphemus and Pandora system with intense gravitational fields, it's still not likely to be enough to raise the Halleljuah Mountains. However, sometimes the fun of merging science fact with science fiction is having the creative license to push the boundaries of truth a bit. Which might be what the film does with the idea of the avatars.

Jake Sully checks out his avatar in its amino tank

The avatars are pretty sweet. It's not unthinkable that we may be able to port ourselves into created bodies in the future. We're already pushing into more immersive media with improved 3D films, steps towards better virtual reality with tech like the Oculus Rift, and developing CAVE systems (I had the chance to try one of these immersive systems at the Desert Research Institute some years ago). With increasing interest in virtual worlds (like Second Life), I can definitely see people in the future looking to find ways to take on new personae, possibly through the control of another body in the real world. In fact, a pretty fun movie came out not too long ago looking into just that: Surrogates is a 2009 film featuring Bruce Willis which portrays a future where nearly everyone interacts in the real world through surrogate robots. But will we get to the point where we can take control of a biological form like that of an avatar?

Baxter points out in The Science of Avatar that the basic biological structure of the organisms of Pandora does not utilize DNA/RNA and proteins the way that Terran life does. This means that to make an avatar requires an understanding of Pandoran biology to the point of genetically engineering organisms, but, moreso, it requires that the scientists who create the avatars are capable of appropriately decoding human and na'vi heritable traits (not so hard for the human side these days) but then that they be able to logically code these two forms of life together to make a third form that becomes the avatar. It doesn't seem too outlandish, but it definitely would be a huge marvel of science to attain that level of biological engineering. It seems to me that if we were to get to that point then we could easily have fixed Jake Sully's paralysis or even may finally develop gene therapy to the point where we could make it so that human colonists could live naturally on the Pandoran surface.

Avatar ends with Jake Sully having his conscious self fully transitioned from his human body into his avatar body. It's an interesting idea, for sure. Although there really isn't a good reason to believe in dualism (the idea that our physical minds and our conscious selves are different), a lot of people have been wondering lately if we may be able to upload our brains to computers in the near future (neuroscientist Randal Koene wants to see this happen, though there are other who doubt it's even possible). The 2014 film Transcendence, starring Johnny Depp, is one of the more interesting takes on this idea in recent media. Not only does Avatar force us to question whether we could create a newly biological form like an avatar but also whether it would be possible to code everything from the structure of our brains into the brains of one of these organisms. A very intriguing consideration.

The Science of Avatar considers all of these points and more. For instance, Baxter goes into what we currently know about the possibilities for life beyond Earth, the relativistic effects of near speed-of-light travel, the history of rocketry, what we currently know about exoplanets, the potential for terraforming, and more. The Science of Avatar was definitely a fantastic read. It's inspired me to watch the film again (but this time paying a little bit closer attention to the world of the film). I think Baxter could have filled the book with so much material as to make it a tome of information, but he wrote it so that it's accessible to just about anyone and can be read in as little as one sitting. Now that I'm finished writing about the book, I think it's time to watch Avatar again. 

In case reading this hasn't inspired you to watch Avatar again yourself, maybe having a listen to the film's soundtrack will help:

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