Science, Fiction, Life

Category: Videos

Storytelling Lessons from Ira Glass

Last night my wife and I went to see Ira Glass in his stage show “Reinventing Radio”. For those who aren’t familiar with him, Ira Glass is the host of the radio show This American Life, which is one of the best shows on radio (I’d say its only real competition for the top spot is RadioLab). It is great because it tells great stories, and the stage show that we saw was basically Ira Glass talking about how they put together a radio show that is interesting, touching, and nearly impossible to stop listening to. Many of the points that he made apply to written storytelling too, so I though I’d list a few that stood out.


1. Dark and serious is not the same as realistic

Glass spent some time discussing what makes This American Life different from typical broadcast journalism, and to do so he played a clip from CNN, reporting on the war in Afghanistan. It had everything you would expect: Very Serious reporters, epic music in the background, and everything about it just screamed “this is very important and serious”. Glass pointed out that this is all a stylistic choice. That broadcast journalism has sort of built up this standard tone that focuses on the serious, but in doing so they exclude humor and amusement and friendship and a wide swath of the human experience. In short, Glass said, the tone that broadcast journalism has self-imposed excludes “everything that makes life worth living.”

As a contrast with the CNN clip, glass played a clip from when their reporter was on the aircraft carrier that was running sorties into Afghanistan. They were interviewing a young soldier whose job 12 hours a day was to fill the vending machines on the aircraft carrier. It was a cute little moment of humor in an otherwise really serious setting, and made for very interesting radio.

Anyone who pay attention to popular culture is aware of the recent trend toward “grittiness” and gray characters and moral ambiguity in movies and books. There’s a whole subgenre of fantasy called “grimdark” now because of this trend. I think there is the assumption that by going “gritty”, the stories told are more realistic. But Ira Glass makes the really important point that this isn’t so, that life is a complicated mix of serious and funny, nasty and wonderful. If you only focus on the grimdark side of things, you’re not giving a realistic picture of life.

2. All stories ask questions

Glass also talked about the importance of plot. He quoted someone (whose name I unfortunately forget) who said that all stories are basically detective stories: they get the reader/viewer/listener to ask questions, and the desire the find the answer to those questions are what make you turn the page, or sit in the car with the radio for just another minute. Glass said that even just laying down the bare bones of the plot “this happened, and then this happened…”, if done right, gets the reader asking the question “Then what happened?” and that’s enough to keep people hooked. He also pointed out that this happens on all different scales in a story. There’s the big questions that stretch across the whole story arc, but there are also small questions that resolve themselves in moments. His example was “a figure stood in the doorway”. You’re immediately wondering whether this new arrival is a friend or foe to the protagonist. A few lines of dialogue, and you know the answer to that question and there is a small feeling of resolution. A great climax to a story is when a single event resolves lots of different outstanding questions.

On a related note, one thing that came up in the Q&A was that someone asked him about the pauses in the radio show and if they are deliberate. And the answer is yes, of course they are. Glass joked about how this person’s favorite part of the show was when he just shut up and let her think, but what clicked in my brain is that the short pauses that they intersperse in the radio show are actually examples of narrative tension on the sentence level. Just a short break in the flow of words lets the listener (a) think about what was just said, and (b) build suspense for what is about to be said.  The exact same principle can be applied in writing on multiple scales by varying the pacing of a scene or a chapter, or even by the placement of words and punctuation in a single sentence.

3. Sometimes “seeing” more lessens the impact

Glass began and ended the show by discussing the intimacy of radio. He made the point that, for some of their stories, if they had been filmed there would be so many visual details that distract from the point of the story that it would be almost impossible to have the same effect. Viewers would see the people and the setting and subconsciously (or consciously) think “that person isn’t like me” and therefore might not empathize quite as much with the people being interviewed. They would automatically judge the person onscreen and in doing so, distance themselves from the actual story. For example he talked about a very detailed piece they did on an inner-city school in Chicago, and he said that one of the main goals was for listeners to get beyond their preconceptions and, when they hear the story of the kids whose lives are full of gangs and shootings, realize: “That could be me” and “I would do the same thing in their shoes”.

I think the idea that the lack of visuals in radio can have this power to make a story more intimate can carry over to written stories and fiction. Of course, when writing you need to include some visual details, but choosing those details judiciously and allowing the reader to fill in the rest is an important part of getting the reader to buy in to the story.

4. What’s the point?

This is another aspect of the need to relate to the characters in a story. Glass pointed out that, when you’re telling a story to a friend, you don’t generally just stop, you wrap it up with a statement that just comes right out and says “this is the point of the story.” One example he gave was a really captivating piece they did about a girl in New Zealand who has been bitten by a shark. She was taken to the doctor and stitched up and the doctor told her parents that she would be in a lot of pain but not to worry about it, she’ll get better. But overnight, she gets worse and worse (it turned out the bite had punctured her intestine and she was getting peritonitis and close to death). She tries to convince her parents that things are really bad, but they don’t believe her, thinking of the doctor’s warning that it would be painful, but not to worry.

Gripping story right? You want to know how it is resolved. But what Glass said was that what really makes the story resonate is that it is the most extreme example of something everyone experiences: being a kid and trying to convince your parents of something that you know to be true, and they don’t believe you. Now for most of us, this experience is more about monsters under the bed or the importance of high school drama rather than a life-threatening shark bite. But Glass’s point was that every story that is any good has a key point that links it to the listener’s own personal experience, and that getting the people he interviews to focus in on this key point is a big part of conducting an effective interview. He said that basically the goal is to get someone to come right out and say what the point of the story is.

This can be tricky to do in fiction, but I think the idea is still valid. Even if you don’t want your characters to stand up and tell the reader “this is why you should care about this story”, it makes sense for the author to be keenly aware of this central idea that the reader can relate to.

5. It’s a volume game

Multiple times, Glass mentioned that “it’s a volume game”, meaning that to get the good stuff, you have to work through and discard a lot of junk. For the stories included in the show, he said that more than half of the stories that they start never air because they aren’t good enough. And for stories that do air, most of the interviews never air.

During the Q&A at the end, someone asked how Glass can do radio so much and stay “authentic”, and he responded by saying that it takes a lot of practice to be good enough to be yourself. This segued into something that I had heard him say before in the excellent video clip below. Basically, the only way to become good enough is to do a large body of work:

Liquid Hot Magma

Well, technically lava since magma refers to un-erupted molted rock. And technically technically it’s not erupted, it’s melted in a big furnace, so it probably isn’t lava either.

But yeah, bottom line: here’s a video of synthetic lava poured over a slab of ice. Science is awesome:

How do Zerg Fly in Space? Part 1: Mutalisks

Ok folks, it’s time. We’ve all asked this question, but I’ve been putting off answering it because we all actually know the answer.

How do the Zerg fly in space?


There’s a certain point in sci-fi or fantasy where you have to just suspend disbelief and go along for the ride, and I think that the Zerg ability to travel through space is a good example of this. That said, I’d like to take a look at one of the most common explanations that people give to justify the mutalisk’s ability to flap its wings and propel itself through space. As you’ll see, it’s completely implausible.

Now, we know that flapping doesn’t do anything in a vacuum: there’s nothing to provide any resistance, so you can flap all you want and it won’t move you forward. But what if mutalisks used their dragon-like wings as solar sails, catching the photons from a nearby star to cruise through interplanetary space? That might not explain the flapping, but it could explain how they can move, so let’s take a closer look.

The idea behind solar sails is the conservation of momentum. Even though photons of sunlight have no mass, they do have momentum. High school physics tells us that momentum is conserved, so if you have a bunch of photons with momentum being absorbed by a solar sail (or a mutalisk’s leathery wing) then their momentum must be transferred to the thing they’re hitting, exerting a force on it and causing it to move through space. So, how large would a mutalisk’s wings have to be to let it accelerate at a reasonable speed? To figure this out, we need to do a back of the envelope calculation, making some assumptions about how big mutalisks are.

In general, the sizes of units in the game are not reliable: I prefer to consider the cinematics as the authoritative source. So let’s take a look at this cinematic showing Jim Raynor’s battlecruiser being attacked by a swarm of mutalisks.

At about six seconds, one of the mutalisks flies over the right-hand side of the battlecruiser and crosses near a long row of windows. Based on its size compared to the set of windows, I would say that the creatures have a wingspan of around 100 meters and that their tube-like body is about the same length and maybe 5 meters across. If mutalisks are like most earth life, then they are mostly water. to get a rough idea of their weight we can calculate their volume and then multiply by the density of water. A cylinder 5 meters by 100 meters has a volume of about 2000 cubic meters. That would correspond to a whopping 2,000,000 kg or 2000 metric tons!

Now, obviously that’s too big for something to fly in at atmosphere, let alone in space by flapping its wings. But lets be generous and say that maybe mutalisks are made of some very low-density material, and maybe I overestimated their size. What if they were closer to 20 tons? How much oomph would their wings give them if they used them as solar sails. Again I’ll be generous and treat the wings as a square of material 100 meters on a side.

The momentum of a photon is given by: Momentum = Energy/Speed of Light, so near a sun-like star, where most photons are in the visible range, they have an energy of 2-3 electron volts, yielding a momentum of 1.6×10^-27 kg m/s per photon. That’s not much, but a star puts out a lot of photons, so let’s see if that balances it out and gives us a decent thrust.

Let’s say our theoretical mutalisk is orbiting the sun at the same distance as Earth, 150,000,000,000 m from the sun. The sun puts out 3.8×10^26 watts or roughly 8×10^44 photons per second, but that power is spread out in all directions. To figure out how much hits our solar-sailing mutalisk, we have to imagine spreading that power out over a sphere the size of our mutalisk’s orbit with a surface area of 4*pi*R^2 where R is the radius of the orbit. That gives 2.25×10^20 photons per square meter per second.

Solar sails don't make for the most maneuverable spacecraft, and they would be sitting ducks in any sort of space battle.

With a wing area of 100 m x 100 m (10,000 square meters), our mutalisk would intercept around 10^24 photons per second, corresponding to a whopping force of 0.0004 newtons! That’s enough force to accelerate a 20 ton mutalisk up to about 14 miles per hour in a year.

Edit: An astute reader points out that the size of mutalisks is described in the Starcraft novels as being much smaller than I described. They apparently have a wingspan of 20 feet and are only 7 feet long and about a meter across. to me that seems shockingly small, especially compared to the cinematics, and it also seems quite stubby compared to all of the art depicting mutalisks as having a body that is a long tube. Still, we can scale the above results to fit these new dimensions. Given a cylinder 7 feet long and 3.3 feet across, and again assuming a density like water, I get a mass of 1.7 metric tons. If we treat the wings generously as a 20 foot square, then their surface area is 37 square meters, so the thrust on wings of that size as compared to our 10,000 square meter example above would be .0004 newtons x .0037 = 1.5×10^-6 newtons. That’s enough to accelerate our 1700 kg mutalisk all the way up to 0.06 miles per hour in a year! Even assuming a much lower density, it would only accelerate a 170 kg mutalisk up to 0.6 miles per hour in a year.

You might not have followed every step of that (admittedly very crude) calculation, but that final value should give you some idea of how ridiculous it is to say that a Mutalisk’s wings could work as solar sails. Even assuming very large wings and a small body, the acceleration that you get is miniscule. Plus, solar sails are really only good for accelerating away from the star, and Mutalisks are like fighter jets: they need to be able to dodge and weave in all directions very quickly.

Bottom line, I can’t explain how the mutalisks fly in space. Heck, I can’t explain how something that big flies in air! Solar sailing certainly doesn’t cut it, so we’re left where we began. It’s magic. This is a part of the Starcraft Universe that just doesn’t fit with the laws of physics in our own universe, and that’s fine. Mutalisks are still cool, and it’s not like I’m going to stop playing Starcraft because I don’t know how they can fly in space.

Stay tuned: next I’ll take a look at all the non-winged Zerg fliers!

What is a Gauss Rifle?

A couple weeks ago I took a look at railguns, how they work, and how the ones depicted in Starcraft 2 don’t look much like the real thing. This week I’d like to look at another favorite exotic gun in sci-fi video games: the gauss rifle. In Starcraft, the marines carry gauss rifles that act much like real-world assault rifles. In other games, like Fallout 3 and the Mechwarrior series, gauss rifles are a sniper weapon, used to do lots of damage at a distance with a single shot. So, what is a gauss rifle, really? And is it anything like those depicted in the games? Continue reading

Could Cloaking Devices Work?

By now, you have probably seen the absolutely epic Starcraft 2: Ghosts of the Past trailer. If not, take a look at this, and pay particular attention to the depiction of Sarah Kerrigan’s cloaking device at about 11 seconds in:


Cloaking is common in science fiction: Star Trek pioneered it with the Romulans, and other popular franchises like Star Wars and Predator and Halo have used it. And of course in Starcraft and Starcraft 2 both the Terrans and the Protoss have a whole variety of cloaked units. But could it really work? You may be surprised to learn that the answer is yes!

Obviously, this sort of technology would be extremely useful for the military, so they are funding research into technologies that could make it a reality. There are basically two ways that you could achieve “cloaking”. The first way would be to actually divert light around the cloaked object, so that it appears not to be there. Continue reading

How to Make a Space Marine

Hello and welcome to The Science of StarCraft! There’s tons of stuff in the StarCraft universe, both from the original games and the new one, that I can’t wait to talk about here, but I thought a good place to start would be the StarCraft 2 teaser cinematic.

If you haven’t seen it, here it is:


You’ve gotta love the space marines. They’re the first armed boots on the ground when you start a game, they’re in the thick of even the most epic battles, and they’re the last resort when your base is crumbling around you. So it’s great to learn more about how they work!

This video actually tells us a lot about the technology involved in building a marine, and about the level of Terran technology overall. Marines are about as basic as it comes for terran units, but there’s some pretty high-tech stuff going on here, so we can only imagine what goes into, say, a battlecruiser!

Let’s jump right in and start dissecting this video to see what we can learn. Continue reading

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