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Tonight: Trek Nation on Science Channel

Set your DRVs for "Trek Nation" tonight (November 30, 2011) at 8pm ET/PT on the Science Channel.

If you're going to watch one documentary about Star Trek, it should be Trekkies. But if you're going to watch two, the second should be Trek Nation, premiering tonight on the Science Channel. Trek Nation puts Star Trek in context, chronicling the journey of Eugene Wesley "Rod" Roddenberry (Gene's son) to understand his father, and the show(s) Gene created.

As a documentary film, Trek Nation is a curious blend of well-executed interviews and explanation of the Star Trek phenomenon, mixed with slightly weird monologues and interviews by Rod Roddenberry, who admits he lived most of his life with only the vaguest notion that Star Trek was important. As TV, it's wonderful -- it's truly well-made, and it manages not to talk down to the viewer (which is exceedingly rare, especially with a topic that could easily be dismissed solely as wacky fan culture). As a longtime Trek fan, I saw lots of new footage here (including footage of the legendary first Trek convention which apparently has never been seen before), and lots of significant interviews with members of the Trek universe. If you like Star Trek and you have cable, this is a no-brainer.

Trek Nation has actually been in production for a long time; the principal photography appears to have been done mostly from 2003-2006, with some new material added in later (including an excellent interview with J.J. Abrams). Because much of it was done so long ago, it's often confusing -- why are we just seeing a premiere now? See, for example, Wil Wheaton's blog post from 2004 in which he discusses his interview. It's a good interview, and it's a good piece of TV, but the film nor the related PR never explains the elephant in the room: why release it so many years after it was shot? Fortunately, Airlock Alpha fills in more of that story, though only hints at the actual reasons it has taken so long for the film to come out. But that aside, let's talk about what's in the film: lots and lots of interviews about Star Trek, revelations about Gene Roddenberry, and lots of monologue by Rod Roddenberry.

Interviews About Star Trek

Trek Nation frequently shows Rod Roddenberry interviewing major figures in the science fiction or Star Trek world -- he sits down with George Lucas and J.J. Abrams, as well as his own mother, Majel Barrett (she voiced the computer on the Enterprise, and played Nurse Chapel and Lwaxana Troi), and a surprisingly comprehensive roster of Trek writing and acting talent. There are also many interviews apparently conducted by the film's director, Scott Colthorp. Frankly, Colthorp does a better job. Roddenberry repeatedly admits that he's not particularly knowledgeable about Star Trek (his story is basically that of wasted youth, at least in part due to an absent celebrity father), and fails to ask substantive questions. In many of the Rod interviews, you can see the interview subject squirm, as if asking, "Is this guy for real? How can he be asking me this?" In the Colthorp interviews, we actually see a detailed understanding of the show and nuanced questions (most notably about how the writing staff was able to deal with Gene's dictates that in the future, basic elements of the current human condition -- like greed -- should be absent); Colthorp does a set of terrific interviews with Michael Piller and Ron Moore (both TNG writers; Moore later headed BSG), and they're worth the price of admission alone.

The J.J. Abrams interview (conducted by Rod) is the capper on the film -- it comes at the end, and Abrams gives the whole production a level of perspective that's crucial. Abrams admits that he wasn't particularly a Trek fan either (like Rod) but then proceeds to explain how he worked around that, and how he managed to work on a franchise that's so beloved, despite not being a superfan. You also get to see a rather surprising interview clip from Gene Roddenberry during the Abrams interview -- I won't spoil it; it's a great reason to tune in and stick around until the end.

Revelations About Gene Roddenberry

Without spoiling it, let's just say that this film is quite honest about Gene Roddenberry's personal failings. I actually didn't know anything about him as a person before this film, and Trek Nation filled in the blanks for me. Again, this is very valuable stuff -- and to many, should be pretty surprising. Because Roddenberry died long before production began, the examination of his life comes from older interview clips, home movies (!), interviews with colleagues, and his immediate family. It even shows his last public appearance at a convention, with Rod and Barrett wheeling Gene onstage to give brief remarks, in which Gene clearly struggles to be understood after suffering a series of strokes -- it's heartbreaking stuff.

Monologue By Rod Roddenberry

The weird part of this documentary is the through-line provided by Rod Roddenberry, who sits in a planetarium and very frankly discusses his youth (think long-haired late-80's snowboarder dude), his relationship with his father (it wasn't great), his relationship with Trek (virtually nonexistent), and some work he has done in TV (also not particularly notable).

Rod frequently says that he learns things from fans that seem incredibly basic -- notably that the show is important to people, and indeed a pretty significant cultural touchstone. Of course, this makes sense when you consider Rod's position and how he grew up; he genuinely didn't know that Trek was a big deal until his father's funeral. But to a fan, it can be brutally odd -- there's a fair amount of face-palming happening in the audience as you, for example, ask yourself: how could Gene Roddenberry's son not know that Star Wars and Star Trek are considered competing franchises? And further, how could he fail to ask George Lucas anything meaningful, aside from an awkward question about whether Luke Skywalker's journey was a father/son thing. (To his credit, Lucas sizes up Rod with a quick, intense look, then settles into answering the questions he wishes had been asked.)

In Conclusion

This is an interesting, well-made documentary, both for its treatment of Gene Roddenberry and his work, and for its treatment of Rod Roddenberry. While most will tune in specifically for Trek info, there's a human angle here, a father/son narrative that rings true, and an examination of the complicated character of Gene Roddenberry. Tune in tonight at 8pm ET/PT for more.

For lots of info on Trek Nation, check out director Scott Colthorp's YouTube Channel. Here's a sample:

You may also enjoy this early trailer from 2010, apparently before it was picked up by the Science Channel.

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New Plankton Species Named After Sir David Attenborough Series Blue Planet
John Phillips, Getty Images for Tourism Australia
John Phillips, Getty Images for Tourism Australia

At least 19 creatures, both living and extinct, have been named after iconic British naturalist Sir David Attenborough. Now, for the first time, one of his documentary series will receive the same honor. As the BBC reports, a newly discovered phytoplankton shares its name with the award-winning BBC series Blue Planet.

The second half of the species' name, Syracosphaera azureaplaneta, is Latin for "blue planet," likely making it the first creature to derive its name from a television program. The single-cell organisms are just thousandths of a millimeter wide, thinner than a human hair, but their massive blooms on the ocean's surface can be seen from space. Called coccolithophores, the plankton serve as a food source for various marine life and are a vital marker scientists use to gauge the effects of climate change on the sea. The plankton's discovery, by researchers at University College London (UCL) and institutions in Spain and Japan, is detailed in a paper [PDF] published in the Journal of Nannoplankton Research.

"They are an essential element in the whole cycle of oxygen production and carbon dioxide and all the rest of it, and you mess about with this sort of thing, and the echoes and the reverberations and the consequences extend throughout the atmosphere," Attenborough said while accepting the honor at UCL.

The Blue Planet premiered in 2001 with eight episodes, each dedicated to a different part of the world's oceans. The series' success inspired a sequel series, Blue Planet II, that debuted on the BBC last year.

[h/t BBC]

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5 Ways You Do Complex Math in Your Head Without Realizing It
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The one thing that people who love math and people who hate math tend to agree on is this: You're only really doing math if you sit down and write formal equations. This idea is so widely embraced that to suggest otherwise is "to start a fight," says Maria Droujkova, math educator and founder of Natural Math, a site for kids and parents who want to incorporate math into their daily lives. Mathematicians cherish their formal proofs, considering them the best expression of their profession, while the anti-math don't believe that much of the math they studied in school applies to "real life."

But in reality, "we do an awful lot of things in our daily lives that are profoundly mathematical, but that may not look that way on the surface," Christopher Danielson, a Minnesota-based math educator and author of a number of books, including Common Core Math for Parents for Dummies, tells Mental Floss. Our mathematical thinking includes not just algebra or geometry, but trigonometry, calculus, probability, statistics, and any of the at least 60 types [PDF] of math out there. Here are five examples.

1. COOKING // ALGEBRA

Of all the maths, algebra seems to draw the most ire, with some people even writing entire books on why college students shouldn't have to endure it because, they claim, it holds the students back from graduating. But if you cook, you're likely doing algebra. When preparing a meal, you often have to think proportionally, and "reasoning with proportions is one of the cornerstones of algebraic thinking," Droujkova tells Mental Floss.

You're also thinking algebraically whenever you're adjusting a recipe, whether for a larger crowd or because you have to substitute or reduce ingredients. Say, for example, you want to make pancakes, but you only have two eggs left and the recipe calls for three. How much flour should you use when the original recipe calls for one cup? Since one cup is 8 ounces, you can figure this out using the following algebra equation: n/8 : 2/3.

algebraic equation illustrates adjustment of a recipe
Lucy Quintanilla

However, when thinking proportionally, you can just reason that since you have one-third less eggs, you should just use one-third less flour.

You're also doing that proportional thinking when you consider the cooking times of the various courses of your meal and plan accordingly so all the elements of your dinner are ready at the same time. For example, it will usually take three times as long to cook rice as it will a flattened chicken breast, so starting the rice first makes sense.

"People do mathematics in their own way," Droujkova says, "even if they cannot do it in a very formalized way."

2. LISTENING TO MUSIC // PATTERN THEORY AND SYMMETRY

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The making of music involves many different types of math, from algebra and geometry to group theory and pattern theory and beyond, and a number of mathematicians (including Pythagoras and Galileo) and musicians have connected the two disciplines (Stravinsky claimed that music is "something like mathematical thinking").

But simply listening to music can make you think mathematically too. When you recognize a piece of music, you are identifying a pattern of sound. Patterns are a fundamental part of math; the branch known as pattern theory is applied to everything from statistics to machine learning.

Danielson, who teaches kids about patterns in his math classes, says figuring out the structure of a pattern is vital for understanding math at higher levels, so music is a great gateway: "If you're thinking about how two songs have similar beats, or time signatures, or you're creating harmonies, you're working on the structure of a pattern and doing some really important mathematical thinking along the way."

So maybe you weren't doing math on paper if you were debating with your friends about whether Tom Petty was right to sue Sam Smith in 2015 over "Stay With Me" sounding a lot like "I Won't Back Down," but you were still thinking mathematically when you compared the songs. And that earworm you can't get out of your head? It follows a pattern: intro, verse, chorus, bridge, end.

When you recognize these kinds of patterns, you're also recognizing symmetry (which in a pop song tends to involve the chorus and the hook, because both repeat). Symmetry [PDF] is the focus of group theory, but it's also key to geometry, algebra, and many other maths.

3. KNITTING AND CROCHETING // GEOMETRIC THINKING

six steps of crocheting a hyperbolic plane
Cheryl, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Droujkova, an avid crocheter, she says she is often intrigued by the very mathematical discussions fellow crafters have online about the best patterns for their projects, even if they will often insist they are awful at math or uninterested in it. And yet, such crafts cannot be done without geometric thinking: When you knit or crochet a hat, you're creating a half sphere, which follows a geometric formula.

Droujkova isn't the only math lover who has made the connection between geometry and crocheting. Cornell mathematician Daina Taimina found crocheting to be the perfect way to illustrate the geometry of a hyperbolic plane, or a surface that has a constant negative curvature, like a lettuce leaf. Hyperbolic geometry is also used in navigation apps, and explains why flat maps distort the size of landforms, making Greenland, for example, look far larger on most maps than it actually is.

4. PLAYING POOL // TRIGONOMETRY

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If you play billiards, pool, or snooker, it's very likely that you are using trigonometric reasoning. Sinking a ball into a pocket by using another ball involves understanding not just how to measure angles by sight but triangulation, which is the cornerstone of trigonometry. (Triangulation is a surprisingly accurate way to measure distance. Long before powered flight was possible, surveyors used triangulation to measure the heights of mountains from their bases and were off by only a matter of feet.)

In a 2010 paper [PDF], Louisiana mathematician Rick Mabry studied the trigonometry (and basic calculus) of pool, focusing on the straight-in shot. In a bar in Shreveport, Louisiana, he scribbled equations on napkins for each shot, and he calculated the most difficult straight-in shot of all. Most experienced pool players would say it’s one where the target ball is halfway between the pocket and the cue ball. But that, according to Mabry’s equations, turned out not to be true. The hardest shot of all had a surprising feature: The distance from the cue ball to the pocket was exactly 1.618 times the distance from the target ball to the pocket. That number is the golden ratio, which is found everywhere in nature—and, apparently, on pool tables.

Do you need to consider the golden ratio when deciding where to place the cue ball? Nope, unless you want to prove a point, or set someone else up to lose. You're doing the trig automatically. The pool sharks at the bar must have known this, because someone threw away Mabry's math napkins.

5. RE-TILING THE BATHROOM // CALCULUS

tiled bathroom with shower stall
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Many students don't get to calculus in high school, or even in college, but a cornerstone of that branch of math is optimization—or figuring out how to get the most precise use of a space or chunk of time.

Consider a home improvement project where you're confronted with tiling around something whose shape doesn't fit a geometric formula like a circle or rectangle, such as the asymmetric base of a toilet or freestanding sink. This is where the fundamental theorem of calculus—which can be used to calculate the precise area of an irregular object—comes in handy. When thinking about how those tiles will best fit around the curve of that sink or toilet, and how much of each tile needs to be cut off or added, you're employing the kind of reasoning done in a Riemann sum.

Riemann sums (named after a 19th-century German mathematician) are crucial to explaining integration in calculus, as tangible introductions to the more precise fundamental theorem. A graph of a Riemann sum shows how the area of a curve can be found by building rectangles along the x, or horizontal axis, first up to the curve, and then over it, and then averaging the distance between the over- and underlap to get a more precise measurement. 

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