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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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More Details Emerge About 'Oumuamua, Earth's First-Recorded Interstellar Visitor
 NASA/JPL-Caltech
NASA/JPL-Caltech

In October, scientists using the University of Hawaii's Pan-STARRS 1 telescope sighted something extraordinary: Earth's first confirmed interstellar visitor. Originally called A/2017 U1, the once-mysterious object has a new name—'Oumuamua, according to Scientific American—and researchers continue to learn more about its physical properties. Now, a team from the University of Hawaii's Institute of Astronomy has published a detailed report of what they know so far in Nature.

Fittingly, "'Oumuamua" is Hawaiian for "a messenger from afar arriving first." 'Oumuamua's astronomical designation is 1I/2017 U1. The "I" in 1I/2017 stands for "interstellar." Until now, objects similar to 'Oumuamua were always given "C" and "A" names, which stand for either comet or asteroid. New observations have researchers concluding that 'Oumuamua is unusual for more than its far-flung origins.

It's a cigar-shaped object 10 times longer than it is wide, stretching to a half-mile long. It's also reddish in color, and is similar in some ways to some asteroids in our solar system, the BBC reports. But it's much faster, zipping through our system, and has a totally different orbit from any of those objects.

After initial indecision about whether the object was a comet or an asteroid, the researchers now believe it's an asteroid. Long ago, it might have hurtled from an unknown star system into our own.

'Oumuamua may provide astronomers with new insights into how stars and planets form. The 750,000 asteroids we know of are leftovers from the formation of our solar system, trapped by the Sun's gravity. But what if, billions of years ago, other objects escaped? 'Oumuamua shows us that it's possible; perhaps there are bits and pieces from the early years of our solar system currently visiting other stars.

The researchers say it's surprising that 'Oumuamua is an asteroid instead of a comet, given that in the Oort Cloud—an icy bubble of debris thought to surround our solar system—comets are predicted to outnumber asteroids 200 to 1 and perhaps even as high as 10,000 to 1. If our own solar system is any indication, it's more likely that a comet would take off before an asteroid would.

So where did 'Oumuamua come from? That's still unknown. It's possible it could've been bumped into our realm by a close encounter with a planet—either a smaller, nearby one, or a larger, farther one. If that's the case, the planet remains to be discovered. They believe it's more likely that 'Oumuamua was ejected from a young stellar system, location unknown. And yet, they write, "the possibility that 'Oumuamua has been orbiting the galaxy for billions of years cannot be ruled out."

As for where it's headed, The Atlantic's Marina Koren notes, "It will pass the orbit of Jupiter next May, then Neptune in 2022, and Pluto in 2024. By 2025, it will coast beyond the outer edge of the Kuiper Belt, a field of icy and rocky objects."

Last month, University of Wisconsin–Madison astronomer Ralf Kotulla and scientists from UCLA and the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) used the WIYN Telescope on Kitt Peak, Arizona, to take some of the first pictures of 'Oumuamua. You can check them out below.

Images of an interloper from beyond the solar system — an asteroid or a comet — were captured on Oct. 27 by the 3.5-meter WIYN Telescope on Kitt Peak, Ariz.
Images of 'Oumuamua—an asteroid or a comet—were captured on October 27.
WIYN OBSERVATORY/RALF KOTULLA

U1 spotted whizzing through the Solar System in images taken with the WIYN telescope. The faint streaks are background stars. The green circles highlight the position of U1 in each image. In these images U1 is about 10 million times fainter than the faint
The green circles highlight the position of U1 in each image against faint streaks of background stars. In these images, U1 is about 10 million times fainter than the faintest visible stars.
R. Kotulla (University of Wisconsin) & WIYN/NOAO/AURA/NSF

Color image of U1, compiled from observations taken through filters centered at 4750A, 6250A, and 7500A.
Color image of U1.
R. Kotulla (University of Wisconsin) & WIYN/NOAO/AURA/NSF

Editor's note: This story has been updated.

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Scientists Analyze the Moods of 90,000 Songs Based on Music and Lyrics
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Based on the first few seconds of a song, the part before the vocalist starts singing, you can judge whether the lyrics are more likely to detail a night of partying or a devastating breakup. The fact that musical structures can evoke certain emotions just as strongly as words can isn't a secret. But scientists now have a better idea of which language gets paired with which chords, according to their paper published in Royal Society Open Science.

For their study, researchers from Indiana University downloaded 90,000 songs from Ultimate Guitar, a site that allows users to upload the lyrics and chords from popular songs for musicians to reference. Next, they pulled data from labMT, which crowd-sources the emotional valence (positive and negative connotations) of words. They referred to the music recognition site Gracenote to determine where and when each song was produced.

Their new method for analyzing the relationship between music and lyrics confirmed long-held knowledge: that minor chords are associated with sad feelings and major chords with happy ones. Words with a negative valence, like "pain," "die," and "lost," are all more likely to fall on the minor side of the spectrum.

But outside of major chords, the researchers found that high-valence words tend to show up in a surprising place: seventh chords. These chords contain four notes at a time and can be played in both the major and minor keys. The lyrics associated with these chords are positive all around, but their mood varies slightly depending on the type of seventh. Dominant seventh chords, for example, are often paired with terms of endearment, like "baby", or "sweet." With minor seventh chords, the words "life" and "god" are overrepresented.

Using their data, the researchers also looked at how lyric and chord valence differs between genres, regions, and eras. Sixties rock ranks highest in terms of positivity while punk and metal occupy the bottom slots. As for geography, Scandinavia (think Norwegian death metal) produces the dreariest music while songs from Asia (like K-Pop) are the happiest. So if you're looking for a song to boost your mood, we suggest digging up some Asian rock music from the 1960s, and make sure it's heavy on the seventh chords.

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