Friday, February 17, 2012

Nerds, in Spaaaaaaaace!

Some philosopher... or maybe it was a super spy penned something about not mixing business with pleasure... and yet, here I go.

Note: to those of you who know the phrase, I am about to Craig the heck out of the following comic/joke.

I am an avid reader of Penny Arcade. If you are not familiar, you probably care nothing for video games, but to sum up in non-gamer layman's terms, the characters of PA are the Siskel and Ebert of the game industry, delivered in comic form with a lot more naughty jokes. Maybe they are actually more like the reincarnation of a nerdy Oprah... if she could send out spores in the form of two white guys even before she died... My point is, they bring a lot of joy and help a lot of people, which is part of why I enjoy their stuff. The other part is naughty jokes.

Anyway, their comic this morning dealt with a topic that I have been bathing in at work for the past year. No, not marketing gimmicks for Mass Effect 3... Space!

Penny Arcade from 2/17/2012

Anyway, I love that the comic brings up the topic of space, however, I feel an uncontrollable compulsion to pick apart the thesis of Bob Mass Effect in the strip. I think it's a wonderful opportunity to teach you lovely readers about the often misunderstood details of Spaaaaaaaaaaace!

To start, the marketing guy says they would like to send a gamer into "low Earth orbit on a weather balloon." Wonderful idea! Totally not possible! Why? In one word "speed" or in three words "not enough speed." In order to orbit, an object  (e.g. spacecraft, weather balloon or frozen gamer) must be traveling fast enough so their forward movement counteracts the Earth's gravity... or rather works precisely with the Earth's gravity to bend their path to match the curvature of the Earth (i.e. they fall "around" the planet) the space shuttle and International Space Station both operate in low Earth orbit and must maintain a speed of about 17,500 mph to stay there. Weather balloon? not so much. This 1954 video from Disney includes an excellent description of how this works... the relevant stuff begins at about 1 minute in.

The other problem statement the character makes is that the final destination of the nerdcicle would not be "space space". This one's a little trickier. If the weather balloon is actually going to where weather balloons operate, he's correct. They typically go up somewhere around 100,000 feet-not actually into space. However, if the assertion is that low Earth orbit is not "space space", things get a little fuzzy. Why? nobody has bothered to draw a dotted line in the sky and put up a signpost reading, "now entering space."

So where does space begin? Technically, low Earth orbit includes the last two layers of the Earth's atmosphere, the Thermosphere and the Exosphere, because the air doesn't just stop... it sort of fades away (and changes into free-roaming atoms). That being said, international treaties recognize space as beginning at a place called the Karman Line at 100km (62 miles) up. This is where the air gets too thin for it to affect wing surfaces. NASA, has their own definition. They assign "you made it to space!" astronaut wings to anyone who travels higher than 50 miles up.

Finally, the notion that someone would freeze solid in space is problematic. Our own internal body temperature prevents the flash-freezing so often depicted in movies. Since space is a vacuum, it is actually a really poor conductor of heat. We use less-perfect vacuums in Thermoses for just that reason. An unprotected human in Earth orbit would likely get a horrible sun burn before they froze. Check this out for more details on what space does to unprotected bodies.

I say this stuff not to put down the comic. It's a really funny strip, and I could totally see a marketing guy delivering that exact pitch. However, I also get frustrated by the frequent miunderstandings and misrepresentations of space that appear all the time in the media, including coverage of EA's actual marketing stunt.

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