Time to start writing Congress on NASA’s behalf…

Pre-State of the Union buzz is that NASA’s Constellation program is dead.

Now, I haven’t really seen the White House rationale for this, but I suspect it goes something like this: “This country is in a pretty crappy economy right now. We’re bogged down with health care policy in Congress. And global climate change will be a more pressing problem in the future. We don’t have the time, money, or resources to devote to something like space exploration that doesn’t return any direct benefits.”

If you’ve been reading my blog since my time at NASA last summer, you know that I am a big fan of manned space exploration, but not necessarily a fan of the current Constellation architecture. I’m fine with seeing Constellation go, but only if we replace it with something gutsier. So I am not okay with axing Constellation and flatlining NASA’s budget. (Though Constellation was pretty much crippled in the first place by the “do it on the existing budget!” directive in 2004.)

The argument against NASA will likely be one of limited resources and the perception that space exploration doesn’t return anything for the average US citizen. As a counter, let’s start writing the White House and our legislators in the Senate and House, and ask them which terrestrial problems can NASA solve for us? The answer is a laundry list – and a compelling one, just off the top of my head!

  • Want to grow the US economy and create jobs?

— Give NASA a strong mandate and plenty of resources!

Funding NASA is one of the very few sure-fire ways for this country to glean direct economic benefits. For every $1 that the United States government puts into NASA, the US economy grows by as much as $8. (One source here). This makes it one of – if not the – most effective ways for the federal government to have a positive effect on the economy. That’s a gain of 800%. Compare that to the ambiguous and uncertain economic growth from bailouts, tax cuts for the richest 2%, two wars, unspent stimulus funds, or Congressional shenanigans. NASA creates high-tech jobs, administrative jobs, IT jobs, engineering jobs, research jobs, custodial jobs, manufacturing jobs, analysis jobs. NASA creates technologies, hardware, and software, and puts out contracts for the development of more technologies, hardware, and software. Money going to NASA boosts the economy of every state in the union, some by hundreds of millions – or even billions – of dollars.

Economic growth by state from federal NASA funding (click for full size)

NASA can best provide these economic benefits if it has an ambitious, driving goal – pushing it to turn out as much of a return on the investment as it can – and sufficient resources to pull it off. If it’s the economy we’re worried about, we should be afraid of not funding NASA enough!

  • Want to keep this country competitive in technological development and scientific progress?

— Fund NASA!

The White House web site recognizes that “the United States is losing its scientific dominance.” Are iPod apps and Twitter really going to carry the tech sector of the US economy in the future? Especially when we are exporting a lot of tech jobs and highly educated workers to other countries? If we want to secure our national future, we need to make sure that we produce plenty of high-powered brains in our own country, and that we work on the latest in science and technology in the research labs and R&D centers available to us. Down the line, if Americans stop caring about science and technology, we are going to be producing smaller quantities and lower quality goods and services. Our development will stagnate when compared to other countries. We will have to look abroad for solutions. Even if that’s not a bad thing outright, why wouldn’t we want high-tech developments and cutting-edge science produced close to home?

We can only derive so much benefit from all the MBAs and lawyers we churn out. But technological and scientific fields develop whole new markets and whole new disciplines that we can use to create better products, better services, better knowledge, and a better society. Remember that when President Kennedy directed NASA to land on the Moon, we had a grand total of 15 minutes of human spaceflight experience. New industries, spun off by fields from specialized materials science to computer technology, that had not even been conceived yet had to be invented. The very foundations of the US manufacturing industry had to be advanced forward a decade to meet the tolerances required for the Apollo vehicles. Imagine what could come out of a similar program today!

NASA is a leading agency in funding both basic science research and technological development. The conclusions from this research percolate into the biotech, electronics, computer, aviation, communications, materials, chemical, defense, and medical industries – just to name a few! The science funding goes to universities and research labs all over America. Technologies developed in the course of pursuing the space program find their way into cars, airplanes, traffic control systems, manufacturing, construction, the food services industry, and even the average American home. If that money keeps flowing, those industries keep growing – and new industries sprout up!

  • Want to keep the next generation interested in science and technology, so we – and they – invest in their education?

— Give NASA an exciting mission and the money to pull it off!

President Obama has made appreciative statements in the past about the role NASA plays in inspiring American youth to pursue higher education, especially in challenging scientific and technical fields. This must continue. We cannot let children think of science and engineering as the sole domain of nerds and geeks, unpopular kids or unrelatable kids. For the US to be competitive in science and engineering, we need scientists and engineers. That means we must have children who develop and maintain an interest in science and engineering. So we need to make science and engineering, and education in those fields, popular. Fun. Invigorating. Sexy.

But NASA can’t simply “inspire the youth” just by its mere existence. It needs to be in the news. In the news, doing cool things. In the news, doing cool things, constantly. For that, NASA needs a really high-profile, risky-yet-achievable, demanding, sense-of-surmounting-the-impossible mission. As if this nation had dedicated itself to a goal, before this decade is out, of something on par with landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth. Something that captivates a youth with an Internet-induced, ever-shrinking attention span. I propose establishing a permanently crewed base on Mars within the next 15 years, by 2025. Such a mission will not only keep the young scientists and engineers of our nation rooting for the space program, and interested in the space program, while they are learning – it will also give them something productive to work on when they finish! NASA is both a means and an end, but only if it has sufficient resources and a mission far more ambitious than the 2004 Vision for Space Exploration.

  • Want to find ways to feed the hungry?

— Tell NASA to put a permanently crewed base on Mars!

If we try to establish a self-sustaining colony on the Moon or Mars, we need to feed the crew. And if we go for Mars, a self-sustaining base is pretty much a requirement to make the launches feasible. The astronauts would not be able to rely on regular resupply missions.

This means taking what we know about how things live and grow, and finding a way to develop food sources in a space outpost. We would have to leverage everything we know about hydroponics, algae growth, genetic engineering of bacteria, nutrition – the alchemy of turning raw materials into nutritious, palatable food for humans. And since launches to Mars would have severe mass limits, all this will have to be packed into as lightweight and small a package as possible.

Once developed, those technologies would be perfect for taking to the Third World, to the deserts, to impoverished nations and soup kitchens on Earth. We could solve global hunger once and for all, by finding ways to provide families with self-sufficient food-generating equipment. The kind of equipment that comes from NASA ingenuity and NASA money – but it will only do so if the government directs NASA to tackle the problem!

  • Want to get medical care to as many people as possible in poor, remote countries with little infrastructure?

— Send NASA astronauts to Mars!

If we send astronauts to Mars, they are going to be completely out of reach of medical care. The nearest emergency room will be – at minimum – 45 million miles and half a year away. The Mars base crew are going to have to take care of themselves. This means that, not only is at least one of them going to have to be an ER surgeon or something, but they are going to need medical equipment. Not just any medical equipment, either; ultra-rugged equipment that functions on little to no power with near 100% reliability. Equipment that gives fast, comprehensive test results. Equipment that is easy to use and understand. Equipment that is, or folds up to be, very small and ultraportable. You know – tricorders.

The Mars base is also going to need treatments. Treatments that are easy to administer. Patches, drugs, capsules, ultra-miniaturized subcutaneous infusion pumps, and the like. But again, getting things to Mars requires that they be small and low-mass – five years’ supply of daily vitamins for a dozen or so astronauts would hardly fit the bill! So, they are going to need rugged, reliable equipment to manufacture those drugs on Mars with super-limited resources.

Imagine if Doctors Without Borders could get their hands on all that. Or the Red Cross. Or the Peace Corps. They could…but only if we tell NASA to go to Mars and give it the means to do so!

  • Want to solve global climate change?

— Tell NASA to keep people permanently in space!

Yeah, that’s right – I didn’t say “mitigate” or “delay.” I said solve.

NASA drives innovation in batteries, photovoltaic cells, Stirling converters, fuel cells, and nuclear power. NASA has to squeeze every last drop of electrical power out of every battery on every spacecraft. NASA has to build their electronics to take meager power supplies.

Crewed spacecraft are closed environments that must support human life. They have to recycle, to reuse, to be careful what they bring in and out. They have limited supplies, limited fuel, limited electrical power, and they must accomplish ambitious science and exploration goals.

Send astronauts to Mars, and they will have to make more use of the scarce resources of the Red Planet than even Space Station astronauts do on ISS, because they will be so far from assistance. They are going to have to maximize what they can do for any input of solar power or raw material. Everything that comes from Earth is going to be incredibly precious, and will have to stretch out its useful lifetime for months or years. The astronauts are going to have to recycle their air. And they’re not going to be able to rely on taking their equipment to the shop every few months or replacing it every few years – it’s all got to work reliably for decades.

Those high-efficiency solar cells, low-power electronics, extreme-reliability equipment, 100% recyclable materials, CO2 scrubbers and chemical recyclers are sure going to come in handy for replacing coal and oil here on Earth.

So let’s solve some problems here on the ground. Let’s go out into space!

I just sent this letter to Senator-Elect Brown (R-MA)

He’s my Senator now, and I will accept that. But it also means I get to write him letters. I will send this again to his Senate address once his official Senate contact page is up and running.


To: Scott.P.Brown@state.ma.us

Subject: health reform

Dear Senator-Elect Brown,

I am writing to remind you that you were elected by the citizens of the state of Massachusetts, not by the national Republican Party or by the health insurance industry.

I did not vote for you in this election, in large part because I viewed a vote for you as a vote against my own life. Your campaign revolved around a pledge to vote against any Democratic reform of this country’s corrupt and failing health care system, without providing any specific alternative proposals. I have very strong feelings about the issue of health care because I have Type 1, or insulin-dependent, diabetes.

Type 1 diabetes does not result from any lifestyle choices, risky behaviors, or unhealthy habits. The exact causes of diabetes are still unknown. When I was three years old, my parents had to take me to the hospital for a weeklong stay, at which point the doctors diagnosed me with this chronic disease. My first concrete memories are from that hospital. Ever since then, I have had to inject myself with insulin and perform blood tests. I now wear an insulin pump which is constantly connected to my body, and do about ten blood tests every day, just to stay alive. I pay hundreds of dollars every month to live with this condition – and that is with health insurance!

Fortunately, and thanks to the late Senator Edward Kennedy, there is a federal law that prohibits insurance companies from rejecting patients with Type 1 diabetes. However, that doesn’t stop corporations from jacking up their rates so much as to be prohibitively expensive for someone like myself. Under our current health care system, unless I encounter a peculiarly gracious insurer, it is most likely that I must rely on my employer to provide me with health care. If I ever lose my job in the future, and have to pay for health insurance on my own, it’s quite possible that I will not be able to afford insurance. And not being able to pay the high cost of my ongoing diabetes care would put my life in jeopardy. This is not a free-market issue of supply meeting demand; I have no choice. I need good health care in order to live, but health insurers constantly raise their costs and charge a premium for patients with chronic conditions like diabetes.

The most medically and financially effective health care for me would involve a reform of the current inferior American system, preferably with a public insurance option. In fact, many reputable impartial studies indicate that a public option would be the most cost-effective way to provide health care to all Americans, even those who obtain private insurance plans, and would reduce the amount our national government spends on health care. That makes a public option both morally right and financially responsible.

I strongly urge you to be an independent voice in the Senate, to carefully analyze your votes, and to consider what is moral, fiscally responsible, and in the best interests of your constituents – like myself. Do not just vote “no” to any and all proposals from members of the Democratic Party, simply because that is what the national Republican Party or insurance-industry lobbyists want you to do. Keep your state and the individuals in it in mind. Do not make shortsighted decisions based on whether or not taxes will go up – especially if health-care premiums would decrease by a larger amount, lowering total costs.

I fear that my pleas will be falling on deaf ears, since you campaigned in Massachusetts on a platform built around refusing Democrat-proposed health care reform. If it is too far at odds with your own principles that you consider a “no” vote and its implications for your constituents very carefully before you cast it, then I strongly suggest that you instead offer your own counterproposal for health care reform. That proposal should involve specific plans to expand health care coverage, lower total health care costs for the public, and lower total health care costs for the government. I have been unable to find any such specific counterproposals in your campaign materials.

I ask you to honor the memory of the man whose Senate seat you will hold, and consider the needs of your constituents. Don’t let petty party vindictiveness or big-industry lobbying dictate your votes. We are in this situation together – Bay Staters, diabetic patients, Senators, Democrats, Republicans, and the President of the United States. We all need a solution. I hope you will work constructively with Senate Democrats and will not disappoint us.


Joseph Shoer


M.S., Ph.D. Candidate, Space Systems Design Studio

Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering

127 Upson Hall     Cornell University


3D movies

Before “Avatar,” I’d seen a couple of movies in 3D and had not really been impressed with what the extra five bucks got me. Up until that point there was really only a single scene in a single movie in which I thought the 3D effect actually added anything to my experience. (It’s the shot in Pixar’s “Up” in which the house floats in front of the sunset…all the colors of the sunset shine through all the colors of the balloons, each balloon is a nice round object, and the whole collection of balloons looks three-dimensional. Beautiful.) For the most part, though, I tend not even to notice that a movie is 3D unless I’m specifically looking for the three-dimensionality – if it’s a good movie, the story and characters ought to hold my attention more than that – or if the filmmakers try some cheesy, gimmicky, amusement-park-style 3D “popping” effects, a la “Beowulf.”

“Avatar” changed my mind a little, in that many more of the scenes looked so damn cool in 3D. But the more I thought about it, the more I became convinced that while the 3D experience was pretty neat, if I go see “Avatar” any more it will be in 2D, because it really didn’t add that much to the movie. The forest creatures and sweeping panoramas will look just as good projected in 2D. The only aspects of that movie that would miss out are the holographic computer displays, and those aren’t really that important.

In fact, I think that Hollywood ought to just abandon this 3D movie kick. It’s not that I get a headache or think that cool things can’t possibly be done in 3D. It’s that even when filmmakers do the cool things, it adds so little to a movie that I’m definitely not inclined to shell out for a 50% surcharge on a ticket. Here’s why…

Continue reading 3D movies

Citation style downloads for MS Word 2007!

I’m trying to write a conference paper manuscript for the AIAA GNC conference right now (why, oh, why isn’t it just an abstract, or even an extended abstract? a full manuscript at this point is going to be slathered with “TBD” and “preliminary” and “temporary” and promises for the future!), but I just discovered something that I had to write down for the benefit of other academic users of Microsoft Office since this has been bugging me since I got Office 2007:

I, personally, rebel against using TeX or its derivatives in my academic work. Yes, I can program in Matlab and Mathematica, and yes, I can create some pretty snazzy HTML/CSS web pages, so I’m not foreign to coding and markup languages, but really, I’m trying to concentrate on the science and engineering when I write a paper. I want to see what I will get. There is no reason at this point in the history of computers for me to have to use a command-line word processor that I have to compile. That sort of thing is for numerical scripts, not for documents.

Word 2007 took some great strides in the direction of making Office easier and better for technical purposes, with a WYSIWYG equation editor that you can control almost entirely from the keyboard using common operators and that automatically prettifies the equations as you write them. It’s way cool.

Word 2007 also has, from the beginning, included some automatic citation generating and outputting features. It’s almost like EndNote or BibTex and such, except that I don’t have to pay extra for them. However, it’s HUGE shortcoming was that it contained only 10 citation formats, and didn’t include some common technical formats. Right around the release of Office 2007, Microsoft blogs touting Word went on and on about how easy it would be for users to generate their own formats, since they used open XML files to create them. However, it turns out that those XML files are totally opaque to my understanding, and when I did try to change some things, I didn’t get what I expected. And it seemed like the rest of everybody agreed with me, because downloads for new citation formats did not immediately appear on the Internet.

I have finally, finally, finally found a web site with a small library of citation format files. It is here.

They unfortunately don’t have the AIAA format, which is what I use most often, but maybe they have something close. And, anyway, it adds to my options for the future. 🙂

My research appears in ‘Avatar!’

First: great movie, literally awesome visuals, stunning effects, good acting and execution, fun alien creatures, who cares if it’s a retelling of Pocahontas.

What I absolutely did not expect when I finally got to see James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’ yesterday afternoon was to see my own research appear in the movie. Granted, it doesn’t take a front-row seat and it doesn’t play any major plot roles. As I was driving home with my girlfriend (a fellow aerospace engineer), we got into a discussion about how this was a reasonably hard sci-fi movie. None of the technologies seem particularly farfetched: ducted-fan helicopters exist on Earth at a low technology readiness level (TRL), as do exoskeleton power suits. 3D glassy computer displays aren’t a stretch, nor are hovering VTOL aircraft on a low-gravity world. The flight to Alpha Centauri takes 6 years, meaning some reasonable sort of sublight propulsion. The ship Sully arrives on even has rotating segments, big radiators, and solar collectors. The avatars themselves don’t even seem too crazy, since we keep hearing about advanced prostheses that can be controlled by a user’s thoughts. (I’ll reserve judgment on mixing alien and human DNA until we have real alien DNA on hand.) Nor does a planetwide neural interface – though I have to wonder what selective pressures would cause such a thing to evolve – given that we have bacterial, fungal, and other life forms on Earth that can split and recombine, blurring the distinction between organisms.

But surely, I thought, those floating mountains are ridiculous. Visually stunning, yes, and great for those 3D flying scenes. But physically ludicrous.

Pandora's Hallelujah mountains

We are led to believe, in the movie, that these mountains float against the force of (albeit reduced) gravity because there is an exceptionally strong magnetic field generated on Pandora. Cameron even gives us direct evidence of that field: you know how iron filings align themselves with a magnetic field, like that of a bar magnet?

Iron filings aligning themselves with magnetic field lines

Well, the magnetic field on Pandora is so strong that geologic formations align themselves with the magnetic field. The field is so outrageously strong that whatever iron content is in Pandoran minerals – most likely not 100%, even if those rocks are pure hematite or magnetite or something like that – is sufficient to make rocks suspend themselves against gravity in the shape of the magnetic field lines:

A field that bends rock to its will!

I know for experience that this might not necessarily be impossible, for a sufficiently strong magnetic field. After all, in my lab is a whopping-big NdFeB rare-Earth magnet about the size of a margarine tub, and even when it’s contained within its sarcophagal wooden box, I can get six-inch steel bolts to suspend themselves, against gravity, at a 45° angle in its field. So, for a sufficiently strong magnetic field, this flux-line rock formation is not at all out of the question, believe it or not!

How about the mountains themselves? Couldn’t the magnetic field strong enough to make these “flux arches” also levitate mountain-sized chunks of rock?

Well, I thought, surely not if it is solely the repulsion of like magnetic poles that is responsible. After all, Earnshaw’s theorem says that the familiar field sources that drop off with distance, like gravity, electrostatic attraction, and magnetostatic attraction, cannot be arranged in a passively stable configuration. If you don’t believe me, then I set for you a challenge: get some ordinary bar magnets, and lay them out on a table. Try to arrange them in such a way that they are within a few centimeters of each other, but the attraction of opposite poles and repulsion of similar poles cancel out so that the entire arrangement sits on the table without moving. (For safety’s sake, do not do this with the rare-earth magnets I mentioned above, because when you fail at the challenge, the magnets will jump towards each other with substantial force. Rare-earth magnets are brittle and will shatter if that happens, sending neodymium shrapnel flying around – if they didn’t pinch your fingers when they impacted.) You will find that no matter how hard you try, no matter how many friends you get to hold the magnets in position and simultaneously release them, no matter how you angle them and tweak them, you won’t ever be able to prevent at least one of the magnets from attracting or repelling some other magnet. The whole arrangement will either fly apart or collapse together. You might think that in 3D you’d be able to come up with some super-clever configuration that is stable, but, in fact, if you move beyond the two dimensions (and three degrees of freedom) of the table top the situation gets far worse, because all the bar magnets try to align themselves with one another in 3D. So, a combination of purely magnetic and gravitational forces cannot result in a stable configuration of those mountains.

“But, ha!” you say. “You must be wrong! You said that a combination of gravitational field sources can’t be in a stable arrangement, and clearly, the planets of our solar system have been stably orbiting each other for four billion years! And I’ve even seen those Levitron tops – magnetic tops that stably levitate against gravity, just like those mountains!

The Levitron: just two magnets, one inside a spinning top

The key difference between a Levitron or an orbit and the bar magnets on a table top are that they are dynamically stable. They require motion to preserve stability. Stop the planets from orbiting, and they will fall into each other and the Sun. Stop the Levitron from spinning, and it flops over – aligning itself with the magnet in the base – and drops to the ground. So, for Pandora’s mountains to levitate like that, they must be spinning or moving in some way. It might be the case that, if they were at Pandora’s equator, the repulsive magnetic force actually “cancels out” the low gravity of the moon enough that the mountains are actually in circular orbits about Pandora’s equator. But that situation is dynamically tricky, requiring exquisite balances of forces – and I would estimate from the different sizes of floating mountains that they have different magnetic mineral contents, so the balance between gravity and magnetism would be different for each mountain and each would have a different orbit. Doesn’t work.

So what’s the answer? Well, it’s all in those little gray crystals the imperialist human colonists of RDA are after. Unobtainium.

An unobtainium crystal, unobtrusively levitating. Wait, what?
An unobtainium crystal, unobtrusively levitating. Wait, what?

Above is a picture of an unobtainium crystal from the movie. It’s levitating above some crazy sci-fi antigravity contraption, that holds it stably up in the air where people can poke at it, spin it, pluck it out of midair and play with it before putting it back in exactly the same spot again. Now, wait a minute – where have I seen this behavior before? Oh, right. My research lab.

A rare-earth magnet levitating over a high-temperature superconductor

That is a picture I took of a NdFeB magnet, stably levitating over the high-temperature superconductor yttrium barium copper oxide, or YBCO. (For scale, the magnet is 3/4″ across.) You can do everything with that magnet that they do with the sample of unobtainium in ‘Avatar.’ Leave it alone, and it happily floats in midair. Poke it, and it rocks a little before going back to its equilibrium position. Give it a twirl, and it’ll spin over the YBCO – and if the magnet isn’t cylindrically symmetric, it’ll eventually stop spinning and settle down again. Pull it away from the YBCO, and you can put it back later and watch it float in exactly the same midair spot as when it started. You can even pin different sizes and shapes of magnets – all stable against gravity. This whole setup would work perfectly if the magnet was on the table and the YBCO was doing all the floating, too. It’s all because the magnet induces currents in the YBCO that are not opposed by any resistance – “supercurrents” – which generate their own magnetic fields that then interact with the magnet.

“Wait,” you ask, “that magnet is just a magnet. The supercurrents make magnetic fields. I thought you said that magnetic field sources couldn’t be arranged in a stable configuration! It’s Earnshaw’s Theorem again.”

That would be an astute question. The answer is that, in this case, the superconductor doesn’t have a fixed magnetic field. As the magnet moves around – let’s say it starts to fall from its equilibrium position, because gravity is pulling on it – then its motion causes the supercurrents in the YBCO to move around. The new distribution of supercurrents gets superimposed on top of the previous distribution of supercurrents, with the net result that the magnetic field from the YBCO tends to push back on the magnet, keeping it in its original position. It’s as if the field lines of the magnet get stuck, or trapped, in the volume of the superconductor. The effect is called “magnetic flux pinning” for that very reason, and it happens with Type II, or “high-temperature” superconductors. (If you know about Meissner repulsion, flux pinning is related but not the same.) So, that blue-glowing antigravity generator in the RDA command center, with the levitating sample of unobtainium, is very likely just a magnet. And the Hallelujah Mountains are just a scaled-up version of the magnet and YBCO in my lab.

But, you probably noticed from that photo, the YBCO has to be below liquid nitrogen temperature in order to superconduct and exhibit flux pinning. Clearly, Pandora is not at cryogenic temperatures, which pretty much pegs “unobtainium” as a room-temperature superconductor – a type of material that is highly sought-after in research labs today, and would indeed be extremely valuable. That means that the Hallelujah Mountains on Pandora likely consist of large deposits of unobtainium, which are flux-pinned to the stupendously powerful magnetic field lines coming from that field sources on the planet. This explains the value of unobtainium, how the mountains levitate the way they do, and why the floating mountains are so close to the flux arch structures.

There’s another interesting link between ‘Avatar’ and flux pinning. Remember how I said that the effect of flux pinning is as if a magnet’s field lines get stuck within the superconductor? Well, if you had a good electricity and magnetism course, that notion might sit uncomfortably with you, because you were probably taught that “field lines” or “flux lines” are not physically real, but are a good visualization tool for magnetic fields, which exist everywhere around a magnet and not just in neat little looping lines. Well, you’d be right, but things tend to get kind of weird inside superconductors. Magnetic fields are quantized just like everything else, and it is these magnetic flux quanta that get “stuck” inside the YBCO. In fact, they actually get trapped on impurities within the YBCO’s crystal structure. You might think that these quanta of magnetic flux would be called “fluxons,” but because they correspond pretty well to magnetic field lines, papers on superconductivity and flux pinning tend to throw around several names for them – like “flux lines,” “field lines,” and “flux vortices.” That last name likely comes from the fact that, in the superconductor, each of the magnetic field lines induces a little loop of electric current that races in a circle around the flux line, like a little vortex. The sum total of all these little currents adds up to the distribution of supercurrents that gives us flux pinning.

In ‘Avatar,’ every time they fly near the flux-arch structure, they talk about a “flux vortex.” It sounds like your classic sci-fi trope of combining sciency-sounding words. (“Invert the phase capacitors!”) But, hmm…maybe, just maybe, that’s not mere technobulshytt after all!

I’m pretty convinced that all this isn’t accidental. The filmmakers had every intention of unobtainium being a room-temperature supercondcutor and the floating mountains being flux-pinned to the field source within the planet. Because I know that this is not the first article on the web about it! But the fact that it’s my own research in this movie: now that is cool! (For the uninitiated, I’m working on using flux pinning to assemble and reconfigure modular spacecraft. More info on my web site and my research group web site. You can also check out Youtube videos of me demonstrating flux pinning and our microgravity experiments with flux-pinned spacecraft mockups from last summer.)

Of course, ‘Avatar’ doesn’t get it all right. And they shouldn’t be expected to. I know from my research that flux pinning is a very short-range effect; getting those mountains to levitate would require a (probably literally) mind-bogglingly powerful magnetic field. Not something I’d expect to see from a planetary dynamo. Nor would a dipolar magnetic field within Pandora explain the flux arches: those are clearly centered on a magnetic field source at the surface of the world. And if the field source is powerful enough to get the rocks to bend around and follow field lines – all the aircraft, armor suits, guns, mobile lab trailers, and equipment carried by the human scientists and soldiers probably has more than enough ferromagnetic metal content to be ripped towards the field source. And that doesn’t even account for this happening:

Oh, well. But, speaking as someone who hopes that our future space program will involve spacecraft build out of components that “levitate” near each other without touching, but still acting as if they are mechanically connected, I would sure love to see some room-temperature superconductors and floating mountains!