APPROVED: Let's Build A Giant Laser To Tear Apart Outer Space

"Flawless" is not a word to toss about lightly. That is not to say that we here at Analog Nation are, for want of a better term, perfection snobs. We have no problem enjoying stuff that may have an element of lack to it — movies, books, sandwiches, whatever. It's pretty hard to get things firing on all cylinders, which makes it all the more gratifying when something does. A few examples off the top of my head:

• The "Timmy O'Toole" episode of The Simpsons • Vince Guaraldi's soundtrack to "A Charlie Brown Christmas" • The first half of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay • Pancakes

So when I came across this article while perusing the Internet for photos of kittens napping on large dogs news of the financial situation in Greece, I was gratified. Brother, I was gratified like a son of a bitch. Because this right here? This science article? This science article does not fuck about. It may well be flawless.

Have a look at this headline, then tell me with a straight face that journalism is dead:

World's most powerful laser to tear apart the vacuum of space

Will I click that link? Yes. I will click that link. I will click the beer-swilling Christ out of that link. Fetch me this article, Chrome, and so help me you had better fetch it faster than Firefox.

What the article describes is a bad-ass piece of science that honestly elicited an aloud "whoah" as I read. A proposed project called the Extreme Light Infrastructure Ultra-High Field Facility takes the fundamental idea behind the Large Hadron Collider and points it at the sky. Its goal is similar to the LHC: create a tiny but crazy-violent moment in space and time, then examine what happens for clues about the true nature of the universe.

Oh, is that all? Boom, you just got Science'd.

Come on, that is some serious Death Star/Torchwood shit.

And how do these physicists propose to accomplish their bad-ass piece of science? Build an array (wait for it) build an array of (no really, you guys, check this out) build an array of giant lasers that will form a single ultra giant laser so it can pull apart the vacuum space. What?? Is that even a thing?? Apparently so, judging by this passage in the article:

"Contrary to popular belief, a vacuum is not devoid of material but in fact fizzles with tiny mysterious particles that pop in and out of existence, but at speeds so fast that no one has been able to prove they exist."

I'm almost positive I heard Commander LaForge say that exact same thing in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Pretty sure it was somewhere in the Dr. Pulaski season. Mind you, this is actually happening.

But that's not even as far as the rabbit hole goes. Some highlights:

• The finished laser would be 200 times more powerful than any that has ever been created. • If I'm reading this right, the individual lasers in the array would be located throughout Europe. • It would require so much power that it would have to charge up gradually before firing, a classic sci-fi trope. • The target would be quasi-existent sub-atomic matter known as "ghost particles." (!!!!) • And oh yeah, an indirect result of the research may be "to prove whether extra-dimensions exist."

Okay, so ... continental space laser array will rip open the fabric of space, unveil "ghost particles," shed light on the nature of the universe, and may unleash parallel dimensions.

APPROVED. Rubber stamp it. Get the paperwork going. Is there paperwork? Somebody find out what kind of paperwork is involved. I want this thing green-lit, or fast-tracked, or ear-marked, or whatever it is that world governments do to make giant space lasers happen. Everything about this thing is magnificent. Flawless.

The Kosher Cops: Defenders of Entenmann

Friday nights at Brandeis were strange. Come sundown, there was a palpable sense of conflict among some of the freshmen: How seriously should I take the Sabbath situation? These were the in-betweeners. Not the ones from traditional Jewish homes, whose routines were set; not the ones who paid attention only on High Holidays or not at all. The in-betweeners were still figuring their shit out. And I mean, good God, so were we all, but specifically they were figuring their shit out Judaism-wise. They were away from home for the first time, saw the trappings of their more devout classmates, and needed to try them on. So they wouldn't turn their lights off.

Among the modern interpretations of "no work on the Sabbath" is that no electricity should be implemented. Some students used only candlelight after sundown on Friday. For the in-betweeners, this meant they could touch no power switches, but if someone else touched some power switches ... After a few weeks, we knew which ones would ask the Gentiles in the dorm to turn their stuff on and off for them. "Hey, could you hit play on my stereo real quick?" they'd say. "I just want to listen to some Cranberries while I read." Later, they would ask someone to turn off the stereo. And the overhead lights.

Not too long ago I coughed up something like eight thousand words prattling on about the University of New Hampshire, but I actually transferred there after a year at Brandeis. It was my brother who suggested I apply. He nearly went there himself, and drove me down for a tour. We saw the Celtics in their on-campus practice facility. It was the only time I ever saw Kevin McHale in person. The school stunned us with their financial aid offer, and suddenly I was packing for Waltham.

Brandeis isn't technically a Jewish institution, not in the sense that, say, Boston College is a Jesuit institution. But man, it is pretty darn Jewish. As a Catholic who had just added "former" to the title, I was solidly in the minority. Which was cool, to be honest. Not that it came up all that much, but when it did, it made me seem half a percent more interesting. Probably less interesting than my hip-hop Texan Vietnamese roommate, but half a percent is better than nothing. Plus, it made not being Catholic anymore super easy.

The power switch requests dwindled to a stop by Thanksgiving, and besides, that wasn't even the weirdest thing going. Every day in the dining hall, you could watch the Kosher Cops.

They weren't actual cops of course, nor were they security guards, nor really any position of any authority at all. They were simply cafeteria workers. And I'm not 100% sure they knew we called them the Kosher Cops.

Kosher meal plans were available to all students, though you had to specify your choice, as if it were a long flight or a wedding reception or whatever. Once you chose, they expected you to stick with it. There was a little sticker on the student ID cards, lamb's blood upon the door to mark the chosen — at least until the semester ended and you could switch if you felt like it.

Despite the university's demographics, the Kosher split was closer to 50-50. Sherman Dining Hall had separate service counters, each with its own menu. The Kosher trays had angled corners so that you could tell them apart. (This always seemed unintentionally cruel to me. Kosher food had to stay on the trays because the tables weren't Kosher, so why give them the trays with less surface area?) Pretty soon, we all knew who lined up on which side.

That's where the Kosher Cops came in.

It was the unofficial job of the cafeteria staff to make sure no one strayed from their flock. Some were, shall we say, more zealous in their charge than others. Anyone looking to bend a rule had to know the location of these individuals before the planned infraction. That was how the title was born — "I'm making a break for it, keep an eye on the Kosher Cops for me. Should I never return, know that I loved you as brothers." (may reflect some dramatization)

The Kosher students got the worst of it obviously, because they were the ones with rules to follow. My friend Maya once got into, seriously, like a five minute argument with the Kosher Cops because she wanted ice cream. The Kosher menu alternated meat days with dairy days. This was a meat day (ew?), but she had not taken any of the meat dishes, and made a move to grab some soft-serve from the machine. Boom, nailed by the Kosher Cops. No soft-serve on meat days. Yet how could it be a meat day when she had eaten no meat? No matter. Meat Day. Move along.

She was pissed, you guys don't even know.

For us non-Kosher types, there was only one little problem, and that problem was a massive problem. To put it gently, the non-Kosher desserts were bland. And sucked. They blanded suckly. Sorry, that did not turn out to be gentle. The non-Kosher kitchen baked desserts on-premises, and did a valiant job of it, but the results were nothing to blow your hair back. However, the Kosher students ... they simply got Entenmann's.

Box. After box. Of Entenmann's.

Somehow that was cheaper than baking Kosher desserts, or maybe the school had a deal with a distributor. Regardless, there was a table whose sole purpose was to house Entenmann's products. Naturally, this epic table was right next to the counter, in direct sight of half the cafeteria workers.

I would like the Kosher Cops to know that in two semesters at Brandeis, I never once took any chocolate chip mini-cookies from the table, never once took a fudge mini-brownie, never once took one of those little donuts that are basically perfect. But whether a certain friend named Maya smuggled me certain items from time to time, that I cannot say.

Part Cat, Part Monkey, Part Jellyfish — Did I Leave Anything Out?

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."-Arthur C. Clarke, 1917-2008

"Seriously though, what you guys are doing right now has me tripping balls, and I've only been dead for three years." -ibid.

Let's say we had access to a time-voyage device. If we went back and grabbed Benjamin Franklin, brought him to the present, and showed him the Large Hadron Collider, here's how he would most likely react: "Dancing Jesus, you guys have toilets? That is completely and utterly fantastic." The stuff that gets taken for granted is what makes a society's tech look like magic. Which is why I saw a headline last week and wondered if I'd somehow slipped forward in time without noticing.

The article described work done by researchers at the Mayo Clinic, who were investigating how genetics could be used to build resistance to HIV. Basically, they took an antiviral gene from rhesus macaques (which Google assures me are a type of monkey) and inserted them into cats. The maquacue macqu monkeys have a natural resistance to immunodeficiency viruses, and the researchers hoped that the cats would likewise develop a resistance to FIV — the feline equivalent of HIV. "Monkey-cat" does not present the same apocalyptic visions as certain other combos I could name, so I say go Mayo Clinic.

Which is not to say this doesn't get weird quickly.

Hey there little glow-kitty! Let's see what you look like in the dark oh my shitting shit THE POWER OF CHRIST COMPELS YOU

Erudite though I may be, advances in AIDS research was not why I clicked on the article. I clicked on the article because the headline said, "Glowing Cats Shed Light on AIDS." Just so we're on the same page, they're talking about cats that glow in the dark. To track the monkey genes within their monkey-cats, the researchers also included a gene from jellyfish that produces fluorescent proteins, which are expressed throughout their bodies. So they're monkey-squidcats or whatever. And they glow.

Okay. My reaction is threefold:

1a) What in the name of all that is holy I want five of them.

1) Bear in mind that this wasn't a goal of the experiment. Nor was it seen as a complicating factor, something that could potentially get in the way of their results. This was just some random thing they knew they could do, simply because it was handy. And it looks like freaking magic! What the ... ? How the ... ? Nowhere in the abstract of the study does it even mention the glowing, unless you happen to know that eGFP stands for "something something fluorescent protein glowing cats."

(The abstract also has a series of image thumbnails, in case you're wondering whether they're Photoshopped.)

2) Waitaminute, waitaminute — if that's the case, and this is another normal day in Normaltown, does that mean we can do this with whatever we want? Glow-in-the-dark puppies? Glow-in-the-dark hamsters? Glow-in-the-dark bunnies? Oh my God, you guys, glow-in-the-dark bunnies! You're telling me you wouldn't buy ten of them tomorrow? You lie. You lie, and it's disgusting. So what if they would make sinfully easy prey for hawks? That half hour before they're all devoured by predators would be amazeballs, don't even act like it wouldn't be.

3) Come on, six months after I busted my ass for several hours in the scorching sun to catch the kitty that is batting at my hand as I type this, they release a bad-ass version that glows? Well, great. My own fault for not checking the upgrade cycle, I guess. Lesson learned. Maybe they'll release a retroactive patch?

Would You Rather: A Series of Hypothetical Conundra for Conversation and Assessment

Would you rather ... One

... be with someone who is a perfect match for you both physically and emotionally, but who leaves green paint on you (and only you) whenever you touch them, ~or~ ... own a stylish, luxurious car that never needs refueling, but whose stereo only ever plays a running commentary of your life's regrets over a slowed-down record of carnival music?


... have a weekly billiards game with Benjamin Franklin and Mark Twain in a fully stocked bar, but once per evening you would have to watch them suffocate a piglet, ~or~ ... be the first human to walk on Mars after only a week of space travel, but never be allowed to use a towel again for the rest of your life?


... be great at any skill for a month at a time, but you could never choose the same skill twice and would always be terrible at bathing yourself, ~or~ ... have a portable button that, when pressed, would make up to five nearby people dance gracefully, with a one in ten thousand chance they would become ravenous zombies?


... be able to travel back in time once per year for a period of forty-eight hours without affecting the present, but be plagued by nightmares about spiders with clown faces, ~or~ ... have the ability to teleport anywhere on Earth, but scream uncontrollably for an hour each time you arrived?


... smell like lavender all the time, regardless of your actions, but taste gasoline any time someone says the number seven, ~or~ ... have a room in your house that is always filled with puppies that need neither food nor cleaning, but be required by federal law to provide freeze-dried "astronaut ice cream" for anyone who asks, day or night?


... automatically be friends with famous individuals anywhere in the world, but have high-powered flashlights grafted to each forearm that you can never turn off, ~or~ ... have the ability to communicate empathically with animals, but be terrified to the point of uselessness by hats and socks?


... be able to manipulate electronics with your mind, but permanently forget everyone's name ten minutes after you meet them, ~or~ ... understand of the mathematics behind the world's economy, allowing you to predict markets with eighty percent accuracy, but honestly and fervently believe that you were raised by goldfish?


... excel at a line of work that you truly love, but constantly be followed by a skeleton that tells people what you're thinking, ~or~ ... be able to forego food and water indefinitely, but have a Blu-ray recording of your own conception that you had to watch any time you watched a movie?


... spend alternate days with the powers of flight and invisibility, but only talk by belching words with your eyes closed, and compulsively slap anyone who looks at your hands, ~or~ ... never feel anger again, but lack a fundamental knowledge of what fire is, where it comes from, and what it does? Plus the slapping thing?


...wake up one morning to find that you have the whole planet to yourself for one year, during which you will not age, but you won't find out until the year is over that all your actions were filmed, ~or~ ... wake up one morning to find that one hundred years have passed, but you can return if you convince someone to eat an entire baby?

Spaceships, and the Damn Dirty Apes That Fly Them

"Hey, you know what would be hilarious? When the space shuttle lands, everyone should be dressed as apes!"-The entire Internet, July 2011

Over the past week, I've seen the shuttle/apes joke no fewer than five times — three via Twitter, twice on Reddit. And that's just what I've seen. It's not like I'm a one-man Google, jotting down every word that happens on the Internet, so there were probably a couple more. Hey, it's a perfectly fine joke, and had I thought of it myself I would have tweeted it too. But I didn't have to, because every time someone did, the joke was scooped up by tiny hands and pulled into the cloud, seen by thousands of strangers.

(Besides, I refuse to believe that NASA landing crews have never pulled this prank on astronauts. It HAS to have happened at some point, right? Since the premiere of Planet of the Apes in February 1968, there have been 149 US astronaut landings. At least one of those missions ended with fake apes. Guaranteed.)

Here's why I mention the joke thing: No part of this scenario was possible when the space shuttle first launched. The very idea that some guy's joke could accidentally become a piece of mass media would have been science fiction. We have reached a point where the spaceship that flies on rockets to the orbiting international research station and then glides back down to Earth is quaint next to the worldwide computer network that lets us share jokes about the spaceship.

To me, that seems backwards. Despite its age, the space shuttle is something that should always be seen as the far-flung future. It's a spaceship! Doing spaceship things! IN SPACE! So what if my phone has more processing power than the original shuttles? They've been upgraded since then, for Pete's sake. To do even more spaceship things.

A couple Fridays back, as the countdown to Atlantis' launch sat streaming on my desktop, I kept trying to think of something funny to put on Twitter. Nothing. Total blank. Finally I realized I had to go the dreaded sincere route. What I came up with was this: "Keep trying to think of something funny to say while streaming the shuttle launch, but really I'm just a kid in 1982 watching the future." Which was true. I'll admit that I long since took the shuttle program for granted, and haven't watched the launches in years. This one managed to feel a little bit like the old days, like walking into the big league ballpark for the very first time all over again.

Look, maybe this is the beginning of a long nadir for manned space flight in America, maybe not. Maybe private companies will spark innovation, maybe not. That's fine. Right now, the space shuttle Atlantis is from the far-flung future. That is, until it lands in a few hours, when it will instantly become a relic. In the meantime, if the first two minutes of this don't strike you as completely bad-ass, then I'm not quite sure what to tell you.