My Favorite Things

Concerning tastes, there is no dispute. – Anonymous

None of these lists are in order of preference, nor could I in most cases specify such an order.


    Avatar – At last, a story where the strongest variant of Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis is true, and is straight biology: The biosphere of Pandora is an integrated intelligent organism, with a web of life as real as the neural connections between the root systems of the plants, whose data capacity might indeed suffice to record every sparrow’s fall. A hard-science treatment may bring home the need for a global environmental perspective to an audience often suspicious of the mysticism and theology that commonly surround the subject, and the movie’s audience will be large. Kingsley Amis would be proud.

    And I want a banshee.

    Jurassic Park – Not much for characterization, but after all, the humans only have (ahem) bit parts. Do people still  remember that the first animated figure in a cinema cartoon – not even a talkie – was “Gertie the Dinosaur”? I bet the Jurassic Park production team did.

    2001: A Space Odyssey – I saw this one twice not long after its first release. An evening audience, full of Hollywood sophisticates, just tittered at the far-out stuff. A Saturday matinee audience, full of kids, was spellbound. Guess who was right. I must credit Kubrick with the best short and accurate summary yet of many millions of years of human history, when he goes from the invention of the tool to an orbiting spacecraft in a single cut.

    The Lord of the Rings – The moment that made me most appreciate how well, and with how much love, this trilogy was made, was the scene when Frodo and Sam look from a distance on the dry and rugged terrain north of Mordor: Whoever did the artwork got the precise terrain from the fold-out maps in the original books and rendered it in three dimensions. I was delighted that the production had elevated the role of women in this movie; in the original Tolkien there is a disturbing tendency for them to be little more than eye candy: Arwen is much improved. My favorite acting in the trilogy is Miranda Otto’s “Eowyn”.

    Contact – I worked on an early SETI project (SERENDIP* in Stu Bowyer’s group at U. C. Berkeley), and have been personally acquainted with two of the people upon whom characters in Contact are based. One – Jill Tarter, Director of the SETI Institute – later told me that the year Contact came out, she came to their Hallowe’en party dressed as Jodi Foster.

    I must confess that as a physicist, I sometimes watch media depictions of space-travel technology with a certain wry cynicism: Combat spacecraft that have to bank to turn, indeed! During the first Contact scene featuring the wormhole apparatus, I had a similar reaction – it looked like something that had escaped from Coney Island on Walpurgis Night. Yet later, when it started working, I found myself willing to admit that somewhere, somehow, we physicists might just possibly have missed something. I rate Contact’s star-travel technology the best yet in media science fiction.

    (*) Search for Extraterrestrial Radio Emissions that are Non-Directional and Intelligently Pulsed.

    Star Wars (the first three released) – Combat spacecraft that have to bank to turn, indeed! But what can I say, I loved it.

    Zorba the Greek

    Gone With the Wind – Scarlett O’Hara is a fine example of a strong woman in an unexpected place and time, and I mean both the Civil War in which the movie was set and the 1930’s Hollywood in which it was made. My favorite scene is the pullback from a closeup of Scarlett talking to a military doctor to a view of an outdoor hospital with thousands of Confederate wounded.

    Das Boot – My father had a job in World War II that had to do with submarines (American ones, not German). He told me that this movie was appallingly realistic. When the depth-charging starts, hide under your seat. The movie, incidentally, is not pro-Nazi and certainly does not glorify war.

    Serenity – Fabulous space opera with deep themes and an extremely strong female character (River) who has enough weaknesses and vulnerabilities that people can identify with her.

    Spinal Tap – (“These go to eleven!”) A must for anyone who has ever even thought about playing rock guitar, or being in a band, or being a groupie.

    Lady Hamilton – It’s not so much about Emma Hamilton – a remarkable woman very ill-treated in her time – as about Admiral Nelson, using Hamilton’s original innocence and growing awareness of what was happening in the wide world (this was the time of the Napoleonic wars, when it still looked as if Napoleon might win) as a vehicle similarly to enlighten the audience. Great performances by both Vivien Leigh and Sir Lawrence Olivier.

    Two Brothers – A fairy tail for non-human species, an animal story in which the acting by the animals is so good that no narrator is required (how strange to call non-humans actors, but they deserve the title). What is more – as far as I can tell from a little book research – the protagonists really do exhibit all the behaviors displayed in the film. Oh, all right, I will tell you – they are tigers.

    Fly Away Home – Once the dream was to fly like the birds. In the 1990s, a few pilots of ultralight aircraft went one step beyond, and learned to fly with the birds. Fly Away Home is a dramatization of an actual project to use ultralight aircraft to lead migratory birds to new habitats which they (the birds) did not know about previously. The project depicted used Canada Geese; the ultimate goal, ultimately achieved, was to expand the range of Whooping Cranes and save the latter from extinction. See Operation Migration for details.

    In The Shadow Of The Moon – A superb recent documentary on the Apollo missions to the Moon, featuring a good deal of NASA movie footage that hasn’t seen the light of day since it was shot, and also featuring reminiscing by some of the Apollo astronauts who are still alive, about what it felt like and what it meant. I have been a space enthusiast since well before Sputnik I, and at one time actually got to work on an Apollo that was stacked for launch; this movie is the best thing about real space travel that I have ever seen.

    Interstellar – Serious treatment of interstellar travel with technologies based on general relativity makes the film, despite a plot that is at times seriously hokey. Watch for scenes that are counterparts of one in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but done much better.

    Moon – Little-known British film with a strong robot supporting character and some good science and plot.

    Maleficent – It turns out that the protagonist was a heroine all along. Interesting how the history of a conflict varies depending on which side tells the story.

    Wonder Woman – You will notice that there are no films on this list about dorks wearing capes. The title character herein is not burdened with the ego issues, stupid costumes and bad dialog that hamper most so-called superheroes. What is more, Gal Gadot is more or less qualified to play the part.

Works of Music:

    Embryonic Journey (Jorma Kaukonen)

    Like a Rolling Stone (Bob Dylan)

    Mister Tambourine Man (Bob Dylan)

    Concierto de Aranuez (Joaquin Rodrigo)

    Avalon Rising * (Avalon Rising)

    To Our Children’s Children’s Children * (Moody Blues)

    Avatar *

    The Visit * (Loreena McKennitt)

    Wicked **

    * Album

    ** Musical and Album

Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature:

    Time for the Stars (Robert A. Heinlein) – A classic Heinlein juvenile containing a marvelous description of what Thomas Kuhn would later call a “paradigm shift”, but Heinlein’s work preceded Kuhn by six years. This book has had more influence on my personal understanding of what science is about, and how it works, than any other work of fact or fiction.

    Gossamer Axe (Gael Baudino) – Love, magic, rock and roll, and a remarkable bardic duel.

    Wilderness (Dennis Danvers) – He’s recently divorced, and sensitive. She has a problem getting along with men. Can they make it as a couple? Why is this book on my list? Well, her problem is that she’s a werewolf – but he is an ethologist, a biologist who specializes in the study of animal behavior in the field. Straight up and turn left at Tuesday: By the end of the book you will think it the greatest of gifts to be one of the were.

    The Enemy Stars (Poul Anderson) – Another classic of interstellar exploration.

    Footfall (Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle) – Perhaps the only truly serious attempt to address the logistical difficulties of mounting an invasion at interstellar distances with technology not much more advanced than our own. “Eat coherent gamma rays, foolish Centaurians!”

    The Doomsday Book (Connie Willis) – Won both the Hugo and the Nebula. You won’t find out what this book is about till much too late.

    The Wanderer (Fritz Leiber) – Shades of Kimball Kinnison: So this Earth-size dirigible planet pops out of hyperspace right by the Moon, and they are too low on fuel to turn off their gravity (they need the Moon for fuel, that’s why they came), so tides on Earth increase in amplitude by a factor of a hundred or so. To this book the SF community owes the thought-provoking observation that super intellects may have super hangups. And if you thought Olaf Stapledon’s The Star Maker wonderful, read The Wanderer for another perspective on the same world.

    Brother to Dragons, Companion to Owls (Jane Lindskold)

    The Once and Future King (T. H. White)

    Great North Road (Peter Hamilton) – Imaginative science fiction used creatively to weave a good mystery story with many plot twists.

Other Works of Art:

    The Starry Night (Vincent Van Gogh) – It may have been the effect of migraine or insanity, but for whatever reason, the cosmos is full of energy and Van Gogh captured it well.

    The Unicorn Tapestries – These hang in the Cloisters (see below).

    Lascaux Cave – Well-described as “The Sistine Chapel of the Paleolithic”. Find a video or some images that show the setting as well as the individual pieces of art.   

Places I Have Been:

    The Cloisters – This museum complex is an uptown outpost of the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. I first read about it in Marjorie Morningstar, and couldn’t believe that it was that nice. It is, and besides, it contains the Unicorn Tapestries.

    The Visitor’s Center on Mauna Kea – This facility is operated in connection with the Summit Observatories, but it is only 9300 feet up, so you can still breath. It is well set up not only for lay visitors during the day, but for amateur astronomers at night – there is electrical power, a switch for the parking lot lights, piers for mounting telescopes, and the bathrooms are left open. I spent a week’s vacation observing from this site in 2000.

    Bumpas Hell Parking Lot, Mount Lassen – A fine site for amateur astronomy, at the 8200-foot level on the south side of Lassen Peak.

    Monterey Bay – A wildlife area like the Serenghetti, only better.

    The Telegraph Avenue area of Berkeley – Ah, Berserkely…

    Santa Cruz, California – My favorite city to hang out in. I lived there for a while.


Things I Have Seen:

    A Saturn Launch – The Saturn IB for the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, which carried the instrument that got my Ph.D. thesis data. Liftoff of a big launch vehicle is much like a religious experience; you feel the subsonics in your gut, and seem blinded by the light.

    Einstein’s Cross – A gravitationally lensed quasar eight billion light-years out. The light that struck my retina when I was viewing this object was half again as old as the Solar System, and probably older than most of the atoms heavier than hydrogen that make up the Solar System.

    A Blue Whale – On a marine biology field trip on Monterey Bay. As if one were witness to the passage of a minor deity.

    A Green Flash Nearly Thirty Seconds Long – From a jet airliner, headed generally west at sunset, nearly keeping pace with the terminator. Did you know that green flashes are really the light of the sun reflecting off the topmost towers of Oz, far, far away?

    A Complete Circular Rainbow – Sighted from a lightplane, looking down at a cloud, with the sun behind me.

    A Mountain Lion, in the Wild – These big cats are very shy, hence rarely seen even when present. This particular sighting was in the U. C. Santa Cruz arboretum, at dusk, less than 200 meters from a housing development.

  Ice Cream Flavors:


   Peppermint Stick

   Haagen-Daz “Baileys”

Beverages: (Note: I do not drink alcohol.)


    Kona Coffee

    Jones Green Apple Soda

       Crystal Light “Key Lime”

Things I Have Done:

    Participated in pre-launch support and flight operations for an Apollo mission. – This was the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project again. I got to help install a scientific instrument in a real, live space ship, stacked on the launch complex at Kennedy Space Center, three hundred feet above the Florida sands, and to be in Mission Control in Houston during the flight. I was a starry-eyed kid when President Kennedy had announced the Apollo program and said we were going to the Moon, and there I was, fourteen years later, working on the last Apollo to fly. What a trip! I wished there had been a way to send a message back; the kid could have used some encouragement.

    Been the first human being (I think) to realize that there is tangible matter here in the solar system that has arrived from interstellar distances, tenuous gas blown by supernovae hundreds of light years away. – This was a result of my doctoral thesis, using data from the Apollo experiment mentioned above. (We were doing a point measurement of characteristics of the interstellar medium close to the Sun.) For a fan of science fiction since childhood, who had always dreamed of interstellar flight, realizing that the stars had come to us was a big thrill.

    Taken in a whole lot of stray cats. – I have had a substantial family during the last few decades, but all of its members have been feline, except possibly for me. Feral cats are wonderful animals and make great companions: If you have a cat that was raised around humans and handled a lot as a kitten, then at most times and for most practical purposes, you have a teddy bear that purrs – undoubtedly a great pet. If you have a feral, though, you do not have a pet: You have a relationship. You have to work on it constantly, with consequences to follow if you fail. What fun!

    Watched a night launch of a sounding rocket at White Sands Missile Range, from outside the blockhouse. – This launch carried several instruments prepared by my research group at U. C. Berkeley. It was a Black Brant V, a classic solid-propellant rocket, proportioned about like a telephone pole with fins, launched on rails through the roof of a huge tin shed with lots of windows. The New Mexico desert night was pitch black and tranquil. When the booster lit, the shed lit up like a giant demon jack-o-lantern gone mad, and the vehicle took off like a cat with its tail on fire, which it somewhat resembled. A handful of seconds later, many miles up, it went through a layer of transparent ice crystals high in the sky, and there was a ring around the rocket, just like a ring around the Moon. Then the fuel burned out, and you could still see the glow from the red-hot exhaust nozzle, growing fainter and redder as the vehicle fell upward into the sky.

    Then there was the sea otter… – I was taking a sea-kayaking class, and we were trying to learn to do the “Eskimo roll”, which is not a dessert item but a slow roll done in the kayak, in the water, rolling underwater and then back upright without getting out of the vessel. (I have done slow rolls in an airplane; they are much harder in kayaks.) We were in a sheltered area near Fisherman’s Wharf in Monterey, and there was a sea otter about twenty meters off. Every time one of the class rolled underwater, the otter would duck its head, and when the human came back above the surface -- in the kayak or out of it -- the otter would reappear. And I will swear that critter was laughing!

    … and the wolf … – A friend in a California city had all the papers from the folks at U.S. Fish and Game and California Fish and Wildlife to raise exotic animals in her home. Other folks boast about who they have met and where they have been; she bragged about what had bitten her. One of her animals was an adult male wolf – 100 percent Canis lupus, whelped in a zoo. She did not have papers for him from the local city authorities, so whenever they became suspicious, a friend from the zoo would come by and lie, and tell them that the animal was part domestic dog. His name was Kodiak, not Ernest, but even so, the joke was that he was dog in town and wolf in the country. Kody was shy and beautiful. In summer coat he resembled nothing so much as a German Shepherd with near-fatal anorexia – wolves are built to run, and the well-built, handsome animals in photos all owe their appearances to their thick winter coats: Most of them isn’t there. He ran like the wind, in great leaping bounds: Wolves cannot double up like a dog when they run, their front feet would collide with their hind feet, so they stretch out and appear to be flying low, only dropping a foot now and then to steer. (Think of a car: Wolves have the same sidewise separation between their front tires as between their back tires; dogs have the front tires closer together than the back ones. It’s an adaptation for running in snow.) But, being very shy, he wouldn’t come near me. So I lay down on the back patio and my friend spread “snausages” (a doggie treat) on the ground around me, and a few on top of me. Kodiak would lope by at five meters or so, but if I so much as turned my eyes toward him he would be off like a shot. After a while, we noticed that a few of the more remote snausages had disappeared. A few hours later I realized that I had just spent considerable time doing my best to imitate a sack of Spam in the presence of a top carnivore, but alas, I was insufficiently appetizing to tempt him.

    … and the possum … – I was keeping a feeding station – bowls of water and dog biscuit – for local wildlife on my back deck. One evening I was sitting outside, on the deck, watching an opossum investigating supper. Presently it started investigating me. I must have twitched when it started to crawl into my lap, because it scampered off. Opossums have the maximum number of teeth found in mammals, so perhaps that is just as well.

    … and the haunted bathtub. – My tub is a built-in box-like unit that sits directly on the floor joists, with no floor or subfloor under it so that any stray water can drain to the ground in the crawl space below. One evening I was soaking and snoozing, when I heard a scratching noise from within the tub, just by my left ear. After climbing down from the ceiling, I scratched back, and had quite a conversation for a while. Investigating further, I lifted up the crawl-space access panel in my pantry and leaned down below the house with a flashlight between my teeth, hanging upside down like a giant soggy bat. Many pairs of glowing eyes stared back at me from the joists below the tub. A mother raccoon was denning under the house with her litter, and they were enjoying the warmth of the hot water only a tub-wall-thickness away. I tended my feeding station regularly for the next few months, and watched seven baby raccoons safely grow to young adulthood.

    I was born on a planet where space travel was an escapist fantasy for losers, but even so, during my childhood in the early 1950s, I wanted to be a rocket pilot and explore other worlds. More than half a century later, I worked at SpaceX as one of the team that develops the software that flies our rockets and spacecraft ... and as I write these words, we just launched a sports car to the orbit of Mars. Maybe there is justice after all. (Andy Weir, eat your heart out – the first human-rated vehicle launched on an interplanetary trajectory was ... a convertible!) (I tell people that the launch was really the result of a typographical error – SpaceX is about Mars, not cars.)