AICN's Copernicus - aka Andy Howell - Is A Host On KNOWN UNIVERSE, Which Premieres Tonight (Thursday) On Nat Geo Channel!!
KNOWN UNIVERSE premieres Thursday May 5th at 9pm EST
I’m somewhere east of LA, squatting in the middle of nowhere, with a detonator in my hand. It is hooked up to a homemade bomb – a 6 foot diameter balloon, filled with acetylene and oxygen – the same stuff they use in welding torches.
Steve “Jake” Jacobs, the most recent incarnation of Mr. Wizard, who masterminds some of the demos on MYTHBUSTERS, says, “I’ve seen this kind of explosion before. I’m going to be standing about 40 feet back that way. It was nice knowing you, Andy.” “Wait!” I say, “Is this safe?” There is a cameraman filming my reaction to the explosion, so both of us have to be a lot closer than I’d like to be. I try to reassure myself that the effects guy who set this up also works for Michael Bay. He just got off Transformers 3. Surely he knows his explosions.
I arm the switch. Someone shouts, “Fire in the hole!” Cameras roll. I improvise a line, push the trigger, and….
Nothing happens. I shout, “Nothing happened!” over in the direction of where everyone is hiding. The effects guy comes over, and gingerly makes his way up the detonator cord towards where the bomb is. He finds a spot where two wires have come apart, probably because we were trying to move the detonator as far back as we could. He twists the wires back together and goes back to a safe distance.
We get reset and cameras roll. I say, “I get to light my own supernova!” push the detonator, and…
BOOM! A massive explosion almost knocks me off my feet. I actually do stumble backwards to catch my footing. The cameraman, supposed to be silent, shouts, “OH MY GOD!” People are just freaking out at the power of the explosion. One of the production assistants shouts, “HOLEE MOTHER!” and comes running over cackling. But cameras are still rolling, catching my reaction, so the show runner is waving his hands trying to quiet everyone else down. After we finish the take, we get phone calls from people on another shoot more than a mile away, wanting to know if we are ok. A fire engine shows up. We get on the walkie talkie and ask the guys in the crane if the high speed footage came out ok. Nope, they say, it was too powerful – the camera was whited out. Dammit, we’re going to have to do it again, and in a hurry -- we’re rapidly losing the light.
Only time for one more setup before nightfall. But we got it set up, and nailed it. Just check out the beauty of this STAR WARS-worthy explosion!
How did I get myself into the middle of such awesomeness? I’m not even sure myself. Back in November I got word that the show KNOWN UNIVERSE was reinventing itself for its third season. They were adding hosts and lots of real-world demonstrations to explain astronomy and space science concepts. They had a casting call, looking for professional astronomers, so I sent in my information. After being contacted by a producer, and couple of audition videos later, I found myself cast as one of four hosts. The others are NASA astronaut and Hubble repairman Mike Massimino, Stanford aerospace engineer Sigrid Close, and Johns Hopkins theoretical physicist David Kaplan. Helping us design and explain our demos, is the aforementioned Mr. Wizard, Steve “Jake” Jacobs. Our job would be to conduct demonstrations of scientific principles, do green screen interviews discussing the science, and interview scientists and engineers at facilities where we would be shooting. With the exception of Sigrid, who came late, all of us are in all 8 episodes of the 3rd season.
Why were we setting off explosions outside of LA? Well, the main focus of my research is supernovae. So when the producers of the show asked me if I wanted to have a special effects crew rig up a series of explosions, film them with high speed cameras, and have me compare them to supernova models, my reaction went something like, “Hell yes!”
Supernovae just appear as points of light, even when seen with the most powerful telescopes. We can’t resolve the details of the explosion itself because they are so far away. So we have to rely on computer simulations. The old simulations were one dimensional, so they assumed the explosion was spherically symmetric. But research I did for my PhD thesis showed that supernovae are actually not spherically symmetric at all. As the explosion footage shows, real explosions are never perfectly symmetric. Computers are just now getting fast enough to be able to simulate a supernova in 3d, and we are finding that their 3d nature really matters. So in the show we compare our explosion footage to 3d supernova models to see how they match up. This segment is in the 3rd episode, “Most Powerful Stars,” which airs May 19 at 9 pm.
Blowing things up is just one of the cool things I got to do on the show. Some others: mixing up two tons of cornstarch and water in a cement mixer and then "walking on water,” racing a next-generation Mars/Lunar rover at Johnson space center, watching a Delta IV rocket engine test at NASA Stennis, shooting a hypervelocity gun at NASA White Sands, running on a reduced-gravity treadmill, putting on a space suit, shooting a Tommy gun (to represent the radiation on Mars), outrunning simulated lava, and deliberately lighting a house on fire to watch it burn.
But some of my favorite stuff got cut from the first episode. So I’ll explain a bit of it here. Less than two weeks after being cast, I was on my way to Johnson Space Center in Houston to shoot our first episode, “Surviving Outer Space.” There, for the first time, I got to meet one of my cohosts, Mike Massimino. Mike might be one of the closest things we have on Earth to a superhero. Aside from the alliterative name, he’s incredibly nice, funny, super-smart (he has a PhD in engineering), can fly airplanes (which he does on the show), and he’s a freakin’ astronaut! He risked his life to repair Hubble, and even tore off a stuck rail to make it happen. I felt like I already knew Mike -- I’d seen him in the spectacular documentary HUBBLE IMAX, but more than that, I’d watched countless hours of NASA TV, practically holding my breath, as he repaired the Hubble. He actually fixed STIS, an instrument that I use regularly to study supernovae. So a good amount of my success as a professional astronomer, I owe to Mike’s remarkable dedication and training.
First up, Mike and I got to visit the NASA food lab. NASA’s chief food scientist was there to explain to us how that aspect of the space program works. But even better, they had several astronaut dishes prepared for us to sample. This is way beyond freeze-dried astronaut ice cream. The food does often start dehydrated, and you hook the pouch it comes in to a machine that squirts in hot water. Mike showed me the ropes: you take your scissors, cut open the pouch, and eat it with a fork and spoon. We tried meatloaf, macaroni and cheese, and peach cobbler, and all were delicious. Before launch, each astronaut gets served a variety of dishes, and they rate each. A nutritionist then prepares a set of meals taking into account a balanced diet, caloric requirements (higher if you are spacewalking), and each astronaut’s favorites. Interestingly enough, because food is so heavily tied to morale in the strange and foreign environment of space, if you have a favorite recipe, say from your mom or a favorite restaurant, NASA will actually work with them to try to adapt it to be space-worthy. I had a blast, but that segment ultimately got cut from the show. Mostly that is because it was decided there wasn’t enough drama related to the “surviving space” aspect of this episode. But part of it could have been the fact that it was Mike and my first time on camera. I think we did a decent job, but we kept going off on tangents when interesting subjects would come up. The director continually had to rein us in, and bring the subject back to the survival aspect.
While filming at JSC, while moving through an area to film a scene, we happened to run into the shuttle astronauts training for Endeavour’s last mission: STS-134 – the one set to launch soon. The crew was really friendly, allowing us to stick around a chat while they finished up practicing. I got to chat with Drew Feustel, another astronaut I’m eternally grateful to for repairing Hubble. They even let me stick my head up into the shuttle flight simulator to watch two of them practice maneuvers. One was commander Mark Kelly (this was prior to his wife getting shot). After they were done, I grabbed this picture!
But that wasn’t the end of my Shuttle simulation adventures. Mike and I also got to shoot a scene in another exact replica of the Shuttle mid deck and flight deck where the astronauts train. The Shuttle is an amazingly small place. I have seen closets that are larger -- seriously. And up to seven astronauts may have to spend up to a couple of weeks in there if they aren’t going to the ISS. And after that we roamed around in the Space Station mock-up. That thing is huge in comparison – it looks like a movie set. But we didn’t get to film there, opting for the Soyuz capsule instead. It was a real one – the bottom half had been to space, but we were in the orbital module. That thing is tiny too! It can only hold 3 people. In fact, the cameraman, sound guy, and director had to stay outside and point the camera through the door while we filmed the scene. Sadly, all of these segments exploring spaceships got cut from the show.
Finally, we also got to go the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory. This contains a mind-boggling large pool where they have a massive mock-up of the ISS under water.
Astronauts train there in their suits to simulate the weightlessness of space. That got cut too.
So what did make it in the episode? Watch Thursday to find out. And coming up we have episodes about the most powerful stars in the galaxy, space construction, the biggest eruptions in the universe, space travel, and how astronomical objects die, just to name a few of the topics. So check the National Geographic Channel every Thursday at 9 Eastern. Non-US readers – the show will eventually show internationally, but not until the fall.
I hope you like the show. It was a hell of a lot of fun to make. If people enjoyed this article, I may write a few more about what happened behind the scenes of a few more episodes.
Thanks to Katrina Marcinowski for the great looking photos from explosion day.
Andy Howell aka Copernicus
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May 4, 2011, 4:25 p.m. CST
I love me some Andy Howell. Coolest guy I know, besides me. Giggle. Andy really is great and I have to say I'm fairly super-excited about his show - because ... well... I know Andy and Andy is one of the most articulate excitable geeks that allows themselves to GEEK out - and he's getting to GEEK on exactly what he's always dreamt of GEEKING on. Way to go Copernicus!!!
May 4, 2011, 5:18 p.m. CST
I always find your perspective refreshing, Copernicus-- I remember really enjoying your Sunshine review. I don't get NatGeo but I'm sure it's on Netflix. One thing I find fascinating about modern pop science on TV is the spectrum of ideologies on display and how transparent some of those political tensions are--i.e. do we make the science SUPER elementary so the rabble can increase their science literacy (that is the hope, anyway) or do we offer something more challenging and work the entertainment value in where we can? I really don't know what the right answer is. I was watching NOVA Science Now yesterday and at first I was disappointed by how pandering it seemed, but then I thought, "If someone wants more specialized knowledge on these topics, they'll now go seek it out"--which is exactly how I operate. That's actually the textbook definition of a geek. So I am all in favor of these sorts of middle-ground shows which may inspire more people into science geekdom. History Channel, OTOH...now there's a sad story for another day.
May 4, 2011, 5:25 p.m. CST
I'm a big fan of your science geek articles, and even though I don't pretend to understand everything you write, it certainly inspires me to figure it out. Count this as a vote in favor of more behind the scenes writeups of a show ill be dvring every week. Keep it up!
May 4, 2011, 5:30 p.m. CST
May 4, 2011, 6:35 p.m. CST
It's great to see someone who really cares about a subject succeed like this. I couldn't be much greener right now without gamma radiation, but I'm sure it's well deserved!
May 4, 2011, 6:45 p.m. CST
Supernovas go KABLAMMMOOO!!!
May 4, 2011, 6:57 p.m. CST
by Fat and Curious
Bravo and congratulations. If they made a show about what I learned in college it would just be thirty seconds of me throwing up on my dick at a urinal.
May 4, 2011, 7:35 p.m. CST
May 4, 2011, 7:39 p.m. CST
Hate to see that footage you guys shot go to waste. Maybe there's a way to get them to post it for all to see?
May 4, 2011, 8:44 p.m. CST
May 4, 2011, 8:47 p.m. CST
Are you doing anything to stop the government's HAARP program? If not, don't you feel a moral responsibility to speak out against this virtual Death Star?
May 4, 2011, 9:02 p.m. CST
When someone goes through the ordeal of getting his PhD, he's earned the title.
May 4, 2011, 10:47 p.m. CST
and so happy for you, man. Great gig!
May 4, 2011, 11:28 p.m. CST
There's nothing but love in this forum. Such a strange, alien feeling. Anyway, much appreciated! Soma: I too prefer shows with more science content. This show is certainly going for more attention-grabbing entertainment than it is deep explanation. That was mostly out of my control, although I did win a few battles. But as you say, getting anything at all to the masses is probably more important than improving the knowledge of those mostly in the know already by a few percent.
May 5, 2011, 12:14 a.m. CST
by T 1000 xp professional
May 5, 2011, 1:26 a.m. CST
I could read Copernicus' writing all day long. You sir, are a class act who needs to contribute more often!
May 5, 2011, 3:36 a.m. CST
Television has been so dumbed down, I barely watch it anymore. And I am VERY demographically desired by advertisers. Let Nat Geo know that intelligent people also spend money.
May 5, 2011, 7:20 a.m. CST
by vic twenty
My step-brother used to make acetylene bombs (much smaller than this one) in our detached garage, filling a Hefty garbage bag with the gas. He usually blew them up on the 4th of July. Well, this time one blew up at his feet. It shook the pictures off the wall in the house. We came running outside to see What the H happened (thanks Norm MacDonald). All the dust from the garage wafted through the open door of the garage and he came stumbling out, looking like Doc Brown (he had longer hair at the time). Funniest thing I’ve ever seen. His pants were in tatters and there were compression cuts on his legs and arms. So don’t try this at home, kids. Have your idiot step brother do it, sit back and enjoy the fireworks!
May 5, 2011, 8:04 a.m. CST
May 5, 2011, 8:12 a.m. CST
by Truxton Spangler
And if pop science programming is what it takes to get the masses interested, or provide even a slight clue about how things work, then that's not such a bad thing. The beauty of science is that it can admit that it's wrong, and not stubbornly adhere to unprovable dogma.
May 5, 2011, 9:01 a.m. CST
You got a lot of catch-up to do. Just sayin!
May 5, 2011, 9:20 a.m. CST
Harry seems to find a reason to type "giggle" into anything he writes. So, I want to to try it and see if it's any fun. And it's not. I feel like some sort of fruitcake.
May 5, 2011, 9:34 a.m. CST
How do you feel about Jackie Cooper? Man, they don't make em like him anymore. Seriously, I'm curious about your thoughts on his death. I mean, the guy had a decent sized (and iconic) role in at least one of the best superhero movies ever made. Check out this clip from THE CHAMP (1931): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JZWK1wk9XNo Eerie. I don't think I've ever seen a kid that young look and sound that much like a middle-aged man. Pretty brilliant.
May 5, 2011, 10:35 a.m. CST
Your articles are always awesome. And what's more, I almost always learn something; how many articles on AICN can you say THAT about? Looking forward to the show!
May 5, 2011, 12:15 p.m. CST
Congrats on the piece! I can't wait to check it out.
May 5, 2011, 4:26 p.m. CST
by Cletus Van Damme
Congratulations. And give Harry a call if you need a fluffer.
May 5, 2011, 8:48 p.m. CST
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May 7, 2011, 2:17 a.m. CST
Its allready been done, and probably better in the show on going to Mars(amongst others) that was hosted by the dude with the fancy name(Neil Degrasse Tyson?). Can never remember it. But been there, seen that in a couple of places. The NASA Food Lab is where all the docs go for a quickie, knockoff story. Comparing explosions to Supernova sounds cool, though.
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