Science & Technology

Into the Twilight Zone

This past weekend, while others rang in the New Year with parties and Bowl games, I entered a dimension not only of sight or sound, but of mind. My daughter alerted me to the Syfy network's "Twilight Zone" marathon early on NewYears Eve and from that point on I was hooked. Though I'm by no means a Twilight Zone expert, over the years I've seen the show seemingly countless times, so I was surprised to find that some of the episodes this go-around were new to me.

Of course the entire series is the brainchild of the ultra cool and stern narrator Rod Serling, who wrote most of the stories and opens each episode with a wry introduction. The series began in the late 50's, and just as Playboy magazine was redefining the girlie magazine, Serling, who comes across as "Hef's" more cerebral alter ego, brought the "bug-eyed monster" sci-fi genre from the pulp comics store into mainstream living rooms. The stories endure, despite low budgets and (by today's standards) cheesy special effects, because of the deep psychological insights that Serling brought to them. He also addressed controversial topics and contemporary hot button issues such as the Holocaust, nuclear war, and racial inequality.

Though "The Twilight Zone" only ran for five seasons, there were a stunning 156 episodes in total, 96 of which were written or co-written by Serling. Two of them, "It's a Good Life", which features child star Billy Mumy as a spoiled kid with terrifying mental powers, and "To Serve Man", in which earthlings are lured to an alien planet only to discover that they're to be "served" as food, were cited as being among TV Guide's "100 Greatest Episodes of All Time". So it's no wonder that I find it difficult to pick a personal favorite episode. Still, here are a couple that stand out for me:



"The Midnight Sun": NYC apartment tenant Norma (played by Oak Park, IL native Lois Nettleton) struggles to remain optimistic and cheerful despite the fact that the Earth has left its orbit and is plunging ever nearer to the sun. She finally collapses in fear and despair. (SPOILER:) In a twist on the "it's only a dream" ending, a relieved Norma awakes from her nightmare oblivious to the news that the doomed earth is actually RETREATING from the sun.

The recent Lars von Trier film "Melancholia"has a similar theme of people trying to keep it together in the face of impending celestial doom.

"The Dummy": Cliff Robertson stars as Jerry, a ventriloquist with problems. Besides battling alcohol, he's convinced that his creepy and malevolent dummy, Willie, is controlling his mind and his act. When Robertson resolves to replace Willie with a more docile costar, things get out of hand. As a kid, I was thoroughly weirded out by ventriloquist dummies, which I managed to overcome through immersion therapy when I asked and received one from Santa one Christmas. Still, this episode brings back those unsettling feelings, and the final scene, which features a role reversal with the doll/ventriloquist looking directly at camera, is unforgettably eerie.

So now that the "Twilight Zone" marathon has concluded, I wonder whether a new series of half hour sci-fi stories could be as successful today. The Twilight Zone was resurrected for a three season run in the late 80's and Serling himself hosted the series Night Gallery from 1970-73, which centered more on horror/fantasy stories, but neither attained the cult status and reputation of the classic Twilight Zone series. I'm sure there are many talented writers who could share the duties of scripting some incredible stories. As I see it, the main challenge would be wowing today's audiences accustomed to lavish sets and production values, something hard to attain with "one-off" characters and situations.

For a complete online list of the original Twilight Zone episodes along with brief descriptions, see "The Croc's Domain: Original Twilight Zone Episode Guide".

So what's your favorite episode? Comments and thoughts welcome.

Fermilab super collider meets its end



A week ago, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced billion in funding for high speed rail systems in the U.S. While this is welcome and long overdue news, another high speed transportation system is facing its final days and will be shut down for good later this year. And unlike the proposed high speed rail systems, which transports its passengers at top speeds of about 217 MPH, the soon-to-be-closed facility transports its subatomic passengers at 99.999954 percent of the speed of light. After accelerating along a nearly four mile track with the aid of magnets, the particles smash into one another at energies up to 1.96 trillion electron-volts.

The "Tevatron" particle accelerator/collider is located at Fermilab in Batavia, Illinois, 45 miles west of Chicago. While earning some notoriety on Saturday Night Live several years ago as the home of genetic mutation "Goat Boy", Fermilab is also home to some of the most intensive research into the nature of subatomic particles. Besides the Tevatron collider, visitors to Fermilab can also see a herd of American bison which roams the grounds. They were brought in by Fermilab's first director, Robert J. Wilson in 1969 in an effort to help preserve the breed and give local residents and visitors a chance to see the animals first hand. Thanks in part to Fermilab and other conservation efforts, the American bison is no longer on the list of endangered species.

The Tevatron was completed in 1987 and at the time was the most powerful particle accelerator on the planet. It only lost that title when the larger and more powerful Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, Switzerland came online in 2008. For particle physicists, hopes ran high that the intense collisions taking place in the Tevatron would reveal the existence of the hypothetical "Higgs boson" particle, sometimes referred to as the "God particle". Such a discovery would go a long way toward confirming the Standard Model of particle physics and is considered by many the Holy Grail in this field of study. Just recently, some anomalies in data readings at Fermilab indicated the possible existence of a previously unknown particle, though experts doubt that it's the Higgs boson.

The $35-50 million per year to operate the facility was deemed too costly by the U.S. Department of Energy, and when Fermilab's collider shuts down for good in September, it will just be one of many to be closed down for one reason or another over the years. In one spectacular case of government waste, the Supercolliding Super Conductor, which was slated to be built in Texas, was scrapped in 1993 after nearly two years of construction and 15 miles of a proposed 54 mile tunnel had been dug (and nearly $2 billion dollars spent). But the end of the Tevatron doesn't mean the end of all particle research at Fermilab. In an effort to look for the silver lining, some even say it will spur research into other areas, such as neutrino particles. Still, the demise of the Tevatron, like the end of Nasa's manned space program, seems to be a setback for "big thinking" when it comes to U.S. scientific research.