Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Research’

Dreamtime

Morning. High tide. You can’t hear anything over the sound of the waves.

The hounds decide to take a walk. I follow, taking the opportunity to work out the kinks in my bones and muscles left by the night-time cold. The sky overhead is gray, thick with featureless clouds, and there’s a chill wind blowing in off the sea. The waves are active, thundering on the surf, the oily-looking water surging up the sand, leaving a dirty-brown line of foam behind to mark the limit of its reach.

Here and there a body has washed ashore, and the living clump about, attending to the deceased. Dark pup trots over to one assemblage, Li’l blonde pup in tow, sniffing things out, here and there, both being petted absently by the congregates. They tire of the routine quickly, the odor emanating from the bodies too much of a downer so early in the day. He knows the smell; it’s as old as the idea of him. The yellow pup, more animated of the two, lets lose a few barks, then quiets down, head hanging, looking sad. He knows there are endings everywhere this day; he prefers not to think about them.

We climb the sandstone cliffs to get away from the death, carefully picking our way along eroding paths, making our way to the top. Once there, I stop to catch my breath, gazing out over the turbulent surf. A couple of the unlucky ships are still visible, caught on rocks, their bottoms ripped out, their masts down, slowly disintegrating under the relentless pounding of the waves. I fancy I think I see some movement on one of the twisted hulks, survivors, still alive, or else ocean-born predators, feasting on the unfortunate. I look down to the dark pup, now squatting at my side, taking a dump. He looks back, his expression “Yeah, so what do you want me to do about it?” He finishes his business, sniffs things out, then moves off, chasing after the blonde pup.

“Nothing,” I whisper after him with a resigned smile.

“Nothing…”

===============

“Throughout history, poverty is the normal condition of man. Advances which permit this norm to be exceeded – here and there, now and then – are all the work of an extremely small minority, frequently despised, often condemned, and almost always opposed by all right-thinking people. Whenever this tiny minority is kept from creating, or (as sometimes happens) is driven out of a society, the people then slip back into abject poverty.

“This is known as “bad luck”. “

– Robert A. Heinlein

Scientists are smart and clever people.

They have to be. Unlike almost any other profession you can name, if you are going to be a good scientist, you really can’t take any short cuts. This is particularly true of Physicists. As a lawyer of my acquaintance once remarked, physicists are the smartest guys in the room. They just are.

“Physics is the only real science. The rest are just stamp collecting.”

-Ernest Rutherford

So where does that arrogant certitude come from?

Carl Sagan outlines what it takes to study quantum mechanics:

“Imagine you seriously want to understand what quantum mechanics is about. There are mathematical underpinnings that you must first acquire, mastery of each mathematical subdiscipline leading you to the threshold of the next. In turn you must learn arithmetic, Euclidian geometry, high school algebra, differential and integral calculus, ordinary and partial differential equations, vector calculus, certain special functions of mathematical physics, matrix algebra, and group theory. For most physics students, this might occupy them from, say, third grade to graduate school – roughly 15 years. Such a course of study does not involve learning any quantum mechanics, but merely establishing the mathematical framework required to approach it deeply.”
~Antiscience
, from The Demon-Haunted World

Okay, so 15 years to get to the point where you start tackling quantum mechanics. 15 years to become a good enough physicist to tackle the heart of physics – quantum theory.

So why are we here, on the beach, talking physicists?

Endings.

Let me explain.

Sagan again, discussing understanding Quantum Mechanics:

“The job of the popularizer of science, trying to get across the idea of quantum mechanics to a general audience that has not gone through these initiation rites, is daunting. Indeed, there are no successful popularizations of quantum mechanics in my opinion – partly for this reason. These mathematical complexities are compounded by the fact that quantum theory is so resolutely counterintuitive. Common sense is almost useless in approaching it. It’s no good, Richard Feynman once said, asking why it IS that way. No one knows why it is that way. That’s just the way it is.”

~Antiscience

So how do we – you and me – confirm things?

Predictions:

“The answer is that even if we cannot understand it, we can verify that quantum mechanics works. We can compare the qualitative predictions of quantum theory with the measured wavelengths of spectral lines of the chemical elements, the behavior of semiconductors and liquid, microprocessors, which kinds of molecules form from their constituent atoms, the existence and properties of white dwarf stars, what happens in masers and lasers, and which materials are susceptible to which kinds of magnetism. We don’t have to understand the theory to see what it predicts. We don’t have to be accomplished physicists to read what the experiments reveal. In every one of these instances – and in many others – the predictions of quantum mechanics are strikingly, and to high accuracy, confirmed.”

~Antiscience

=====================

“Physicists are the smartest guys in the room.”

I was waiting in line to see The Dark Knight a couple of years back in Union Station (Washington D.C.) with an intellectual property litigator I am acquainted with, a senior partner of a large, international law firm. We’d had dinner in the micro-brewery in the building adjacent to Union Station and after, with the taste of burgers and bitter ale still fresh, made out way into and down stairs to the underground movie complex. (So totally the cool place to see a Batman movie, underground, just a suggestion of dank and cool on the humid July day, rough rock walls with the dullest sheen of moisture adding to the ambiance, like really being in the Bat Cave to see the damn flick). Killing time as we waited, we chatted about this and that and the conversation wandered to science. We were discussing different science disciplines and when the subject of physics came up, he uttered those words with a tone of finality that made it clear there was no argument as far as he was concerned.

Suffice to say I agree.

Physicists ARE the smartest guys in the room.

When we think of physics, the likelihood is the first thing to come to mind are images of Einstein, the atomic bomb, the symbol for the atom, E=MC2. We think of astronomy (astrophysics), nuclear theory, relativity, the Big Bang …

But physics casts a much wider net.

More and more, you can’t do ANY science without at least a conversant grasp of physics. Why? Because no matter what field you can come up with in the sciences, physics have become an integral part of the research done to examine it. In paleontology or geology, for example, dating techniques grounded in physics are necessary to unlocking understandings of the age of things. Similarly, biophysics is the study of physics in living systems. Chaos theory, fluid dynamics, electronics, geophysics, acoustics, light, cosmology, cryophysics (low-temperature physics), crystallography, nanotechnology … it’s everywhere in science.

Here’s another field that relies heavily on the science of physics:

Climatology.

The study of climate.

Not the study of weather.

The study of climate, the thing that makes weather.

One of the more fallacious arguments promoted by Creationists and AGW Denialists (and there were MANY fallacious arguments) was that science gets things wrong all the time. To support this contention, they often cite examples like the Piltdown Man as “proof” … ignoring the fact that, in the end, it was scientists that exposed the frauds.

Science get things wrong, yes. But science also provides that best tool for correcting its own mistakes. There is nothing like scientific inquiry in human experience that comes close to its track record for getting things right.

Nothing.

So I want to take a moment to discuss something that serves as a classic example of science getting things wrong, and why this example underscores why science gets things right.

In the first chapter of “Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe”, Simon Singh does a bang-up job explaining the history of the science of astronomy. In particular, he very clearly explains how science works as an observational tool, the rules it adheres to, the dependence upon hard evidence and careful observation to validate or discard theories of the way things behave in nature. He discusses the scientific evidence that fueled the discussion and debates over whether the Steady State or the Big Bang model of the universe was the more valid theory, and as he does so, he walks you through the process of discovery.

For the purposes of this discussion, though, I’m going to concentrate on the other example he uses to discuss the operation of the scientific method – Geocentrism v. Heliocentrism

Singh lays out how the Heliocentric model evolved from hypothesis to theory, and illustrates why even though Copernicus’ model made excellent sense in terms of proposing a superior and simpler alternative to Geocentrism, Heliocentrism did not fully demonstrate it had replaced the previous model until long after Copernicus died because contemporary astronomers were unable to confirm certain aspects of Venus’ and Mercury’s orbits. Even though the idea of the Heliocentric cosmos seemed more straightforward and compelling, more correct, there were still missing final confirming proofs – because the instruments to get that proof didn’t yet exist. In short, there was room for doubt, but it is important to understand that doubt was largely academic – the theory had shown itself to have validity, enough so that those that followed increasingly worked from the assumption that a Heliocentric Cosmos was the most likely model, even though the inner planet observations had not been confirmed.

That’s what theories come down to: the most likely answer based on the data available. And when better, verifiable answers come along, the previous answers are tossed on the scrap heap of science. This is how physics works, how biology works, how any science works. Theories are never 100% perfect – there are gaps, problems with getting data and observations. These “problems” are often latched onto by opponents to an idea out of context and proportion to their actual import, like the Piltdown Man example noted above. The exposure of that error did nothing to invalidate the Theory of Evolution – it simply eliminated an area of inquiry. The theory remains the most powerful (and only) real explanation of the progress of life through time. It is such a powerful idea that most legitimate tests of its predictions lead to a strengthening of the overall theory, contributing new understandings. It serves as the foundation of modern biology, of modern medicine and medical research. Whenever you are treated as a patient, the fact of evolution informs to some degree your treatment. But the Theory of Evolution hasn’t answered all of the questions it poses, and may never be able to to the satisfaction of its detractors in the Creationist community, not because the science is wrong, but because it undermines the dogma that informs what Creationists want to believe.

But we’ll get into this curious disconnect with more detail later; we’re wandering in different, if related, territory …

Winter

I am reminded of a story – possibly apocryphal, though it is supposed to originate with Robert McNamara – relating to the Cuban Missile Crisis. It is said that the Joint Chiefs of Staff approached President Kennedy with a proposal (amongst several) to detonate a couple of nuclear warheads on or above the island of Cuba in order to quickly end the standoff, reassuring him that the CIA was positive that the Russians had not placed any nuclear warheads in Cuba yet. But when the Soviet State collapsed and we were allowed access to the Soviet archives from that era it was discovered that the Russians in fact had somewhere in the neighborhood of 150 warheads in-country, some or all targeted on major cities in the U.S. The scary part is Kennedy gave the proposal to nuke Cuba serious consideration. Needless to say, had he followed through, the thing he longed to prevent – a nuclear exchange that would have been unstoppable once started – would probably have occurred, and with it, the nuclear winter that would have settled upon the planet.

Nuclear Winter. Now there’s a wild theory – who’d a’thunk it? Heck, it wasn’t a hypothesis in the 60s – it was something that came up decades later. Even then, it met with resistance. The discussion on how scientifically “valid” the nuclear winter hypothesis is can be likened to the dairy farmer worrying how he’s going to get the next morning’s shipment to market if the barn containing his milk cows has burned down, killing the livestock. As we’re learning, even a nuclear exchange of the limited magnitude expected could do such significant damage to the biosphere that it really wouldn’t matter a great deal if the climate would have somehow remained unaffected.

The danger isn’t limited to nuclear-induced climate change; there’s also the potential damage a handful of modern cities might cause with all their stored toxins in the form of plastics and chemicals and so forth, burning unchecked into the atmosphere, combined with the radiation that would accompany these poisons on the winds. It’s the potential of millions of dead and decaying corpses breeding fresh plagues. It is the instant famine that will grip regions of the planet and the likely secondary wars over what is left of resources. The effect on our world would be both immediate and long-term, making the burning of Kuwait’s oil fields look like a campfire by comparison.

The Four Horseman would have a field day beyond comprehension.

The true value of the Nuclear Winter hypothesis in terms of public policy – regardless of its long-term viability as science – may be that it opened a lot of eyes and got people to think about the implications of a nuclear exchange in a way other arguments against nuclear war seemingly did not. Then again, maybe not: there was no significant change in nuclear policy. But it shook the public out of a complacency that had settled in its collective consciousness after the stressed-out duck-and-cover 50s and early 60s

Perhaps it comes down to perspective; armchair disagreements of what really would have happened in the aftermath when the actual event would have been so obviously apocalyptic can only make me wonder if people who do discuss this stuff grasp on a visceral level what the heck they think they are talking about. In short, had the nuclear exchange happened, the climate six months down the road would have probably been extremely low on one’s list of priorities – were an individual unfortunate enough to have survived.

Science is a wonderful tool for analyzing and understanding a problem, for explaining how things work; but while it is full of gee-whiz-bang excitement that makes laymen such as myself sit up and pay attention, too many of its proponents get so caught up with nitpicking the details that they lose sight of communicating the bigger picture. Bluntly put, you miss the understanding that sometimes you need to reach out and grab hold of the public by its collective short hairs and give a serious tug to get their attention.

Maybe this is our biggest impediment to working up AGW responses (in addition to addressing the obfuscators, neo-skeptics and denialists): there is no immediacy to this threat, no sense of our being intimately involved in a way that will have a short-term world-changing effect (because this isn’t about short-term problems), no ability to see things from a global perspective, no way to imagine or communicate the idea that every time you start your car’s engine or run the air conditioner you are taking aim at your future with growing detrimental – and quite possible mortal – consequences.

Coming up: Dark Puppy agendas …

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

We live in a privileged time. I’ve touched on this before. I have been reminded of this understanding again by the news Congress members were all but assaulted on their way to Congress. Racist epitaphs were thrown, legislators were spit on, and the U.S. as a people took another giant step backwards in more ways than I could likely quantify.

WTF?

Yeah, we’re supposed to be the home of the free and the land of the brave, but that doesn’t translate into a license to behave like a racist, homophobic moron. Unfortunately, this is what things have come to, this discussion of Health Care … and beyond it … birth certificates … and legitimacy … and socialism …. and everything else that really seems code for racism: the mob rules, the mad mob, driven by fear and rage and powerlessness because the world they thought they knew and were secure in is gone and the one they are really living in is passing them by. Wounded animals lash out; it makes perfect sense that there are a lot of crazed white folk out there, people who think they’ve lived to see the arrival of the antichrist in the person of Barrack Obama.

This is an ongoing, worrying development …

=========

At this writing the final fate of the Health Care Plan is yet to be called. My hope is it succeeds. I could probably say a lot about the forces arrayed against it, but at this point, if you are a decent thoughtful human being, I don’t think there is anything more I can add to the conversation you don’t understand. This hasn’t been a debate, just an exercise in empire fail.

Too many people don’t seem to understand. We spent the last 30 years largely accelerating the process of borrowing against the future. The last decade has seen that pace engage hyperdrive … and the day we would eventually have to pay for this short-sidedness? It came two years ago. We’ve been in recovery mode ever since.

So what does that mean for health care? Aside from the fact that this has been a long overdue idea, overdue even when Nixon and Kennedy tried to make it happen, an important component has entered the equation: what’s happened to the economy may linger for a long, long time. And in this time and place in our history one of the most important cushions we could possibly have as a people is the assurance that no matter WHAT happened, we would have access to health care that would hopefully give us a fighting chance during our personal hard times.

Health care that guaranteed no discrimination based on pre-existing conditions would also mean job migration, probably new businesses, innovation. Why? Consider how many people stay with a job primarily because of health care concerns, in particular those of the chronic and/or pre-existing variety. Guaranteed coverage could open new opportunities they couldn’t otherwise explore. How this would benefit the U.S. is fairly obvious. We live in a time where we need the pot of innovation stirred, we need new businesses, which contribute to job growth. In the rough times ahead, this is a no brainer.

People complaining about abortion piss me off, btw. I had to get that in. If anything, as someone mentioned in recent days, this thing has the potential to be one of the most significant pro-life victories ever handed to that crowd … by a room full of liberals who are opposed to to ANY restrictions to a woman’s rightful choice to decide her fate. Why? Guaranteed access to health care, to pre-natal health care would be a strong incentive to make the choice to carry a child to term. This is the direction pro-life should want to gravitate to in order to consider their movement legitimate; failure to do so at best shows these folks to be cynical to something they avow is a supreme priority, at worst purely hypocritical, using pro-life as little more than a tool to push a social agenda.

Public health would benefit. In an era where we face fresh threats from old enemies like TB and other now-antibiotic-resistant forms of bacteriological infection, not to mention new viruses that keep popping up, the idea that everyone having access to health care might aid in quickly identifying threats to public health – as well as keeping the general state of health in an improved status simply, again, by guaranteeing people can see doctors long before a disease or illness enters the realm of catastrophic illness. Health care for all means, invariably, better health for the population over all.

Finally, it is, pure and simple, the right thing to do. If we can maintain garrisons of soldiers and airmen in Europe and Asia, if we can send men and material to two wars, if we can pay money to countries like Israel and Egypt and Pakistan, if we can provide corporate welfare hand over fist to soulless businesses who’ve never sacrificed a child to war, never had to struggle with individual hardship of the kind regularly endured by a more than significant number of Americans … then we can afford this bill.

I repeat:

We can afford this Health bill.

Any argument to the contrary based on money has no cachet in this light.

None.

So what are you left with?

The moral argument?

What’s moral about arguing your fellow countrymen, many of them people who have made sacrifices that others can enjoy the freedoms we take oh so too much for granted, be kept from access to decent health care?

It is in our self-interest, both practically, and morally, to see this thing passed.

Just my two cents.

======

One last thought …

I worry for our President, whatever the outcome.

These are dark times, darker, perhaps, than maybe we realize …

… I’ll shut up now …

=========

… except …

I’ve been away for a while; going to probably be away for a time to come, so what happens to the Dark Puppy here or the Urgent ta-tas over on Pandora will have to wait a few weeks. Tempest, my first series of books, is done except for tinkering and tuning. For perspective, the three installments therein clock in at just under 300 pages (word count: 177,000 & change). What’s going on now, after starts and stops, distractions, editing, launching two blogs … I’m finishing the last leg of Ronin Cycle, a half dozen chapters in various stages of completion. Currently that six-part narrative is 830 + pages down, maybe 60-80 pages left. My hope is to finish by the middle of next month, as a birthday present to myself.

I’m on a roll, living that part of the writing thing that makes it fun. The story is done in my head, the outline of what’s left to write fairly well sketched … the details and the characters’ actions work themselves out organically, and the sequences flow. It’s neat … I don’t need to think about it … I’m just writing things as they happen. … And I don’t have to write in sequence – whatever aspect most tickles my fancy is the part I working on right now. Yesterday I wrote the ending. Today, a little bit of this, and then back to complete a battle of mythic character …

Go with what speaks loudest…

=========

UPDATE

Okay, it passed. It still needs to have the Senate agree to the changes, but that appears to be a done deal. All the same, I’m half holding my breath.

RE: My concern echoed above for the President.

There’s a lot of anger out there – uninformed and thoughtless for the most part, but anger all the same. Interesting days ahead.

Regardless, as I noted elsewhere, one of my greatest wishes has come true. We have a real statesman as President.

Been a long time …

Read Full Post »

“Honorable Chairman, ladies, and gentlemen:

Happy New Year!

“Indeed a happy New Year beginning the 11th year in the Age of Space, greatest era of our race – ”the greatest!” – despite gasoline shortages, pollution, overpopulation, inflation, wars and threats of war. ‘These too shall pass’, but the stars abide.

Robert A. Heinlein

“Our race will spread out through space – unlimited room, unlimited energy, unlimited wealth. This is certain.

“But I am not certain that the working language will be English…”

– Robert A. Heinlein, speaking before the Congress of the United States on the subject of NASA Spinoffs, August 19, 1979, later published in Omni magazine and  Expanded Universe (1980) as Spinoff.

=====

I recently lost a Facebook friend.

Everyone has hot-button issues. Two of the three that tend to get me going are

1) Creationists insisting religious writings equate with science and;

2) people claiming there are compelling arguments to dismiss Global Climate Change (Global Warming) when, in fact, there aren’t any that haven’t been thoroughly examined in the scientific court of peer review and shown to fail.

The third hot button, the one that is pertinent re the FB friend-loss, is the claim that NASA is a waste of money.

My reply when Seamus (not his real name) said this on FB was:

“Seamus, you don’t know what you are talking about.”

*unfriend*

Perspective

Okay, so I could be called for being mean and rude. It was a thoughtlessly flip comment responding to another flip and very, very tired cliché that people use when they want to say they don’t like NASA or space exploration in general but really don’t know the first thing about why they don’t like it beyond the unqualified assertion it is a money waste. In a series of polite emails following-up my extraction from Seamus’ personal universe of social media connections I pointed out that if he felt I was being rude, he should call me on it, and I would apologize immediately … and then gone on to point out why he didn’t know what he was talking about. (Tact was never my strong suite, in case you hadn’t noticed.) Anyway, he’s not talking to me, which is too bad: Seamus is generally a good guy and I do kinda miss him. But things be what they be and we carry on.

Ironically, at least in the spirit of making the best of an otherwise bad outcome, the incident provided me with a nice little lead-in to something I did want to talk about, to wit:

President Obama is canceling the Constellation Program, his predecessor’s initiative to get the U.S. back to the Moon and to Mars while providing a replacement to the Shuttle Program, which will be retired after this year.

To start, I really want to concentrate on how the “too expensive” tag underscores a fateful problem we seem to have as a species … we don’t look too far down the road. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not being a Pollyanna about things; I fully understand space exploration is a huge, frightfully perilous undertaking, demanding a commitment of resources, fiscal and material, which even in the best of times can be unsettling and during a deep recession that may be permanent for many, downright insulting – at least in terms of apparent short-term outcomes. These are certainly not like the good old days when a Queen Isabella could pawn a necklace and start the greatest adventure of the Western World to that time, the Age of Discovery, a development that in many ways spurred the Age of Enlightenment. The Queen’s was an investment that resulted in untold wealth that to this day continues to be realized.

And, yes, I know it’s a shitty comparison. The exploration of the Americas also coincided with one of the nastiest long-term genocides in recorded history, as well as the virtual rape of the American wilderness – the former born out of an innate xenophobia that seems to reside in us as a species, and the latter from a general ignorance of how the biosphere sustains us and a misplaced belief that we “own” things. (We don’t, of course. Ownership of nature is a non-sequitur; if anything, nature owns us. Don’t believe me? Ask yourself a simple set of questions. Could nature survive without us? Could we survive without nature? Unless you are an idiot or willfully ignorant, you get it.) These are ugly aspects of human history, and of our evolutionary behavior as a species … and certainly not unique to this one example. But this is who we are. It’s up to us if we want to be better.

There’s another, more positive commonality about exploration that seems significant … it tends to coincide with the growth and vitality of a population … a nation. It is, in part, a reflection of the inspired genius of a people, perhaps even their spirit.

The Constellation Project

The previous administration’s proposal for going back to the Moon – the Constellation Program offering the vague promise of using our satellite as a jumping-off station for Mars – wasn’t necessarily an idea I was a huge fan of, given as the project was underfunded from the start and, likely, more an invention of cynical election year politics than any desire to open up the final frontier. Besides, I’d seen the mess the president made of his two invasions and the New Orleans disaster, so I wasn’t too encouraged …

Then again, the Shuttle Orbiter program was not funded as well as it could have been. That inconvenience led to delays, increased expenses, and cutting of funding to other space science. NASA, for example, has miles of tape from space missions that have never been analyzed because the money isn’t there, and those tapes are deteriorating – data we paid for lost because of underfunding. It’s all rather unfortunate.

Yet despite being underfunded, the Shuttle built the International Space Station. Not just that: the Orbiter put satellites in orbit; countless scientific experiments were conducted that benefited scientific and medical research; methods of working in zero-gravity, often involving complex tasks, were developed. Invaluable experience was gained for the future.

Perhaps most pleasing and important of all, the Shuttle put up and maintained the most wonderful invention in the history of man: the Hubble Telescope. Nothing … and I mean NOTHING … has brought us closer to seeing the immense, intense beauty of the reality we inhabit as we ride this infinitesimally small piece of flotsam adrift in the celestial ocean. That perspective alone is almost worth every penny spent on space from the very beginning of space exploration.

In spite of obstacles, the Shuttle was a success. It was what it was supposed to be, a workhorse that delivered and assembled payloads in orbit, conducted repair and resupply missions, and generally did more to maintain mankind’s regular presence in orbit than any other launch vehicle in the short history of space flight. Maybe the question that should be asked is if could it have been a greater success had it been funded like the moon project?

Nuts & Bolts

First the earth was flat
But it fattened up when we didn’t fall off
Now we spin laps round the sun

2-1, Imogen Heap

There are very basic things our forays into space have brought us, weather satellites being amongst the most obvious in terms of what they provide us regarding preparedness and protection for populations. As bad as New Orleans was when Katrina hit, imagine how much worse it would have been without the solid data provided by the orbiting observation posts. That’s just a small portion of the payoff. These orbiting instrument platforms – and their cousins, the scientific research satellites – provide us with a copious amount of data regarding the state of our planet, data that invariably profits us.

I mention elsewhere E.O. Wilson’s comment that to sustain the planet at a level the U.S. consumes goods would require 3.5 to 4.5 planets. Here’s an irony to chew on – a committed effort to expanding out into the solar system would likely provide us with a significant source of raw materials we’re going to need if we are going to survive long into the future … and maybe even a place to escape to.

Hurricane Katrina

“In all scientific research, the researcher may or may not find what he is looking for – indeed, his hypothesis may be demolished – but he is certain to learn something new . . . which may be and often is more important than what he had hoped to learn.

“This is the Principle of Serendipity. It is so invariant that it can be considered an empirically established natural law.”

Spinoff, Robert A Heinlein

When compared to government funding in general, the amount of money spent on space exploration and research is insignificant. Most government cash goes to social programs, infrastructure, corporate welfare, entitlements, endless domestic and international programs … and defense budgets that burn up NASA’s miniscule funding by the end of the first day of the fiscal year … or thereabouts. In truth, if you took your time to really figure out where your tax money went, you’d be both stunned, and likely forced to reevaluate the myths of how government spending is allotted that most people accept as gospel truth.

More important: money directed at space actually offers a return on the investment. Science. Science provides potential for real return … and has delivered on that promise at every opportunity. Just look at your electric light and think about it. Every electronic device you own, much of modern diagnostic medicine, agriculture, you name it … Space Program spinoffs exist somewhere in the lineage of all of it. The work done to get to the moon altered industry and medicine as research results generated technological innovation across the board.

Consider this, as well: People who touch our lives in so many meaningful ways – friends, lovers, siblings, parents, children – might not have been alive to do so without the spinoffs of medical research developed in the effort to get humans off planet. Medical spinoffs contribute to the early detection of disease, treatment, and general improvements in quality of life for sufferers of chronic illness

Bluntly, the cost argument is bogus. NASA – and by extension all government-funded science and scientific research – at least produces results that show a potential for return on investment. It’s hard to come up with another agency that can make that claim.  And if the U.S. government doesn’t then take proper advantage of these research results is not the fault of NASA; what we’re really discussing is a failure of imagination on the part of bureaucrats, not the science. The results produced are real. Our technology, the growth of our knowledge of the Cosmos, the countless experiments performed over the years, the experience we gained in engineering and working in space … the fact thousands of people are alive because of techniques and equipment borne out of the Space Program research – these things all point to a program that gives something back.

Lost Space

Here’s the thing I guess I have the most difficulty with: trying to get people to see long-term perspective. My friend Mikey and I often puzzle at the shift when we talk of  the oddness of living in a time where people are not excited by the prospect of a growing population of humans in space and all the potential such a reality could offer. By contrast, he and I grew up in an era charged by a sense of amazement and wonder, carried by a dream that lived in mankind since we first looked to the sky and saw the moon. It was fueled in part by the real-life-fact of it, and the imagined possibilities, going back to Cyrano de Bergerac and long before.

Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars – Frank Frazetta

When I was a child, Mars was still an amazing and mysterious dream of fantasy. And this was well before exposure to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars novels (Bradbury got me first – what an wonderful collection of stories, imaginative, whimsical, breathed upon with deep dreams touched by both the otherworldly – and the familiar.)

Growing up, Martian canals were still big in the public imagination; heck, 20 years earlier Orson Welles got the East Coast to shit a collective cow over his reenactment of H.G.’s masterpiece. And as I grew older, I watched as the space program started undressing the Red Planet’s secrets … hers and the rest of the solar system. We peaked within Venus shroud to see the incredible geography while learning her atmosphere would eat us alive. We sent Mariner 10 to fly through the frightful solar radiance that washed over Mercury. We sent probes crashing into the moon, then landing, finally putting men on the moon.

Men on the Moon.

What a fucking fantastical statement.

Men.

On.

The.

Goddamn.

Moon.

And we didn’t stop. For all of the significance, the Moon landing was an appetizer. We had bigger fish to fry. Viking 1 & 2 went to Mars. And then, in the most exquisite of cosmic ballets, first the Pioneers and then the Voyagers – two craft each – visited the Jovian planets. I remember the Voyager flybys of Jupiter and Saturn … there were parties … Bikers and bankers, dweebs and sharp-dressed men … people hung around TVs, at home, in clumps in bars, watching the photos as they processed in, listening to mission control as the scientists and engineers monitored the great adventure light-minutes behind the actual events …

Voyager 1

listening as we waited for the signal that told us Voyager successfully passed through the recently-discovered rings of Jupiter … and then of Saturn …

… and it was us up there … represented, yes, but it was US … YOU and ME and EVERYONE ELSE sailing the cosmic ocean … and we were  navigating the gravity wells orbiting our home star.

As a species, we were being amazing!!!

I’ll repeat this, ’cause if you don’t get anything else I say here, you really need to understand this:

WE WERE BEING FUCKING AMAZING, GODDAMMIT!!!

More fucking amazing than we ever had been in our long, amazing history.

Even with all the extra-planetary missions to the inner, rocky worlds of the solar system, after actually putting six pairs of human beings on the moon, nothing hit home like the Pioneer and – especially – the Voyager missions. We were seeing the Jovian worlds up close and personal, our miniscule craft of exploration sailing through the ring-systems, past small moons, through radiation storms, sending back images and data to the waiting humans on our distant planet.

The Voyager Missions

Jupiter and Saturn … and eventually Uranus and Neptune … were no longer points of light in the sky to be mistaken for faraway stars … these became real worlds that inhabited our local neighborhood in the Milky Way … and in the end changed how we looked at the cosmos.

We could see our future, could see where things were going to lead us.

But we never really got out of near-earth orbit.

And now, decades later, George Bush was gonna revive a listless space program and send us back to the moon.

Of course he was …

Cynicism aside, the Moon Project was the only game in town … we never developed a replacement for the Orbiter, and now we’re hitching rides with the Russians. We needed something, and this was all we had to pin our hopes to. And now that is gone, too …

Aside from a well-deserved “WTF?” owing its origins to a latent sense of pride given the United States’ participation in the history in space exploration, the news does nothing to inspire optimism regarding our – humanity’s – effort to get off-planet. And I know the whole “mankind must never flag in its commitment to explore space” thing has been done to death, and better writers than I have written enough on the subject to fill several large volumes of books. But I gotta say something.

Comet Shoemaker-Levy breaks up on its approach to Jupiter

A story … of sorts …

1981 until graduation from college in ’83, through the unintended consequences of procrastination and an odd series of synchronicities, my take-home essay tests and term papers for my ancient Greek and Roman courses were almost always due on the day of a shuttle launch. (God’s Truth, if you believe in that sort of thing.) I must have caught every early launch, and at least 80 percent of the time I was awake because I always waited until the last minute and finished those papers and tests by pulling all-nighters the day they were due. All in all, an interesting/ironic juxtaposition … regurgitate what you learned studying the cradle of Western Civilization while watching the result of the long road those ancient peoples set us on.

Atlas missile launch, Vandenberg AFB, 1962

My family had an active part in the space race. At least, my Dad did … he wired silos for missiles at Vandenberg AFB in the early sixties. We were a space town, Lompoc, California, a place at one time destined to become a Spaceport. Think about that a second. Cape Canaveral was always that – Cape Canaveral, the first U.S. Spaceport. The Russians had Baikonur. In terms of Space, they were it. Thing is, in the popular imagination, we never really considered Canaveral a spaceport. It was just a place we launched missiles from. And who thought about Baikonur outside of Russia, NASA and the CIA?

But Vandenberg AFB was something else – a declared spaceport. How audacious … a spaceport … we were on our way to the stars!

Sadly, funding was cut, the facilities at Vandenberg were mothballed … and that dream died. Being short-sighted appears to be a genetic trait in bureaucrats.

Still, Lompoc at the beginning of the 1960s was the West Coast’s ‘Space City’. The people residing there lived and breathed the space race. When missiles went up at night everyone would rush outside to the thundering roar of an Atlas or Minuteman as it started on its test run down the Pacific Range. The rockets would burn brilliant against the indigo skies, sometimes exploding, pulsing a ring of energy as the rocket blew up … or was detonated because of a system failure. And when the early Saturn 1 launches were televised, we’d have sleepovers and gangs of kids would stay up late to watch Mission Control light the candle and send the massive missile up.

Much later. 1977. Like a lot of people, the whole post-Moon landing space thing had faded in importance for me as I got on with my adult life. I was working at San Francisco General at the time. I’d gotten off my midnight shift at Mission Emergency Hospital and headed straight over to the Civic Center. I was going to attend a scifi convention, Space Con 3. My primary reason for being there: a talk to be held on the Shuttle Orbiter Program chaired by Nichele Nichols, James Doohan …

Virginia and Robert at the SpaceCon 3

… and Robert A. Heinlein.

Bleary eyed as I was from sleep-deprivation, I was wide-awake throughout. The two Star Trek alums deferred to Heinlein, and he made an animated hour of it.  Holding up a large cutaway drawing of the Shuttle, he proudly pronounced it to be “the Model T” of spaceflight development. He talked as he always talked about his hopes for mankind realizing what he saw as its destiny.

That seems so long ago now. Heinlein passed a decade later, his oft-stated dream of dying on the moon unfulfilled. The world, it seems, has changed. I grew up in a nation that dreamed of conquering space. We walked on the moon, saw our small ships of metal and electronics sail to nearly every corner of the solar system to send back news and knowledge of how things really were. And now we’re on the verge of retiring our only means of putting men in orbit.

We had dreams.

And then the dreams went away. With it, maybe our future … and our greatness
… we … have lost something …

“…Middle-class Americans really don’t want to hear about sacrifices or trade-offs—except as flattering descriptions about how ready we, as a people, are, or used to be, to accept them.”

There is a growing argument the United States is in a decline as a nation. There is a concurrent argument that humans as a species may possibly be on the way out. From a paleontological perspective, species disappearance is unsurprising – most species die off relatively quickly in terms of geologic time – but ending remains unsettling from the more immediate perspective of the species. Ominously, we should know with relative certainty in the next 30 years if the climate and environment tanks as bad as they are projected to … and then it will be too late to do much about either interrelated problem. The conversation regarding human survival is in relation to our need – and inability – to curb our population growth while seriously working to keep our natural resources self-sustainable. Just to say that is incredible to me; the planet’s bounty seemed limitless as recently as fifty years ago. No more. As we trash the biosphere scientists who study such things are calling this the sixth great die-off – and the first perpetrated by a species.

In both cases – the decline of the U.S. and the decline of global human civilization – it seems the common symptom is an intense, overriding focus on the here and now; the future seems too far away to care about.

Aftermath of Comet Shoemaker-Levy striking Jupiter … the Earth could get lost in any one of those yellow strike areas in the southern hemisphere.

All the gods lost 2-1,
And holes to heaven pointed out to us from light years away;
We’re surrounded by a billion galaxies…

2-1, Imogen Heap

So here we are. On the precipice of the future, roaming the shores of Sagan’s cosmic ocean, and we appear to be allowing our true chance at greatness slip through our collective fingers. Oh, sure, we landed on the Moon. We did great things. And then we didn’t.

We live at – quite possibly – the tail end of what might end up being the most perfect time in human history, a true era of wonders. The ancients would have regarded ours as a world of miracles, but modern viewpoints are jaded by lack of perspective: it’s hard to understand our condition, particularly in the developed world, is the exception to human history. There is still a lot of potential locked up in our species … but it is unclear if we can take advantage of that untapped potential given our increasingly apparent inability to get past the smallness in us. Moving off planet would give us a chance … give our children and their children and succeeding generations a real chance to survive the future we might be bringing on ourselves.

But we don’t see. We can’t see.

And this is what I see:

We’re the builders of the Pyramids. We’re the people who raised up the Parthenon and invented Western Civilization. We conquered Egypt, Persia, India and everything between. We invented, built (and then burnt) the Great Libraries of antiquity. We constructed the Coliseum, Circus Maximus … and ruled the Western World for centuries. We’re the sons and daughters of Discovery, architects of the Enlightenment. We opened the New World to the Old. The sun never set on our Empire. We’re the people that put men on the Moon.

And then we stopped … and we went away …

Read Full Post »

%d bloggers like this: