Wednesday, November 02, 2005

To Infinity and Beyond!

Hot damn! We is down among 'em! -- Eugene Cernan, Apollo 10

You will be hard pressed to find Gene Cernan's quote on any NASA site. The only way I was able to verify my memory of this moment was by going to Google, where I found a post I made several years on a newsgroup asking if the quote was accurate. Apollo 10, in case you've forgotten (and you probably have) was the mission that tested the LEM, releasing it from the command module and letting swoop down to within 15 Km of the Moon's surface. It was that moment that prompted Cernan's slightly profane outburst.

Of course, NASA didn't approve of one of their boys acting like a human being. But, Cernan was forgiven and even became the last man to set foot on the Moon.

It just goes to show that the spirit of adventure that was the Apollo program seems to have disappeared.

We desperately need to get a sense of adventure again. The Space Ship One pilots had some of that, but they spoiled it by crying after just about every mission. But, given the lack of testing and the last minute changes that were being made just before takeoff, I guess I'd cry for joy about getting back in one piece, too.

But space flight today is so scripted. There are the endless press conferences with shuttle crews, all saying just the right things, thanking everyone until they're blue in the face. The Chinese taikonauts must have taken a set of dialog cards with them. I know things suffer in translation, but the quotes from these men were nothing more than propaganda. They surpassed even the Soviet cosmonauts in praising the nation, the workers, and, of course, the government.

There used to be a more excited approach to space flight. Perhaps it was a little "cowboy", but it was very human. Alan Sheppard, having sat on the launch pad for next to forever, had to take a whiz in his suit. He later exhorted Mission Control to “fix your little problems and light this candle.” John Glenn, so exuberant he forgot he was supposed to be doing a scientific mission, kept being amazed by the view. Joking and chatter was common, because this was the unknown, and people tend to make jokes to avoid thinking about how scared they might be.

On Apollo 8, Frank Borman read from Genesis as they slingshotted around the Moon. NASA wasn't expecting this. But, this mission was changed at the last minute from an earth-orbital test to the lunar fly-around in an attempt to one-up the Russions. With so much uncertainty about whether they were going to succeed, astronauts giving a nod to the Almighty seemed like a very good idea.

It's not much like that anymore, but maybe it's because of the missions. When you're shuttling supplies to a space station and bring back the trash, it must be a little hard to get cocky. The shuttle doesn't go anywhere. The Mercury and Gemini missions just went up and down, too, but they were preparing the way for the big trips. We don't have any big trips, now, except for the ones run by our robots (who are doing a heck of a job on Mars and around Saturn). Oh sure, there's talk about Mars, but with no funding, no one is going anywhere soon. We need a mission, a real long range goal, to capture the old spirit.

Gene Cernan has another quote, of more recent vintage. As the years since his last trip to the Moon passed with no new endeavors for manned space exploration, he said, “Yes, I am the last man to have walked on the moon, and that's a very dubious and disappointing honor. It's been far too long.”

That's the kind of attitude that will get us to Mars.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Of Stone Giants, Missing Links, and Hobbits

There's a sucker born every minute. -- David Hannum (not P. T. Barnum, as is usually reported)

Homo Floresiensis has been found in Indonesia. This stunning piece of information might bring on a yawn until I mention that this early human is only between three and four feet tall, hence the nickname “the Hobbits.” Short hominids are not unusual, but this one dates to a time when the average human was about the size of, well, an average human of today (maybe a touch shorter, but not so's you'd notice).

There's been a lot of debate about this little sucker. It seems that the Hobbit's brain is way too small, proportionally speaking. It does turn out that there's a medical condition that can cause precisely the effect that was seen in terms of height and brain development, so many scientists and paleo folks were inclined to dismiss the Hobbit as merely a regular human suffering from a disease. There is a precedent for this in the discovery of the Neanderthals. The first one had bowed legs and stooped posture, based on analysis of his skeleton. Later on, it was determined that the bones belonged to a very old individual afflicted with arthritis. Neanderthals weren't stooped at all, although the image of the shuffling cave man has stayed with us to this day (not to mention those ridiculous Geico ads).

Ah, but wait, say the guys in Indonesia, we've found 9 more of these little people. What do you say to that? Well, I say, bring 'em home and let's have a good scientific look at 'em, because we've been fooled before.

For example, there was the Cardiff Giant. A farmer dug up what was ostensibly a 10 foot-tall petrified pre-Noah's-flood man. Some very intelligent (but apparently not very perceptive) people were taken in by this thing. Of course, it was a fraud. It came about as a result of an argument between an atheist and a preacher. The atheist, a man named Hull, decided he would show these bumpkins a thing or two. He managed to secretly create a statue, did some primitive aging of the stone and buried it in a cooperative farmer's field, where it was “discovered.” Even before it was exposed as a fake, P. T. Barnum and a man named David Hannum began to bid for it. Hannum won, but Barnum went ahead and had his own made, which people were just as satisfied to see, prompting Hannum's bitter remark quoted above.

And, then there was Piltdown Man. Found over a period of four years from 1908 to 1912, pieces of a jaw, teeth, and a skull were assembled to show that England had been home to the “missing link”, a creature with a jaw and teeth like an ape, but with a brain case like that of a modern human. This fraud, the perpetrator of which has never been clearly identified, was in the textbooks for years and wasn't exposed until 1953. Ironically, it was easily determined to be a fake; it was just that no one ever looked all that closely.

Piltdown changed the way archaeologists and paleontologists looked at new discoveries. There is now a considerably greater burden of proof on the discoverer to show that the find is what they say it is. I'm not saying that the Hobbit is a fake. On the contrary, it would be fascinating to find out that it's a real little person.

However, I'll believe it when it stands up to some serious scrutiny. And even then, I'll reserve judgment for a few years. Like the Who say, “Won't get fooled again.”

Thursday, October 20, 2005

What Can Make an Archaeologist Blush?

"Always read over the letters you write, or some damn fool is going to think they have found a kindred spirit.”--Confucius

In the magazine Archaeology, November/December 2005, we find the following bit of news in the “World Roundup” section:

Three more of Novgorod's famous birch-bark letters have been discovered during this year's excavation season – two of which contain profanities so rude that the archaeologists are refusing to release them to the public. One of the two twelfth-century artifacts is a fragment of a larger letter, while the other is a note written by a woman to an acquaintance in which she reprimands the man for not repaying a debt to her.

Well, this is a fine how-do-you-do! After waiting 900 years to see the light of day, these poignant missives are being blocked from our view because of some sort of Puritan ethic welling up in a group of archaeologists. Of course, if they're Russian archaeologists, it may be some sort of Orthodox ethic, but you get the idea. Who are they to deprive us of this slice of pre-medieval life?

Of the “fragment of a larger letter”, we can surmise nothing, although intense profanity does suggest a message to the local tax collector. But who cannot be tantalized by the woman who “reprimands the man for not repaying a debt”? Given the sad state of cursing today (as I wrote in earlier piece about the devaluation of the cuss word), our language could stand some imaginative profanity. Imagine curses not heard for 900 years! The excitement of it all leaves me all a-twitter.

Well, that might be a bit strong, but I do think it would be a hoot to read what the woman had to say. I mean, given the kind of thing we hear day in and day out, what sort of profanity could be so “rude” that it would need to be hidden from the eyes of the public?

Hmmm, the British are found of the word “rude”; perhaps we have some uptight stiff-upper-lip Englishmen holding this important missive hostage?

It's not hard to imagine the tone that the woman was using. “Reprimand” is probably way too light a term to describe the literary hissy fit she threw. “Listen, you borscht-bellied son of a cossack. You had better come up with the kopeks you owe me, or I'll have my boy friend Ivan come over there and rip you a new babushka. The don't call him 'the Terrible' for nothing, you slavering slob of a Slav!” I have no trouble picturing this woman searching for just the right bodily functions to use to describe what should happen to this ne'er-do-well debtor.

But the imagination can only go so far; I don't know Russian. Each language has it's own colorful turns of phrase. For example, my late father was multi-lingual, When called upon he could curse in any one of five languages: Hungarian, German, Slovenian, Polish, and English, with a smattering of Russian. When particularly irked, he could use them all at the same time, a veritable United Nations of bad language. Given his mechanical deficiencies, he directed many of these at our lawn mowers, all of which were reduced to junk metal by his tirades – or his mechanical deficiencies.

He use to quote a quaint little Polish phrase to people who annoyed him. He would do this with a smile, so they would think he had said something quite continental. When asked by someone else what he had just said, he replied, “I told him, 'May a fly sh_t in your nose.' ”

I will now pause for a moment while you try to rid your mind of that image.

That, in any event, is a curse of recent vintage, no older than a couple of hundred years. Can you imagine the possibilities of 900 years ago, when people were closer to the earth and muck and farm animals? I mean, think of the possibilities: Yaks could be involved!

Ladies and gentlemen of the archaeological community, I must insist that you not deprive us of such essential knowledge.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Paleo Sensationalism

I suppose it has to do with the way things are presented these days: Big headlines for minor stories, overblown news items, overhyped TV programs and products. When it extends to science, though, it’s time to stop.

I watch the Science Channel a lot. In fact, my TV viewing is pretty much down to History International, Science Channel, Discovery Times (when they show history or science), and a little National Geographic channel. Turner Classic Movies gets some attention, and, of course, I must not omit Boomerang (Looney Toons, forever!). With that limited repertoire, I take their content seriously; when there are errors or distortions, I get upset.

So last night, I tuned in with interest to see “what really killed the dinosaurs.” For some years know, there has a developed a consensus that the dinosaurs, who lasted for 165 million years, thank you, got finished off by a huge meteor impact. A mathematician named Alvarez and his son put this theory together, which got a huge sneer for years from paleontologists until the Iridium deposit was found worldwide which neatly divided the strata where there were dinosaurs from the strata where there weren’t any. A crater was found off the Yucatan which seemed to fit the size and timing to meet the requirements of the theory.

Now not everyone is on the bandwagon with the meteor folks. It has been argued for years that huge lava outflows (notably the Deccan Flats in India) could have contributed to a long-term decline of the dinosaurs. Others have pointed out that there was already a significant climate shift going on, which the volcanism only would have exacerbated. Finally, a few feel that due to a land bridge forming with areas that had been cut off for a long period of time, disparate dino populations came together and exchanged diseases. So I was intrigued to see what this “shocking new evidence was”.

It was codswallop, that’s what it was.

Basically, it was a couple of paleontologists who argued it wasn’t the Yucatan meteor that did it, it was another one that came 300,000 years later. That’s it? It wasn’t one meteor, it was another one? The only thing that was shocking about that is that anyone chose to argue the point.

Their evidence wasn’t very good, to boot. They based their conclusion on a sandstone layer in the Yucatan that most scientists feel came from the tsunami caused by the meteor impact. At the bottom of the layer, there are little molten globules, dirt made molten by the meteor. Then there’s a big layer of sandstone, which is followed by the iridium layer. They said the time to deposit that sandstone was very long (300,000 years) so the iridium and the globules couldn’t be related.

Although this explanation of how the sandstone meant such a long period of time had passed, it appeared that they were debunking the meteor extinction theory. So I waited with interest to see how they would explain the iridium, which is rare on Earth, but common in meteors. Then they hit me with the second meteor.

Now a proponent of the Yucatan meteor did a pretty good job of showing that the other guys were pretty sloppy in their interpretations of the sandstone. I guess they figured they didn't have to ask this, but I though there was one very pertinent question:

If there were two meteors, where's the iridium layer from the other one?

Perhaps realizing that the "shocking new evidence" was, in fact, pretty lame, the program took a sharp shift and started knocking other aspects of impact extinction theory. For example, if you have a monstrous impact (or massive volcanism for that matter) you get acid rain. For some reason, recently it's gotten popular to refer to this rain as being as strong as battery acid. There really isn't any evidence to suggest that it got that bad, but it sounds good. It's also easy to debunk, so they did that as well.

I could go on, but the bottom line was that it might have been an accumulation of events that did the dinosaurs in: Climate change, volcanism, meteor impact(s), and so on. Well, that's not a new idea. Frankly, many people have thought that the meteor is what finished off the dinosaurs, but it didn't do the bulk of the damage. It was just the straw that broke the velociraptor's back.

And they didn't mention Alvarez once during the whole program. For which Alvarez is probably grateful.