Saturday, July 29, 2006

Men and Women of Genius Redux

We are perverse creatures and never satisfied. ~Nan Fairbrother

When I wrote the previous piece, it occurred to me that it was far from a complete list of the accomplishments of our ancestors. The more I see how innovation has declined, the greater my admiration grows for those early humans. They had to make leaps from nothing to something, and did it so many times that we're still being amazed by how early some things were discovered.

So, allow me to point out a few more instances of genius from our ancestors.

Baking – Cooking meat was a slam dunk. Drop a haunch in the fire or find that a carcass from a forest fire actually tastes good, and bingo, you're into barbecuing. But, taking little seeds, grinding them up, mixing the powder with water or milk, and tossing that on coals is a rather large leap. Of all the various inventions of those lost eons, this is one of the most difficult for which to imagine a path. In the previous piece, I mentioned farming as one of those miraculous inventions, and I suspect that the ability to cook seeds into something yummy and filling may have pushed the nomads into farming. So, baking is may well be a key to other developments. Betty Crocker would be so proud.

Writing – Perhaps it doesn't sound like such a big deal to go from drawing on cave walls to writing, but it took a long time to get there. As with language, some individual had to codify a system, teach it to others, who in turn had to get still others to buy into this writing business. Moreover, either some people thought they could improve on the systems, or the concept was invented several times, because the writing of, say, the Sumerians bears no resemblance to that of the Egyptians. It's hard to see any similarities between cuneiform and hieroglyphics, yet both get the job done. Of course, in our time, we're trying to bastardize writing, spelling, and grammar to the point no one will be able to understand anything anyone else writes.

Music – Oh, I know, people were banging rocks together since time immemorial. But some early Bach started keeping track of those rock-banging episodes, so they could be used over and over, perhaps as part of rituals or maybe just because one particular session sounded better than others. Beyond the rock-banging, they started plucking bow strings, blowing through animal horns and hollow reeds, and put that all together into a paleolithic symphony. Music probably came before writing and language; it may have been an influence to both.

Puzzles – What, you say, is so freaking phenomenal about puzzles? After all, early homo was solving problems all the time, working out methods to hunt critters bigger than they were, figuring out fire, and so on. But, a puzzle is a more abstract thing. It requires imagination to create a puzzle in the first place and even more imagination for the resolver to come up with the answer. In other words, puzzles are pure brainwork, both in their inception and solution. When people started doing puzzles around the campfire, they started exercising their brains, both their imaginations and their logical thinking. I wonder if they had a pebble-based version of Sudoku?

Religion – I get pretty cranky about religion, as anyone who has read Gog's Blog will attest (which isn't many of you, but if I dwell on that, I'll start crying and never finish this). However, what I'm thinking about here is systems of faith, not ornate cathedrals and money-grubbing tele-evangelists. There is no denying the impact that systems of faith have had on civilization. For millions of years, our ancestors might have regarded the passing of one of their group with some sadness, but they would have left the body to the scavengers. Then, at some point, they started caring a great deal about the departed. They buried them, but more than that, they buried them with possessions and flowers. This not only reflects a greater caring for their fellow beings, but it shows that they thought they might have need of those possessions in some sort of afterlife.

What caused this change of attitude? I believe it was Neanderthals who were the earliest to begin this process of evidently thoughtful preparation of the dead. Such activity indicates a belief in an afterlife, which might be indicative of a value system. After all, if you accept an afterlife, there's normally a reward system associated with it. If you live a good life, hunt well, and support the tribe, for example, you get to go on to a higher level of afterlife. If you don't live like a “moral” life, whatever that may be in this context, you don't get a cushy afterlife. A system of faith is an underpinning to the beginnings of morality, ethics, and law. Unfortunately, it also serves as an underpinning to intolerance of others who views differ from yours. Given that humans were probably suspicious of strangers to begin with, it wouldn't take much to use your value system as an excuse for wiping out the neighbors.

Magic – What I'm talking about here is actually the art of illusion. You may not think this important, but the ability to convince someone you can do the humanly impossible, like making things disappear or appear from behind someone's ear, is going to make you a big man. A little sleight-of-hand or knowing about a powder that would go “foof” when tossed into a fire, and you can convince people you can commune with all those spirits that control the world. I'm inclined to think that the faith came first. The charlatans came later.

Just goes to show some things never change.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Real Men and/or Women of Genius

(Originally appeared in Gog's Blog, February, 2006)

Genius is more often found in a cracked pot than in a whole one. ~E.B. White

When people talk about great ideas, inventions, and insights, they tend to focus on great minds like Einstein, Newton, or Hawking if dwelling on science, and Edison, Watt, and Philo T. Farnsworth when thinking of inventions. And surely, these are important people, but I watch a lot of history programs, and the ones that deal in prehistory often set me to thinking about some great unknown geniuses who laid the foundations upon which today's world is really built.

I'd like to put forth some examples. I've avoided the kinds of things that would have come from common observation, like medicinal plants. Even the dullest mind could see that sick animals tended to eat certain kids of herbs to get better. While important and impressive in their own right, observational discoveries aren't as remarkable as some of these incredible leaps of imagination.

The lever - Certainly the wheel was important, but whatever ancient thought up the concept of using a stout stick to move a big rock really set construction in motion. Consider this: The pyramids were built without the use of the wheel. Instead they used sledges and levered the stones into position. That's what makes this such an important discovery.

Spoken language - Anthropologists have no real idea of when human ancestors became capable of speech. But whenever that was, someone had to start actually naming things and communicating those names to his or her fellow grunters. This prehistoric Webster not only had to convince the tribe that the thing with the big saber teeth was, say, a glork, but if they met another tribe, someone had to figure out that their glork was the other tribe's bleek. No small undertaking.

Stone tools - One night the boys were banging rocks together when one cracked apart. When one of them got his fingers cut, someone saw the possibilities. But the amazing individual is the one that figured out a) certain rocks were better than others for creating durable sharp tools, b) if you took precise chips instead of just whacking away, you got more efficient tools, and c) specialized shapes could do specialized jobs. Edison would have had a team of dozens working for years to come up with the concept.

Metallurgy - Think about this for a moment. There may have been a really big fire. Going through the area, someone looks down and sees a melted glob of something that happened to be some lumps of copper ore or iron ore that had gotten really hot. Or maybe he sees some stuff that's come out of volcano. Either way he's looking at lumps. This guy manages to look at this lump and sees that a tool can be made from it. Now that's a leap that almost beggars the imagination, but the next leap is phenomenal. He figures out that if he builds a really hot fire, he can through some dirt in it and end up with a workable lump of the same stuff. Ultimately, he takes two different kinds of dirt and ends up with a glob of stuff (bronze) that makes a sturdier tool. He works out proportions, experiments with other kinds of dirt (gee, a little of this stuff that poisoned the goats makes the metal harder), and creates formulas for smelting. Now this didn't happen overnight, but that it happened at all is remarkable. I mean, you probably have a general knowledge of metals and wouldn't have a clue, in all likelihood about how to produce bronze. But some guy wearing a grass cape and using flint arrowheads knew someone who could fashion him a very serviceable ax.

Creating fire - Almost surely, the first use of fire came about after someone gathered up burning branches from a tree hit by lightning or from a forest fire. But, it gets pretty old having to wait for a propitious thunderstorm or conflagration. So did the cave dudes figure out that friction got things warm? Or, when they were making those nice flint tools, did they set the old saber-tooth skin on fire with sparks? Personally, I opt for the latter. It still took a lot of work to get the right methodology to do it predictably.

Farming - Here are all these nomadic tribes, living from day to day, when someone figures out that a) the seeds they've been eating actually have something to do with producing new plants, b) chopping up the ground makes the plants grow better, c) animal (and human) waste makes plants grow better, and d) growing your own plants means you can quit wandering all over the landscape looking for food. Include in this whole concept domestication of food animals, and you're talking about a concept that was as big a leap for them as a faster-than-light-drive would be for us.

I'm not sure so-called modern humans could do as well.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Listening - Part 2

Human consciousness arose but a minute before midnight on the geological clock. Yet we mayflies try to bend an ancient world to our purposes, ignorant perhaps of the messages buried in its long history. Let us hope that we are still in the early morning of our April day. ~Stephen Jay Gould

All right, class. When last we met in Part 1, I was waxing eloquent about Frank Drake's equation for determining the number of technical civilizations currently existing in the Milky Way galaxy. In particular, I looked at Carl Sagan's interpretations of this formula in a 1966 book, “Intelligent Life In The Universe”, and in his 1980 series, “Cosmos” (lordy, has it really been 26 years?).

It's interesting to note that Sagan (and the others who have considered this problem) always seem to assume that the odds of a civilization hanging around depend on the beings overcoming the temptation to blow themselves into oblivion. Certainly, that's an important factor, but it ignores the concept of extinction events. Human beings could actually learn to coexist for the next 10,000 years, but if an event equivalent to the one that caused the Siberian or Deccan Flats was to occur, we'd be getting along as cave-dwellers, if we survived at all.

Our planet has been around for around four billion years. The origins of life have been pushed back to as far as 3.8 billion years. That's good news, because it's an indication that life arises quickly. Microbial life has also survived planetary catastrophes including massive collisions and a global ice age (although there's still a lot of discussion about the ice age). So life is also very tough once it gets going. That bodes well for the life part of the Drake formula.

But, in 1966 and even in 1980, we were in a Cold War mentality that had most of us convinced that we were going to vaporize human life sooner or later, and the odds were in favor of sooner. Furthermore, humanity has shown that, given a choice between polluting the blazes out of the planet and conserving it, we'll go the slob route every time. So, Sagan reflected an outlook that said, “Human beings are going to screw up the good thing they've got.”

It's hard to argue with that, but the planet has proved to be far more resilient than Rachel Carson and friends thought. Our mistakes are reversible, even though governments around the world are currently trying to undo the efforts that cleaned up air and water in the 1960's and 1970's. Air quality is worsening and the slime is back in Lake Erie. Depressing as that is, we know that in a remarkably short time, we can correct these problems if we want to.

Still, we shouldn't get too cocky. Despite my dislike of catastrophists, they do bring to the fore one important point: Bad things happen to living things on this rock, over which the living things have little or no control.

Major extinction events have occurred many times over the Earth's lifetime, along with more minor ones. Climatic change has been a huge factor and will, no doubt, be one again some day. While experts wax eloquent about carbon dioxide and ozone, the fact is that no one really understands what causes the Earth to get very warm or very cold. Right now, we appear to be in a period of global warming, but the climate is nowhere near as warm as it has been in the past. Over the history of the Earth, ice caps have been a rarity, and much greater parts of the planet wer under water. The caps are beginning to disappear again. When they do, a lot of land where a lot of people now live is going to be very wet.

Continents continue to drift. Recently, it was discovered that there has been a widening in parts of the Great Rift Valley in Africa, signaling a possible upwelling of magma at this juncture of two plates. In the very long term, this indicates that there's going to be a new ocean one of these days (I will be offering shares in Rift Beach Estates soon). In a possibly shorter term, we could be looking forward to a volcanic event on a par with the Siberian Traps (which will louse up my real estate deal something fierce).

We have the technological means to mitigate these potential disasters. But, in the long run, Stephen Hawking is right when he says we'd better be working to find a way to get off the planet and a place to go, because things could go wrong at any time.

And I haven't even mentioned the potential of a rock the size of Dubuque bouncing off one of our hemispheres.

The point of all this is this: What has happened and will happen here would happen on any life-bearing planet. If taking 4 billion years to get smart enough to build computers is typical, the odds of a civilization actually hanging around long enough to talk to other ones is slim. If an extraterrestrial race gets smart enough to send signals and happens to send one our way, and we happen to be listening when it arrives, by the time we respond, they might not be around to complete the thought. The same goes for the likelihood that we'll be around to hear anyone responding to our few attempts.

None of this is to say that we should abandon all attempts to listen for intelligent signals. Just identifying a signal from some other interstellar race might work to change our shortsighted attitude toward our own existence. If we realize that we're not alone, we might work harder to ensure that the other guys won't end up all alone in our corner of the galaxy. Besides, a signal would mean that someone out there had worked hard to beat the odds of ever communicating with another intelligence. It would be a shame to let their effort go to waste without listening and responding, just in case they managed to beat the catastrophe odds.

As a species, we're pretty young, you know, not to mention inherently bright. We can resolve our short-term problems and work toward long-range plans that will ensure that we'll be around for far more than the foreseeable future.

Who knows, maybe someday we'll be sending out signals with advice on how to beat the odds against survival.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Listening – Part 1

I am sorry to say that there is too much point to the wisecrack that life is extinct on other planets because their scientists were more advanced than ours. ~John F. Kennedy

Seth Shostak writes a regular SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) column for The other day, he wrote a nice piece about misconceptions that the average person has about the SETI Project. Mr. Shostak obviously has a sense of humor as well as a ton of dedication. Good thing, since he obviously needs both in his line of work. SETI is the longest of long shots, particularly given its low funding levels and intermittent nature.

However, it was his mention of Frank Drake that got me to thinking about life “out there.” If you've ever watched or read Carl Sagan's Cosmos, you may recall the section where discusses an elaborate formula for calculating the number of technological civilizations that might be found in the galaxy. The equation was Frank Drake's creation, although probably not exactly in this form. In fact, Dr. Sagan presented a somewhat different version in a book he co-wrote fourteen years earlier, in 1966, with Russian I. S. Shklovskii, Intelligent Life In The Universe.

I need to digress a bit here. The Shklovskii book was an interesting collaborative effort. Shklovskii had written a book on extraterrestrial life published in the Soviet Union. Sagan, who had already corresponded with Shklovskii for several years, proposed that the two of them write such a book for the U. S. market. Shklovskii, in those Cold War days, couldn't leave Russia; Sagan couldn't go there. So Sagan took segments of Shklovskii's book and added his own sections (which he clearly marks as his own, so as not to co-opt Shklovskii's work). He then sent the chapters to the Soviet Union for Shklovskii's approval and/or revisions. What emerges is a well-written book that is not for the “UFOs kidnapping drunks offen the bayou” crowd. It is meticulous, filled with calculations, and a practical look at the possibilities of life elsewhere in the universe.

It's also got cartoons scattered through it. All work and no play ...

At any rate, Drake's equation, as expressed by Sagan in Cosmos computes a value for the number of technological civilizations (N) which is the product of the following factors (to save myself some HTML code, I'm using different literation):

S the number of stars in the galaxy, valued at about 4x1011:
P the fraction of stars with planets, 1/3;
E the number of planets in a system suitable for life, 2;
L1 the fraction of planets where life arises at least once, 1/3;
I the fraction of planets where intelligence appears, combined with T below for a value;
C the fraction of planets where intelligence leads to a technical civilization, with IxC=0.01;
L2 the fraction of a planet's lifetime is marked by a technical civilization, anywhere from 10-6 to 0.01.

The lower end of L2 yields a value of N=10, meaning 10 civilizations in the whole galaxy, making the job of the SETI project nigh on to impossible. If one takes the wildly optimistic value of .01, N equals about 10,000,000.

By way of comparison, here's how Sagan approached this formula in 1966. N is now the product of the following:

R the rate of star formation in the galaxy, valued at 10 stars/year;
P the fraction of stars with planets, valued at 1 (!);
E the number of planets in a system suitable for life, 1;
L1 the fraction of planets where life arises at least once, 1 (!);
I the fraction of planets where intelligence appears, 0.1;
C the fractons of planets where intelligence leads to a technical civilization, 0.1, with IxC=0.01;
L2 the lifetime of a technical civilization, anywhere from less than a hundred years to 100,000,000.

In the 1966 book, Sagan takes the optimistic view that L2 could be set at 10,000,000, leading to N=1,000,000. The different methods are interesting in themselves, but I was caught by how the estimate for P dropped from 1, in 1966, to 1/3. Current planet-hunters would tend toward his 1966 conclusion rather than the 1980. The overall approach seems to indicate that in 1966 the appearance of life was more of a sure thing, but there were fewer worlds suitable for life. In the 1966 book, this simple calculation is followed by summaries of much more complex approaches to the problem.

Basically, the results boil down to this: If technical civilizations last a long time, there are plenty of planets out there to talk to. If not, there's plenty of planets that had, have, or will have life, but none of us will be around long enough to carry on much of a conversation. Even if the civilizations are long-lived, calculations indicate that, on average, they would be anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand light years apart. Therefore, conversations that do occur are going to have a lot of long pauses. And commuting from here to there is going to be murder.

I've got more to say, but I'll do that in Part 2.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Real Science

Knowledge is a process of piling up facts; wisdom lies in their simplification. ~Martin H. Fischer

Originally appeared in Gog's Blog, September 2005

The following is excerpted from the JPL Cassini project newsletter of September 20, 2005, exactly as it originally appeared:

A meeting was held today to determine if Orbit Trim Maneuver (OTM) #32 could be cancelled. It turned out that this maneuver would provide a maximum pointing improvement of only ~8 microradians, or, according to a member of the Spacecraft Operations Office, "It's teeny." Science representatives at the meeting agreed.

Well, thank goodness. I, for one, think it’s high time that science recognized the validity of “teeny”. One of the reasons people are put off by science concerns the weird units for measurement. There are ergs, dynes, kilopascals, furlongs per fortnight, and so on. Who can keep track of such things? But, teeny, now everyone can understand that. Thanks to the gang at the Cassini project, we now have the true scientific value of this commonly used measure. I hope someone has notified the weights and measures boys over at NIST (National Institute of Standards and Things, er, Technology) so that they can create an 8 microradian piece of platinum to put in a vacuum chamber in the Smithsonian.

Hopefully, this is the beginning of a series of breakthroughs in the world of measurement. If the “teeny” has been conquered, can the “smidgen” be far behind? Or, having delved the small, will science move to the big, creating a standard for “humongous”? Or will they move on to measures of force? For example, a lack of precision of the “whack” has led to the demise of many delicate pieces of machinery, electronics, and femurs. There is so much to be done.

Notice that it was “a member of the Spacecraft Operations Office” that made this breakthrough, not one of the “science representatives”. A mere office worker has gone where the theoreticians feared to tread.

Bringing science to the people has always been important to me. The dry methods of teaching science have discouraged many a potential Newton or Heisenberg from physics, sending them to the far more exciting world of actuarial statistics or the like. Take Newton’s Laws of Motion. Please.

While fundamental to an understanding of the physical world, they are not obvious in their implications. The Laws, in their dry and scientific form, are:

An object in motion tends to stay in motion, and an object at rest tends to stay at rest.

Force=mass times acceleration (F=ma).

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

When I was a physics major (briefly) in college (not that many years removed from being able to meet Isaac Newton in person), my fellow students and I, fortified, as I recall, with moderate amounts of fermented hops, restated the laws in a form more suitable for general understanding:

It's moving unless it's not.

The bigger it is, the harder it falls.

You can’t push a rope.

Now that’s elegant. But as the years have passed, I’ve come to realize that even these can be simplified further. After all, why have three laws when one will do? After all, physicists are always trying to create grand unified theories. So, after considerable thought (and the assistance of fermented grape products; with age comes sofishtication), I am proud to present the simple but beautiful Gog’s Grand Unified Theory of Motion:

Don’t stand in front of a moving truck.

When do I get my Nobel?

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Finding What We Want Whether It's There Or Not

There is no national science just as there is no national multiplication table; what is national is no longer science. ~Anton Chekhov

When I was an innocent little kid in school, I was under the illusion that science was a pure endeavor, with dedicated experimentalists and brilliant theorists, all of whom worked diligently to understand the world about us and the events that led to that world. It didn't take long to get disabused of that attitude.

Newton and Leibnitz fought over who invented the calculus; in fact, both of them did, one inventing the integral calculus while the other came up with the differential calculus. Newton fought with Robert Hooke who claimed some of Newton's ideas. All of this came about because Isaac Newton was never in a rush to publish.

Scientists hide information from one another. The story of the discovery of the structure of DNA will make one slightly ill, as Watson and Crick toasted Linus Pauling's mathematical error that led him to mistakenly identify the structure as a triple helix. When it isn't rivalries that interfere, it's governments, as the Soviet Bloc and the Western nations kept researchers from one another. One can only imagine what could have been accomplished had there been cooperation between those scientific communities.

Then again, given the jealousies about credit for discovery and the possibilities of winning a Nobel with its attendant fame and fortune, perhaps we wouldn't have done so much better.

What is more disturbing is when science develops an agenda based on some political, religious, or even economic pressure. The Nazis of Hitler's Germany distorted archaological and biological researches to justify the idea of Aryan supremacy. The Soviet Union rewrote history to try to claim many important discoveries, which was bad enough, but they also attempted to inculcate science with a Marxist dialectical imperative that limited lines of research because they would be somehow damaging to the state.

Certainly those examples are extreme, and to some extent genuine science did survive, especially when it could be used for weapons development or covert activities. But, at some time or another, prejudices creep into what should be purely intellectual domains. Take, for example, 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.

But why didn't they? One reason is that it fit well with the "big brain" theory that said that increase in brain size was the driving force in human evolution. Another reason is that it well suited the English to think that modern man could have sprung up in the British Isles. The sun, after all, never set on the empire built by Englishmen. It would only be appropriate to think that the first proto-human would be an Englishman. It is interesting to think that it wasn't until the empire started coming apart that anyone examined Piltdown closely.

These days we have something called Biblical Archaeology, using archaeological evidence to support the events of the Bible. There is nothing wrong with finding evidence that people or events in the Bible may have actually existed. There is something wrong, though, with twisting findings to fit a Biblical context, just as it was wrong for German archaeologists trying to twist paleolithic and neolithic finds into some sort of Aryan framework. The issues have become so emotional that Palestinians have gone to lengths to avoid letting Israeli scholars investigate areas that could conceivably back up some Biblical claims to the land they both inhabit. Essentially, we have Hebrew and Palestinian archaeology fighting the same political fight that their leaders are fighting.

Jumping into this fray are the artifact fakers, seeing an opportunity to make serious money by creating artifacts that seem to “prove” elements of the Bible. The two most notorious of these in recent times have been the James ossuary and the Solomon tablet. The ossuary was inscribed “James son of Joseph, brother of Jesus”, apparently providing strong evidence that box held the bones of Jesus' brother James, one of the founders of the early Church. By inference, of course, it was also a proof of the existence of Jesus of Nazareth. The Solomon tablet had inscription from a later king claiming that this king had made “repairs” to Solomon's temple.

The latter artifact was the more important, because James' existence, to my knowledge, is not in significant doubt and Jesus' existence is referenced by the Jewish historian Josephus (if you actually need an independent acknowledgement), while there is no mention of a King Solomon or his temple outside of the Bible. Unfortunately, it was found that these were remarkable forgeries. The forgers had actually created a patina containing carbon granules dating to the right periods and, in the case of the Solomon tablet, had added microscopic gold nodules of the type one might expect had the tablet been in the fire that destroyed Solomon's temple.

I'm not even going to get into all those Noah's arks people keep finding.

Now, there is nothing wrong with conducting archaeological investigations that could turn up Old-Testament-era evidence. But, it isn't necessary to prove or disprove the Bible. As a work of faith and instruction, the Bible has proved to be durable and profound for generation after generation. It isn't important if these are actual events or allegorical stories. The teachings are still important and meaningful to millions. Forcing archaeological evidence to fit a Biblical narrative does an injustice to the book and demeans the scientific process. Not finding the Ark of the Covenant or the remnants of the burning bush does no harm to the Bible. But, finding a pile of rocks and claiming it's the walls of Jericho that came tumbling down can do harm to our understanding of ancient times.

We need to follow the facts, not push them where we want them.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Inconstant Constants

A science is any discipline in which the fool of this generation can go beyond the point reached by the genius of the last generation. ~Max Gluckman

Sometimes an article is so bad, it's humorous., which is normally a good place for astronomy and space information, put out this gem with its sobering headline, “Scientists Question Nature's Fundamental Laws”, following that with this killer opening line: “Public confidence in the 'constants' of nature may be at an all time low.”


Just the other day, I saw a Nielson survey showing that people had really come to doubt the validity of Planck's Constant. And I hear that Avogadro's Number is in serious trouble. The “public” doesn't know a scientific constant from a batting average. If someone announced that the value for the speed of light was once 6, the great masses of the world would say, “So?” Unfortunately, many would also say, “What is it now?”

What the story actually talks about, after its melodramatic start, is that some scientists are debating the constancy of constants. That is to say, at some point in the past, the force of gravity may have been greater, the speed of light slower, and so on. This violates one of Einstein's principles, the equivalence principle, which holds that if you perform measurements on nuclear or electromagnetic forces, they should be the same, regardless of where or when the experiment or measurement is performed.

Now we are talking about variations in the “few parts per million” area here. The values involve taking measurements of details of quasars which are a long way off. Another “varying” constant involves the ratio of the weight of a proton to an electron. Moreover, we're talking about such small variations taking place over millions of years.

Then we come to the punchline of the story, because this variation could be due to the change in size of additional folded-up dimensions. And – here it comes – this is a prediction of string theory, which in this story is described as “a popular alternative to relativity.” So the theory that has never predicted anything is now making a prediction.

I am highly skeptical of this whole approach. It has become more common of late to use “variable constants” when a proposed theory doesn't work. It used to be that when a constant didn't fit what you observed, you reworked the theory. Evidently, now the scientist says, “Well, the fine constant was different back then.”

The story says that these radical new views could force the rewriting of the laws of physics. They miss the point. If this approach is true, there are no laws of physics. If the speed of light has varied, how can you state with any confidence how far away a quasar is? If nuclear forces are variable over time, how can you make any predictions about the life of stars? If it's all a big approximation, how do we know anything at all?

It strikes me that the lengths to which some people are going to prop up string theory are getting to be frightening. In a previous article, I mentioned the concern some people have that so much effort has been placed in string theory with so little result. The price for this has been to ignore other avenues of thought. Scientists don't like to admit they've been barking up the wrong tree. Lord Kelvin famously held out against the proposed ancient age for the Earth because his view of the Sun's energy-producing process was still mired in his old theories, which meant the Sun would have gone cold long ago if the Earth were really billions of years old.

Just as one can get blinkered by old theory, one can be blinded by a shiny new one. String theory is twenty years old. Now the scientists who did their thesis work in the subject are finding themselves in a position where they may have barked up the wrong tree. It appears that they are coming up with nearly desperate ideas to validate their work.
String theory looks like the Ptolomeic version of the heavens that held sway for hundreds of years. The convoluted scheme of epicycles did a remarkably good job of prediction within the limits of science. But, over time, cracks appeared in the framework. Rather than patch the old theory by saying that the planets must have slowed down or sped up, scientists began the long process of revamping their ideas.

It's time to stop tying all these strings into cat's cradles and move on. Either scrap the mess or fix it, because it is surely broken. It still may be that string theory has at its heart some fundamental truths, but as long as all it does is describe what was already predicted by other theories, it isn't doing anyone any good. If varying constants is going to be considered a prediction, then string theory had better explain how and why they vary. To do that, researchers are going to have to settle on how many dimensions there are, and they're going to have to start finding direct evidence of them. If they don't, all we'll be left with is a nihilistic view of the universe that leaves no place for any sort of order or logic.

It's time to cut the string.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

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

[Originally published in Gog's Blog, October, 2005]

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 fond 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, July 11, 2006

Searching for Gravity

Research is what I'm doing when I don't know what I'm doing. ~Wernher Von Braun

In the realm of the physicist, few things are so aggravating as gravity. Science was happy to have Newton's laws of gravity and motion because they worked so well. But as we looked at the very small, the very large, and the very fast, there were issues with Newton's formulas. As we learned to compute orbits more precisely, we could see that there were niggling inaccuracies that kept creeping in. So, physicists were relieved when Einstein came along and gave us General Relativity which seemed to answer these concerns.

But, there was always the nagging issue: Why is gravity so weak? You might question whether gravity is weak based on your most recent pratfall, but it really is. To use a common example, when you pick up a book from a table you are overcoming the full gravitational force of the Earth pulling back on that book. That makes gravity pretty puny. In fact, it takes an immense object (like Jupiter or a star) or an immensely dense object (like a neutron star or a black hole) to really make gravity seem a significant force. Because gravity is so weak it has been pretty much impossible to detect its propagating wave/particle (remember, everything has the properties of both a wave and a particle). Everyone feels that there are gravitons out there, but no one can find one.

It is probably gravity that has spoiled the Grand Unified Theory (GUT) attempts more than any other factor. Compared to gravity, the subatomic electroweak and strong forces are well understood. Weak as gravity is, though, there's so much of it pulling at galaxies in the universe that the known amount of matter in the universe won't account for it. So, not only do we have a force that we can only feel but not detect, we have matter causing it that we can't see, dark matter.

We also have dark energy, but I'm not going there today.

There has been a lot of indirect evidence for dark matter based on interactions between galaxies and their satellite dwarf galaxies and globular clusters. Some astronomers think they may finally have found some in the form of a “glowing blob.” Don't you love it when they talk technical? At any rate, this sort of phenomenon has been observed before, in something called “star burst” galaxies.

Basically, the galaxy is obscured by ordinary dark clouds of gas. The galaxy is undergoing massive star formation, though, and the release of energy heats up the surrounding hydrogen and makes it glow. Or it could be a supermassive black hole, always a popular candidate for anything weird going on in the universe. But, evidently, there are behaviors involved in the current observations that make these alternatives less tenable.

Of course, it could simply be a new phenomenon altogether, having nothing to do with dark matter at all, but dark matter, exotic as it is, is evidently a simpler explanation for the “blob” because, in this case, a star burst galaxy or a black hole doesn't fit the bill as well as either might.

Meanwhile, back on the gravity front, the hot theory these days seems to stem from brane theory (string theory's big brother). It seems that with all those extra dimensions lying around, the possibility exists that gravity is actually leaking into them. In other words, gravity is actually very strong, but since it bleeds into other dimensions (and maybe into parallel universes) and gets diffused, it seems weak. Some scientists are looking at the GLAST mission to shed some light on these hidden dimensions. But another group has a rather clever way of trying to impute those hidden dimensions.

The idea is to make a teeny little solar system (an 8 cm ball of tungsten being orbited at 10 cm by a smaller tungsten ball) and put it into orbit at one of the Earth's Lagrange points. Lagrange points are areas of gravitational balance. A probe plunked out to Lagrange point stays put, making it possible to study gravitational effects on a small scale like this. What they're looking for a minuscule precession of the smaller ball's orbit around the larger one. The precession may be minuscule, but it is measurable.

Of course, doing this from a Lagrange point is not like trying to do it in a lab. It's a lot more difficult, but in a lab, unless you've got the mythical antigravity chamber of sci-fi, you're not going to maintain a tiny planet's orbit around a tiny sun for very long.

Aside from looking for multiple dimensions, this little experiment would be used to test MOND, or Modified Newtonian Dynamics, an alternative to both Newton and Einstein. MOND posits that gravity is stronger than expected over large distances than predicted by General Relativity. Interestingly, MOND was created as an alternative to – wait for it – dark matter.

I hope that GLAST is launched successfully next year and that the teeny solar system gets off the ground. It's not that I expect them to disprove or prove General Relativity, but I do think that they have the potential to return interesting results, the kind of results that can spur some imaginative thinking. One way or the other, they might break the logjam that string theory seems to have wrought in the physics community, where no one really has anywhere to take the theory until some sort of predictions are tested. Well, multiple dimensions are a necessity to string theory, and if neither experiment returns evidence of them, then string theory is done.

On the other hand, if the experiments do show the possible existence of such dimensions, it still doesn't necessarily validate the theory. It will, however, finally give the string section something physical to work with.

And, who knows, the experiments could just indicate that Einstein was right – again. That wouldn't be a bad thing, but it would still leave us confused about the weakness of gravity and the nature of dark matter. It would also make a GUT look very far away again.

But, then, a person's reach should exceed one's grasp, shouldn't it?

Saturday, July 08, 2006

What's Old Is Still Old II

Established technology tends to persist in the face of new technology. ~ Gerritt A. Blaauw

The other night the Science Channel had a program on amateur rocketry. Well, actually they had a “biker build-off” masquerading as a program on rocketry. There wasn't as much screaming as you get in those fruitcake custom-motorcycle-or-car-that-no-one-can-ride-or-drive shows, but they tried to maintain that sort of ambiance. One so-called rocketeer launched a porta-john; they spent almost an entire segment on this slightly loony character, whose idea of rocketry as a hobby was to stick a small rocket engine on anything. Another group of people were the “hillbilly rocketeers”, one of whom said, “Some of us even graduated high school.” Another guy, who looked like your archetypal homeless wino, launched a cardboard box.

But most of the people were doing serious rocketry and having fun doing it. The show couldn't decide whether this was model rocketry or amateur rocketry, probably because they didn't know that there's a difference. Model rocketry is generally unregulated, utilizing fairly small (under 3 feet long) rockets, which attain respectable altitudes but fall far short of needing to call the FAA for clearance. Because they are ready-made kits, they tend to be reasonably safe, or at least as safe as anything with a small rocket engine can be.

Amateur rockets are a whole 'nother matter. They are bigger, often much, much bigger (like say 10 or 15 feet long). People have actually put little science payloads (and the occasional small critter) in some of these things. They are also much more dangerous, since they are usually hand built, although stock engines are available. It's just that amateur rockets often use several of them at once. People who do amateur rockets spend serious amounts of money, and, even if they call themselves “hillbillies”, they have a sound grasp of how a rocket works and the risks therein.

One of the featured teams, whose name I regrettably forget, built a genuinely serious piece of equipment. Designed to go Mach 2 and reach over 15,000 feet (and probably higher), this was a genuine rocket that any professional rocketeer could appreciate. Best of all, it worked. Not only did it fly flawlessly, it's chute deployed and it's sections landed softly. The team was justifiably proud. Then one of them got carried away.

As they carried the rocket back after it landed, one of them shouted something to the effect that hobbyists were still a source of innovation. Innovation? Let's see what old Merriam-Webster has to say about innovation:

Innovation: Function: noun; 1) the introduction of something new; 2) a new idea, method, or device.

Now, before I start, I want to emphasize that I am not downplaying the work these guys did, but it's important that we recognize the difference between innovation and what they did.

Their rocket would have looked familiar to the gang who used to work at White Sands, NM in the 1950's. It looked like a baby WAC Corporal rocket (where that name came from, I have no idea). There was no sophisticated guidance, just three fins to give the missile a ballistic rotation. Their fuel was standard solid rocket fuel, concocted from a NASA recipe. The body was made from some off-the-shelf (but expensive) composite material. The chute was deployed using a gas cartridge. It was a beautiful missile, but it was still yesterday's news.

Calling that creation an example of innovation shows that we just don't know what real innovation is any longer. If you're looking for an example of innovations from hobbyists, you have to look no further than that device connecting you to this blog. The computer and especially its software were propelled forward by imaginative hackers who juiced up those original dinky Commodores and early PC's into machines that could do more with less. The early programming languages owed much of their development to dedicated amateurs who were looking for ways to do things more easily with minimal resources.

HP and Apple were started by guys in garages soldering capacitors to bread boards by hand.

The modern corporate world is not interested in innovation. So who's going to fund the guys in the garages? Well, it seems that Warren Buffett is going leave $35 billion to, of all people, Bill Gates to put into his foundation. So far, Gates' foundation is doing good works but not doing much to foster new ideas. Buffett spent a career getting rich by ruining good companies. It would be nice if he would decide to atone for that by setting up a fund for innovators. You can generate a lot of new ideas with $35 billion.

Alternatively, he could use the dough to recreate something like the old Bell Labs, a place where people could work on screwy ideas for years without pressure to generate profit-making products every month. Every major corporation that had major pure research centers have folded or severely restricted them. We're in desperate need of those places, derided as “ivory towers” by Wall Street types. Well, these “ivory towers” gave us the transistor, vaccines, the modern computer interface (including a “windowed” interface and a mouse, neither of which came from Apple originally), among other things.

In fact, maybe Bill Gates or his free-spending former partner, Paul Allen ought to be funding such an effort. Well, maybe not. Someone in a think tank might finally come up with a secure operating system that's easy to install, easy to use, and runs on simple hardware. Something like that could seriously reduce the dividends those guys collect each quarter.

Philanthropy is one thing; cutting into their quarterly dividend income is quite another.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Alternative Histories

The very ink with which all history is written is merely fluid prejudice. ~Mark Twain

I suppose I ought to be happy that we have history programming at all. Were it not for the Discovery-History channel set, we'd be dependent on Public Television to dole out a program or two every few months, when it didn't interrupt their normal bland fare.

The trouble is that the D-H axis has a pretty standard bill of fare, too. Pharonic Egypt is always popular, particularly if you can mention the pyramids or a curse or two; Rome, particularly Pompei, and Greece are fairly standard; the Maya, Aztec, and Inca civilizations get some air time, with special emphasis on human sacrifice; and, somewhat more rarely there are programs on China, and more rarely, Japan.

There have been occasional breaks in the monotony, shows on the Etruscans, for example, and, thanks to the DaVinci code, many programs on the Bible, Jesus, and early Christianity. Now that they've been made, we'll see them on a reasonably frequent basis for a while. There have been occasional forays into the Neolithic, thanks to Stonehenge and Otzi, the iceman. But there is a strong tendency toward Western Civilization.

Now, this is not going to be a rant against dead-white-guy-history. On the contrary, all history is important, including the history created by dead white guys. But, there is a lot of history out there to learn, which these channels seem to miss. Here are some things I'd certainly like to learn more about.

The Hopewll and Cahokia civilizations – Before the English, before the Spaniards, there was a reasonably advanced civilization along the Mississippi. They built impressive mound structures and left artifacts, a good many of which got plundered or plowed under before their significance was recognized. Clearly there were communities linked by commerce, which implies a good deal of sophistication. The links between these peoples and the later Native American tribes would definitely be interesting to learn about.

Pre-Pharonic Egypt – Oh, sure, we had The Rock hosting the Scorpion King, which hasn't been shown since the movie tanked. But there was a great deal of Egyptian civilization before the Pharaohs. In fact, the Egyptian climate underwent significant change, which caused major changes in the development of the agrarian societies around the Nile at this time. With the insistence of the likes of Graham Hancock and Sam Osmanagic, among others, that advanced civilizations existed 10,000 years ago, it would be nice to get a real picture of what the world was like, say, 5,000 - 7000 years ago.

The Settlement of the Americas – Before Columbus, before the Vikings, there was some group that found its way from Asia – or possibly Europe – to North America and rapidly found their way down to South America some tens of thousands of years ago. There's a lot of debate about how this occurred, ranging from the old Bering bridge theory to ancient mariners navigating from Asia along the ice to the New World, to ancient mariners from Europe doing the same thing along the Atlantic ice. Now this is a wide open area for theorizing upon each discovery, and many are doing so (Tom Koppel's book Lost World is a good example of some recent discoveries, along with some interesting theories). So why do we not get some programming concerning these early adventurers?

Early Chinese Civilization – Clearly, a lot was going on before the Chin dynasty was founded. After all, if there hadn't been several kingdoms already in place, Chin wouldn't have had anything to conquer and unify. Where did these nations come from? How long were they around? And what about their interactions with European cultures (as evidenced by the Caucasian mummies found in the deserts of China)? Just as with pre-Pharonic Egypt, pre-dynastic China must have been a fascinating place.

Japan, too – Lately, there has been a little more about Japanese history, with the emphasis on Samurai warriors, with blood-curdling demonstrations of watermelons being hacked by Samurai swords (what do all these weapons demonstrators have against watermelons anyway?). Japan has a richly complex history before and after the Samurai ascendancy, and it would be most interesting to learn of it. It would be well to understand one of the most economically powerful countries in the world.

Islamic Civilization – One of the D-H channels did a very good program not too long ago about the Koran. Now, it's difficult to do some programs like this since no images of the Prophet are allowed. This really shouldn't be a problem, but, since TV is a visual medium and since programmers like to fill time by showing old masters' paintings of nudes purporting to be the Queen of Sheba or Cleopatra, not having paintings of Mohamed and family and friends to keep throwing on the screen poses a problem. Despite this they did a good job. Now, how about some programming on the Moors or the Ottoman Empire? It would be interesting to come to understand why some Islamic rulers have been tolerant of other faiths while others indulged in pogroms and terror.

And what about Africa? -- There's this entire continent which has had civilizations coming and going for thousands of years. So what do we hear about? Egypt and australopithecus. It's just a wild guess on my part, but I'll bet a lot more was going on around this land mass during those hundreds of thousands of years. Recently, History broke down and did a program about the Kingdom of Kush. That's a start, but there's so much more to which we could be exposed.

That's just a short list. It's not that these topics have never been covered; as with the Koran, an occasional attempt has been made to cover these topics. But these shows are few and far between. The D-H axis prefers to bury us under pyramids, acropolises, and aqueducts. Well, there's a lot more history out there, and we need to know it.

Besides, it's really interesting stuff.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

To Infinity and Beyond!

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

[Originally appeared in Gog's Blog November, 2005; this version has been revised slightly]

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 ultimately 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, ready to ride the first Mercury capsule and 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).

Now we want space travel to be routine, with little risk. Recently NASA announced that the Discovery astronauts had a 1 in 100 chance of not making it back. This news has taken some people aback, but the truth is that riding on a controlled explosion in a space ship full of design compromises is fraught with risk. If you can't stand the idea of risk, stay home.

Of course, there's risk and there's stupidity. Ignoring the concerns of safety officers who are tyring to make the best of a poor desigin is not smart.

This bring us to other side of the coin in the loss of the Apollo spirit, that is the lack of innovation. The current thinking about using Apollo-style technology for the CEV isn't going to make anything safer. It's just going to limit our options even more. The ISS, as currently configured is never going to be a launching platform for big missions to the planets anyway, but limiting our thinking to existing technologies means that we won't have anything else.

We've spent half a trillion dollars (yes, that's trillion) getting our soldiers killed so that oil prices can soar higher than our rockets. Think about what that kind of committment could have done for space exploration.

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 -- and beyond.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

KV-63: Empty Yet Full

All the world is a laboratory to the inquiring mind. ~Martin H. Fischer

You don't have to wait until September to watch Discovery Channel's update about what the archaeologists found in KV-63. If you go here, you'll learn what they found in the mysterious coffin at the back of the tomb. You won't have to pay attention to the inevitable hype that will be repeated all through the Discovery program:

"And what will they find in the blackened coffin at the rear of the tomb?"

"Coming up: The coffin is opened. What does Otto Schaden find?"

"Really coming up: Zahi Hawass arrives in time to supervise the opening of the last coffin. Is Tut's mother inside?"

"Honest-to-god coming up: The moment of truth as the coffin is opened to reveal it's secrets. Is Tut's mommy a mummy?"

And so on.

To spare you that, I'll tell you that no mummies were found in any of the coffins. The last, though, contained an unexpected surprise in the form of flowers, possibly remains of garlands that were sometimes around the necks of living and deceased pharoahs.

What we appear to have here is what Egyptologist Otto Schaden and others speculated early on. It's an embalmer's cache of materials used in mummification. There are jars of apparently used natron which also contained pieces of broken pots. The jars were all sealed, but no one is quite sure why or why the potsherds were in the jars as well.

Despite not containing bodies, KV-63 will provide new information and raise new questions about the burial rituals of ancient Egypt. Given that the tomb was probably cut during the period from Akenaten's rule through that of Tutankhamun, it may ultimately reveal something more about the period following the Heretic King's death and the reinstatement of the old gods that occurred during Tut's reign. But, mummies are sexy, and jars of natron aren't, so we'll have to hear about those findings from other sources than Discovery or CNN, in all likelihood.

Just how little we've actually been told about the ins and outs of a dig like this is revealed in this month's Smithsonian Magazine. Otto Schaden is a throwback to the old days of digging on a shoestring. He doesn't have guaranteed funding, raising his own money at least partly through giving shows with his Bohemian music band (he plays flugelhorn) and by soliciting private donations. His digs are manned by volunteers. He has loose backing from the University of Memphis (the one in Tennessee, not the one in Egypt), but that has consisted not of money but of providing a single student volunteer.

Now that he has a find, though, Memphis has dispatched an expert to join Schaden at the dig. Reportedly, for one reason or another, the relationship between Schaden and the university has cooled. The phrase "too many cooks" comes to mind.

When Discovery aired their coverage a while back. I noticed that Schaden appeared to look more and more tired as the program progressed. Some of that is natural, since he is not a young man. It seems, though, that much of that fatigue came from the incessant demands from media and colleagues to move faster and provide information, or at least some titillating speculation. Schaden is not a man to change his methods or one to engage in idle speculation, no matter who is pushing. He is deliberate and methodical and is not about to louse up a site by acting precipitously.

Some will no doubt argue that his methods are too slow and that Schaden himself is an anachronism in this day of rapid publication (whether the facts are completely known or not) and instant gratification. Tough rocks. No one cared whether Otto Schaden reported findings through all the long years he worked on a shoestring simply because he loves what he does.

Sadly, because of all this outside interference, Schaden is not able to enjoy what should have been the crowning moment of his career. But, there is hope. Now that it's been determined that there are no bodies in the tomb, perhaps the pressure will decrease, allowing Schaden to take the time to examine the dig properly.

Of course, since Schaden has proved that there are still things to find in the Valley of the Kings, the attentions of others may be directed to renewed searches. And, then, who knows what they might find?

One new thing I learned from the Smithsonian article is that the ancient Egyptian name for the Valley of the Kings was "The Great and Majestic Necropolis." I think I'll stay with Valley of the Kings.

"Great and Majestic Necropolis" sounds like a cemetery in Beverly Hills.