Saturday, August 05, 2006

Mars Attacks!

We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology. ~Carl Sagan

The other day the son says to me that a friend of his has told him that, on August 27, Mars will be the closest it's ever been. It will be so close that it will appear as big as the Moon in the sky. Fortunately, the son said it sounded like bull to him, restoring my faith that he has some semblance of intelligence.

Of course this is bull. To begin with, if Mars came close enough to the Earth to look as big as the Moon, we'd be too busy dealing with earthquakes, volcanoes, and high tides rolling inland about 20 miles to notice what Mars looked like. Secondly, right now, Mars is on the other side of the Sun, so, unless Mars knows a shortcut, it's going to be about as far away as it gets from us on August 27.

How does this nonsense get started? In this case, we can probably trace the misinformation back to some correct information.

A Martian year is about two terrestrial years long. This means that, about once a year, we overtake Mars. At this point, Mars is as close as it will get for that period. But, planetary orbits are elliptical, so the spacing between them varies. If the Earth overtakes Mars at the right point, the two planets will be much closer than at other times. It turns out that on August 27, 2003, Mars and Earth got to their narrowest separation in 60,000 years. This was a boon to amateur astronomers with small telescopes (like me) because it was possible, even with a 4-inch reflector, to make out patterns and blotches on the Red Planet. Very cool.

At any rate, an e-mail began circulating a few months before the close approach which gave the information above and added that Mars would be very bright, second only to the Moon. Now Mars was bright, although it wasn't as bright as, say Venus, or probably even Jupiter, but I don't recall if either was visible at the same period, so the statement may well be accurate. Somewhere along the way, as the e-mail made the rounds, “almost as bright as” became “almost as big as.” And, boy, did this get legs.

I don't know how many people, aware that I like astronomy, stopped by to tell me about the huge Mars that was going to be hanging in the sky. I would patiently explain that, even at closest approach, we're talking a long way off. Mars would be nice and bright, but not very huge. Science sites all over the Internet explained this endlessly, yet the e-mail outranked the science.

August, 2003, came and went, but the e-mail carries on. All that changes is the year. It's still floating, but now it claims August 27, 2006 is the big day. You'd expect that by now, some of the folks who get this thing would walk outside and wonder where the huge planet is.

This sort of ignorance is not new, but, thanks to the connected world, it certainly spreads farther and faster than ever before. What amazes me is that people are willing to believe an e-mail, which contains those deadly words “send this to everyone you know”, is somehow going to tell them about a near apocalyptic event when normal news and science outlets have nothing to say about it.

What makes the son's friend's ignorance more poignant is the announcement from Michael (Launch that sucker!) Griffin's NASA people that, to make up for budget shortfalls, all science on the ISS should be shut down. Frankly, I haven't heard about a lot of science coming from the ISS, since most of the time the astronauts are repairing things and trying to stay alive. But, apparently, there is actually some research being done, and NASA wants to dump what little is being done to concentrate on manned missions to the Moon to build our launchpad to Mars.

What for? If you're not going to do science, spending billions to go somewhere to say you got there is a waste of time and money. There is so much to learn, especially about possibly escaping to Mars to escape climatic catastrophe on Earth. Yet the guidance from our leadership is aimed at going and planting the flag.

An oft-used theme in science fiction involves the fallen “galactic empire” where the technology still exists to flit from planet to planet, but no one knows how it works or how to fix it. Isaac Asimov's “Foundation” series tells it best, but others have dealt with the possibility as well. There are times I think we're heading in that direction, without ever even having a galactic empire.

I don't know why people think research is useless, even though they use things every day that came from pure research conducted at Bell Labs or that were developed to get us to the Moon in the first place. It's unsettling to see a trend to try to paint the original Apollo missions as just lucky, but that's what's happening these days. Much is made of the lack of computer power available to the mission, as though there was something else available. In fact, the computer technology used by NASA to make the missions work was beyond state-of-the-art at the time. Yes, it's primitive compared to today's desktop computers, but, thanks to the work done in the 1960's, we have those desktops today.

And let's not forget that the Internet was originally created for researchers to share information, first Defense Department researchers, then a more open network of university and corporate researchers. Today, however, the researchers have left the Internet to form their own network away from the spam, shopping sites, online lonely hearts clubs, and porn that the Internet has become.

So science is taking a back seat to technology. Worse, the efforts that got us here are downplayed at times on what little science programming is available. We're a society that loves whiz-bang toys and believes anything we read in our e-mail, but we don't want to have a basic grounding in the sciences that got us where we are.

This continuing ignorance of the importance of scientific inquiry and research is going to kill us yet.

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