Thursday, August 31, 2006

When Does It Become History?

Perhaps nobody has changed the course of history as much as the historians. ~Franklin P. Jones

The September/October issue of Archaeology, has an article about digging up the graves of the victims of Francisco Franco's tyrannical rule in Spain. Franco was the winner in Spain's Civil War. He was an ally of Hitler, who allowed Franco's Nationalists to use German equipment and personnel so he (Hitler) could test out methods of warfare he would begin to put use in 1939. Franco stayed in power until his death in 1975, and like so many dictators before and since, he killed off many of his fellow citizens, those who opposed him, those Franco or some local official thought opposed him, or just those he or said local official didn't like.

Franco's era ended just 31 years ago. I wonder if there are Franco apologists, as there are Communist apologists in Russia? How do they feel as the truth verifying Franco's barbarity is unearthed?

One of the greatest difficulties in studying history is trying to determine how objective the history is. For example, for years, Americans were taught about the valiant fight against the Indians. There would be some considerations about the treaties the government broke, but there would be much more emphasis on massacres. Everyone knew, by the age of 12, about Custer's Last Stand, but almost none of those children knew about Wounded Knee and the Trail of Tears. Some time during the 1970's, the Native Americans began to get their point across that they had a voice in this history, too.

Or, to take an extreme example, consider the Soviet Union. When Stalin came to power, he made sure that Communist Party histories gave him a magnified role in the events that led to the 1919 revolution. He also practically removed Leon Trotsky, founder of the Red Army, from those histories. After World War II, the Party historians portrayed Stalin as a heroic leader, omitting the purges that weakened the Army, reinterpreting the treaty with Hitler as a delaying tactic, and completing hiding the pogroms that wiped out millions of ethnic Russians. A few years after Stalin died, the historians got their erasers out; now Stalin was an evil persecutor of the masses, who had been an agent for the Czar's secret police, and who had nearly allowed Hitler to conquer the country.

Under Leonid Brezhnev, Stalin was rehabilitated somewhat, which was worrisome to the West. How Stalin is presented today to Russian history students, I don't know, but I'm sure the current curriculum on the history of the Soviet Union must be a fascinatingly schizophrenic study.

History, as Alex Haley said (although I don't think the thought is original to him), is written by winners. Sometimes, though, the vanquished can break through, if there are any of them left, as in the case of the Native Americans. Other times, we're so close to the events, we're not always sure who the winners were.

How far removed from an event do we have to be to look at it dispassionately? How long before we can find out what happened on all sides of a conflict or political dispute? The Cold War ended twenty-plus years ago; even before it ended, we were beginning to learn that a major cause of the arms race between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R was faulty U.S. intelligence that vastly overstated the number of missiles and nuclear weapons that the Soviets had. Based on that bad information, U.S. presidents ordered huge buildups in our own arsenals. The Soviets saw that, heard terms like “massive retaliation”, and came to the logical conclusion that they had better build up their weapons program because, to them, obviously the U.S. was going to take any excuse it could come up with to obliterate them. The U.S. saw the buildups, took that as confirmation of the earlier faulty intelligence, and increased weapons production accordingly. And the feedback loop continued.

So who was right and who was wrong? Or are there pieces of the story still missing?

This is not to portray the Soviets as a wonderful bunch of guys who were just defending themselves against a perceived threat. The Communist totalitarian regime was not a noble enterprise, as the Gulag system and the domination of Eastern Europe show. But, they were also pragmatists who had no more desire to obliterate the planet than we did. Probably.

But that's the problem. We're still too close to that time to adequately asses what the motivations of all sides were. Even an issue like the attack on Pearl Harbor still has historians arguing.

Over the decades since WW II ended, many people have wondered if Pearl Harbor could have been prevented and whether the government knew it was coming but allowed it to happen so the U.S. would have an excuse to enter the war against Germany. My own less-than-expert opinion?
  • The attack could have been avoided had the U.S. military taken proper defensive actions, particularly avoiding having so many ships in port at one time. The situation was known to be precarious, yet prevailing military thought seemed to be that there was no way the Japanese could launch a meaningful attack. The U.S. was in failing negotiations with Japan; not having the base on alert was a serious mistake.

  • Of course, there are those who say that the apparent unpreparedness of the Navy at Pearl Harbor was intentional. President Roosevelt knew the attack was coming and allowed it so that he could gain U.S. entry into the war. This seems ridiculous to me. I think the problem was more of the same problem that led to the 9/11 attacks. There was plenty of information, but no one was putting it together. It is highly improbable that any American leader would think that having the bulk of the U.S. fleet blown to bits was a good strategy to gain entry to the war.
But, I could be wrong, and we may never know entirely. After all, it's only 65 years since Pearl Harbor was attacked. It's only in the last few years that we've learned some of the truth about the Little Big Horn battle, and that was over a hundred years ago. Custer made mistakes in judgment; his commanders made even worse mistakes; worst of all, not only were Custer's troops outmanned, they were outgunned. Custer's foes had better weaponry and better leadership; the Native American tactics were as excellent as those of Custer and his commanders were bad.

I think we're fortunate to live in a time where histories are being rethought to reflect a more balanced view of all the participants in the events that have shaped the present. It's easy to blame some of our views on the biases of bygone historians, but in many cases they didn't have enough information to overcome their own preconceptions about events. In some cases, because of their preconceptions, they didn't look for any more information.

When we look back far enough in time, we can be more discerning about the reliability of the data. When we look at recent times, we seems to be less so because we still carry our biases about recent times with us. We believe what we believe and look no deeper.

Perhaps that's the great lesson of history: Keep digging.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The Iceman Cometh ...And Cometh And Cometh And Cometh

Oh that this too too solid flesh would melt, thaw and resolve itself into a dew. ~William Shakespeare, Hamlet

I am in the wrong business. Instead of being a crack system administrator (or cracked system administrator, sometimes it's hard to tell the difference), I should have been an agent. More importantly, I should have been the agent for an Alpine corpse, because he's become science television gold. Oetzi (or Utzi or Otzi, depending on which program you see) the seems to be a very hot commodity for being a frozen mummy.

For those of you who have never watched any of the Discovery-History consortium of channels, Oetzi was found by hikers in the Alps in 1991 (in an area from where Oetzi got his name). At first, it was thought that the body was of recent vintage because of its remarkable state of preservation, but it was quickly determined that there was something very special, particularly when artifacts were found near by: clothing, a bronze ax, arrows, a quiver, a bow, a pouch containing medicinal herbs, among other things. Oetzi was about to give scientists a glimpse into the early bronze age, an age that evidently started earlier than originally thought.

Unfortunately, Oetzi entry into the twentieth century landed him, metaphorically speaking, in court as Austria and Italy began arguing about Oetzi's current citizenship. Perhaps because of that dispute, it took ten years for someone to discover that Oetzi had not simply gotten overtaken by a storm and perished peacefully. He had, in fact, been shot with an arrow. The Ice Man caper had become a homicide.

I've written before about the speculations that went on once CSI:Oetzi got rolling. They brought in a crew of experts, including the pathologist who discovered the wound that scientists had overlooked, and cooked up all sorts of intriguing scenarios, including tribal wars, dramatized with appropriate pathos and overacting, not to mention people wearing strange headgear and grunting a lot. I also wrote about reports about Oetzi's sexual inadequacies, but fortunately those have not made it to television ... yet.

That should make for some interesting dramatizations.

However, the other night, the pathologist was back at it again. Two years after finding the arrow wound, he was poking poor old Oetzi yet again (who's paying for all this?), and lo and behold, he found Oetzi had a veritable bonanza of wounds all over his body. So, they get back into investigation mode, this being promising us that they're going to identify the killer.

Say what? I know that Interpol files are pretty impressive, but I didn't know they had dossiers on Bronze Age hitmen.

Of course, they can't tell us anything about who killed him or why. What they could determine was that he was in one or more fights prior to his death. How long before is a matter about which they were rather vague. At some point, probably making his way through the mountain pass, he was shot by an assailant, although in the earlier episode, it was stated he could have been shot much earlier, because the wound was not immediately fatal. An artery had been hit, which meant Oetzi bled to death, but he could have taken some time to do so.

It's not that the program wasn't interesting. For example, a good portion was spent in examining the effectiveness of the bow used by Oetzi's contemporaries, which was very effective indeed. Also, it was shown that there appeared to be different types of arrowheads in use, some for game hunting and some for hunting people. Oetzi was taken down by the latter.

In all of these programs, it has never been explained why Oetzi himself was carrying unfinished arrows in his quiver. Perhaps the explanation is that one tipped arrows when it was determined how they were going to be used. In any event, Oetzi evidently was unprepared for what befell him, which is hard to figure out if he was on the run from a village fight, as portrayed in the episode.

The pathologist had decided that Oetzi's bleeding to death helped mummify him on the basis that he bled so completely that all the bacteria that would have caused putrefaction drained from his body. I am no expert on pathology, but this is patent nonsense. First, there have been many cases of natural mummification where all the blood was not drained from the body. The early desert mummies of Egypt, the Caucasian mummies in China, Peruvian mummies, and others had all of their blood when they died. Secondly, even when someone bleeds to death, a significant amount of blood remains in the body, pooled by gravity. Even an arterial wound stops pumping out blood when the heart stops. Finally, the bacteria that cause decay are inside the organs, particularly the stomach. Bleeding to death does not remove these.

Oetzi's mummification occurred because cold air is dry, just as desert air is. The moisture is robbed from the body, which does more to stop bacterial decay than anything else. Also in the cold air, bacterial action is slowed. All in all, dying in a perpetually frozen environment is an excellent way to be preserved for a very long time.

So, after all of this, we've discovered two things. One, pathologists, or at least this one, doesn't understand mummification. Second, people in the Bronze Age killed each other, just as people do today. That the pathologist's view on preservation of the corpses was presented without correction reflects a lack of research on the part of the program's producers. Perhaps a little less emphasis on the sensational and more on scholarship would be in order.

But, implying that the idea that ancient violence is a novelty is almost as bad. It was said that as people became settled and could store food that jealousies developed between neighboring groups which led to violent outcomes. No doubt it did. But, prior to that, trespassing on hunting grounds also probably led to conflict. Violence is a part of our nature. It haunts us today, despite all of our advances and technologies. We still go to war, we still kill our neighbors over trivialities. If we don't want to end up like Oetzi and so many other of our ancestors, we need to overcome that part of our nature.

That's the lesson Oetzi is trying to teach us.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Dwarfing Pluto

First Law of Scientific Progress: The advance of science can be measured by the rate at which exceptions to previously held laws accumulate.
Corollaries:
1. Exceptions always outnumber rules.
2. There are always exceptions to established exceptons.
3. By the time one masters the exceptions, no one recalls the rules to which they apply.
~ quoted by Arthur Bloch, Murphy's Law, Book Three

The International Astronomical Union has spoken or, more properly, mumbled its long awaited definition of a planet. In the grand tradition of rules-making bodies, they ended up satisfying no one with a definition that had but one purpose: To exclude Pluto as a planet. Sort of.

What exactly did they come up with as a definition? As I noted in Devaluing Pluto, the original proposal would have made Ceres, Pluto, and “Xena” planets. It would also have added an arcane bit of reasoning that would make Charon a planet, too, because it didn't orbit around Pluto (both orbit a common center). Pluto would have been a planet, a member of a double planet system and a “pluton” (which turned out to be a term already staked out in geology, indicating a certain lack of research on the part of the committee). Then along came Julio Fernandez with his proposed amendments that included such rather vague statements as “by far the largest”, which served only to heat the debate further. If you want the gory details you can look here and here, but the bottom line of what they ended up with is this:
  • A planet must orbit the sun;
  • it must be massive enough for its gravity to force it to take on a nearly round shape; and
  • it must have cleared the neighborhood of its orbit of other objects.
Okay, so what disqualifies Pluto? It's in orbit around the sun, it's round, but it hasn't cleared its orbit of one particular object: Neptune. Pluto is not a planet because its orbit crosses that of Neptune. If you don't see what that has to do with the three rules above, join the club. It would seem that Neptune had not cleared its neighborhood very well, if Pluto is running around in it. Should we drop Neptune from the list?

After all that discussion, we're still left with terms like “nearly round” and “neighborhood”. As one astronomer pointed out, neither the Earth nor Jupiter have exactly cleared out their neighborhoods, what with all those near-Earth-objects people keep telling us are going to send us to the happy-dinosaur-hunting-ground. As for Jupiter, it's 50,000 trojan asteroids certainly make it hard to call it's neighborhood cleared.

Just to add a little more confusion to the picture, the IAU added two new classes of objects. “Dwarf planets” include Pluto, Ceres, and the zillion objects to be discovered in the Kuiper Belt. “Small solar system bodies” cover everything else orbiting the sun (seems like they could have said “everything else” and left it at that). Charon gets classified as a satellite, even though Pluto orbits Charon as much as Charon orbits Pluto, thus setting up an argument for another day.

For yet another dimension of silliness in all of this, this article, among others, makes it sound like the New Horizons mission headed for Pluto is somehow now in doubt. This is absurd. Pluto is still out there and worth studying as a Kuiper Belt object and the most distant object visited by a human probe. Besides that, there the on-again, off-again, on-again mission to the asteroids. Now that they are in the “everything else” category, are they somehow not worth studying? Good lord, don't anyone tell Michael “who needs science missions” Griffin. He'll drop funding for the asteroid mission again and insist that New Horizons be destroyed in space.

Michael Brown, discoverer of 2003 UB313, which he has called Xena, is ecstatic about the new definitions, because it opens up a whole new discussion on naming conventions for dwarf planets. He seems very concerned that there weren't enough Roman gods to use for naming trans-Neptunian objects, forgetting that Pluto was named for the Disney character; only later did they relate it to the god of the underworld. If we're calling them “dwarf planets”, there are loads of names available, like Sleepy, Sneezy, Dopey, Gimli, Tatoo, etc. Of course, what he really wants is for a naming convention that allows his rock to be called Xena. I presume Mr. Brown is counting on a visit from Lucy Lawless to thank him for the honor.

Many scientists are less than enthusiastic about this nonsense. They're using terms like “farce” and “absurd”. A “dwarf planet” is a planet. The name says nothing about the object and lumps highly dissimilar objects together. The definition is so vague that a black hole orbiting a star that it is devouring could be considered a planet.

What would have been so difficult about calling Pluto a “Kuiper Belt object” or even a “trans-Neptunian object” and leaving it at that? Better yet, the IAU could have waited until New Horizons got to Pluto and sent us back some real information on what it actually is. As I said, Ceres and Pluto are radically different objects; lumping them together is bad science. Pluto may be, as one scientist put it, more kin to a comet than to any of the eight planets. It's orbit and composition (so far as we can determine) come closer to that description than anything else.

The ultimate irony is that, aside from edits to textbooks, nothing really changes. Pluto is still out there and fascinating. New Horizons is still on its way to take a look at it (assuming Mr. Griffin doesn't dismantle the science team). And, once the fuss dies down, most people won't really care, and astronomers will go on with their researches and observations, calling Pluto whatever they want to.

And next for the IAU? I don't know; maybe they could work on clarifying the tie-breakers for the NFL playoffs.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

In the Dark

Scientific principles and laws do not lie on the surface of nature. They are hidden, and must be wrested from nature by an active and elaborate technique of inquiry. ~John Dewey

Here's a little science fair project for you. Add up the mass of the observable universe; be sure to include all the interstellar gas, every little hydrogen atom, every detectable gamma ray and photon. Be sure to include any energy running around loose, because, as Einstein told us, energy and mass are equivalent. Okay, once you've done that, see if that amount of mass accounts for all the observable gravitational effects that you detected while you were toting up the masses.

All right, you already know this is a trick question, because all the observable mass and energy don't account for all the observed indirect effects of mass and energy seen in the universe. What may boggle your mind is the current thinking about just how little of the universe we can actually see and (currently) directly measure. Visible mass accounts for about 5% of what should be there.

Talk about the proverbial drop in the bucket. But it gets even better (or worse, depending on how you feel about things you can't see). Dark matter, some sort of exotic stuff we can't see or detect, only makes up another 25% of the total. It turns out that something even more exotic called dark energy makes up the remaining 70%. So 95% of the universe is made out of stuff we can't directly detect, see, feel, touch, or taste ... at least, so far.

Now, missing most of the matter in the universe is highly annoying. It's also detrimental to developing working theories on the formation of planets, stars, galaxies, even the universe itself. This is not a state of affairs that scientists care for. So, they keep looking.
So far, there are more hints as to the existence and properties of dark matter than dark energy. But, given the mass-energy equivalence, if you can determine the nature of one, you should have a leg up on exposing the other. One candidate for the missing matter is the neutrino.

For years, the neutrino was thought to be massless or very nearly so. In recent years, though, it's been determined that there are various types of neutrinos and they have varying masses, still tiny but definite. And, there are huge quantities of neutrinos floating around out there. Recently, scientists have determined that supernovae release immense quantities of neutrinos, based on theory and based on observations of supernova 1987-A, the closest supernova to occur in modern times, thus the best observed as well. When 1987-A was seen to explode, a wave of neutrinos were picked up on detectors on Earth.

There have been innumerable supernovae over the history of the universe, so there ought to be a shimmering sea of neutrinos about us. The trouble is the nature of these particles makes them very difficult to detect. Neutrino detectors have moved beyond the infancy stage, but they still lack the ultimate sensitivity needed to find these elusive particles. A new generation of detectors is poised to join the search, which may give us a chance to detect these ancient neutrinos.

Supernovae also gave us the first hint of dark energy. As stated in the same article, it was found that light from type !a supernovae was dimmer than expected, which scientists theorized was due to dilution by dark energy, a repulsive force of an unknown nature (which didn't stop the media from calling it “anti-gravity). Perhaps there's a relationship between the neutrinos and dark energy.

Recently, another interaction between supernovae and dark matter was inferred from computer simulations. According to the simulations, dark matter density should be concentrated in center of galaxies, but it seems to be be much more diffuse, based on actual observations. Among other ideas for why this should be is that supernovae shock waves may be dispersing the exotic material. The thing to keep in mind here is that computer simulations depend heavily on the assumptions built into them. While many of them are excellent for making predictions, when their results don't match reality, it's difficult to tell whether we don't understand nature or we built too many assumptions into the simulations.

This isn't a complaint; it's a statement of reality, which the scientists recognize. The benefit to the simulations is that they give you some idea of what your current theories would do if you could actually watch the early universe in action. Good scientific methods question both the theories and the simulations, refining both until everything comes together. Then, of course, someone builds a better computer which show new problems with the simulations, and you're back to the drawing board.

This is what scientists call “fun.”

Then there's a group that says maybe the whole dark matter thing is a bogus issue. Perhaps our theories of gravity are out of whack with reality. Challenging Newton and Einstein without something very firm to replace them is strong stuff, so much as many astronomers and physicists dislike the dark stuff, it seems to beat the alternative.

One group has used the Chandra X-Ray Observatory to gather information that seems to keep gravity in tact and come close to actually showing us dark matter. They didn't see it directly, but the scientists' data shows gravitational effects consistent with some exotic material being in the mix. Many stories are touting this as absolute proof of the existence of dark matter. Doug Clowe goes so far as to say, "We've closed this loophole about gravity...”

Well, perhaps, but I'm not so sure about that. We're still invoking something we can't see and can't define to explain an observed effect. The accumulation of data indicates something is interacting with visible matter, but until we know what it is, I don't think any “loopholes” are closed. If history teaches us anything, it's that we can come up with ingenious explanations for observed events that can be utterly wrong. Ultimately, the challenge is to more fully characterize what dark matter is, rather than just what it does.

Just don't call the IAU to help with the definition. Dark matter might disappear altogether.

(No, I didn't forget about the Pluto formerly known as a planet; tune in Saturday.)

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

How Far Is It?

Real knowledge is to know the extent of one's ignorance. ~Confucius

Sometimes disparate news items come together to highlight a point that one or more them might not have intended to make. For instance, there was an interesting little item about the discovery of a neutron star moving through space at a fantastic clip which highlights the problem of how we come to have fast-moving neutron stars. What makes the phenomenon interesting is that no one has adequately determined what sequence of event could accelerate a neutron star to such speeds. Toward the end of the article, there is a quote that caught my eye: “... the uncertainty in the distance to Puppis A means the neutron star's velocity is subject to error.”

Translation: We may be full of hot air because we can't be sure how far away the thing is.

Then alongs comes a story telling us that the universe may be a couple of billion years older and, as a result, commensurately bigger than we've been thinking it is. This possibility is raised because new observations have indicated a couple of stars in the Triangulum Galaxy are a half million light years farther away than we though they were. Because of that, something called the Hubble Constant, which describes the rate of expansion of the universe, has to be revised.

Now, the Hubble Constant is not like one of those I discussed in Inconstant Constants. Unlike things like the fine constant or the speed of light, the Hubble Constant has never been pinned down to the satisfaction of the entire astrophysical community. In fact, for some considerable period, it's assumed value created a significant complication, since the value of the constant indicated an age for the universe that was younger than the age of the oldest known stars. That meant that either the constant was wrong, or theories of star life cycles were whacked. And the star formation theories had a strong theoretical basis for being right, while the measurements that determined the Hubble Constant were under continuous assault.

See, the problem is that space is, as Douglas Adams put it, big, really, really big. It's also filled with all sorts of strange objects of which we have limited knowledge because they're so far away. Yet we try to use some of the properties of those objects to determine how far away they are.

Look at this way. You see a light in the distance. You have no way of knowing how far away it is unless I give you some information, such as telling you it's a 100-watt incandescent light bulb. If you know that and you know the intrinsic brightness of such a light, you can measure the apparent brightness you now see, plug it into a simple equation and determine instantly how far away you are. Which is fine, until I tell you that, being the inveterate joker that I am, that I lied. It's not a 100-watt light bulb but a candle. This will make you unhappy, and you will probably will to do me bodily harm.

That's sort of what keeps happening in the astronomical sciences (without the bodily harm, but not by much).

Measuring the distance to a nearby (relatively speaking) star can be done by trigonometry. You can take a position of the star when the Earth is on one side of the Sun. Then, when the Earth has moved in its orbit to be on the other side of the Sun, you take the position of the star again. You then form a triangle with the base being the distance between where you took your observations and record the apparent angle to the star. A few simple calculations, and you've determined that the star is, say, 7 light years away.

The trouble is that this method doesn't work for stars much farther than 10 light years away. Most of the stuff in the universe is a lot farther away than that. So astronomers looked for “standard candles”, objects which would have a known intrinsic brightness. Then, if you found one of these things in another place, you could tell how far away it was by measuring its actual brightness and comparing it to its intrinsic brightness.

A lot of things have been tried as standard candles, like variable Cepheids, supernovae, and even the brightness of entire galaxies. Unfortunately, each has its limitations, not to mention that things like clouds of interstellar dust than can dim an object to make it look more distant.

The debate about the Hubble Constant has often gotten acrimonious. Cosmologists work hard on their theories of the formation of the universe; they are unhappy when someone comes along with a change in the distances because that changes everything. Physicists, astrophysicists, and astronomers have held contentious conferences that ended up with colleagues becoming enemies because they differed on the Hubble Constant.

The new value isn't going to make everyone happy, and, no doubt, as I write this, someone is planning to take new observations to try to find a better means of measuring interstellar and intergalactic distances. When they think they have, someone else will start the cycle again.
This isn't a trivial exercise because so much of cosmology, physics, and astrophysics, depends on knowing the distances to things like quasars. At stake are theories of gravity, the formation of galaxies, elements of Einstein's theories of relativity, and the nature of gamma-ray-bursters (GRB), to name just a few. A lot swings on the value of Hubble's Constant.

It's difficult to imagine, given our current state of knowledge, that we can pin down the Hubble Constant to a certainty. But, that's today. Tomorrow, some breakthrough in quantum physics could drive a change in theories of star formation that could provide a key to determining a new standard candle. Perhaps we'll determine the intrinsic brightness of a quasar, or maybe the GRB's will provide a clue.

That's what makes tomorrow so exciting (cue red-haired girl with big voice).

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Devaluing Pluto

The whole of science is nothing more than a refinement of everyday thinking. ~Albert Einstein

A while back, I had a little item about the coming meeting of the International Astronomical Union. A major item on their agenda is to determine, supposedly once and for all, what the definition of a “planet” is.

According to my inexpensive dictionary, a planet is “One of the large bodies that orbit the sun and shine by reflected light.” It goes on to list the regular list of nine planets that everyone has grown up knowing: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune – and Pluto. It further defines a planet as “a similar body revolving around another star.” This is very simple except for the word “large.” That is the very crux of the issue.

Perhaps to you, this isn't a big deal. My wife is one of the few people I've ever known who can look through a telescope at some wonderful object in the sky and say, “That's nice. Boy, the mosquitoes are really biting tonight, aren't they?” She summarized her attitude about Pluto succinctly: “Why don't they leave the poor thing alone?” To a lot of people, though, this is a serious issue. When Neil DeGrasse Tyson recently removed Pluto from an exhibit he oversees, he received a lot of negative feedback. Young children wrote him letters asking, in some cases demanding, that he put Pluto back.

To others, demoting Pluto would somehow demean the work of Clyde Tombaugh, discoverer of the ninth planet. I don't think one could ever do that. If you've ever seen the technique he used, you'd realize the patience and skill that it took to locate an object at that distance and identify it as orbiting the Sun. You could declare Pluto to be space flotsam, and you'd still have to credit Tombaugh's dogged pursuit of such a tiny, far-off object.

Pluto wasn't really what Tombaugh was looking for. Based on perturbations in Neptune's orbit, it was expected that there would be a large planet out there. Pluto didn't really fit the bill, but, what the heck, it was round, it was orbiting the Sun, so they called it a planet. Some astronomers were not satisfied even back then, thinking that there must be another, larger planet out there. No one has ever found this large object.

The question is, can Pluto even be considered a planet?

The issue is size partly size. Pluto isn't very big. In fact, there are moons bigger than Pluto. Charon, its moon, is nearly as big as it is. Another issue is the Kuiper Belt.

Way out there past Neptune is the Kuiper Belt, which, according to current theory, is full of left-over solar-system-building materials, a bunch of frozen ice-balls orbiting the faraway Sun. If Pluto is a Kuiper Belt object, it's more kin to a comet than a planet. In fact, as I mentioned in the aforementioned article, based on theory, there ought to be lots of Pluto-sized objects out there, all frozen lumps of ice and dirt.

What got the debate going is that someone finally found one.

About a year ago, astronomer Michael Brown of Cal Tech found something out past Pluto that was just a bit larger than the ninth, erm, thing. The object was very bright and slightly larger than Pluto. Brown has tentatively named it “Xena” (yes, after that Xena). So, is Xena the tenth planet? Or are there more out there?

As I said in the earlier article, definitions are important to science. Keeping an order to information is important to developing theories about such things as the formation of the solar system. So part of what makes a planet a planet is the way it was formed. Kuiper Belt objects are left-over materials, so they play a role in the formation of the other planets, but they aren't part of the resultant evolution of those planets. In fact, they are made of primordial stuff.

It's not that Pluto and Xena, and all their Kuiper Belt buddies, aren't important. It's that we need to understand what they are.

But, even scientists get emotional about things. If something has been called “A” for years, it's hard to start calling it “B” all of a sudden, especially if that change means that the something is being relegated to a lesser position in the scheme of things.

There have been negotiations going on amongst the IAU delegates to try to reach a consensus and to possibly avoid a hard and fast definition of planet. Some people say it's fine to call Pluto a planet, but then you have to extend the definition of planet to include such things as Ganymede or Titan. If you say, no, it has to directly orbit the sun, then what about asteroids like Ceres and Vesta? They're massive enough to be round (at least we think they are), so if size doesn't matter, then they should be added to the list of planets, along with Xena and any other round Kuiper Belt goodies we may find.

Unfortunately, instead of clearing up the definition, it appears that the IAU is quite possibly going to muddy the waters further. A definition to be proposed for a vote next week will set a definition that, in summary, goes like this:

A planet is an object that has enough mass to be round, is in orbit around a star, and is itself a star or a satellite of another planet.

Using this definition will increase the population to 12 by adding Ceres, Xena, and Charon. Whoa, you say, Charon? Isn't it in orbit around Pluto? Well, not exactly. It seems that the definition has a little exception whereby if two objects orbit a common center that is not inside the primary object, they are both going to be planets.

And then there's the plutons. Anything with an orbital period in excess of 200 years is a "pluton", which, frankly, sounds like something from a 1950's "B" sci-fi epic. At amy rate, instead of clarifying planethood, we now create inner planets and plutons, as well as "co-planets", like Charon. In addition, there are definitions for satellites (anything orbiting a planet if it doesn't violate the "Charon clause") and small solar system bodies (everything that's left).

As if all this isn't bad enough, there are "unnofficial" categories of planets: Dwarf planets (things smaller than Mercury, which includes Pluto); giant planets (the big four gas giants); classical planets (the four inner rocky planets plus the four inner planets). So now, Pluto is a planet, a pluton, and a dwarf planet, not to mention being part of a double-planet system.

When did they let lawyers into the IAU?

If you don't like that one, and apparetnly a lot of people don't, there's an alternative proposal already floating around (unfortunately, New Scientist's link is goofy; try pasting this in your browser: http://www.newscientistspace.com/article.ns?id=dn9797&feedId=online-news_rss20 and see if it works). It isn't exactly a different definition; it's a further corollary to the previous mess. The corollary, proposed by an Uruguayan, Julio Fernandez, says that, in addition to all the other stuff, a planet must be "by far the largest body in its local population."

"By far"? "Local population"? I thought the purpose of this excersize was to make the definition more precise, not make it so vague as to be meaningless. Apparently Mr. Fernandez had "dump Pluto" in the pool, because that is about all this definition accomplishes.

The only sane voice in all of this nonsense comes from an astonomer at Johns Hopkins University, who is quoted in the last article: "I think the whole debate is absurd. The fact (in my opinion) that Pluto is in a different class from the eight planets does not make it less interesting."

Well said, but by the time the IAU is finished, we may not even be able to figure out where Pluto is, much less what it is.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Information or Imagination?

It is characteristic of science that the full explanations are often seized in their essence by the percipient scientist long in advance of any possible proof. ~John Desmond Bernal

A friend of mine, who likes science programs as much as I do, was expressing displeasure with some offering or another that had appeared on one of the Discovery-History channels one night. It was one of the “Walking With ...” series, although I don't recall if we were walking with dinosaurs or early humans. At any rate, his gripe was with the amount of dramatization that is part of these programs. He wondered how scientists could know with any certainty that a T-Rex gobbled up a meal in some spot or that a tribe of early humans joined up with some other tribe with the result that one of them got killed during a fight with yet another tribe.

I said that the producers normally try, through sound bites from the scientists involved, to explain how they came to portray a certain behavior or event based on actual dig findings. Of course, there has to be some latitude allowed for the amount of imagination that is being expressed, but it does make the program more interesting than just a dry exposition of the facts.

He was willing to concede that the programs were made more interesting, but he would have liked a more clear explanation that the actual portrayals were filling in an awful large gap in our knowledge with healthy doses of speculation.

Imagination has long been a part of science. If you look at Einstein or Newton making the intellectual leaps that lead to their incredible accomplishments, you recognize the value of being able to disconnect your mind from “current wisdom” and leap to something entirely new. That's a good use of imagination.

The flip side is that sometimes scientists start filling in the blanks when they have too little data. Perhaps archaeologists and paleontologists are most prone to this. In fact, it's almost a prerequisite for the job. These people are often faced with a dearth of information, and they can't just go into the lab and concoct an experiment that will provide the additional data that would verify their theories. Lewis Leakey was a major contributor to our understanding of early man, particularly in the area of toolmaking. But, there were times, as with his theories on the appearance of humans in the Americas, where his detractors felt he was seeing stone tools in every rock flake, including many that could have occurred naturally.

Whether he was or not, I certainly can't tell. I do know that the debate on the populating of the Americas continues to be very lively today, complete with conflicting carbon dates, competing theories, and scholastic name-calling. Everyone has a theory, and they can take the available information and create an entire history to go with it.

Sometimes these scientists can actually conduct experiments, and they can be very surprised at the result. In Great Britain, archaeologists have been digging up burial cairns for years, and they have developed theories about rituals that may have surrounded their use. Thanks to an experiment conducted in Scotland by the Caithness Archaeology Trust, some of those theories have had to be tossed. The group built their own cairns over the summer, as part of a reconstruction project. The reconstruction ended up providing some surprising results.

One common thing found in cairns is animal bones. These were assumed to be offerings left for the deceased, in the manner of foodstuffs being left in Egyptian tombs. Imagine the surprise of the reconstructionists when, after a time, they found a rabbit carcass in one of their cairns. Was someone leaving an offering? Well, not exactly. It seemed that a cat had dragged a kill into the cairn to get it out of the cold and rain. Thanks to one feline, a lovely picture of primitive Scots leaving sustenance behind for their dearly departed went down the tubes.

Another theory said that the cairns were ceremonially closed at some time after the burial. When the archaeologists started tearing down their reconstructions, they found that the stones fell in just the way that they were found in so-called “ceremonially closed” cairns. In other words, when a cairn collapses, because of rain or because materials are being reused, they'll fall in just the way that archaeologists have found the ancient cairns to have been “closed.”

Now, the cool thing here is that the scientists announced their results without a boatload of waffling. They accepted what they saw and admitted that their theories would take some adjusting. That's great. The trouble is their findings probably won't get the widespread dissemination that the old theories have had. The old theories are more romantic while the new ones just don't produce the kind of storyline that makes for entertaining stories for the general public.

I just started reading a book by Steven Mithen, entitled After the Ice Age, which covers the development of man from a hunter-gatherer to a city-dweller who has domesticated much of his environment. In the preface, Prof. Mithen says, “The popularising of archaeology on TV and in many recent books often adopts a condescending attitude to its viewers and readers, providing superficial and inaccurate accounts of our past.” The same could be said of paleontology, physics, astronomy, or any other scientific area. The problem, though, is also succinctly defined by Prof. Mithen: “[M]any of prehistory's most remarkable events remain hidden ... in scholarly works of impenetrable and jargon-laden prose.”

That's the nub of the problem. How do you sneak a some education over on the general public while keeping a grip on their attention spans? In a book like Steven Mithen's, you do it by having copious footnotes that contain the scholarly stuff while making the main text lively and entertaining. In TV you can make things lively (oh look, he's going to get stomped by a mammoth), but there's nowhere to put the footnotes.

I think the people who bring us science and history programming have a duty to make sure that we clearly delineate fact from supposition. They also need to update programs. The cycle of repeating programs over and over results in some very out-of-date information being sold as current. Either add a disclaimer to the front of these shows, indicating that recent findings may have rendered some of the program's content invalid, or update the programs.

Let's face it. Many casual science programming viewers believe that what they're seeing is the latest and greatest, when, in fact, they may be seeing an explanation (like ritual bones in a cairn) that's been found to be questionable. I know, that's asking a lot of networks that probably operate on small budgets. That they provide what they do provide is to be appreciated. But, as broadcasters, they have a responsibility to make sure that non-fiction programming is accurate.

After all, when the facts are known, things shouldn't be left to the imagination.

Postscript: After I prepared this piece, such an updated program was aired, concerning an investigation into Tutankhamun's death.

Don't update a program like the you did the King Tut "murder investigation" program. You know the one I mean, where a couple of "experienced" investigators sifted through the old evidence (and drove back and forth a lot) and decided that Tut was whacked on the back of the head by a trusted advisor or general or whoever. Not long after the show originally aired, Zahi Hawass led a team that conducted a through CAT scan of Tut's body. The scans revealed there was no blow to the head and further revealed that Tut was done in by horrible injuries to his legs and knees (possibly in a fall from a chariot), leaving the investigators looking a little silly.

They actually showed this program a couple of times after the CAT scan information was released, but finally they decided to do an update. What they did was show the earlier program in its entirety, sticking an introduction on it to prime us for the investigators' new findings. Then, in a brief conclusion, the investigators best shot was that while the CAT scan didn't indicate a murder, it didn't absolutely positively rule out foul play. Why, Tut could have been poisoned or strangled, they say.

Why exactly someone would poison or strangle a person obviously dying from a severe injury isn't quite clear, but then we didn't expect these guys to admit they were dead wrong, now did we?

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

A Load of Crop (Circles)

Every man is a damn fool for at least five minutes every day; wisdom consists in not exceeding the limit. ~Elbert Hubbard

No sooner do I write my magnum opus, or at least, wordy essays on SETI and the possibility of life on other planets, than the article is rendered obsolete by a news item. A good chunk of Part 1 involved the Drake equation, one element of which is a variable relating to the number or proportion of potentially habitable in a system is much lower than any of the estimates typically given. In this article, scientists are saying that a potentially habitable planet may be circling 55 Cancri, which is great. But, the piece also notes that, so far, such planets have proved to be difficult to find. One implication is that there may not be many to find.

Of course, the methods available to us for detecting planets lend themselves to finding systems with gas giants, generally those close to their star. Such systems aren't likely to hold smaller, rocky planets with water on them because the gas giants would have swept them up as they spiraled into tighter orbits.

And I knew that. Just from looking at the systems found to date, it would appear that Carl Sagan's estimates for viable planets would have to be considered optimistic. But, cut me some slack. As we develop better techniques for planetary discovery, we may find systems holding many potential homes for life. Besides, the point of my essays is still intact whether there are millions of inhabited planets, thousands, or hundreds.

However, some other reading I've done over the last few days has caused me to consider whether SETI is, in fact, using the best methods for attempting to communicate with those LGM's out there. LGM, of course, stands for “Little Green Men”; it's a technical term astronomers use when they don't want to sound kooky. At any rate, here are the SETI folks, aiming radio telescopes at this star and that one looking for some sort of mathematically significant sequence, e.g., the first 10 prime numbers, a bit of a Fibonacci series, or the winning digits of the next PowerBall lottery. Yet, the aliens are communicating with us right here on good ole planet Earth.

Yes, I'm talking about crop circles.

I don't understand why crop circles get people (with the exception of the farmer whose crop is stomped down) so atwitter, but they do. Personally, I admire the handiwork and the industriousness involved, but if you've seen one, you've seen most of them. They are, of course, relatively easy to make. In an article on DailyMail.com, Robert Harman recounts the fairly well-known story of how two middle-aged men began making the designs as a lark, confessing in 1991, when the wife of one of them began to suspect that her hubby's late night outings involved some sort of marital hanky-panky.

Despite the confessions, there are still people who believe that the designs are messages from spirits, aliens, or druids (who sometimes appear to be a combination of the first two). But, according to Mr. Harman, the fad appears to be in decline for a variety of reasons (angry farmers would be one, if you ask me). Yet, a couple of days later, Nigel Watson writes for Wired.com that crop circles are on the rise or at least getting more interesting.

Now whether there's more of them or less of them, whether they've become more involved and more 3D in nature, what they aren't is alien communication. Let's think about this for a moment. Let's say that you are on a spaceship circling a planet that has life on it. You can tell it has life because you have excellent sensors that can detect all the tell-tale signs of planet-despoiling technical civilization. You also are picking up broadcasts from the planet's surface. Now if you're as smart enough to have discovered an anti-gravity, non-relativistic space craft that can go faster than the speed of light, you surely have a computer powerful enough to translate the languages you're hearing.

After a suitable period, you're ready to communicate with these beings. Do you a) send a mathematically-based message to get their attention, b) attempt to send a message in the most widely-spoken language, or c) do you drop down in the middle of the night with some rope, boards, and poles and draw circles in some farmer's alien wheat crop (kidnapping a couple of drunks from the planet's bayou area while you're at it)?

Apparently, a rather significant number of people on our planet feel that c) is the way to go at it. I don't know whether to chuckle, laugh out loud, or cry when I think about that. I have had people attempt to rationally explain how the Air Force is hiding Little Green Remains at Area 51. I have heard some of the most ridiculous abduction stories you could imagine told with great seriousness.

“Why exactly would an alien want to abduct a drunken bum from a swamp?”

“Because then no one would believe his story.”

“Gee, I guess those aliens are smart, because that plan is certainly working, isn't it?”

So if one is to believe these folks, SETI is aimed way to high. However, another alternative is being offered by some devotees of the cover-up theories. The Register published a letter they got in response to an article, as they put it, “full of aliens, alleged cover-ups, and general space science.” What they got was a letter chastising them for falling for the SETI conspiracy to cover up the fact that they have already received alien transmissions but are keeping them secret! Well, that's one way to garner interest and funding; don't tell people you're actually succeeding.

But, to add fuel to the flames of conspiracists everywehre, it seems that the gang from SETI in conjunction with scientists from NASA (however few they'll have left after Mr. Griffin gets done) have decided that a plan needs to be in place to communicate to us unwashed masses any information about the discovery of life on Mars, should it be found. So, if Spirit or Opportunity sends back a pic of a silicon giraffe strolling by, or, more likely, if a sample-return mission to Mars comes back with evidence of microbial life having existed there, these experts feel that we'd need to make sure that the news didn't get out until everything was properly investigated. In others words, the proof of alien life would have to be covered up!

The only way to make it better would be to name Area 51 as the central repository for information about life on Mars. The whackos would be dancing in the streets.

Or around the crop circles.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Putting a Wrap on the SFF Discussion

He is a dreamer; let us leave him: pass. ~ William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

Frankly, I am now tired of this entire discussion. I don't regret bringing it up, but I'm getting more and more frustrated with the responses from Dr. Differ and Mr. Muniz. Mr. Muniz in particular seems to have decided to satirize my use of quotations and mocks my use of formal address ("whichever you prefer"). Just to clarify the latter, I was raised to cal people Mr., Miss, or Mrs (later Ms.) because that's the polite thing to do. When I went to Case Tech, professors addressed us in the same way It's a habit that I have carried over to my coworkers, none of whom have ever seemed to mind. I don't apologize for doing for being polite. Further, I do take pains to get their names right.

Beyond that, I've got other things I want to write about, and this discussion is simply circular.

Neither of these gentlemen has given me any compelling reason to change my views. Launching satellites and space tourists using the same old methods is not advancing space exploration or space settlement. Bad-mouthing the government while demanding $2 billion of taxpayer money, claiming that commercial companies have succeeded without governent help (as Burt Rutan claimed when SpaceShipOne won the Ansari X Prize) while using technologies developed under government contracts, claiming that comercial serices can supply the ISS (there's no evidence they can because they can't handle the needed payloads to adequately supply a fully-manned ISS, especially when it gets bigger), and claiming that using old methods is "innovation" isn't going to get us anywhere.

Dr. Differ goes so far as to say, "We all stand on the shoulders of giants and I won't detract from the miracles wrought by previous generations. However, I won't linger long on them either. That is work for historians. We must make the future." I would suggest that Dr. Differ refusal to linger means he will fall prey to Santayana's warning about those who do not learn from history. By the way, when Newton said, "If I have seen farther, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants," he was being sarcastic. He was referring, I believe, to Robert Hooke's claim of priority on some of Newton's theories (which was, of course, a false claim).

Perhaps I am as naive and ignorant as these gentlemen wish to protray me, but I find the study by Jonathon Huebner compelling. While one can dispute some of his conclusions, and I'm sure these gentlemen will, his data is unambiguous. The rate of innovation is dropping, a conclusion I came to by looking at the state of the computer industry. The constant drumbeat in the comments by Mr. Muniz and Dr. Differ about the reuse of technologies instead of developing new ones just fits the overall pattern.

Dr. Differ further says, "Innovation is occuring and I would argue that you may not be in a position to know it. My friends are, though. Some of us have some crazy ideas that are a mix of old and new and we are trying to get them funded. In the end, though, it only works if we have customers." I suspect I would have an inkling if some sort of revolutionary approach to space flight was happening or had happned in the last few years. I am aware of the true innovations of Deep Space I, the Liftport project, and Honda's developments in solar arays, anong other things. As to your "crazy ideas", perhaps you should contact Burt Rutan. He appears to be looking for some.

Burt Rutan, of whom I have been critical, believes current methods are getting us nowhere fast. In an interivew with Space.com, he says, “My bottom line is that we have to have some kind of breakthroughs. What’s needed is to create an environment to have breakthroughs … to try things that may seem illogical at first.” And Mr. Rutan is only speaking about advancing from suborbital to orbital commerical manned flight. The article goes on, 'Looking back on SpaceShipOne, Rutan said the focus was on safety, on recurring cost, and asking the question: “When we’re done with this, if it worked, could it lead right into flying the public? Could it be safe? I don’t think that’s been done to go to orbit,' he said."

So, at this point, space tourism isn't even safe using existing methods. And space tourism doesn't even begin to get us to a point where manned exploration and colonization can begin.

Dr. Differ is right when he says, "In the end, though, it only works if we have customers. Investors are justifiably wary of 'gee-whiz' ideas when they can't see who would buy them." That's why space research has been driven by the government, not by corporations. That's why corporations are never going to do anything meaningful in space exploration; they'll only do things that produce an immediate profit.. That's also why we shouldn't be raiding NASA's already slashed budget to support "free" enterprise.

I don't suggest eliminating commercial launch systems. I hope they freely compete to lower the cost of launching satellites and free up NASA and the ESA to concetrate on the big picture. But, don't go taking my tax dollars if you can't convince a free investment market that your industry is viable. And don't try to convince me that "space tourism" is ever going to be anything but a joyride for the rich, because the economics will never work using the same old methods. Ask Burt Rutan.

Yes, I'm a dreamer. I want to live to see humanity take the first steps to the stars. That's an idealistic vision, because there's no gain except the growth of our knowledge and our long-range survival.

There's not enough of us left for whom there is more than the bottom line.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

A Response to a Response about SFF – Part 2

Humanity is acquiring all the right technology for all the wrong reasons. ~R. Buckminster Fuller

In Part 1, I began my response to Mr. Benigno Muniz Jr., Chief Technical Officer of CSI, whose owner is a member of the Space Frontier Foundation's board, who posted a comment to my rant about the SFF and private enterprise space efforts in general. I'm sorry to take so many words to do this, but his post was not one of those “you're an idiot” sorts of comments that often appear in blogs, so it deserves something more than a “well you're one, too, nyah, nyah, nyah” in return.

He and Dr. Alfred Differ have both posted additional comments since the ones that prompted all this verbiage on my part. Saturday, I hope to do a sort of wrap on this that takes those comments and any others they post in the meanwhile into account.

And thanks to Dr. Differ for putting a link on his blog to Explorations.

I left off at the Bigelow inflatable device, so let's move along.

Mr. Muniz allows that I may have a point when I described the flawed launch of Falcon I, but he goes on to say, “ I imagine the same things were being said as NASA struggled with its Vanguard program.” You bet they did. In fact, “they” (including a young kid in Ohio named Gog who didn't even know good cuss words yet) said much worse things. But, we should clarify something. Vanguard was a Navy project, just as Jupiter and Explorer were Army efforts. In fact, Vanguard was selected as the first U.S. satellite launch attempt in 1955, by the Ad Hoc Committee on Special Capabilities. NASA as NASA didn't yet exist and wasn't formed (from the old NACA) until 1958 by President Eisenhower.

But for a modern rocketry company to make mistakes on a par with the earliest days of space launches is inexcusable.

Mr. Muniz then turns to my concerns about the Russians selling EVA's. He compares it to the risks someone takes scuba diving. I'm sorry, but that's a bit short of the mark. The more apt comparison is to think of someone with minimal training paying to accompany a trained diver to the Andrea Doria wreck. We're not talking about a 20 foot dive in clear waters off Mexico; we're talking about a dangerous situation where a mistake on the part of the novice could kill people.

He then states that my mention of the Russian commercial launch in no way denigrates the Soyuz return capsule. True, although my point was about the trustworthiness of the complete systems, not just the capsule. As to SpaceShipOne, yes, Mr. Muniz, the government did (via the Defense Department) develop the composite materials. As to the wing-tilt mechanism, I'll give Mr. Rutan that, but that's pretty small potatoes compared to all the technology he borrowed.

Ironically, he then agrees with me on the one point I keep driving home. He says, “The US commercial launch vehicle industry that NASA uses today (see link above) got its start with technology developed under govt. contract.” Isn't that what I've been saying?

He takes issue with a few of my comments about CSI board members. No, Mr. Muniz, I didn't mean to imply that you took your name from the TV show; I'm just tired of seeing those initials everywhere I turn. That's no fault of yours, and I apologize if you found that insulting. He also takes exception with some of my snarky comments about the founders and board of SFF, which he is entitled to do. I could answer each of them, but I'd just get snarky again. Suffice it to say that I linked to the SFF site to allow anyone to make up their own mind about whether “these people bring much more to the discussion of space than your brief summary would indicate.” I can't say that I think they do, but that's my opinion.

Mr. Muniz reminds us that the mission of SFF “contains the phrase 'opening the space frontier to human settlement as rapidly as possible'...” Vision statements are lovely. Actions like taking NASA's budget to create space flights for millionaire tourists has little to do with human settlement. He further says, “I believe the emerging private space companies merely want NASA to expand what it already does in commercial launch services. I also know of no space company that is seeking to kill off their customers.”

In other words, SFF wants more money to go to commercial space flight even if it means curtailing scientific research and development of new systems. Intentionally kill off science programs? No. But, the SFF and others supporting the government funding know that it's essentially an either-or situation.

Mr. Muniz, I do believe in free enterprise. But I don't believe in corporate welfare. The American business community which once gave us Bell Labs and Xerox Parc now gives us one money-grabbing scam after another. The great corporate research facilities are essentially dead as our business leaders look only to short-term gain. The long-range thinkers like Henry Ford and Tom Watson (who were certainly no angels) are gone. The SFF seems to represent that part of the current corporate culture that screams about the need for free enterprise and a competitive environment while jumping at federal contracts, begging for corporate welfare, and killing competition wherever possible.

Just to make it abundantly clear, here are my problems with the current approach to space flight, whether based on NASA efforts or commercial efforts.
  1. Reuse of out-of-gate technology is like hitching a horse in front of a Ferrari. It looks pretty, but it doesn't run very well.

  2. All of the grandiose visions all boil down to the same thing: Let's do what we already did the same way we did it. You can attach a Mars mission to it, but it won't succeed using Apollo, Soyuz, or Vanguard methods.

  3. Space flight is too complex and costly to succeed as a private enterprise project at this point. Corporations in competition do not share research and engineering resources, leaving each one to reinvent the wheel (or use old technology).
If groups like SFF were pushing people like George W. Bush to think in terms of saving humanity (by giving us a an alternative future should Earth become endangered) instead of lobbying for their own business interests, they'd be doing a service to all of us (and still making money through government contracts).

Private enterprise can fly us to New York, deliver packages, and sell us all sorts of useful things. But, we have planet-wide problems that need planet-wide cooperation. Exploring the cosmos can be a way of bringing us together to do these things.

Mr. Muniz, we aren't going to agree on much except that NASA's current direction of space flight is to nowhere. Perhaps the SFF and groups like it will manage to make a difference. Frankly, I doubt it, but I would be thrilled to be proved wrong.

Sacrificing my ego would be a minuscule price to pay.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

A Response to a Response about SFF – Part 1

The real problem is not whether machines think but whether men do. ~B.F. Skinner

Mr. Benigno Muniz Jr., Chief Technical Officer of CSI, whose owner is a member of the Space Frontier Foundation's board, has penned a lengthy but thoughtful comment to my rant about the SFF and private enterprise space efforts in general. His post deserves a response, and I'm going to give it my best effort, but before I do, you might want to take a moment and read Mr. Muniz's comments in full.

Done? Okay, here goes.

Mr. Muniz quotes my comment about the group wanting a law passed to force NASA to buy services from private companies and offers a statement that this has been done in the past, including a law that prohibited NASA from launching commercial satellites. From his link, we get the following quote:
“So, why aren't we all flying in space today, as a result of this work? The immediate answer is that markets take time to impact the supply chain, and with the enormous investment required to build new space launchers, the full effects of market forces will not be seen for some time. Still,the progress since 1990 has been considerable. At least one should think about the reality that - without the Launch Services Purchase Act - that NASA may have elected to *manage* the X-Prize."
Mr. Muniz, we're talking 16 years of minimal progress. The so-called “considerable” progress involves the use of technology Robert Goddard would recognize. The idea was for NASA to work on the new and innovative while letting private enterprise use the government-provided technologies to do the routine work.

As it turns out, neither private enterprise nor NASA have been particularly innovative.

He next refers to Energia, which is, of course, a spinoff of the former Soviet space program (it traces it's history back to 1948; Stalin was not a big proponent of private enterprise). It's been such a rousing success that MIR had to be decommissioned because Energia could not support both ISS and MIR. In fact, Energia cannot supply a fully crewed ISS, as witnessed by the reduction of crew from three to two while the shuttle was grounded.

The most successful and consistent launch vehicles out there are the Arianne rockets, run by the European Space Agency, which (and I may be mistaken here) is not private enterprise. My point that I make over and over (but evidently not clearly) is that privately funded space efforts do not involve innovation or improved methods. NASA has been guilty of this as well, but taking funding away from research to give it to private groups, few of whom are actually doing anything that will prove to be useful to humanity in the long or short run, isn't going to promote innovation.

Mr. Muniz takes exception to my remarks about “under-engineered” private efforts. His argument revolves around a)the use of old technology (in other words, we're using stuff that government money engineered) and b) CSI and others used to be government contractors who used our tax dollars to do their engineering. His only statement of current engineering efforts is “ Subsequently, CSI's designs have undergone further privately-funded development to a greater level of detail.” He then lists his COTS team, notes that CSI has all sorts of former aerospace people, and asks me to explain “what we under engineered.”

Well, I didn't specifically cite CSI as a source of under-engineering because I don't know of any case where the term would be applied to them. But, how's this for examples about others? Ares, the launch vehicle for the CEV, is going to be covered by – are you ready for this? -- the same foam that comes off the shuttle tank in chunks. Under-engineering? I call that no engineering. And please don't tell me that it's okay because all the junk will fall behind the CEV. I'd suggest that very little engineering effort has gone into determining what the effects of using this failed methodology are going to be.

Mr. Muniz lists a laundry list of good ole methods that commercial space flight is hanging its hat on, including Delta rockets (46 years old) and Soyuz technology (35 years old). I hear the Chinese were big in rocketry a few thousand years ago. Should we be using gunpowder to launch our space ships? Of course not, but then why should we be using 30+ year old methods. Because they're proven? When automobiles first appeared there were many arguments against such progress, insisting on staying with the "proven technology" of the horse-and-buggy.

Mr. Muniz says, “Your subsequent discussion [about private sector space flight] does not cover either the commercial launch or satellite industry, and so is very incomplete.” A valid statement on his part, since commercial satellite launches have been going on, using government-funded technologies, for some years. My thoughts were about manned efforts, but I didn't make that clear. I did mention a couple of rather poor commercial efforts launching satellites, but that was mixing topics on my part.

He chides my comments about Bigelow's space hotel. I'm sorry, Mr. Muniz, I've yet to read anything about it that indicates that it marks any major step forward from the Echo launches to which you refer. Yes, Echo had no internal structures or subsystems. As far as I know, neither does Bigelow's balloon. There was some mention of a camera system, but I have yet to see any pictures. Beyond that, there are apparently no major internal operating systems.

There is more to Mr. Muniz's post, and I want to answer it as well as I can, so part 2 will appear on Thursday. And, thanks to continued interest in the topic from both Mr. Muniz and Dr. Alfred Differ, a part 3 will follow on Saturday.

Boy, two against one. And I'll bet they're twenty years younger than I am, too.

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.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Scientific Methods

A fact is a simple statement that everyone believes. It is innocent, unless found guilty. A hypothesis is a novel suggestion that no one wants to believe. It is guilty, until found effective. ~Edward Teller

Since I started this blog, it seems that many of things I’ve reading lately are pronouncements claiming to overturn or at least mess up existing theories, particularly, but not limited to Einstein’s theories. To wit:

A claim that physical constants have changed over time, and

String theorists’ search for all of those 11 dimensions here and here.

Those are the ones about which I’ve written. There have been more. In fact, a new one just came down the pipe which says the theories involving quasars and black holes are all whack. Instead of black holes, quasars contain – are you ready for this one? – a magnetospheric eternally collapsing object or MECO.

Wasn’t he some guy who did electronic disco music back in the ‘70’s?

Seriously, though a scientist name Rudolph Schild, based on a sample of a set of observations of one, count ‘em, one quasar, has determined that, “The structure of the quasar is not at all what had been theorized.” Further down in the article, some semblance of reason prevails when another scientist notes that other effects could easily cause the effects observed by Schild. Chris Reynolds told the New Scientist, “Especially if you're looking with an optical telescope, which is how these observations were made, you wouldn't see that gas at all.”

This is why making multiple observations or the ability to repeat an experiment independently is so important. It may be that Schild is onto something. Quasars are a long way off, and it’s only in the last couple of decades that astrophysicists have really begun to get any sort of handle on how they work. But, this announcement smacks of a rush to publish.

Scientists, particularly those in university environments, are always under pressure to publish results. Getting grants is very important to any research institution; the more results the institution publishes, the more successful they appear. The more successful they appear, the
more money that comes in.

There is also the precedence issue. Discovering extrasolar planets is now common as dirt. I expect any day to hear about some 12-year-old with a CCD camera reporting finding an entire solar system revolving around some M-class star I’ve never heard of. But, at the outset, before techniques were refined, there were a lot of theories, but no certainty about whether the observations could be made that would be definitive enough to make the claim of planetary discovery stand up.

The story is well-known about a group of U.S. astronomers who were pursuing such a project. They thought they might have something but were taking more observations to try to be sure. In the meantime, a Swiss group trumped them by announcing the first such discovery (around 51 Peg, as I recall). When the U.S. group went back and looked at their data, they saw that, in fact, they had indications in their many readings that verified the Swiss information. The U.S. group had been more cautious, but the Swiss were now being toasted. To their credit, the U.S. planet hunters didn’t go into a sulk. They have since discovered many more planets on their own.

It’s one thing to be premature in releasing a theory, but it’s another to be as nihilistic as scientists seem to have become. One set of data that doesn’t fit General Relativity is touted as evidence of its invalidity, yet no mention is made of the hundreds of experiments and physical observations that have upheld it. When one is taking data at the limits of the observable universe, one should not be quick to make pronouncements until corroboration can be made.

Yet these scientists are rushing to tilt at the Einsteinian windmill.

Recently, the Science Channel showed a program about a recent discover of a theropod skeleton. It was an interesting show because the find was either a juvenile T-rex or, better yet, only the second example of a possible other T-rex species, Nanotyrannis (I hope I have the
spelling right), the only other example of which is a skull. The program’s science was good; many different experts weighed in, with opinions based on the facts available to them. In the end, no clear consensus was achieved, although the votes seemed to favor the juvenile T-rex. Given that very few of those have been found, that would make the discovery just as important as discovering a new species. It was a good program, but it was the advertising that irritated me, with statements about “questioning scientific methods.” In fact, the program showed good scientific technique at work; the experts, including Bob Bakker and Rob Horner, among others, looked at the facts before them and made judgments based on those facts. Their interpretations varied, but that is part of the nature of science. Why? Because they didn’t have enough data, and they recognized that more data was needed.

Similarly, Otto Schaden the discoverer of KV-63 refused to be drawn into idle speculation, despite the best efforts of reporters from all over, including that of the Discovery Channel, which hyped the possibility of discovering the body of King Tut’s mother (I will not say “mummy”) even though news reports had already announced that nothing of the sort had been discovered.

Schaden and the paleontologists showed what good science is about. Apparently, physicists, astrophysicists, and astronomers are getting a little shaky on the concept.