Sunday, December 30, 2007

Trading Bad for Worse

Science is a first-rate piece of furniture for a man's upper chamber, if he has common sense on the ground floor. ~Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.

Another day, another whacko theory.

As we are all aware, the prevailing thinking among cosmologists these days is that the universe is mostly made up of stuff that we can't see. One type of stuff is dark matter, for which there is some observational evidence. We don't know what it is exactly, but at least we can see what appear to be its effects.

The other stuff, which makes up most of the rest of the universe is dark energy, which we haven't found, can't define, and have no idea how to detect. Aside from that, it appears to be a sure thing.

Given this state of affairs, it's not surprising that some scientists are looking for alternative theories. I've discussed some alternative views, the "Swiss Cheese" theory (not a great name) and the "local collapse" theory. I've also mentioned the problem raised by some observational evidence that, while indicating the possible existence of dark energy in the ancient universe, doesn't show it behaving properly. It seems that dark energy should have been an attractive force in the early universe. The data, however, indicates that it was repulsive.

Frankly, the whole concept is getting pretty repulsive, if you ask me.

At any rate, another scientist who dislikes dark energy has come up with yet another way to avoid it altogether, by --and you're not going to believe this one -- postulating that time itself is slowing down.

I'm not sure that this is an improvement over dark energy.

The simple fact is that cosmologists have painted themselves into a corner with dark energy and don't know how to get out of it. The truth is that everything cosmologists are hypothesizing depends on know how big the universe is and how much stuff is in it. Figuring out astronomical distances has always been a problem, involving huge assumptions which have been subject to acrimonious debate among cosmologists, physicists, and astronomers. If you can't get a reasonable estimate of how far away something like a quasar is, then you can't accurately assess its speed, size, or red-shift.

If you don't know the answer to those questions, you don't know how fast everything is expanding.

When it comes to the mass of the universe, all of the assumptions are based on statistical extrapolations of sky surveys. The problem is that the statistics are only as good as our ability to determine how much stuff is in a particular volume of space. It now appears we have been fooled, in at least one instance, by stuff that's in the way. It seems that we've just found an entire cluster of galaxies where we didn't think one existed.

That's a lot of missing mass.

So as it stands, we're still not very sure how far away everything is and we're not sure how much of it we've actually accounted for. But, cosmologists and their brethren are still cranking out theories based on the best estimates we've got.

The trouble with that is that we darn well know that our assumptions are shaky. Astronomers are constantly campaigning for tools to help them get better observational data to determine distances and identify celestial objects that are hidden by gas and dust. It's reasonably clear from the problems being encountered by the dark energy crowd that we don't have a good enough handle on these fundamental facts yet.

I understand the need to theorize based on existing data. If nothing else, that sort of work tells us whether the data is sufficient and consistent enough. The answer to that question is, "Not yet." The obvious conclusion is that more data is needed, not more theories that make even less sense.

As Robert Machol once said, "If the assumptions are wrong, the conclusions are likely to be very good."

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Equality vs. Equal Treatment

When you meet someone better than yourself, turn your thoughts to becoming his equal. When you meet someone not as good as you are, look within and examine your own self. ~ Confucius

Recently, James Watson, noted for his contribution to the discovery of the structure of DNA, generated a great deal of brouhaha, angst, and general consternation for expressing concerns over policies concerning Africa because “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours - whereas all the testing says not really." This comment generated a firestorm of protest from scientists, politicians, and commentators all over the place. It also generated the expected backlash against so-called Political Correctness.

It also led to his resignation and investigations into his own DNA which revealed -- gasp -- that Watson himself has African ancestry.

I am not a fan of James Watson, but this has nothing to do with his recent comments. Anyone who as ever read about his less-than-ethical shenanigans in cynical pursuit of the Nobel has to wonder if scientists ever do research for the sake of actual discovery.

I also am not one who gets on the "Political Correctness is getting out of hand" bandwagon. What a lot of people brand Political Correctness is simple respect for others. I grow tired of people complaining they can't use racist and/or sexist terms anymore without "offending" anyone anymore. The terms were always offensive. What is frequently called "Political Correctness" (such as issues over "Happy Holidays" versus "Merry Christmas") aren't matters of Political Correctness; they're just people being silly.

All of the preceding is just so you understand where I'm coming from when I say that I was not overly put out by Watson's remarks, because, as far as they go, they're correct. Using the standard measure for intelligence, namely IQ testing, Africans do in fact test lower than Europeans. Europeans, in turn, test lower than Asians.

Frankly, geneticists and anthropologists must generally share the view that people are different. And racial groups are different from one another. Every indication is that there are differences in the nature of the brain, resistance to disease, physical abilities, and more. That doesn't mean one group is dumber than another or that one group has more athletic prowess than one another. It means that we are all different, with our own genetic advantages and disadvantages.

There are also cultural differences that have a major impact on our behavior and apparent intelligence. U.S. policies have been notorious for not taking cultural aspects into account. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union often made inroads with countries that didn't want U.S. handouts by making deals. The Soviets would provide technology and assistance but some repayment would be expected (either of loans or through trade agreements). Heads of so-called third world countries preferred to be partners and even debtors rather than children being given gifts by Uncle.

So there are differences between peoples, and those differences need to be taken into account when creating policies toward others. In that context, Watson is correct. Some groups do not score well in IQ tests, so their level of intellectual development is different from others. Here, too, Watson is correct, and policy needs to take that into account.

The problem is that his comment implies (and he may well mean) that Africans are somehow dumber than Europeans and, more importantly, less capable intellectually. I am no expert, but I think there's enough research to indicate that IQ tests evaluate a the level of a certain type of intelligence rather than raw intellectual development.

Even if differences in intelligence are real, the need for equality under the law doesn't change. And I never heard Watson suggest that equal rights legislation be repealed. Firstly, it certainly appears that whatever native, genetic, cultural intellectual advantages or disadvantages people have, they all have similar capabilities. There are African poets, scientists, and politicians (showing that they can be as stupid as we are). Secondly, history has shown that no group that has been deprived of its rights to live and to grow has ever been sufficiently unintelligent not to know that they were being deprived.

Humans are diverse as individuals, nationalities, and racial ethnicity. That diversity is what moves us forward; when humans become homogeneous, change stops, innovation dies. It's not bad to recognize inequalities. It's bad to consider them limiting and, worse, to consider them a reason for one group to dominate or exterminate another. If Watson believes anything of the sort, I'd be very disappointed.

The problem is that some bozos will take Watson's views to justify racist attitudes. Perhaps that's what has the scientific community so nonplussed. I've noticed that geneticists and anthropologists do go out of their way at times to avoid any sort of assertion that a human genetic grouping may have had some sort of superiority to others. Of course, it may be that when characteristics are taken as a whole, the plusses and minuses cancel out, making us all more or less equal.

It really doesn't matter. If all of us, African, Europeans, and Asians alike, weren't already disposed to being bigots, statements like Watson's wouldn't bother any of us. People need to take a long look at why they're so upset with Watson more than they need to criticize him.

Watson may have given us more to think about than he thought.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Glib Science is Bad Science

What I really hope to do is leave you dizzy by the end of this. ~ Lawrence Krauss

When last we met, I was exploring some of the downright silly-sounding science that is making the rounds these days. One of things I mentioned was a claim making the rounds that was prompted by some research published by Dr. Lawrence Krauss of Case Western Reserve University (note: your humble servant is a 1970 graduate of Case Institute of Technology, which is now the "Case" in the merged university's name). Seems that the research got interpreted to mean that observations being made by astronomers are, in fact, shortening the life span of said universe.

Imagine a Schrodinger's Cat experiment taken to it's logical extreme.

As I said in my previous article, I'm thinking that Dr. Krauss is bucking for his own TV show. After all, Donald Johanssen (discoverer of Lucy, the most complete austalopithicene ever found) got to host Nature on PBS. Then, of course, there's Carl Sagan, not to mention Bill Nye, the Science Guy.
Announcing the increasingly imminent demise of the only universe we've got is a way to definitely get attention.

Frankly, Bill Nye is closer to Dr. Krauss' approach than either Dr. Johanssen or the late Dr. Sagan. If it was attention he wanted, it was attention he got, almost all of it negative. So, along comes Dr. Krauss to say, well, maybe that's not exactly what I wanted to say.

Gee, you think?

It seems that Dr. Krauss now admits that he may have been guilty of being a little too witty.
" 'I was too glib,' the scientist said in a phone interview. 'I had just completed this paper about a subject that I found so fascinating, and I was excited to talk to another scientist about it. But I was running off to Nashville from California. And I didn't spend enough time explaining myself.' "

Or perhaps the good doctor was just trying to come up with something that would make a clever quip and forgot that people just don't have a sense of humor about impending doom -- and that scientists don't need yet another reason for the uneducated politicians to cut funding for projects.

One can easily imagine some representative looking for money for his pet bridge-to-nowhere project advocating cutting funding for physics and space research on the grounds that such projects are shortening our collective lifespans.

Now that Dr. Krauss has explained that we're all safe from the prying into the universe by cosmologists, astronomers, and kids with Tasco telescopes, people are blaming the poor science reporting for the misunderstanding. At least one blogger went so far as to apologize to Dr. Krauss and remove his own article on the subject.

Ain't gonna happen here.

Dr. Krauss was too clever for his own good. He decided that being clever outweighed misrepresenting his own research. Whether that research is actually worth the paper upon which it's written is for trained physicists to decide, but a lot of the public will only remember is that astronomers looking for dark energy are bringing us closer to the end of time.

We live in a world where people believe aliens drop down periodically to abduct drunks from the backwoods, or that dinosaur fossils were planted by a supreme being to trick us into thinking that the earth is really more than 6,000 years old, or that plesiosaurs are swimming around in a Scottish lake (or an American one, for that matter). We don't need scientists announcing the potentially imminent destruction of the universe by observatories.

Dr. Krauss needs to quit worrying about being a quotable media darling.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Phunny Physics

Mann's Law - If a scientist discovers a publishable fact, it will become central to his theory.

Maybe it's the Internet's fault. Maybe it's all that time wasted on string theory. It just seems that the number of cockamamie, poorly thought out, hastily published, and generally weird theories that are being published has increased exponentially in recent years. I'll admit it's become a recurring theme in this space, but there's so much of it out there, one could hardly avoid talking about it.

Take dark energy. Dark energy has supplanted dark matter as the most plentiful thing in the universe. The problem is that we don't know what it is and can't detect it except by very indirect inference of observations. Dark energy theory is 10 years old, but we know nothing more about it than we did when it was first proposed. To show how ridiculous the "field" is, Lawrence Krauss of Case Western Reserve University, who is apparently bucking for his own show on The Science Channel, has now put forth a theory that, in the manner of Schrodinger's Cat, we are shortening the life of the universe through our observations.

Evidently, Dr. Krauss decided that his theory of the dark ending of the universe was too depressing, so he needed a way to end it sooner. Of course, everyone knows he's got it wrong because the universe is really going to end in a Big Rip like an exploding balloon, thanks to the runaway expansion of everything. The culprit, of course, is dark energy.

You think that's silly stuff? How about this? One of the little nagging problems in all these dark energy and dark matter theories is that the Milky Way isn't going where it's supposed to be going at the speed it should be speeding. Now, that could be because our calculations for the mass of the universe aren't exactly what they should be or that our estimates of distance and velocity are wrong. There's plenty of precedents for the latter as we have seen distance estimates change radically ever since Edwin Hubble determined that many "nebulae" were actually galaxies running away from us at high speed. Scientists make all sorts of assumptions about "standard candles", some of which haven't held up.

As to the mass of the universe, well, that one is certainly still up in the air.

At any rate, an explanation for the anomalous movement of our galaxy has been proposed that invokes a hidden twin of the Milky Way! Presumably it's the evil twin, Binky. No, I made that up, but it's not much worse than the idea of a galaxy that is hidden by dust and evidently emits no radio waves, X-rays, or infrared radiation, so that it won't be detected by all of the instruments and satellites we've got mapping the sky, even though it's only slightly farther away than the Andromeda Galaxy.

If that isn't enough for you, how about this one? It's been known for some time that the structure of the universe is not a random scatter of galaxies. Rather the galaxies are clumped together in huge clusters with large gaps between them. Recently, the biggest such gap was discovered from some old WMAP data. Now, this area isn't void of matter; it just doesn't have very much. That's interesting enough, but someone has to go another step and announce that this gap is a view into another universe. Of course, this "discovery" is based on string theory, meaning that someone has done a mathematical construct using torturous calculations to indicate that there might possibly maybe conceivably be another universe impinging on ours at the area where the gap occurs.

It's not that I dismiss dark energy and dark matter out of hand; there's some degree of evidence for both. Well, dark energy, as noted in the link above, is shaky at best, and some people don't think dark matter exists either. The latter group invokes modifications in theory of gravity, though, that aren't exactly justified by observation, which, to me, weakens their arguments considerably. As to string theory, well, you know what I think of that (here, for example, among other rants).

What exactly is going on in physics, anyway? It's not that crazy theories aren't interesting and possibly valuable, because they can be. After all, Relativity and Quantum Theory were regarded as pretty nutty in their early days. But twin galaxies, big rips, big fade outs, holes in the universe?
There's crazy and then there's downright silly.

I'm not sure we haven't crossed the line here.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Of Impacts, Eruptions, and Extinctions

There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact. ~Mark Twain

Sometimes I think scientists just don't like admitting they don't really know. That would explain the tendencies toward contrarianism on the one hand and bandwagons on the other. Take the Cretaceous Era extinction event that wiped out our buddies, the dinosaurs.

Mass extinctions have taken place irregularly throughout our planet's history. Because that sort of thing could happen to us, scientists have more than just casual curiosity in what causes these catastrophic events. The Cretaceous event has always been near the top of the list for their attention, partly because it's the most recent big event (although there have been some subtle extinction events since) and because it took out the dinosaurs, who, beyond being an object of fascination for all of us, were wildly successful for about 165 million years.

All sorts of theories were tossed around for years, including disease and climate change, when in 1980 Luis Alvarez, a physicist, and his son Walter, a geologist, came up with the wild idea that a meteor impact was the culprit. Frankly, their theory was not met with universal acclaim, mostly, I suspect, because they were not paleontologists (although Walter Alvarez's expertise in geology should have counted for something).

Flash forward to the mid-1990's and the discovery of the Chixulub crater. Suddenly, we were looking at a massive crater that was formed at about the right time. In other words, we had the proverbial smoking gun. Alvarez and son were transformed from fringe-theory pushers to mainstream geniuses.

It's not that everyone bought in to the impact theory; Bob Bakker, for instance, wasn't having any of it, sticking to the disease theory. For the most part, though, a meteor as the cause of the dinosaur die-off became candidate number one.

Then along comes Gerta Keller. By the time Ms. Keller got into the act, paleontologists were beginning to consider that more than one factor was involved in killing off the saurians. The Deccan traps, a monstrous outflow of lava, had been going on for an incredible period of time. The effect of volcanic eruptions on the climate are fairly well-known, so it was beginning to be felt that the dinosaurs were in serious decline by the time that the meteor came calling. Chixulub simply finished them off.

For some reason, this wasn't good enough for Ms. Keller. She decided that Chixulub was small potatoes and that there must have been another meteor or two. The fact that her evidence was shaky and that no one could find the other impact craters didn't dissuade her much.

Now she's decided that meteor impacts, especially Chixulub, had nothing to do with the extinction at all. It was all the Deccan lava flows. Again, she's playing a little fast and loose with the data, picking and choosing which lava flows are involved. She seems to be in that class of scientist who, having taken a contrarian stand, must defend it with any piece of loosely-related data that comes along.

At the other end of the spectrum are the growing number of scientists who want to use impacts to account for everything that's ever happened. Remember the lesser extinction events I mentioned? One of those took place around 13,000 years ago, when the mammoths disappeared and humanity itself was hanging on for dear life. Generally, disease and/or climate change have been considered prime candidates in this event. Recently though, a new theory was tossed out that involved -- you guessed it -- an extraterrestrial object smashing into the planet.

Of late, even the great Permian extinction event was being bandied about as being related to an impact or impacts by meteors or comets, at least by the popular science media. So, in the spirit of Gerta Kellar, we have doctoral student Catherine Powers who has published a paper blaming the whole thing on -- wait for it-- the lava flows of the Siberian traps.

So, volcanism is the hot candidate (if you'll pardon the pun) in the extinction racket these days. In Ms. Powers case, though, I'd have to question just how original her research is. It seems that Dr.
Gerald K. Czamanske of the U.S. Geological Survey has also suggested the Siberian traps as a prime cause of the Permian kill-off. Except he did so in 1992.

I suppose Ms. Powers had some new data to expound, but it would have been nice if the article about her had made some mention of Dr. Czamanske's earlier work.

It would appear, then, that impacts are going out of style in favor of volcanic catastrophes when it comes to mass die-offs. In the case of the Permian, it never seemed like a likely cause since there was no tell-tale iridium layer like the one found at the end of the Cretaceous, although that never stopped anyone from suggesting the theory.

At some point, it will occur to scientists that they may have to admit that mass extinction is more complicated than any single-cause explanation will allow.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Virgin Not Looking So Galactic

Tussman's Law: Nothing is as inevitable as a mistake whose time has come.

Last week, I was offering an opinion about the planned spaceport in New Mexico. I mentioned that Virgin Galactic thought it could launch its high priced roller-coaster ride by 2009. It seems I was being overly optimistic. The Register reports that Virgin is now talking about a launch being "several years away" and that they are still awaiting the results of an investigation into the explosion during their static engine firing.

Let's see, this is 2007, the spaceport is supposed to be ready in 2010 (using $225 mil of New Mexico taxpayer dough), even though they haven't lifted a single shovelfull of dirt, and now the only outfit that will actually use the silly thing is talking about a launch being several years down the line.

Yes, I know, "several" can mean "three", but let's be realistic. In the context of a company that's taken in $20 million in ticket sales against an order for roughly $130 million of SpaceShipTwos that have not yet been successfully tested in any way, we're probably looking at a lot longer than 3 years.

I suspect that Sir Richard Branson, smooth operator that he is, doesn't really care if Virgin Galactic ever launches. In fact, he'd probably be better off if it never got off the ground. What he wanted was publicity in the same way that Pan Am got publicity for selling tickets for Moon flights after 2001:A Space Odyssey was released. I have no problem with that. My problem is with governments squandering public money to build a spaceport that has no customers.

And don't count on commercial ISS support any time soon. RocketPlane Kistler is on the rocks, having fired its CEO, usually a sign of serious trouble. NASA has given RpK notice that they won't be getting any more of that $207 million promised to them because they have failed to raise the $500 million in capital required. Note that we won't be getting back any of the $32 million RpK has squandered so far, and NASA is going to see if they can find another rathole to pour the remaining $175 million down.

Michael "we don't need no stinkin' science missions" Griffin, head of NASA, has apparently been talking out of both sides of his mouth, at one moment saying that RpK's failure doesn't hurt the COTS program while concluding a contract with the Russians to support the Orbiting Turkey.

This would all be pretty amusing if it didn't involve public funds and wasn't giving space exploration a black eye. Worse, the Chinese and Japanese are reinventing the wheel, or space craft, by planning manned lunar missions. So two Asian superpowers are squandering funds when, at the very least, they could be cooperating. Better yet, the U.S. and Russia could be cooperating with both of the Asian nations so that they wouldn't have to recreate technologies that have been around for nearly 40 years.

That would, of course, require an immense degree of common sense and a common plan, both of which have been completely absent from the arena of manned space flight.

Given the record of the current administration, we could hardly expect anything else.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

How to Put $225 Million to Good Use

Mos Eisley spaceport. You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. We must be cautious. ~ Obi-Wan Kenobi

Newspapers and news web sites are notorious for misleading headlines, and this one is no exception:

What one learns slogging through the article is that the New Mexico Spaceport Authority unveiled a design for a spaceport that might be ready in 2010 for a presumed flight of Virgin Galactic's high-priced roller coaster. Of that ride, we have only heard of a test firing explosion at a "desert spaceport." That little setback hasn't dampened the hubris at Virgin Galactic, which thinks it can still launch from somewhere by 2009.

Also mentioned in the article is how this spaceport that looks like a Xylon ship from Battlestar Gallactica is going to cost New Mexico taxpayers $225 million dollars. I suppose this could be worse; the taxpayers could be shelling out for some domed stadium for some multi-millionaire baseball team owner. Certainly, it's not unusual for tax dollars to go to pay for airline terminals or other transportation stations, but a spaceport for joyriding wealthy celebrities seems like a dubious way to spend state funds.

As long as we're in the twilight zone, we should take note of the latest scheme to protect us against near-earth-objects that could crash into our planet. This bit of brilliance involves using mirrors to focus sunlight on the asteroid to melt rock and cause the object to change its course. This is reminiscent of a similar idea floated on a science/space program on the Discovery axis of channels some months ago. And it has the same problems.

First of all, trying to keep the mirrors focused on a single spot or spots is going to be difficult beyond words. Second, it would take months of this focusing to deflect the rock sufficiently to miss the Earth. We may not get months of warning. In fact, most likely we won't. New NEO's are found regularly, generally when they're passing very close to us. If they were on a collision course with, say, Detroit, it would be way too late to do anything about it.

The problem is that no one has really come up with a good means for deflecting large rocks with evil intentions from their orbits. We also don't have a way to smash them to smithereens that wouldn't end up with rather large smithereens smashing into various places on the planet.

I don't know the answer to this problem, but I do know that we should get very serious about finding a method of protecting ourselves. Given the history of impacts on Earth, we're way overdue for something to come along and ruin our collective day.

Maybe we should be spending our $225 million dollars on trying to save our necks rather than build spaceports for ships that may never get off the ground.

Monday, October 01, 2007

The Orbiting Turkey

The International Space Station is an orbital turkey. ~ Steven Weinberg

Last night, I was watching 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was on Turner Classic Movies. Now, I've watched the Odyssey movies and have read all the novels right through 3001. I have enjoyed the books and the movies and have the greatest respect for Arthur Clarke, their creator. However, something has always bugged me about the first movie
. The best way to explain what it is that bothers me is to give specifics.
  • The moon base is the size of Detroit. Okay, maybe not, but it is huge. Even in 1968, it was hard to imagine, when we hadn't even landed on the moon yet, that we would be able to launch massive amounts of people and materials to build such a huge structure.

  • The landing pad on the moon is totally impractical. It's bad enough that you have this immense dome that opens by splitting into wedges which go down into the ground. Once the ship lands, it's lowered down a multi-story elevator into some area which, presumably is flooded with air. How they deal with the amounts of air they would lose every time they did this is beyond me. In fact, why do you need a dome and an elevator? How about we land, extend a flexible airlock (or send a vehicle to the ship that has its own airlock system), and let everyone come in?

  • The space station is monumental in size, although it fits the design most people thought would be used: a circular station that would rotate to provide an illusion of gravity. The method of landing the ship on the station, spinning the space ship at the same rate as the station rotates is just silly.

  • The titanic space ship Discovery I is nearly at Jupiter 18 months from a standing start, which includes planning the mission, building the ship, and training a crew.
So there was some silly technology on display, but the main thing is that the level of progress in space technology Clarke envisioned occurring in 33 years was beyond belief.

Now, I'm sure Clarke did not imagine that, once we had landed on the moon, the U.S. and the Soviet Union would promptly decide that we didn't need to be doing that anymore. In fact, Clarke hints in 2001 and outright says in 2010 that the U.S. and Soviets are partners in space. Of course, by 2010 they're at each other's throats politically (even though they can get together to send another mission to Jupiter), but all that gets fixed when Jupiter becomes a star.

At the rate things are going in Russia these days, we may be needing that alien assistance by 2010.

However, this discussion isn't about failed foreign policies, it's about space. More particularly, it's about Clarke's vision versus the fact of the monstrosity that is the International Space Station. What really got me thinking about this was Dr. Steven Weinberg's withering attack on the ISS. Steven Weinberg is nobody's dummy. He is a Nobel Prize winner, who deals in cosmology, particle physics, and astrophysics, among other things.

It so happens I agree with his criticisms, but coming from me, such sentiments don't carry much weight. That's why it's nice to see a Nobel Laureate speaking out. One can take exception to his statement that "Human beings don't serve any useful function in space", but the way we approach space exploration it's hard to find fault with that. People in space should mean colonization, moving outward from planet Earth, not babysitting some hunk of machinery that doesn't really seem to have much of a purpose.

In the fifties and the sixties, futurists were imagining the building a significant structures in space as platforms to launch colonization efforts and as science platforms. Now, in the 21st century, we still can't do real construction in space. Every module has to be sent up as a finished product and Tinker-Toy(R) attached to the mess that's already there.

So we've got a cobbled-together collection of modules that hold three people whose main job seems to be to just keep the thing working.

That's the crux of Dr. Weinberg's tirade. Science is being sacrificed for an ISS that hasn't generated anything of use. Even the late, lamented SkyLab returned a ton of information on the behavior of the Sun. ISS hasn't generated a single significant piece of science during its entire tenure.

What's worse, funds for science that could lead to finding us a new place to live someday is being sacrificed to spend gobs of money planning missions to the Moon and Mars that will, in all likelihood, never happen. Given the current state of affairs in the U.S. and Russian space programs, it's probable that China will be on the Moon long before anyone else. Worse, they will have wasted huge amounts of money re-inventing technology that NASA had in the 1960's.

Of course, NASA is doing the same thing now, with COTS and Orion.

The problem is that no one has a vision of what space is about. Precious resources are being wasted on building tourist rides or to have private companies suck up federal funds to build space ships comparable to those built 30 to 40 years ago. Well, some companies are sucking up funds; at least one is getting kicked out of the trough. Hopefully, some others will follow, given some of the definitions of "success" we've heard bandied about.

What we desperately need is a plan that involves all the potential space-faring nations, and that plan needs to put science first. If some yahoo wants to spend his own billions to sell roller coaster rides to the lower edge of space to rich folks with a few hundred thousand dollars to spend to throw up, that's fine. But get out of the way of real progress. And leave my tax dollars alone.

The real question is what to do with the white elephant of near space, the ISS. It seems like a prodigious waste to bring it down (which would be no easy or cheap task). The trouble is that, as it is progressing, there seems to be little it will ever do but require a crew to keep it afloat. Perhaps the solution is to attach a booster to it and send it into the Sun. I don't know.

I do know this, though. Until we have an idea of what we are doing in space, we need to spend our time on science missions learning as much as we can. That science just might help guide us to make smarter decisions about what role human beings really have out there.

Of course, we'll need some smarter human beings making the decisions first.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Inflated Darkness

Louise: How did you get here?
Johnny: Well, basically, there was this little dot, right? And the dot went bang and the bang expanded. Energy formed into matter, matter cooled, matter lived, the amoeba to fish, to fish to fowl, to fowl to frog, to frog to mammal, the mammal to monkey, to monkey to man, amo amas amat, quid pro quo, memento mori, ad infinitum, sprinkle on a little bit of grated cheese and leave under the grill till Doomsday. ~From the movie Naked

Dark matter continues to spawn endless ideas about what it might be. It's not like dark energy, which is still a debatable entity. There has been indirect observational evidence of the effects of dark matter on distant galaxies; the Hubble Space Telescope has been used to attempt to map it's distribution. So we've got something that seems to exist, but we don't know what is, and we can't see it because, well, it's dark. But that certainly doesn't stop scientists from coming up with new theories about what it might be.

Lately, thinking seems to have sprung up liking dark matter and inflation. "Inflation" is an event that was theorized by Alan Guth to try to explain some puzzling contradictions in the Big Bang theory. According to Dr. Guth, soon after the Big Bang (we're talking very, very small time units here), the baby Universe underwent a sudden expansion, which he called inflation. His theory has become fundamental to the Big Bang theory, so there are always researchers attempting to gain a greater understanding of what the event might have been like and what the overall consequences of it might have been and might be continuing to be.

One group is thinking that inflation may have spawned or been spawned by an immense number of primordial black holes (PBH's, not to be confused with Scott Adams' PHB). The time immediately after the Big Bang is point when matter and energy were compressed enormously, which is an ideal way to get black holes. The PHB's, excuse me, PBH's then, could have been a contributory cause to inflation. Conversely, the inflation event itself could have caused the PBH's to form. Either way, the question becomes, "What happened to the PBH's?"

One answer is that they may have evaporated, due to something called Hawking Radiation. Basically, as the black hole sits there, it gives off a small amount of radiation, which eventually leads to the black hole evaporating away. Given the amount of time since the Big Bang, it would seem that most, if not all, of the PBH's could have simply fizzed into nothingness.

However, if there are any, they would be small but exceedingly massive, which would make them a nice candidate for being dark matter.

But, why have one theory when you can have two? Another scientist has decided that inflation was caused by a heretofore unknown particle called the inflaton. The inflaton, conveniently enough, has "weird properties we don't see in everyday particles." Even more conveniently, inflatons don't interact with normal matter, which is why we haven't found any of them lying around behind the sofa. Best of all, they do interact with each other, producing high energy radiation which might be detectable, if we find some radiation for which we have no other explanation. In the meantime, all these inflatons floating around unattached, undetectable, and noninteracting make a nice candidate for -- you guessed it-- dark matter.


Miniature black holes have been raised as a possible source for the Universe's missing mass before, so a theory that demonstrates a possible source for large numbers of them has some credibility. On the other hand, invoking mysterious particles that are completely different from anything else and conveniently explain some things by their presence is pretty shaky stuff. It's another Phlogiston theory on a cosmological scale.

Far be it for me to criticize real scientists working out new theories. Even the inflaton theory took someone a lot of time and effort to think up. But, dark matter is strange enough without invoking a particle we can't detect directly. It's especially shaky in that it seems to ignore the fact that dark matter is (evidently) exerting gravitational effects on very visible matter, which I would call "interacting."

On the other hand, dark matter has to be pretty weird stuff to begin with, so who knows? Maybe inflatons are a candidate. Personally, though, I'd be more inclined to accept PBH's.

Or maybe even PHB's.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Fifty Years in Space

All right. Let's get on with it!— T. Keith Glennan, first NASA administrator, regarding the space program, 7 October 1958

How time flies when you're having fun.

The ESA's Venus Express has been slinging itself around Venus for over 500 days. Cassini was launched 10 years ago in October and has been sending back goodies from Saturn for over three years. The Mars Rovers are into the 44th month of their 90 day mission.

But, these guys, amazing that they are, are pikers.

The Voyager probes are thirty years old this month and still going strong. which isn't bad for a mission that was supposed to last 5 years. Currently, they're the long-distance record holders for objects launched by human beings.

For pure longevity, Pioneer 10 takes the prize, still barely functioning. For a long time, Pioneer 10 and 11 were the distance champs, but the faster Voyager vehicles passed them a few years ago. The Pioneers have also posed a puzzle to scientists because they don't seem to be where they should be. All sorts of ideas have been proposed for why this is, including something wrong with the theory of gravity (why won't these guys leave Einstein alone?), but it seems that opinion is moving toward more mundane causes, such as dust, heat from the nuclear power sources, and collisions with alien vessels. Okay, I made the last one up, but it makes more sense than saying that theories of gravity need "tinkering".

Planetary exploration began to take center stage when the Pioneers sent back their grainy pictures of Jupiter and Saturn. I say "grainy", but those shots were amazing stuff when they came back. They represented a leap in our technological abilities. When the Voyagers arrived at the outer planets, we were again stunned by the information sent back, and a new generation of planetary astronomers began to yearn for more. Thus came Gallileo and Cassini.

The wonder of it all is that the more we learn the more we want to know.

But, if you want a truly epochal event, you have to look at October 4, 1957, the day the Soviet Union launched Sputnik.

It's hard to believe that it's been fifty years since the American public was shocked out of its post-war complacency to find a basketball-sized hunk of electronics circling the Earth. Our own attempts at building ballistic missiles had been feeble by comparison with the various military services each doing their own thing. In an attempt to save face, the Navy rushed a launch of it's Vanguard rocket, tipped with a little orbiter. The entire world was able to watch on television as the missile rose a few feet only to come crashing down and explode in a massive fireball.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower was not amused. While the military struggled to get something launched (the Army eventually launched Explorer on a Jupiter-C, a modified Redstone missle), Ike decided that the only way we were going to succeed in space was to have a central agency calling the shots; thus was NASA born. He also noticed that what space program we did have was completely dependent on a bunch of German rocket scientists that came to the U.S. after WWII. Obviously, we needed to do something to get our educational system so we could produce our own technically competent people.

And produce them we did. What they produced changed not only spaceflight but the world in which we live.

Take computers as a simple example. It is now popular to bad-mouth the computers that the Apollo astronauts had to guide them to the Moon and back. What people choose to forget is that these machines were beyond state of the art when it came to miniaturization and computing ability. When you use your MP3 player or pull out you slim little laptop and connect wirelessly to the Internet, you utilizing the fruits of that "primitive" computer.

Without the space program, I wonder if technology ever would have advanced to the stage it's reached today.

All that technology has been great (for the most part), but the real reward has been the knowledge gained. We've learned more about how our own planet works by discovering phenomena on other worlds. And we have the continuing opportunity to search for life somewhere other than Earth.

Perhaps the most amazing thing is that, instead of competing with other countries to do this, many nations have come together to work cooperatively. Unfortunately, this hasn't extended to returning to the moon, where, once again, it's every country for itself. Hopefully, at some point, the successes in planetary exploration and even the clunky old ISS will convince the holdouts that cooperation is a good thing.

The upside is limitless.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Another Hole in Dark Energy?

Great scientific discoveries have been made by men seeking to verify quite erroneous theories about the nature of things. ~Aldous Huxley

Dark energy is beginning to bug people.

I've written quite a bit about dark energy because it's one of those hot topics these days. A lot of theories depend on its existence . A lot of theories, though, depended on the Newtonian view of gravity, which works very well on local scales but doesn't work too well at very large scales. It took an Einstein to explain the real nature of gravity, and his views continue to be upheld by observational evidence. But Einstein even had what he considered to be a wayward turn, which was the introduction of the cosmological constant. The constant was put into his Field Equation to keep the universe in a static state. When Edwin Hubble determined that the universe was indeed not static but expanding, Einstein happily removed the constant, calling it his "greatest mistake."

As time has gone on, scientists have come to the uncomfortable realization that we don't understand everything we should about the universe's makeup. In particular, some of it seems to be invisible. Dark matter, the original candidate for the missing stuff, has been inferred from numerous observations, although the observations have not yielded consistent results about the behavior of the mysterious stuff.

After a while, it seemed that dark matter, which we didn't understand fully, didn't account for enough of the gravitational effects observed, including what appeared to be an acceleration of the expansion of the universe (which ought to be slowing down according to conventional Big Bang theory). Enter dark energy, something we understand even less than we understand dark matter, which we barely understand at all.

Dark energy is not sitting well with a lot of cosmologists, I think. The most recent attack on dark energy comes from a group of scientists who have created the "Swiss Cheese" model of the universe. That name is going to need some work, I think.

Anyway, this model says that the universe is not as homogeneous as we think it is. The standard model these days, backed up by limited observational evidence, says the the universe is relatively uniform in scales up to 100 million light years or so. However, new data indicates that space is "hokey" (to quote the article) on scales of 500 million light years. In other worlds, there be empty spaces in our universe.

It turns out that this wreaks hob with the standard model of the universe.

It hasn't helped the dark energy folks that, almost perfectly timed with the other announcement, comes word that a bored scientist found a billion-light-year void in the universe. You may have seen this story with such lurid headlines as "VAST HOLE IN UNIVERSE FOUND!!", a headline the late, lamented Weekly World News would have been proud to publish. The void is not, of course, a "hole", but an area where there is an absence of matter and energy. I mentioned a bored scientist because the discovery was made because a team making observations at the Very Large Array in New Mexico decided on morning to take a break from what they were doing to point the array of radio telescopes at an anomalous area in the WMAP mapping of cosmic background radiation.

What they found was nothing, but nothing on a grand scale.

Dark energy is annoying, I think, because it's sort of a deus ex machina, even more so than dark matter. Just as the cosmological constant bothered Einstein because it was artificial, dark energy comes across as an artificial construct to explain something where the standard model breaks down. It's not that there isn't mysterious energy in the universe. For example, quantum theory predicts the existence of vacuum energy, a churning turmoil of particles that wink in and out of existence. This has been mentioned as a possible source of dark energy, but no where near the predicted values for observable dark energy have been found.

Dark energy is also seductive just because it's a repulsive force, in other words, anti-gravity. Somewhere in the back of many minds is the idea, I'm sure, that this mysterious force, once identified, could somehow be harnessed to give us those mysterious propulsion sytems that power the Enterprise around the galaxy. Just add a little dilithium, and we're good to go.

Einstein never liked the cosmological constant. Despite countless attempts over the years to knock elements of General and Special Relativity down, the theories keep ringing true, with its testable predictions being upheld by observational evidence. Yet here are scientists trying to put the constant back to make dark energy fit standard model.

Maybe old Albert was right. If he was, scientists need to look elsewhere to fix their models.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Playing the Odds

Personally, I don't think there's intelligent life on other planets. Why should other planets be any different from this one? ~ Bob Monkhouse

When last we met, I was rambling on about how life on other worlds might come in unexpected forms. That got me to thinking about the odds of intelligent life occurring at all and Frank Drake's equation. Think about how we got here.

Planet Earth formed around 4.5 billion years ago. Somewhere along the line, after Earth had oceans and possible life, an object the size of Mars probably came along and smacked into the Earth, destroying any life that was around. On the other hand, the collision (according to the most popular theory these days) gave us our moon, which had a number of salutary effects, the most important of which was to stabilize Earth's wobbling about its axis. This stability lengthens climatic cycles, giving life forms a better chance to get going.

So, on Earth Mark II, life arose again. For an incredibly long time, all the planet had was microbial life and blue-green algae. This stuff may have had to survive a planet-wide ice age. Had any land-based life been around (and there's no evidence there was), it would have been wiped out by such an event, leaving the planet to the microbes again. Eventually, Earth thawed out, and life finally exploded (for reasons that no one has ever been able to explain) in an event called the pre-Cambrian Explosion.

Things were pretty good until the Permian extinction. This event, possibly related to immense volcanic activity, wiped out 95% of the life around at the time. Life is tenacious, though, and gradually made a comeback. Mass extinctions came and went until about 220 million years ago (give or take) when the dinosaurs showed up and had a 165 million year run.

The dinosaurs went extinct thanks most probably to a combination of climatic change, possibly induced by another bout of volcanic activity, and a big honking meteor strike in Mexico about 65 million years ago. Now think about that for a minute. It took around 60 million years for our primate ancestors to show up, but once we did, we made pretty quick strides to getting smart. The dinosaurs were around almost three times as long and evidently never got beyond the clever carnivore stage.

It is, of course, possible that there were actually intelligent dinosaurs that built some sort of civilization. After 65 million years there isn't much chance that you're going to find signs of settlements or pottery fragments. It's hard enough to locate stuff like that from 5000 years ago. Not finding big-brained dinosaurs is no absolute proof either, considering how difficult it is to find ancient hominids. Let's face it: Intelligent beings are crunchy and taste good to carnivores (with or without ketchup).

So, even if you can liberate yourself from being a carbon-based chauvinist and imagine all sorts of exotic life forms, intelligent life seems to be a more difficult thing to come by, even if it breathes methane. So, how does this impact Drakes' Equation?

Based on current information, it appears that planets are a pretty common event. While we haven't found many Earth-like planets, our method of search tends to find the big weird gas giants more easily than it finds good candidates for life. I know I'm saying we should accept the idea of strange life forms, but intelligent life appears to need some sort of planetary stability. Gas giants whirling around their stars close enough to be boiling or in eccentric orbits that send them from freezing voids to blistering passes by their alien suns are not going to be likely habits for technological civilizations.

On the other hand, given the tenacity of living things like microbes and simple creatures, based solely on our sample of one planet (Earth), it's likely that life occurring is quite common. It may not be very common, though, that it ever gets intelligent enough to build radio telescopes.

If you refer back to the article linked above, then, it appears that the factors for the existence of planets and life arising at least once are probably pretty close to one, as shown in the second set of variables. The trouble occurs when you consider the proportion where intelligent life arises and builds a technological civilization. The number in both examples is 0.01, which leads to 1,000,000 (in the second example) as the number of planets in our galaxy with intelligent life.

Frankly, that sounds pretty high.

Given all the ways that life can be extinguished (not counting those that intelligent beings would inflict on themselves), it would seem that the intelligent life factor should be much smaller. How much? I have no idea, but reducing it from 10-2 to 10-6 would not seem to be unreasonable. That would release the number of intelligent civilizations from potentially 1,000,000 to 100 in the entire Milky Way galaxy.

And it's a big galaxy.

Now that doesn't mean that we should quit looking for life, because the odds favor finding some sort of living things out there. The odds might even favor finding creatures that walk around on land surfaces and eat each other, just like they did hear for eons. Just finding that sort of life would be a intellectually stunning event. People would have to come to grips with the fact that the universe is not here just for us.

It also doesn't mean that we should quit looking for intelligent life. Aside from the fact that my numbers could be so much smoke, even if I'm right we could still have someone in our neighborhood. Making contact with some alien civilization would send shockwaves throughout our immensely self-centered societies.

I look at it this way, though. It's difficult to know how many Earth-like planets there are out there, but it's likely that they won't be inhabited by anyone who is going to be put out by a bunch of strangers showing up from another planet. It means that humanity has a chance to survive future disasters like those that have wiped out life before by going to the stars and colonizing other systems. Assuming that we don't obliterate ourselves through our own collective stupidity (no sure thing), our descendants could even survive the death of the our sun by going to another star system.

It's nice to know we have options.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Life As We Don't Know It

The fancy that extraterrestrial life is by definition of a higher order than our own is one that soothes all children, and many writers. ~ Joan Didion

If a group of reasonably science-aware folks were forced to list the Big Questions in science, we might come up with a disparate listing, but there are two questions that I suspect would make everyone's list. First is the origin of the universe. Probably every human being who ever lived has pondered this question because we all want to know where we came from. Even the most fundamentalist Jew, Muslim, and Christian have at some time in their lives considered alternative ideas for this greatest of all events.

The other question that would make everyone's list is whether life exists elsewhere in that same universe. Of course, the dream of many (and nightmare of some) is that we might someday find a species with which we can communicate (something we don't so well with each other), but most of us would be perfectly happy to find some tiny microbes wriggling about in the sands of some distant world.

In recent years, the question has become less theoretical because, as we launch more and more satellites and probes, we find more and more tantalizing hints that life could exist on other worlds in our own solar system. The possibilities have generated a lot of discussion of late.

For instance, a German scientists by the name of Joop Houtkooper has announced that the Viking Landers, which arrived on Mars in 1976, may have found life after all. He says the lander data shows signs of hydrogen peroxide. His little bugs would have been filled with a combination of hydrogen peroxide and water, providing them with a natural anti-freeze. As much as 0.1% of Martian soil could be of biological origin, a ratio comparable to what one finds in Antarctica, where, last I checked, it's bloody cold.

Of course, other scientists disagree, but there arguments are based pretty much on the old "life on Earth doesn't work like that." They also base their opinions on the gas chromatograph results. The trouble with that is that some intrepid scientists have determined that the GCMS may not been accurately set up for the conditions on Mars. They based their opinion on the fact that the instrument was unable to find life on another planet -- Earth.

As someone once put it (it may have been Carl Sagan), it would have been so much easier if a Martian giraffe had walked by the cameras. Or if the rovers would send back a snap like this:

Life is also more tenacious than we generally credit. One of the continuing objections to life on Mars is that it's bathed in radiation (besides being colder than an intergalactic welldigger's ankles). That sounds like a real killer until you remember that the Apollo 12 crew brought back a camera full of terrestrial microbes from an old Surveyor probe, microbes that were resuscitated. Some scientists think the contamination occurred after the camera was returned, but, considering that we keep finding life on Earth where we aren't supposed to find it (salt flats, suboceanic smokers, and so on), the possibility that microbes can survive the harshest conditions is certainly not far-fetched.

The problem is that most people tend to think of "life as we know it." That is, life should be carbon- and water-based. Intelligent life should be bipedal with binocular eyes. Well, that's life as we know it. Except that some very intelligent life on Earth (whales and dolphins) is not bipedal. If we can be that far off for life we see all the time, how wrong might we be about other life forms?

Recently it seems that scientists are trying to think outside the carbon-based box. Maybe DNA is not the be-all and end-all. Maybe Titan holds ammonia-based bugs. And maybe inorganic compounds can generate life. Perhaps Spock's green blood isn't so unlikely after all (well, it might be, since it would make for an inefficient transfer of oxygen).

The point is that scientists are beginning to speculate about life as we don't know it. That opens a major can of worms (or microbes) because it raises a thorny question. If we're looking for life as we don't know it, how will we know it when we find it? It means we need to reconsider the factors that make something "alive".
And, if we aren't sure of what's alive, can we be sure we would recognize intelligence if we saw it? (Insert sarcastic joke here.) Most people expect that intelligent beings will have artifacts, cities, spoken language, and so on. But what if we came across a highly intelligent group of ... well, whatever... that communicated through color, perhaps in ranges like the ultraviolet, that we can't even see.

The Discovery-Science axis did some imaginative programs a while back speculating on life on other worlds. They did seem to be fascinated by creatures that floated, but if you can get beyond that, the flights of fancy taken by the scientists involved showed that entirely alien ecosystems could operate logically. And they stayed within the carbon and water framework.

I suspect that we're going to find strong evidence of life within my lifetime (assuming I don't get run over by a truck tomorrow). It may be microbial, it may be swimming in the oceans of Europa, or it may be breathing methane and crawling around on Titan. But, I do think we'll find something.

I just hope we'll recognize it when we find it.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Phlogiston Effect

All science is either physics or stamp collecting. ~ Ernest Rutherford

When I was in college, I wanted to be a physicist. There were two reasons for this. First, physics is the crown jewel of the sciences. If you don't think that's true, just ask a physicist. Second, physics is the science of everything. If you don't believe that, just think about how may disciplines have "physics" in their title, like geophysics, astrophysics, and biophysics. Modern chemistry is dependent on quantum theory, as is electronics, and who came up with quantum theory? Why, physicists, of course.

Regrettably, the physics thing didn't work out. As someone once said (or should have said), "Those who can, do. Those who can't do, teach. Those who can't teach, kibbitz."

Since physics is the study of nearly everything, it is might seem natural that physicists would be obsessed with a theory that encompasses everything. In fact, until the early twentieth century, that didn't seem to be much of a concern. But, early in the century, Einstein came out of the woodwork with a flock of papers that culminated in his Special and General Theories of Relativity. In an incredible burst of genius, Einstein tied together electromagnetism, gravity, time, and mass-energy equivalence (among other things) into one unified whole. It was beautiful.

Then, along came the Copenhagen Gang, with guys like Wolfgang Pauli, Werner Heisenberg, and Paul Dirac, led by that Einsteinian arch-nemesis, Niels Bohr, dragging their quantum theory in with them. Okay, they weren't really a gang (nor did they all come from Copenhagen), but given Einstein's antipathy to quantum theory, one can imagine his having a view of them in black leather jackets. What upset Einstein was that while Relativity portrays a deterministic, predictable view of the universe, quantum theory depicted a world of uncertainties in which only probabilities could be assigned to any event.

(Ironically, the theory Einstein despised derived its name from a term Einstein invented, the quantum, to describe the photon's discrete packets.)

Now, no one disputed that Relativity worked extremely well on large scales, but even Einstein was forced to admit that it failed in the realm of the very small, at atomic levels. Quantum theory, on the other hand, while describing the atomic world well, collapses into ordinary Newtonian and Einsteinian behavior at large scales. Einstein spent much of his life searching for a theory to unify the nuclear and the relativistic forces into one theory, the Grand Unified Theory (GUT), or, as it has become colloquially known, the Theory of Everything.

Einstein failed, but it hasn't stopped everyone in physics from trying ever since. There is a dream physicists have that there is a formula that somehow brings together Einstein's Field Equation (the famous one with the cosmological constant) and quantum theory. It would be short, succinct, and fit on a physicist's business card.

The dream is still unfulfilled. String theory has been touted until we're all tired of it as the road to GUT. The one or two of you who have read this blog before know how I feel about that. Briefly, string theory is an outrageously complicated way to explain things that have already been explained while not really predicting anything on its own. Despite periodic pronouncements over the last few years by string theory advocates, string theory hasn't succeeded in doing any better job of explaining what's going on than standard quantum theory does. And, despite our ability to use quantum mechanics to describe what goes on and make predictions of what will happen in the subatomic universe, there are too many uncertainties (not of the quantum type) for scientists to reconcile that universe with the big one all around us.

It turns out that we don't understand the big universe all that well, either. For example, over the years, we've come to realize that the observable universe doesn't have enough mass. At one time, it was thought that 75% of the universe was unaccounted for; the number is now around 95%. To try to explain this anomalous situation, physicists and astronomers came up with "dark matter", a sort of ... something...that we can't see, can't describe, but can observer...sort of ...indirectly.

When dark matter failed to account for all the observations, a new element, dark energy was invoked. Now it's felt that most of what we can't find is actually dark energy. Except that we don't know what that is, either. It also turns out that what little we thought we knew about dark matter may be wrong now, too.

Which brings me to Phlogiston.

Back in the days of alchemy, one of the many things that puzzled those practitioners was the business of combustion. Take a piece of would and set it on fire. After a while, you've got a pile of ashes that don't look anything like the wood we started out with. Obviously, something interesting was going on here. So, back in the 18th century or thereabouts, the alchemists decided that everything had something called Phlogiston in it. When you burned ("dephlogistonized") a thing, the Phlogiston was given off and what was left, the ashes, were the real substance of the burned object. As to Phlogiston itself, it was colorless, odorless, tasteless, and weightless. Note that if you left off "weightless", you'd have a pretty good definition of dark matter.

Matters stood this way until Lavoisier demonstrated the actual nature of combustion, demonstrating that it was, in fact, rapid oxidation. Yet, prominent thinkers like Priestly resisted the oxygen hypothesis in favor of Phlogiston. It took some years (and the passing of some of the more prominent doubters) for Lavoisier's work to become fully accepted.

Phlogiston was an attempt to explain something we didn't understand, but it was an improvement over invoking superstition and myth. It was an attempt to bring scientific methodology to bear, albeit in an early, halting way, in studying a phenomenon. Today we're much more knowledgeable and sophisticated. We've got geniuses like Hawking, Thorne, Guth, following in the paths of Einstein, Feynman and others. But, for all their brilliance, we're still peeking out into a vast universe (and into a vast quantum world) and trying to figure out what the Phlogiston is. That's not a bad thing. Knowing what you don't know is a big step toward knowing it.

You'll have to excuse me now. I think my dinner is beginning to dephlogistonize.

Postscript: After I thought about the cute Phlogiston angle, I did a little web searching and found someone
else had this clever idea. I wasn't surprised; with a bazillion people blogging out there, it was inevitable that someone else would have heard of Phlogiston and linked it to dark matter. At least I was wordier about it. Whether that's a good thing is open to debate.

Friday, August 17, 2007

A Mathematical Certainty?

Why is there air? ... Any phys ed major knows why there's air. There's air to blow up volleyballs, to blow up basketballs. You guys call ME dumb ... ~ William H. Cosby Jr., Ed. D.

Sometimes I have trouble deciding where to start on a piece, and this is one of those times. I guess the thing to do is to quote from John Tierney's New York Times article:

"In fact, if you accept a pretty reasonable assumption of Dr. [Nick] Bostrom’s, it is almost a mathematical certainty that we are living in someone else’s computer simulation."

Take special note of the words "mathematical certainty". Later in the same article:

"Dr. Bostrom doesn’t pretend to know which of these hypotheses is more likely, but he thinks none of them can be ruled out. 'My gut feeling, and it’s nothing more than that,” he says, “is that there’s a 20 percent chance we’re living in a computer simulation.'"My gut feeling is that the odds are better than 20 percent, maybe better than even."

Dr. Nick Bostrum is a philosopher at Oxford University. He has written a paper speculating that there's some chance (his "gut feeling" of 20%) that our lives could, in fact, be a supercomputer simulation being played by some highly evolved "posthuman." Mr. Tierney is either the most brilliant satirist I've ever read or someone with a tenuous grip on reality. Taking a 20% "gut feeling" and turning it into "mathematical certainty" would suggest the latter.

I have nothing against philosophy; in fact, I'm a big fan of Aristotle, Kierkegaard, Kant, and Sartre (Plato can go suck eggs). When I attended Case Tech (no, Aristotle was not a Scholar-in-Residence), the school made us take a course in the humanities each semester in an attempt to keep us from turning into total geek vegetables. I took several philosophy courses over 4 1/2 years (don't ask), so, while I'm no licensed philosopher, I am familiar with the concepts.

Dr. Bostrum's argument sounds suspiciously like a combination of several questions that are put to freshman philosophy students.

1. Are there minds other than my own? Alternatively, is this reality actually someone else's dream? Discussing the nature of reality is an important philosophical concept, leading to questions on morality, the meaning of existence, and how we relate to others. However, the questions as phrased above are lightweight and lead to some pretty silly arguments. I always felt, for example, that if we were in someone else's dream, we'd keep showing up for important occasions (like final exams) totally unprepared and naked.

2. Does God exist? Back in the sixties, this was generally a civil but useless discussion; today, I'm sure that some philosophy classrooms have descended into warfare. The problem here is that there is no "proof" either way, because all arguments for God are based on faith (the Bible, miracles, and so on) or the "cosmic watchmaker" principle of "the world (universe) is too complicated to have come about by accident, so there must be a Creator." Attempting to disprove the existence of God is almost meaningless as well, since negative proofs are notoriously difficult to make into solid arguments. Note that considering the existence of God is not the same as contemplating the nature of God, which is a much more important field of discussion.

In one fell swoop, Dr. Bostrum has lumped these rather specious questions together, postulating a "designer" who is running ancestral simulations and presumably still living in his mother's basement. Mr. Tierney runs with this, contemplating nested simulations, the first of which is created by the "Prime Designer" or, as most of us call him, God.

Frankly, this stuff is pretty rank sophistry, probably more on Mr. Tierney's part than on Dr. Bostrum's. Aside from a silly restating of freshman-level philosophy questions, the whole discussion presupposes behavior in the future will be the same as behavior now. A computer powerful enough to create an entire universe, complete with life-forms, buried fossils, climate effects, black holes, and on and on won't be here in fifty years, despite Mr. Tierney's vague citation of "some computer experts". Impressive 3-D graphics do not the creation of an entire simulated universe make. So we are looking in some dim and distance future (despite Mr. Tierney's statement that the time doesn't matter) and assuming that entities that are most likely very different from us are still into video games.

Even Dr. Bostrum hedges his bets, saying, "T
his kind of posthuman might have other ways of having fun, like stimulating their pleasure centers directly." Or perhaps they'll be fond of going outside and playing baseball. Either way, it's no sure thing that they'll amuse themselves creating simulations of their ancestors.

There are two things that are especially disturbing about this entire discussion. First, if this is the state of philosophical thought today, we're in trouble. Philosophers have become as vapid as reality TV. Second, Mr. Tierney's article appears in the Science section of the paper. That's frightening because the average web-dolt who stumbles across this is going to take it as science instead of sophistry. It'll turn up on Digg and Slashdot (it's already been on Fark), it'll be Wiki-ed, it may even end up on legitimate science sites (Scientific American bloggers dote on this sort of thing).

Before you know it, politicians will be saying that a 20% chance of something is "a mathematical certainty" because if it's in the New York Times, well, then it's a fact.

May the Prime Designer protect us from sophists and those who think they make sense.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

The Innovators

Anthropology is the science which tells us that people are the same the whole world over - except when they are different. ~ Nancy Banks Smith

The anthropologists certainly have been busy of late. For beginners, Kenyan scientists recently unveiled some Homo Erectus skulls. What made them noteworthy is that they were the first female Erectus examples ever found. The other thing that made them interesting is how small they were. The implication is that Erectus may have been more ape-like than previously thought. The female skulls were also found in a lower (older) layer than a Homo Habilis jawbone, which would seem to indicated that rather than Erectus having been a descendant of Habilis, Erectus and Habilis coexisted, probably descended from a common ancestor.

A new DNA study gives strength to the long-standing theory that modern humans came out of Africa as a new species and is not related to Neanderthals or "hobbits". The skulls mentioned above do nothing to change that idea. The DNA analysis shows that differences between human populations can mostly be defined by distance from Africa.

So, "out of Africa" is confirmed, but Erectus falls in terms of modernity. The latter is interesting in that Erectus was considered to be an innovator in the realm of tools. Now, being more primitive doesn't lessen that possibility, but it may help to explain why Erectus made that one innovation then seemingly never made another.

The idea of innovation brings to a new theory of Neanderthal intelligence. An archaeologist in England has decided that the archetypal caveman was a better innovator and more adaptive than previously thought. The article, perhaps unfairly to the scientist, doesn't really explain how he builds his case about more innovation. The data I've read seems to indicate that, yes, Neanderthal did come up with some new ways of doing things, but, after 300,000 years, he was still using the same methods. Like Erectus, Neandethal came up with some good ideas early on, but he never came up with any more.

As to Neanderthal's adaptability, it is certainly correct that he was able to deal with the colder climates better than his neighbor Heidelbergensus, but it is debatable as to whether new climatic changes 40,000 years ago didn't contribute to his decline.

Neanderthal certainly wasn't anywhere near as innovative as early Homo Sapiens. As Sapiens came out of Africa in that last wave, he demonstrated a near passion for invention. New spear points, improved hunting techniques, farming all came from Homo Sapiens drive to change the world around him. And don't forget art. It was Sapiens who started wearing decorative shells which they painted and modified.

In fact, there is one scientist, Nicholas Conrad, who thinks he knows exactly where and when the explosion of art occurred. It was 40,000 years ago in Swabia. Swabia is located between France, Switzerland, and Bavaria, and Conrad has found carvings, decorative things, and even a flute, none of which, he claims have been found in layers as early as these finds.

Conrad's theory (reported in the September/October issue of Archaeology Magazine, the article is not online at this writing) is controversial in that it tries to pinpoint a single locale as the spot where art suddenly bloomed in modern mankind. There are concerns that the layers in which the artifacts are found are not so clearly delineated. Some point to the fact that carnivores like to use the same caves humans use. A bear, digging a bedding area, would throughly confuse the layers in which artifacts and bones would be found. Conrad claims that such mixing is not an issue in his finds.

All this business of innovation boils down to this: Until Homo Sapiens came along, innovation was a very occasional thing. It is not that Erectus, Neanderthal, and all the others didn't come with new inventions and discoveries. It's that they didn't come with many, and the ones they did create or find happened early in their career on the planet. Sapiens, on the other hand, has been constantly inventing and innovating virtually since he appeared.

It's not that Erectus and Neanderthal were stupid; they had to be more mentally advanced than their predecessors. It's just that they got to a certain point early on and stalled there. Eventually, conditions changed or competition came along, and the old-timers had shot their bolt.

Now before we get all smug about our cleverness, stop and think about some timeframes. Erectus was around for a million years; Neanderthal made over 250,000 years. We've only been on top of the pyramid for 40,000 years. There's no telling how long we'll last, assuming we just don't blow ourselves up and turn the planet back over to the insects. If we do last, our species may someday be looking at a new group that makes our innovativeness look like cream cheese.

Gives one pause for thought.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Even More Lost In Space

Where there is no vision, the people perish. - Proverbs 29:18

I haven't written about manned spaceflight because, well, it's getting very depressing. Consider these recent developments.
  • Tommy Holloway, former manager of NASA's space station program, said to a Congressional committee, "I think depending totally on COTS would be a significant risk to the long-term viability of the station."

  • As NASA told us how wonderfully refurbished the shuttle Endeavour was (while misspelling the name on a welcome banner at the Cape), they also revealed it had a leak in the crew cabin. Fortuntely they seem to have found it.

  • Meanwhile, Energia was on the verge of bankruptcy, and Rocketplane Kistler was having continuing problems raising funding, preventing them from getting their mitts on all of that $207 million of taxpayer money NASA wants to give them.

  • Finally, there was the tragic blast during a test of a SpaceShip Two engine, as the Burt Rutan-Richard Branson Virgin Galactic project continues to go nowhere.
This isn't good.

Ironically, while our manned and commercial projects are sinking in the sunset, science projects continue to amaze and astound. The Mars Rovers set survival records every minute they continue to operate. They were built so well, it appears they will survive a planet-wide dust storm. New Horizons, passing by Jupiter on its way to Pluto, returned exciting data. Cassini turns up new discoveries in the Saturn system with every orbit. The Phoenix lander launch was a thing of beauty.

So, of course, our geniuses in Washington think science funding should be cut back to ensure there's enough money for COTS. While the science folks find ingenious ways to maximize their payloads and return more data, manned space flight is still using old techniques that got us to the money in 1969.

I can't help thinking that the recent dusting off of the Saturn launch vehicle that's been rusting away as a display piece may be a precursor to its being refitted to use for Orion.

Okay, that's a joke, but so is manned space flight, especially commercial space flight.

I've written over and over again about my concerns about so-called "free enterprise" "private sector" space projects. I've also worried over the "gee-whiz" promises of the Bush Administration to go to the moon and Mars (all nicely timed to occur long after Bush and friends are out of office) as pie-in-the-sky directionless objectives. I'm not going to flog that horse again. Besides, I don't have to.

"Successes" like those listed above speak for themselves.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

A Preponderance of Evidence

Geology shows that fossils are of different ages. Paleontology shows a fossil sequence, the list of species represented changes through time. Taxonomy shows biological relationships among species. Evolution is the explanation that threads it all together. Creationism is the practice of squeezing one's eyes shut and wailing "Does not!"

Pope Benedict XVI appears to have found his way into the 19th century. His Holiness has provided a lot of fodder for this blog, beginning with the Galileo Caper last September. That piece was inspired by the announcement that a papal summit was being convened to "firm up" the Church's stance on that ol' debbil, Darwinian Evolution.

Evidently, they've made up their collective mind, for the moment at least. Quoth the Pope:
“This clash [between creationism and evolution] is an absurdity because on one hand there is much scientific proof in favour of evolution, which appears as a reality that we must see and which enriches our understanding of life and being as such.”
In other words, there might be something to this evolution business after all. Of course, he left a loophole for the cosmic watchmaker, at least according to the article, by saying that evolution didn't answer all questions, "[a]bove all ... 'where does everything come from?' " I don't know that the statement implies "intelligent design" as much as it simply doubts the Big Bang. The Pope's Creator could have set the wheels in motion and then sat back to watch the results without doing any design work.

Given the willingness of creationists to simply ignore scientific evidence or distort to meet scriptural requirements, I suppose any common sense should be appreciated.

What's a little more surprising are words that follow later in the Pope's statement:
“We must respect the interior laws of creation, of this Earth, to learn these laws and obey them if we want to survive. This obedience to the voice of the Earth is more important for our future happiness ... than the desires of the moment. Our Earth is talking to us and we must listen to it and decipher its message if we want to survive."
Contrast that to the attitude I chronicled here. The link in the piece doesn't work anymore, but I quoted from it, noting that the Pope had said,
“[B{y believing in 'artificial intelligence' and technology, they risked the fate of the mythical Icarus, whose home-made wings melted when he flew too close to the sun.”

Or, as they said to Dr. Frankenstein, there are some things man was not meant to know. Now Benedict is telling scientists to find out all they can, to listen to the voices of Nature, to listen to the Earth. He all but invokes Gaia.

This is quite a change in attitude, and one has to wonder what has prompted it. Most likely, it represents a policy shift within the Vatican, among the Pope's advisers, with the science-supporting faction starting to outpoint the conservative one. After all, the Vatican is a very political environment; if you doubt it, just study up on the papal election process.

Accepting the study of the Earth (and by extension the universe at large) does not exactly mean that the Pope is okay with technological progress, but that's understandable. There are days I'm not so crazy about it myself. But, to increase our knowledge of ourselves we have to keep moving forward into areas that haven't been explored. We also have to be willing to revisit theories of our past in light of new evidence. We have to be willing to take risks.

Astoundingly, it seems that the Pope has come to agree with this, at least in principle. I doubt most scientists were losing a lot of sleep over what the Vatican thought about research, but many of the politicians who control much of the research purse strings do. If the Pope's statements can get some of them to realize that it's time to take their heads out of the sand, then so much the better.

Any voice of reason, even if from an unlikely source, is welcome.