Friday, March 30, 2007

A Wing and a Prayer

For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled. ~Richard P. Feynman

When last I wrote, I offered that the crew at SpaceX had clinched the 2007 Award for Outstanding Achievements in Hubris for declaring their most recent failure as a success.

It turns out that now that they have earned it with an oakleaf cluster.

They have now announced that, despite the fact that they have yet to actually reach any planned altitude, Falcon 1 is now "operational."

This is an unusual definition of "operational."

Oh, SpaceX tells us that this sort of thing is done all the time, citing the Delta IV Heavy as an example. Perhaps, but Delta IV's failure was a premature shutdown, not a twirling rocket where the first stage whacked the nozzle of the second on separation. Falcon 1 was not in good control on the way up, which is not a good sign.

Of course, these private-enterprise folks are fine with the possibility of losing a payload because it's only a government satellite. After $278 million of our money, what's another few mil for a wrecked taxpayer-funded payload?

I wonder how sanguine a commercial satellite owner would be about using a "sort-of" operational device?

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Nothing Succeeds Like Failure

Established technology tends to persist in spite of new technology. ~ Blaauw's Law

The 2007 Award for Outstanding Achievements in Hubris has been clinched already, so don't bother to compete. Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX has put the award so far out of reach that even the President's claims about how well things are going in Iraq can't touch him.

It seems that SpaceX finally got Falcon I off the ground, actually reaching an altitude of 186 miles. Unfortunately, it was supposed to reach 425 miles. It stopped short because the second stage engine stopped firing, which it did because the rocket had begun to tumble, which is bad. In most circles, this would be called a failed shot. In fact, Tariq Malik actually began his Space.com article, "The second test flight of the privately-built Falcon 1 rocket failed to reach its intended orbit late Tuesday, nearly one year to the day of the booster’s ill-fated spaceflight debut."

But if you read the BBC's take on it, you would think the flight was a wondrous success. Compared to the first attempt, it was a significant improvement but hardly a success. But the quotes that came out of SpaceX people were positively ecstatic (quotes are from Mr. Maliq's article):

  • We did encounter, late in the second burn, a roll control anomaly, but that’s something that’s pretty straightforward to address. - Elon Musk. Perhaps if Mr. Musk's people had address the problems prior to launch, we wouldn't have yet another piece of space junk in orbit.

  • “We successfully reached space, and really retired almost all of the risk associated with the rocket, - Elon Musk. Two launches, two failures. What risk, exactly, have you retired? The risk of making a really successful flight?

  • We, in the Washington D.C. office are celebrating with champagne. - Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX vice president of business development. Getting drunk won't help.

  • I’ve got all fingers and toes crossed hoping that it works. - Michael Griffin, chief optimist, NASA. Should have rubbed a rabbit's foot and thrown a horseshoe over your shoulder, Mr. Griffin.
This is the sort of success $278 million dollars of your money and mine is helping to fund. But that's not the funniest bit.

The Falcon is 21 meters long and uses liquid oxygen and kerosene as fuel. Vanguard, which was mercifully retired a long time ago, was 21.9 meters long and used liquid oxygen and kerosene fuel. Vanguard had three successful launches -- and eight failures. Now, I'm sure the SpaceX people will go on and on about how there is all sorts of new technology and materials in Falcon I, but at its heart, it's still the same thing that was being launched (well, 32% of the time) in 1958 and 1959.

Remember, it's taking a quarter of a billion dollars for them to work out this technology.

However, just to let you know that NASA is watching the pennies (while letting the dollars go tumbling into low orbit), is likely to shut down its think tank, the Institute for Advanced Concepts. This will save a whopping $4 million (yes, that's million with an "m") of NASA's $17 billion (that's with a "b") budget. Keich Cowings of NASAWatch has it right when he says Mr. Griffin, noted for hacking away at NASA's science budget, is "cutting down the forest and ploughing up the fields and throwing it all in the furnace."

He will also prevent any embarrassing futuristic ideas being developed that could lead to innovative approaches to space flight. Lord knows, we wouldn't want to be embarassing the commerical space flight interests. They do a good enough job on their own.

Now, think tanks do tend to put forth "out there" ideas that are generally not immediately practical. But, every once in a while, they hit on something that someone else can take to practical levels. When the guys at Bell Labs developed the transistor, they really weren't sure what to do with it, but a bunch of clever folks, a lot of them in Japan, certainly figured out some ways to make money with it. Along the way, they provided electronic products that vastly outlast the old tube technologies that were superceded.

I probably shouldn't bring that example up, because the commercial space flight crowd might rediscover vacuum tubes.

So while our commercial space programs consist of retooled Apollo capsules, 1950's technology rockets, and the promise of roller-coaster passenger flights where people can go up into space, throw up, and come back, NASA is closing down a group that might provide insights into technologies that could give us a real chance for manned exploration and colonization in space.

Just business as usual.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and Ralph (1)

The greatest obstacle to discovering the shape of the earth, the continents and the ocean was not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge. ~Daniel J. Boorstin

A little while ago, I wrote about the Discovery Channel's latest attempt at fractured history, the "discovery" of the Jesus Family bone boxes. I don't know how they avoided putting something about "decoding" into the title, since they rolled out all the Mary Magdalene-had-Jesus'-baby stuff again, but apparently they felt some restraint was in order.

I didn't watch this farce. While I might be willing to take a look at the Gospel of Judas (which has some redeeming value in showing Gnostic thought) or coded messages about Templar treasure (which provides some entertainment in showing how far people will go to find a code where there is none), I draw the line at using some Hollywood personality to hype a shaky hypothesis.

Stephen Pfann probably wishes he hadn't had anything to do with it either. Unfortunately, Dr. Pfann did allow himself to be interviewed and does apparently appear in the show, albeit briefly. He has now come out and said quite clearly that Mr. Cameron and Simcha Jacobovici, the program's director, are talking through their hats. To the point, he says that the box marked "Mariamene e Mara", which the show said was "Mary the Teacher" (and then extrapolated that to say it must be Mary Magdalene) actually was "Mariame kia Mara", which means "Mary and Martha." In other words, two women's bones were in the box. Moreover, Dr. Pfann says unequivocally that "kia Mara" was added later by a different hand. (His own detailed explanation is here.)

Putting more than one person's bones in a bone box was not unusual, nor was the practice of adding the name or names at that time.

Mr. Jacobovic, of course, disputes this with the devastating argument, "Anyone who looks at it can see that the script was written by the same hand." This is the same argument that kept Piltdown Man in anthropology texts for fifty years.

But what really irritated me was Mr. Jacobovici's answer to the various critics of his "discovery". He said, "What we're doing is democratizing this knowledge, and this is driving some people crazy."

What exactly does democracy have to do with this? Does Mr. Jacobovici suggest that scientific discoveries be subject to a vote of the people? Creationists everywhere would rejoice; they could vote Darwinian evolution out of existence (which they've already tried to do in several U.S. locations). Einstein could have rallied support to have quantum theory banished, although his theories of relativity might have been voted down for being too weird as well.

If we're going democratic with science, by golly, I want a vote on string theory right now.

I suppose what he really means is that he wants to more widely disseminate the information so people can make up their own minds. This is a laudable goal, so long as you accurately represent said information. It appears that Mr. Jacobovici, like the Naked Archaeologist, Graham Hancock, and Eric Von Daniken, is willing to play a little fast and loose with the facts. Ignoring expert analysis in favor of "anyone can see" is a typical defense of those who with weak arguments.

Certainly, experts have been wrong over the years, but when they are it tends to be because they either have a preconceived notion that they are trying to defend, or they haven't taken the opportunity to closely examine the evidence. The aforementioned Piltdown fiasco is an excellent example of both sins. It suited British academia to imagine that the missing link would be found in their land, and no one took a serious look at the bone fragments for years, taking the word of the discoverers instead.

Mr. Jacobovici would, no doubt, prefer that today's experts be willing to take his word for it rather than critically examine what he has put forth. Unfortunately for him and for Mr. Cameron, no one is buying in. It's probable that they sincerely believe what they are presenting. It just doesn't stand up to scrutiny.

Maybe next time they can find Mary Magdalene's skull.

(1) Old Catholic school kid joke. Ralph was the milkman.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

The Mars Underground

The Heavens. Once an object of superstition, awe and fear. Now a vast region for growing knowledge. The distance of Venus, the atmosphere of Mars, the size of Jupiter, and the speed of Mercury. All this and more we know. But their greatest mystery the heavens have kept a secret. What sort of life, if any, inhabits these other planets? Human life, like ours? Or life extremely lower in the scale. Or dangerously higher.~ Richard Blake, and William Cameron Menzies, Narrator, "Invaders from Mars" (1953).

The search for life on Mars may just have been too shallow all these years.

All our probes and rovers have been scratching at the surface since the Viking landers arrived 30 years ago. Of course, ever since Mariner returned pictures of Mars that showed a moon-like surface, scientists lost confidence that we were going to see any purple giraffes walking by, so efforts turned to finding evidence of microbial life, past or, preferably, present.

Viking did look for things that might be scooting around in the Martian dirt, but the results came up mixed. Recently,though, there's been some thinking that perhaps we were wrong in our interpretation of Viking data or that a key instrument might have missed signs of life. Now there's a theory that Viking didn't dig deep enough.

The problem is radiation. We Terrans are lucky to have a world with a pronounced magnetic field that protects us from a great deal of radiation from space. Martian microbes aren't so lucky, as their planet is bathed in all manner of bad dosages. Now that doesn't necessarily negate the possibility of life on Mars, as microbes have been found growing in nuclear reactors, but it definitely is a negative factor.

According to the analysis in the article from Science Blog, we might have to look several meters below the surface to find living things. According to the team, the best place to look that is accessible is in icy rock, which is the environment most likely to harbor life relatively close to the surface. They also suggest a target: Elysium. Elysium is particularly attractive because it may also have underground water.

Searching for water has been a priority since the first Mars rover landed, and, so far, everything suggests Mars had flowing water at some time in the past. Now that evidence suggests water still exists, that is the sort of location to zero in on.

While we're looking, we might also look for Mars' atmosphere. For years, the prevailing theory was that the atmosphere of the Red Planet simply frittered away into space. If you accept the idea that there was once a warm, wet Mars, you would require an atmospheric pressure of 1 to 5 bars, which isn't much, but it's a lot more than the .008 bars present today. But according to this story, Mars Express data shows a loss rate that is too slow to account for that much of a drop in pressure. So where did the atmosphere go?

One theory that's been around for a while is that something large impacted or nearly impacted Mars at one time, ripping much of the atmosphere away. The problem is that there's no evidence of an impact by a six-mile wide object, which one would expect on a world covered with craters. At the least, there would be some sort of debris hanging around, in the form, perhaps of a more substantial satellite than either Phobos or Deimos.

It's possible that the atmospheric loss has slowed over time, but that would assume that the solar wind, which is responsible for much of the removal process, had changed significantly, which seems unlikely. What is left is the idea that the atmosphere is still there on the planet somewhere.

While that sounds sort of odd, apparently some scientists think that there could be a sort of reservoir under the Martian surface. Another alternative, not expressed in the article, is that the atmosphere might be bound to the Martian soil in some manner. Either way, it's still there, waiting to be discovered and perhaps liberated once again.

Either way, the idea increases the odds of life having evolved, which would mean that it's traces are there to be found somewhere. Or, if we dig a little deeper, it may still be crawling around to find.

The next probe needs to have a serious drilling rig.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Discovery Does It Again

I find television to be very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go in the other room and read a book. ~Groucho Marx

This month's issue of Archaeology Magazine has an article by Roger Atwood talking about how Israeli antiquities officials are cracking down on archaeologists who do tons of digging and very little publishing. It seems that the Israelis are getting tired of people coming up with finds, announcing them to the press, and then going back for more without doing any scholarly work that might be subject to peer review. As a result, some people are not getting their permits renewed for more digging.

I thought perhaps this was the case with the current brouhaha about James Cameron's claim to have discovered the tomb of Jesus. But, it turns out that Amos Kloner, who worked on the tomb after it was discovered in 1980, did publish his results, albeit sixteen years later. At any rate, the tomb was hardly a secret, and the names of its occupants had been cataloged.

Maybe the Israeli officials are being hard on those who aren't publishing, because it seems that some people are willing to simply ignore what has been done and come up with claims of their own.

James Cameron is a film director (or producer or whatever; his big claim to fame is Titanic). He now fancies himself to be a biblical archaeologist. He claims that, based on a statistical study, the fact that ossuaries bearing the names Jesus, Joseph, Matthew, and two versions of Mary means that the tomb contained the bodies of Jesus, Mary Magdalen, and Jesus' son, along with probably a cousin or two.

Okay, I made up the bit about cousins, but the whole thing is ridiculous.

Strangely, this earth-shaking discovery wasn't announced until a week or two ago, conveniently coinciding with advertising for a special on the Discovery Channel. Since such documentaries can take months to prepare this seemed odd at best. It would be cynical to suggest that the reason for delaying the announcement might have been to avoid giving sufficient time for real experts to comment.

At any rate, it didn't work. Criticism is coming thick and fast (see here and here for instance), and it seems well deserved. There is really nothing to suggest that the Yehoshua and Miriamne buried in the tomb are in fact the biblical Jesus and Mary Magdalen beyond a statistical study which is itself being questioned, In fact, at least one scholar doesn't even agree that the inscription is “Yehoshua”; according to Stephan Pfann, president of the University of the Holy Land in Jerusalem, thinks it says “Hanun or something.”

I don't know what Mr. Cameron's agenda is exactly. Is he trying to say Jesus didn't ascend into heaven? Is he trying to stump up support for the Jesus-married-Mary Holy Grail crowd? Or is he just an attention-seeking celebrity who happens to be an anti-religionist?

What does upset me is that once again we have a program on a network supposedly geared toward delivering decent science information putting forth drivel disguised as scholarship. I won't watch it; I made this mistake of watching their poor coverage of Otto Schaden's discovery of KV-63. But many people will, and they won't read the stories questioning the conclusions drawn.

Some time ago, I watched the one and only episode of Naked Archaeologist on History International,that I've seen. As opposed to Mr. Cameron, this character tries to validate everything in the Bible. During the episode, he was talking to someone about the James ossuary, which purported to have contained the bones of “James, brother of Jesus.” Basically, the discussion was that the box was genuine, despite the fact that it's “discoverer” was arrested for creating fake antiquities and that the box itself had been determined to be a forgery. And this had happened in 2003.

But, I still find people who think the James ossuary is real, just as there are those who think that the tablet mentioning Solomon's Temple was real, despite having been exposed as a fake at about the same time. People remember the sensational announcement, but they don't seem to hear about the prosaic explanation afterwards.

That's why programs like this are simply a bad thing. People will not research further to learn if any of the claims make sense. Many will accept it because, well, if they say it's true on TV, it must be so. By now, we should all realize that, when it comes to television productions, especially those involving claims by those outside their field of expertise, we should be extremely wary.

It's not that Discovery or any other non-fiction channel shouldn't air such programs, but they should not be slanted toward supporting outlandish claims as fact. It's not that they don't produce some good programming; they do. But that makes the out-there stuff, like legitimizing Nostradamus and the like, all the more disturbing.

There is so much drivel in the world; we don't need any more.