Thursday, December 26, 2013

Two Views of ISON

Comets are like cats. They both have tails, and they both do whatever they want to. ~ Francisco Diego

ISON has come and fizzed out, which is a shame. It was dubbed the potential “Comet of the Century” because it was seen to be so bright when still a long way off. Unfortunately, it was a sun-grazer, which means that it got very, very close to the sun. As it turned out, it got too close and broke apart, evaporated, or both.

Because of all the hoopla, The Science Channel stopped showing Survivorman long enough to do an interesting program about the comet and the efforts of scientists to study it. The program was actually reasonably well done, considering they were counting on a big display from ISON and had to scramble a little when they couldn't talk about how it was going to look on the return trip.

So, having enjoyed that program, I was looking forward the other night to a NOVA production on the same subject. I mean NOVA used to be one of the flagship programs of PBS, with beautifully polished programs that presented facts and theories in an entertaining fashion. Well, based on their ISON mashup, the flagship is sinking.

I was suspicious that the show might be less than excellent when they showed a picture of Comet Hale-Bopp and identified it as ISON. In fact, they showed several different comets and called them ISON. Honestly, guys, if you needed pics, you should have contacted; they've had quite a few.

The Science Channel program consisted mostly of scientific attempts to study ISON. Unfortunately, as is sometimes the case, the attempts they covered kind of fell flat. The first was a balloon launch of a telescope to get it over the main atmosphere. Unfortunately, a latch messed up and the telescope was never usable during its flight. The other biggie was an aircraft-mounted telescope. The plane was absolutely crammed with equipment, apparently a bit too crammed. During two attempts to make observations, a breaker blew out which, after the second attempt, refused to be reset. Even with that mess, the scientists got a little data which they communicated on the show.

Fortunately, for both programs, good old Hubble and SOHO were able to get some terrific pictures and data. SOHO, in particular, followed ISON as it went around the sun. Part of the image was blocked by a disk which covers the sun so you can see what's going on, but the pictures were amazing nonetheless.

I don't know if NOVA had been expecting some more data, but what they presented could be called old-fashioned filler. Comets used to be predictors of doom; in 1910 everyone panicked about the Earth passing through the comet's tail; and that good old standby, there's a chance ISON might hit the Earth. That last item came when the only person on the planet who calculates cometary orbits (that's basically what they said), decided that there was a possibility of a collision with Earth—based on two data points. Oh, and that was one outcome of a possible 600 orbits. After a few more observations, he decided to call off the apocalypse.

And yes, there was footage of the Russian meteor (which wasn't even a cometary object, for crying out loud).

Then came this doozy. Seems Isaac Newton developed his theory of gravity because of a question Edmund Halley asked him. Seems Halley was interested in comets and asked Newton what orbit one would take. Newton immediately said it would be an ellipse but he hadn't rigorously worked it out yet. In a few days, though, he whipped out the formulas. So Newton's theory of gravity never would have happened without a comet.

T'warnt the way I heard it. The way I heard it, Halley asked Newton what sort of orbit a planet would take when subjected to an inverse-square force. Newton gave the same answer: An ellipse, but he hadn't worked out the details yet. Newton then spent 18 months creating the Principia Mathematica, which Halley had to pester him to publish (in fact, Halley footed the bill). NOTE: The link notes some issues even with this story and has a lot of math, but the point is that the discussion wasn't about comets.

But the capper came when the programs turned to makeup and mechanics of a comet. On NOVA, one scientist placed a little piece of frozen carbon dioxide in a pan of water so it could fizz around like an Alka-Selzer. That, she explained, is what happens to a comet as the CO2 outgasses in space. Then another scientist through a bunch of stuff in a little bucket, pulled out a baseball-sized hunk of snow and dirt and told us this is what a comet looks like.

Okay, accurate as far it goes, but not very impressive. What did Science do? They built a comet. In an industrial ice-cream facility with a freezer the size of a hangar, a scientist (one of the Deep Impact guys) put together a three or four foot irregular glob of dirt, carbon dioxide, water and whatever else he needed to make a mini-comet. It showed the kinds of icing features one would expect which was climaxed by getting a short but impressive burst of gas from the inside which is exactly how CO2 jets out of a real comet.

So kudos to the Science channel for actually doing some science reporting. This was a program about comet ISON, why it could have been an amazing comet, and what its ultimate fate was.

And brickbats to NOVA for creating a canned mishmash that was a standard How the Universe Works sort of show. There's nothing wrong with that sort of thing (at least HTUW usually gets it science history right), but it is most certainly not an in-depth look at a particular astronomical event. All that was missing from the NOVA program was Michio Kaku telling us they were “going to have to rewrite the textbooks” once ISON came by.

So it could have been worse.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Visions of the Future

I have seen the future and it is very much like the present - only longer. ~Kehlog Albran

Predictions of the future have one thing in common: They're almost always wrong. I'm sure you have seen those predictions from the 1920's and 30's showing wonderful art deco buildings, monorails, and flying cars. However, if you compare actual pictures of, say, New York in that period versus pictures today, all you see is some newer, more boring buildings and newer cars. If you picked up a New Yorker from 1920 and plunked him into New York of 2013, he'd probably be able to find his way around just fine. He'd also wonder why so little had changed.

Don't get me wrong. Some things did change. Airplanes use jets, television has arrived, nuclear bombs bring the possibility of total annihilation, and there's the computer, bringing along the Internet.

Ah, yes, the Internet. There are those who believe that the Internet has been some sort of massive improvement to the human condition. Consider David Gerrold's view: “If it's a choice between the flying car or the internet, tablets and smartphones, I'll take what we've got." Now, Mr. Gerrold is something of a sci-fi author (his greatest claim to fame seems to be creating the tribbles on Star Trek), so he's supposedly an expert on this sort of thing. Perhaps if the only choices are flying cars and the internet, he's right. But, it's a lousy choice.

A much closer approximation of the effect of the computer was given by Isaac Asimov in his short story, “A Feeling of Power.” He portrays a society so dependent on computing that the ability to do arithmetic has been lost. And he doesn't even get into the impact on a society of constant misinformation and wasted time using such things as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

The amazing thing is that futurists (ugh) have no clue about how progress works. Progress occurs in sudden leaps. Consider the impact of the invention of the car, the telephone, radio, and the integrated circuit (Mr. Gerrold's favorite). Much of what we consider high technology is merely incremental improvements on these inventions. In other words, kids, ain't much changed in the last hundred years.

The problem is that it isn't easy to remake cities because there's a city in the way already. It costs a lot of money to tear down, say, the Chrysler Building to replace it with some space-needle type building that doesn't hold nearly as many people. Also, there's the matter of infrastructure. Replacing all the power plants serving New York City would run into prohibitive amounts of cash. So doing this sort of thing requires planning years in advance.

Long-term advanced planning isn't something that's a strong suit of human beings. I guess it gets in the way of warring with your neighbors. The one exception I can think of are Egyptian pharonic tombs. But, they had this down to a routine. New pharaoh takes power, tomb builders go to work. As long as he can hold out for twenty years, they'll get the job done. The success of the tomb builders is more a matter of strong organization than planning skills. Besides, tomb styles, from mastabas to pyramids to underground chambers changed very slowly, hardly demonstrating rapid innovation.

In fact, history is one long march of slogging forward, and occasionally backward, punctuated with sudden bursts of advancement, usually thanks to remarkable individuals like Galileo, Copernicus, Newton, Maxwell, Einstein, and Bohr. Or from the pure technology side, you have the likes of Benz, Ford, Morse, Marconi, Edison, and so on. In between, you have minor improvements to major technologies or incremental additions to scientific theories.

But you have something else: inertia and lack of imagination. That's where Mr. Gerrold comes in. He's something of a Candide seeing this as the best of all possible worlds instead of realizing that the potential of networking is being wasted by telecommunications monopolies and frivolous usages.

It's even beginning to affect the views of the future. A while back, the BBC came up with a view of the world of 2050. It's actually an hilarious agglomeration of minor changes from today like wearable computers (already available) and delivery drones (which could be done with current technologies) combined with big changes to cities that aren't going to happen, like “farmscrapers”, big open spaces in cities, and robo-taxis. The first two won't happen because money talks and utilizing sections of cities for non-monetary or low-return structures doesn't appeal to those who put up the dough. As to robo-taxis, well, again technology has existed for self-driving vehicles for years and it gets nowhere. Perhaps some very limited route vehicles will exist, but generally available self-driving vehicles won't make it by 2050.

I strongly suspect 2050 is going to look a lot like 2013, except maybe more run down.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

War of the Roses Redux?

Bad is the world, and all will come to naught when such ill-dealing must be seen in thought. ~ William Shakespeare, Richard III

It was little more than a year ago that the bones of Richard III were found in a car park in Leicester, England.  The general public perception of Richard has been formed for most of us by Shakespeare's brilliant depiction of him in his play.  Richard is one of the foulest, nastiest, most unprincipled villains in all of history.

Well, maybe not.

On further review, as they say on sporting broadcasts, he may have been no worse than many another English monarch and better than some.  For starters, Shakespeare has to compress events in time rather drastically for dramatic effect.  While it makes for good drama, it makes for lousy history.  For example, the execution of his brother, the Duke of Clarence occurred years earlier and came about because King Edward was sick and tired of the Duke's taking sides against him.  After Clarence tried to cut a deal with France, Edward had enough and did him in.

In another example, Richard is shown wooing Lady Anne, the woman he would marry, yet he actually married her 8 years or so earlier and even had a son with her.

There has risen a sort of cottage industry in rehabilitating Richard.  One book that covers this well is Richard III by Paul Murray Kendall.  Seems that Richard may not have been the monster that Shakespeare dramatized after all.

One fact that everyone can agree upon is that Richard met his end on Bosworth Field at the hands of the troops of the Earl of Richmond, one Henry Tudor.  Henry would become Henry VII, grandpappy of one Elizabeth I, who was in charge when Shakespeare was knocking out his little plays.  Not wanting to tick off the ruling monarch may account, in part, for Shakespeare's take on Richard.

At any rate, as was standard at the time, the body of Richard was paraded through some localities for all to see.  This was done to ensure that somebody wouldn't pop up claiming to be Richard and cause more trouble for Henry.  Ultimately, Richard's body was deposited in Leicester, but no one was quite sure where.  It was presumed he was buried in or near the Greyfriar's friary, which is now a parking lot.

Once it was established through DNA testing against Richard's nearest living relative(the Brits do keep excellent family histories), a new War of the Roses suddenly erupted.

To begin with, the people of Leicester, sensing serious tourist cash, decided that Leicester had always been one of Richard's favorite places.  Also, he was buried there by "royal edict", although Henry wasn't king yet when he dumped the body there.  At any rate, figuring possession in 9 points of the law, the local government set up creating a proper tomb.

Well, who should come out of the woodwork but the people of York.  Calling themselves, the Plantagenet Alliance, these folks felt it was obvious that Richard was one of theirs (he was a son of the Duke of York).  These Yorkists, who have a Richard III museum, insist Richard would have wanted to be buried in the old home grounds, so they want him shipped up there.

Leicester puts it baldly by saying York has plenty of tourist attractions, while Leicester has few, and removal of Richard means they would "have one less."  York, of course, claims money has nothing to do with it.

But, they do have a museum, now don't they?

There is a great irony in the fact that a man who was once the most despised monarch in English history should now be in such demand.  Of course, being dead, it isn't likely he'll be throwing people into the Tower, so he's a lot safer to have around now.

As Shakespeare said in Henry IV Part II, "A man can die but once."  Being buried, however, can be quite another matter.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Real Science

Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known. ~Carl Sagan

Note: A rerun from the other blog, but what the heck.  It's funny.
The following is excerpted from the JPL Cassini project newsletter of September 20, 2005, exactly as it originally appeared:
A meeting was held today to determine if Orbit Trim Maneuver (OTM) #32 could be cancelled. It turned out that this maneuver would provide a maximum pointing improvement of only ~8 microradians, or, according to a member of the Spacecraft Operations Office, "It's teeny." Science representatives at the meeting agreed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

  2. Force=mass times acceleration (F=ma).

  3. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
When I was a physics major (briefly) in college (not that many years removed from being able to meet Isaac Newton in person), my fellow inmates -- erm, students and I, fortified, as I recall, with moderate amounts of fermented hops, restated the laws in a form more suitable for general understanding:

  1. It’s moving, unless it’s not.

  2. The bigger it is, the harder it falls.

  3. You can’t push a rope.
Now that’s elegant. But as the years have passed, I’ve come to realize that even these can be simplified further. After all, why have three laws when one will do? After all, physicists are always trying to create grand unified theories. So, after considerable thought (and the assistance of fermented grape products; with age comes sofishtication), I am proud to present the simple but beautiful Gog’s Grand Unified Theory of Motion:

Don’t stand in front of a moving truck.

When do I get my Nobel?

Saturday, June 01, 2013

Mermaids ... MERMAIDS???

Nothing is more irredeemably irrelevant than bad science. ~ John C. Polanyi

Brian Switech's article says it as well as I ever could:  "Mermaids embodies the rotting carcass of science TV."

A while back, I saw ads for this nonsense and assumed that it was something fanciful like the program on dragons a couple of years ago.  And it was.  Unfortunately, the producers didn't bother to make the fictional nature of the program obvious until the closing credits, by which time the crowd that thinks Mars is going to be as big as the moon in August was already going nuts over the broadcast.

The various channels in the History-Discovery axis have been giving us monster sightings, UFO's and aliens for some time now.  Sadly, I'm sure it does wonders for the ratings.  Unfortunately, it also helps rot the brains of an already largely confused public that doesn't understand science -- or history for that matter.

In an otherwise acceptable History program, a section on the Roman emperor Constantine came to the point that he was baptized on his deathbed.  The narrator then said something to the effect that "now it was alright to become a Christian."  This ignored the fact that Constantine had embraced and championed Christianity ever since the start of his reign.  His mother was running around the Holy Land, for crying out loud, identifying important Biblical sites (based on a sort of divinely inspired intuition).  Constantine held out, most likely, because he was raised on the old Roman gods and there was still a large religious structure based on those gods.  He was hedging his bets.  When he was dying, he decided to make that final commitment when it wouldn't impact the religious and political forces he was dealing with.

You may think it's not that big a point, but it is.  Constantine was convening councils to establish the orthodoxy of Christianity, hardly the actions of an emperor who was waiting to die to make it okay to become a follower of Jesus.  He had stopped the persecution of Christians.  For all practical purposes, he established the structural basis for the modern Church.  Hardly something one could do on one's deathbed.

What's scarey is that it's the misinformation that sticks with people.  As Mr. Switech points out, "Not that my debunking will do much good. I don’t know how many people watched Mermaids, but I’m certain that many more people saw it than will ever read this post."  I hear bad science all the time, gleaned from stupid chain e-mails, bad science web sites, and awful programs like the mermaids and dragons nonsense.  There is an inviolable law about information that's been around much longer than the Internet.  That is that bad information drives out good information.

It's the only way to explain flat earthers, creationists, UFO freaks, Bigfoot believers, and homeopathy fans, among others.  Worst of all, it distracts from the things that really need attention.  David Shiffman has a short list of five items relating to the oceans and life in them that really need public awareness but get short shrift from so-called science-oriented channels.

We are in bad need of another Jacques Cousteau.