Somewhere Out There, Updated

Tuesday, 28 March 2017, 16:34 | Category : Science, Stargazing
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Constellation Opiuchus

Walk outside some clear evening this summer, and look to the south (assuming you’re in the Northern hemisphere!). You’ll see a bright red star – Antares – and if you’re familiar with the night sky, you’ll recognize the constellation Scorpius. Look above Scorpius, into a fairly dark area without many bright stars. This is the constellation of Opiuchus (a bit of trivia here: Opiuchus is actually the 13th Zodiacal constellation, but having only 12 makes things simpler – sort of like how the Big Ten Conference continues to call itself the Big Ten even though it has somewhere between 12 and 16 teams, depending on which reports and rumors you believe). While you’re looking at Opiuchus, think about the mantra of some on the Right, that government can’t do anything right. And then think about this: somewhere in the patch of sky containing Opiuchus, a spaceship called Voyager 1 is continuing the journey begun on September 5, 1977; Voyager 2, actually launched 16 days earlier, and Voyager 1 had a combined cost of about $250 million (not including support in the ensuing years, which has raised the entire mission cost to somewhere around $900 million). Both spaceships have continued to perform important scientific missions as they hurtle in roughly opposite directions towards stars they won’t reach for 40,000 years. Their nuclear power plants will stop long before that – another 10 years or so – but as long as they have power they will continue to send data back to Earth. Currently, Voyager 1 is about 12,800,500,000 miles from Earth (that’s over 12 billion miles). Voyager 2 is about 10 1/2 billion miles in the opposite direction, in the constellation Pavo (the Peacock) in the southern hemisphere.

And we’re still learning. Data from Voyager 1 has revealed that the structure of the solar system isn’t quite what we thought. There’s a layer at the edge that wasn’t suspected. Is this important? Well, we don’t know, and won’t for a long time. Did 15th century Europe know that the islands they had discovered in the western ocean were one day going to be of vital importance to western civilization? Here’s what we do know: science matters, even if you try to deny the sometimes uncomfortable truth. And science at the level of the Voyager missions is only done at the national level. No private research lab is ever going to do science at this scale. Government does, and often does it very well even at the bleeding edge, and in these times of budget cuts and debt reduction, we would be wise to remember that.

Hello, World, And Thoughts About Mars

Wednesday, 18 March 2015, 21:56 | Category : BlogStuff, Life, Science
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Periodically, I sit down with myself and think about what I really want to do. And one of the things I invariably say to myself is, I would like to blog regularly again. Even though blogging as we knew it is 5-6 years (or more) gone, and my old blogroll is mostly just a historical document, I still like the idea of blogging. Because I like the idea of writing. So every few weeks (months), I come back here and post something. Just enough to make me think I can justify paying my web host when renewal comes around again. And it always has that “Hello, World” feel to it, especially when the time between posts is really extended. A while back I decided to walk down my blogroll and see if any were still active. A few were, but most had either sat idle for a long, long time, with a last post hanging out there for several years, or were completely gone, drowned in the increasingly shallow pool that is Facebook/Twitter/Tumbler/whatever.

So why suddenly show up and post something again? Well – Mars. I was listening to a program about Mars, private spaceflight, and one-way missions. Especially one-way missions. They were discussing the many and varied problems that will have to solved for a successful Mars mission to happen, the personality profiles, all the supplies that will have to be taken along, the fact that in the entire history of space travel, while we’ve launched things of many sizes and configurations, we’ve never landed anything of the size that will be required to carry all that stuff. We’ve never even thought about how to land something like that. I thought about the medical issues that might come up, that there will need to be someone who can handle medical emergencies like broken bones and joint injuries, not to mention heart attacks. And then I thought about something that I’ve never seen or heard discussed. At some point, you’re going to have someone develop a condition, like cancer, that won’t be treatable with whatever medical facility and supplies there will be on Mars, but will be painful and debilitating. In other words, something that will be fatal, but will also be too much to live with. And somewhere in the medical supplies, there will have to be a planned method of suicide. As a society, we will have to embrace the notion that officially-assisted suicide is acceptable. It may well be that the plans for this are already in place. It’s not so different from the idea of a mission during he Apollo days going bad and marooning astronauts in space. But in some ways it is different. There would be no compromised facility, no dwindling air supply. Just someone who has no hope of a cure, and a remaining lifetime of pain or severe, deteriorating disability. And we’ll have to allow, and assist, that person to end their life, on whatever terms they think best.

Somewhere Out There

Wednesday, 5 December 2012, 15:44 | Category : Science, Stargazing
Tags :

Constellation Opiuchus

Walk outside some clear evening next summer, and look to the south (assuming you’re in the Northern hemisphere!). You’ll see a bright red star – Antares – and if you’re familiar with the night sky, you’ll recognize the constellation Scorpius. Look above Scorpius, into a fairly dark area without many bright stars. This is the constellation of Opiuchus (a bit of trivia here: Opiuchus is actually the 13th Zodiacal constellation, but having only 12 makes things simpler – sort of like how the Big Ten Conference continues to call itself the Big Ten even though it has somewhere between 12 and 16 teams, depending on which reports and rumors you believe). While you’re looking at Opiuchus, think about the mantra of some on the Right, that government can’t do anything right. And then think about this: somewhere in the patch of sky containing Opiuchus, a spaceship called Voyager 1 is continuing the journey begun on September 5, 1977; Voyager 2, actually launched 16 days earlier, and Voyager 1 had a combined cost of about $250 million (not including support in the ensuing years, which has raised the entire mission cost to somewhere around $900 million). Both spaceships have continued to perform important scientific missions as they hurtle in roughly opposite directions towards stars they won’t reach for 40,000 years. Their nuclear power plants will stop long before that – another 15 years or so – but as long as they have power they will continue to send data back to Earth. And we’re still learning. Data from Voyager 1 has just revealed that the structure of the solar system isn’t quite what we thought. There’s a layer at the edge that wasn’t suspected. Is this important? Well, we don’t know, and won’t for a long time. Did 15th century Europe know that the islands they had discovered in the western ocean were one day going to be of vital importance to western civilization? Here’s what we do know: science matters, even if you try to deny the sometimes uncomfortable truth. And science at the level of the Voyager missions is only done at the national level. No private research lab is ever going to do science at this scale. Government does, and often does it very well even at the bleeding edge, and in these times of budget cuts and debt reduction, we would be wise to remember that.

How Kansas Defines Science

Wednesday, 9 November 2005, 15:59 | Category : Science
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The strikethroughs are what the Kansas Board of Education removed from the definition. The italicized text is new.

Science is a systematic method of continuing investigation, that uses observation, hypothesis testing, measurement, experimentation, logical argument and theory building, to lead to more adequate explanations of natural phenomena. Science is the human activity of seeking natural explanations for what we observe in the world around us. Science does so through the use of observation, experimentation, and logical argument while maintaining strict empirical standards and healthy skepticism. Scientific explanations are built on observations, hypotheses, and theories.”

So, Kansas officially believes that science is not limited to natural explanations. You have to wonder what “theory building” means. My theory is that the Kansas Board of Education is dominated by idiots.

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President Bush, Science Teacher

Monday, 8 August 2005, 11:55 | Category : Science
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President Bush, having trashed our Federal budget, destroyed our credibility on international affairs, turned environmental protection over to the polluters, and given us the Ethics Lesson known as Karl Rove, now seeks to enlighten the teaching of science. When asked last week whether intelligent design should be taught, Bush said:

“I think that part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought. You’re asking me whether or not people ought to be exposed to different ideas, the answer is yes.”

Intelligent design is essentially an attempt by the Christian Right to provide an explanation for how we came to be, other than the “Poof-Bang!” explanation offered by Bishop Usher, who claimed in his 16th century work Annales veteris testamenti, a prima mundi origine deducti (“Annals of the Old Testament, deduced from the first origins of the world”), that the Earth and all life forms were created on the evening preceding October 23, 4004 BC. Why he didn’t just say October 22, 4004 BC is not recorded, but perhaps Creation was accomplished by time zone, and so therefore a relative time reference (“the evening before”) was better than giving an actual time, because then we would have Baptists and Anglicans and Eastern Orthodoxians arguing about whether it was Greenwich Mean Time or Moscow Standard Time or Central Daylight Time. (Would Central Daylight Time even have relevance when daylight had just been created?)

Anyway, the Christian Right now wishes to proclaim that no, maybe the Earth wasn’t created in 4004 BC, but that whenever it was created, the various lifeforms and physical processes we now see came about because God was pushing the buttons and turning the cranks and pouring the plastic into the Great Cosmic Creepy Crawler molds. Actually, they don’t want to proclaim this, they want it taught in science classes right alongside evolution and germ theory and gravitational attraction. But what is it, exactly, that they want taught? I mean, after you teach evolutionary processes as an explanation of how thigns got to where they are now, you could say “and some people believe that behind these processes, behind natural selection and survival of the fittest, there was an intelligent designer”. Because the real proponents of intelligent design don’t take it any further than that. They even allow for the possibility that aliens could have been that intelligence. William Dembski wrote in his book “The Design Inference” that God or an alien life force could be responsible. So, anyway – once the teacher has said that, what exactly is it that you would teach? And let’s not even think about the labs. How you would create an experimental environment for a God-creature is problematical at best.

I’m not anti-religious. I’m a good, Southern, United Methodist boy. But I believe that among the things God created were reason, rationality, and science. Is Intelligent Design nothing more than a belief that God can be partly understood and approached through science? Is that too pantheistic? The problem is that ID has become a religious-social movement based on a way people wish things were. It avoids troubling questions; it avoids having to understand your faith in new ways. It makes things simple, almost as simple as believing that the Earth was created in 4004 BC. But believing that the Creation was 6,000 years ago requires ignoring things that science tells us are fact. Fossils dated back past that point must be explained away as either forgeries, mistakes, or deliberate attempts at deception by some cosmic force. The great sin of Intelligent Design is that it removes the requirement of investigation and understanding from the equation. Things are how they are because God or the gods or aliens made them to be that way, and if you accept that then there’s no reason to explore further. It isn’t understandable past that point.

Kung Fu Monkey has other thoughts on this topic.