Posts Tagged science

Apollo 45

Apollo_11_bootprintThis week marks the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, and people are posting their recollections of that event under #Apollo45.

I wasn’t born until well after the last moon mission took place, but the story has been conveyed so vividly that I almost feel like I experienced it firsthand.

The footage of the Saturn V rocket lifting off from Cape Canaveral, Neil Armstrong’s iconic words, and the image of an American flag on the moon’s surface have all been burned into my consciousness.

Yet the whole event seems unreal. It’s still hard to believe that massive rocket propelled the tiny Apollo spacecraft to the moon, and that the entire complex operation worked not just once, but multiple times, ending with the safe return of the astronauts even when technical problems on Apollo 13 made that outcome seem unlikely.

The United States hasn’t accomplished anything on that scale since the last moon mission in 1972, so perhaps it’s not surprising that so many people believe the whole thing was faked.

Obviously, it wasn’t but the Apollo missions may turn out to be a historical fluke. There’s plenty of enthusiasm for continuing the journey into space with a return to the moon, or even a mission to Mars, but the country can’t seem to muster the political will to make that happen.

As Neil deGrasse Tyson pointed out in his excellent book Space Chronicles, the Apollo program was a product of defense interests as much as scientific interests. The Cold War was raging, and the Soviets needed to be beaten.

While the U.S. has plenty of problems now, none of them rise to the quite existential-threat level of impending annihilation by a communist superpower. The stakes are just too low.

A renewed space program could have many benefits in terms of pure science or even jump-starting the economy, but those are just too ethereal, and the fact that U.S. astronauts can hitch rides with the Russians while maintaining national dignity proves that space is no longer an arena for geopolitical chest thumping.

So will future generations have to accept that Apollo was unique to its time, an inspiring product of a terrible conflict that threatened to destroy the world?

Perhaps another momentous event (say, the arrival of a Vulcan survey ship) will galvanize Earth’s population again, but until then it seems we’ll have to remain content with memories of past triumphs.

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Five things that probably shouldn’t be nuclear powered

Once upon a time, people thought the atom was the key to the future. It may have just been the ultimate threat to human existence at the time, but Cold War engineers thought nuclear power had plenty of utility as well.

Using a small chunk of metal to power a city for decades seems like a good deal, as long as you don’t consider radiation and the occasional bout of China Syndrome. Before people started thinking about those little foibles, they came up with some pretty creative uses for nuclear power.

Ford NucleonCars

A functioning nuclear-powered car was never actually built, but Ford toyed with the idea. The company’s 1958 Nucleon concept was a 3/8 scale model intended to show what a production atomic car could look like.

The Nucleon had the cab-forward look of the Dodge Deora (of Hot Wheels fame), but instead of a pickup bed for storing surfboards, it had a rear-mounted nuclear reactor. While it would have made an interesting rival for the Porsche 911, it’s probably best that the Nucleon never made it to production.

Convair NB-36HAirplanes

During the 1950s, ships took their place in the triad of strategic defense thanks to nuclear power, so it’s not surprising that the American and Soviet air forces wanted to extend that success to their strategic bombers.

Strategic bombers patrolled enemy airspace in anticipation of a nuclear strike, a la Dr. Strangelove. A bomber with the unlimited range of a nuclear submarine would definitely have been an asset.

While a nuclear reactor never powered a plane, both Cold War rivals sent them aloft in conventional aircraft to see if they and their heavy shielding could be lifted. The Americans built the Convair NB-36H, a variant of the B-36 Peacemaker, and the Soviets converted a TU-95 into the TU-95LAL.

General Electric also built a prototype reactor in Idaho for the follow-up to the NB-36H, the X-6, but thankfully it proved unnecessary. Advances in Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) eventually negated the need for a long range nuclear-powered bomber.

Atomic airship illustrationAirships

If a nuclear wing aircraft couldn’t work, what about one with the Hindenburg’s propensity for spontaneous combustion? The airship was out of vogue by the 1950s, but that didn’t stop The U.S. Navy’s Bureau of Naval Weapons from proposing an atomic version as part of the Eisenhower Administration’s “Atoms for Peace” program.

The Navy reasoned that an airship’s low power requirements would allow it to use a lighter reactor, and that it serve as a “flying aircraft carrier,” defending itself with its own fighter planes.

An even more ambitious proposal appeared in a 1956 Mechanix Illustrated article. Author Frank Tinsley envisioned an airship 1,000 feet in length (nearly twice the length of the Hindenburg) that could be used to publicize the Atoms for Peace program.

Ike ended up building the nuclear cargo ship Savannah instead, and that’s probably for the better. Given large airships’ inability to stay aloft (the entire U.S. airship fleet of the 1930s was lost in crashes), it’s probably best that one didn’t take to the skies with a nuclear reactor on board.

Russian nuclear lighthouseLighthouses

Before GPS, lighthouses were all that kept mariners from crashing into rocky shorelines and underwater obstacles. To keep the lights on, keepers needed to make sure there was plenty of fuel or electricity at the lighthouses’ remote locations.

That must have seemed like too much of a hassle to the Russians, who built a few lighthouses powered by radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs), the same type of generator that powers the Curiosity Mars rover.

Unlike nuclear reactors, RTGs rely solely on the energetic decay of a piece of radioactive material. As the material decays, it emits energy that is converted into electricity.

A box of plutonium might generate plenty of power for an otherwise inaccessible structure, but is it really a good idea to leave said plutonium unsupervised?

Project Pluto SLAMDrones

If you think the all-seeing Predator drone is scary, wait ‘til you meet “Project Pluto.” An atomic nightmare, it was a pilotless nuclear powered cruise missile that could launch its own nuclear weapons.

Known as a Supersonic Low-Altitude Missile (SLAM), Project Pluto’s mission profile exemplifies Cold War desperation. The reactor powered a ramjet, heating air fed into the craft as it moved and expanding it to produce thrust. this would have allowed a Pluto missile to travel at speeds up to Mach 3 and stay airborne for months at a time, allowing it to deliver a payload of hydrogen bombs to multiple targets.

It gets better though: Pluto’s unshielded nuclear reactor would spread radiation as it traveled along, making it pretty dangerous to the country that launched it. Developers believed low altitude supersonic shockwaves could also be dangerous to bystanders, but that didn’t stop them from testing a prototype nuclear ramjet engine in 1961.

In his memoir, Silent War, Navy special projects director John Craven recalls hoping that a defect would be found in the engine, shelving Project Pluto. To his (and my) relief, the military eventually gave up on its atomic death machine.

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Of robots and rockets

Pacific Rim and the Space RaceRobots and monsters! Pacific Rim, Guillermo del Toro’s soon-to-be blockbuster, sounds like pure nerd fantasy. Yet one aspect of the story sounds remarkably true.

In the film, humanity is attacked by giant monsters called kaiju, that emerge from an inter-dimensional portal in the Pacific Ocean. To stave off destruction (or worse, having to move inland) nations rally to build equally large fighting robots called jaegers.

The jaegers push the limit of what is technologically possible. They’re a bold vision tempered by the threat of imminent destruction.

Sound familiar? It should.

Strip away the monsters and robots, and you’ve got a scenario very similar to the one that led to the Space Race. Just as the characters in Pacific Rim live in constant fear of a kaiju attack, the real people of the 1950s and 1960s lived in constant fear of global nuclear war.

Instead of building robots, Cold War Americans and Soviets built rockets. Instead of defeating giant monsters, the goal was to demonstrate technological superiority and deny the enemy a foothold in outer space.

Sure, it’s easy to compare the fictional technological achievement of giant robots with the actual achievement of giant rockets like the Saturn V, but what really links Pacific Rim and the Space Race isn’t the human ability to create and wield technology, it’s the attitude that makes it happen.

The Cold War was, after all, the driving force behind the Space Race. In a 2006 New York Times interview, Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the American Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium, put it this way:

“What actually happened is that Sputnik lit a fire under our buns, and we said, “This is not good. The Soviet Union is our enemy and we have to beat them.”

Indeed, we wouldn’t have had sophisticated rocket technology or legions of trained pilots and engineers without the military.Pacific Rim and the Space Race

In that case, Pacific Rim might be a better explanation of the motivations behind human space exploration than Star Trek.

Still, there is a non-cynical way to look at this.

The positive side of both the jaeger and space programs is that they were all-out efforts that were pursued regardless of cost or chance of success. Humanity is capable of such feats, when it feels like it.

If humanity ever does face an existential threat that requires some awesome new form of technology to face, I’m confident we’ll be able to handle it; we’ve done it before. Solving global warming, on the other hand? Not so sure.

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Five things that make Star Trek better than reality

Star Trek TOS castFor those of you who don’t live in an imaginary universe, today is First Contact Day. In the Star Trek mythos, Humans and Vulcans first met on April 5, 2063, after the inaugural warp flight of Zefram Cochrane’s Phoenix caught the attention of a Vulcan survey ship.

In honor of First Contact Day, I’d like to (try) to explain what I love about Star Trek the most. It’s not the aliens or the reliable sound effects, it’s that Star Trek depicts an ideal society that we should all work to make real. Here are five things that make living in the Star Trek universe better than living in reality.

Klingon replicator1) No Money

Obviously, this is a good thing. Money might make the world go ‘round in 2013, but it would be pretty sweet to live in a world without poverty in 2213. Also, because it will never have to worry about paying bills again, humanity can become more goal-oriented.  How many investors do you think would be interested in financing construction of a massive starship just so William Shatner can cruise around the galaxy in it?

Granted, this isn’t something that can be realistically achieved without a massive technological breakthrough. Star Trek’s money-less society relies on matter replicators, which can easily make all of the necessities of life like food, clothing, and even large machines. Since most commodities are infinitely replicable, there’s no point in charging money for them.

So far, we’re not even close to building replicators (3D printers don’t count).

USS Enterprise refit engineering2) Machines that help Humans instead of replacing them

I read a lot about how robots and computers will eventually replace the human worker, thanks to their efficiency and the fact that they never ask for raises. Star Trek shows us an ideal human-machine relationship and, while the machines do a lot of the heavy lifting, humans are still doing the work.

Every Trekkie recognizes the voice of Majel Barrett-Roddenberry, because she’s the audio talent behind every starship computer. These computers do plenty of things: they operate systems, run diagnostics, and conduct database searches. But they don’t do that on their own: Starfleet officers are always telling the computers what to do, and analyzing the information they provide.

If it were any other way, there would be no point in sending the Enterprise on a five-year mission of exploration; a robotic probe would be much cheaper. Starfleet even has an android officer, Data, but all he wants is to be human. That’s the right attitude.

The Federation doesn’t just explore space to gather data, it explores to give people the opportunity to see new things. That’s why the Enterprise’s helmsman puts the ship into Warp 9, even if a computer is actually firing up the engines.

Data playing guitar3) People who do what they love

The result of a money-less society and healthy amounts of automation is that people are able to do things because they want to. No one in Star Trek takes a job because they need health insurance, and they have plenty of free time to enrich themselves.

It’s amazing how many people on every incarnation of the Enterprise are musicians, artists, or actors. It’s also cool to think about how wonderful life would be if everyone had time to pursue things like that.

A hobby is a great way to take one’s mind of the drudgery of everyday life, and it’s even more enjoyable when there is time to devote to it. Today, it’s hard to conduct recreational pursuits for their own sake because our time is so valuable, but in a future where income and manual labor don’t exist, that won’t be the case.

USS Enterprise NCC-1701A4) Spaceships

Of course, people will need something more substantial to do. Humanity requires more substantial tasks than cottage industry (sorry, Etsy and Kickstarter) and space exploration is a very substantial task.

Spacecraft are cool in their own right, but their most important role in Star Trek is keeping people productive. If we no longer need to work for a living, and if we’re displaced from today’s jobs by machines, we can’t just sit around all day posting photos to Instagram.

Luckily, Starfleet is very labor-intensive. The original USS Enterprise (NCC-1701) had a crew of 432, while the Next Generation-era Enterprise (NCC-1701D) had about 1,000 souls aboard (including civilians). There’s also the armies of people needed to build these things, plus command staff, diplomats, designers, and other Starfleet personnel.

Most importantly, Starfleet gives people a chance to go to new places and experience new things, which brings us to the best thing about Star Trek

Starfleet5) Imagination

Something I find very annoying about life in 2013 is that we constantly talk about how high-tech our society is, but can never find any good uses for that technology. Facebook is fun, but whatever happened to going to the moon, or curing diseases? What we have is a lack of imagination.

Gene Roddenberry wasn’t lacking in imagination. He imagined how technology could solve humanity’s greatest problems, and enable its greatest achievements. It wasn’t a realistic vision, but at least it gave us something to shoot for.

Restricting ourselves to only thinking of new ways to use existing technology will never advance anything, because its doesn’t give people a reason to. That’s how technological advances happen: people think of something that doesn’t exist, and try to create it.

Constantly recycling today’s digital tech won’t do that. Yes, we could have “smart” toothbrushes that play our Pandora stations, but if our predecessors had the same attitude we’d still be riding stagecoaches.

No cleverly named app will unite the world, but a ship that can travel faster than the speed of light just might. Maybe we’ll find out in 50 years.

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Why a Nietzschean superman values humanity more than humans

Doctor ManhattanIt’s not often that a superior being reminds you about why it’s great to be human. As we wade through our daily lives, we tend to notice the negatives: confusion, irrationality, uncontrolled emotion, physical frailty, the list goes on.

That uniquely human trait known as “consciousness” might seem to override these foibles, but the rise of big data is making it seem like what Watchmen’s Dr. Manhattan would call a “highly overrated phenomenon.” Luckily, the Doctor is in.

In Watchmen Manhattan, a super being with God-like control of matter, along with the ability to teleport, fly, and grow into a giant, hides out on Mars after being accused of giving his colleagues cancer. He teleports his former girlfriend, Laurie Jupiter, herself a superhero called the Silk Spector, to Mars to convince him to save humanity. In the end, he convinces himself.

Manhattan sees things on a big scale (he finds erosion entertaining), so he’s more aware than most people of the unlikelihood of a specific human individual coming into existence.

“To distill so specific a form from that chaos of improbability, like turning air into gold… That is the crowning unlikelihood. The thermodynamic miracle,” Manhattan says. It’s particularly true of Laurie, whose mother had sex with her (absent) father even after he tried to rape her.

The whole speech is very dramatic, and definitely worth a read, but what does this have to do with data?

Sometimes I wonder if people think they can override human uniqueness with data, that if they acquire a large enough sample size, they can accurately predict human behavior.

I made the mistake of going to a psychology lecture in college. The visiting professor, apparently a well-regarded expert in the field, said his experiments had determined the level of autonomy an individual exhibits in a given situation.

I’m not a psychologist, but that seemed a bit odd. Doesn’t extrapolating what people do under controlled circumstances run counter to the nature of, well, autonomy?

Some might point to the wealth of data from uncontrolled circumstances that is available to researchers. Data: A Love Story is about how an Internet trend analyst constructed the ideal online dating profile by data-mining sites, and found herself a fiancee by systematizing her dating preferences.

Since I’m not very good at math, I guess that means I’ll never find true love online. Or maybe the future isn’t that dismal.

It’s true that Netflix can make good movie recommendations, but can an algorithm really account for the infinite number of variables contained within each individual consciousness?

By definition, data tells us what people have already done. As long as they keep doing the same thing (which, admittedly, they probably will) that’s fine. But what happens if someone changes their behavior? Or everyone?

Humans are subject to physical needs and social stimuli, but they are not programmed to act a certain way. As Dr. Manhattan points out, each person is one of a nearly infinite amount of possible combinations. It’s important to remember that.

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History, uranium particles and all

Manhattan Project Trinity testAccording to a recent NPR piece, certain parts of Los Alamos National Laboratory are on their way to becoming a National Park. In case you slept through high school history, Los Alamos was the key site of the Manhattan Project; the park would include the building where the “Little Boy” atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima was assembled.

Obviously, Manhattan Project National Park could generate controversy, and where there’s controversy, there’s Congress. The bill to create the park was shot down in the House of Representatives in September.

“We’re talking about the devastation of the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — hundreds of thousands killed, $10 trillion Cold War between the U.S. and Russia, tens of thousands of nuclear weapons which today threaten the existence of the world — and this is something we should celebrate?” Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) said at the time.

Kucinich may have (gloriously) tried to impeach President George W. Bush, but this time he’s not seeing the big picture. Aside from the obvious logistical issues inherent in opening a former nuclear test, and current weapons lab, to the public, Los Alamos would be an incredibly valuable educational tool.

The atomic bombs dropped on Japan during World War II were the most destructive weapons ever unleashed by humankind, and constant recognition of that fact is what has kept the United States and other countries from using them again.

Seventy-one years after Pearl Harbor, Americans still remember World War II with reverence and respect for the people who fought and died. Ignoring how it ended because it might not make the country look good would be a bit silly.

The bombs may have killed thousands of people and started the Cold War, but they are still a part of our history. So while we shouldn’t celebrate the deaths of our former enemies, we should acknowledge them.

If it is true to the story of the Manhattan Project, this park should do just that. It won’t depict mad scientists gleefully working on a weapon of mass destruction, but the most brilliant minds of a generation trying to end a war while expanding humanity’s scientific knowledge, and knowing exactly what they were doing.

This is the kind of thing that sounds like a political or moral issue only if you don’t think about it. American national parks commemorate the bloodiest battles of the Civil War, and expose the exploitation of slaves and sweatshop workers.

In fact, there are already publicly-funded museums that already discuss the atomic bomb. The United States Miliatry Academy’s museum includes a replica “Fat Man” bomb, like the one dropped on Nagasaki. Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the first atomic bomb, is one display at the National Air & Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center.

History isn’t pretty, and sanitizing it won’t change that. Atomic weapons killed many people, but they were the weapons that ended the Second World War. Trying to teach people about those events has nothing to do with glorifying them, it’s just an acknowledgment of the truth.

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