Watch Curiosity Land on Mars in Realie Vision!

NASA’s latest wonder-probe to Mars, Curiosity, is scheduled to land on Mars at 10:31 p.m. EDT, on the night of August 5th. Be there, and don’t even think about being square. NASA has worked out a way for folks online to experience the event using some kind of 3D software on their computers, and even on their Xbox game sets. Who says NASA doesn’t have a sense of wonder? Go here to see all the different activities they’ve worked out for folks to do in connection with the Mars landing, or here to get set up with the Unity Web Player to experience the landing to full effect. They’re encouraging people to start getting set up now, so everyone isn’t crashing the servers getting set up on the night of the 5th. Go here if you want to learn more about the mission.

Just how exciting could this landing be? After all, we’ve landed on Mars before. But not like this. Take a look at this video to see just how difficult this feat really is. If this doesn’t get you pumped, better check to see if you still have pulse. Pop it up to full screen if you can.

If you have trouble viewing it on this page, go to the source.

Relativistic Baseball

posted in: quirky, science 0

While we’re on the subject of baseball (and that is not a subject you’ll very often find me talking about–no offense, Red Sox), I have to mention this XKCD page: Relativistic Baseball

Have you considered what the effects might be if a pitcher could throw a baseball toward the plate at just under the speed of light? No? Why ever not? Well, the creator of XKCD has, and you owe it to yourself to read his eye-opening and funny analysis. Suffice to say, the effects on the surrounding habitable zone are not pretty. There is surely an SF story in this somewhere.

What Is Reality?

posted in: science 0

My vision is all foggy right now, from having my pupils dilated by the eye doc.* That makes it hard to do any real work, so I decided to use the first hour of my enforced leisure to… well, leiszh, as Julia put it. I checked the DVR and saw that it had recorded the first episode of a new science show called Stephen Hawking’s Grand Design. This episode was about the meaning of life. (Which we all know is 42, but never mind that.)
*That’s no longer true, but it was true when I started writing this.

Now, my admiration for Stephen Hawking as a physicist and science communicator knows few bounds, and I was as geek-happy as anyone when he made his appearance in Star Trek: the Next Generation. But I wonder if he oversteps his area of wisdom when he speaks as a philosopher. In fact, in the opening to the show, he makes the statement, “Philosophy is dead.” Because physics killed it. Because everything in the universe is defined by physics, so (he implies) the soft disciplines need not apply. Strong statement. Does he support it? He tries. His approach is unabashedly reductionist. 

The show went on with a moderately interesting overview of all of the ways physics rules. Lots of pretty graphics, and nothing you don’t already know. I started to feel that I was listening to Sheldon Cooper of Big Bang Theory discourse on the supremacy of theoretical physics. Having established that physics rules over everything from quarks to the cosmos, Hawking proceeds to ask whether free will really exists. How can it? he asks, when our impulses and actions are governed by physics, when our actions and even our feelings can be influenced by electrodes in our brains, giving only the illusion of our own control. Ah, but what about chaos and unpredictability? Does that allow free will, or at least explain our perception of it? I don’t think he gave us a yes or no—or if he did, it was while I was in the kitchen getting a slice of pizza.

I kept waiting for him to bring quantum uncertainty into the question, but that never came up. That surprised me, because from a mechanistic, physical point of view, quantum uncertainty seems to be an elephant in the room in any discussion of free will. If we’re all just a collection of particles behaving according to physics, what does it mean if we fundamentally cannot predict or even measure completely the behavior of an individual particle? Perhaps a topic for another time, but it felt like an odd omission to me. Still, that wasn’t my problem so much as his assertion that particles and firing neurons are the sole explanation of consciousness and mind. Do I object to it as a hypothesis? No. But is it fact, scientifically provable fact? Of course not. We’re far from being able to prove such a thing. I doubt we ever will. In fact, I don’t even think it’s true. (That’s a personal opinion, not a scientific assertion.) 

Hawking avoids any discussion of God or spiritual dimension, though it’s easy to infer that he simply regards these matters as outside the bounds of reality. He does talk, though, about differing subjective views of reality. He offers the charming example of a fish peering out through a distorting fishbowl (or a guy peering through foggy vision?). He goes on to say that it’s entirely possible that we’re all just code running inside a gigantic, cosmic computer. How would we know? (But wait—wouldn’t that, if true, render moot all of the previous discussion of physics controlling everything?)

It comes down in the end, he says, to finding the “best fit” among models of reality. What model “best fits” the evidence? Fair enough. But it seems to me that that’s where his physics and his philosophy get tangled up. His best fit seems to include “scientific” assertions that really haven’t been proven by science, and probably can’t be. I’m thinking, maybe Hawking should stick to the physics he does so well, but not claim for it powers beyond its reach.

“We should take care not to make the intellect our god; it has, of course, powerful muscles, but no personality.” —Albert Einstein

Venus Video Montage

Mars shouldn’t get all the glory. I used to travel to both planets regularly in my head, via the great stories I read. One of my favorites, when I was about twelve, was the Tom Corbett Space Cadet book, Revolt on Venus.

Venus just made the last transit across the face of the sun that will be visible from Earth this century. Here’s a lovely montage of video images in various wavelengths taken and edited together by NASA. Who says NASA has no poetry in its soul? You can make it full screen for best effect.

View on youtube

And just for fun, here’s a time-lapse shot from the last transit, in 2004, showing the International Space Station and Venus making a transit across the face of the sun, almost as if in formation.

We’re Doomed!

posted in: astronomy, science, space 0

Scientists have confirmed: the Andromeda galaxy (M31) is on a collision course with our own Milky Way galaxy. When the centers of the two galaxies collide, or even shear past each other if it’s a near-miss, there’s going to be an awful lot of cosmic smacking around happening. Eventually the two galaxies will probably merge, turning two beautiful spirals into a huge elliptical blob. It’s hard to say what will happen in our corner of the action, about two-thirds of the way out from our galactic center. It’s possible that it’ll just be a mind-blowing light show. But I’m not counting on it.
This could happen in the next four billion years. We’ve still got time to pack. But we’re fools if we don’t get working on that star drive right now.
Here‘s an artist’s conception of what it might look like, mid-tango. See it bigger at Astronomy Picture of the Day. And see what the stages of the collision might look like here, where you can also read more about it.
Seems to me there should be a good science fiction story in this. Probably more than one.

Mind Control

Mind over machine. Science fiction has predicted for decades that one day we would be able to control things by hooking our brains up to computers that would just make it all happen. And now it has happened: a paralyzed woman has used her mind to control a robot arm and make it bring a coffee cup to her lips to drink. This is not just cool; it is a promise of incalculable benefit to severely handicapped people everywhere, hopefully in the not-too-distant future.

The work was developed by scientists at Brown University, the Providence VA Medical Center, Harvard Medical School and other institutions. The AP story gives more information.

NASA Cuts: What Is Obama Thinking?

Congress is right now considering future budgets for the funding of our space program, and it’s got me extremely worried. The Obama administration has proposed deep cuts, especially for planetary sciences. This is crazy, stupid, and short-sighted, and I call upon Congress to turn this thing around—please! Let’s continue funding our world-class space program, especially for space and planetary sciences, which since the Apollo days have been the capstone of American scientific exploration. The U.S. has already pulled out of one important international planetary mission, based just on the proposed budget. It would be a travesty to cancel other cutting-edge space missions.

It’s practically a given most of the American public thinks we spend a lot more on the space program than we actually do. In fact, NASA’s budget has always been a drop in the bucket compared to the Defense Department’s. Even at the height of the relatively extravagant days of the Apollo Moon landing program, the space program only accounted for a few percent of the federal budget. Since then it’s been sharply cut back. And now they want to cut it back even further. This despite the fact that every dollar spent on space helps to stimulate the economy, maintain our leadership in science and technology, inspire young scientists and engineers—and that’s in addition to advancing our knowledge of the universe, and laying the groundwork for a future spacefaring civilization.

The Obama budget would put the brakes on all of this. And when you put the brakes on a programs like this, you don’t just slow things down, you cause enormous disruption to long-range endeavors and put highly trained people out of work, people whom you might not be able to get back a few years down the road. I’m an Obama supporter, but this may be his administration’s single most misguided action.

To voice your support of space exploration, contact your Congress critter. One way you can do that is by signing on with the message from the Planetary Society, which you can dispatch to your representatives here.

Cameron Dives the Mariana Trench!

Filmmaker James Cameron (Avatar, The Abyss) has become the third human in history to travel seven miles down into the deepest part of the ocean—the Challenger Deep, in the Pacific Ocean’s Mariana Trench. He’s the first to do it alone, as leader of the Deepsea Challenge mission.

I was eleven when the Trieste made the first, two-man, dive in 1960. I’ve often wondered why nobody ever went back (just as I’ve wondered why we haven’t returned to the Moon). Well, now this team has done it, and it’s the first of a planned series of dives. Whereas the Trieste got just twenty minutes of bottom time and never returned, Cameron and the submersible Deepsea Challenger spent a couple of hours there, gathering samples and shooting 3D video. Here’s the first of many video clips about the National Geographic sponsored mission:

When I blogged, just days ago, about two separate planned expeditions, I had no idea that Cameron’s dive was imminent. And I almost missed it when it happened. The story was buried in the Boston Globe, and it’s too early for it to be in any of my science mags. In my previous forays to the Deepsea Challenge site, I’d failed to notice the prominent box where you can sign up for email updates. I’ve fixed that. But I can’t help wondering: Why aren’t stories like this front-page news? If I were running the world, they would be! Because, by God, this is exciting stuff. What a time to be alive!

New Scientist and God

New Scientist is my favorite magazine, where science is concerned. They cover lots of cool science, and even have a science fictional streak I admire. But when they venture into questions of God, faith, and religion, they invariably leave me frustrated and disillusioned. The editors approach such questions with such programmatic atheism that any hope for fruitful and open discussion quickly dies. So it was with a certain reluctance that I opened the latest issue: The God Issue: The Surprising New Science of Religion.

Was I greeted by surprising new science? Not really. Did it live up to the promises on the cover? (The idea that launched a thousand civilizations / God’s existence put to the test) Not even close.

The bias was pretty upfront, starting with the headline on the opening editorial:

Know your enemy
The new science of religion tells us where secularists are going wrong

They don’t mean where secularists are going wrong in their evaluation of religious belief, but where they’re going wrong in their efforts to eradicate it. “Religious claims still wither under rational scrutiny and deserve no special place in public life. But it is a call for those who aspire to a secular society to approach it rationally — which means making more effort to understand what they are dealing with.” In other words, know your enemy. And in the opening page to the features section: “Only by understanding what religion is and is not can we ever hope to move on.” By move on, they seem to mean, discard religion for a more enlightened way of thinking.

So we know where they stand.

But what about the articles? They’re a mixed bag. The first, by Justin L. Barrett, is a pretty interesting discussion of how babies and young children learn and develop mental models of “agents” that influence things in the world. There seems to be a built-in predilection for attributing events they see to an “agency,” or a higher power. The thesis here is well summarized by the closing lines: “[Children] have strong natural tendencies toward religion, but these tendencies do not inevitably propel them towards any one religious belief. Instead, the way our minds solve problems generates a god-shaped conceptual space waiting to be filled by the details of the culture into which they are born.” Not a bad article.

It’s followed by several others, including one that discusses how religions may have helped create social structures that brought us out of the Stone Age. I’m not sure I learned much from it, but it wasn’t a bad article, either. The collection hits its low point, however, with “The God Hypothesis,” by Victor J. Stenger, which proposes to discuss the existence or nonexistence of God by reference to empirical evidence. No empirical evidence is offered, however.  What we get instead is a warmed-over collection of statements that this or that aspect of theology has been tested and found wanting. A feel-good piece for atheists: no actual information, no details about what studies have been done or how they were designed. Finally, there’s a discussion of the position of Alain de Botton that atheists ought to seek out and adopt the “useful bits” of religion, such as ritual gatherings for the purpose of community building. Fine by me, but not exactly news. Haven’t the Unitarians been doing this for quite a while now?

Personally, I’m agnostic on the question of whether God’s existence can be proven or disproven by science, or by logic. Most people I know who believe in God do so because of personal experience, personal encounters that have little to do with abstract logical constructions. (Or in my own case, the logical questioning had to bring me to the point of saying, “Okay, this is possible.” And then the experiential part began.) When you’ve had that kind of experience, the question of “proof” starts to seem tedious and irrelevant. But that doesn’t mean I think science should stop looking. 

I think the real problem with this particular publication is that the editors, who so excel in other areas of science journalism, are blind to their own biases about the relationship between science and religion. They keep writing as though they’ve got the whole thing covered, yet seem clueless about what the actual religious experience is. If they could let go—just for once—of the notion that religion is their enemy, perhaps they could genuinely explore questions such as the role faith plays (or does not play) in mental health, or healing, or personal development, or community building, or intellectual inquiry. I’d even be happy if they could, without demonizing, examine why some religious movements (such as certain conservative Christian streams in the U.S.) so resolutely obstruct the input of science in public policy. I agree this is happening, and it’s bad; I disagree with the assumption that religious belief per se is the problem. They might even spend some time talking to scientists who are also people of faith, and see what we can learn about how some pretty rational people integrate those two modes of thought.

Maybe these questions don’t belong primarily in a science magazine, though I don’t see why not. But I do wish the editors of New Scientist would recognize that what they’re putting in the mag now isn’t so much science as dogma pretending at science.

Maybe the true enemy isn’t religion, but intellectual prejudice.


Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea

Would you go to the bottom of the sea in this craft?

Image: Virgin Oceanic

Only two humans have ever traveled to the deepest part of the ocean, the Mariana Trench, seven miles down in the Pacific Ocean off the Philippine Islands. That happened more than fifty years ago, when Lieutenant Don Walsh of the U. S. Navy and Swiss engineer Jacques Piccard descended into the depths in the U.S. Navy bathyscaph Trieste, in 1960. (Nine years before the first humans set foot on the Moon.) I’m sure others have dreamed of it. (I have.)

Sometimes it takes a really rich person to pursue this kind of dream. Sir Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Galactic, is one such person. He’s paying for the completion of Virgin Oceanic’s one-man submersible, in which explorer Chris Welsh will attempt the first manned follow-up to the historic Trieste dive. It looks cool as hell. But can it survive the crushing depth of the Challenger Deep? Read about it here.

And if they don’t make it, maybe James Cameron and his Deepsea Challenger will. (See their very cool website.)

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