Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Imagine a World without Metaphysics

Untold hours are spent across planet Earth trying to resolve questions that are unresolvable. Such questions include the existence of God, what happens after you die, whether there are other universes, what happened before the universe, and the ultimate purpose of the universe. It's not just that scientists haven't found these answers yet; rather, the answers to these questions are impossible to obtain. The questions themselves are literally senseless: our senses cannot ever access information that would help answer them. As the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein believed, there is something wrong with trying to answer metaphysical questions with the language we use.

The cosmic paradigm is essentially the rejection of metaphysics as a legitimate field of inquiry. For a cosmic paradigm to prevail, humans will have to fully divorce metaphysical questions from the realm of public policy. I believe that if secular societies dominated the landscapes of our solar system, humans will eventually quit demanding that others live by their metaphysical assumptions; indeed they will eventually turn away from seeking objective answers to metaphysical questions entirely.

Though some will always cling to metaphysical interpretations of life, I believe people will largely begin to seek solace in this world, in this life. I believe that what energy has historically been channeled into metaphysical projects, such as the building of magnificent cathedrals, will be diverted into projects whose rewards are unambiguously intended for this life. What wonders would be possible in a world without metaphysics?

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Review: Thus Spoke Zarathustra

Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for All and None is Fredrich Nietzsche's only fictional work. The protagonist is Zarathustra, named after the Persian prophet who preached the struggle between good and evil, Zoroaster. Nietzsche's Zarathustra disposes of this morality, though the style of the book ironically reflects that of the New Testament.

Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche bookRead more reviews on AmazonA central theme in Zarathustra is the death of God—a cultural, not metaphysical, event. Zarathustra witnesses his countrymen's fading belief in God, but the belief is not being replaced by anything that motivates action. His countrymen are becoming the last man, Nietzsche's conception of a completely tame human who avoids all risk and just seeks to exist in comfort. To counter this, Zarathustra preaches the overman, the antithesis of the last man and new purpose for humanity. He declares, "The overman is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the overman shall be the meaning of the earth!"

It's true that Nietzsche's vision of the overman can quickly conjure connections to the Nazi eugenics program and their notion of a master race. Zarathustra himself could be interpreted as an ill-tempered proto-Hitler who "brandishes his stick" at those who annoy him.

But in my view the overman can't be a racial concept at all, and also not an agent of nationalism, German or otherwise. Though Nietzsche has said the overman must be bred, he never displayed an understanding of evolution or genetics. Rather, it seems likely that by bred he meant cultivated in an environment free of the heavy weight of moral dogmas and absolutes. Perhaps it is in this sense that Nietzsche hoped his work would pave the way for the overman—the strong-willed, creative, yet lighthearted individual. To catch a glimpse of this ideal human is how Thus Spoke Zarathustra could be a book for all. That such an ideal is unreachable is how it's a book for none.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Spaceflight as the Highest Hope

It is with great optimism that I view the human future in space. There is nothing that excites me more than participating in a grand effort to colonize other worlds, and sharing this experience with other sentient beings. It is at heart an epic undertaking to spread life—with all its perils and miseries—to new and more distant horizons, to ever-greater heights, to ever-more hostile realms of the unknown. Within the human heart lies a longing to take risks, for the rewards of the cosmos do not come with guarantees.

We are a species that is never satisfied with the current state of affairs. We seek improvements, growth, development, and enlightenment. How can we assess the state of affairs in the valleys of Mars, or in the lunar plains, without human hearts beating in situ, without human hands sifting through the soil?

The promise of spaceflight is to provide us with hope. We were born into a hopeful world because others made it that way—through their own blood, sweat, and tears they made the world that way. They eradicated smallpox so that humans may live to choose their own futures; they built internal combustion engines so that we may be liberated from the limits of muscle power; and they built great rockets so that we may know other worlds. It is up to us to carve a future in which a new generation of dreamers will find inspiration, and will carry the torch of hope farther than we can imagine. Is this not the key to our own fulfillment in this life? Is it not our highest hope to sail amongst the planets as lords of the Solar System?

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Speciesism

There is a kind of prejudice that is widespread among humans today. If you claim that you at least try to be a moral person, as almost everyone does, you are faced with the question of who will receive your moral treatment. In other words, who has moral status? I suspect that if I polled people across the world on this question they would overwhelming respond that all humans do. The common phrases "this is a human being", "treated like an animal", and "basic human rights" reflect the current paradigm that humans have a higher moral status.

But why should other humans be the only recipients of our moral treatment? What exactly is it about humans that entitles them to this status? If we try to argue that humans have moral status because they behave altruistically, we run into trouble. Worker ants, for example, sacrifice much more for others than humans do. I don't hear much praise of worker ants—presumably because we understand they do this on instinct. We understand they are genetically programmed to aid other ants because they are likely to be from the same colony and carry the same genes.

Perhaps then we should assign moral status to other humans simply because we are closely related. This line of thinking is probably much more common than the former. It's the same line of thinking, however, behind racism. Keep the level of relatedness tight, and you have racism; extend it to include all humans, and you have speciesism. The boundary of the species seems quite meaningless. What does the ability to interbreed have to do with morality?

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Review: The Railway

Édouard Manet's 1873 The Railway showcased the unfolding urban landscape of modern Paris. The two figures in the painting are standing in front of railway tracks that led to the largest train station in Paris, the Gare Saint-Lazare. At this time trains were beginning to grant urban residents greater freedom of movement, as the automobile would not be mass-produced for several more decades. The trains would have been powered by the combustion of coal, the heat from which converted water into steam to drive a reciprocating engine. This was a time when the smoke from trains and factories would be seen as symbols of economic progress, rather than environmental destruction.

The Railway by Edouard Manet artManet's decision to depict modern scenes disrupted the artistic conventions of the time. In The Railway, the bars of the iron gate tend to divide the composition into regular intervals. This can be contrasted with the traditional preference for a natural background, which leaves the composition open and boundless. The iron bars in this painting can evoke the same sense of having constraints as does urban life today.

The Railway has also been interpreted as an optimistic view of the future. The girl looks down, perhaps fascinated, at the passing marvel of modern technology. The woman sits, a serene look on her face, with an open book in her lap. An open book has long been used in art to symbolize the power of knowledge, and this interpretation is not undermined by the modernity of this scene. The same promises of knowledge—personal fulfillment, economic success, social progress—seem to be more and more applicable as time goes on.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

An Ignorant Dispatch to the Stars

The Pioneer plaques were attached to the Pioneer 10 and 11 spacecraft, which are already about twice as far from the Sun as Pluto. Though they ran out of fuel long ago, the two spacecraft have enough velocity to completely escape from the Solar System. They will wander amongst the stars in the eons to come, their gold-covered plaques hitching a ride. The idea behind the plaques was to communicate information about humanity should the spacecraft be intercepted by extraterrestrials. Of course, such information must be culture-neutral if it is to be readily understood by an alien race. Simple drawings of our bodies and solar system made up the plaque.

Pioneer plaque
The Pioneer plaque
There is one piece of information on the plaque that should begin to strike us as odd. The bottom contains a linear progression of circles, the first being much larger than the rest. These obviously represent our sun and planets. The next four circles are small, like the terrestrials planets, and the four after those are larger, like the gas giants. But why is there a ninth planet that is as small as the first four?

Our initial inclusion of Pluto as a planet is an example of our failure to group objects by their characteristics. Neil deGrasse Tyson, an American astrophysicist, advocates looking at commonalities between astronomical objects and moving away from simply counting the planets. He sees the terrestrial planets as one group, the gas giants as a second, and Pluto and like objects as a third. This makes a great deal of sense to me. It's too bad the reclassification of Pluto by the International Astronomical Union didn't happen before the Pioneer plaques were dispatched to the stars. What might an extraterrestrial think after looking at that ninth circle?

Thursday, June 2, 2011

I've Learned Enough!

I often find myself pursuing knowledge as if some great state of enlightenment were just around the corner. But the quest never ends! There is simply no way of obtaining even a large fraction of all human knowledge. And I'm not sure it would make me happy if there were. The sum of human knowledge is expanding, and barring a collapse of free civilization, it will continue to do so. So there is nothing special about the present state of science; in the grand continuum of spacetime, the modern collection of scientific knowledge merely coincides with our time and location in the universe.

In addition to our expanding body of knowledge, there were things known by humans that have been lost forever. When the Library of Alexandria burned to the ground, humans watched as centuries of information was literally erased from the world. There were things known that will never be known again.

Even if we could absorb all that was ever known or will be known by humans, this only represents the knowledge of our species. If there are other intelligent creatures in the cosmos, we would miss out on their knowledge unless we made contact. But many of these civilizations, if they existed, have surely destroyed themselves. Others might come into existence in the future, foreclosing the possibility of mutual understanding. Yet even if one considers the total knowledge of all intelligence that ever was or ever will be, there are still things that will never be known. Imagine the astronomical cataclysms that light the skies of barren solar systems in neglected corners of the universe—great fireworks shows that unfold before no one's eyes. When I ponder the limited set of facts I will ever know, I sometimes feel I've learned enough to be happy.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Review: The Case for Mars

Robert Zubrin, an aerospace engineer, popularized an exploration plan called Mars Direct in his 1996 book The Case for Mars. The book is organized coherently, with the earlier chapters focused on getting to Mars and the later ones discussing colonization and terraformation. It is largely a reaction against a 1989 NASA study, often called the "90-Day Study", which laid out a plan to get humans to the Red Planet. This plan involved sending a single, massive spaceship that would carry with it all necessary supplies, and would follow a trajectory through the highly irradiated neighborhood of Venus—all at a cost of around $450 billion.

The Case for Mars by Robert Zubrin bookRead more reviews on AmazonIn The Case for Mars, Zubrin compares the spacecraft architecture of the 90-Day Study to the enormous ships, backed by the British Admiralty, of Sir John Franklin's failed attempt to navigate the Northwest Passage in 1845. The essence of Mars Direct, on the other hand, is to explore Mars like the more successful Europeans explored the Arctic. These expeditions embraced the resources and ways of the local environment, for instance by using dog sleds for travel. A central feature of Mars Direct is to use the indigenous Martian atmosphere to produce breathing oxygen and rocket fuel.

Perhaps the biggest problem with Mars Direct is that it is not a very robust mission architecture. It relies on the near-perfect execution of many successive steps, with a single failure bringing the whole thing down. It's never a good sign when a broad mission strategy specifies the exact dates at which events are to take place. By now we should know that technical, political, and economic failures will inevitably interrupt our spacefaring plans. Mars Direct does not leave much room for these failures.

Robert Zubrin is a man of bold ideas and he doesn't shrink away from challenges. Though his writing style reflects that of an engineer, the vocabulary and concepts he presents are generally accessible. Zubrin is prejudiced in thinking that Mars is the only important target of exploration, but The Case for Mars is nonetheless a valiant attempt to outline a minimalist strategy for exploring the Red Planet.

Friday, May 27, 2011

What Does the Pope Have to Do with Spaceflight?

Several days ago the crew of the second-to-last Space Shuttle mission, STS-134, spent 20 minutes of their time speaking with Pope Benedict XVI. Shuttle missions are always tightly packed with activities, so NASA must have considered this phone call a high priority. So what did they talk about?

One item of discussion was the recovery of mission commander Mark Kelly's wife, Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot through the head by a gunman in January. The Pope wished Giffords a speedy recovery from her injuries. The Pope's wish will do nothing to help Giffords recover, except possibly improve her mood if she hears and cares about the Pope's remarks. If Giffords recovers, it will be because of the emergency medical team that picked her up off the ground, the hospital staff that took her in, the scientists that toiled over the centuries, and the inventors and industrialists that made this society possible. Nowhere does the Pope come into play.

What is a young child going to think when NASA—which is thought to represent science and rational thinking—arranges for their astronauts to waste 20 minutes of their time talking to an old mystic in a robe? Why, the child might wonder, is this man so important as to hold up the mission? Speaking to the astronauts, Benedict said, "You are our representatives spearheading humanity's exploration of new spaces and possibilities for our future." If the astronauts are our representatives, then they ought to represent the best and brightest of us. They ought not pay homage to backwards, patriarchal organizations that have quite awkward relationships with science and exploration.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

France's Ban on Face Covering

On April 11th, 2011, it became illegal in France to wear face-covering garments, including veils worn by Muslim women. French president Nicholas Sarkozy stated that full veils are "not welcome" in France, and that the law banning them is to protect women from being forced to cover their faces and to uphold France's secular values. The ban is supported by 80% of French citizens. Less than 2,000 Muslim women were thought to wear the niqab, or face-covering veil.

Three women wearing the niqab
Women wearing the niqab
While I sympathize with France's desire to protect women and create a secular society, I cannot support this law. I suppose it boils down to whether you value genuine freedom or not. Genuine freedom would include the freedom for a person to make bad decisions, so long as there are no other victims. France's version of freedom seems to mean the freedom to choose between different paths in life that have already been stamped by society as "dignified". It seems to imply that dignity is something that can be defined by consensus, and whatever is undignified anyway can be made dignified through the judicial system.

I don't often find myself siding with Muslims, and I do see the Burka and niqab as symbols of oppression and backwardness. Yet France's attempts to guarantee dignity and to protect women from force have no legitimacy. How can dignity be something that is applied from the outside, rather than something coming from within? And how can France protect people from being forced to wear certain clothes by forcing them to wear certain clothes?

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Review: At the Mountains of Madness

At the Mountains of Madness tells of a geological expedition that discovers the ruins of a prehuman civilization in Antarctica. The author, H. P. Lovecraft, draws in the reader by suggesting scenes of unimaginable horror. His rich imagery in phrases like "morbid survival from nightmare antiquity" leaves the reader needing further explanation.

The Transition of H. P. Lovecraft: The Road to Madness bookRead more reviews on AmazonLovecraft is known to have said "The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown." But it's not so much fear of the unknown as fear of the unknowable that he fills his stories with. The protagonist uses words like incalculably and immeasurably to describe events in the story, thereby abandoning all hope of understanding and communicating his situation. We find that he "can never hope to depict" or "even suggest" the horrors encountered in the frigid Antarctic wasteland.

Some have interpreted Mountains as a fully scientific expression of Lovecraft's earlier supernatural stories. In my view, however, this story is still largely in the realm of fantasy. While the aliens in the story "filtered down from the stars", they apparently originated in "other universes". They posses "a difference in basic nature", are on "another order of being", and the Antarctic world they inhabit is described as having "alien natural law".

At the Mountains of Madness suffers from a periodic slow pace and an over-description of irrelevant detail, weaknesses that can be exacerbated by Lovecraft's somewhat Victorian writing style. The author's technique of luring the reader with hints of horror is perhaps better suited to the short story than the novel. At other times, though, his prose stands out as exceptional. When something happens "amidst the chaos of terrene convulsions long before any human race we know had shambled out of apedome"—or "in the unknown epochs since matter first writhed and swam on the planet's scarce-cooled crust"—we find ourselves sharing Lovecraft's utter fascination with the grand cosmos.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Unpressurized Mars Ascent

An unorthodox approach to lifting astronauts from the Martian surface is for them to ascend in an unpressurized spacecraft, an idea proposed by the aerospace engineer Frank Eichstadt. The astronauts would need to wear space suits to stay alive, but a significant mass savings could be achieved by using a small spacecraft lacking thick outer walls. The motivation for minimizing the mass of an ascent payload is that it could allow a much smaller and more manageable rocket to lift it into Mars orbit. This is important because the amount of fuel required to transport hardware to Mars tends to be some large multiple of the final mass delivered to the surface. A small reduction in ascent payload mass can have a huge effect on the total mass, and therefore cost, of the mission.

In an unpressurized configuration, crew members could ascend in groups—as is traditionally assumed—or they could ascend one by one. Launching astronauts one by one is another way to allow smaller ascent rockets to be used on Mars. Of course, this would require a separate rocket for each crew member, but the advantage may be simplicity of design.

I think it's safe to assume that before any humans depart for the Red Planet, there will be a successful Mars sample return mission. After that occurs, there will be a number of lessons learned regarding the challenge of Mars ascent. There will be a fully flight-proven design of an ascent spacecraft—a design whose strengths and weaknesses will be scrutinized by Earth's best engineers. If, during a human mission, a single crew member were to ascend in an unpressurized spacecraft, I think it's possible that the ascent vehicle used could have some design commonality with the unmanned ascent spacecraft of the sample return mission.

To provide the crew with breathing oxygen during ascent, they could wear the same portable life support system designed for use with their space suits on the surface. This would be possible if the full duration of ascent—from the time the astronauts don their suits to the moment they enter an orbiting ship's airlock—is less than a surface EVA, or extravehicular activity. Portable life support systems for space missions are typically designed to enable EVAs of at least several hours, which may be just long enough for a crew member to rendezvous with an orbiting spacecraft after an unpressurized ascent from the Red Planet.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Did Lenin Save Capitalism?

We may owe the current triumph of capitalism to an unlikely man: Vladimir Illych Lenin. Though Lenin was actually born a nobleman, he grew to hate the Russian aristocracy after his brother was executed for plotting against the Tsar in 1887. By 1917 he had spearheaded a communist revolution in Russia and founded the Soviet Union. The capital of Russia at this time was Petrograd, modern-day St. Petersburg. For fear of German invasion, Lenin in 1918 moved the capital of the Soviet Union from coastal Petrograd to inland Moscow.

Lenin was long dead by the time Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the USSR, in 1941—but because of him the capital of the USSR was in Moscow. Just two months after the invasion began, German troops had arrived at Leningrad, the new name for the old capital, and they proceeded to encircle and siege the city. It was one of the longest sieges in human history, enduring uninterrupted for a full 872 days. The Germans also attacked Moscow, the actual capital, but were driven back after a few months. It seems clear that part of the reason the Germans failed to take Moscow was because it was farther away and centrally-located.

Had Lenin not moved the capital of the USSR to Moscow, the European theater of the Second World War could have run an entirely different course. The Germans may have been able to take Leningrad in a matter of months—denying the Soviets sufficient time to relocate factories east of the Urals and organize a counteroffensive. It's well-known that the drawn-out war on the Eastern Front—which lasted nearly four years—was the main reason for the demise of the Third Reich. A Nazi victory in Europe would have doubtless been followed by campaigns on other continents. Though Lenin's communist state ultimately crumbled, we can perhaps credit his strategic vision for the eventual triumph of capitalism.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Review: Oath of the Horatii

Oath of the Horatii is a canonical expression of Neoclassicism. Although it was painted as a royal commission in 1784, it became a defining image of the upcoming French Revolution. The painting depicts a scene from a Roman myth in which three brothers of Rome, the Horatii, are summoned by their father to fight three brothers from the rival city of Alba. The arrangement is further complicated by a marriage between a soldier in the painting and a sister of his enemies. Likewise, one of the soldiers of Alba is said to be engaged to a sister of the Horatii—the grieving woman in white on the right side of the painting. This message of duty to state over family was popular at the time of the Revolution.

Oath of the Horatii by Jacques-Louis David artThe artist, Jacques-Louis David, idealizes the Horatii brothers and their father. Their bodies are intensely muscular, free of blemishes, and energetically rigid. Nothing in this painting defies the laws of physics, but the soldiers are certainly shown at the upper limits of human fitness. Their geometric and austere posture is emphasized by the linear pattern on the floor and the classical columns of the background, a technique often used in Neoclassical works to evoke themes of rationality and virtue. In contrast, the women in the painting are shown curled up and left to a passive role.

Viewers of Oath of the Horatii often note the men in the painting show no emotion. This seems to me less because of the men's role in the scene—which is to be strictly disciplined—than because of David's own technique in rendering facial expressions. To be "locked on" to a military duty is an intensely emotional experience; it is not so much a lack of emotion as a suppression of emotional influence over behavior. If it were merely the soldiers' commitment to Rome that explained their lack of emotion, then the women in painting—who are given a different role—should express more emotion. But we find that their faces, too, lack significant expression. Nonetheless, David's Oath clearly played a powerful role in French history and art.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Spin-Offs Excuse

Since 1975 NASA has maintained an annual publication, called Spinoff, that catalogs new commercial technologies with their roots in the manned space program. It is commonly argued that these "spin-offs"—which range from medical devices to firefighting equipment—can justify government expenditures to send humans into space. Many so-called space advocates respond to critics of human spaceflight by pointing out the various gadgets in their home and society that actually can be traced back to NASA. They imply that their critics take advantage of spin-offs but aren't willing to pay the costs to develop them.

Though NASA programs do result in spin-offs, it is absurd to suggest this justifies human exploration of the cosmos. At most, spin-offs could offset a small portion of NASA's budget. If we want to be honest with ourselves, we must face the fact that the government could have directly invested funds to develop artificial limbs, improved car tires, and anti-icing systems for aircraft. It would have cost far less.

Steven Weinberg, an American physicist, has a point when he says "The only technology for which the manned space flight program is well suited is the technology of keeping people alive in space." But I disagree that human spaceflight is a waste of money. If Weinberg doesn't understand the value of it, he never will and there is nothing anyone can do to change that. In an ideal world, those who weren't interested in human exploration wouldn't have to burden the costs—but our society is very far from this ideal in other economic situations. In the mean time, the supporters of human spaceflight must seek rationales other than spin-offs if they want to be taken seriously.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

A New Role for Libraries

The function of the library has been evolving ever since the advent of the internet. Libraries have long granted their patrons access to paper subscriptions, but they can now offer services that were not obtainable before computer networks were in wide use. One such service libraries can offer is access to digital databases for genealogical and family history research, a service that, I think, has a much broader appeal to the general public than do obscure academic journals and manuscripts.

In particular, Ancestry.com's Library Edition is being purchased by libraries across the globe. It seems to me that Ancestry Library Edition—which appears to cost about one or two thousands dollars per year—is a good value for a library seeking to offer a genealogy resource to their patrons. There do not appear to be any significant competitors to Ancestry.com, which claims to have over 6 billion family history records in their database at the time of writing. In my view, the trend of interest in genealogy and family history is here to stay; it is becoming economically feasible and technologically convenient for typical people to seriously investigate their own origins. After all, what is there for the average person to do in life after the standard rituals of celebrity gossip and drinking to excess? Even the most mindless people reach out for some shred of meaning in their lives, and will discovering the traces of their ancestors not become a seductive and irresistible pastime?

Of course, if it becomes standard practice for libraries to pick up Ancestry Library Edition, it will tremendously boost Ancestry.com's revenue and brand exposure. Patrons who begin their family trees at the library may well decide to purchase a home subscription to continue the endless quest. If the current trend continues, the shares of Ancestry.com stock should be worth much more a few years from now.

Disclosure: the author owns shares of Ancestry.com (ACOM)

Monday, May 2, 2011

Review: Broca's Brain

Broca's Brain is one of Carl Sagan's typically variegated works, its scope ranging from the dangers of pseudoscience, to the societal impact of technology and artificial intelligence, to the exploration of the Solar System and our celestial neighborhood. It tosses aside trivial matters and delves into deepest questions of life in the cosmos: the evolution of the human species, the existence of extraterrestrial life and intelligence, the origin and fate of the universe. Sagan's characteristic talent for writing is well-developed in Broca's Brain, a talent that leaves even the most complicated concepts accessible to the newcomer.

Broca's Brain by Carl Sagan bookRead more reviews on AmazonThere is a 55-page chapter in the book called "Venus and Dr. Velikovsky". Immanuel Velikovsky was an American who in the 1950s tried to argue that spectacular events in the Bible, such as the Crossing of the Red Sea, were caused by astronomical collisions and catastrophes. Velikovsky, understandably, stirred up a firestorm of criticism in his time, supposedly including calls by scientists for him to be silenced. What Sagan is doing in this chapter is demonstrating how the scientific process should work—i.e. through skepticism and critical analysis instead of personal attacks or censorship. As such the chapter is overkill, a 12-pointed critique, supported by technical appendices, of Velikovsky's ideas. Nonetheless, much about the workings of the Solar System can be extracted from this case study.

Perhaps the prevailing weakness of Broca's Brain is its disjointed nature. The chapters originate from lectures and essays published independently between 1974 and 1979. There is little that unifies the various chapters other than the author's wide-ranging interests, although Sagan does attempt to group the chapters into five categories. Having already been a successful author, it seems Sagan devised the book as a collection of his previous projects. He writes that debunking Velikovsky "took badly needed time" away from his own research. But this is his own research; this is what made Carl Sagan who he is. As such Broca's Brain is not one of his flagship works, but rather an essential addition for anyone who wants to absorb the full breadth of Sagan's knowledge.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Surface Power for Human Mars Missions

A human mission to Mars would require a substantial amount of electrical power on the surface. It seems there are two main options for producing a lot of power on Mars: solar and nuclear fission. Both a large array of solar panels and a nuclear reactor would be difficult to deliver to and deploy on the Martian surface.

Solar power has the advantage of being safe and technologically reliable. There is no public resistance to solar power. Since non-tracking solar panels have no moving parts, they do not frequently fail to operate. We can also expect solar panel technology to develop significantly over the next decades because there are a variety of terrestrial applications and initiatives that employ it. Unfortunately the solar flux at Mars is less than half what it is at Earth, and the amount of insolation will decrease at non-equatorial latitudes and during the Martian winter. Accumulation of dust on solar panels, a phenomenon for which Mars is notorious, will further decrease energy outputs. If solar panels are thin and flexible, a stern wind could lift unrestrained panels off the ground. Of course, solar power must be stored during the day with a battery or regenerative fuel cell for nighttime use.

Nuclear fission on the Martian surface can offer much more power per unit mass than solar power. It produces energy at a constant rate and could be used equally at any surface location. These characteristics make the fission reactor an attractive candidate to power a production plant for in-situ resource utilization—machinery that will surely consume loads of power. A nuclear reactor, of course, produces dangerous radiation and therefore must be placed a significant distance from crew members. Typical designs contain numerous moving parts to convert heat into electricity, which introduces complexity and risk of failure. Small-scale nuclear reactors have little application in terrestrial settings, so most development efforts may have to fall on space agencies like NASA. And we are all aware of the political obstacles to developing a nuclear reactor and launching it into space.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Smoking Bans

Smoking bans in private buildings, including bars and restaurants, are becomming increasingly common in Western countries. These bans are typically based on the idea that smoking is optional but breathing is not. There's no doubt that breathing second-hand smoke is unhealthy, so the function of the law is to protect those who do not want to inhale.

These laws seem to imply a right to be inside the building in question. There are some buildings with which the public is clearly entitled to have an association: court houses, public schools, or public transport stations to name a few. In fact, I can see the justification for smoking bans on outdoor public property like sidewalks or parks. If citizens are required to pay taxes to support these properties, why must they breathe second-hand smoke when they want to use them?

On the other hand, there appear to be no movements to ban smoking inside personal homes. This is presumably because the public doesn't have a right to enter somebody else's home, and it would be an injustice to violate a person's freedom to smoke so long as it's on his or her own property. Whether other people enter someone's home is considered to be up to the property owner, not the desires of the anonymous public. Why, then, is the law different for so-called workplaces? As I see it, this nonuniform application of the law can only make sense if you regard the public—whether employees or customers—as entitled to use these properties on their own terms. 

This appears to be a rather blatant example of public appropriation of private property. It seems entirely irrelevant to me that a majority of citizens support the bans. What's going on here is the public is voting themselves broader access to smoke-free restaurants, bars, and workplaces by forcing an eccentric minority—those weird indoor smokers—to conform to the dominant lifestyle. I find it hard to claim we live in a free society when some majority consensus can dictate whether you light a cigarette in your own building.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Review: Journey to the Center of the Earth

Jules Verne's 1864 Journey to the Center of the Earth is a classic adventure story with a scientific leaning. Three dissimilar characters—a stubborn old professor, a curious young kid, and a stoic Icelander—join forces to explore a subterranean world hinted at in an aged Icelandic manuscript. The emphasis in this book is on what the characters discover rather than what they feel.

Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne bookRead more reviews on AmazonAt some point in the story the sense of discovery becomes truly captivating. Verne really grasps the imagination as he describes the team stumbling across biological organisms of immense proportions, some of which hail from the seafaring monsters of the Jurassic period. Perhaps the apex of the journey is the sighting of primitive human beings hunting a herd of mammoths, a scene Verne apparently added after the original story was finished.

These possibilities are exciting not for the interior of the Earth, but for the vast unexplored cosmos ahead of us. I can't help but wonder whether intelligent beings lead lives greatly different from own, but with similarities as well—a need for food and drink, a desire for leisure, a fascination with nature.

Unfortunately, the explorers in Journey don't actually go underground until page 99 (out of 232). A number of scientific details have also not held up well with time, the most obvious being Verne's fabrication of an enormous open cavern with temperatures and pressures suitable for a diverse ecosystem. There's also a vague reference to an electrical phenomenon responsible for lighting the entire cavern and supporting photosynthesis. Finally, the plausibility of the story is further degraded when the team falls through a passage and rides a magma flow, on a flimsy raft, all the way through a volcano in Italy. It is perhaps unfair to judge Verne with the lens of scientific history; a better measure might be the impact Journey has had on inspiring scientists and explorers over the last 150 years—people who were motivated by Verne to go out and actually discover what's out there.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Io's Tidal Heating

Jupiter's moon Io is the most geologically active world in the Solar System. Its internal heat is generated by the friction of changing tides, heat that rides across the surface in lava flows and is blasted to orbital heights through a network of 400 volcanoes. The same internal processes are operating on another of Jupiter's moons—Europa—but its heat may go into warming a subsurface ocean.

Io's geologically-active surfaceTidal heating results from a shifting gravity differential between a moon's far side and its near side. The strength of gravity always diminishes as the distance from its source increases, but this discrepancy is negligible for moons in distant orbits around low-mass planets. Io is about the same distance from Jupiter as our own moon is from Earth, but Jupiter is about 318 times as massive as Earth. Under these conditions Io feels tremendous gravitational pull from Jupiter—it swings around the planet in only 1.7 Earth days. The pull from Jupiter's gravity, though, is stronger at the side of Io closest to Jupiter. This effect causes Io to deform slightly from a sphere into an egg-shaped form called an ellipsoid.

A static gravity differential will not cause tidal heating. The internal heat in Io is caused by a changing gravity differential. Since Io's orbit is not circular, the differential of Jupiter's gravity will be more significant at closer orbital distances from the planet; Io's ellipsoid shape will thus be more pronounced when the moon is passing close by Jupiter. The bulges of this moon wax and wane, creating frictional heat in the same way a paper clip will become warm if it is flexed a few times. This interior heat reaches the surface through volcanism and is then radiated away into the cool and refreshing cosmos.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Israel's Rocket Problem

Since 2002 Palestinians have fired thousands of rockets into Israel from the Gaza Strip. The rockets are unguided, currently have a range of up to 40 kilometers, and are typically packed with explosives and shrapnel. They can be considered a terrorist weapon because they are designed to cause indiscriminate damage and maximum disruption to daily life. Dozens of Israelis have been killed, mostly civilians because the rockets cannot be aimed with much accuracy. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) usually retaliate against rocket attacks and kill disproportionately more Palestinians, though the Palestinian casualties are more targeted than the Israeli ones.

Iron Dome deployed in Israel
An Iron Dome missile battery
One of Israel's defensive strategies is to deploy a rocket interception system called Iron Dome. Iron Dome tracks projectiles fired from Gaza, analyzes their trajectories, and fire a guided interceptor called the Tamir missile. On April 7, 2011, Iron Dome successfully intercepted a rocket fired at Ashkelon—a coastal city with over 100,000 residents—marking the first time in history a short-range rocket was ever intercepted.

The problem with Iron Dome is not technical but economical. Each Tamir missile is estimated to cost between $35,000 and $50,000, while each crude Palestinian rocket could not cost much more than a few hundred dollars. The Tamir is created in advanced laboratories with state-of-the-art components; the Palestinian rockets are made in clandestine workshops with antiquated hardware. For each interception, the Palestinians effectively impose a cost on Israel something like 100 times their own. Without the threat of aggressive retaliation by the IDF, it seems Iron Dome could actually invite more rocket attacks. Israel clearly leads the world in this kind of defensive technology but I do not see their rocket problem being solved with technology alone.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Review: Woman with a Parasol

Claude Monet's 1875 painting Woman with a Parasol—Madame Monet with Her Son documents the rise of middle-class leisure in nineteenth-century Europe. Though Monet himself was one of the poorest Impressionists, he nonetheless witnessed the unfolding of modern life in all its splendid glory. A number of technological inventions allowed such Impressionist paintings to be created en plein air, or outdoors. Steam trains began transporting urban residents to city parks and outlying suburbs. Portable tubes of paint freed artists from their stuffy and dim studios.

Woman with a Parasol by Claude Monet art
The subjects in the painting are Monet's first wife, Camille, and their son. Using people as subjects is rare in Monet's works, probably because his obsession with the effects of natural light required him to paint the same scenes over and over. This interest is also evident in the reflections of light, known as highlights, on the right side of the woman's dress. Though carefully applied, these highlights comprise fully open and visible brush strokes. Likewise, the dabs of yellow paint in the grass are intended to be reflections of light rather than to capture the actual shapes of grass or flowers. This tendency is a defining characteristic of Impressionism.

The viewer may notice seemingly haphazard, almost reckless brushwork in the clouds to the left of the painting. I think it's a testament to Monet's skill that these brush strokes are not particularly distracting. It's also more evidence that he was primarily concerned with light and color as opposed to line or shape. Though I'm not typically moved by Monet's choice in subject matter, this painting has a tragic story behind it. Camille's health began a terminal decline in the same year Woman with a Parasol was painted, leaving this image a precious glimpse into a lost nineteenth-century moment.

Friday, April 8, 2011

On the Falcon Heavy

The Falcon Heavy is a rocket under development by the American company SpaceX. SpaceX is a launch services company—they are not selling rockets but are rather providing transportation services to destinations in space. As such the typical customer will not be selecting a rocket from a catalog, but will be selecting performance characteristics to meet his space launch needs. SpaceX will retain control of all launch operations, so customer demand is likely to be driven by the cold, hard numbers: the payload mass and the cost to get it to space.

Artist's depiction of the Falcon Heavy launch vehicle; image credit: SpaceX
The Falcon Heavy uses a
cluster of 27 engines
With this customer mindset, the success of Falcon Heavy will depend solely on its performance capabilities. As far as payload mass, SpaceX has advertised that the rocket can loft 53,000 kilograms into low Earth orbit. This is much greater than all currently operational rockets; even if Falcon Heavy was not cost effective in price per kilogram to orbit, it could attract customers based chiefly on its brute strength.

In the long run, though, the rockets that will become most common will simply be the most cost effective ones. Many future payloads—such as crew, fuel, and supplies—will not need to be launched on a single launch vehicle. If a smaller (or larger) rocket can deliver mass more efficiently than Falcon Heavy, then the former will prevail. Part of SpaceX's strategy to make this rocket cost effective, though, is to launch a dozen or so times per year—allowing the engine, which is also used on the smaller Falcon 9 rocket, to be mass-produced on an industrial scale.

Falcon Heavy's engine configuration has also been a source for skepticism. The challenge with using so many engines is igniting them at the same time and keeping them from failing during flight. Soviet engineers toiled without success to manage a cluster of 30 engines on their ill-fated moon rocket, the N1. I'm more confident that SpaceX can operate these engines, though, because they are properly testing testing them, and they plan to build tolerance for multiple engine failures into Falcon Heavy.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Automobile and Happiness

I'm convinced that the invention of the automobile has led to a great deal of unhappiness. After a steady stream of technological precursors, the automobile finally freed man from the last bonds of daily toil. And he hasn't been happy since.

There's something decidedly uncomfortable about driving a car and working in an office. Ask yourself, "Does it feel right?" Muscles have been evolving on Earth for hundreds of millions of years, only to be tossed aside as obsolete in the last hundred. This is not how the vast majority of human beings, much less mammals, have felt as they lived out their lives. The discomfort of driving extends to the mind. Automobiles allow us to escape from our environment to an insular and artificial one. But we are very much not free inside a car; we are much of the time stuck helplessly in traffic and all of the time compelled to think about driving. Lastly, physical strength was one thing that made men useful to women. I would be willing to bet there's an inverse correlation between marriage longevity and use of an automobile. Do women not agree that easy life has left men altogether less necessary than they once seemed to be? And man did this to himself!

The answer to the problem is not to freeze technology—progress is an inspiring and beautiful thing. Our transportation paradigm is critical to our economic output, which gives us the food and medicine to survive, and the science and technology to explore the cosmos. No, the answer will require far more creative and subtle ways of integrating physical and mental struggle.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Review: Capitalism and Freedom

Capitalism and Freedom will probably evoke a response consistent with the reader's pre-existing views on economics. It is more a book on economic ideology than predictive theory, although the author, the American economist Milton Friedman, attempts to take on rival theories—namely Keynesian economics—with his own empirical evidence. Keynesian economists are skeptical that the free market is always efficient and they typically advocate some intervention to keep everybody working. Although I was left unsure about the author's predictions, the ideological issues he raised should be of interest to all parties. Friedman says, "Underlying most arguments against the free market is a lack of belief in freedom itself." I would like to hear more of the author's critics address this claim head-on.

Capitalism and Freedom by Milton Friedman bookRead more reviews on AmazonFriedman is often labeled a libertarian but he takes some positions other free-market advocates may oppose. One is his willingness to endorse government interference to reduce harmful "neighborhood effects". Another is his idea of a negative income tax that would guarantee a minimum income for all citizens. His position on corporate monopoly also allows for eventual intervention to maintain "competitive conditions". The problem with these suggestions is that Friedman doesn't offer a methodology for determining when such measures are worth violating his core value: economic freedom.

The idealogical approach in Capitalism and Freedom is perhaps a weakness as well as a strength. For instance he mentions that tariffs on foreign goods do not help anybody. His point is that tariffs introduce inefficiencies, which is true, but what he seems to miss is that some workers do not care about efficiency and only want to continue their lifestyle. Friedman's ideology is rendered impotent when citizens impatient with or apathetic about capitalism vote to further their interests by means of government power, a problem for which the author admitted having no solution.

Despite using a generally accessible vocabulary, Friedman's writing is clumsy and rigid—nominalizations run wild when ordinary characters and verbs would do just fine. In short, Capitalism and Freedom is unlikely to convert a collectivist to an individualist, but it will push both to sharpen their arguments.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Storing Fuel in Low Mars Orbit

A human landing on Mars may require fuel to be stored in low Mars orbit (LMO). The motivation for this step arises when mission planners seek to leave the crew's interplanetary propulsion component—that is, the engines that push the crew to Mars—in a highly elliptical "parking" orbit around Mars. For a spacecraft that will return to Earth, a parking orbit is preferable to a lower circular orbit because it requires less fuel to brake into and depart from. In a sense, the vehicle doesn't have to descend as deep into the Martian gravity well. Of course, the crew will then need to travel from Mars parking orbit to LMO and vice versa upon conclusion of the surface mission.

It is in this step—getting from LMO to Mars parking orbit—that a fuel cache in LMO will help out. The amount of fuel required to make this transition can be calculated quite precisely using the Tsiolkovsky rocket equation. It will depend on the type of fuel used, the total change in velocity required, and the mass of the crew, payload, and spacecraft. Since the velocity change needed to achieve an elliptical orbit must be imparted rapidly, the only suitable fuels seem to be traditional chemical rocket fuels. The total change in velocity in an orbital transfer depends only on the sizes of the orbits. A bit less certain is the mass of the crew's spacecraft, so it's best to leave this as a variable.

It is clear from the rocket equation* that using a fuel with 300 seconds of specific impulse (Isp) to impart a 1.2 kilometers per second change in velocity will require an amount of fuel greater than 50% of a spacecraft's non-fuel mass. If the fuel used offers only 250 seconds of Isp, then its weight must correspond to a full 63% of the rest of the spacecraft.

The alternative to storing this fuel in LMO is for the crew to carry it with them to the Martian surface. This would introduce some complications to the fuel's storage: higher temperatures, larger thermal fluctuations, and the shock of landing and ascent. More important, though, is the sheer mass involved. Any mass launched from Mars's surface requires several times as much fuel just to get it into orbit. But this mass and fuel must first be landed on the surface, and this landing requires several times as much fuel as the spacecraft mass and ascent fuel put together! I think that this post-ascent fuel—which is necessary simply to get from LMO to Mars parking orbit—is too much to take to the surface and should be left in orbit.

*see Appendix A

Friday, March 25, 2011

The Central Tragedy of Economics

When I think about how I would like my society to be structured, I am torn between two very different motivations. One is that it be fair; the virtues I would like to see rewarded include ambition, competitiveness, honesty, nonviolence, and intelligence. The other motivation is that my society be functional. It does me little good if fair laws cannot be enforced and the streets are full of violent criminals. For laws to be enforced reliably, a society must be quite stable. For that matter, it must be robust and competitive—if only to defend itself against external enemies.

The central tragedy of economics is that it is impossible to create a society that's both stable and fair. A fair society would surely allow adult individuals to develop their own talents. Whether they needed to manage a lot of wealth to do this would depend on their goals, and would ultimately be up to them to decide. Wealth, however, is not infinite; some mechanism of allocation is required. The free market seems to me a fair and elegant solution to this problem. It would be unfair to punish the nonviolent accumulation of wealth by taking some of it, just as it would be unfair to reward it by adding to it.

But this fairness can be traded for more stability. The most productive citizens, wherever they end up, seem to be most concerned with their own work. They generally are not a threat to the rest of society no matter how much they are abused by it, and so they can be forced to work on behalf of the less creative majority. By contrast, allowing productive citizens to keep the wealth they earn necessarily has destabilizing consequences—those who create nothing of value will fall into poverty and become more violent. The national financial climate could become more volatile as fewer individuals command more of the economic capital. Capitalism, practically by definition, will tend to destroy that which involves no clear victims: the environment. At the end of the day, the field of economics is always a tragedy.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Review: The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress

Robert A. Heinlein's The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress tells of a popular revolt against the incompetent and oppressive authority of a lunar colony. Political themes are central to the book, but it also explores a revolutionary space launch technology: the mass driver. A mass driver is sometimes called an electromagnetic catapult because it would use electricity to accelerate a vehicle along an inclined track, such that the vehicle would gain enough momentum to be cast into orbit. The story considers the possibility of building such a superstructure up the west side of a mountain—so as to take advantage of Earth's rotation. Heinlein is at his best with this kind of vision.

The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein bookRead more reviews on AmazonThe novel also explores polygamous family structures—the author's main point being that a variety of relationships based on free association can be mutually beneficial. It is a good point, but it's one that's more idealogical than practical.

Given the book's chatter on libertarian ideology, I expected Heinlein to get his economics straighter. The whole viability of the colony relies on a net export of wheat. Worse, this wheat is grown artificially in tunnels excavated in the lunar surface. I can imagine a space colony building wealth by exporting something valuable to Earth, but that something is not food.

Other problems with the plot include Mike, a superintelligent computer. Mike has a completely human psychology and Heinlein does not attempt to explain how. The workings of Heinlein's utopia are also worth scrutinizing—the lunar colonists eventually establish a justice system that is enforced not through laws, but through local mobs which must be hired. This society seems more anarchist than libertarian.

Heinlein tells the story using a hybrid Russo-English grammar that omits articles like "the". This literary device—perhaps used to evoke sentiments of the Bolshevik Revoltion and the Cold War—seems innovative for the first few pages, annoying for the next hundred, and tolerable for the rest of the novel. It becomes more acceptable when characters are actually speaking and less so during, say, aesthetic descriptions of the landscape, which are, incidentally, in short supply. Still, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress is an example of science fiction that genuinely strives to take itself seriously.

Friday, March 18, 2011

On the Rare Earth Hypothesis

The Rare Earth hypothesis claims that conditions for complex life in the universe are rare. It is one resolution to the Fermi Paradox—the apparent lack of extraterrestrial intelligence despite the existence of numerous extrasolar planets. The original advocates of this theory predict that simple life is fairly abundant in the universe, but that multicellular organisms are almost always prevented from evolving. There are many factors offered, ranging from the galactic level to the planetary, that could keep a biosphere primitive.

Perhaps the most convincing tenet of the Rare Earth hypothesis is the idea of a galactic habitable zone. The habitable zone is not a new concept in astronomy, but it has usually referred to the region around a star. Might there also be zones of a galaxy that are unsuitable for life? The center of the Milky Way is believed to be flooded with harmful radiation, while the outskirts lack the heavier elements—carbon, nitrogen, oxygen—that are found in living things. The spiral arms contain solar systems that frequently disturb each other with celestial impacts and supernovae; in fact, there may even be a correlation between Earth's mass extinctions and its passage through the Milky Way's spiral arms. It seems there must be entire galaxy types that are hostile to life. Though the boundaries of a galaxy's habitable zone may currently be less certain than a star's, it stands to reason that such a zone is meaningful.

Other factors of the Rare Earth hypothesis seem to be essentially conjecture. For instance, I don't quite understand the importance of plate tectonics in the development of complex life. Couldn't mere volcanism provide environmental variation and mineral recycling? It's also unclear to me whether a large moon is necessary to stabilize a planet's axial tilt. The tilt of a planet's axis is what causes seasons, which do seem to allow more biological variation—clearly helpful if complex life is to evolve. There may be some holes in the Rare Earth hypothesis, but they must be addressed scientifically. We must not let our excitement about the possibility of extraterrestrial life cripple our capacity to be objective.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

9/11 and the Religious Paradigm

People commonly understand the motives for the September 11th attacks as earthly motives: to resist the U.S. presence in Saudi Arabia, America's support of Israel, or even the existence of freedom. Rarely do we examine the psychological perspective of the hijackers. Why would they would sacrifice their lives to achieve these goals if they won't be alive to experience the results? We often dismiss terrorists as monsters we can't relate to, but this is an abandonment of the scientific method. "Monsters" don't exist; there are only animals that behave in violent ways.

Though the 9/11 hijackers were very religious, it's not correct to say the atrocities were caused by religion. What religion can do is influence one's personal paradigm—one's conception of what is real. If a terrorist believes he might spend eternity with 72 virgins, then this is part of his paradigm. It's what he takes seriously and bases his actions on, actions that are trigged by the same basic biological impulses shared by all humans. His paradigm can help explain his behavior whether or not there's any truth to it.

There's little reason to assume humans would be more peaceful if a cosmic paradigm prevailed, but I do think they would be less willing to sacrifice themselves. After all, self-sacrifice can be rationalized as an investment for someone with a religious paradigm. People have been sacrificing themselves and each other for millennia, and it's tied to belief in an afterlife far too often. Perhaps it's time to examine the results of the religious paradigm for what they are.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Review: Banquet Piece with Ham

Willem Claesz Heda was a 17th-century Dutch painter who specialized in breakfast scenes like Banquet Piece with Ham. The artist used a sharply limited set of colors and rendered his compositions in excruciating detail. He produced an almost photographic realism that would have been all the more impressive in his own time. The subject of the painting is largely self-contained, with the diagonal stream of light the only explicit reference to an outside world. Nonetheless, the viewer can uncover tiny reflections of the studio's windows in the wine glass on the left.

Banquet Piece with Ham by Willem Claesz Heda art
The piece was completed in 1656, near the height of the Dutch Golden Age—a time period that saw the Dutch Republic dramatically rise in economic and political power. New wealth spawned a new class of entreprenuers, who feasted on the luxuries depicted in Heda's work, as well as a new a class of artists to record their exploits.

Paintings like Heda's are often called vanitas because they contain objects that symbolize the emptiness of human vanity. Banquet Piece with Ham depicts numerous items of high luxury, but they are chaotically strewn about as if the diners left abruptly. Similarly, it is said, can this life pass abruptly—leaving all of our vanity as discarded as the dishes on this table.

Though Heda rendered this alluring scene meticulously, its effect seems to be lost on our generation. We are saturated with appealing images on a minutely basis, the mildest of which would be some ham, lemon, and oysters. In 1656—more than 150 years before the first photograph—I think this image would have stood out as extravagant and seductive.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Who Needs a Heavy Lift Launch Vehicle?

Space agencies and corporations alike have expressed interest in developing a heavy lift launch vehicle (HLLV). Though the terminology varies, I am referring explicitly to launch vehicles that can lift more than 50,000 kilograms (kg) to low Earth orbit. These are sometimes referred to as "super heavy lift" launch systems, probably because they would be among the most powerful rockets ever flown. As far as I am aware, only three launch vehicles ever lifted more than 50,000 kg to space: the Saturn V, the Space Shuttle, and the Soviet Energia rocket. The Saturn V could lift 118,000 kg, while the Space Shuttle and Energia could lift about 100,000 kg including the mass of their reusable orbiters.

Ares V rocket concept
The Ares V rocket was to lift more mass
than any other launch vehicle in history
The problem with HLLVs is that they're not an economical way to lift mass into orbit. These enormous launch vehicles have a great deal of structure that does not end up in orbit because they have to be made of strong, heavy materials. Smaller rockets can be made of lighter materials because they do not need to support all that weight—both payload and fuel—above them. An HLLV will also typically require much more sophisticated engines to generate the thrust necessary to reach space. This added complexity can quickly introduce new costs as developers seek to match the reliability of smaller, more manageable rockets.

It seems the only redeeming aspect of HLLVs is the capability to launch huge payloads in one piece. Even if it were more expensive per kilogram to use an HLLV than a smaller alternative, there may be some spacecraft that cannot be split into two launches. However, I cannot imagine many payloads that fit this description. Unpressurized space modules can often be folded up and deployed once in space, while pressurized modules can fit inside smaller launch vehicles if they are made to be inflatable—like the modules under development by the company Bigelow Aerospace. If these separate modules could autonomously rendezvous and dock with each other after reaching orbit, who would pay extra to use a heavy lift launch vehicle?

Saturday, March 5, 2011

I Think Ancestry.com Stock Will Go Up

Ancestry.com seems to gain little recognition as a serious money-making business. This is understandable though, because such a service has never been offered before and people are reluctant to trust something new. But if it really can grow its profits, and people don't recognize this yet, then there's an opportunity to buy the stock now while it's cheap ($33.75 at the time of writing).

There's no need to prove selling genealogy information is a sound business plan because Ancestry.com is already profitable—and it has been for years. In fact, the company has already paid off all of its long-term debt. It is the largest company of its type and is the clear front-runner in this competition. Since it has already set itself up and put together a large database, it stands to reason that new subscribers will bring in more revenue but will not increase costs much. Does it really cost that much to let another subscriber access the database? The amount of money Ancestry.com can make seems to be limited only by the final number of people willing to pay for a subscription. The company's CEO, Tim Sullivan, said, "The real question is: Is this a 2 million, 3 million, 5 million or 10 million subscriber category?"

The final size of this market will be large because genealogy is a universal interest. Nearly every primitive society worshiped its ancestors, and this is evidence that the interest is biological and not cultural. One's ancestors are interesting because they are part of the puzzle of one's own origins and identity—and these questions are important to every thinking human in every culture. With this in mind, it's not all that surprising that people have described Ancestry.com's service as "addicting".

Disclosure: the author owns shares of Ancestry.com (ACOM)

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Review: God Is Not Great

Christopher Hitchens's God Is Not Great brings literary talent to a subject all too often bogged down by abstruse philosophical language. His case against religion is primarily a moral one; he examines the practical results of religion on improving man's condition, which are not impressive. To a lesser extent, he exposes the contradictions of religious teachings, such as Moses's ten commandments alongside his order for parents to stone their insubordinate sons to death. There is little that is new in this book, but the author certainly puts known material together in a fresh, articulate way. He commands a great deal of cultural knowledge and lends an impression of intellectual authority.

God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens bookRead more reviews on AmazonThere's something of a double standard, though, in Hitchens's attribution of altruism to innate human decency and barbarism to religion. It can't go both ways—our behavior either stems from religion or it doesn't. But if religion is man-made, then it can't be the fundamental source of any behavior.

Hitchens is a polemicist; he could have crafted a more eloquent title than "god is not Great" but it wouldn't have enraged so many theists. And in doing so he may have ensured he'd be preaching to the choir. Only a portion of this book—the critique of religion's logic—could steer the religious moderate away from religion, for this group is likely to feel affirmed by Hitchens's criticism of extremism. The fact is that most people nowadays don't pressure their children into believing, burn witches at the stake, or join holy crusades. They are religious because it enriches their lives with a shred of meaning and community. This is not to say that Hitchens's strategy won't work; it may be that stirring up trouble is the most effective way to bring attention to the issue.

Hitchens misses the point on Nietzsche's phrase "God is dead". Nietzsche was talking about the resulting crisis in values as Christianity was shed from the European mind, a crises that Hitchens is only partially successful in addressing. He speaks of the sense of awe and wonder at the mechanistic cosmos, which I think provides a powerful but insufficient purpose of life. As the title implies, God Is Not Great is best an argument against religion than an argument for any replacement.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

We May Be Martians

It's possible that all lifeforms on Earth are descended from very distant ancestors that lived on Mars. If Mars was once a warm and wet place, then it could have provided the conditions for life to arise just as well as Earth did. There could have been an independent origin of life on Mars, several billions of years ago, that led to simple, unicellular organisms inhabiting niches across the Martian surface. These organisms, of course, would need to be transported to Earth intact for this theory to hold.

This is where meteorite impacts come into play. It turns out that numerous meteorites have been found in Antarctica that were originally from Mars. An interplanetary rock swap like this can happen when a huge object—like an asteroid or comet—impacts a planet and blasts pieces of its surface into space. Our own moon was formed this way, according to the prevailing hypothesis. Alas, these surface fragments are sent on all sorts of trajectories around the Sun, some of which may eventually cross paths with Earth. If any Mars rocks are large enough to survive entry into Earth's atmosphere, they hit the surface and are thus known as meteorites.

We can be confident these meteorites are from Mars because scientists have analyzed the composition of air bubbles inside them, bubbles that were formed during the catastrophic impact event on Mars. These bubbles are made of the same gases, in the same proportions, as the Martian atmosphere.

The rest of the story explains itself. It's reasonable to question whether lifeforms could survive a catastrophic blast into space, an interplanetary transit of perhaps millions of years, the descent through Earth's atmosphere, and the impact with Earth's surface. What we do know is that many lifeforms on Earth, known as extremophiles, can evolve and thrive in incredibly hostile environments. So there's a chance, albeit a remote one, that we are all Martians. 

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Impressionist Effect

Impressionism seeks to accomplish something photography can't. It offers an impression of a scene—the feeling of a mere glance. When you glance at a scene in the real world, your mind does not have time to register the details. What is memorable is the general color scheme and the feelings that are associated with it. In an Impressionist painting, the details of a scene are conveyed in a way not unlike the mind's recording of a momentary glance. A painting is static; it allows the viewer time to seek out the details. But unlike a photograph, Impressionism doesn't convey details. It forces the viewer to experience the feeling of a mere impression—no matter how long he stares at it—and this is why it can do something photography can't.

Brush strokes of the Impressionist artist Berthe Morisot
The brushwork of the
 Impressionist Berthe Morisot
The invention of the camera had a dramatic effect on art because it suddenly could record the world better than even the greatest artists. It led to something of a new purpose in art, but the art establishment would resist this at first. In 1872 the French painter Claude Monet titled a work Impression, Sunrise. Critics mocked the painting as an unfinished sketch, labeling Monet and similar artists derisively as impressionists. But Monet had no reason to "finish" his paintings; he knew what he was doing and what effect he was trying to create.

Artists create the Impressionist effect by using solid, visible brush strokes of alternating color. You know you are looking at pure Impressionism when these brush strokes dominate the entire composition. There is no attempt to hide the strokes because the details of the subject are not important. The mind is what mixes colors together and forms patterns. The emotional response to viewing an Impressionist painting will depend on the viewer's past experiences—it will more strongly evoke the feelings of actually being there than a photograph will. The subconscious seems to quickly uncover a photograph's true nature, but all too often it is fooled by a good Impressionist painting.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Review: The Handmaid's Tale

Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale is perhaps strongest in its aesthetic descriptions of life in the Republic of Gilead, a dystopian society set in New England. Gilead is a nation of biblical austerity, which fosters a sort of quasi-romance among the characters between episodes of brutality and oppression. The story warns of the dangers of extremism—of all types—because Gilead is exactly that: a backwards theocracy with a taste for the Old Testament.

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood bookRead more reviews on AmazonThe writing style of The Handmaid's Tale is informal; relaxed sentence structures and quirky punctuation may distract some readers at first, but probably won't further into the novel. Atwood's use of the stream of consciousness mode seems to work well as a means of exposing the story's background.

The author's explanation of how this republic came about—through a military coup led by Christian extremists—is not particularly convincing; it may have been a stronger novel without the attempt to connect all the dots between 1980s America and Gilead. Some "historical notes" on Gilead serve as an epilogue to the story, but they are laced with dated political commentary. The strongest of which is probably the environmental cautions on nuclear and other toxic waste, which cause widespread infertility for the women in the novel.

The protagonist's abandonment of all resistance toward the end of the story cannot be admired, but it's worth noting that literature need not be inspirational or didactic—the characters in The Handmaid's Tale are not ideal but they are believable.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Space Shuttle Is Not Economical

The American physicist Gerard K. O'Neill wrote a book in the late '70s about how we could construct enormous rotating space colonies and launch a huge fleet of solar power satellites. He was imagining that the Space Shuttle would launch from 60 to 120 times a year, with a cost as low as $10 million per flight. As it turned out, we never launched more than 9 shuttles in one year and it ended up costing more like $500 million per launch. This cost is well over a billion dollars each flight if one considers program costs like the design, construction, and upgrading of the shuttles. How did we go from O'Neill's lofty vision to the current state where we're lucky to get four launches in a year?

Space Shuttle orbiter landing on runway
The stylish but expensive orbiter
Part of the problem is that NASA has tried to push the reliability of the shuttle to an extreme. To return to Earth successfully, the shuttle must get through the launch phase in pristine condition. Yet it is not placed at the safest spot of the bundle of rockets that carry it into space: the top. Instead it's attached to the side, in the path of debris falling off the external tank—the large red fuel tank in the center of the bundle. The shuttle's design is unnecessarily complicated and risky, and it's impractical to make this shuttle safer than a simpler capsule. NASA tries to, though, by spending a fortune tightening every bolt.

The shuttle is also notorious for launch delays. There are simply too many valves, sensors, and seals that can fail, and NASA won't launch if any of them do. This is to say nothing, of course, of the years the shuttles were completely grounded. They didn't fly for 975 days after the loss of Challenger, and 907 days after Columbia. We should consider the Space Shuttle's cost and schedule performance before committing to any similar launch scheme.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

No Such Thing as Supernatural Phenomena

The world of ideas is cluttered with nonsensical references to supernatural and paranormal events. While some of these hypothetical events cannot be disproved, it makes no sense to refer to them as supernatural. If they are more than just imaginary, then they are detectable through measurement. If they are impossible to measure, then they are not events or phenomena and are merely imaginary.

For example, an alien spacecraft either crashed near Roswell, New Mexico in 1947 or did not. If one did, it would have been possible to observe the spacecraft physically—by viewing light reflected off of it, or perhaps by analyzing its wreckage and impact crater on the ground. Evidence of a particular phenomenon may be difficult to detect and interpret, but it nonetheless must exist. If we detect no evidence of a spacecraft near Roswell, it would mean one of two possibilities—that no spacecraft landed in 1947, or that one did land but the evidence is too subtle for us to understand. What makes no sense is to say that a spacecraft did crash, but that no evidence exists in the physical universe.

When a scientific theory fails to explain strange phenomena, then it is not a good theory. But the natural world is far weirder than anything ever imagined by theologians, psychics, witch doctors, or UFO hoaxers. Physicists have observed phenomena on the quantum scale that eludes all human intuition, and the same is true about very large scales. Just because something is weird does not mean it is supernatural.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Review: Resurrection

Piero della Francesca's Resurrection shows that the Renaissance was in full swing by 1460. In this work the viewer has no trouble perceiving depth, due in part to Piero's mastery of perspective. Piero is known today as an Italian painter, but his interests in his own time extended to mathematics—especially geometry. His concern with geometry can be seen in the triangular arrangement of the sleeping soldiers and Christ, and also in a book Piero wrote around 1480 on how to achieve perspective using line and color.

Resurrection by Piero della Francesca art
We can further note the influence of Renaissance culture in the subjects of the painting. You would be hard-pressed to find a medieval painting that depicted people resting so naturalistically, especially alongside the figure of Christ. Resurrection shows the dual concerns of the earthly and the "divine" that characterized the Renaissance. Artists tormented themselves trying to reconcile human life with the promises of Christianity, and Piero's work demonstrates this very struggle. It is commonly said that the sleeping figure whose head intersects Christ's flag pole is a depiction of Piero himself. If so, this contact could represent Piero's desire to connect with the divine and personally experience the rebirth of Christ's resurrection—a rebirth shown in the trees and foliage of the painting as one looks from left to right.

The figure of Jesus in Resurrection appears unduly muscular and flashy. He pauses to stare straight ahead, his leg propped, almost arrogantly, on his defeated sarcophagus, his arm holding in triumph the banner of the Pope. This contrasts with my impression of a more humble Jesus, one without concern for ostentatious displays. Aldous Huxley, writer of Brave New World, compared Christ's figure in Resurrection to that of a Greek athlete and noted his "physical and intellectual power." I'm not sure why Piero depicted Christ as such, as Jesus's power seemed to be neither physical nor intellectual.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Earth-like Exoplanets Are Hard to Detect

Recent discoveries of exoplanets, or extrasolar planets, suggest that they are common in the universe. For these planets to have life—at least life as we know it—they need to be quite similar to Earth. Planets larger than Earth often have enough gravity to retain thick and crushing atmospheres, while planets much smaller than Earth would let atmospheres escape into space. Assuming a planet had the proper size, it could probably only harbor life if it was in its star's habitable zone—the band of space around a star where temperatures would be suitable for liquid water.

Artist conception of exoplanet Kepler-10b
Artist's rendering of the exoplanet
Kepler-10b 
Thus the search for exoplanets is focused on Earth-like planets within their star's habitable zone. The methods of detecting exoplanets, however, are biased in favor of large planets that orbit close to their star; these kinds of planets are often called "hot Jupiters" because of their size and scorching proximity to their suns.

Hot Jupiters, which are not likely to have life, are commonly discovered because it is much easier to detect an exoplanet indirectly—by its effect on its star—than through a direct observation. In one method, astronomers look for a wiggle in a star's location that could only be caused by the gravitational influence of planets. Contrary to common vernacular, planets don't orbit stars. Instead, both planet and star orbit their collective center of mass. Since stars are very massive, they move only slightly compared to their planets. Astronomers can pick up on this movement and infer the presence of planets—but only if the planets are large and close enough to significantly influence their star. Smaller and more distant planets are less likely to be detected.

Another indirect method of detection is called the transit method. It watches for planets that transit, or pass in front of, their parent stars. Astronomers can't see the planets in detail, but they measure the reduction in brightness of the star being transited. Larger reductions mean larger planets. The transit method is quite capable of finding Earth-sized planets, but it still is better at finding those that orbit close to their suns. The problem is that it requires a solar system's orbital plane—the plane in which planets orbit—to be near perfectly aligned with Earth's line of sight. Only in this condition would a planet transit its star from our point of view. The further out a planet orbits, the more perfect this alignment must be. Since all these detection methods favor finding hot Jupiters, Earth-like exoplanets in the habitable zone should be even more common than our discoveries suggest.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Economic Intervention

There seem to be two justifications given for a government to intervene in a market economy. It's worthwhile to distinguish between them. Before you can consider whether the government should intervene, you need to know the goal of the intervention. The enforcement of contracts and the resolution of fraud don't count as interventions because they are the basis of a market economy.

The first justification is a matter of national survival and well-being. During the Second World War, the U.S. government offered contracts to Detroit-based automakers to produce tanks, airplanes, and armaments. Everyone understood that the reason was national survival. The same could perhaps be said about the Apollo Program, so far as it helped America compete in the Cold War. The same, in fact, is behind monetary policy—which is concerned with stabilizing the money supply—and stimulus packages, which are aimed at accelerating an economic recovery. And the same is the goal of some policies on environmental protection. These efforts are designed to preserve the nation and promote its well-being, so there should be little surprise that mainstream political parties can find common ground on such issues.

Politicians follow party lines much more consistently when the other justification is offered—the justification of fairness. The debate on economic fairness is based much less on practicality and survival, and much more on one's moral sentiments. People can reason with each other as to what economic arrangement will best ensure national prosperity, but there is simply no way to use logic to reconcile different opinions on economic fairness. These moral sentiments stem from our biology, and they manifest themselves differently in different people. For this reason people have debated economic fairness—without success—since time immemorial. It would help elucidate our political discussions if people identified the goal of potential economic intervention.