Sunday, November 11, 2012

Physics Education

Twenty years ago, I taught science to children as part of a Hansen Planetarium outreach education program.  I really enjoyed teaching science to thousands of eager children, and have always advocated science education for ALL children.  I don't do that anymore, but I miss it.

As a parent, I've tried to help my children understand the world around them, and advance their understanding of science.  I also tried to help them understand the importance of language and reading.  After all, you can't learn anything without understanding language.  In my experience, I've found the US education system to be WOEFULLY inadequate to teach any of the fundamentals to the children in that system.  It isn't just science, and math that are affected.  English (writing, and reading), as well as art and music are all suffering, and in some cases eliminated.

Most of what is being taught is test taking, NOT education.  Since the advent of the deplorably bad idea that was No Child Left Behind, the emphasis for school systems has been to teach children how to pass standardized tests.  Children are taught ONLY what they need to pass these tests, and the emphasis is not just on the information, but how the tests are structured.  These standardized tests are all multiple-guess tests.  I know you just screamed multiple-choice, but that isn't the case.  These tests are popular because computer scanners can grade them quickly, but they don't tell if a student actually understands the material.

Either you guess the answer correctly, or one of the other incorrect answers given.  Multiple-guess tests are written in such a way that there are hints within the wording of the test that can indicate what the correct answer is, and if you know how to read the test, you can have a reasonable chance of getting the answer correct, even if you don't know the answer.  This brings out the most important point I'm trying to make: You don't know if the person actually KNOWS the answer, if they are GUESSING correctly, or if they understand the psychology of test questions well enough to GUESS the correct answer (hence the term multiple-guess).

If we just teach children how to take tests, and don't actually teach them correct principals, facts, and reasoning we are effectively hamstringing our children.  How can we expect to regain our edge if children aren't expected to learn anything significant until college?  Answer: we can't.  Learning for the sake of test taking is CHEATING, and cheating only hampers our ability to succeed.

When I was in high school, I had a very difficult time with math.  This subject has proved to be extremely difficult to me.  I didn't understand it, so I consistently underperformed.  When we got to linear equations in Algebra II, I wrote a computer program that would spit out the correct answer, so I could get the answer right.  This made it easy to do my homework, but not so much on the tests.  I didn’t learn how to do the problems correctly, and so I cheated myself.  I learned that I wasn’t hurting anyone but myself, and I suffered in other subjects because I couldn’t do the work. 
We are doing that to our children.  Math, Science, and English are the foundation for the rest of the curriculum, and we aren’t teaching the children what they need to survive in the current global economy.  Our current philosophy is that we reserve the actual education for colleges and universities, and that is INDUSTRIAL STRENGTH STUPID.  With the current cost of education completely out of reach for most middle class students, they have to turn to financial aid.  Currently the outstanding student loan debt owed by US citizens is over $1,000,000,000,000 (that’s TRILLION with a T).  Most students owe more than $25,000.  Most of the students can’t repay their debt, due to the bad economy.  Student Loan debt is unshakable, and can be disastrous if you default.  This is setting up a bubble that could destroy our fragile economy, but I digress.  

If we aren’t teaching to educate our children, and we educate to pass a test, we are CHEATING.  We are depriving them of the ability to contribute to the lineage of innovators that has made our country great.  This is particularly true when talking about Math and Science.  We NEED the best teachers, scientists, engineers, and mathematicians to make our country work.  Our children aren’t getting that.  They are getting the most expensive test-taking curriculum our country can buy.  

My stepdaughter wants to be an astronomer, and I’m giving her all the extra help I can, but I can’t do it if the school system squashes that attempt to improve her understanding.  Parents can help teach, and encourage, but if the teachers at school are hampering that ability, we can’t survive.  The major problem is that I’m hampered by my own strange work hours, and can’t be as effective as a teacher can.  This has to be a partnership, but it has to involve parents, students, teachers, administrators, and elected officials working together.  It’s time we dumped that worthless, ill-conceived, failure system of NCLB and got back to educating our kids.  This means an emphasis on Math, Science, English, and Art and Music.  Some might wonder why I included Art and Music.  I’ll explain that in another post, but short answer, they help children with core principals in Math and Science.

Until the US system, changes we will continue to fall behind other countries, and eventually the major innovations will happen outside the US.  Can America afford to fail?  No, we can’t.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Scientific Ignorance in Politics

Copyright DonkeyHotey at
I have said before that I can’t stand politics.  Politicians say and do anything to stay popular at any expense.  General elections that involve high profile national politics are particularly prone to outlandish comments.  Recently Todd Akin, a Missouri candidate for Senate, gave an interview where he stated that rape victim’s bodies had a way of avoiding pregnancy.  The resulting fallout was tremendous, and highly emotionally charged.  I’m not going to discuss the politics or my own beliefs regarding a highly controversial topic.  What I will discuss is the utter disregard for scientific facts that seem to find its way into the minds of this nation’s policy makers.

Senate Candidate Todd Akin - Missouri
During my career in emergency medicine, I had the occasion to help victims of rape and sexual assault.  I have a great deal of empathy for these people and the physical and emotional pain they have to endure.  The greatest concern for the female victims (contrary to popular belief, men can be victims too) is the threat of pregnancy and STDs.  In all my education in biology and physiology, I never learned of a process where a woman’s body would know the difference between forcible, and consensual sex.  Women can get pregnant after a rape.  People can also be given a sexually transmitted disease.  These situations leave lasting physical and emotional scars that can never be forgotten.  

For a politician to trivialize this horrible violent crime by qualifying his remarks with words like “legitimate” is patently offensive, and suggesting that a woman’s body would differentiate between forced and consensual conception demonstrates and unconscionable ignorance of scientific fact.  Any person who ignores science to justify a moral position is undermining their position.  Anyone who makes up scientific facts to support their position is a reprehensible person who should not be trusted.  Anyone who believes made up facts is a fool. 

Science is fact that is demonstrable, repeatable, and verifiable.  Scientific fact is not for convenience, but improves our knowledge of our universe.  When it is used to justify an agenda, it ceases to be credible science, and becomes emotionally charged propaganda. 

Propaganda is a tool used by politicians to justify their views, and improve their standing among similarly minded individuals.  It’s a sales tactic I learned in college (my minor was sales).  You give people information that sounds logical, and is difficult to disagree with.  The information doesn’t have to be true, just sound that way.  It plays on the fear of unwanted consequences, and gets people to agree with you.  The more people agree with you, the more popular you become.  The more popular you are, the more votes you get at election.  Use of “science” as propaganda offends me as much as any lie ever told.

Copyright mknobil at
Todd Akin isn’t alone in his academic ignorance.  Many people have started attacking tested scientific facts that have improved our society for hundreds of years.  I’m referring to vaccinations.  Politicians and celebrities have been using biased, discredited, and non-science to link vaccinations to mental conditions like autism.  There is not a single shred of evidence exists that proves that vaccinations cause any of the conditions that people have “linked” to this medical treatment.  There is, however, a mountain of evidence that demonstrates the effectiveness against devastating diseases like pertussis, polio, measles, mumps, hepatitis, chicken pox, small pox, and others.  Politicians use propaganda, not science, to appeal to people who object to vaccinations on either religious, philosophical, or fears based on ignorance. 

I can understand religious beliefs, and philosophical objections, but perpetuating ignorance by ignoring science that can be traced back to the early 1700’s is disgusting.  People who prey on the fears of others, and select only information that supports their agenda while ignoring pertinent facts, prevent any meaningful debate, and consequently, real progress.  

Using half-formed unscientific information is not new.  When I was a young boy, I remember being told the story of Chicken Little.  This folk tale has many variations, so people may have heard it differently than I did.  In the story, Chicken Little is standing under an apple tree, and is hit in the head by an acorn.  Not fully understanding what has actually happened, Chicken Little determines that the sky is falling, and the world is ending.  Chicken Little then runs around the barnyard and convinces everyone that the sky is falling.  They determine that they have to tell the king that the sky is falling, and venture off to do just that.  On the way, they meet a fox who dupes them into following him to his den on the guise of leading them to the king.  The animals are then eaten.  In my experience, politicians are like foxes, luring the gullible into liking them.

When people use science properly to make informed reasoned decisions, we can get effective change.  The problem is that getting reliable data necessary to make those decisions takes time.  Coming up with effective solutions requires people who understand the complexities of reality.  Everything is interconnected and interdependent.  For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.  When people ignore this, they get unintended consequences.  When people make mistakes based on the best information available it’s understandable.  When they make mistakes based on ignorance or propaganda it is inexcusable.  

Regardless of a person’s religious or political beliefs, there are right and wrong answers.  No matter how a politician may hate the number 13, 5+8 will always equal 13.  The math doesn’t lie.  Regardless of how people feel about abortions, vaccines, evolution, or climate change, there are scientific facts that people ignore because it conflicts with their beliefs.  Instead of accepting facts, and reconciling them with their belief system, people spit out propaganda.  That is an irresponsible and morally reprehensible thing.  It is a lie.  Societies built on lies can’t survive.

Monday, August 6, 2012

The Real Advantage of Mars Rover Curiosity

With the successful landing of NASA’s latest Mars Rover, Curiosity, we will now get to see a side of the red planet we’ve never seen before.  We will finally have data verifying if Mars has, or ever had complex organic life.  On the surface, this doesn’t seem like a good investment for the $2.5 billion spent on the project, but that would be discounting the other half of the mission.

Most of the attention surrounds Curiosity’s ability to analyze soil and rock samples for complex carbon compounds, but that isn’t what fascinates me.  The radiation detectors on the rover can tell us more about space travel, and living on Mars than anything ever sent into space.  Until now, we have only assumed that interstellar travel is safe, but we never understood just how much radiation the crew would be subjected to during an extended mission.  

Courtesy NASA
While it is true that we have sent manned missions to the moon, they have primarily been within the protective magnetotail of the Earth’s magnetic field.   This is because all Apollo missions were conducted to coincide with the full moon to optimize communication with the astronauts.  During that time, the moon is within the magnetotail, and therefore protected from the radiation normally associated with interstellar travel.   It is also true that several probes have been outfitted with instruments that detect radiation, but none within the protective shell of a space capsule.  Curiosity changed all that.  

While en route to Mars, NASA engineers turned on Curiosity’s radiation detector to see how much radiation would actually penetrate the protective walls of the capsule carrying the rover.  This allowed Curiosity to simulate the environment an astronaut would encounter on the same trip.  During this time, the sun had a number of X class solar storms that affected the capsule.  The data is invaluable for manned missions.

The true test of this ability will occur over the next two years.  As I mentioned in an earlier blog, Mars does not have a magnetosphere.  This means that anyone who ventures onto the surface will be exposed to more radiation than found here on Earth.  Curiosity will tell us exactly what that exposure will be.  This is vital, because we have only had rough estimates and guesses until now.  Without reliable data, we could be taking unnecessary risks with future manned missions.  We could discover that manned missions are too dangerous to send people for any length of time, or we could find out that the exposure is far less than we expected.   The point is that we wouldn’t know for sure without Curiosity’s radiation detectors.

I am not trying to detract from Curiosity’s primary mission, which is to check for carbon-based compounds.  There are profound implications if it succeeds in confirming the existence of organic organisms.  If there ever was life on Mars, it could have decomposed into oil.  It could also raise serious issues for any astronauts.  We could be exposed to new and highly lethal organisms, which could make the astronauts sick, or even kill them.  These could pose a problem if they were brought back to Earth.  Then there is the ethical issue of seeding a planet with earth organisms if we were to colonize Mars, and begin agriculture on the surface.  It all depends on what we find.

The other question would be if Mars seeded Earth with life, or vice verse.  We could eventually understand the process of how life begins on a planetary scale.  This isn’t as impressive as the information Curiosity will tell us about Martian resources.  The rover has the most sophisticated suit of instruments ever sent to analyze Martian soil.  It will tell us more about the chemical makeup of the planet than any previous rover has.  

NASA Curiosity Mission Controller's Celebrate. Courtesy NASA 
With all the talk and speculation of manned trips to Mars, we have very little practical information to help make the informed decisions necessary for success.  Curiosity is the key to the future of our manned space program.  With all that’s at stake with this mission, I think we owe the EDL engineers a debt of thanks.  They were innovative, and solved one of the most difficult problems involved with getting to Mars, which is safely landing.  Now we just have to stand back and see what Curiosity can tell us about our little red neighbor.

Friday, August 3, 2012

A Word on Climate Change

Petermann Glacier Courtesy NASA
For most people the words Global Warming are very politically charged.  There are people who insist that it is going to be the end of the world, and others who, flat out, deny it exists.  Most people don’t really understand the science behind it, and, therefore, don’t really bother to look at the facts.  I have relatives that get most of their information from political pundits (as opposed to actual scientists), and base their opinion off arguments that draw primarily on emotional, or tangential argument, not science.  

Before I go on and elaborate, understand that I am not approaching this from a political standpoint (although it has political implications).  I don’t much care for politics, and can understand both sides of the issue.  This is incredibly complex, and there isn’t ONE way of addressing the issues.  I also understand that there are some people who are incredibly passionate about the idea of climate change, and won’t alter their opinion (no matter what evidence is presented).  I am not trying to change anyone’s mind.  I'm also not going to go into great detail about this topic.  As it is, this article is 2,500+ words, and the subject is far too complex to adequately discuss in that amount of time.  I am just going to broad-stroke it for now.

As I was saying, there are two sides to the political aspects of this debate, and each has valid points to their argument.  I’m not going to take sides as to who is right or wrong, or negate someone’s opinion.  What I can’t stand is when people drown out dissenting views, because it becomes a matter of “I’m right and you’re wrong”, and that means that no one will have a rational discussion, and nothing is done.    

What I will say is that ignoring science (such as North Carolina has recently done) is asking for trouble.  But, more on that in a minute.

Let’s start with the simple fact that I’m not an expert in Climatology, or Meteorology (although my grandfather was a National Weather Service station chief, and respected Meteorologist, expertise is not inherited).  My interests are primarily Astrophysics, Astronomy, and Theoretical physics, but I read up on all kinds of science.  As far as weather is concerned, I remember watching my grandfather release weather balloons every day.  I didn’t really understand much of what they measured then, but I was always loved watching them rise into the upper atmosphere.  When I was in ground school, training to be a pilot, weather was one subject I struggled with, but I did learn a few things about our atmosphere.  I am using that knowledge to formulate my opinion.

Meteorology and Climatology are relatively modern disciplines.  Cultures throughout history have recorded weather, but not as dutifully as they have since the Industrial Revolution.  In 1850, scientists started recording temperatures on a global scale, and gradually added more weather data as technology progressed.  They use this data to try to forecast weather as far out as they can.  They noticed a steady increase in the average global temperature, both on land, and in the temperature of the water.  This is not something that people really dispute.  After all, how hard is it to record a number off a thermometer?  

That is exactly what they have been doing.  Every day someone will get up and record the temperature several times a day.  As technology has improved, they have been able to gather increasingly accurate information from more sources.  That information is taken and compared to data recorded as far back as possible.  Scientists can then use this information for a variety of practical applications, such as determining what kind of crops will grow best, and how long they can be grown.  With enough years, you can get a feel for when to plant crops, or buy snow shovels.  This is the most basic measurement that has been used to forecast the weather since before Benjamin Franklin first published Poor Richard’s Almanac.  By measuring, both air and water temperatures for over a century, people have come to an inescapable conclusion that Earth is warming.

Granted we aren’t talking a huge amount (1.44° degrees F, 0.8° C according to a 2006 NASA statement) * additional side note - there were other places that gave a slightly higher readings, but I am choosing a reliable conservative reading*, so we aren’t talking a lot...BUT....  

 Think about temperature on a grander scale.  What do you consider a livable temperature?  Some people like it warm and others (like me) like things a little cooler.  I like my temperatures in the 70’s (all temperatures in Fahrenheit), but I have a friend who likes his in the 90’s and 100’s (I start dying after 85°).  According to NASA, the average temperature of Earth is 59° F, but it can swing wildly to both extremes.  The highest ever recorded was 159.26° F (in Iran by the way), and the coldest was -126.58° (Antarctica...shock!).  That means that there can be a difference of 285.84° degrees!  Suddenly 1.44° raise doesn’t sound so horrible, after all, that means the average Earth temperature would be 60.44° F, and that doesn’t sound so bad...does it?  

Think of a refrigerator.  There is only a narrow margin, 10° degrees or so, where food can be kept without freezing or becoming a breeding ground for harmful bacteria.  Too cold and everything freezes (frozen lettuce just isn’t ever going to be good).  Too warm, and you’ll be driving the porcelain bus home, courtesy of Salmonella and E-coli (it could even kill you in the process).  One or two degrees might not sound like much, but since it’s a fairly precise average, it’s a LOT bigger than it sounds.   

This is where we go back and remember that statistics class that most people didn’t take.  If you were awake in class, you would have learned about standard deviations (that pesky plus or minus thing they always use when reciting political poling numbers).  This tells how accurate the number is, based on the sample size.  In the case of polling registered voters to quantify the popularity of a political subject, they don’t call every registered voter, but a small sampling of registered voters.  The reality is that even if you could poll every registered voter, you would arrive at any given conclusion after a certain number of results were recorded.  Depending on what the questions, people, and geographic area they will arrive at the desired statistic after a certain number has been reached.  Coincidentally this is how TV ratings are done.  Usually, for a national poll, this number is about a thousand.  If you did poll every person, the answer would be fairly close to the one obtained by the sample size, but it wouldn’t be exact, so that’s why there is a ± symbol used to denote accuracy, the lower the number, the greater the accuracy.  

When you have data, like temperatures that people have been entering into computers for years, the computer doesn’t need to take a sample.  It has all the raw data, and it can analyze it to a staggering degree.  Every possible combination can be calculated, and spit out in a relatively short amount of time.  If all the data is input, the measurements become very precise, and the facts are inescapable.  In this case, the Earth is warming, even if we don’t want to admit it.  The numbers don’t lie.  
Granted there is an argument that the precision of the readings has changed over the years, but that argument is statistically moot in this case.  This is due to the sheer volume of data, and the reliability of the sources used.  In the case of NOAA or NASA, the information came from official sources.  Even when the readings were made by a human with an old fashioned mercury thermometer, the readings were taken by people trained how to take exacting measurements on the most accurate equipment available.

Where this becomes political, is what people believe/guess will happen with that 1.44° F rise.  People on both political sides are debating the causes and outcomes.  I’ve heard all the arguments, and I’m here to tell you that those who say it isn’t happening are basing their opinion on emotion based politics, NOT science.  I am also going to state that anyone who asserts that humans are not a major source of greenhouse gasses (particularly CO₂), are also basing their conclusions on an emotional argument, and not scientific fact.  I, however, am not saying that the world will end, or that we have trashed our planet beyond repair.  Anyone who is fear mongering is also, basing his or her argument emotion.  HOWEVER, that fear is reasonable IF nothing is done to correct the issue.  

If you recall from an earlier blog I mentioned that to terraform Mars there has to be resources available to perform the terraforming.  Earth has more than adequate resources to alter our planet’s atmosphere.  We ARE terraforming our planet, but not in a constructive way.  Vehicles, power generation, manufacturing, agriculture, and our own human existence put CO₂ into the air.  We measure the emissions from all of these sources by the TON, and that is on top of nature sources. 
Now if we omit the influence of man-made technology, natural forces and all life on this planet couldn’t alter our atmosphere to the point of no return, or we wouldn’t be here.  Earth does a great job of cleaning up our mess, but we are the Earth’s messy little children that dump flour everywhere, scribble on walls, and use excremental finger-paint on every surface imaginable.  Fortunately for us, the current scientific findings released by scientists working for NOAA confirm that the planet is managing to keep processing CO₂ in ‘sinks’ around the globe (the ocean being a huge one).  The caveat is that we know it isn’t able to handle all the greenhouse gases, AND we don’t know exactly how much the world can process without causing irreparable harm.

As a global civilization, humanity needs to drastically curtail its output of man-made greenhouse gases.  These include Carbon Dioxide (CO₂), Methane (CH₄), Nitrous Oxide (N₂O), and Ozone (O₃).  It is unreasonable to believe that complete elimination is possible, but we can certainly reduce our output.  The major problem is, if one or two countries acting aren’t enough to make an impact.  Every country in the world must agree to significantly reduce the total amount produced.  This is the point where the issue runs into stiff political resistance.
In order to reduce the emissions enough to have an impact, significant sources of greenhouse gasses have to agree to limit the amount they produce.  The largest man-made source of these emissions is the burning of fossil fuels.  Sources like oil, coal, gasoline, and natural gas are all burned to provide energy that powers our global economy.  Our economy is so dependent on fossil fuels that if we suddenly couldn’t use them our society would literally come to a grinding halt. 

The economic collapse wouldn’t be limited to one small region, but would affect the entire world in an apocalypse unlike anything in history.  It would be like a car crashing into a wall at 120 mph.  It would be a disaster of epic proportions.  Global famine, war, disease, depression, starvation, riots, and political upheaval would be inevitable.  The suffering, death, and chaos that would ensue would be of biblical proportions.  No one, in their right mind, wants that to happen.

Unfortunately, if we ignore the problem we could have a disaster that could wipe out civilization entirely.  The worst-case scenario has polar ice caps melting and flooding coastal regions to the point that many cities, towns, and even entire countries could become uninhabitable.  Commerce would grind to a halt.  Storms could be so frequent and intense that millions could die.  Homes and businesses would be destroyed.  The worst that could happen would be that the atmosphere could have a runaway greenhouse effect that could turn our atmosphere into something more like Venus (where the average temperature is more than 800° F).  

Granted those are the absolute worst case scenarios and we are nowhere near the point where they will happen... yet.  However, we can’t bury our heads in the sand and hope the problem goes away, or that someone else will take care of it.  That will only make the problem and, as a result, the consequences much worse.  Like some co-eds that had an overflowing toilet my first year in college.  It was just before Christmas.  They didn’t know what to do, and didn’t want to deal with it, so they closed the door and just let it run.  When people returned from the break, more than nine apartments were flooded, destroying thousands of dollars in property.  Why wait until something is a catastrophe when you know about it and can do something to fix it?

One of the reasons why North Carolina passed a law making it illegal to make policy based on the current climate science, is the impact it would have on current, and future, real estate developments.  Developers stood to lose millions if they weren’t allowed to move their projects forward.  Insurance rates would certainly skyrocket if flood plains were updated with current predictions.  All of that has a significant economic impact.  With the current economic crisis, (I seriously doubt we are out of this “recession/depression”), every avenue of economic prosperity has to be taken.  The only problem with that is ignoring the issue only makes matters worse if the predictions are accurate.  What happens when an Oceanside home, business, or development gets completely flooded or washes away?  It could bankrupt individuals, and companies on an epic scale.  

When I was a photojournalist, I met an elderly couple who lost their home to a once in 500-year flood.  The only thing that hadn’t fallen into the river was, literally, their front door.  The man lamented to me that all he had left was a $300,000 mortgage on a front door.  The rest of his house was 40 feet below in the river.  What do you say to people who just lost everything they worked so long and hard to obtain?  Somehow, a sympathetic “I’m so sorry” doesn’t quite cut it.  At the same time, how can we justify doing nothing when it is so clear that we need to act?  

Even though it may difficult, and initially expensive we need to start making the investment in our future.  Everyone in the world has to do their part, and a comprehensive plan has to be ironed out.  People need to stop basing their arguments on emotional nonsense, and rely on scientific facts.  Reasonable solutions, that don’t bankrupt civilization or ignore the problem, need to be implemented.  People have to get used to the idea that not everyone will be happy, but we have to compromise to make the world better for everyone.  Unfortunately, I’m afraid that is an impossible dream.  There is simply too much money involved, and, sadly, money governs everything in this world.   

In the end, I am afraid society's obsession with money could lead to its eventual destruction.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

8 Science Fiction Movie Must-haves

I am a fan of science fiction, especially stories that take place in space.  I enjoy reading, but I really enjoy movies.  I remember when I was very young I recorded Star Wars off HBO on my Betamax.  I watched that tape so much I warped it.  It was so fun to see people having adventures among the stars.  When I was in college, I wanted to learn all I could about science, so I could invent a way to travel like they do in the movies.  I took classes in astronomy, theoretical physics, biology, and chemistry.  By far my forte was astronomy and theoretical physics (even though my major was human biology).  I learned a great deal about space that rather zapped the idea of space travel from my mind, but I still enjoy science fiction movies.

I finally settled down into a more practical career, and I found myself working as a journalist (a good majority of that as a photojournalist).  One of the things I learned very quickly was that most people didn’t share my fascination with science, and that many of them became writers.  Some of these writers worked in television, but most wanted to work in the motion picture industry.  Then I discovered that many of the people who were in that industry who are producers, directors, actors, and so forth were similarly less nerdy when it came to science.   I, of course, don’t mean to say that everyone in TV and movies are ignorant of scientific principles (David X. Cohen is much smarter than I am, and he writes Futurama).  I mean that, for the sake of dramatic presentation, most of what is shown on major entertainment is bad science.  Seeing that bad science is all over big entertainment, I have come up with several rules that almost all mainstream movies seem to follow that defy reality.

Space trips have to be fast

Movie Examples: Star Trek, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, Men in Black, Prometheus, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Galaxy Quest, Lost in Space, Fifth Element, and many others.

By far the most irksome problem with movies is that the overwhelming distances between any celestial bodies can be easily traversed.  Usually this is resolved by creating some method of FTL (faster than light) travel.  Warp, hyperspace, light speed, FTL, and other forms of shortening the length of time between worlds is used to travel from point A to point B very rapidly.  Douglas Adams lampooned this with his use of the Infinite Improbability Drive in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.  

I totally understand why any science fiction writer has to use an FTL.  If they didn’t use this plot device there wouldn’t be a story.  Since nothing can go faster than the speed of light, any interstellar travel would take eons using our current technology.  Traveling at, or near, the speed of light poses all kinds of problems, which prevent any craft from reaching this tremendous speed.  Even when they try to make things more realistic, there are huge problems.  An example of this is the recent film Prometheus (I actually enjoyed this movie so much I saw it three times in the theater).  They travel to the Zeta Reticuli system in two years.  This system is approximately 39 ly from Earth.  This means that the ship they traveled in would need to travel 20 c (c is the scientific constant used to represent the speed of light in a vacuum).  Only Avatar had travel that roughly approximated sub-light speed. With the journey only taking, three years to get to Alpha Centari which is roughly 4 ly from Earth.

I suppose this plot device can be forgiven, but I find people tending to believe this type of travel is possible.  In effect, science fiction is interpreted as science fact, and that is dangerous when it comes to people believing that we can continue to use Earth in a disposable manner, but more on that later.

Communication is instantaneous

Movies: Star Wars, Star Trek, Fifth Element, others.

Have you ever noticed that people can have long conversations, even when they are on opposite sides of the galaxy?  If you have ever seen a news report, where the reporter is live from halfway around the world you will notice that there is a delay if they have to respond to a question.  This is because the signal from the satellite uplink has to travel 26,000 miles into space and then back down to Earth.  Because multiple satellites may be necessary for the signal to reach its destination the delay could be considerable.  This is mildly irksome to the viewer, but impossible to avoid.  The delay increases as the distance increases.  A signal to Mars could take as long as 22 minutes to get to Earth.  At that point, it becomes impossible to have a conversation, yet you see Pickard conversing with his superiors on Earth when he is light-years away.

Radio/Television signals are universal

Movies: Contact, Independence Day, Star Trek, others
This one really raises my hackles.  I work in Satellite TV, and I have to tell people that getting a TV signal isn’t easy.  While it is true that there are television stations all over the world, they aren’t all the same.  If you took a television sold in the US and tried to use it in France, or the UK you would find that it wouldn’t work.  The US uses NTSC, the UK uses PAL, and France uses SECAM.  All three are television signals, but they aren’t compatible.  That has been the case since the early days of analog television.  Digital television is even more complex.  There are many variables that have to be programmed exactly, or you won’t be able to decode the signal.  There are different radio bands used for various purposes, different frequencies, modulations, error correction, data rates, symbol rates, broadcast standards, and potentially encryption methods.  There is a reason why you can’t just take any old satellite dish and rake in the Pay-Per-View fight they advertise on Dish, or DirectTV.  

In the movie Contact, a TV signal, imbedded with complex schematics, is received and shortly decoded and analyzed.  Analyzing video signals takes expensive sophisticated equipment, and even with the right equipment, it might not be possible to decode all the information imbedded in a signal.  It would take years of careful analysis by experts in multiple disciplines to do the same thing that one know-it-all guy could do in a matter of moments.  I could write a whole blog about how implausible it would be for us to receive the latest soap operas from Omicron Persei 8, but it boils down to the fact that they probably use PAL-N and all they have at Arecibo is NTSC.  I’m not really touching the fact that even if we could find compatible equipment, the signal would be so weak we would be watching mostly snow.

Spacecraft are impregnable

Movie examples: Star Trek, Star Wars, Lockout, and others.

Many space battles take place inside ships with lots of ammunition missing its intended target and striking the bulkheads without penetrating.  In all reality the materials used in aerospace is very light.  The primary materials are aluminum, titanium alloys, and carbon composites.  These materials are very strong, but not to things like bullets and explosions.  The main reason they are used is weight, but in order to do that they have to be thin.  In the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) used for the Apollo missions, the skin could be as thin as a couple of sheets of aluminum foil.  An errant foot or punch would be enough to cause a hull breach.  The impact of a bullet or concussive force of an explosion certainly is more powerful than that.   Any breach to the hull would immediately allow the pressurized atmosphere to vent into space, and could kill the crew in seconds.  In the movies, this never happens.  It just bounces off or just scorches the wall.  An explosion just sends people flying, but most of the time it doesn’t have any lasting impact.  

Spacecraft can fly like Airplanes

Movies: Star Wars, Lockout, Battlestar Glactica, Armageddon, Lost in Space, Fifth Element, Star Trek, Starship Troopers, Independence Day, others

I have had my share of piloting small aircraft.  I have flown everything from bi-planes to helicopters, but not spacecraft.  One thing I do know is that there is a huge difference between flying in an atmosphere, and piloting in a vacuum without gravity.   You don’t stop on a dime, can’t just shut off an engine to stop, or maneuver like a fighter jet.  I will give some kudos to Battlestar Galactica for having fighters that acted more like spacecraft, but they still flew more like aircraft than spacecraft.
All spacecraft have a number of thrusters to control pitch, roll, yaw, and forward and aft thrust.  The largest thrusters on any spacecraft is the primary thruster on the back, but there are several on the nose of the craft, as well as several maneuvering thrusters on the back.  Maneuvering is done slowly so the amount of fuel used to perform the maneuver is minimized.  Any change in attitude requires thrust to get it there, and then thrust to null the rate.  Since all of this maneuvering uses precious fuel, it is kept to a minimum so there is enough to last through the entire mission.  Unfortunately, space battles wouldn’t look nearly as cool if the spacecraft behaved like it is supposed to.

There is always gravity on the ship

Movies: Star Trek, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, Prometheus, Alien, Sunshine, Lexx, Lockout, Serenity, Galaxy Quest, others

I understand why this is done this way.  Space, as I’ve pointed out earlier, is difficult and expensive to get to, and movies don’t have an unlimited budget.  Since movies are filmed on Earth, we have to have gravity on the spacecraft in our movies.  Simulating microgravity or zero gravity environments can get tricky, and expensive.  It also means that you can’t ramp up the action by having Captain Kirk run all over the Enterprise to prevent the next crisis.  

When they filmed Apollo 13 they used a KC-135A to film the scenes set in space.  This got a little pricy, because of the amount of time spent filming, since they only had about 25 seconds of weightlessness per parabola.  Most filmmakers would rather just skip the realism and have gravity on the ship. 

Scientists are either evil, dumb, or know-it-alls

Movies: Prometheus, Alien franchise, Star Wars, Star Trek, Sliders, Stargate, Indiana Jones, Batman Begins, Blade, and many others.

This is particularly evident with the Alien franchise.  In the latest film, Prometheus, the scientists don’t really behave like scientists.  As soon as they land, they promptly run out to the nearest structure and explore it like a bunch of amateur spelunkers.  No one really analyses it to see what kind of material it’s made of, its structural integrity, or any other properties it may exhibit.  They don’t even investigate the entire outside.  They just walk up to it, and waltz right in like it’s their local shopping mall.  As soon as they find a breathable atmosphere, they take off their helmets and breathe in deep.  There isn’t any thought about alien virus or bacteria, or gas their instruments weren’t calibrated for.  Then they wander around aimlessly despite the fact that they deploy mapping probes.  They go around touching substances that they can’t identify, and act like they have no idea what scientific disciplines they studied.  The geologist, doesn’t seem to take any interest in the rock formation, and can’t even read the map that his probes made, so he gets lost.  The biologist isn’t even remotely interested in the alien remains they find, and when confronted by a creature that looks and acts like an agitated cobra he tries to approach it like it was an unfamiliar dog he wants to pet.  Worst of all no one seems to be doing any sort of documentation.  It isn’t like finding evidence of extraterrestrial life is some sort of monumentally important scientific discovery worthy of meticulously documenting.  When one of the anthropologists gets sick, he just keeps it to himself, and doesn’t mention the fact that he saw a worm like creature in his eye to anyone so he could be placed in quarantine to spare the rest of the crew from infection.  None of these “scientists” behaves as if they made it past their undergraduate programs, let alone their doctorate.  

On the flip side, the scientists in the earlier films go out of their way to bring an alien life form back to earth, even after they determine it to be a dangerous organism.  Either these scientists are deluded into thinking they can domesticate this alien, or they are incredibly evil.  

The worst are the know-it-all scientists.  These people seem to know everything about everything.  In my experience, specialists are just that, specialists.  They study one particular aspect of their field, and don’t really worry about science that is outside that field. 

An example of a scientific specialist is Dr. Martin Poliakoff of the University of Nottingham.  He appears on YouTube in the Periodic Table of Videos, and has remarked several times that he isn’t as versed in every chemistry related subject, like organic chemistry, because his field of study is fundamental chemistry, particularly supercritical fluids.  When the subject goes into an area outside his expertise, he often refers Brady, the photojournalist behind the videos, to another member of the staff who specializes in that particular kind of chemistry.  This doesn’t mean that Dr. Poliakoff isn’t a very smart person or that he doesn’t understand chemistry very well (quite the contrary).  It means that he understands his primary specialty better.  It also means that Dr. Ploiakoff wouldn’t be my first choice for an in-depth discussion on string theory, but I would love to take a chemistry class from him. 

In most movies, there is always one guy that knows everything about everything from biology, medicine, physics, chemistry, every language ever spoken, and how to pilot alien spacecraft he has never seen before.  There is also at least one person that can easily learn any alien language no matter what the circumstances.  There are many smart people out there, but I have yet to meet a person that was so smart that they knew everything about everything.  Most scientists know a lot about very little, and then there are people like me, who know a little about a lot.  

Space junk just floats around

Movies: Star Wars, Star Trek, Starship Troopers, others

When the fleet was destroyed over Vulcan in the latest Star Trek reboot, and when Alderaan was destroyed in Star Wars the remains just floated around, posing little or no real threat to anyone.  In reality space junk is a very real, and very dangerous problem.  Space junk doesn’t just float around harmlessly through the void.  It moves very fast.  In most cases, the debris can move 17,500 mph.  That is faster than a bullet.  Spacecraft travels at similar speeds.  That means that if a spacecraft hits a piece of space junk moving in the opposite direction the impact speed could be in excess of 35,000 mph!  At those speeds, the impact would be catastrophic, even an object as small as a simple fastener could punch through the bulkhead of a spacecraft, and obliterate anyone or anything in its path. 
In reality, the Death Star would sustain crippling damage from the destruction of Alderaan, and the Millennium Falcon would be destroyed when it encountered the debris field.  The same thing would happen to the USS Enterprise when it dropped out of warp over Vulcan.  The Romulans wouldn’t have had to fire one torpedo to destroy the Enterprise.  It would already be pulverized by the remnants of the fleet.

I doubt that TV, movies, or books will ever be able to tell stories that more closely resemble reality, because the simple fact is that reality isn’t nearly as exciting as fiction.  It’s our own fault things are this way.  I don’t watch NASA TV because it’s about as exciting as watching grass grow.   Perhaps if we get Michael Bay to take over NASA we could have the excitement of watching a rocket lift off, with the added bonus of several car chases, lots of explosions, and a scantily clad Megan Fox trying to defuse a bomb that threatens to spray confetti over the audience when the countdown clock reaches zero.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Reality of Martian Living. Part 2

Courtesy NASA
I like creative story telling.  I also like movies and TV.  Not everything Hollywood produces is good, but people have different definitions about good and bad.  I won’t get into a discussion about your preference in entertainment.  That is a short way of saying I like Archer (FX’s animated spy comedy).  If you do, or do not, like or watch Archer is not the point.  What is the point is that for the Season 3 finally of Archer they did a two-part story in space.  One of the central plot points revolved around tricking the female protagonist into accepting the mission so she could bear the children of a mutinous crew on an orbiting space station that was being hijacked to Mars.  

The reasoning mutineers used was soon Earth would be overpopulated, in constant war, but using the lessons learned on the space station; enlightened explorers could terraform Mars, and then explore the stars.  That is fictional entertainment on television.  However, it isn’t a dream held by a single writer of a television show.  Many people would jump at the chance to live Mars.  I am not one of them.  I used to be, but then I learned a few trivial facts, and promptly changed my mind.  

Mars One is a Dutch organization trying to get people to invest in the dream of launching, not just a manned mission but, a permanent colony on our little red neighbor planet.  The idea is highly intriguing, until you learn more about their plan.  It involves sending four people every two years to live on mars.  The catch is that you, and your remains, will stay there forever.  Once you leave, you’re never coming back.  This fact puts a damper on things.  Even pioneers of the American West had the option of going back where they came from if things didn’t work out.  While the idea of visiting Mars is laudable, permanent residency is not quite as feasible as you might first think.   

Let’s get one thing straight.  I am not saying that a mission to Mars is impossible, impractical, or insane.  I am simply stating that this isn’t reasonable to believe that establishing a colony there makes any long-term sense.  I could use this blog to single out one particular proposal, like Mars One, but that would be missing the point.  This is about permanent living on Mars, not any particular proposal.

Mars is not Earth, and there are key things that differentiate the two.  Earth has an abundance of life.  It’s so abundant that we haven’t even cataloged it all.  We are still looking to see if Mars has EVER had even rudimentary life.  Earth has an oxygen rich atmosphere that supports that life.  Mars has an atmosphere, but it is 100 times thinner than Earth’s.  Earth has liquid water in abundance.  The only water we have found on Mars is in ice form.  Earth has a protective magnetic field, but Mars doesn’t.  Temperature is a different story.  Mars can be quite nice with temperatures as high as 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 Celsius), but can see temperatures as low as -190 F.  Earth also has abundant resources that Mars does not appear to have.  All of these factors make life possible on Earth, and yet not Mars.

Let’s start with the atmosphere.  Humans need oxygen in order to live.  Without it, we will die in minutes.  Mars has oxygen in its atmosphere, but it is a fraction of the minor gases that make up only 1% of the air.  On Earth, oxygen makes up around 20% of the air.  Carbon Dioxide (CO2) makes up 95% of the air on Mars.  With the atmosphere being so much thinner, humans must use pressurized space suits, buildings, and spacecraft in order to live on the surface.  Making the atmosphere breathable would take an enormous volume of gas.  We wouldn’t be able to transplant enough of our own air onto Mars to make both planets habitable, so terraforming would have to use resources already existing on the planet, and everything we have learned about Mars suggests that sufficient quantities of those resources do not exist.  Since Terraforming is impractical, residents would live their lives in the limited confines of whatever colony they could build.

Water would be the next priority.  Without water, humans can only live about three days.  There is water on Mars, but scientists can’t agree on how much is actually there, or if it is even in a potable form.  There are indications that it might exist in liquid form, but there hasn’t been conclusive proof.  The polar icecaps have seasonal water in the form of ice, but they are primarily composed of ice in the form of CO2 (dry ice).  There is water ice just underground but it's unknown just how much is there.  Without a sufficient source of water, any settlement would be impossible to sustain.  It wouldn’t be just for drinking either.  Large quantities of water would be needed for sanitation, cooking, manufacturing and, most critically, irrigation.  What is unknown is how much would be lost to the soil or atmosphere.  You could make things as efficiently as possible, but you would still lose a percentage to the environment.  Over time, this percentage would significantly affect the colony, and it would need to be replenished.  Since any colony would be required to be as self-sustaining as possible, Mars would have to be the source of that water.   The only problem I can see is that we don’t fully understand the water cycle on Mars, so we don’t know how finite the existing supply is.   This would be a barrier to any permanent outpost.

By far the greatest barrier is the lack of a magnetic field.  Evidence suggests that Mars once had a magnetic field, along with a thick atmosphere and water.  Some scientists theorize that four billion years ago it lost the magnetic field, and along with it, most of its water and atmosphere.  Magnetic fields are extremely important to life bearing planets, because they keep the solar weather from affecting the surface.  

Sun Storm! Courtesy NASA
CME from SOHO. Courtesy NASA
At this point, I need to emphasize that the sun creates weather.  Every planet with an atmosphere has weather because of the energy of the sun, but the sun’s weather doesn’t stop at the edge of a planet’s atmosphere.  The sun continually loses a staggering amount of mass every second, and since matter can’t be created or destroyed it has to go somewhere.  It streams away from the sun out into the solar system in the form of charged particles that we call the solar wind.  Sometimes the sun loses mass in the form of a solar flare.  Solar flares are storms on the sun.  Sometimes these flares spew out a wave of charged particles in the form of a Coronal Mass Ejection or CME.  These storms hit any planet in their path, and can affect it with varying intensity.  Some storms are more powerful than others are.  A single solar storm, such as one caused by and X class flare (most powerful); can hit planets with billions of kilowatts worth of energy.  The vast majority of that is deflected or absorbed by our magnetosphere and upper atmosphere.  On Earth, we get beautiful auroras, but the more dire consequences involve disruptions to our communications, electronics, and power grids.  The Carrington event in 1859 sent auroras as far south as the Caribbean, caused disruptions in telegraph operations, including shocking operators and sparking fires.   

The surface of Mars is affected by solar weather, and solar storms become an additional hazard to anyone living there.  Granted, the solar weather isn’t as strong by the time it reaches Mars, but it is still powerful enough to be a significant risk.  It would be imperative for any colony to keep close tabs on the sun’s weather, so they could take appropriate precautions.  If the storm was powerful enough, it could pose serious risks of radiation exposure, damage electronics, cripple power systems, and destroy life support.  This would be an extremely rare event, but one that would be a crisis that could put lives in jeopardy.

Solar storms don’t happen all the time, and occur in cycles.  Sometimes the sun is quite active, like it is now, or it can be quiet, going long periods without any CME’s.  Colonists wouldn’t be exposed to higher doses of radiation only during solar storms, but they would constantly be bombarded by radiation greater than they would on Earth.  This wouldn’t kill the colonists outright, but it would increase their risk of cancer.  How great that risk would be isn’t an exact science.  Population studies would have to be done over time to determine the statistical probability that people would get cancer. 
Unfortunately, we don’t have any data on the risk of cancer, because we haven’t conducted any experiments regarding this outside Earth’s magnetic field.  No one can say for certain what the risks of this exposure would be over a prolonged time.  We have educated guesses, but nothing concrete.  All we can say is that the exposure will increase, and take as many precautions as possible.  

One thing I haven’t mentioned up until now is soil.  We normally don’t think of soil as being anything other than earth, but it is more than that.  For soil to grow plants, it needs nutrients, particularly nitrogen.  Although much of the nitrogen modern farmer’s use is synthetic, most nitrogen used by plants is made by symbiotic organisms.  Mars doesn’t have these organisms, which means that the colonists would have to do one of two things.  1) Import fertilizer from Earth, or 2) Import the organisms and seed Mars.  

This brings us to the issue of human impact on the planet.  Our current standard of living leaves a significant impact on our planet.  We mine minerals, use non-renewable resources, and create pollution.  It doesn’t matter how hard we try, it is inevitable that any colony will have an impact on Mars.  The colonists will produce trash, sewage, and gaseous emissions.  Of course, they will do their best to limit all of that with recycling and frugal practices, but pollution in some form is inevitable.  They will have to use resources like Martian soil, and available minerals for anything that is manufactured or produced.  As scarce as water is on Mars, they will be forced to use what is available to supplement their long-term supply.  All of that will have an impact, but what that impact will be is anyone’s guess.

If microbes are introduced to the Martian soil, to facilitate the nitrogen cycle for crops, it will change the planet.  It is something that would need to be addressed, and the obvious ethics of introducing a foreign organism would have to be answered.  Unfortunately, we don’t even know if that is even possible.  There are indications that the soil could be used to grow food, but no one knows for sure.  They don’t even know if microbes could survive the conditions on Mars.  It’s only theory at this point.

What are these colonists going to do with their time, other than just try to survive?  Certainly, there is a lot of research that can be done, but research is only as valuable as its results.  Private industry will only support research they can use to produce a product or service they can sell.  Pure research is usually funded by governments.  This is because pure research does not produce a product or service, but it makes those products possible.  

Since research won’t support the colony alone, something else has to finance these expensive ventures.  Mars One hopes to pay for it by selling broadcast rights.  Being in the broadcast industry gives me a little bit of insight to this, and I’m not sure this will bring in as much money as they are counting on.  I could write an entire blog about broadcast programs and audiences (a required course for my BS in communications), but what I won’t in this article.  All I will say is that all TV shows eventually run their course.  TV shows have their audiences, and what plays in one country, might not be successful in another.  That leaves the exploitation of Martian resources as a possible means of revenue, but that raises all kinds of environmental and ethical questions (which I’m not going to discuss).

Government funded projects are subject to the whims of politics.  Projects can fall out of favor, and expensive ventures can lose funding if they become unpopular.  Governments have to fund projects that are most likely to produce the most useful data.  A colony funded by a nation, or a coalition of nations, would likely last for a little while, but would be under constant threat of losing its funding.
That begs the question of who will ultimately fund an outpost on Mars.  I don’t believe that the private sector or governments will be able to manage to pay for a colony as separate entities.  More than likely, it will have to be a combination of both private and public funds that will need a comprehensive and profitable business model in order to sustain a permanent colony.

What is unknown is the long-term viability of a colony.  Even if it manages to overcome the environmental and financial hurdles, how long can it maintain itself?  What happens when it runs out of financial backing on Earth?  Could it sustain itself completely independent of Earth?  While it may be possible, I highly doubt it.  When and if the colony fails what happens to the colonists?  Will society mount a rescue mission, or do we let them fend for themselves?  Who will pay for a rescue mission if it is a bankrupt private enterprise?  If the expedition were to go bankrupt there would be no choice, but to send a rescue mission financed by government.  I am of the opinion that it isn’t a matter of if the venture would fail, but when.

The most daunting problem is one that is difficult to quantify.  How the will all the difficulties encountered affect the colonists on a psychological level?  Certainly there have been numerous studies on the effects of isolation and living in a confined space have on humans, but all of the tests have either been on Earth, or based on a finite amount of time spent in space.  No one has ever ventured beyond the moon, or left Earth permanently, so we don’t know.  We don’t know what it will be like to struggle every day for the most basic needs, like breathable air, potable water, and a reliable food source.  How do you cope with the fact that you will likely never see your relatives face to face again?  What happens when someone suffers a mental or emotional breakdown?  Can any person remain sane under conditions that force you to solve complex problems just to survive?  Eventually the day-to-day struggle would wear on the most stalwart individual.  A single colonist suffering from crippling depression, PTSD, or a psychosis would threaten the colony.  You could try to weed out the individuals most likely to suffer from a mental breakdown, but you wouldn’t be able to eliminate the risk.  There is simply no way of knowing what will push a person over their individual psychological limit.  There are just too many examples of people that have done things that were uncharacteristic of their normal behavior.

A permanent colony is a nice thought, but I think it will never be a practical reality.  There are just too many financial, environmental, ethical, and physical barriers to make living on Mars a reality.  There is only one planet in our solar system capable of sustaining life in a manner that isn’t a daily struggle for the most basic needs, and it isn’t Mars.  As much as we may want to find a new planet, and start civilization off with a clean slate it just isn’t practical.  We might be able to support an outpost on a short-term basis, but permanent won’t work.