Thursday, September 5, 2013

Engineering Fail

Architecture is perhaps the most beautiful form of engineering.  When done properly, it’s a sublime art form that can last for thousands of years.  When it isn’t, it can be disastrous.  It was interesting to read an article about a building in London that has a bit of a problem. 
The building has a rather innocuous name of 20 Fenchurch Street.  The locals refer to it at the Walkie Talkie because its shape resembles an old handheld two-way transceiver.  The problem is the building’s south facing exterior.  Like most modern buildings, it’s mostly a highly reflective glass.  That highly reflective surface has caused problems on the street below.
This isn’t the first time a building has had problems with the physics of light.  The Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles had a similar problem.  The swooping, highly polished exterior looked good on paper, but they hadn’t considered the effect sunlight has on the surrounding buildings when it is magnified by the stainless steel exterior.  The solution was to dull the finish on the building, so it wasn’t as reflective.
courtesy Wikipedia
Obviously, at this stage in construction, it’s far too late to alter the exterior to correct the problem.  It would be prohibitively expensive to correct the curve, so they will have to change the reflective properties of the windows.  It will change the overall intended look of the building, but I imagine that solving this problem could make the building more attractive.
This is the big problem of aesthetics over function.  There is a huge drive to make skyscrapers a distinctive monument.  Even though most are privately owned, they are seen as a source of national pride.  With all the emphasis placed on design, it’s tough to make a functional building that stands out from the crowd.  You hope that this type of death-ray building won’t happen again, and this will be an example to future architects of what not to do.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Why Only the Elite Go to Space

Currently there are over a hundred-thousand applicants vying for four one-way tickets to Mars.  The vetting process for getting to this point will be arduous, and only a select few will seriously be considered.  This is for a privately funded, and possible (but far from certain) mission to Mars.  NASA is hoping to go there, but won’t be opening the mission to just anyone.  There are very good reasons for this.
Space travel is extremely hazardous, and not for the faint of heart.  It is extraordinarily difficult to launch a rocket into orbit, let alone send it to another planet.  Certainly the fundamentals are rudimentary (which is why they are called fundamentals), but the devil is in the details.  Successfully sending a manned spacecraft into orbit, and returning it safely is extremely difficult.  NASA makes it look easy, and almost routine, but I can assure you that is an illusion.
You only have to look at NASA’s failures to see how difficult it is to succeed, and NASA’s history is littered with failure.  There have been three catastrophic events that cost lives.
Apollo 1(AS-204)

SS Challenger (STS-51)

SS Columbia (STS-107)

That’s just NASA.  Every other nation that has put astronauts and spacecraft orbit has suffered training accidents and loss of men and equipment.  There is a reason why “Rocket Scientist” is a synonym for an extremely intelligent person.  It takes a lot of math, science, and engineering to perfect a vehicle for launch, and even then, failure is possible.  Even the slightest defect can have serious repercussions.
There is a very good reason why NASA takes only the best, brightest, and healthiest people into space.  I know there are some exceptions to that statement (John Glen flew on STS-95 when he was 77), but there are always exceptions.  However, for a deep space mission there can be no exceptions.
When an explosion crippled the Apollo 13 mission, the three men onboard were NOT ordinary men.  Lovell, Haise, and Swigert were ALL test pilots.  Fred Haise graduated with honors in Aerospace Engineering. John Swigert had a BS in Mechanical Engineering, an MS in Aerospace Engineering, and an MBA.  James Lovell had graduated from the Naval Academy.  These men were intelligent, resourceful, and highly trained.  They were supported by the smartest and most talented ground crew that the United States could muster.  None of the people involved accepted failure as an option (probably a reason why it’s a brilliantly delivered line in the movie).

Serious space exploration is not for people who dream of being Captain Kirk.  It’s for people who ARE Lovell, Haise, Swigert, Armstrong, Glenn, Aldrin, and the others that have come and gone since.  You don’t need someone who is simply better than average, you require someone exceptional.  A successful pioneering astronaut requires ingenuity, perseverance, intelligence, competence, and an overwhelming desire to survive against all odds.  These qualities are NOT possessed by ordinary.  The average person is satisfied with mediocrity, predictability, freezes when critical situations arise, and fail to act.  This type of person is unacceptable in deep space.
As I’ve pointed out, it is extremely expensive to send people to space.  People are worth more than their weight in gold when in space.  You can only afford to send the most experienced, the most dedicated, the most committed, the most stable, the most resourceful, the best trained, and the most intelligent on missions to other planets.  Anything less is a waste of money.
A successful astronaut is the kind of person that has a family, a job they are dedicated to, a yearning to learn, and a desire to return home.  The kind of person attracted to a one-way trip does not have the desire to return to a family, doesn’t have the skills or knowledge needed, and doesn’t have the drive to survive at all costs.  That person has already given up on the earth, and everything associated with it.  They have a desire to leave everything behind in the hopes of adventure.  It is shortsighted, vain, and ultimately doomed to failure. 
I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t believe I am.  The past is the best predictor of the future.  If we have learned anything from our past successes and failures is that eventually something will go wrong, and when things go wrong you need the best people working on a solution.  It isn’t a matter of if, but when something will go wrong.  If a mission is to have any chance of success, it must have the best tools available.  The best tool on a manned mission is the crew.  That is why only the elite are eligible, and the rest of us must live vicariously through them.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Beating a Martian Horse Dead

Courtesy NASA

I’ve touched on this subject before, but since this article came out yesterday, I felt I needed to vent a little more.  It flabbergasts me that people really don’t consider the consequences before they commit to the dangers of space travel.  It is understood that I’m not thrilled with the Mars-One experiment.  The more I learn, the less there is to like.
I have mentioned that there are significant barriers to living on Mars.  The greatest danger is the radiation.  The Curiosity Rover has given us data that shows that the trip to Mars ALONE will expose astronauts to 100 times the exposure on Earth.  Without significant shielding, the exposure could exceed the lifetime limit allowed by space agencies worldwide.  This wouldn’t even take into account the exposure experienced on the surface.
What is the upshot of all this exposure?  There is significant cancer risk and possible severe central nervous system damage.  I cannot think of a more horrible way to die, than radiation poisoning in a hostile environment.
More shielding is, of course, mandatory, but that would significantly increase the cost, and limit the storage available.  Water and fuel would provide some shielding, but any consumable wouldn’t be ideal shielding for long-term travel.
The real problem happens when you arrive on the planet.  The kind of person this project seems to have attracted is not the kind of person I would send on this type of mission.  The novelty would quickly wear off, and constant survival would kick in.  Even under the best of circumstances, people exposed to prolonged survival situations suffer severe emotional distress.  This mission would degenerate into a nightmare scenario that, until now, has fed hypothetical horror tales like “Event Horizon”, “Sunshine”, “2001: A Space Odyssey”, and the upcoming “Europa Report” (even “The Colony” looks like it has the elements I’m discussing).
It would only take one individual, suffering a psychotic break, to wipe out the entire settlement.  I’m certain that the people in charge of Mars-One will do their level best to screen out the people most likely to suffer mental illness under these conditions, but even the most careful screening can’t determine what will happen with absolute certainty.  We simply don’t fully understand all the variables of deep-space mental health.  There is a very good reason why NASA takes only the best, and even then, sometimes mental illness goes undiagnosed until something terrible happens.
Everything we have learned up to now, points to a serious issue that we won’t be able to adequately study within the Mars-One timeline.  I know I sound like a naysayer, but I’m not convinced that leaping into this venture without considerable study (at least an orbital flyby) would doom the explorers to a fate I wouldn’t wish on anyone.  A catastrophe of this magnitude could doom future missions, and potentially setback deep-space exploration for decades.
Sure, the idea of planetary exploration is exciting, but we can’t let that cloud our judgment.  We have to look at things carefully, and not rush in because it sounds exciting.  This is human exploration, and contrary to popular belief, a life isn’t something that can’t be replaced by simply throwing money or platitudes at them.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

A Word on Censorship

Censorship can come in many forms that can range from governments to individuals.  It is usually a derogative term to describe the action of a person, either voluntarily or by force, to act, think, or create based on the dictates of another.  The most common form of this is self-censorship.  We behave, and alter our behavior to fit into a situation or set of circumstances that are within the learned social norms of the society where we live.

An example of this would be if we disagree with politician X, or their platform.  We may privately say, “If I ever meet politician X, I’m going to give them what for.  He/she is a jerk, and deserves a punch in the nose!”  This may be your feeling, and certainly, you are entitled to it.  However when you are confronted with the situation of being in the same room as politician X, you will probably not behave in a manner that would be contrary to your upbringing, or the situation at hand, and you certainly aren't justified in assault or battery.
I encountered this situation once.  I was once asked to work a political protection detail as part of my job as an EMT.  The politician in question was the Vice-President of the United States.  For about a day, I would follow his every move, and stand quietly behind the scenes in the event that I was needed.  I wasn’t.  My personal feelings toward this man were not positive.  I didn’t much care for this individual, or his politics, but that wasn’t my job.  My job was to insure that I would do my very best if he needed me.  When it came time for him to leave, we all stood in a line next to the plane to shake his hand.  When he got to me, I politely shook his hand, and told him it was an honor to meet him.  I had my picture taken with him (still haven’t ever seen it), and he left.  I didn’t tell him I thought he was a jerk, or what I thought of his politics.  I did what every decent person should do, and treated the situation appropriately.  It wasn’t the time for a political discussion, or debate.  It was a photo-op for my benefit, because I’m certain he neither knew or cared who I was.
This was my own self-censor to keep my attitude, and behavior in line with acceptable norms.  Unfortunately, the line between what is and isn’t acceptable seems to be forgotten in today’s society.  People (including myself) seem to have become so polarized that we have forgotten the art of tact, and decency.  We have become polarized to a degree that I’ve never seen.  It is commonplace to see people willing to go on offensive rants, use obscene language, belittle, behave outrageously, use caustic and hate filled words, personal attacks, demand retribution, servitude, and intolerance for opposing views.  People don’t seem to be interested in debating topics; they simply attempt to be louder and more obnoxious than their opponents are.  This attitude is detrimental to the continuation of a civil society, and leads only to one place...tyranny.
You don’t have to be Kim Jong Un, Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein, or Fidel Castro to be a dictator.  Tyranny can come from mobs or small groups, just as easily as a single man can.  Tyrants, in all forms, seek to silence dissent by any means necessary.  Soon you live in a place where you no longer have the freedom to object, or debate.  You live the way the tyrants want you to live, think the way they want you to think, talk the way they want you to talk, and act only as they wish you to.
This type of closed-minded system is inherently counterproductive.  It is as caustic to society and politics as it is to science.  This is not saying that people can’t have differing opinions, or that facts aren’t possible in a discussion.  I am saying that when people use censorship to silence all objections, bad things happen.
In January, my uncle passed away.  He was a soil physicist specializing in nuclear waste interactions with soil and groundwater.  Until his funeral, most of his relatives knew virtually nothing about his life’s work.  Based on what I’ve learned, every person in the world should be eternally grateful for this unsung hero.  The reason — he was confronted with withering censorship, and won.
My uncle worked at a large facility in Washington State that stored high-level radioactive waste left over from the production of nuclear weapons.  It is the most contaminated nuclear site in the nation.  That’s pretty stiff competition considering they detonated over a thousand warheads in various sites in the US, with most occurring on the Nevada Nuclear Test Range.  He was concerned that the radioactive material could leach into the soil and contaminate the groundwater, and eventually contaminate the Columbia River.
The reason for his concern was the policy of the US Department of Energy of burying the waste in the deserts of Washington State, just in the ground.  This would be seen as an obvious DUH to us now, but back in the 40’s through to the 70’s it was no big deal.  Discussing it was taboo, and anyone questioning the policy was fired and blacklisted...until my uncle showed up.
Using his tact and knowledge, he was able to convince his superiors that dumping highly radioactive waste into the ground and hoping it would just disappear wasn’t going to work, and would actually make things worse.  He was able to help mitigate the issue, and begin to solve the problem; unfortunately, it probably came too late.
 This attitude isn’t limited to science and politics.  Recently, Entertainment Weekly devoted TWO articles to the controversy surrounding the author Orson Scott Card; specifically the book and movie “Ender’s Game”.  BEFORE you all start jumping on the comments with hate filled trolling, I AM NOT taking a side on anything.  I don’t think my political view, or lack thereof, is anyone’s business but my own.  I don’t advocate, or publicize my feelings on issues.  What I take issue with is: the mob centric censorship being used to silence his personal view is just as ignorant and counterproductive as the censorship used to silence early nuclear scientists.
In Mr. Card’s case, he has deeply held religious beliefs that conflict with the prevailing sectarian belief.  This has caused people to compare him to Hitler.  Somehow, I don’t think a mass-murderer has ANY comparison to an award-winning author who hasn’t killed a single person.  The idea of censoring someone for advocating religious convictions in a peaceful legal way cannot compare to genocide.  I could see an argument made for chastising an author for advocating his beliefs as part of his literary work, but Ender’s Game doesn’t have anything to do with the politics in question.  Even with that situation, he still has a right to write, and produce material related to that opinion.
That said, those who have a differing opinion from Mr. Card are certainly within their right to not watch the movie, or purchase his work.  No one is forcing them to.  They even have the right to offer opposing points of view in public forums, but stooping to personal attacks and blacklisting is counterproductive.  Personally, I’m not planning to watch the movie, because I think it will be a terrible adaptation, and it’s made by the same people who made the Twilight trash series. 
I could care less about a person’s personal beliefs, or if they mirror my own.  I know that there are people who disagree with me on many topics.  There are people who insist the pyramids were built by aliens, the world is flat, little green men crashed at Roswell, the Earth is the center of the Universe, God doesn’t exist, black/white/brown/yellow/pink/purple people are better than black/white/brown/yellow/pink/purple people, and that they are always right and I’m always wrong.  What should be respectful, calm, and reasoned discussions have turned into shouting matches that need to have an absolute winner.  
What we need to remember is that civil discussion, and a respect for the freedom for the thought you hate are more important than seeing who can shout the loudest, and have the most polar opposite opinion.  Considering that, your beliefs could cause considerable unintended harm (i.e. dumping toxic waste in the desert), it is more profitable to discuss and learn than to think you’re right without changing anyone’s mind.