Some old Tumblr blogging:

December 14, 2015

From my friend Anita in 2016:

  I am frankly troubled by the number of people on tumblr who think the fact that science is subject to human bias is a Profound Activist Discovery.  A human endeavor is subject to human folly…incredible, right?

I replied: "I think a point to be made is that science education isn’t great at teaching how and why bias creeps into science. We’re wired to approve of an argument we like, but less well-equipped to actually dig into the data backing it up. Not many science classes really explore that or even mention it. One of the best classes I’ve ever taken gave us a paper published in Science about detecting geochemical evidence of eukaryotic life 3.5 billion years ago, and asked us to write a couple paragraphs with our thoughts about it. Nearly 90% of the class accepted it after a thorough read and a quick skim of the included data (myself included). But a couple students dug deeper and found a few things that seemed out of place. There were minor inconsistencies in the data, and one student who was more familiar with the kinds of labwork used in the experiment noted places where contamination could have crept in. And all of those students, after noting the inconsistencies, dug deeper and discovered that the paper had been retracted a year later. That was the first time that my own lazy thinking had been highlighted. For most of my college career, I had been handed papers by professors to read and absorb. The whole time, we’d never been taught to pick over what we’ve been handed. It makes me wonder how many scientists have been trained to implicitly trust peer review in name brand journals as a filter for good information, and not double check the argument for themselves. But anyway, yeah. We forget that science isn’t fact, it’s a process of learning and interpreting facts. It’s inherently prone to cognitive bias, both conscious and subconscious. We just don’t do a good job of making sure that budding scientists learn that and constantly guard themselves against it.

November 14, 2014

Hibernate in Peace, Philae!

When yesterday’s assessments of Philae’s situation came out, and the ESA was doing everything they could to squeeze every last drop of science out of it, I was thinking that Philae would fall in the hallowed ranks of “successful failure”. It wouldn’t get everything done, but at least survived what by all accounts should have been a series of mission ending failures and got data back to Earth.

Yet, before it went into a power-deprived hibernation state this evening, it had accomplished ~90% of what it set out to do. The only instrument that didn’t return data was an X-ray spectrometer with a stubborn lens cap. In that light, it’s unfair to think of Philae even as a successful failure. It was a full success, one that overcame its setbacks and long odds. It’s been nothing short of amazing.

The long-term science was never guaranteed, and it still may be in the cards for Philae. One of the first things ESA had it do in its final communications pass with Rosetta was turn to an orientation that would give it more sunlight. We won’t know if that worked for another few passes; Philae was still in the long night of its landing site. If we’re lucky, the additional sunlight will give it a second life.

And even if that fails, Philae was built for the long hibernation. By next August its landing site will be getting more sun, and there’s a possibility that it will spring back to life then, good as new. After its hard work, I can’t yet say “rest in peace, Philae”. So I will say, “hibernate in peace” and hope against the long odds that it doesn’t disappear into the long night.

November 9, 2014

Go watch Interstellar. It’s an amazing movie. The story is pretty good, and it’s helped along by some absolutely spectacular visuals. If you’re one of those people that demands rigorous scientific accuracy in your sci-fi films, don’t worry, there’s a few little inaccuracies here and there, but I think those inaccuracies are good sacrifices to make the story more compelling.

I think the biggest complaint I’ve heard about the movie is that it tries and fails to be this generation’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. I don’t think that’s a very fair assessment of it - I think it’s more of a dialog with 2001. Interstellar loosely borrows the structure of Kubrick’s film, but ends up going different places with it. In a lot of places, its almost a full inversion of 2001. The metaphysical aspect of Kubrick’s film is mysterious, ahuman, and unemotional, but Nolan really tries to explain Interstellar’s metaphysics emotionally.

I think it’s worth watching 2001 before heading to the theater. There’s a lot of little nods to Kubrick’s cinematography in Interstellar, and a fresh watch will help you pick up on them a little more easily. But ignoring the comparisons to 2001 it’s a very good movie that stands on its own. You’d be doing yourself a disservice to not go and watch it.

October 14, 2014

Selling the Space Program

Organizing a few thoughts about selling the space program to the general public that I’ve had kicking around in my head for the past few days…

The Problem: NASA, policy advocates like Penny4NASA, and space enthusiasts do a bad job at selling the concept of a space program to people. Sure, at times they’re great at capturing the public’s attention, just look at NASA’s Seven Minutes of Terror video or the simple, soundbite-sized goals of Penny4NASA. But while they’re great at telling us what we can do, they fall short at explaining why those things should matter to the general public.

The reasons to support the space program are generally vague, feel-good reasons. There’s the Solar System completionists: “We should go because it’s there!”; there’s the Saganists: “Any attempts to increase our understanding of our universe are good!”; there’s the technologists: “We do it because the spin-offs from our technology better society!”; there’s the doomsayers “going to space is the only hope for the future of humanity!” Almost every justification given is some variation or combination of these. The problem is that none of these are really a good reason for us to go to space right now.

The garden-variety internet space nerd usually considers these reasons ends in themselves, and a startling amount show utter contempt at anybody that doesn’t agree these reasons are persuasive. Not to say that everyone who supports spaceflight is like this, but it’s surprisingly common.

For those of you who might be shaking your head and saying that I just don’t get it, consider this:

Why should John and Jane Q Public care about the historic achievement of leaving footprints on Mars, when they’re working two or three jobs to make ends meet?

Why should they care about bettering their knowledge of the universe when they’re struggling to pay off their own educational debts?

Why should they care about vague developments in material sciences when those developments are a decade or more away and they need to keep up with the maintenance on the vehicle they need to get to work tomorrow?

Why should they take the long view on humanity’s survival when they and their childrens’ lives are cut short in the streets by law enforcement with startling regularity?

Why should they care at all about increasing the amount of money available for spaceflight when money for the societal safety net is quickly being reduced?

Modern policy advocates crib their reasons, directly or indirectly, from the famous 1970 “Why Explore Space” letter. It was written by Dr. Ernst Stuhlinger, then associate director of science at Marshall Space Flight Center, to a nun asking why we should continue to invest in the space program instead of projects that more directly benefit society. Here’s the key passage (bolding mine):

Higher food production through survey and assessment from orbit, and better food distribution through improved international relations, are only two examples of how profoundly the space program will impact life on Earth. I would like to quote two other examples: stimulation of technological development, and generation of scientific knowledge.

The requirements for high precision and for extreme reliability which must be imposed upon the components of a moon-travelling spacecraft are entirely unprecedented in the history of engineering. The development of systems which meet these severe requirements has provided us a unique opportunity to find new material and methods, to invent better technical systems, to manufacturing procedures, to lengthen the lifetimes of instruments, and even to discover new laws of nature.

All this newly acquired technical knowledge is also available for application to Earth-bound technologies. Every year, about a thousand technical innovations generated in the space program find their ways into our Earthly technology where they lead to better kitchen appliances and farm equipment, better sewing machines and radios, better ships and airplanes, better weather forecasting and storm warning, better communications, better medical instruments, better utensils and tools for everyday life. Presumably, you will ask now why we must develop first a life support system for our moon-travelling astronauts, before we can build a remote-reading sensor system for heart patients. The answer is simple: significant progress in the solutions of technical problems is frequently made not by a direct approach, but by first setting a goal of high challenge which offers a strong motivation for innovative work, which fires the imagination and spurs men to expend their best efforts, and which acts as a catalyst by including chains of other reactions.
Here’s the gist of my argument: much of the reasoning that Dr. Stuhlinger used is no longer as valid as it once was. Yes, technological development spurred by Apollo had a huge impact on society: GPS is now an integral tool in farm management, fatalities from severe weather have been significantly reduced thanks to weather satellites, and information technologies mean we’re able to better allocate resources in a disaster. However, diminishing returns have now kicked in. Due to the unique challenges posed by the space environment, the aerospace-derived equipment we use here on Earth now far surpasses much of what we use in space. Looking at the past few years of NASA Spinoff, it’s hard to find the world-changing inventions that investment in NASA helped to create. Much of it is useless gadgets or luxury goods for the middle and upper classes. When “connecting sports teams to fans through gigapixel technology” becomes a spotlight spinoff technology, I get the feeling that the best bang for the buck is behind us. Further, spaceflight doesn’t have the sole claim to being “high challenge with a strong motivation for innovative work.” You can apply this statement to many other realms of research, like the Brain Initiative, which could conceivably have a more direct impact on society in the future than spaceflight ever could. I can think of several high challenges (improving the nation’s infrastructure, reviving impoverished communities, reforming education, raising the standard of healthcare) that would impact society in much stronger and beneficial ways than the modern space program. The way things are currently organized, the modern space program strikes me as a prestige project that doubles as a handout to the middle and upper classes - the owners of aerospace companies, the engineers that design the rockets, the scientists that reduce the data - and a bid to subsidize an unstable military-industrial complex. If you follow the money, it ends up disproportionately in the hands of the already well to do. The Challenge: If getting the support of a disinterested, cash-strapped public is necessary to maintain or expand our endeavors in space, what is a better way to convince them that their investment is worthwhile? Perhaps I can afford to dream of space, but how do I explain to someone who can’t? In terms of policy: how do we focus the space program to better benefit society as a whole?

October 8, 2014

*lightning gif* *lunar eclipse near sunrise*
Eclipse post! The skies were clear here in southern Illinois (well, mostly) so I got a great view of the eclipse.

The gif is a line of thunderstorms that were still going strong when I got to the overlook to set up my equipment at 2:30am. A check of the radar told me they were south of the Kentucky-Tennessee border, well over 100 miles away. Didn’t stop me from seeing some spectacular bolts of lightning, though! I had to stop taking pictures of them early so I could get my telescope and tripod ready. Didn’t see the last flashes from those storms until well after 4 am.

The eclipse was visible right up until totality, when a bank of clouds moved in. I missed about 2/3 of totality. By the time the clouds broke the glow of dawn was already beginning. Still, the ultramarine skies provided a nice contrast to the deep red of eclipse.

I was able to follow the moon until it set, by which point it had already started to emerge from eclipse and had grown into a misshapen toenail. Really fun eclipse night, all said.

July 23, 2014

Neptune - 25 years ago

As the 45th anniversary fades into the rearview mirror, let’s look ahead to another important anniversary: Voyager 2’s flyby of Neptune on August 25, 1989. It’s been 25 years since we’ve visited the furthest planet (I’m sorry, Pluto doesn’t count) from the Sun, and we have no real plans to go back.

Out there waiting for us in the cold recesses of the outer Solar System is a fascinating planetary system, calling out for us to explore it. There are a lot of interesting things there, just waiting to be explored:
Over the coming month, I hope to post some cool pictures from the Voyager archives that capture this complex, fascinating realm. But as we look back, why not consider the future at the same time?

In the two and a half decades since we last visited the Neptunian system, several missions (variations on a theme, really) have been proposed. The last, Neptune Orbiter, was proposed in 2006 and was considered to be one of the main goals for NASA to accomplish in the 2010s. Unfortunately, it never received the requisite funding to undergo construction, a victim of lowered expectations. Considering the billions we spend each year on unnecessary military hardware, isn’t it possible put aside even just a fraction of that to make a mission to Neptune possible?

July 20, 2014

The US Geological Survey recently produced this map of Martian geology. Here’s the map key (768kb pdf). Based on an improvised AMA I did on r/space (I am not involved with the making of this map, but familiar with geology), here’s some answers to some FAQs:

What exactly is a geological map?

A geological map basically seeks to answer the question “If I’m standing here, then what rocks are underneath my feet?” As you build up a picture of what the rocks underfoot are like, it allows you to interpret the formation and deep history of the terrain.

Why is it called geology if it’s on Mars?

Inertia, mostly. Some, including Mars trilogy author Kim Stanley Robinson, have advocated the term areology, but it hasn’t really caught on. Another replacement term that’s thrown around is planetary science, but that’s more a broadening of the term earth science, which includes fields like meteorology and oceanography. Plus, it gets a little confusing when you call something differently when it’s in another location. Just think, we could call geology on Venus cythereology, and geology on Mercury hermeology, and and…*shudders*

Why is this map important?

This map is the culmination of years of spacecraft exploration of Mars. It’s a practical way of displaying decades of spacecraft data in a way that allows planners for future missions to Mars to make decisions about where to land. It also makes it easier to interpret the deep history of Mars?

How does it help in interpreting Mars’s history?

By looking at the type of rocks that are exposed at the surface, we can figure out the environmental conditions of Mars as they existed some time in the past. For example, we see huge amounts of sedimentary rocks exposed in Mars’s northern hemisphere. Combined with a general lack of craters, and an elevation much lower than the Martian average, most scientists would suggest that this was an area full of water - in other words, an ocean.

We can also see the volcanoes on the left side of the map. These volcanoes occupy a region known as Tharsis, a massive bulge the Martian crust. Looking at the map, we can see this region is riddled with black lines, which represent faults. Interestingly, most of these faults ring the area of highest elevation at Tharsis, which is interpreted as cracking caused the crustal swelling that uplifted the region in the first place.

Also, some of the large valleys, like Valles Marineris and Kasel Valles, exit the region perpendicular to the faulting. It’s been suggested that these are large cracks in the Martian crust that formed as Martian volcanoes piled on the weight in the Tharsis region. Think of it like pressing your finger into a lump of dried play-doh. It starts cracking in a pattern radiating out from your finger.

If I’m reading this map right, does this mean that there was an ocean in the north, and a big continent in the south?

Yep, pretty much! Although I wouldn’t call the southern hemisphere a continent. Continents are the result of long-term plate tectonics as elements that don’t want to be in the mantle get refined out to make lumps of relatively light crust. Mars never really had plate tectonics (if it did get started there, it didn’t last long), so continents never formed.

So why is there a big ocean?

It has a lot to do with heat flow. On a hot, geologically active world like Earth, heat allows rock to flow plastically over time. So if there’s a big bulge or divot in the crust, over time rock will try to flow underneath to smooth out the surface. Since Mars is smaller, it had/has less heat to work with, so this process didn’t work as efficiently. As a result, it has a big divot (the north polar basin, occupied by an ocean) and a big lump (the Tharsis bulge).

Where would you look for life?

The main ingredients for life as we know it are a solvent (water does nicely) and an energy gradient to exploit (we earthlings call it “food”). As far as we know, life on Earth first got its start in the oceans close to shore, which had plenty of solvent, and plenty of food in the form of minerals washing off from land. So, if we were to expect to find life on Mars, it would be best to look in similar environments. Based on this map, I would look either in Chryse Planitia, where plenty of water was running off the Tharsis bulge into the north polar ocean, or the stretch of shoreline on the western side of Utopia Planitia.

Where do we look for valuable minerals?

I’d suggest looking for another planet to visit if you want to get rich. Mars isn’t resource-poor, per se, but it does lack most of the minerals and metals we consider a foundation to modern society. For metals, Mars is pretty much limited to iron and aluminum, although ores of some other metals may exist in small amounts on the surface. For energy, there may be methane and sunlight. Gypsum, a building material, is also present. But all of these things are already common on Earth, so it would be impractical (and a big money loser) to mine them there and ship them home. However, if we were to build colonies on Mars, it does save us the hassle of shipping construction materials from here to Mars.

This lack of valuable minerals stems from Mars’s lack of plate tectonics. The smashing of plates and constant churning up of new material from the mantle makes Earth a veritable treasure trove of ore deposits. There are a number of processes here that concentrate elements into refinable quantities. On Mars, most of those processes are missing.

What about gems?

You’re out of luck there, too. Most gems form in little bodies called pegmatites. Pegmatites are the watery leftovers from the formation of granite, which is a type rock that is rare or absent on Mars. However, you might get lucky and find some peridot, the gem variety of the mineral olivine. Olivine is common in basaltic rocks, which Mars has a lot of.

How did the places on this map get their names?

The study of Mars really began when astronomers developed telescopes good enough to see surface markings, mostly in the late 1700s and through the 1800s. This happened to coinicide with the Neoclassicism movement in Europe, where tying discovery to Europe’s Greco-Roman past was seen as a mark of sophistication. As a result, the large bright and dark areas visible from Earth were given names like “Hellas”, “Utopia” and “Elysium”.  Even as neoclassicism faded out, it remained a matter of historical consistency, so even recently discovered landmarks, like Valles Marineris, were given pseudo-latin names.

Craters, on the other hand, were named after the astronomers who first studied Mars, and later, after deceased sci-fi authors who wrote about Mars. Smaller craters (there are a lot of those) are named after towns here on Earth. To see the naming criteria now in place for Martian features, check out this USGS guide to naming things in the Solar System.

If you have any more questions, I’d be happy to answer them! Just drop me a line!

July 9, 2014

New York Times Headline: Space Probe Might Lack Nitrogen to Push It Home

Well darn.

In a way, ISEE-3 reminds me of a line from William Gibson’s The Winter Market:

Rubin, in some way that no one quite understands, is a master, a teacher, what the Japanese call a sensei. What he’s the master of, really, is garbage, kipple, refuse, the sea of cast-off goods our century floats on. Gomi no sensei. Master of junk.
It’s really cool that a group of engineers and specialists have come so far in their attempts to return a spacecraft written off as gomi to active service.