Category: Science

Carl Sagan’s Prescient Quotation Foreshadows Trumpian Ignorance

Carl Sagan PhotoI ran across this quotation from Carl Sagan this morning. Given some of the Donald’s recent executive actions and many of his Cabinet nominations, I felt it was appropriate to share with you.

Science is more than a body of knowledge; it is a way of thinking. I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time — when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness. -Carl Sagan, astronomer and author (1934-1996)


“Arrival” is an Absolute Must See

Let me start with the bottom line: you must go see the new movie Arrival. In fact, I hereby grant you leave to stop reading this post/review right now so you can get to it soon before it leaves theaters. Arrival is a visual feast that succeeds as a film of triumph on so many levels that it has quickly become my all-time favorite film in its genre.

That’s right, it’s better than Contact, better than Interstellar and, dare I say it?, better than my beloved Avatar. And it made me want to go back and binge-watch those movies just to soak up the incredible spirit of hope each represents for mankind. Maybe I’m feeling a special need for that at this moment in the world’s history.

WARNING! Minor spoiler alerts ahead.

Arrival bundles together in one all-but-overwhelming sensory experience my deepest passions and my most cherished beliefs and teachings.  Its symbolism — from the mysterious arc-based writing of the invading aliens to the egg-shaped craft in which they arrive, from their number (12) to their special “weapon” (or is it a tool?) — Is multilevel and internally consistent.

In so-called “message movies”, the underlying content that wants to be conveyed is generally sufficiently broad, not to say vague, that different people can get different messages from the same movie experience. While there is certainly room for nuance, it most often seems to me that these messages are ones upon which the majority of viewers can agree.

For me, the central theme of the movie, indeed its singular underlying Important Message, is the Essential Unity of All Life.

The most constant character in the movie — apart from linguistics expert Louise Banks (Amy Adams) — is Time. There are two parallel plot lines at work here. One unfolds in linear time, or apparently linear time at least, and deals with the main story flow of the movie. The other quasi-randomly interrupts that flow to offer a completely nonlinear story in which Prof. Banks’ actions are informed by memories of her daughter, who died at a young age of a disease that followed a course of action Prof. Banks predicted. This “intertwingling” of non-parallel, non-linear time frames never becomes difficult to cope with, but it does require paying attention, particularly to the seemingly small events as the story of her daughter unfolds in fits and starts.

Arrival is a strong story of triumph: love over fear, brain over brawn, calm over panic, love over time, oneness over separation, and so many others. It is, in the best sense of the phrase, spiritual but not religious. Particularly noteworthy is the intermixture of mathematics and cosmology, in the persona of Prof. Banks’ physicist colleague, Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), who is given nominal charge of the team assigned to trying to find out why the aliens have come to Earth. I found his character to be poorly developed; but he plays a critical role of the alternate timeline, so the director (Denis Villeneuve) can perhaps be forgiven for not finding a way for him to be more interesting and complex.

The writing is crisp, and I found it enjoyable purely as a writer. But I went to this film with my good buddy and ardent film buff Paul Jimerson, and came away with a deeper appreciation for the visual artistic component of the film. Particularly the scenes in which the two main characters encounter the aliens are so excruciatingly minimalist and well drawn that they are practically worth the price of admission in themselves. Paul might say they are.

I would be remiss here if I didn’t make at least a passing comment about the performance of one of my favorite character actors of all time, Forest Whitaker. As the Army colonel in charge of the expedition to the alien craft, he manages to blend authoritarianism and understanding, a need to follow the rules and a curiosity about what happens if he doesn’t. In other words, typical Whitaker.

OK, enough commentary already. Hundreds of people of Artie reviewed this movie, and not sure I’ve got much original to add to what they’ve said. Is often the case, I’m stunned by reviews that did not give this movie high marks for reasons seem to me to be pedestrian and trivial. Still, a great many reviewers saw what I saw, heard what I heard, and saw what I thought. So let’s make a deal. I’ll stop writing if you’ll stop reading and just go watch it.

A Physicist on Spirituality

I ran across this great quotation from a world-renowned physicist this morning and really resonated with its sentiment, apart from his characterization of us as “molecular machines”, which I find accurate but insufficient:

To think that we are animated molecular machines made of the remains of stars dead billions of years ago and capable of self-awareness — this, to me, is very spiritual. –Marcelo Gleiser, physicist


How the Right Distorts the Science of Climate Change

I was struck last week by a perfect example of how the Right in the United States and elsewhere manages to continue to play the role of climate change denier in the face of overwhelming scientific agreement as to its nature and the extent of its threat.

In one of the daily climate change newsletters I read, there was a link to an article that appeared on the UK Express, an admittedly right-wing news outlet, headlined, “Has Climate Change Been Disproved?”. Since I make it my business to be informed about the beliefs and tactics of the anti-climate change crowd, I clicked on the link and read the piece.

The gist of the article was to cite a study done by the Large Hadron Collider staff, which this “newspaper” interpreted as meaning that “mankind’s burning of fossil fuels may not be the primary cause of global warming.”

climate_change_clock2So, of course, I looked up the study cited in the article  in the Journal “Nature”. The headline on the Journal article was, unsurprisingly, quite different in tone. “Cloud-Seeding Surprise Could Improve Climate Predictions,” it read. It turned out that the study in question determined that molecules released by trees can seed clouds. This finding contradicts a long-held assumption that sulfuric acid, a serious pollutant, is required to create certain types of cloud formations. Clouds have always been a source of major uncertainty for scientists attempting to predict with precision where climate change might be headed. Clouds reflect sunlight away from the planet, acting to counter some of the heat we might otherwise experience.

The bottom line of this study is that, “the warming effects of carbon dioxide, might have been overestimated.” However the scientists who wrote the study are quick to point out that cloud formations are but one uncertainty of many. They also reminded readers that this is just one experiment which is difficult to project into a known fact without more detailed analysis and repeated experimentation.

One of the lead scientists said, “our best estimate of future levels and impacts of global climate change are probably still the same.”

So how does a journal article describing a preliminary finding that we may have more accurate information on which to base past performance and future outcomes of global climate change get turned into a piece declaring global climate change disproved?

There are only two logical explanations.

Either the reporters and editors at the Express were woefully ignorant of the subject matter and really didn’t understand what the study had discovered and its meaning, or they have an agenda whose purpose could only be served by a tortuous twisting of the facts and conclusions of a reputable scientific study. Either way, they did their readers a disservice by not acting as factual gatekeepers on the information highway.

We often hear that scientists are at least partly to blame for what public ignorance about climate change remains. They don’t explain things clearly, we hear. They always coach their findings in careful cautions, making them hard to treat as “facts”. True. But that is what science always does. If we expected them to wait until they had 100% certainty about their experiments, no science would ever get done. It is by nature a trial-and-error business.

But that’s no excuse for the indefensible misinterpretation of scientific information on the part of the journalism community.

Happy PI Day, Einstein!

Today was Pi Day, the day marked by nerds and mathical folks because the important mathematical constant pi has a value of 3.14. So March 14 = 3/14. Get it?

Anyway, it’s also the birthday of the most famous physicist in the history of the world, Albert Einstein, who was born on this date in 1879.

Albert Einstein at Age 25

Albert Einstein at Age 25

Dr. Einstein was something of a prodigy. At age 26, in 1905, he had what many of his biographers have described as a Miracle Year. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Zurich that year and also published four of his most important and influential papers on the photoelectric effect, Brownian motion, special relativity, and the equivalence of mass and energy. These established him as a pre-eminent theoretical physicist.

I’m equally fascinated by Einstein’s deep understanding of religion and religiosity. While not religious in the traditional sense, Einstein, if he were alive today, would probably easily accept the label, “spiritual but not religious.” He actually co-authored the book Einstein on Cosmic Religions and Other Opinions and Aphorisms with George Bernard Shaw. He also wrote a famous article for the New York Times Magazine entitled “Science and Religion” which was later collected into my favorite volume of Einstein thought, Ideas and Opinions.

Anyway, I love the coincidence of Pi and Einstein’s birthday.

Since When Did the U.S. Take Ownership of Space?

In a largely overlooked bit of news with potentially massive implications, President Barack Obama signed a law in late November authorizing companies to claim legal ownership of any resources or minerals they are able to claim from space.

space_exploration_RoadmapFrankly, I’m astonished. As I read reports of this development, the questions tumbled out and over one another.

What gives the United States any jurisdiction over extraterrestrial object ownership?

I thought that stuff belonged to God or the Universe or to all of humanity?

Wait, not even humanity. If there are other races out there, don’t they get a say?

What makes us so arrogant to think that only earthlings…only earthlings in America…only earthlings in America who happen to be artificial people…can or should even have a say in this?

Just in general, WTF?

I mean, seriously? Perhaps the President should familiarize himself with the nearly 50-year-old United Nations Outer Space Treaty, which the U.S. ratified in 1967. The UN’s Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) has published a significant number of documents describing that treaty and other matters involving space exploration and exploitation which obligate the United States to follow some rules.

Here are some of the basic principles of that treaty. (The full list can be found here.)

  • States shall be responsible for national space activities whether carried out by governmental or non-governmental entities;
  • the exploration and use of outer space shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries and shall be the province of all mankind;
  • outer space shall be free for exploration and use by all States;
  • outer space is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means;

So where does this attempted new law get off? Someone with more clout than me (and that includes just about everyone) needs to call BS on this one!

Dave Winer’s Right, Elon Musk Wrong About Mars

I’ve always respected Dave Winer, even — maybe particularly — when we’ve disagreed. He’s a Big Picture guy who generally exhibits clear thinking and crisp writing on a broad range of subjects. I’ve recently begun paying closer attention to what he’s saying.

In a post today on his blog, Scripting News, he makes the salient point that Elon Musk, one of the brightest inventors and futurists of our time, is wrong-headed when he argues forcefully for the establishment of a million-member society of Earthlings on Mars. Musk, founder and leader of SpaceX, a civilian space exploration company with an already impressive track record of accomplishments, sees a Mars colony as the best hope for mankind’s survival in the wake of the destruction of our home planet’s environment.

Winer quite properly points out that the fatal flaw in this notion is that, “if you think you have an escape hatch, what’s the incentive to make it work here on the only planet that humans inhabit, or can inhabit, that we know of?”

I’ve been making this point for years to my Evangelical Christian friends who pin their future hopes and dreams on a non-physical Heaven. If you believe Planet Earth is essentially a corrupt place filled with Original Sinners and you despair of it ever being redeemable, you are not incentivized to expend great effort to keep it from deteriorating.

Like Dave, I’m a huge booster and fan of interplanetary exploration and I’m certainly not opposed to the idea of creating Earth colonies on other planets we find that might be inhabitable. But to see those settlements as last desperate outposts of humanity in need of cosmic rescue is clearly a mistake.

(Winer also points out another aspect of the fallacy: what makes us think that if we establish a rescue outpost on Mars, or anywhere else, we won’t destroy that location just as we have this one?)

Vestatrek: Now That’s What I Call a Web App!

NASA has just released a new Web app called Vestatrek that is a shining example of what Web-based applications can do in the real world.

Vestatrek is a VR kind of site that is also a space explorer and a laboratory rolled into one highly responsive and engaging program. Using it, you can explore the surface of the asteroid Vesta, the second largest body in the asteroid belt. The spacecraft Dawn spent almost a year investigating Vesta on its way to its present location orbiting Ceres, another large microplanet / asteroid.

This app is amazing and great fun. I spent over an hour playing with it this afternoon. If offers 2d and 3d views of Vesta’s surface, you can navigate around, zoom in and out, overlay the mapping with displays of color (revealing relative depth) and hydrogen levels, measure the distance between things in terms of meters, miles, or Golden Gate Bridges or even school buses! It packs an enormous amount of functionality and data into a Web browser-based app that responds to the slightest touch of the screen or a pointer or trackpad.

Not only is it fascinating as an app, it’s a great counter to the argument that Web apps aren’t and can’t be performant, that they don’t scale, or that they aren’t really cross-browser and cross-platform.



Dawn Orbiting Ceres: First Impressions Promising for Life Signs

The Dawn spacecraft is now safely ensconced in orbit around the dwarf planet Ceres and the transmission of usable and interesting scientific data and imagery has begun in earnest. This is an enormously exciting event for those of us who are interested in space science and exploration. Ceres is the largest object in the asteroid belt.

Photo of Ceres, largest object in asteroid belt, seen from spacecraft Dawn and showing two bright spots

BRIGHT SPOTS on Ceres appear to be evidence of outgasing, which may suggest water beneath surface

As the Dawn spacecraft approached Ceres a couple of weeks ago, scientists were surprised to observe two bright objects on its surface. As it drew closer and achieved orbit, these bright spots were discovered to be at the base of a crater but they remain visible even when the rim of the crater would be expected to be blocking the view. This results in a tentative but plausible conclusion that the spots are connected to what is called “outgasing,” the process of gases beneath the surface of Ceres emitting plumes of gas. This might well indicate the presence of water on Ceres, one of the basic requirements for the presence of any form of carbon-based life such as we Earthlings are familiar with and naively expect all interplanetary life to resemble.

There’s been a lot in the popular mass media about the mission but if you want to dig into what’s really going on and what it means, I suggest you check out the Lunary and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC) Web site. Scientists involved in the mission gave a series of talks yesterday drilling into great detail and sharing a lot of information about the surface, mapping, geology, and other amazingly fascinating stuff.

This is proving to be one of the most important space science missions in our nation’s history of exploration.