Monday, August 6, 2012

Mars Curiosity: Why Bother?

One of the first test images taken by Curiosity, showing one of its massive wheels!
As we celebrate the magnificent August 5/6, 2012 achievement of NASA and its international team to land Mars Curiosity on the Red Planet, I'd like to ponder some of the reasons for doing such work--far beyond all the pretty pictures we will soon begin to enjoy.

One of Curiosity's major tasks will be to search Gale Crater for evidence of water and the building blocks of life.  It will provide geological testing of rocks and soil samples, as well as photographs for other studies.

So why should we care?  Because we humans are curious.  We are explorers.  Adventurers.  We need to know what lies beyond the hills, beyond the seas, beyond our own world.  We always have and we always will.  It's this very curiosity that separates us from the other creatures of Earth, and produces remarkable developments upon which our civilization, our lives and our world-views are built.

Studying Mars helps us understand ourselves and our planet; in other words, when we explore a different world we begin to see our own with an entirely new perspective. For example, confirmation that liquid water existed in Mars' distant (or perhaps, recent) past begs such questions as:  What happened to it all?  How and why did that planet change from wet to dry?  And was Mars ever once habitable and could it be habitable again?  But this is just the beginning.

The technology and unbelievably complex international teamwork to get all to work together as a single unit, and to land a large craft on Mars, will aid in future robotic missions to Mars and other worlds.  And where robots go, Man is sure to follow.

Then there are the technological spinoffs from the research leading to this mission, something people tend to forget as they use that very technology in their everyday lives--everything from material sciences to communications to camera technology to navigation to aerospace engineering to mapping to robotics to life sciences to chemistry to atmospheric sciences and hydrology... the list can continue for pages.

And let's not forget the inspiration for our children...  to dream beyond their everyday world, to a future of excitement and promise. How many of them will change the way they look at themselves and their world because of missions like this?  And how many will become inspired to enter the sciences and develop new technology and medicines, or make revolutionary discoveries?  We may never know. 

Now, there are those who argue that the $2.5 billion cost for such work--about $8 per U.S. citizen--could better be spent right here on Earth, but this serves only to demonstrate their ignorance and short-sightedness. We haven't packed up 2.5 billion dollar bills in a box and shipped them to Mars; they're all being spent right here on Earth to employ many tens of thousands of researchers, engineers, contractors and sub-contractors, and other support staff around the U.S. and the world to accomplish this grand achievement and, perhaps more importantly, lead to remarkable future developments.

Solving scientific mysteries, creating technological innovation, inspiring future generations, employing thousands... all for 8 bucks per person.  Now THAT, my friends, is a stimulus package! 

As exciting as the landing events were, we must remember that this mission did not begin and end with the landing; it's been going for nearly a decade and will continue to benefit us in countless--even unimaginable--ways for decades to come. 

Yes, there's more to such missions than just pretty pictures!

Curiosity and its parachute were spotted by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Listen for the Voice of the Moon...

Oh, how I wish I could have penned these wonderful words of Dr. Richard Shelton... a poem that speaks to me as magically as does the moon itself.  Stand silently in the glorious moonlight some night and see if you, too, can hear it...

          by Richard Shelton

When I wake in the night,
troubled and thinking
I heard the cry of a bird,
I go to the window
and look out.

Then I realize
it was the cry of the moon.
Years ago I thought
I heard the voice of mountains
which spoke only at night.

Since then I have listened many
times, and I was mistaken. 
It was the echo
of the voice of the moon.
When I am unhappy
the moon reminds me
that all things change.

When I am happy
it does the same thing.

I can believe that men
have walked on the moon. 
Men would do a thing like that. 
But when I am told the moon
is a huge round stone
which does not change its shape
and has no light of its own,
I cannot believe it.

I have heard the voice of the moon.

When I become confused
and do not know who I am,
I listen to the voice of the moon.

The moon knows who everyone is
and forgives all of us.

When the moon is new
it begins at the beginning
and tells the same story
straight through to the end.

It is a long story
but we listen and believe.
Who can doubt
the voice of the moon.

It is important
to learn the habits of the moon.

Otherwise, one might wait
all night and it would not appear.
And when the sun rose triumphant,
one might despair,
believing the moon had been
destroyed and would never return.

The sun is like fire.
It takes what it wants
and pays no attention to anyone.

But the moon knows each of us. 
It looks into our eyes
and remembers all our names.

When we watch the sun go down
we are impressed with its glory.

When we watch the moon go down
we want to go with it.

The sea, the wind, and the owl
try to imitate
the voice of the moon.
But none succeed. 

Beethoven and Debussy tried
to write its song, but compared
to the voice of the moon
one of them created the sound
of screendoors slamming,
and the other, the sound
of a pork chop being fried.

When the moon rises
in the afternoon and sets
too early to be of any use,
I remember how old I am
and that I no longer
have the option of dying young.

When I sleep and moonlight
comes through the window
and touches me,
I become a dream.

No man turns into a wolf
when the moon is full.

But wolves howl
when the moon is full
because they hear its voice.

Some think the moon is silent. 
They are blind.

From Chosen Place  (Best Cellar Press, 1975)  ASIN: B001TYOCA0
©Richard Shelton

Thursday, January 12, 2012

"Reality" is NOT a four-letter word!

Last year I was visiting family in Pennsylvania over the Christmas/New Year holidays; the snow was pretty heavy and it was a welcome change for this desert rat as it always is (since I know I'll be leaving it relatively soon!).  Driving on a main street near my Aunt's home, I frequently passed by a house with the door open and a big glowing "Psychic" sign in the window, but never actually saw anyone going in or coming out.  That, of course, got me thinking: wouldn't a psychic know when someone was going to come, and open the door only a few minutes beforehand?

Well, I chuckled to myself and shook my head every time I passed the place, but one evening I actually saw movement there.  Snow was falling, and I saw a lady leaving as the psychic (I presume) was saying goodbye and closing the door from the inside.  Since this was the first time I'd ever seen anyone there, I naturally paid attention.  As the woman began to descend the icy steps, her feet shot out from under her and she bounced like a Slinky all the way down to the sidewalk. 

Perhaps I shouldn't admit this, but I couldn't contain my laughter. How much of her hard-earned money had this lady just spent there? Shouldn't the psychic have warned her that this would happen and help her down the steps?  Or maybe the lady paid just for the discount prediction package that didn't include a notice of impending accidents.

Now I know what you "true believers" are thinking... that I just don't understand the psychic world, and I readily admit that.  Apparently, I don't understand the astrological realm either, as it was angrily pointed out to me many years ago.

I had been invited as a guest on the KUSI Morning News in San Diego, as I often was, to discuss some exciting celestial discovery or phenomenon. When I arrived in the "green room" before the program, imagine my surprise to find that they had also invited an astrologer who was waiting as well.

Now there's one thing I've learned over the years about astrologers--and others who believe in similar nonsense: they always behave the same when they learn they're talking to an astronomer.  First they speak quite reasonably about the universe and its behavior, perhaps even asking some well-thought out questions--this is to lure the unsuspecting listener into what they believe will be a rational discourse. Then they begin to toss out some scientific and mathematical jargon to demonstrate that they're scientifically literate. Finally, they try to show that theirs is a "legitimate science" and gradually, in what becomes more and more kooky by the minute, try to reel the "skeptic" into their lair of crazy thinking. 

Now ask yourself honestly.  Why would anyone do this if they weren't aware of how nonsensical and irrational their ideas are?  I mean, does a pediatrician do this when meeting a teacher?  Or a plumber when talking with a dentist?  Of course not.  But I fully expected her to take this tack and, of course, she did, so I wasn't disappointed.

I listened patiently in hopes that, at some point, she might express ideas that represented something relatively close to reality.  She had just published a book on the subject--I suspect this was the reason for her appearance on TV that day--and handed me a copy to take home and read, explaining that this would help me "understand."  And then she made me an offer I couldn't refuse. 

Well, sort of. 

She suggested that if I told her the date, time and place of my birth, she would make a "chart" for me that would explain so much about my personality and life, and stun me with its accuracy. Never had anyone offered such a thing to me before, and I was surprised.  But not nearly as surprised as she when I came back with a counter offer. I suggested, instead, the following:

"Better yet, how about this?," I countered.  "I'll take you to lunch--at the time and place of your choosing--and tell you absolutely everything about myself that you want to know.  Then you tell ME the date, time and place of my birth."

I sure wish the encounter had been videotaped because medical science could learn a lot about how quickly a person's face can become red and start shaking from anger.  She ripped the book from my hands and screamed "It doesn't work that way!" 

"Now wait a minute," I replied calmly.  "It certainly should.  It's called 'reverse-engineering,' and it's done all the time.  If one can map out all the important features of my personality and life from the date, time and place of my birth as you claim, then you should also be able to work in the opposite direction... to use this same information to determine the date, time and place of my birth."

Well, that concept was apparently a bit more rational than she could handle, and she began to shake even more angrily as she retreated to the opposite side of the room muttering to herself words I can't repeat on this public forum... but they certainly included multiple uses of the word "skeptic."

You bet I'm a skeptic, Sweetheart!

Unfortunately, such illiterate boobs use the word "skeptic" as a derisive term; they think it refers to one who pooh-poohs everything, a closed-minded individual unwilling to accept anything but their own narrow way of thinking.  In fact, it's just the opposite.  A true skeptic is, perhaps, the most open-minded person you'll ever meet.  While a skeptic may not believe what you're selling, he or she will always give you an chance to prove it honestly, in which case they have to no choice but to believe it themselves.

It should surprise no one, however, that rarely do the world's psychics, astrologers and other charlatans take up the challenge, and those who do--much like criminals who believe they can outsmart a lie-detector or breathalyzer test--fail miserably.

Now I don't expect to convince any of the "true believers" who happen to have made it all the way to the end of this blog.  In fact, it would be a first to have even a rational discussion with such a person--at least beyond the first few minutes when they're in "scientific jargon mode." 

Because, let's face it. It's impossible to reason with someone whose basic paradigm is that reason doesn't count.