Bye Hubble

11 05 2009

Atlantis is on its way to Hubble for the last time. The Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 is getting shut down ( good post about it ) and WF&PC 3 is being put in, and Hubble’s on its own after this mission D= It’s probably the most important camera so far in human history in light of what it has done. We still ❤ you Hubble!





Go China!

27 04 2009

That’s right, I’m rooting for the Chinese. In what, and why? Well, let’s start at the beginning.

On July 16th, 1945, the Trinity test was conducted. America was the first and only country to master the most devastating weapon humanity had ever seen.

When 1949 dawned, we were secure in the knowledge that the Russians would not have the bomb for at least 3 more years. We were rather shocked (not to mention terrified), therefore, when later that year the Russians detonated their own nuclear bomb. We were ahead of them and could blame it on spies, however, so all that came of it was the Red Scare, rather than a period of national introspection.

Then, in 1957, the event which I consider to be, symbolically if not practically, the most important event in human history to date took place. I’m referring, of course, to Sputnik’s launch. This time, America had no response. We were still a long way from space, and so this time we looked at ourselves and realized that we were simply not prepared to compete.

Our response was to launch a massive research and education program. Sputnik brought about a fundamental rethinking of United States STEM education, especially science and math programs in public schools. Excellence, it was realized, mattered. Science and math programs received huge amounts of funding and attention, and were reformed to truly provide a solid science and mathematics education. Post Sputnik programs weren’t perfect (funding was often pulled from other subjects, most of which also matter), but they were important, and they generally worked.

***

US education is a mess. Science isn’t really taught in schools, facts are. The scientific method is, ironically, taught by memorization, and as if it were a rigid, restrictive, tidy structure. Math, when it isn’t paced far too slowly, often skims over important fundamental concepts. English destroys rather than fosters a love of reading, and where it could be used to teach intelligent insight and thought, is instead turned into a postmodern playground. History is taught as dates, names, and bits of legislation. Analysis of it and application of it is mediocre at best.

That brings us to China. They are going to be the next superpower, and pretty soon will be our biggest scientific and economic rival. I’m hoping desparately that they will give us another Sputnik moment, whether it be with nanotech, genetics, or anything else. Anything less than another Sputnik, I think, won’t be enough to drive America to fix our education system, a fix that we are in dire need of before we fall too far behind to catch back up.





Transhumanism

18 04 2009

This is probably going to be all over the place because even I’m not actually sure what I think about transhumanism, but bear with me.

First, a quick intro for those who don’t know what transhumanism is. Essentially, transhumanists want to develop technology to the point where humans can mechanically augment their bodies and electronically augment their minds. They advocate “evolving” further in this manner and moving past the homo Sapiens portion of history (thus the name).

I think that there are legitimate objections to it, morally and practically, but I also think that many of the ones raised are not legitimate arguments. The first of these is the “tampering with nature,” or “playing God,” argument, depending on who’s raising it. The argument suffers many of the same problems in this case that it does in other cases though. For instance, the “so what” response is fairly compelling. Glasses are artificially augmenting the human body, as are binoculars, telescopes, flashlights, hearing aids, and pretty much every other piece of technology used to aid our senses, and in addition even to those there are things like flippers and wetsuits. It’s not relevant that something is artificial.

Another one I’ve seen that’s really absurd is the accusation against transhumanists that they just want to escape dying. While I think it may be true of many, again, so what? That’s not even an argument against transhumanism, it’s just an ad hominem attack. It doesn’t matter why they want it, it just matters what it would actually bring and whether it’s actually feasible.

There’s also the “they’ll kill us all” argument (although it seems to be used more to apply to the singularity, that’s tied into transhumanism to some extent). Certainly if computers and robots surpass (or approach) human intelligence they’ll have the capability, but once again, so what? Why would they want to unless we tried to kill them first? And if they had reached near human (or greater than human) intelligence, they would have the right to defend themselves, no?

Finally, there’s the eugenics argument, the claim that everyone would be forced to have their bodies augmented with machines and that those who refuse will be killed. Really, though, why? All that’s required is for people to be allowed to make the decision for themselves and have their choice protected in some way (there are various ways, like allowing them to set up their own communities in a manner similar to the Amish), and I think that humanity is capable of that.

Like I said though, there are definitely legitimate aspects to the criticisms of transhumanism too. For instance, what does this imply for the rich-poor divide? The world’s poor, those who worry more about getting enough food than anything, are not going to be able to buy themselves cyborg augmentation. Looking at history, it seems unlikely that the rich will be pushing very hard to help them, except perhaps inside their own countries. This isn’t really an inditment of transhumanism though, since it already applies to many things today. This just exacerbates it.

The second reasonable argument is that if we as a species try to use these sorts of technologies before we really understand them, the consequences could be dire. That’s absolutely true. We’ve shown before and continue to show that we can cause tremendous harm if we use something before we’re really prepared for it or before we understand exactly what it does. Climate change is a good example. We started industrial production before we knew what the processes involved were really doing and what their secondary effects were.

One of the best, I think, is the feasibility argument. We’re really no where near the technological level to do this. Technological advancement has accelerated, but not at the enormous rate transhumanists and singularitarians often claim. It’s going to be a long, long time before any of the major proposed changes to the body are even possible, so the hyping of it is an exaggeration.

The best of all the arguments, I think, is that it poses a threat to scientific, social, and technological advancement. This seems paradoxical at first, but in fact is probably true. Science often advances when the proponents of the old theories and paradigms that have been refuted have died, and the field is free to move forward with the new ideas of the younger scientists. Prejudices are often overcome not by convincing people but by teaching the young, who then replace the old as the people running the world. If the old aren’t dying off, significant change becomes much harder. The only way I can think of to prevent this is by somehow keeping the childhood brain plasticity (or electronic equivalent) that allows for children to accept new ideas through adulthood.





The problem with organized skepticism

24 03 2009

Before I start, let me say that I know perfectly well why organized skepticism is important as of now, and I agree.

“Organized skepticism” is, broadly speaking, the (largely online) movement to promote critical thinking among the public. It is apolitical and areligious, although it does lean strongly in both areas for various reasons, some related to the whole “critical thinking” thing, some not.

Now, my problem with it: I think that the movement as a whole has missed the point of its own existence. There is a certain mindset that I see in the skeptical movement towards turning inward and preaching to the choir. That is a problem in its own right, but I think it stems from something larger: the skeptical movement has forgotten or not realized that it is a movement whose very goal necessitates that it be a temporary measure.

What I mean by that is this. Skepticism as a movement will, if it succeeds, become irrelevant. If critical thinking becomes widespread, and if it is brought into standard curriculums in schools, the movement is no longer needed, and indeed should begin to fade away. The problem with such movements after they acheive their goals is that they are often counterproductive and, quite frankly, insular because they have lost their purpose. They become a bit embarrsessing to everyone, and in fact create a push the other way.

The problem is that, as expressed by the “preaching to the choir” tendency I’ve noted, many skeptics seem to have every intention of continuing the movement whether its goals are acheived or not. My question, I guess, is “why?”

I’m not saying that we’re anywhere near the point where skepticism has become widespread (we’re not), but I think it’s worth keeping in mind that this is not a movement whose intent should be permenance.





March Madness!

20 03 2009

March Madness, NASA style!

Go vote! Personally, I’m torn between Hubble and the Voyagers.





Science is awesome!

11 03 2009

As a substance’s temperature drops, the motion of its particles decreases more and more so that they become more and more tightly packed, first from a gas to a liquid, then a liquid to a solid. Simple enough. After all, heat is the kinetic energy of particles. But if you cool them enough, very strange things happen to them.

For example, take Bose-Einstein Condensates. When substances reach temperatures very, very close to absolute zero, they form a state of matter called a Bose-Einstein Condensate. Then, to quote a Nova/BBC4 program we’ve been watching in chemistry, “they have an identity crisis.” Suddenly they aren’t particles anymore. They’re waves. But at first they’re very small, individual, distinct waves. But if you keep cooling them, the waves get bigger, and they start to overlap and merge. Eventually you end up with one giant quantum state wave of, for instance, hydrogen. Just by cooling it, the particles become more wavelike even as their actual motion is decreasing.

Or take superconductors. If you drop a substance’s temperature far enough, electrical resistance in it suddenly drops dramatically, to the point where a magnet near it creates an opposite magnetic field in the substance. Why is that? Why is there a tipping point after which resistance is effectively zero?

Or to move away from cold for a moment, pulsars. A pulsar is a star spitting out electromagnetic waves in a beam, at a very specific part of the spectrum. And it’s spinning. Not like Earth’s nice, sedate 700 miles an hour. Most spin between a few times a second and once every few minutes. Stars. Spinning hundreds or thousands of times every hour. And it gets better. There are pulsars that spin as many as seven hundred times a second. And the rotation is so regular that when the radio signal was first detected for a pulsar, it was labelled “LGM” for Little Green Men.

Or switch fields again at take biology. Viruses are the ultimate parasites, literally incapable of action without a host. But they are so well adapted to their hosts that much of what we know about the more intricate parts of the immune system comes from looking at proteins viruses code for, and trying to figure out why on Earth a virus would ever make such a thing.

A lot of you probably know most of this already, but here’s my point: the universe that science has shown us is absolutely incredible, and it’s too easy to forget that. So look at what you know sometime, and take a moment to marvel in how amazing it really is.





Ignorance, thy name is… (2/25)

25 02 2009

Bobby Jindal.

Mr. Bobby Jindal, among other blunders in his speech, claimed that there was $140,000,000 in the stimulus bill for volcano monitoring. Not only is this not true (it’s much more general, it’s for seismic, volcanic, etc monitoring improvements and repairs), but even if it were, it would be a good thing.

You see, volcanos kill people. Monitoring them allows for early evacuation to escape. It even sometimes allows time to prepare ways to divert lava flows away from homes, saving huge sums of money. So Jindal’s argument is two pronged: saving large numbers of lives and large amounts of property are bad, and unstimulative.

I predict a bright future for him in far right American politics.