Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Imperative of Asteroid Defense

The aftermath of the Tunguska Event, an impact from space in central Siberia.
Check out this Op-Ed in today's New York Times from Russell Schweickart, former astronaut and co-chair of the Task Force on Planetary Defense.

Asteroid defense is a subject that doesn't get nearly enough attention.  Of course we don't want to alarm people, but at the same time, maybe people need to be a little more alarmed!  That may be the only way to really see some action on this front.

When you think about it, it's sort of surprising that we don't devote more energy to asteroid defense.  We actively scan the skies for near-Earth objects, but in terms of actually deflecting an asteroid from a collision, our plans at this point are only theoretical.  It's surprising because it seems like we should be able to get everyone on board with this mission.  For some people, space exploration is seen as an esoteric endeavor, lacking practical purpose.  But what could be more practical than defending the planet from a clear and present danger?  To me, asteroid defense should be much easier to rationalize than studying the geology of the Moon or sending astronauts to Mars. 

The problem is that this is an issue that sounds fanciful.  We've all seen Armageddon.  You start talking about preventing an asteroid collision and everyone thinks about Bruce Willis flying up there to blow it up, with Aerosmith providing the soundtrack.

But we all know what happened to the dinosaurs.  What's so far-fetched about an asteroid collision? 

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

"Teach the Controversy" - The Treacherous Lingo of Crypto-Creationists

The New Scientist gives us this brief update on the state of Intelligent Design in our schools today.

Creationists and proponents of Intelligent Design love to use tricky language.  One of their favorites lines is, "teach the controversy," a seemingly moderate and innocuous statement that drips with anti-science subtext.  The idea is to attack science on its own terms.  By suggesting that there is some sort of cover-up conspiracy to teach evolution and hide its flaws, it calls into question the scientific integrity of everyone in the field who subscribes to it.  Science, of course, is committed to an unbiased airing of all the facts, and letting those facts speak for themselves.  And only when all the facts are available can we draw an informed conclusion. 

Here's the problem: Creationism at its core is not based on facts, it's based on theology.  And when it comes to science, "for the Bible tells me so" just doesn't pass muster.

Now, Charles Darwin devoted pages and pages in The Origin of Species to discussing problems with his theory of evolution by natural selection.  He even conceded that some of the problems were serious threats to the whole idea.  Of course, many of these problems have since been resolved, but there remain some questions (Darwin writes at length about the gaps in the fossil record, for example -- a favorite talking point for creationists today).  Just because there are questions about a theory does not mean the theory is unproved, however.  For instance, we still have questions about the nature of gravity.  We know how it works in the everyday sense; we know how to calculate trajectories for spacecraft and planets; we know about stellar and galactic formation, including the creation of black holes; and we know how gravity can actually bend light.  But we do not know exactly what happens inside a black hole, and we have yet to reconcile the gravitational force with the other known forces of the universe in a unified field theory.  These are questions for the years to come.  But obviously, no one is questioning the fundamental concept of gravity.  That's probably because it's not considered a serious threat to the existence of God, though it's fun to imagine the wacky beliefs that might be held by non-gravitationalists. 

The problem we face today is not that the creationists want the real unresolved questions of life and evolution to be discussed in class, but that they want their own scientifically unsound complaints to be given equal weight in the science classroom.  Abiogenesis, the study of life's origin on Earth, is still very much an open question.  The gaps in the fossil record, though there is a reasonable explanation for them, deserve to be mentioned in the science classroom, in the proper context.  But irreducible complexity, another favorite talking point for creationists, has been shown to be erroneous time and time again.  For the uninformed, irreducible complexity may sound like a powerful argument, but when we look at the diversity of life on Earth there is plenty of evidence to contradict it. 

These science-deniers, like Republican senate candidate Christine O'Donnell, whose statements on this subject have drawn much publicity in the last several weeks, believe that evolution is a myth.  In their view, presumably, evolution by natural selection was cooked up by Darwin as a thought experiment, wholly unsubstantiated by evidence.  For the past 150 years, they must believe, scientists have blindly held up this single work as unassailable doctrine.  They believe there is no evidence because they have not seen or read about it, or they choose to ignore it.  This being the case, why should these people be dictating the material taught in science classrooms? 

We return to "teach the controversy."  I'm all for teaching the controversy -- in a history class, or in a US government class.  Every student should learn about The Scopes Trial, and the fight over creationism in schools today is certainly worthy of discussion in social studies classes.  But pseudoscience has no place in a science classroom.

In science, we cannot simply make up causes for phenomena in nature.  We can hypothesize, but every hypothesis has to be tested if it is to be given any merit.  Sometimes there is more than one hypothesis that, based on the facts, could adequately explain something in nature, and in those cases the question remains open, waiting for more evidence.  But when we don't understand something, we cannot just give up and say a magician in the sky is responsible.  Science would get nowhere if we did that.  And in spite of their opposition to science, I would bet the creationists enjoy some of the comforts science has provided them.  For example, I'm sure they care about what the weather will be like today, and their local meteorologist is there to help them decide whether they need to take an umbrella.  But what if we thought the rain was just God crying?  And thunderstorms meant God was angry?  If we resigned ourselves to such thinking, we would be unlikely to decode the complexity of our atmospheric patterns.  Unscientific explanations like these provide us with nothing useful, and they can stand in the way of really useful scientific discoveries. 

Creationists tend to think that science is out to prove that God does not exist.  While that is certainly true for some scientists, it is not what science is about at its foundation.  Indeed, few of us would be dismayed to learn that the benevolent God of the New Testament really exists, and that we are all destined for paradise after we die.  And few of us want to prove God doesn't exist so that we can go live hedonistic lifestyles.  Science is merely a tool for understanding the knowable world.  But it's a precious tool, a vital tool, and we must defend it from the corruption of transient ideology.

Update: Listen to this nonsense from Glenn Beck's radio show on October 20th:

And now, enjoy this classic Richard Dawkins showdown, in seven parts:

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Sticks or Carrots? - The Way Forward on Clean Energy

Check out this article from David Leonhardt at the New York Times, examining the pros and cons of Cap and Trade legislation and the benefits of increased funding for clean energy research.  It's worth reading.

Cap and Trade, which at one time was the climate change compromise plan of prominent Republicans like John McCain, failed to get through Congress this year.  But as Leonhardt points out, the defeat is not the end of the road for climate change mitigation.  If anything, it's a chance to start again on a more popular and possibly more effective approach.  Had it passed, Leonhardt says, the Cap and Trade plan might not have been as successful as had been suggested, since it does little to curb the carbon emissions of other nations like China, India, and other developing countries with a growing appetite for cheap (dirty) fuel.  Also, compromises might have made the bill weak to the point that major carbon polluters would be able to cut down on emissions simply by improving efficiency rather than transitioning to new technologies, which means clean energy sources like wind and solar power wouldn't get much of a leg up.  So while the idea was to work within the market to promote a change in our energy economy -- an idea that should appeal to free market conservatives -- the results might have been disappointing, and insufficient.

A new proposal, released jointly from the conservative American Enterprise Institute and the progressive Brookings Institution, calls for an increase in annual federal investment for clean energy research to the tune of $25 billion, up from only $4 billion a year now.  A key aspect of the new plan would stipulate that the money only go to programs that are actually reducing the cost of clean energy alternatives.  That's important, because we can't realistically expect individuals, companies or other countries to spend much more than their neighbors on clean energy sources just because they want to do their part to help the environment.  Many of us want to do our part, but we can't all spend tens of thousands of dollars rigging our houses with solar panels, or $40,000 on the new Chevy Volt.  

If the technology can be produced and consumed at competitive prices, though, everything changes.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Another Amateur Space Balloon! Amazing Footage!

A few months ago I posted a great video from a homemade weather balloon that went 24 miles high.  That one's got a pretty feel-good soundtrack and some nice stop motion work, and they captured some wonderful images.  But they were mainly just stills, taken with a pair of second hand digital cameras.

Well, I think this video may top that one.  Back in August, a father and son from Brooklyn sent up their own weather balloon, equipped with an HD camcorder and GPS.  The footage they got is just fantastic.  Take a look:

Homemade Spacecraft from Luke Geissbuhler on Vimeo.

My favorite moment is the popping of the balloon, around 19 miles high (at that height they estimate its diameter to be more than 18 feet!), and the tumble back towards Earth.  What a spectacular view!  This is what Felix Baumgartner will be seeing as he makes his supersonic freefall from the edge of space. 

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Thursday, October 7, 2010

New Poll, and Twitter Page!

Our last poll was wildly successful.  So let's do it again!  If you could fly only one mission to look for life in our Solar System, where would you send it?  I've listed some good places to look, but if your choice is not listed, vote for 'other' and leave your choice in the comments section of this post.  (The poll is on the right side of this page).

Also, I've decided to try out twitter.  I'm a novice, so forgive me if I don't follow protocol right away.  But if you're into this whole twitter thing, follow me!  I promise to get better at it.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Excitement for the First 'Goldilocks' Exoplanet

If you were online yesterday, you probably saw the big news in exoplanetology: astronomers have announced that they have found the first rocky exoplanet that orbits its star in the Habitable Zone, the narrow band of space where it's possible for liquid water to exist on the surface of a planet.  This zone is affectionately known as the Goldilocks Zone, because it is neither too hot nor too cold... it's just right.

Exoplanetology is such a young field that we get to experience new "firsts" all the time.  It certainly is an exciting time in astronomy.  There was the first exoplanet discovered, then the first rocky planet discovered, then the first planet to be photographed, then the first planet to have been discovered with photography.  Now we have a new one: the first planet that could be habitable.

("Habitable" in this case just refers to the planet's rocky composition and its potential for liquid water.  On Earth, of course, it takes more than just water to keep us alive.  Extraterrestrial life, if it is very different from life on Earth, could have radically different requirements for survival.  Planets where liquid water is possible are good places to start looking, but we should be careful not to conflate this potential for liquid water with being Earth-like in the general sense, i.e. a place where humans could live comfortably). 

Gliese 581g's existence has yet to be confirmed by other astronomers, but it is thought to be about 3 to 4 times the mass of Earth, and probably about 1.3 to 2 times as large.  Its surface gravity would be somewhere between 1.1 and 1.7 times that of the Earth, which would be enough to sustain some kind of atmosphere.  It orbits a dim red dwarf star, which puts out much less energy than our own Sun.  But it orbits much closer, with an orbital period of only 37 days, so the energy output of the star is sufficient to allow for liquid water on the surface.  Average temperatures have been estimated to be in the range of -84 to -49 degrees Fahrenheit, but since the planet is tidally locked, with one side permanently facing the star and the other side in permanent shadow, temperatures may range from extremely cold to scorching hot.  Much will depend on the nature of its atmosphere... if it has an atmosphere.  Astronomers have suggested that life could find a happy medium temperature somewhere near the terminator, where light meets darkness.  But an atmosphere of sufficient thickness and appropriate composition could be capable of distributing the heat more evenly about the planet, warming the dark regions.

Amusingly, the media always manages to distort discoveries like these, and yesterday was no exception.