Sunday, March 9, 2014

Asimov's Predictions for 2014

On August 16, 1964, inspired by the 1964 New York World's Fair, the New York Times published an article by Isaac Asimov containing a series of predictions about what the world of 2014 might be like.  Let's take a look at how well one of the most prominent science fiction authors and futurists of the 20th century fared.
One thought that occurs to me is that men will continue to withdraw from nature in order to create an environment that will suit them better. By 2014, electroluminescent panels will be in common use. Ceilings and walls will glow softly, and in a variety of colors that will change at the touch of a push button.
Well, we do seem to enjoy sealing ourselves away in climate-controlled comfort, but the only only place we really see electroluminescent panels are for the backlights of flat panel televisions and computer displays.
Windows need be no more than an archaic touch, and even when present will be polarized to block out the harsh sunlight. The degree of opacity of the glass may even be made to alter automatically in accordance with the intensity of the light falling upon it.
He didn't miss the mark by much. It isn't uncommon to find polarizing thin films applied to windows to block glare.  Making them adjustable, though (usually via liquid crystals), remains largely an executive toy.
There is an underground house at the fair which is a sign of the future. if its windows are not polarized, they can nevertheless alter the "scenery" by changes in lighting. Suburban houses underground, with easily controlled temperature, free from the vicissitudes of weather, with air cleaned and light controlled, should be fairly common. At the New York World's Fair of 2014, General Motors' "Futurama" may well display vistas of underground cities complete with light- forced vegetable gardens. The surface, G.M. will argue, will be given over to large-scale agriculture, grazing and parklands, with less space wasted on actual human occupancy.
Well, not all prognostications can be perfect.  We didn't build down. We built out and up.
Gadgetry will continue to relieve mankind of tedious jobs. Kitchen units will be devised that will prepare "automeals," heating water and converting it to coffee; toasting bread; frying, poaching or scrambling eggs, grilling bacon, and so on. Breakfasts will be "ordered" the night before to be ready by a specified hour the next morning. Complete lunches and dinners, with the food semiprepared, will be stored in the freezer until ready for processing. I suspect, though, that even in 2014 it will still be advisable to have a small corner in the kitchen unit where the more individual meals can be prepared by hand, especially when company is coming.
Well, there certainly has been a proliferation of kitchen gadgets, although that process was already well underway by the time this was written, as was the rise of frozen dinners.
Robots will neither be common nor very good in 2014, but they will be in existence. The I.B.M. exhibit at the present fair has no robots but it is dedicated to computers, which are shown in all their amazing complexity, notably in the task of translating Russian into English. If machines are that smart today, what may not be in the works 50 years hence? It will be such computers, much miniaturized, that will serve as the "brains" of robots. In fact, the I.B.M. building at the 2014 World's Fair may have, as one of its prime exhibits, a robot housemaid*large, clumsy, slow- moving but capable of general picking-up, arranging, cleaning and manipulation of various appliances. It will undoubtedly amuse the fairgoers to scatter debris over the floor in order to see the robot lumberingly remove it and classify it into "throw away" and "set aside." (Robots for gardening work will also have made their appearance.)
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, Asimov predicted the Roomba. Of course, it didn't turn out quite as he imagined.
General Electric at the 2014 World's Fair will be showing 3-D movies of its "Robot of the Future," neat and streamlined, its cleaning appliances built in and performing all tasks briskly. (There will be a three-hour wait in line to see the film, for some things never change.)
And, lo and behold, 3-D movies have made a comeback in the last several years.
The appliances of 2014 will have no electric cords, of course, for they will be powered by long- lived batteries running on radioisotopes. The isotopes will not be expensive for they will be by- products of the fission-power plants which, by 2014, will be supplying well over half the power needs of humanity. But once the isotype batteries are used up they will be disposed of only through authorized agents of the manufacturer.
It certainly would have been more impressive here if he had predicted that telephones would have no cords, but battery-powered gadgets are certainly common.  As for radioisotopic batteries, that was certainly a miss. About the only area where those tend to be applied is in powering space probes.
And experimental fusion-power plant or two will already exist in 2014. (Even today, a small but genuine fusion explosion is demonstrated at frequent intervals in the G.E. exhibit at the 1964 fair.) Large solar-power stations will also be in operation in a number of desert and semi-desert areas -- Arizona, the Negev, Kazakhstan. In the more crowded, but cloudy and smoggy areas, solar power will be less practical. An exhibit at the 2014 fair will show models of power stations in space, collecting sunlight by means of huge parabolic focusing devices and radiating the energy thus collected down to earth.
Ah, fusion power, perpetually a few decades down the road. The ITER tokamak isn't expected to come online until about 2020. However, there are certainly several large solar power stations, although not as many as we need. In general, solar power still falls a bit short of being cost-competitive with fossil fuels.
The world of 50 years hence will have shrunk further. At the 1964 fair, the G.M. exhibit depicts, among other things, "road-building factories" in the tropics and, closer to home, crowded highways along which long buses move on special central lanes. There is every likelihood that highways at least in the more advanced sections of the world*will have passed their peak in 2014; there will be increasing emphasis on transportation that makes the least possible contact with the surface. There will be aircraft, of course, but even ground travel will increasingly take to the air*a foot or two off the ground. Visitors to the 1964 fair can travel there in an "aquafoil," which lifts itself on four stilts and skims over the water with a minimum of friction. This is surely a stop-gap. By 2014 the four stilts will have been replaced by four jets of compressed air so that the vehicle will make no contact with either liquid or solid surfaces.
Jets of compressed air will also lift land vehicles off the highways, which, among other things, will minimize paving problems. Smooth earth or level lawns will do as well as pavements. Bridges will also be of less importance, since cars will be capable of crossing water on their jets, though local ordinances will discourage the practice.
Well, outside of a few water taxies and ferries around the world, hovercraft haven't exactly taken the world by storm, and highways show no sign of having passed their peak.
Much effort will be put into the designing of vehicles with "Robot-brains"*vehicles that can be set for particular destinations and that will then proceed there without interference by the slow reflexes of a human driver. I suspect one of the major attractions of the 2014 fair will be rides on small roboticized cars which will maneuver in crowds at the two-foot level, neatly and automatically avoiding each other.
I refer you to the Google driverless car project.
For short-range travel, moving sidewalks (with benches on either side, standing room in the center) will be making their appearance in downtown sections. They will be raised above the traffic. Traffic will continue (on several levels in some places) only because all parking will be off-street and because at least 80 per cent of truck deliveries will be to certain fixed centers at the city's rim. Compressed air tubes will carry goods and materials over local stretches, and the switching devices that will place specific shipments in specific destinations will be one of the city's marvels.
Alas, traffic in our cities is still a major problem...
Communications will become sight-sound and you will see as well as hear the person you telephone. The screen can be used not only to see the people you call but also for studying documents and photographs and reading passages from books. Synchronous satellites, hovering in space will make it possible for you to direct-dial any spot on earth, including the weather stations in Antarctica (shown in chill splendor as part of the '64 General Motors exhibit).
Hello, World Wide Web, SatPhones, Skype, and FaceTime....
For that matter, you will be able to reach someone at the moon colonies, concerning which General Motors puts on a display of impressive vehicles (in model form) with large soft tires*intended to negotiate the uneven terrain that may exist on our natural satellite.
Moon colonies. Sigh. Alas, Asimov did not foresee that once we actually reached the moon, and in doing so achieved our Cold War goal of beating the Soviets there, Uncle Sam would lose interest in spending taxpayer dollars on going there.
Any number of simultaneous conversations between earth and moon can be handled by modulated laser beams, which are easy to manipulate in space. On earth, however, laser beams will have to be led through plastic pipes, to avoid material and atmospheric interference. Engineers will still be playing with that problem in 2014.
Well, we don't have anyone there to chat with, although the Apollo astronauts did leave mirrors there off of which we can bounce lasers. As for the part about laser beams traveling through plastic pipes, Asimov here pretty much predicted fiber optics, which forms the backbone of our worldwide communications networks. (The first fiber optic data transmission was made in 1964.)

Conversations with the moon will be a trifle uncomfortable, but the way, in that 2.5 seconds must elapse between statement and answer (it takes light that long to make the round trip). Similar conversations with Mars will experience a 3.5-minute delay even when Mars is at its closest. However, by 2014, only unmanned ships will have landed on Mars, though a manned expedition will be in the works and in the 2014 Futurama will show a model of an elaborate Martian colony.
Yes, only unmanned probes have made it to mars. Anyone want to take bets on whether or not Mars One will ever get off the ground?
As for television, wall screens will have replaced the ordinary set; but transparent cubes will be making their appearance in which three-dimensional viewing will be possible. In fact, one popular exhibit at the 2014 World's Fair will be such a 3-D TV, built life-size, in which ballet performances will be seen. The cube will slowly revolve for viewing from all angles.
Well now, we do have flat panel televisions, and even 3-D televisions, although not quite in the format Asimov predicted.
One can go on indefinitely in this happy extrapolation, but all is not rosy.
As I stood in line waiting to get into the General Electric exhibit at the 1964 fair, I found myself staring at Equitable Life's grim sign blinking out the population of the United States, with the number (over 191,000,000) increasing by 1 every 11 seconds. During the interval which I spent inside the G.E. pavilion, the American population had increased by nearly 300 and the world's population by 6,000.
In 2014, there is every likelihood that the world population will be 6,500,000,000 and the population of the United States will be 350,000,000. Boston-to-Washington, the most crowded area of its size on the earth, will have become a single city with a population of over 40,000,000.
Population increase continues to be a major problem, and the reality is slightly worse than Asimov predicted.  The estimated global population in 2013 was 7.13 billion. As for the US population, we fared a bit better, with the 2013 estimate being 319 million.
Population pressure will force increasing penetration of desert and polar areas. Most surprising and, in some ways, heartening, 2014 will see a good beginning made in the colonization of the continental shelves. Underwater housing will have its attractions to those who like water sports, and will undoubtedly encourage the more efficient exploitation of ocean resources, both food and mineral. General Motors shows, in its 1964 exhibit, the model of an underwater hotel of what might be called mouth-watering luxury. The 2014 World's Fair will have exhibits showing cities in the deep sea with bathyscaphe liners carrying men and supplies across and into the abyss.
Well, no undersea cities just yet.
Ordinary agriculture will keep up with great difficulty and there will be "farms" turning to the more efficient micro-organisms. Processed yeast and algae products will be available in a variety of flavors. The 2014 fair will feature an Algae Bar at which "mock-turkey" and "pseudosteak" will be served. It won't be bad at all (if you can dig up those premium prices), but there will be considerable psychological resistance to such an innovation.
This prediction parallels Asimov's later Foundation prequels in which he describes yeast and algae being vital food sources for the city-covered world of Trantor. Meanwhile, in the real world, outside of nori and Vegemite, we don't generally see a lot of algae or yeast-based foods in use.
Although technology will still keep up with population through 2014, it will be only through a supreme effort and with but partial success. Not all the world's population will enjoy the gadgety world of the future to the full. A larger portion than today will be deprived and although they may be better off, materially, than today, they will be further behind when compared with the advanced portions of the world. They will have moved backward, relatively.
Asimov was definitely on the mark here. Global wealth inequality is rampant, and threatens to become an increasing severe source of geopolitical turmoil.
Nor can technology continue to match population growth if that remains unchecked. Consider Manhattan of 1964, which has a population density of 80,000 per square mile at night and of over 100,000 per square mile during the working day. If the whole earth, including the Sahara, the Himalayan Mountain peaks, Greenland, Antarctica and every square mile of the ocean bottom, to the deepest abyss, were as packed as Manhattan at noon, surely you would agree that no way to support such a population (let alone make it comfortable) was conceivable. In fact, support would fail long before the World-Manhattan was reached.
Well, the earth's population is now about 3,000,000,000 and is doubling every 40 years. If this rate of doubling goes unchecked, then a World-Manhattan is coming in just 500 years. All earth will be a single choked Manhattan by A.D. 2450 and society will collapse long before that!
And as long as religious institutions continue to resist the use of birth control, overpopulation will continue to be a problem.
There are only two general ways of preventing this: (1) raise the death rate; (2) lower the birth rate. Undoubtedly, the world of A>D. 2014 will have agreed on the latter method. Indeed, the increasing use of mechanical devices to replace failing hearts and kidneys, and repair stiffening arteries and breaking nerves will have cut the death rate still further and have lifted the life expectancy in some parts of the world to age 85.
Wolfram|Alpha tells me that the current US life expectancy is 78. Currently, the highest life expectancy is in Macau at 84.
There will, therefore, be a worldwide propaganda drive in favor of birth control by rational and humane methods and, by 2014, it will undoubtedly have taken serious effect. The rate of increase of population will have slackened*but, I suspect, not sufficiently.
The population growth rate has certainly been going down recently, but not nearly enough.
One of the more serious exhibits at the 2014 World's Fair, accordingly, will be a series of lectures, movies and documentary material at the World Population Control Center (adults only; special showings for teen-agers).
Good luck with that. I refer you to my earlier comment about resistance to birth control.
The situation will have been made the more serious by the advances of automation. The world of A.D. 2014 will have few routine jobs that cannot be done better by some machine than by any human being. Mankind will therefore have become largely a race of machine tenders. Schools will have to be oriented in this direction. Part of the General Electric exhibit today consists of a school of the future in which such present realities as closed-circuit TV and programmed tapes aid the teaching process. It is not only the techniques of teaching that will advance, however, but also the subject matter that will change. All the high-school students will be taught the fundamentals of computer technology will become proficient in binary arithmetic and will be trained to perfection in the use of the computer languages that will have developed out of those like the contemporary "Fortran" (from "formula translation").
Job displacement due to automation is a major problem, requiring significant workforce re-education. And computer literacy has rapidly become a significant component of high school curricula. These days, it is not at all uncommon to see high-schoolers learning Java and C++. 

Even so, mankind will suffer badly from the disease of boredom, a disease spreading more widely each year and growing in intensity. This will have serious mental, emotional and sociological consequences, and I dare say that psychiatry will be far and away the most important medical specialty in 2014. The lucky few who can be involved in creative work of any sort will be the true elite of mankind, for they alone will do more than serve a machine.
Indeed, the most somber speculation I can make about A.D. 2014 is that in a society of enforced leisure, the most glorious single word in the vocabulary will have become work!

Boredom? Who has time to be bored? Everyone is staring at their phones watching crappy reality TV shows. If only our biggest problem had turned out to be boredom.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Reflections On Sagan's Cosmos

This Sunday, March 9, marks the debut of Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey, a modern day follow-up to the classic Carl Sagan mini-series, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. This update, hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson, and produced by Seth MacFarlane and Ann Druyan (Sagan's widow), appears promising. The principals involved are all people who are passionate about Sagan's legacy of bringing the wonder of scientific inquiry and discovery to the public eye. Neil deGrasse Tyson himself seems a worthy inheritor of Sagan's mantle of "science communicator," and I have high hopes for the new series. These hopes are not without some trepidation, however.

You see, Sagan's original Cosmos holds a special place in my heart and memories. When the series originally aired in 1980, I already had a keen interest in science, but Cosmos kindled something new. There I was, living out on a cotton farm on the South Plains of Texas, about 50 miles away from the low-power PBS station that was broadcasting the series, tweaking the tuner knob of our television to try to reduce the inevitable static.  I viewed the amazing visualizations the series is known for through a veil of broadcast snow, watching Sagan stride across the Cosmic Calendar, and I could imagine myself walking with him through a model of the Library of Alexandria in search of the lost writings of Aristarchus. And I journeyed with him through time and space aboard his metaphorical  "Spaceship of the Imagination."

But, more than all of that, more than the tidbits of information (much of which I was already aware of), more than the visuals (which, for 1980 public television, were pretty impressive), there was Carl Sagan's voice, coming in loud and clear despite the static-laden video signal. It was a calm, reassuring, and friendly voice. And it was a voice filled with wonder. Here was the voice of someone who had seen the kinds of things I wanted to see.  Here was the voice of someone who had done the kinds of things that I wanted to do. Here, coming into my home over a tenuous broadcast signal, was the voice of a kindred spirit. In the relative isolation in which I was growing up, that was astonishing. I was not alone. That realization impacted me in ways that I haven't the words to describe. Carl Sagan inspired me.

Sadly, Carl Sagan passed away in 1996.  I never had the chance to shake his hand, to look him in the eyes and thank him for what he had done for me and others like me.

You have big shoes to fill, Neil.  Wear them well.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

So Many Misconceptions, So Little Time....

Update (Feb. 7): Several actual SCIENTISTS have provided their own responses in their own blogs.

So, in the wake of the big debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham, a contributor to Buzzfeed asked 22 self-identifying creationists to write a questions for the other side.  The results were a rather frightening display of ignorance about the subject at hand.

Here are my responses.

1. Bill Nye, Are you influencing the minds of children in a positive way?

Well, I can't speak for Bill Nye; but, from my perspective at least, he is absolutely influencing the minds of children in a positive way, exposing them to the wonders of scientific inquiry.

2. Are you scared of a Divine Creator? 

That would depend upon who the question is directed to. For the many scientist who do follow a religious faith, they have no difficulty reconciling that faith with science. For the many others who are atheists, they are of course not scared of a non-existent entity.

3. Is it completely illogical that the earth was created mature? i.e. tree created with rings... Adam created as an adult... 

 This isn't really a scientific question, but from a theological perspective, yes, it is completely illogical. Light from distant stars created in-flight? Fake fossils planted in geological strata? A Creator who would resort to such trickery seems pretty seedy.

4. Does not the second law of thermodynamics disprove Evolution? 

No, it does not. The Second Law applies to thermodynamically isolated systems. The Earth's ecosystem is thermodynamically coupled to a HUGE entropy generator called "the Sun."

You may have heard of it.

Nothing about evolutionary dynamics contradicts thermodynamics. Sure, certain biological processes can cause a local decrease in entropy.  For that matter, so does the formation of a snowflake or any other crystalline structure. But, taken together with the overall thermodynamic system in which these processes take place, the net entropy increases.

5. How do you explain a sunset if their[sic] is no God? 

Er, the earth rotates, causing the sun to seem to sink below the horizon.

All kidding aside, I refer you to my answer for #20 (to avoid duplication).

6. If the Big Bang Theory is true and taught as science along with evolution, why do the laws of thermodynamics debunk said theories? 

First of all, the laws of thermodynamics do not even remotely debunk the BBT or evolution. I address evolution in #4 above. As for the Big Bang Theory, your concern likely involves the Law of Conservation of Energy. That worry mistakenly assumes that all energy has a positive value. However, as any freshman physics student should be able to tell you, the potential energy between mutually attracting bodies is a negative value. Assuming a cosmology in which overall spacetime is flat (in other words, aside from local gravitational curvature) as opposed to closed or hyperbolic, which seems to be the case based upon measurements of the Cosmic Microwave Background, the net energy balance for the cosmos comes out to zero.

7. What about Noetics? 

I don't think that word means what you think it means. I suggest you look it up. It has nothing to do with this discussion.

8. Where do you derive objective meaning in life? 

Again, this has nothing to do with this discussion. Furthermore, it assumes that there is such a thing as life having an objective meaning. But that is more of a metaphysical/philosophical debate than anything else.

9. If God did not create everything, how did the first single-celled organism originate? By chance? 

That is actually outside of the scope of evolutionary theory, but the origins of life are an area of active research, and many interesting conjectures have been put forth. And, yes, by and large, these conjectural models are based upon chance. There is a nice overview of this topic at .

10. I believe in the Big Bang Theory... God said it and BANG it happened! 

That isn't a question. It is a statement.

11. Why do evolutionists/secularists/humanists/non-God believing people reject the idea of their[sic] being being a creator God but embrace the concept of intelligent design from aliens or other extra-terestrial sources? 

Scientists by and large don't really subscribe to the highly-speculative idea of intelligent design by aliens, although it makes an interesting premise for sci-fi movies. There is no evidence supporting it.

There is an idea called "panspermia" which suggest that the basic building blocks of life came here from outer space, but that is based upon the simple observational fact that spectroscopic analysis of many nebulae and dust clouds in space reveal the presence of complex organic molecules. Basically, the building blocks of life are fairly common throughout the cosmos. Even more speculative variants of this idea involve conjecture about the first primitive cells themselves coming to Earth from space, but that is pretty far out on the fringe in the scientific community, and, again, highly speculative.

12. There is no in between... The only one found has been Lucy and there are only of a few pieces of the hundreds necessary for an "official proof" 

Lucy isn't the only australopithecene found, nor the only primitive hominid found. Take a look at this (far from comprehensive) overview of hominid fossils:

13. Does metamorphosis help support evolution? 

In that biologists have a pretty good grasp of how certain species evolved to go through such a process, yes. See Truman, J. W. and L. M. Riddiford, 1999. "The origins of insect metamorphosis". Nature 401: 447-452.

14. If Evolution is a Theory (like creationism or the Bible) why then is Evolution taught as fact. 

First of all, we need to clear up some definitions. While the word theory as used in common vernacular tends to be synonymous with a conjecture or hypothesis, as used in science the word means far more. A theory is a model for explaining how things work in nature. A theory should be supported by experimental and observational evidence. There should be ways of testing it to see if it is wrong (falsifiability). A theory should have predictive capabilities that can then be compared to observation and experiment. Evolution meets all of these criteria.

Evolution is also an observable fact. We can see it in action. We can even manipulate it, as has been done for millennia in agriculture. It is also a theory, or, more properly, the modern synthesis of evolutionary biology is the theoretical structure which explains and describes how evolution works.

Creationism is not a theory. It is a belief. It is not supported by physical evidence. In fact, the entirety of physical evidence, from the fields of biology, genetics, paleontology, geology, astrophysics, and astronomy, contradicts it.

The Bible is not a theory. It is a book.

Creationism and the Bible could certainly be taught in schools in a comparative religions course, but they have no place in a science class, simply because they are not science.

15. Because science by definition is a "theory" - not testable, observable, nor repeatable, why do you object to creationism or intelligent design being taught in school? 

Yet another instance of someone who does not know the meaning of the word "theory." See the answer to #14. The word "theory" does not mean what you think it means.

16. What mechanism has science discovered that evidences an increase of genetic information seen in any genetic mutation or evolutionary process. 

Genetic information is added via random mutations. Whether the information added is of any benefit to the genetic population in question is determined by natural selection. It is a crap shoot. Most mutations are rather neutral in their impact. You have a few hundred mutations that your parents didn't have. Sometimes mutations are beneficial. Sometimes they are harmful. The latter tend to be weeded out over time if they represent a reproductive disadvantage in terms of natural selection.

A lot people seem to be stuck on the notion that information cannot be generated randomly. However, in information theory, even random data counts as information. In fact given a block of random digits, and a same-sized block of alternating ones and zeros, the first block actually has more information content, since the second block can be compressed to a more compact representation.  This concept is independent of any "meaning" the data might have, as meaning is imposed by context.  In the case of evolution and biological processes, the context is imposed through how genetic information is interpreted and expressed by the transcription process and what impact the resulting proteins and processes have on natural selection.

17. What purpose do you think you are here for if you do not believe in salvation? 

See #8.

18. Why have we found only 1 "Lucy", when we have found more than 1 of everything else? 

See #12.

19. Can you believe in "the big bang" without "faith"? 

No one "believes" in the Big Bang, or in evolution, for that matter. It is not a matter of belief or faith. The Big Bang theory is the best currently available model for explaining the observational evidence about the cosmos, just as evolution is the best available model for explaining the totality of biology. If a better model comes along that provides better explanations and fits the evidence better, great!

(As an historical aside, I should note that the Big Bang Theory was first postulated by a priest, Monseigneur Georges Lemaître.)

Science is not a static body of knowledge, nor is it a bastion of dogma. It is a process for keeping us from fooling ourselves, for testing what we think is correct. In science, all knowledge is provisional, and evidence is the ultimate arbitrator of what is valid and what is invalid. A well-trained scientists always questions and double-checks the assumptions upon which they base their conclusions. Those that find problems with those assumptions are the ones who propel our knowledge forward.

20. How can you look at the world and not believe someone Created/thought of it? It's Amazing!!! 

Again, this is more of a metaphysical question rather than a scientific question. First of all, yes, the world and the universe are amazing, and beautiful, and awe-inspiring. And, guess what? Many scientists who reject Young Earth Creationism also believe in a creator, having no difficulty reconciling their faith with science. For them, the creation account in Genesis is more metaphorical or poetic, the result of our ancient ancestors trying to understand how everything came to be based upon what little they knew.

For those of us who are not believers, that does not make the universe any less beautiful or awe-inspiring. Just because I can explain in excruciating mathematical detail how a rainbow works (and I can) doesn't make it seem any less beautiful to me. In fact, understanding how it works enhances my appreciation of its beauty. 

Back in 1990, as the Voyager 1 space probe was entering the outer reaches of the solar system, Carl Sagan directed that its cameras be pointed back into the inner solar system to capture a "family portrait" of the worlds of our system. Included in the images captured was shot of the Earth, appearing as a tiny pale blue dot. That image inspired Sagan (an atheist) to pen the following beautiful passage:

From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it's different. Consider again that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam. 
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. 
The Earth is the only world known, so far, to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment, the Earth is where we make our stand. It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.

21. Relating to the big bang theory.... Where did the exploding star come from? 

First of all, the BBT doesn't say that the universe came from an exploding star. That said, there is considerable speculation about the origins of the big bang, although nothing has been settled definitively (and likely will not be until we have a good quantum gravity model). The prevailing model right now among cosmologists and astrophysicists is that the "primordial particle" from which the Big Bang sprung came from a quantum fluctuation, an idea perfectly consistent with quantum field theory as we now understand it. (Yes, particles spring from nothingness all the time. It is an inescapable consequence of quantum theory.)

22. If we came from monkeys then why are there still monkeys?

Oh, this old chestnut encapsulates two major misconceptions about how evolution works. First of all, the theory of common descent doesn't say that humans evolved from monkeys. Rather, humans and monkeys share common ancestry, that they are two different branches of the same evolutionary family tree. In this case, that common ancestral species is in fact extinct. However, speciation doesn't require the extinction of the progenitor species, particularly if the new species has become geographically isolated from the remainder of the population. Such an isolated population can be exposed to more intensive selective pressures causing more rapid development than the parent species.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Continuing on with a LotR theme....

Yes, we've all thought it:

And, yes, I've heard the arguments against it:

  • "What about the Ringwraiths? They have flying mounts!"
    Sure, but there was a window of opportunity after they were flushed away at the fords that they became a non-issue. They had to make their way back to Mordor, assume new forms, and take up mounts. That would have taken time.
  • "Gandalf couldn't just summon the Eagles whenever he pleased. Gwaihir tended to intervene when it suited him."
    True. Although the films depict Gandalf summoning Gwaihir via moth (once in The Hobbit and once in The Fellowship of the Ring), the books depict Gwaihir and his fellow Eagles spotting a situation they didn't like and intervening of their own accord.  Could Gandalf have convinced him to help? Maybe.
  • "Flying to Mordor would be too far."
    True enough. After Gwaihir plucks Gandalf from the top of Orthanc, it is mentioned that he cannot carry Gandalf very far, so he takes him only as far as Edoras. But, the journey to Mordor could have been conducted in stages.
  • "The book would have been far too short then, and the characters wouldn't have had opportunity for full development."
    There we go. The real answer.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Genealogy + Tolkien = Far Too Much Time Burned

This is what happens when a genealogy enthusiast spends time reading Tolkien.

While on a binge of re-reading The Hobbit, The Lord of The Rings, and The Silmarillion, not to mention finally getting around to reading The Children of Húrin and Unfinished Tales (with the first five volumes of The Histories of Middle-earth still waiting in the wings), I grew a bit weary of constantly looking up characters to remind myself of their relationships to other characters. Sure, Tolkien threw in plenty of genealogical charts, but they are segmented in such a way that masked their interrelationships. I wanted to remedy that. And, well, here is the result. (Be sure to click to Argonathenate.)
[Now updated to include Galathil, brother of Celeborn and father of Nimloth.]

I alway knew that Aragorn's ancestry was rich and complex, but I had never before noticed just how many wreaths there were in his family tree.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

2013: A Great Year for Comet Viewing

2013 is shaping up to be a banner year for stargazers wanting to get an up close and personal view of comets.

First up in March, we will be treated by a view of Comet Pan-STARRS (C/2011 L4), named for the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System, the telescope which first spotted it back in June of last year. It is expected to have a peak magnitude somewhere in the range from +1 to -1.

But that is just the warm-up act. The real show will be in December, when Comet ISON (C/2012 S1) puts in its appearance. Discovered just last month by Vitali Nevski and Aryom Novichonok, participants in the International Scientific Optical Network. This newcomer is thought to be fresh from the Oort cloud. Having never made a close approach to the Sun, it should put on a particularly bright show as its outer shell vaporizes and forms a tail. Some estimates optimistically predict that it might shine as brightly as the full Moon!

For more information on Comet Pan-STARRS:

For more information on Comet ISON:

Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Feynman Interviews

The late Richard Feynman has long been a hero of mine, not only for his contributions to his field (his path integral approach to quantum electrodynamics revolutionized modern physics), but also for his skill at communicating advanced concepts in simple terms, his love for tackling problems for the simple joy of finding the answers, and for his general zest for life.

The Niels Bohr Library & Archives with the Center for History of Physics has posted the transcripts of a series of interviews conducted with Feynman in 1966. These rambling interviews touch upon all aspects his life (at least up to that point in his life - there was much more afterwards), and are a fascinating read. Many of the anecdotes presented should be familiar to readers of the many books about Feynman's life, but it is particularly nice to have them presented in the man's own words.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Centenary of the Sinking of RMS Titanic

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
On April 10, 1912, the RMS Titanic, pride of the White Star Line, departed Southampton, England, bound for the City of New York. As all the world knows, she never arrived at her destination. At 11:40 P.M. (ship's time, three hours behind GMT) on the evening of April 14, 1912, lookout Frederick Fleet called out "Iceberg right ahead." Less than a minute later, as the crew scrambled to alter course, the infamous collision took place. At 2:20 A.M. the next morning, the lumbering hulk of the Titanic slipped beneath the waters of the North Atlantic, claiming the lives of an estimated 1,514 individuals. Over a thousand of those were still aboard when she went down. The remainder succumbed to hypothermia in the frigid waters. There were only 710 survivors in all.

It is no understatement that the sinking of the Titanic marked something of an end to an age of innocence. Coming at the end of the Second Industrial Revolution, the launch of the Titanic carried with it an air of hubris, a seemingly unbreakable faith in mankind's mastery over Nature via steel and steam. The technology of Industry reigned supreme. Until Titanic. And it is no small irony that among those who lost their lives in the disaster were among the leading industrial magnates of the era, including Jacob Astor IV and Benjamin Guggenheim (a fact which tends to overshadow the deaths of throngs of poor and working class passengers trapped below decks in steerage). That night, the human race was given a lesson in humility.

To be fair, neither White Star nor the ship's builders claimed the ship to be unsinkable. That label was applied by the press (and largely after the sinking). But neither the line nor the builders really made an effort to disabuse the public of the notion that the Titanic was unsinkable. After all, it was great advertising. And, to exacerbate the situation, Titanic carried only a third of the lifeboats needed to accommodate her maximum crew and passenger complement, and the crew was inadequately trained in emergency procedures. Coupled with the skipper, Edward Smith, driving her forward at full speed that night, despite having received wireless warnings of icebergs in the vicinity, the end result was almost inevitable.

In retrospect, it was simple for maritime engineers to spot the design flaw which permitted Titanic's unthinkable fate. The superstructure of the ship was divided into sixteen "watertight" compartments. However, these compartments were not sealed at the top. The collision opened five of these compartments to the sea. As they filled, the bow was lowered by the weight of the seawater being taken aboard, until that seawater was able to start spilling over into each adjacent compartment, setting up a chain reaction of flooding compartments which eventually doomed the vessel. Eventually, the sinking bow lifted the stern out of the water, which resulted in the stern section breaking off under its own weight, accelerating the sinking of the behemoth.

Furthermore, metallurgical analysis of the iron rivets retrieved from the wreckage suggests that they were manufactured with an unacceptably high slag content, rendering them more brittle than they should have been. Had stronger rivets been used in the construction, damage from the collision might have more localized, potentially to the point of only four of the watertight compartments being exposed to the sea, a condition which she could have conceivably survived. (Of course, this is pure speculation. It is difficult to say with certainty, as the portion of the hull which came into contact with the iceberg is buried under the silt of the sea floor, rendering direct examination of the damage impossible at this time.)

As with most catastrophic engineering disasters, error compounded error, setting up a cascade of failures. And, sadly, the elimination of any one of those errors could have made a tremendous difference in the outcome. But hindsight cannot save those already lost.

For more info:

Friday, March 30, 2012

Film Review: "John Carter"

Long a fan of the pulp fiction of Edgar Rice Burroughs, perhaps best known as the creator of Tarzan, I had eagerly awaited the release of Disney's production of John Carter, based upon Burroughs' first Barsoom (Mars) novel, A Princess of Mars. Well, except for the Disney part. I must admit that Disney's involvement had me a little apprehensive. Clearly, the film wouldn't be a Frazetta painting brought to life. Oh well. But the fact remains that a novel which had served as a childhood inspiration for some of the greatest science fiction and fantasy writers of the 20th century, not to mention several generations of fans, was being brought to the big screen, and that is reason enough for excitement.

Despite the film's weak box office performance (the word "flop" is being routinely bandied about) and the less than impressive trailers, I was pleasantly surprised. John Carter is a fun film, quite effectively capturing the adventure and spirit of the original pulp novel. Certainly, the characters were somewhat two-dimensional, but that is not surprising considering the source material. It was a pulp novel, after all. If anything, the writers for the film managed, to their credit, to give the female lead, Dejah Thoris (ably portrayed by Lynn Collins), somewhat more depth than the original, making her more independent and resourceful than the stereotypical damsal in distress that she was in the books (and thus more palatable for modern audiences). The John Carter character himself is also given some more depth, at least in terms of exhibiting character growth as the film progresses. The Carter of the book is unchanging, constantly honor-bound to fight against injustice. The Carter of the film, played by Taylor Kitsch, has a few personal demons to confront, and by and large is only interested in getting home until later in the story, when he realizes, motivated both by love and a sense of honor, that he must do the right thing.  Sadly, that love aspect, the kindling of feelings between Carter and Dejah Thoris, isn't well explored, and is rolled out in the story in a somewhat perfunctory and pro forma fashion, as are many of the aforementioned improvements in Carter's character.

Overall, the film remains astonishingly faithful to the book, although there are some major differences, and I can quite readily see why most of those changes were made. For starters, the film transforms the Therns from the book The Gods of Mars into beings who turn out to be an advanced alien race not indigenous to Barsoom. Travelling from world to world, the Therns manipulate the historical development of the civilizations they encounter (including, it would seem, that of Earth), seemingly feeding upon the chaos they introduce.  This change allows the filmmakers to not only introduce a stronger overall story arc to the film, but also allow them to correct one of the weakest aspects of the book: how John Carter got to Barsoom.

In the book, Carter travelled to Barsoom by means of, well, essentially wishing himself there. The best way to describe the process would be astral projection, but with the added benefit of actually having a material body at the other end of the journey. This rather unsatisfactory explanation is replaced in the film with a bit of advanced Thern technology, consisting of what is basically a transporter which constructs a copy of the body at the destination, leaving the true body in a state resembling death.

Another major change is the transformation of the city of Zodanga into a moving city, striding across the Martian landscape and consuming resources as it goes. Whether the purpose of this change was to simply introduce a bit of visual spectacle or to make the Zodangans seem a bit more nefarious is unclear, but perhaps it was a bit of both.

Whatever the motivations, the filmakers did an effective job of bringing to life the Barsoom of Burroughs' imagination, which in turn reflects the Mars imagined by Percival Lowell. And it looks like a fascinating place to visit, provided that one stays on the good side of the Tharks.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The 411 on the PPACA

As the Supreme Court tussles over the constitutionality of provisions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (frequently tagged with the derisive and misleading label "ObamaCare"), my friend Dr. Margo Bergman (who holds a PhD in Economics and a Master of Public Health in Public Health Genetics) over at the StayAtHomeEconomist blog has been writing a series of articles going over what is actually in the law. This is a pretty handy thing, considering how grossly ill-informed most people seem to be about the topic. (Hint: There are no "death panels" in it.)

Here is what is up so far. I'll add links to additional postings as they appear.
  1. Getting to Know the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act
  2. Health Care in America – a brief tutorial
  3. Section 1001
  4. Section 1001 – continued!
  5. From my cold, dead, but presumably healthy (except the dead part), hands
  6. Sec 1001 – the final push
  7. A Three-fer for you!
  8. And we move faster, faster through time and space, well, just the PPACA, really
  9. Sorry for the hiatus – teething baby!
  10. Moving into the future
  11. Special Rules – oh boy
  12. In need of health care myself
  13. Consumer Choice
  14. Remember the Tooth!
  15. Back in the Saddle
  16. Back to Work
  17. More Fun with Reinsurance
  18. Risk, Risk, Risk
  19. Affordable Coverage Choices for All Americans
  20. Cost-Sharing!
  21. A little departure
  22. Can I, Can I?
  23. Finishing up Eligibility
  24. And now, Small Business!
  25. Best laid plans
  26. The day after blues
  27. And a few addemdums, ipso facto…