Category Archives: Exploration

Lunacy

The news over the last weekend has carried stories about the supermoon on Sunday night (23 June 2013). Our natural satellite was both full and at perigee–its closest approach in the elliptical orbit. Why this has grabbed so much attention is beyond me. The Moon is there, visible nearly every night when the sky is clear. But getting people to pay attention to astronomy in this age of artificial illumination of the night is good, so I shan’t question the newfound, if likely temporary awareness.

What I do want to examine is the idea that there is a Man in the Moon. Perhaps it’s because I read Watership Down years ago and felt the chill of the Black Rabbit of InlĂ©, but I’ve always seen a cottontail up there–curiously, he’s holding a coffee mug. He does have to stay awake all night, though.

But I see no man on the face of the Moon. There was a time when that was not the case. In the years 1969 to 1972, twelve human beings spent a brief time up there. Of that group, eight are still alive, all of them in their latter seventies or older. Though I wish these heroes would live ten thousand years, as the death last year of Neil Armstrong reminds us, we are close to the point of once again having no direct memory of the lunar surface.

Why should we care? Every second Monday in October, we are reminded of what Ian Malcolm said in Jurassic Park about discovery being a violent, penetrative act. More than that, we have many problems here at home. This is what the opponents of the space program keep telling us, though I have little faith that they will spend the savings gained from not exploring on worthwhile deeds on planet.

A pointed example of this attitude came in the 2012 election. Mitt Romney told Newt Gingrich that he’d fire an employee who came to him with a proposal for colonizing the Moon. The eventual Republican nominee claimed that he’d rather spend the money on rebuilding housing in the U.S.

While I hesitate to head off wandering in the weeds of American politics in this essay, I will say that in these remarks, Romney showed himself to be unworthy of the office of the president. Whatever position you take on the political spectrum–left, right, center, or off the continuum–bear with me on this one.

We need to inhabit the Moon. Not just Americans, but human beings.

My reasoning here is practical as well as teleological. We do not presently have the technology to sustain a colony on another world, even one that is as close as the Moon will be tonight. That being the case, a program–combining both public and private effort–to establish one would spur growth in areas such as recycling, water usage, energy generation, and on and on. All of those hold the promise of benefits here on Earth.

In addition, the Moon is an easy step to getting back into space farther out than low orbit. Some question whether we shouldn’t just go on directly to Mars, but doing the one needn’t exclude doing the other. Any move out there expands our chances for learning and for growth.

And grow we will do. We’ve passed the seven billion mark on our way to many more of us on this one planet. Accept the science of climate change or not, acknowledge the concerns of environmentalists or not, we all have to recognize that on a world of finite resources, only some of which are renewable, we cannot sustain our current numbers only here. Education and contraception have some ability to put the brakes on this growth, but the human impulse to make more of us to carry on our cultures is fundamental to who we are. Expanding into the solar system’s many worlds offers a way to do this without destroying our home through excessive concentration. Laying aside the doomsday that we make for ourselves, we live in a celestial shooting gallery, and while the means of diverting incoming asteroids and comets may be soon within our grasp, it would be well for us to expand the number of targets.

This also gives us the possibility of new diversity in what it means to be human. Lunar and Martian and Titanian humans will have to find modes of living and will tell each other new stories. When people from one world visit another, the two groups will fertilize each other with this burst of uniqueness. They might even literally give new life, since isolating populations leads to genetic change. What new genes will arise is impossible to say, but having a greater variety of answers in our genetic library would give us more ability to respond to an inconstant universe.

These are all the practical considerations. Let’s move on to what it means to be human. We are explorers. We started out in Africa hundreds of thousands of years ago, but we didn’t stay there. We spread out across the globe. Yes, that’s been a mixed bag of results, but in that time, we’ve learned many things about ourselves, our world, and the cosmos that we fit into. There is yet much to learn. The process of doing that will not be perfect, nor will it go along without risk or loss.

What I know for a certainty, though, is that if we don’t go forward in exploration, we will lose the best of ourselves, our drive to know and particpate. Would a colony on the Moon be expensive? Yes. Will we suffer setbacks, screw things up, and even endure losses of life? Yes. The same has been true in all human endeavors of consequence. But the dreamers in us will look at that nearby Moon and want to lasso it and bring it closer.

Without our dreams, we have no advantage over the other animals on this planet. This is why a would-be leader who can’t see the purpose of going out and beyond is no leader at all. We’re not stronger than our fellow species. We’re not faster. We’re not better suited to survive in any way other than our ability to see an unfulfilled reality and make it ours. Human faces looking back at us from the Moon would be a reminder of the best in ourselves. Call it lunacy if you will, but by dreaming the impossible dream, we recreate ourselves into everything we can be.

If you’d like to read more from me about the Moon, have a look at A Draft of Moonlight.

History’s Greatest Wrong Turn

This coming Monday (8 October 2012) is officially Columbus Day. That, even though the Admiral, whose origins are obscure, landed on San Salvador, an island of uncertain identification, on the 12th. At some point in the future, I intend to take on the question of which is the actual point of discovery, but for now, here are some thoughts related to the event.

I went sailing on the 500th anniversary of the landing. I was in college at the time and was required to take a P.E. class. Since I’ve long been fascinated by the sea and since golf strikes me as a funny way to waste time (and a good rifle range, as others have observed), I signed up for a basic sailing course. The teacher wanted to be on the water on the big day and invited any of the students to go with him who wanted–I being the only one, it turned out. We took to the whale road–well, it was Chickamauga Lake, near Chattanooga, but we went with what we could get–and celebrated a noted explorer.

Yes, I know the history of what happened since the 12th of October 1492. The man was an incompetent administrator, and he opened the Western Hemisphere to European colonization. But because of him, we also have the United States of America, a nation that needed a new world to be created. We should also note that in the cases of the Aztec and Incan Empires, the change was in many ways merely a lateral move, not a decline.

He was also something of a charlatan. He took the largest estimate for the distance from China to the west coast of Europe. He took the smallest estimate for the circumference of the Earth. He then inflated the former and shrunk the latter. The scholars at the University of Salamanca said that the voyage would be a failure, and they were right.

Except that they were also wrong. Columbus is one of history’s luckiest persons, too. That is also in question, since it’s at least possible that he travelled to Iceland in 1477. He certainly sailed to Bristol, England and to Ireland in that year. He could have met people with knowledge of lands to the west–perhaps even some who had seen Greenland, Markland, and Vinland. He would have heard accounts of islands across the water. To be sure, the Norse people had little notion of what they’d actually discovered. See this for more on that subject.

The point here is that Columbus had a vision. It makes no difference that he was wrong in his facts. The story that he spun in his mind was the right one. And that’s the message of this article. It’s the essence of humanity to look out at an open expanse and want to cross it, to find what’s on the other side. It’s human nature to attempt to do the impossible. As with anything that we do, there has been a mixture of good and ill, but we celebrate Columbus because he did something that changed the world. The net effect remains to be seen. That’s true about any significant action. We, the descendants of his act, are here to carry it into the future.

And so it is with hope that I say, Happy Columbus Day.

In Memoriam: Neil Armstrong

Late last night (25 August 2012), I received the news that Neil Armstrong has died. My usual approach when writing these memorials is to give a brief reminder of who the person was and then to express my gratitude that such a person lived. This one will be harder to write.

For one thing, who doesn’t know the name, Neil Armstrong? For one moment in 1969, the whole world stopped to watch one man do something extraordinary. There is so much to say about the man and what he did that summary feels impossible. Here’s my attempt:

Armstrong was an iconic American. During the Korean war, twice during training for the Moon landing, and during the actual event, he found himself in situations where a panicky person would have died, but he calmly went about doing his job. He spoke little and talked about himself even less. The act for which he will always be remembered was a bold push into the vast blank space on the map whose only notation was “Here be dragons.”

His family suggests that when we go out at night and see the Moon, we remember Neil Armstrong. That’s a fine sentiment, but I propose a stronger response. It’s been almost forty years since a human being stood on that body. None of us have been to Mars. None of us have left the Solar System. The list of places where we haven’t been is infinite. The best way to remember that man is to push on beyond his footprint.

Crossposted on English 301: Reading and Writing.

It’s Life, Jim, But How Do We Know It?

What does “life” mean? Hold on, now, I’m not talking about the “meaning of life.” We all know that’s forty-two, anyway. No, the question that I’m getting at is how do we know that something is alive? And no, at no point in this discussion beyond this sentence will I raise the topic of abortion.

I ask the question because I watched an episode of The Universe on Netflix last night. For those of you who aren’t familiar with that program, it’s the History Channel’s attempt to present space sciences to the masses. Occasionally, it does let slip some deep thoughts, and the pictures and animations are well done. The episode that I watched was on the subject of astrobiology. As a writer of science fiction, among other kinds of writing, this is important to me.

So here again is the question: What is life? In what follows, I’ll propose a possible definition. See what you think.

1. A living organism must reduce local entropy.

Entropy, or the second law of thermodynamics, is the observation that in a closed system, energy states must run to the lowest possible level over time. Put another way, the flow always runs from organized to disorganized. (See my desk for an example.) In an internal combustion engine, for example, the fuel, which exists at a relatively high state of potential energy, is burned. That does work, but the products of combustion now are at a lower level of potential energy than before. The universe is likely a closed system, but since it started out at a high state of energy, it has a long time to run down. Earth is not a closed system, speaking in the local sense, because the Sun provides lots of new energy. Some life instead uses geothermal energy of volcanic vents on the sea floor.

Now that you see what entropy is, consider my requirement for life. A living organism must use energy from the environment to create something more complex than its surroundings. Yes, cells eat each other, but what they produce–more of themselves–is still at a higher level of organization than minerals, atmospheric gases, and the like.

I raise this qualification to answer whether fire is alive. Yes, fire consumes food and reproduces, but what it leaves behind is less organized–at a higher state of entropy–than what was there before.

2. A living organism must create discrete units.

Is a rock crystal alive? It reproduces, and its structure is often more complex than its surroundings, but a crystal is a repetition of a relatively simple pattern. Cells, by contrast, have discrete boundaries and internal parts. Some parts absorb nutrients; some contain the genetic instructions for building and reproducing the cell, and so forth. It’s interesting to speculate as to whether a crystal could develop in that manner, but for now, what we know of them says that they are mere repetitions of an organized, but simple pattern.

3. A living organism must have the capacity to reproduce.

Is our Sun alive? In some ways, it acts like a living cell, but it can’t make more of itself. By reproduction, I mean the ability to pass on the form of the living organism through a set of instructions that will assemble a new organism that is separate from the parent. Life on Earth does this through DNA. Making more of something through accumulation–such as what happened in the formation of the solar system when small rocky bodies collided and joined to form planets–isn’t reproduction in this sense.

4. A living organism must be self-contained in its functions.

Yes, living things have to have external sources of energy to live. We all must eat. But the functions of building, repairing, and reproducing the organism have to be contained within the organism.

Is an assembly line alive, for example? It takes in parts–call them food sources–and assembles them into something more complex. But an assembly line doesn’t contain all of its functions within itself. It’s made up of the cooperative efforts of smaller units, the workers. There certainly is a level of analogy here, and the definition gets strained when we consider that multicellular organisms are something like assembly lines. I’m not happy with this part of the definition, even though I have the feeling that I know what it means. This item remains to be made rigorous.

I do want this item, though, because we have to consider whether viruses are alive. A virus is a string of RNA that takes over the machinery of a cell to make more viruses. If the virus is alive, it is only alive in a derivative sense.

What this all means:

You may be wondering why I don’t simply say that a living organism has DNA. The answer is that we may come on something that looks alive on another planet that does not use our method of encoding instructions for life functions. Consider again a crystal that is complex enough to have differentiation of parts and that does more than just copy its structure ad infinitum. Can it be alive?

Or what about computer viruses, worms, and the like? When do they reach a level that qualifies them as being alive? There’s a lot of discussion about what is required for machine intelligence, but if computers gain the ability to assemble themselves, won’t they be a kind of life?

I hot that this isn’t going to be like pornography: We may not be able to define life in a rigorous sense, but we’ll know it when we see it. But even loose definitions can work as guides.

Feel free to offer suggestions for improvement in the definition or alternative ways to define the idea.

You Never Created a Job. . .

How many times have we heard someone say, “X doesn’t deserve to lead because he’s never created a job”? Such a comment gets used also in relation to government in general and to academia. Let’s consider two cases:

1. NASA and the Military space program

It’s an old observation that our space program has created much of the technology that is a part of our modern lives. We can debate some details, but think about the communication that’s possible now. Consider how it’s possible to know exactly where we are by consulting a single gadget. The most obvious contribution is the way in which space has been opened up. This is the result of the national programs of America, Russia, and others.

These days, private companies are taking advantage of these technologies to provide products and services. Remember that space station in 2001: A Space Odyssey? A corporate transportation company carried Dr. Floyd into space and to the Moon, and he used a service that looked a lot like Skype to talk to his daughter. All of that is likely in the near future, and the companies that will provide it will have got the underlying technology from scholars and the government.

2. The Internet

And I ain’t talking Al Gore here. The Internet is the creation of DARPA, the military’s research agency, and universities. Since you’re here reading this article on-line, I don’t have to explain the value of their work, nor must I tell you about the many jobs that exist because of it. Jeff Bezos is a smart person, but he’d still be moving paper around in a hedge fund firm if it weren’t for the Ivory Tower and the Gummit.

What do we learn here? Some technologies require decades to mature. Private companies or corporations can’t spend that long and that much money to develop them. Schools and governments have the time. If we deny them the money, we shut off a great deal of potential. At the same time, having established the field, the government especially needs to open it up for everyone to participate and to get out of the way. SOPA and attempts to ban types of content between consenting adults are examples of not letting go.

We can spend our society’s money in many ways. Promoting science and technology has clear, if long term rewards. A society that wishes to thrive must do this.

Raising Awareness of a Lack of Spirit

Eric Larsen has just successfully completed his journey to reach the North Pole, South Pole, and summit of Mount Everest in the period of one year. He said that he did this to raise awareness of climate change.

Uh huh. This reminds me of the gay pride parade in Springfield. “We’re here; we’re queer; get used to it,” shout the marchers, and Lisa Simpson yells back, “We did that last year.” We are aware of climate change. We’ve been aware of it for a long time. Some people doubt that it’s a reality, but Larsen’s journey won’t correct their foolishness.

What ever happened to the spirit of adventure? Why isn’t it enough to go to all three places for their own sake? Of course, each of them these days is crawling with wannabes, so perhaps there has to be a new angle. The sad reality is that we seem to have ceased being explorers. It’s been decades since a human being went to the bottom of the Marianas Trench or stood on another world. We send robots and stay at home. We revisit old triumphs.

The whole idea of raising awareness is vacuous. Humanity, get out and do! Don’t be the change that you want; make it. Will it cost money? Of course. Will some die in the trying? Yes. Does our species have to explore anyway? Absolutely!

Human beings, get off your arses, and plant the flag in places that we have never been.