Razib Khan One-stop-shopping for all of my content

August 25, 2012

Neil Armstrong and the end of the Whig conceit

Filed under: Culture,Space — Razib Khan @ 8:31 pm

It has been 40 years since he last human being set foot on the moon. I was not alive when this occurred. The Whig views history as a progression. When we recall the past we remember, perhaps pity, a less developed age.

Overall I disagree with declinists who simplistically portray our age as one of silver, that perhaps we live in the modern Western equivalent of late antique Rome. Certainly there is greatness all around us. And one can argue that the “space race” was driven not by ennobling sentiments, but rather the raw competition between the United States and Soviet Union. Be as that may be, could we soon look back to the 1960s as the ultimate high point in the spirit of the West? Perhaps we do live in a fallen age in a sense, unable to rouse ourselves and recapture past glories, and even surpass them. The Hellenistic Greeks were a civilized people, who were more advanced than their Classical predecessors in particular details of science and engineering. Yet most scholars would suggest that there was something derivative and unoriginal when compared to the ferment of Athens’ golden century.

I wonder. Did Neil Armstrong ever consider when he ...

May 27, 2012

Space & the beginning of summer

Filed under: Space — Razib Khan @ 10:51 am

It’s been a big few weeks for space, with the success of Dragon. I don’t have anything to add in a descriptive or analytic sense, I know as much (or likely less) as you on this issue (this is why should read Bad Astronomy). Needless to say I’ve been rooting for Elon Musk’s enterprise, so to speak. I’m not old enough to remember the “space race,” which put a man on the moon. Rather, for my generation space and NASA had become rather pedestrian, with the shuttle being a sky ferry par excellence. Space is important not because of what it will do for us in concrete terms (e.g., Tang), but what will do for us on a deeper level. Otherwise we may fall prey to the sort of ennui one reads about in science fiction universes such as the city of Diaspar. Remember, we’re the species which made it to the New World and Oceania. This sort of crazy and irrational endeavor is part of who we are.

On a different note, hope people are enjoying the de facto start of the summer (Memorial Day weekend ...

July 22, 2011

The shuttle as a flop (in numbers)

Filed under: Shuttle,Space — Razib Khan @ 2:21 pm

Amos Zeeberg, the person you should pester (hopefully ineffectually!) when I’m not being nice to you in the comments, has an interesting opinion piece up lambasting the Shuttle program. Here are the numbers which jumped out at me (I knew the broad outlines, but nice to have precise numbers):

The most important thing to realize about the space shuttle program is that it is objectively a failure. The shuttle was billed as a reusable craft that could frequently, safely, and cheaply bring people and payloads to low Earth orbit. NASA originally said the shuttles could handle 65 launches per year; the most launches it actually did in a year was nine; over the life of the program, it averaged five per year. NASA predicted each shuttle launch would cost $50 million; they actually averaged $450 million. NASA administrators said the risk of catastrophic failure was around one in 100,000; NASA engineers put the number closer to one in a hundred; a more recent report from NASA said the risk on early flights was one in nine. The failure rate was two out of 135 in the tests that matter most.

To take the intangible value of human life out of ...

July 9, 2011

The practice does not invalidate the principle

Filed under: science,Shuttle,Space — Razib Khan @ 10:08 pm

This is a big time for space, though not in a good way. The James Webb Telescope is in jeopardy, and the space shuttle program finally expired. I don’t talk about space too much on this weblog because I wouldn’t add any value. I leave the details and nuances to those who know better. But in my earliest interests in science astronomy and physics played a big part in bringing home to me the wonder of it all. At the end of the day nature is one, and the great mystery is divided into pieces due to our own cognitive limitations, not because it lacks coherence.

As far as personal biography one of my first memories which has an exact date is the return of Columbia from orbit on April 14th, 1981.* I recall being somewhat confused as to the shape of the vessel. It seemed awkward and ungainly even compared to the small planes which I had in my toy collection at the time. As I came to understand the nature of the space shuttle I felt a conjoined tendency toward awe at its technological sophistication and ambivalence at the expense of manned space flight. ...

September 29, 2010

A world almost built

Filed under: science fiction,Space — Razib Khan @ 3:35 pm

By now you’ve probably seen headlines such as A Habitable Exoplanet — for Real This Time. Phil Plait has a more sober assessment. Still, he concludes:

But perhaps the most interesting and exciting aspect of all this is what it implies. The Milky Way galaxy is composed of about 200 billion stars, and is 100,000 light years across. The fact that we found a planet that is even anything like the Earth at all orbiting another star only 20 light years away makes me extremely optimistic that earthlike planets are everywhere in our galaxy. 20 light years is practically in our lap compared to the vast size of our galaxy, so statistically speaking, it seems very likely it’s not unique. I don’t want to extrapolate from a data set of two (us and them), but if this is typical, there could be millions of such planets in the galaxy. Millions.

So we don’t know if this planet is all that much like Earth — the surface gravity may be quite high if it’s dense and small, for example, or it may not have any air, or it may have a thick atmosphere like Venus — but what it’s telling us is that smaller, lower mass planets at the right distance from their star for liquid water are almost certainly common in the galaxy.

I assume this means we can play around with the Drake equation? In any case, I am now reminded of Poul Anderson’s essay “The creation of imaginary worlds: the world builder’s handbook and pocket companion.” You can read most of the essay online at Google Books. Or, find it in Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy. For us “squishy science” lovers the biochemist Hal Clament has an essay which follow’s Anderson’s which outlines how to create imaginary life.

April 26, 2010

The aliens are out to get us!

Filed under: Aliens,Anthroplogy,E.T.,First Contact,Space — Razib Khan @ 9:20 am

Several people have pointed me to Stephen Hawking’s warning about ‘First Contact’ with aliens. Specifically that we’d be on the short end of the stick. His worry reminded me of something I read as a child which shocked me somewhat when I encountered it, as I was conditioned by a post-Cosmos optimism. Here’s the author:

…I find it mind-boggling that the astronomers now eager to spend a hundred million dollars on the search for extraterrestrial life never thought seriously about the most obvious question: what would happen if we found it, or if it found us. The astronomers tacitly assume that we and the little green monsters would welcome each other and settle down to fascinating conversations. Here again, our own experience on Earth offers useful guidance. We’ve already discovered two species that are very itnelligent but less technically advanced than we are-the common chimpanzee and pygmy chimpanzee. Has our response been to sit down and try to communicate with them? Of course not. Instead we shoot them, dissect them, cut off their hands for trophies, put them on exhibit in cages, inject them with AIDS virus as a medical experiment, and estroy or take over their habitats. That response was predictable, because human explorers who discvered technically less advanced humans also regularly responded by shooting them, decimating their popualtiosn with new diseases, and destroything or taking over their habitats.

Any advanced extraterrestrials who discovered us would surely treat us in the same way….

That was Jared Diamond in The Third Chimpanzee. In terms of this particular concern I have to admit that my attitude is encapsulated by Arthur C. Clarke’s third law of prediction. An advanced alien race is basically going to have magical powers in relation to humanity, and I doubt anything we do will matter either way (i.e., I don’t think we could hide, or, get their attention). But my main question is why haven’t the von Neumann machines already co-opted all the matter and energy in the universe? The Fermi paradox is a real issue. There are still big questions that we have no idea or clue about.

February 12, 2010

Space, the forgotten frontier

Filed under: Space — Gene Expression @ 1:07 am

The End of the Space Age:

It's important to recognize, though, that the decision in question belongs to all of us, and not just to Barack Obama. The administration wouldn't be cutting the manned spaceflight program if Americans were still enthusiastic about going to the stars -- if space exploration still occupied a privileged place in our imagination, if our jocks still wanted to be astronauts and our nerds still wanted to build rockets. Obama is simply bowing to our culture's priorities: Our geeks want to build a better XBox, and our jocks want to buy it to play Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. Our technological energy is still immense, but it's increasingly turned inward -- toward communication, life-extension, and computer-generated adventure -- rather than outward toward the stars.

In this sense, James Cameron really is an appropriate choice to opine about the space program. "Avatar," not NASA, probably represents the future of the American relationship to distant planets. In the real world, we'll be permanently earthbound -- but inside the carapace of virtual reality, we'll be kings of infinite space.

It's been over 40 years since our species first landed on the moon. The small number of humans who have ever stepped foot on another world are now very old. I remember back in 1990 when George H. W. Bush made a declaration that some day we'd make it to Mars. That day keeps disappearing over the horizon.

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January 27, 2010

The World Space Agency a comin’?

Filed under: Space — Gene Expression @ 12:58 pm

NASA to Review Human Spaceflight:

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is preparing for a major evaluation of its human spaceflight program, even as many who will conduct the survey have yet to be informed of the agency's revised mission.

...

The administration might also enlist the help and financing of other nations to handle parts of space exploration -- perhaps giving the European Space Agency the job of building a lunar lander, for example.

Perhaps China vs. the world? Fodder for near-future science fiction.

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