I check the stats pretty regularly on this blog and one thing that is an eternal source of fascination and amusement are the search terms that bring people around. If a website is a wide open door, it’s pretty neat to listen in on the reasons why new people came through it. I’ll divide the terms into two groups, with a few comments inserted here and there.
“Kindred Spirits”: mind blowing things to think about vastness of the universe infinity written out -just as futile as trying to write out a googolplex? girls brain waves voyager -We all know who this is referring to! how small we are compared to other things van gogh yourself -I want to do this too! be-positive-spelled-out-in-colorful-refrigerator-magnets -this one made me smile. And sort of bummed out a little bit that I don’t have the right picture to reward whomever came through trying to find this. Tell you what, let’s fix that right now:
and group two
“You Came Here Looking For WHAT?”: selective choices among low-brow tastes -AWESOME. I wanna be like the bargain basement headquarters for this! Matter of fact, new tag, starting now. changing dimensions green man -green man? Like It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia “green man”? 99% of snapple facts are fake –I hope you’re right “space porn” -ok I get that. disco speaker building fuji obey -a testament to the seductive power of the X100? message in a bottle in the sewer -I was with you until that last part oinking a goomba -I really do AND DON’T want to know what this means. Maybe I should not be encouraging people looking for this to come here. like raspberries but thinner and longer –You ate what? james brown seti -what a mashup! HAH! why not to scream around cicadas -WTF, seriously. what is this
This second group has made me laugh out loud on several occasions, while the first makes me smile in a different way. Keep on comin’ you kooky kids! I check the results every day and it always raises an eyebrow. Love it!
So I broke down and joined the party; there is now an official microcosmologist twitter feed. Chiefly I plan to use to to see if it can promote the bloggin on this site. We’ll see if it’s fruitful or not. There’s a whole ton of people on twitter; maybe I can lure some unsuspecting blue birds over here.
It’s been a hot minute since I wrote about anything space-related on here, and we’re due. In the words of the late great James Brown, awwwww, git on UP!
#1 news item: SETIstars succeeds! They raised their $200k and will use it to reactivate the Allen Telescope Array. That, my friends, is news sweeter than yams with extra syrup. Their website is curiously brief about the this victory and what comes next. Maybe I might email the people from SETI I had been talking with and see what they say. Inquiring minds want to know; what now?
#2: The Juno probe has been launched to visit Jupiter in 2016, where it will orbit for 1 year in a highly elliptical path, dipping into the atmosphere repeatedly to make measurements. There’s two especially fascinating things about this probe: one, it will be subjected to radiation more harsh than any other space probe, EVARRR. This craft will serve as a test-bed for future missions into the most unforgiving environments; It’s even got a titanium vault for the electronics to withstand all those deadly alphas betas gammas and whatnot. And two: it runs on solar power, at a distance from the sun where the photons are 4% as bountiful as here on Earth. Therefore it must be very power-efficient, and uses special solar cell designs to derive the juice it’ll need way out there. Stunningly cool.
Also, another awesome tidbit: the name is derived from the wife of the Roman god Jupiter, who was able to see through the veil of clouds that Jupiter drew around himself. Poetically done, guys! Popular Science has a solid roundup of the details here.
#3: The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has mapped Mars in greater detail than Google Earth’s satellite imagery shows our own planet, has spat out some eyebrow-raising images that seem to convey liquid water moving down some slopes on the red planet (see the streaks in the images above?!). You can maybe file this under ‘knew it was coming eventually, but still über-rad to have real evidence now!’
#4: NASA’s Dawn spacecraft has reached the asteroid Vesta, where it will orbit for a year before progressing on to Ceres, the largest object in the asteroid belt. Now that it’s nice and close, the Dawn team made an eyeball-poppin’ movie showing the asteroid spinning. That’s pure spaceporn and I love it. Vesta is the brightest object in the asteroid belt and thought to be the source of many meteors that reach earth. If I read correctly, Dawn is done snapping pictures for now, and is commencing it’s “science orbits” where the many other instruments will check out all the asteroid’s vitals. Awww git it!
#5: Mars Rover Opportunity has almost reached Endeavour Crater, its target since 2008. This crater is more than 25 times bigger than Victoria Crater, which Opportunity spent two years checking out. Endeavour has some exposed ancient rocks to study, spotted by the aforementioned Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Note that Opportunity’s primary mission ended in 2004, and they’ve been continuing on “bonus, extended missions” since then. That’s like… mega friggin’ triumphant. If the rover had beats for its mission, I bet it would be the second half of Ewan Pearson’s Ride A White Horse Disco Odyssey remix. That thing is out in the wilderness scoring so many points right now.
All this stuff is so sweet. Seriously. It’s things like this that really help me maintain a positive outlook on us humans. As I said in my previous post of this same title, the people who are conducting these missions and operating the satellite dishes that recieve these images are called heroes. While the majority of us are concerned with daily operations on a tiny backwater outpost known as planet Earth, or the small quests like groceries and entertainment for the evening, these badasses are studying the timeless questions, about how the larger universe ticks–The larger universe that will be there still moving onward, long after the genus homo sapien is a minor footnote in the annals of what once was. Hopefully, due to the knowledge gained in these quests, an evolutionary descendant will be able to look back and think, ‘nice one ‘sapiens!’
Watching NASA TV in the moments before the space shuttle launch, a brief video of the orbiter Atlantis rattles off a few facts: it’s travelled 115 million miles, was the first shuttle to dock with a space station, and first shuttle to launch a probe to another planet.
I wish I were there.
Although the camera views I’ll get from the online video will probably show the action closer than I’d see with the naked eye, there is definitely a lot to be said for ‘being there’ and feeling the energy of a crowd of people united to witness history.
NASA TV has sort of a PBS/C-SPAN feeling where they will have an announcer list off a few factoids, then cut to a feed of the tower chatter, with long periods of silence. I like this better than having a constant stream of opinions and banter. It lets you think and reflect on your own thoughts.
They’re showing a closeup of the engines with some kind of white clouds billowing off them as they await launch. It kinda reminds me of a steam engine. Some engineers used to say they preferred steam engines over diesel because they ‘felt alive’ with the rising and falling of pressures, the need to monitor it and adjust, instead of just setting a level and kicking back.
I like watching the birds fly around the swamps as NASA gets ready.
Although they don’t show them, there are fighter jets in the air protecting the launch. That’s pretty sweet. If you google search, you’ll find photos of this. I’m a fairly devoted dove, but this is one use of “defense” funds I approve of.
After this, it’ll be up to the Russians to keep the International Space Station running. I sure hope they’re up to the challenge.
I can’t believe this is the LAST one. It just doesn’t seem real. They’ve been launching the space shuttle my whole life.
Astronauts get their go-ahead and reply (among other awesome words): “let’s light this fire one more time and witness this nation at it’s best”. It elicits feelings of deep admiration, wistfulness… huge pride, despair.
They keep saying “godspeed.” I wonder how many of these people are actually theists?
The camera shows a shot of the boarding walkway pivoting away from the shuttle “ATLANTIS” in big letters moving past the doorway, then a view of the coast, so far away. It’s almost eerie to think that walkway will never be used again.
Shots of the crowd, a guy kneeling with a compact camera in a shirt completely covered with an American flag. Something about him with that shirt and his tiny camera is moving. How many pictures will be snapped today? T-minus 5 minutes.
“firing chain is armed” BOOM–off it goes! And just like that they’re up in space! It all happens so fast. Less than 2 minutes later they’re 35 miles high. In the SRB camera, I love seeing the shadow of the smoke trail creep along the tops of the clouds as they escape the atmosphere. Go Rocketdyne.
7 minutes in, “travelling more than 15,000 miles per hour” hooooo! They separate the main fuel tank “for the final time”. As huge as it is, that tank will completely disintigrate when it falls back into the atmosphere. Jeez.
NASA TV shows a view of the crowd watching the launch. With +10 minutes on the big clock, everyone is packing up the tripods and the giant lenses. Maybe a million people showed up to watch the incredible spectacle which lasted (for those on the ground) maybe a minute or two. It speaks to the significance of this.
Dudes in the control room shaking hands and slapping high fives. That’s right fellas. One hundred and thirty five flights. The footage speaks for itself. The hubble telescope, the space station, the dreams of innumerable schoolkids. Velcro, computers, advanced telecommunications, avionics, the best and brightest minds uniting our highest technologies for our largest achievements. Where do we go from here? Who will do the ‘big things’… now that NASA watches from the shores of the cosmic ocean, without a ship. Without a plan for another ship.
Bon Voyage, American Exceptionalism! We had a great run!
So recently I was contacted by the SETI team regarding a sequel to the infographic I had produced a couple months back. As many of you may know already, they’re trying a new way of keeping the Allen Telescope Array running: crowdsourcing. There’s a new website over at SETIstars.org where anyone can go and give funds specifically for the restarting of the ATA. It’s a savvy move in the age of kickstarter, microloans, and grassroots funding. And it’s pretty awesome to think that, well, if the people who should be paying for this won’t pay for it, fine, we’ll do it ourselves!
I hope the venture is a big success. It’d be reaffirming to see the citizenship of planet Earth as forward-thinking enough to collectively grok the profound implications that discovery of other intelligences would have. It would be invigorating to know that we realize this meaningfully enough that we, as single individuals, would band together to sustain this important work.
In the large scope of things, it’s not all that expensive either. Just for perspective: the 1st infographic so far has seen over 40,000 views (just the flickr version, nevermind the ones I cannot track). See the bottom of this new infographic to see how much 40,000 people would need to spend apiece to keep the ATA in action…
So a couple weeks ago, I acquired something I’ve wanted for years, and have been waiting a long time to purchase: a turntable! It’s a Pro-Ject Debut III USB. This puppy is decidedly unassuming in appearance, but instead has got all the pizzaz where it counts: fidelity.
There’s something great about playing records. Maybe it’s the nostalgia associated with the format that you used to play on your parents stereo as a little kid. Or the enjoyment of physically moving your music around, touching it, and having to place the tone arm on the vinyl, instead of clicking a mouse, or pressing a button. Vinyl is the most tactile medium of music playback, moreso even than it’s analog brethren the cassette tape. For these reasons I think it has an emotional appeal to it that makes other mediums seem… sterile by comparison.
There’s something intellectually appealing about it as well; the waveforms reproduced by the speakers essentially come from a physical drawing on the record. There’s no sampling rate, there’s no digital to analog converter trying to smooth out a bar-graph of 1’s and 0’s to reproduce the original signal. Sure, you could make a successful arguement that with the sampling rates of common digital formats, the difference is imperceptible between a signal that is pure analog versus a signal that has been converted from A to D to A again. But still. It’s neat to know that the song you’re hearing is (at least for analog-recorded source material) EXACTLY the original waves.
Another intellectual appeal to the format is that it requires your interaction. You can’t set up an eight-hour long playlist and then go do something else while the music plays. Often when an LP reaches the end of a side, I remember my friend Craig Bauman yelling from the kitchen to the partiers in the living room “GO TEAM VINYL!” to express his displeasure that no one had jumped up to flip the record yet.
Vinyl also makes it tedious to skip tracks, or to jump around on an album. You put on a record, and you listen to it straight through. In this way it forces you to check out songs that might not have grabbed you on the first or even tenth listen. I’ve had an interesting experience with this idea on Orgone’s double LP “Killion Vaults” which I listened to for months in mp3 format, before this turntable arrived and I was able to play the vinyl copy. Now that I am forced to listen to the tracks in the intended order without skipping any, there’s totally several cuts that I had skipped over before that are starting to grow on me now!
Last, vinyl is hip because it has its own sound. The tone-arm, the cartridge, the different masterings of vinyl recordings versus their compact disc brethren… all these things impart a unique flavor that isn’t present in the digital-only version.
This week saw the successful launch of the penultimate mission in the United States Space Shuttle program. This is occasion to be proud of what we’ve achieved, maybe to be a bit sad that a triumphant tale is drawing to a close, and definitely to contemplate what’s next. I’ve been reading all sorts of articles from space-privitization apologists breathlessly talking about how the lack of a Space Shuttle is going to give private industry this huge incentive-boost to magically do all the work that NASA ever did, better, safer, and cheaper. I try hard to believe in that John & Paul doctrine of “it’s getting better all the time” but this is one area where skepticism takes over and I’m not so sure.
One of the articles that bothered me the most was a top-ranked story on Digg, contrasting the tale of the Apollo program with, of all things, two low-paid garbage men who got killed because of occupational hazards. I read the article trying to be as open-minded as possible, but when I reached the conclusion I felt a wave of outrage: “I’d rather see us prevent poor people from falling into garbage compactors than look at another pretty picture from the Moon.”
Okay, I’m going to tackle this on a few different levels.
One: why two garbagemen? Why not pick a trucker who got killed in a wreck, or the loss of innocent life in a plane crash due to poor saftey? Maybe the object was to purposefully select an undignified way of dying? It seems like an completely randomized circumstance of unfortunate death. An important thing to point out here is that right now, literally as you are reading this sentence, somewhere, someone is dying an undeserved and tragically preventable death. This. Very. Moment. Going on a quest to rid the world of this situation is equally ludicrous as trying to rid the world of heartbreak. It is intrinsically impossible to save all humankind from all humankind’s own foolishness, hubris, or simple bad luck. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t strive to build an international culture that places the highest value on the preciousness of human life, and protects it accordingly… we SHOULD! But I AM saying that the death of two garbagemen is an utterly irrelevant and misguided excuse to give up pursuing the highest scientific aspirations of our best and brightest!
Eisenhower famously said, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.” The thrust of these words is that civilization has finite resources for to allocating. Bearing this in mind, space exploration should not be ruthlessly pursued at the expense of humane working conditions, and health care. But I do believe that space exploration should be ruthlessly pursued at the expense of so-called ‘defense’ budgets, tax breaks for wealthy citizens and corporations, and yes, maybe even a few other hard-to-pick good causes which would be hard to cut. Which brings us to why space exploration is truly that important…
Two: The essence of what he’s saying boils down to the classic “we need to solve our problems here first” arguement. The webcomic XKCD recently had a bitingly sharp ancedote hidden in a mouseover caption which would be relevant to reprint in large, obvious text here:
This is the inevitable and indeed the ONLY end result of the “solve-our-problems-here” line of thinking. In all of human history there has never been an era in which all cultures coexisted peacefully with abundant food and technological resources. Nor will such an era will ever arise in the future. In our timeline we have been fortunate thus far to have never encountered catastrophe on a global scale. In the future, we will. Whether it be a barrage of asteroids, avian flu, the collapse of our food supply, a small-scale exchange of ICBMs, or the plain old slow whittling of minor conflicts as our resource supplies dwindle fromoverpopulation; one way or another, we Earth dwellers will face our reckoning. Best case scenario: 500 million years from now the oceans evaporate as the sun swells to a red giant. That’s the best-case lifespan of Earth. Contrast that number with the 4.5 billion years of evolution it took for the current civilization to arise.
To make the leap to becoming a spacefaring race, we will need more ingenuity and tenacity than currently imaginable. We must develop interplanetary mining, terraforming, interstellar space travel, interspecies communication techology, inter-intelligence diplomacy expertise, inter-intelligence cultural contexts–possibly intergalactic space travel technology–before the secrets of the universe will reveal themselves. We will need to accomplish these feats elegantly and routinely, with an untold number of repetitions. Thinking small, thinking local is not how this will ever occur.
So let’s take a hard, honest, and clairvoyant look forward and see two possible futures for our descendants: one where Earth becomes the single-planet gravesite of humanity; OR one where we learn to master the aforementioned challenges and survive the apocalypse of our home planet. We can either start preparing ourselves to live on, or be complacent and leave our die offspring to die among intractibly difficult problems. Those are the choices, there is not a third option. Every decade we waste, slashing and debating the merits of the NASA budget, or trying to figure out how to make space tourism profitable is another decade squandered, in which we could have gained a better understanding of spaceflight’s effect on the human body, the psychological and supply difficulties of remote colonization, or the drastically different ecologies of foreign planets, even just here within our own solar system. We deulde ourselves to think that stalling on these scientific advances is inconsequential.
Maybe we will be lucky, and have abundant time to tackle these monumental feats. There is a distinctly real chance that maybe we won’t. All the eggs are in one basket. Is it worth squandering the legacy, the blood, and the sweat of every human who ever lived, to bet on hesitance, procrastination, laziness? Is it worth gambling our entire collective history?
Three: okay, let’s take a reckless step and just disregard the fact that our entire planet has an expiration date. Assuming humankind could miraculously have infinite tomorrows, there’s still ample reason to go into space: because it reveals the best within us.
What’s the greatest feat any human has ever done? Take a gallup poll: walking on the moon. What’s the most published image of all time? Answer: the “blue marble” image, which was the first full image of Earth taken from space. There’s greatness in them there skies. Untold treasures for explorers, answers for the curious, thills for the daredevils. It’s all out there, literally.
The quest to understand space is also the quest to understand the origins of life–as well the scarcity, diversity, preciousness, and potential fruits of life. These are the BIG questions. Should we stop asking these? Should we just give up and admit that because the answers are unknowable within the span of thousands of lifetimes that they are not meant for our kind to comprehend? Should we abandon the quest for intelligence?
Even if our species just never quite amasses the smarts needed to travel to the nearest star, even if we remain stuck here in our stellar oasis, surrounded by bigger, better civilzations who laugh at the smallness of our attempts, there is an inherent value in TRYING. Even if our brains are too limited to grok the interconnectedness of the cosmos, or the purpose of our collective Endeavour within it, there is inherent value in attempting.
The following video made the rounds a little while ago with the discussion of SETI; it holds relevance here too. If you haven’t watched it, it’s worth your time.
I’ll keep things rolling on the space tip with this incredible compilation of slow-motion footage of the space shuttle. Some of you may have seen this already; it made the rounds sometime around christmas last year. And it’s LONG! If you want to skip right to the money shot, go to 34 minutes, on the dot. Don’t forget to hit the 720p! Simply breathtaking.
You can listen with the commentary on if you really want. I recommend putting on your own tunes while watching this gorgeous explosion of rocketry. This is what I liked the best. It’s good for reflecting on the ends of things. The conclusion of something glorious. On one hand, it makes me feel like I just got handed a copy of this:
On the other hand, I suppose all things, both good and bad, must come to an end; phases of life, our favorite restaurants, our favorite thursday night routines… and our lives, our planet, our sun, and the space shuttle program. A clichéd expression that does give me some optimism is “don’t be sad that it’s over; be glad that it happened.” That is true. It’s been an excellent 30 year run.
I’m still buzzing from what went on this weekend! I spent maybe two or three solid nights last week putting together that SETI infographic and wow, was it ever worthwhile! (Understatement.) On a lark, I sent an email to Phil Plait, formerly of the Hubble Telescope project and famous astro-blogger extraordinaire who has a devout following on his site Bad Astronomy, where he writes about all things cosmical and skeptical. I’m surmising most of you are probably intimately familiar already, but just in case, this whole incident made me notice that I never called out his site on here–I check it nearly every single day and there is always something wonderful there. If you aren’t familiar, get at it, post-haste!
Yeah, so Phil liked it, put up the infographic on his site which also linked here, and then posted it to reddit. Ho-leee bandwidth batman. Site=crashed. Blown up. I was floored.
This is my first time experiencing something of this magnitude. Quickly the image was captured and rehosted elsewhere since the site was barely accessible. I awoke Sunday morning to a whole bunch of email and a rapidly exploding string of comments, especially on reddit. Reading the wealth of opinions has been fascinating! Phil sent a message saying I should swap the infographic over to flickr, which I hastily did. As of this writing it’s at 21,031 views and still climbing almost every time I hit refresh. The one the redditors used for a mirror is at 3,983 views. Considering it had almost 12,000 of those in the first 12 hours… That kinda blows my mind.
And delights me. I’m happy that after reading science blogs and surfing sites like digg and reddit for so long I finally made something of interest to give back, something worth looking at. Reading all the thoughts people have chimed in with has been simply excellent, and, AND!! There have been some even cooler things that happened! Let’s go down the list:
1. People started talking. Other bloggers chimed in, and Florian Freistetter, a PhD astronomer in Germany even wrote a blog post about it. (tip: use google translate) This thing went around the whole world! CRA-ZEE
2. I got to talk with the Bad Astronomer a little. Phil is a really cool guy! He was super nice to me, and generally a peach about everything. I hope that maybe in the future I will come up with something else worth emailing him about (hint: it’s not this post!)
3. Crossing over into the realm of ridicu-cool: one of the comments on Bad Astromony was from Jill Tarter. Yeah. That’s the woman who Jodie Foster’s character is based upon in the movie Contact. Wow.
So hey, there you go! I really should try infographics more often. I guess having a good idea for one is really the hard part.
Part Deux: So You’re Here! Now what?
Well, I suspect that there is now a new crowd around here, or at the very least, a handful of elite surfers still hanging out. And you’re probably interested in space. Okay, space, we can do that! I’ll separate it into two nice categories for you:
Category Alpha: “I’m one of those brainy types who needs in-depth, thoughtful prose to hold my attention”
So it looks like the Allen Telescope Array (which I mentioned previously on here) is falling onto the chopping block in this era of fiscal “emergency.” To me, this sounds a lot like the recent battle to defund NPR or PBS, in that the money they need to continue is just . . . chump change in the grand scheme of finances. They’re $2.5 million short, and for that, they’ll need to stop taking data and shut down the telescope array. It deeply bums me out to think that such a low value is placed on the quest to find other intelligence in our universe. When compared with so many other things that gladly get millions or billions of dollars, it’s maddening to see SETI so marginalized. Do we really just not care?? Seriously??
And to put things into perspective, I’ve whipped up this handy infographic, comparing how $2.5 million compares to so many other things that we absolutely must have, and will not hesitate to pay for:
When I created this, I deliberately chose things that weren’t the most supreme. For example, I priced a Predator drone @ $4.5M, instead of a Stealth Bomber, which is a cool billion. The iPad sales dollars are probably much higher than I showed. And I showed the Citigroup portion of the bailout, instead of the full bailout ($300B). I also swapped the second and third to last entries in order to put the NASA budget immediately next to the DOD budget. Imagine what we would know about the universe if those two were swapped. (And maybe we could still lead the world by sheer power of inspiration.) It’s the stuff of pipe dreams!
Since the dawn of time, humans have looked up at the stars and wondered what they were, wondered what was out there. Now that we have the technology to actually look, and even a good idea where to look, thanks to the Kepler Space Telescope, it’s all the more maddening that it should fall under the axe, deemed unimportant, unworthy of those precious dollars. Sure, it’s true that there are innumerable causes out there which pull at our emotions and demand the attentions of our pragmatic sides. But what outcome has higher stakes than finding out we’re not alone in the cosmos? When that happens, human history will be split into two neat periods: before we knew about them, and after. BC will stand for before contact, and AD will be replaced by AC; after contact. Nothing else would transform our cultures, our politics, our religions, our folklores like knowing we’re not just a lone voice, but part of a galactic chorus. The most recent findings tell us that “within a thousand light-years of Earth,” there are “at least 30,000” habitable planets, and there are “at least 50 billion planets in the Milky Way” of which “at least 500 million” are in the habitable zone. The glorious Milky Way, with its wealth of diversity and abundance of worlds is right there waiting for us, if we could but pick up the receiver and listen.