Thursday, July 26, 2018

Found: The Great American Eclipse

Thanks to a broken computer and a lost flash drive, I thought this was lost forever. Fortunately, I found that I had uploaded everything to my old computer. Now, almost a year later, here it is: my account of the 2017 total solar eclipse.

This week marked a very special event, one that had not hit the United States in almost 100 years. What was it? A total solar eclipse that was visible from coast to coast. If that weren't enough, this was the first total solar eclipse to hit the mainland United States since 1979. The last coast to coast eclipse? That was back in 1918. The next total solar eclipse that will hit some of the mainland will come on Monday, April 8, 2024. The next coast to coast event? That will not take place until 2099, which means that,. Barring considerable advances in medical technology, very few people reading this article in 2017 will be alive when the next coast to coast eclipse takes place.

Feel privileged yet?

From here on is my personal account of the August 21, 2017 total solar eclipse, dubbed the Great American Eclipse, by the media.

Members of the astronomical society that I have belonged to since the start of my senior year in high school, the Black River Astronomical Society, had been planning a trip to witness the total solar eclipse of 2017 roughly a year in advance. Realizing the rarity of such an event (the last total eclipse had not touched the mainland U.S. since well before I was born), I was quick to get on the list for would-be travelers, work be damned.

Fast forward almost a year.

My old place of employment (for 9+ years) had just shut down, but I was fortunate to land with another company that was very generous with the vacation, to the tune of 3 work weeks of 40 hours, for first year employees. Not that it would have mattered (I would have called off if my vacation had not gotten approved) anyway, but, since my vacation got approved, I knew that I would be getting paid to watch the astronomical event of my lifetime, save the 2012 transit of Venus.

Free from work for the week (my vacation was approved way back in the spring), I knew that the weather was going to be the only question mark.

Leaving for Elizabethtown, Kentucky, which was meant to be the club's base camp, if you will, things were worrying as there was lots of cloud cover as we traveled down through Ohio on US Interstate 71, which took us through Columbus and Cincinnati. The good news came in Kentucky as the cloud cover melted away as if my magic. Unfortunately, traffic replaced the clouds. Fortunately, we all made it to Elizabethtown about 6pm, everyone close enough to make an impromptu club meeting to discuss viewing plans.

Two camps quickly emerged. On one side was the opinion of getting breakfast at 6am (when the hotel dining room opened), and leaving about 7am. On the other side: getting on the road ASAP, namely before 6am, for the sole purpose of beating the traffic. I was of the latter opinion and my travel group was on the road by 5:40am with a predicted arrival at our viewing site around 7:15am.. On the way, there was a time change around the Kentucky-Tennessee border, which took us from Eastern to Central time, and booted us back an hour.. No matter, it's better to twiddle one's thumbs for a few hours than it is to be caught in traffic and/or be scrambling to find an emergency observing site at the last minute. End result: our hour and a half drive took a half hour thanks to the time change, which meant that we arrived at our 'Plan B' observing site, a Walmart parking lot in White House, TN, around 6:15am.

Walmart at arrival, the crowd will grow considerably!

There were a lot of people already at the White House Walmart when we arrived at around 6:15am (we lost an hour thanks to the time change). Still, though, there were a lot of empty parking spaces for early morning arrivals toward the back of the parking lot.

Thus the waiting game began.

Going in to get something to drink, I was surprised to find eclipse-themed merchandise. I bought a shirt, hat, glass, and shot glass but passed on the eclipse-themed cakes. I noticed that I wasn't the only one taking pictures of the cakes, either. Exiting the store, there was a huge variety in where everyone was from, as the license plates indicated. There were even people from Canada.

Eclipse merchandise was a hit with the eager crowd.

The atmosphere during the wait was one akin to a giant tail gate party. There were even some people cooking on small charcoal grills behind their vehicles. Walmart was expecting a crowd as I heard the conversation between the cashier and a guy in front of me in the line. She said that the store had been getting calls from people asking if it was okay if they parked overnight in the lot for the eve of the eclipse. The store had also brought out old merchandise dump bins on pallets in order to act as improvised trash cans. Needless to say with its own lot and all the surrounding lots (mostly restaraunts and specialty stores) full, Walmart did a lot of business that day.

And so it went, talking with the other eclipse chasers and making an occasional run into the store. On my last trip in at about 11:30am, an announcement came over the speaker announcing that the store would be closed from 12:50pm to 1:50pm, half an hour on either side of totality (1:28pm local time). For a company that has such a bad reputation in regards to how it treats its workers, a hats off to management at the White House store for closing so that the employees could watch totality.
As noon and first contact, set for 11:58am local time, approached, I started experimenting with camera settings as I had brought my Nikon D700 with me along with my 200mm f4 micro manual focus lens. The best part about this lens was the fact that, unlike a lot of newer lenses where infinity is not quite infinity, infinity focus is truly infinity on this lens, which makes it ideal for astrophotography. Eventually, I got my settings down on the un-eclipsed Sun, which meant t hat the only thing to do for the final 15 minutes or so was wait.

As 11:58am neared, I was looking through the club's solar filtered scope a lot. I first noticed a tiny bite out of the Sun about noon, at which point I snapped my first picture. The plan was to take pictures every 10 minutes from there on until about 10 before totality, at which point I would start snapping in more rapid succession.

As the time ticked away, I kept to my 10 minute intervals for taking pictures while bouncing back and forth between the eclipse glasses and the solar scope.

This was my first total solar eclipse, so I didn't know what to expect. One thing that surprised me was the fact that it was not until about 30 minutes before totality that there was even the slightest dip in the Sun's brightness. At about the same time, the amount of traffic dropped off considerably. By 15 minutes to totality, the Sun was noticeably dimmer and the temperature, probably in the mid 90s, started to get a little cooler. It was only now that I had to adjust my shutter speed, dropping from 1/1600th second to 1/1250th. By the time of my last pre-totality shot when there was just a tiny sliver of the Sun left, I was down to 1/200th.

The last 10 minutes before totality were when things really started to happen. At about 10 minutes to go, the lights on the storefronts' signs started to come on, as did some of the parking lot lights. In anticipation of the lights, we had moved from our parking spot, which was virtually right under a light, to a wide open field that was about 5 feet higher in elevation relative to the parking lot at about 30 minutes to totality. The scope went too. At about this time, 10 minutes to go, traffic virtually disappeared from the roads as the Sun's brightness began to rapidly drop. As the Sun's brightness dropped, the temperature really began to tumble, bottoming out at what I'd guess was the upper 70s at totality. At about the same time that the temperature began to really drop, a breeze started to blow.

In the last 5 minutes before totality, it seemed as though the Sun was on a dimmer switch. It was then that the brighter stars and planets became visible. The breeze died down and the whole world seemed to come to a standstill, save the Moon creeping its final few degrees across the solar disc. Everyone's gaze was now firmly glued to the Sun. By now, shadows (at least those originating from the Sun), had disappeared. In these final moments before totality, I got my pocket Olympus out and into movie mode as I wanted to get a quick 360 degree panorama of the site as well as the Sun's return after totality.

And then it came.

With one final flash that was the famous 'diamond ring', the Sun disappeared behind the Moon and the solar corona, the Sun's outermost atmosphere, became visible. The sudden drop in brightness was as though the Sun had been shut off with a switch. There was a huge roar and lots of applause from the assembled crowd. Everyone's solar glasses came off now as it was now safe to look at the Sun without eye protection.

Totality was surreal. It was as dark as about half way between sunset and the arrival of true dark. The weird part was that the darkest area of sky was straight up, where the eclipsed Sun was. The sky got brighter as one got closer to the horizon. The world seemed to stop as everyone's eyes were glued on the Sun. You could hear the proverbial pin drop. Taking my pocket camera, I quickly got a 360 degree panorama of the area then popped off a few pictures of the totally eclipsed Sun with my Nikon before turning my gaze back up to the Sun. This being my first eclipse (and with totality only lasting 2 minutes and 40 seconds), I didn't want to get too caught up with the camera, preferring to just take in the experience.

The countdown at 10 minute intervals until just before totality. I played with shutter speed at totality to get different effects. Notice the prominences in the last totality image.

Eventually, I noticed that the sky on the right side of the Sun appeared to be getting brighter. Knowing that totality was about to end, I got my pocket camera and started shooting video again, catching about the last 10 seconds of totality and the reemergence of the Sun. Like when it disappeared, there was a roar and applause from the crowd. As was the case at the start of totality, the change in brightness from totality to a sliver of the Sun being visible was dramatic. My video does a very good job of capturing the change in brightness.

Totality 360.

Totality ends.

Totality over, a lot of people, at least half of everyone at Walmart, immediately got in their cars and started for the road. We had long since decided to stay for the complete event and avoid the mad dash out of the parking lot. The gridlock lasted for about 45 minutes. As the eclipse wound down, I kept shooting every 10- minutes, with my last picture coming at around 2:50pm. By the time we hit the road the side streets were clear, a good sign, we hoped.

Long story short, it took 5 hours to make the same drive back to Elizabethtown. The traffic was absolutely horrible.. Thanks to GPS, though, we were able to get off the main roads and take the scenic route back for most of the trip and thus avoid the worst of the congestion, though there was still some even on back country roads. By the time we were approaching Elizabethtown, the congestion got really bad again as this was the only city of appreciable size for some distance in every direction Being a decent size city meant that there were a lot of hotels, which were quickly filling up as people (like us) who had expected to stay only one night were now having to stay an extra one thanks to the slow traffic. Fortunately, we were able to find vacancies at places that weren't price gouging. Before the eclipse, there were stories of hotels charging $1,000+ per night and requiring minimum 3 night stays!

The next morning, I turned on the local news and discovered part of the reason for why the traffic was so bad. Some lady trucker from California lost her marbles, called 911, said that she was being truck-jacked by an armed man who was forcing her to drive him to some unknown destination in a truck that was hauling explosives. None of it was true as there was no kidnapper and the truck was carrying books. What was real enough was the fact that she crashed the truck into a concrete barrier under a bridge somewhere on US Highway 65, which was the road we had intended to take back and through Elizabethtown (it was the road on which we drove to Walmart, too). Not being familiar with Kentucky, I had no idea what township she crashed in but it had to have been close because the GPS was showing gridlock on I65 to a point not that far North of Elizabethtown. . .

The good news was that it was clear sailing for the most part on the drive back Tuesday morning with only the expected rush hour slowdowns. We had left before 6am again so as to beat the rush in Louisville, skirt Cincinnati on the outerbelt at the tail end of it, and miss it by a mile by the time we hit Columbus. All in all, I was back home about 1:30pm.

The first order of business: get the pictures off my cameras and onto my computer. And speaking of pictures, here they are, enjoy..

All in all, The Great American Eclipse brought the coolest 2 minutes and 40 seconds of my life. Didn't get the chance to see it first hand? Well, another total solar eclipse, this one lasting about 4 ½ minutes, will be crossing the United States on Monday, April 8, 2024. The path of totality will start in Texas and come up diagonally through Niagara Falls and then up into Canada.

Start making your plans now!

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Remembering Art Bell and His Courage to Ask the Big Questions No One Else Dared Ask

Art Bell with his radio equipment.

Art Bell, founder and original host of the overnight alternative talk radio show Coast to Coast AM, died this past Friday at his Pahrump, Nevada home at the age of 72. No further details are available as of this writing. For a website that often deals with hard science and reasoned thought, it may seem an odd place to pay tribute to a radio host whose show often dealt with the paranormal and other fringe topics.

It is not. Why? Art Bell dared to openly ask the big questions about unusual topics before anyone else did so in such a public forum. It is this, the courage to ask the big questions with no concern about prevailing public perception, that drives knowledge.

If no one dared to ask the 'whys,' challenge prevailing opinion, and do this without fear, we would probably still be living in caves as hunter-gatherers with no idea as to how or why the world works. The ability to ask questions and challenge current ways of thought are at the heart of science, which has built the advanced world we live in today.

In the past, the public was often scandalized by science and the ideas it put forth. In the 1600s, Europe was outraged at the ideas of Copernicus and Galileo. The Earth not at the center of all creation and that it was a planet just like the other 5 then known? Heresy! Both mens' writings were banned in many European nations and Galileo was tried before the Inquisition for teaching, without apology, this idea. Galileo was eventually sentenced to house arrest for the remainder of his life. Bad as that was, it was far better than the fate that befell Giordano Bruno, who was burned at the stake for teaching, among other things, that there were other planets orbiting other stars. Now, 400 years later, we know that all of these then-heretical ideas are correct.

The world went through a similar outrage in the 1800s with the rise of geology and biology. The notion that the world is not 6,000 years old and that all current forms of life are the products of evolution by natural selection were scandalous when they were first put forth. Charles Darwin, in particular, was savaged by his contemporaries in publication. At least he didn't have to worry about being burned at the stake. Now, over 150 years after he first published his scandalous, outrageous, insulting to God theory, we know that, with almost complete certainty, that he was correct.

These are just but a few of the great advances in knowledge brought about by brave men who dared to ask controversial questions irregardless of prevailing public opinion. There are countless many more examples throughout history, which brings us back to Art Bell.

Like these great scientists of the past, Art Bell dared to ask the big questions regardless of public opinion. Fortunately, in the enlightened world of today, the worst Bell could get were snickers or people simply changing the radio station. In the Western world, censorship and death for speaking one's mind have rightly been consigned to history.

Yes, many of the topics explored by Bell during his years ruling the overnight airwaves: ghosts, UFOs, alien abduction, demonic possession, prophecy, conspiracies, ESP, life after death, and the like, would not be considered scientific and are avoided like the plague by most career scientists. However, they are legitimate questions about unknown phenomenon and deserve to be asked even if they can't be tested in a lab, at least yet.

A big reason that many scientists don't tread near these topics is peer ridicule. For people devoted to the discovery of knowledge, this is ironic because suppression of uncomfortable ideas and public ridicule of people who express interest in topics that one's colleagues deem 'weird' is not the path to knowledge.

Science should not be about dogma and conformity(leave that for politics and religion) but should be about open-mindedness. Scientists should not be afraid to speculate, but should always be clear to distinguish speculation from fact as no one can know where the next great discovery will come from. Nothing groundbreaking was ever discovered by going with the grain, which is far easier than sticking one's proverbial neck out regardless of risk, whatever that may be.

It is for this, his courage to go against public opinion and ask questions that no one else was willing to ask, that the world owes a debt of gratitude to Art Bell. Who knows when a topic he covered on the radio will shift from speculation to fact? It could happen tomorrow.

RIP Art Bell (1945-2018).

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Benjamin Franklin and the Truth about Daylight Savings Time

Today, the vast majority of Americans went through another much-hated time change. With all of the grumblings about having to switch the clocks and lose an hour of sleep, one very famous name often gets injected into the conversation: Benjamin Franklin. Why? Many people blame Franklin for the idea of setting the clocks ahead. But is he really to blame?

Short answer: no. Long answer: much more interesting.

The whole idea of blaming Benjamin Franklin for the advent of DST is rooted in a letter he wrote while serving as an envoy to France. The author of the maxim “early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise” was clearly not seeing this in Paris. The entire city seemed out of sync with nature as many residents stayed up long after dark and burned through enormous numbers of candles and then proceeded to completely sleep the morning away the following day.

It was this lack of following the natural cycle of things that bothered Franklin, who saw staying up long past nightfall as wasteful as little constructive activities could be done then and sleeping away half the morning, prime time for getting things done, as a double waste of valuable time.

Then Franklin, tongue planted firmly in cheek, picked up a pen.

In his letter to the Journal of Paris, signed only 'a subscriber,' Franklin proposes a novel idea to eliminate all of the wasted candles: going to bed earlier, which would also lead people to wake up earlier and thus be able to make full use of the morning. He also humorously suggests limiting people to 1 pound of candles a week, posting guards in front of candle shops, banning all carriage traffic after dark save medical professionals, and ringing all the church bells at sunrise. Church bells not doing the job? Fire cannons in the street to wake the 'sluggards.'

And it is for this reason that Benjamin Franklin gets blamed for DST. Clearly by reading the letter, reproduced in-full below, there is no mention anywhere of changing the clocks. By looking at how much the world has changed in the 234 years since Franklin wrote his letter in 1784, one would have to wonder what Franklin would think of our modern 24/7, energy drink chugging, constant go go go world.

He would probably tell us to stop and smell the roses.


You often entertain us with accounts of new discoveries. Permit me to communicate to the public, through your paper, one that has lately been made by myself, and which I conceive may be of great utility.

I was the other evening in a grand company, where the new lamp of Messrs. Quinquet and Lange was introduced, and much admired for its splendour; but a general inquiry was made, whether the oil it consumed was not in proportion to the light it afforded, in which case there would be no saving in the use of it. No one present could satisfy us in that point, which all agreed ought to be known, it being a very desirable thing to lessen, if possible, the expense of lighting our apartments, when every other article of family expense was so much augmented.

I was pleased to see this general concern for economy, for I love economy exceedingly.

I went home, and to bed, three or four hours after midnight, with my head full of the subject. An accidental sudden noise waked me about six in the morning, when I was surprised to find my room filled with light; and I imagined at first, that a number of those lamps had been brought into it; but, rubbing my eyes, I perceived the light came in at the windows. I got up and looked out to see what might be the occasion of it, when I saw the sun just rising above the horizon, from whence he poured his rays plentifully into my chamber, my domestic having negligently omitted, the preceding evening, to close the shutters.

I looked at my watch, which goes very well, and found that it was but six o'clock; and still thinking it something extraordinary that the sun should rise so early, I looked into the almanac, where I found it to be the hour given for his rising on that day. I looked forward, too, and found he was to rise still earlier every day till towards the end of June; and that at no time in the year he retarded his rising so long as till eight o'clock. Your readers, who with me have never seen any signs of sunshine before noon, and seldom regard the astronomical part of the almanac, will be as much astonished as I was, when they hear of his rising so early; and especially when I assure them, that he gives light as soon as he rises. I am convinced of this. I am certain of my fact. One cannot be more certain of any fact. I saw it with my own eyes. And, having repeated this observation the three following mornings, I found always precisely the same result.

Yet it so happens, that when I speak of this discovery to others, I can easily perceive by their countenances, though they forbear expressing it in words, that they do not quite believe me. One, indeed, who is a learned natural philosopher, has assured me that I must certainly be mistaken as to the circumstance of the light coming into my room; for it being well known, as he says, that there could be no light abroad at that hour, it follows that none could enter from without; and that of consequence, my windows being accidentally left open, instead of letting in the light, had only served to let out the darkness; and he used many ingenious arguments to show me how I might, by that means, have been deceived. I owned that he puzzled me a little, but he did not satisfy me; and the subsequent observations I made, as above mentioned, confirmed me in my first opinion.

This event has given rise in my mind to several serious and important reflections. I considered that, if I had not been awakened so early in the morning, I should have slept six hours longer by the light of the sun, and in exchange have lived six hours the following night by candle-light; and, the latter being a much more expensive light than the former, my love of economy induced me to muster up what little arithmetic I was master of, and to make some calculations, which I shall give you, after observing that utility is, in my opinion the test of value in matters of invention, and that a discovery which can be applied to no use, or is not good for something, is good for nothing.

I took for the basis of my calculation the supposition that there are one hundred thousand families in Paris, and that these families consume in the night half a pound of bougies, or candles, per hour. I think this is a moderate allowance, taking one family with another; for though I believe some consume less, I know that many consume a great deal more. Then estimating seven hours per day as the medium quantity between the time of the sun's rising and ours, he rising during the six following months from six to eight hours before noon, and there being seven hours of course per night in which we burn candles, the account will stand thus;--

In the six months between the 20th of March and the 20th of September, there are


Hours of each night in which we burn candles

Multiplication gives for the total number of hours

These 1,281 hours multiplied by 100,000, the number of inhabitants, give

One hundred twenty-eight millions and one hundred thousand hours, spent at Paris by candle-light, which, at half a pound of wax and tallow per hour, gives the weight of

Sixty-four millions and fifty thousand of pounds, which, estimating the whole at-the medium price of thirty sols the pound, makes the sum of ninety-six millions and seventy-five thousand livres tournois

An immense sum! that the city of Paris might save every year, by the economy of using sunshine instead of candles. If it should be said, that people are apt to be obstinately attached to old customs, and that it will be difficult to induce them to rise before noon, consequently my discovery can be of little use; I answer, Nil desperandum. I believe all who have common sense, as soon as they have learnt from this paper that it is daylight when the sun rises, will contrive to rise with him; and, to compel the rest, I would propose the following regulations; First. Let a tax be laid of a louis per window, on every window that is provided with shutters to keep out the light of the sun.

Second. Let the same salutary operation of police be made use of, to prevent our burning candles, that inclined us last winter to be more economical in burning wood; that is, let guards be placed in the shops of the wax and tallow chandlers, and no family be permitted to be supplied with more than one pound of candles per week.

Third. Let guards also be posted to stop all the coaches, &c. that would pass the streets after sunset, except those of physicians, surgeons, and midwives.

Fourth. Every morning, as soon as the sun rises, let all the bells in every church be set ringing; and if that is not sufficient?, let cannon be fired in every street, to wake the sluggards effectually, and make them open their eyes to see their true interest.

All the difficulty will be in the first two or three days; after which the reformation will be as natural and easy as the present irregularity; for, ce n'est que le premier pas qui coƻte. Oblige a man to rise at four in the morning, and it is more than probable he will go willingly to bed at eight in the evening; and, having had eight hours sleep, he will rise more willingly at four in the morning following. But this sum of ninety-six millions and seventy-five thousand livres is not the whole of what may be saved by my economical project. You may observe, that I have calculated upon only one half of the year, and much may be saved in the other, though the days are shorter. Besides, the immense stock of wax and tallow left unconsumed during the summer, will probably make candles much cheaper for the ensuing winter, and continue them cheaper as long as the proposed reformation shall be supported.

For the great benefit of this discovery, thus freely communicated and bestowed by me on the public, I demand neither place, pension, exclusive privilege, nor any other reward whatever. I expect only to have the honour of it. And yet I know there are little, envious minds, who will, as usual, deny me this and say, that my invention was known to the ancients, and perhaps they may bring passages out of the old books in proof of it. I will not dispute with these people, that the ancients knew not the sun would rise at certain hours; they possibly had, as we have, almanacs that predicted it; but it does not follow thence, that they knew he gave light as soon as he rose. This is what I claim as my discovery. If the ancients knew it, it might have been long since forgotten; for it certainly was unknown to the moderns, at least to the Parisians, which to prove, I need use but one plain simple argument. They are as well instructed judicious, and prudent a people as exist anywhere in the world all professing, like myself, to be lovers of economy; and,from the many heavy taxes required from them by the necessitities of the state, have surely an abundant reason to be economical. I say it is impossible that so sensible a people, under such circumstances, should have lived so long by the smoky, unwholesome, and enormously expensive light of candles, if they had really known, that they might have had as much pure light of the sun for nothing. I am, &c.


Friday, December 15, 2017

President Trump Directs NASA to Return to Moon

On Monday, President Trump signed a space policy directive ordering NASA to send humans to the Moon and eventually to Mars. For manned space exploration enthusiasts, this is the first bit of good news to come about in over a decade since when then-President Bush created the Constellation Program, which sought the same goal by 2018, which is now weeks away.

Hopefully, this plan will not be killed after Trump leaves office in the way former President Obama killed Constellation after he took office because this plan makes a lot of sense.

After killing Constellation, supposedly due to timetables not being met and cost over runs (since when has money been a concern for government), Obama set us on an aimless course into the cosmos. The plan: go to an asteroid to prepare for a Mars mission. This later morphed into a ludicrous mission of towing an asteroid into low-Earth orbit to make training easier before going to Mars. 

Besides being completely impractical with today's technology, going to an asteroid to prepare for Mars is the dumbest idea in the history for space exploration.. Why? The two bodies are nothing alike. Mars has the gravity equivalent to about 38% of that of Earth, meaning a 100 pound human would weigh 38 pounds on Mars. The largest asteroid, now officially 'dwarf planet,' Ceres, is only 2% that of Earth. The smaller moon of Mars, Deimos? Try 3/1000th that of Earth. As for an asteroid small enough to be towed to Earth? Infinitely smaller.

This begs a question: why on Earth would you practice for a mission to a body that has 38% of Earth's gravity on a body that may have 1/10,000th of Earth's gravity? Duh, you don't.

As for the Moon, it has about 16% of Earth's gravity which, though still less than half of that of Mars, is still way better than an asteroid because going to an asteroid (wherever it is) and then straight to Mars isn't really practice because the two are so different. By going to the Moon first, testing equipment for exploration, housing, and growing food makes a lot more sense because of the Moon's greater size. 

Additionally, NASA can set up long-term expeditions to the Moon much in the way it does the ISS to make absolutely positively sure that everything works without fail so that when we finally do go to Mars, we know that the equipment will work. If something were to go wrong, it is much better to be 3 days away from Earth than a minimum of 4 months away from Mars (Mariner 7 made the trip in just 128 days while Viking 2 took a snail's pace 333, roughly 11 months).

The president is right: America needs to take bold steps to reassert its dominance in space. Hopefully Congress will agree and pony up the cash needed to do so. If Congress goes along, Trump will be remembered as the 21st century Kennedy, not as every president from Johnson to Obama. Remember, if JFK had lived to serve two terms, we would have been on the Moon just months after he had left office.

The Space Race of the 60s proves that we are capable of great things when we try. Hopefully we will be willing as a nation to do it again with the same drive of half a century ago.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Carl Sagan's Demon Haunted World

This month marks 20 years since the death of Carl Sagan, the astronomer who became a household name and unofficial spokesman for science thanks to his Cosmos TV miniseries. While Sagan is best known for Cosmos, he also was a prolific writer of science books targeted toward the general public, the last of which was titled The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, published in 1995.

Throughout his life as a scientist and later celebrity scientist, Sagan was a strong proponent of the scientific method and critical thought while railing against pseudoscience and superstition and ignorance they bring forth. However, going into the mid 1990s, Sagan had never written a book on such topics, though he commonly sprinkled these themes throughout his other works. This changed with Demon Haunted World which, as it would come to pass, became, in a way, Sagan's final testament to the world.

In the Demon Haunted World, Sagan puts 400+ pages broken down into 25 chapters to work in both espousing the scientific method and critical thought while systematically picking apart pseudoscience and superstition in both historical and current lights while also setting down ideas as to how humanity can avoid reverting to ignorance. The book is easily broken down into thirds, with the first being largely devoted to exposing pseudosciences for what they truly are, the middle focusing on how individuals can better their thinking skills, and t he final being devoted to creating a scientifically-literate, critical thinking citizenry.

While there are many superstitions and pseudosciences addressed in Demon Haunted World, if there is any single one of particular focus, it is aliens. This is probably for a couple of reasons. First, the publicity for aliens exploded in the 1990s in various forms of media. In the 1990s, aliens were to be found in movies, on TV, on the radio, and in all forms of print. By the mid 1990s, aliens were popular. Secondly, more so than any other pseudoscience, aliens are, by many in the general public, viewed as being under the umbrella of science. As anyone who understands what science is really about realizes, this is not the case for aliens for the simple reason that science is based on the idea of testability by way of physical and/or measurable evidence, none of which exists for aliens.

Other topics addressed by Sagan include hallucinations, witness fallibility, therapy's failings, witchcraft, demons, structures on Mars, and cyptids.

Sagan takes a novel approach to explaining why many pseudosciences are, in fact, pseudosciences. In the chapter The Dragon in My Garage, Sagan examines the train of thought that many believers in various pseudosciences follow. The premise, pseudosciences rely on the notion that the inability to prove something false makes it true. Illustrated, Sagan tells a story about a dragon in his garage wherein the reader takes the role of investigator. Upon looking in the garage and seeing no dragon, the reader asks where it is. Answer: it's invisible. The reader then proposes spreading flour on the floor to see the invisible dragon's footprints, which do not appear. The reason: the dragon floats in the air. How about a thermal test to detect the dragon's fiery breath? No abnormal readings present themselves. Reason: the invisible fire is heatless. At a loss, the reader proposes spraying paint in the garage to make the invisible dragon visible. When the paint fails to stick to anything, there's a reason for this too: the dragon is incorporeal. Sagan's question to the reader: what's the difference between an invisible, floating, incorporeal dragon that spits heatless fire and no dragon at all? At best, judgment must be postponed until some sort of physical evidence for the dragon's existence presents itself. Until then, belief in the dragon in the garage is purely a matter of faith because there's no evidence that can be tested, only a sincerely told story. The same is true for aliens, cryptids, and likewise. Bottom line: pseudosciences rely on faith, not evidence, as cornerstones of belief.

Another standout chapter is The Fine Art of Baloney Detection, in which Sagan presents a toolkit for thinking through any topic that must be approached critically. What is this toolkit? A list of questions to ask oneself when examining any question. The kit includes, but is not limited to looking for independent confirmation of “facts,” looking for underlying motives, Occam's Razor, and the need to quantify if possible. Sagan then presents a long list of logical fallacies with examples. Why should non-scientists care about the baloney detection kit? Simple: it can help anyone be a better consumer in a market-driven world. After all, advertisements wouldn't bend the truth, would they?

After dismantling pseudoscientific claims and teaching how to think critically/scientifically, the third major theme in the book is the need for scientific literacy. Sagan notes the modern world is dependent on science and technology but that very few people even understand science and technology, which is a recipe for disaster. Providing evidence for his claims of scientific illiteracy, Sagan cites the National Science Foundation and some of its alarming findings, namely that, among others : 63% of adults are unaware that dinosaurs died out before humans arose, 75% do not know that antibiotics can only kill bacteria, 57% do not know that electrons are smaller than atoms, and roughly half do not know that the Earth goes around the Sun and that it takes a year to do so.

Sagan then takes society and the American educational system to task. His chief complaint: adults complaining about “dumb questions” from kids and thus, through put-downs, instilling the idea in kids that asking questions is a bad thing. In his personal experience with students in the K-12 system, Sagan notes that first graders ask a lot more fundamental questions (Why is the sky blue? Why do we have seasons, Why are plants green?) than do 12th graders. On the American educational system, Sagan also has criticism, namely a lack of inspiring science courses in the K-12 curriculum and an over-reliance on teaching technical reading and memorization because such courses are easier for the educators to teach. Sagan noted that the same was true of his primary education and that there were no real stimulating science courses in his education until he reached the university level. Result: by the time they become seniors in high school, many students who were interested in science at an earlier age have no intention of pursuing a career in science thanks to a lack of mental stimulation. A final criticism against American society is the media available to the public. Sagan notes all of the pseudoscience/paranormal-themed entertainment in media but the woeful lack of science-themed entertainment (this was 1996, well before the profusion of cable TV specialty channels like the Science Channel). Example: virtually all newspapers have a daily astrology section, but how many papers have even a weekly science column? Not many. Another citation is wall-to-wall coverage of the OJ Simpson trial on TV but a virtual absence of science programming (though the PBS series Nova is cited as being a notable exception). For all of the criticisms, though, Sagan is not hopeless, laying out blueprints for how we as a nation can fix our problems that contribute to a lack of scientific literacy.

Of the 25 chapters in the book, 4 were co-written by Sagan and his wife, Ann Druyan, including the last two, which Sagan notes are the most political in the book (he even has a disclaimer to this at the start of chapter 24). Quick to illustrate the necessity of this apparent digression, Sagan notes that critical thinking skills and the ability to question authority, both of which are essential to science, are also crucially important to maintaining a healthy, functioning democracy. Without critical thought, Sagan notes, a democracy can be hijacked and people be led astray into blindly following a charismatic leader. Examples in American history cited by Sagan include the Alien & Sedition Acts, passed during the John Adams administration, which effectively criminalized criticizing the government, the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII, the 'war' on drugs (especially marijuana), and the frenzy whipped up against Saddam Hussein on the eve of the Gulf War (he was our ally in the 1980s). In world history, Sagan notes even more monumental atrocities, including but not limited to the witch hysteria in Europe, the Holocaust, and the atrocities under communist dictatorships in Russia and China. All of these, Sagan notes, were fundamentally allowed to happen because of a lack of skepticism and unwillingness to question authority on the part of citizens and even other leaders. To avoid sliding into totalitarianism, which relies on ignorance and submission on the part of the public and which actively seeks to quash skeptical inquiry, Sagan declares that citizens must be educated in matters of science, skepticism, and democracy, which he views as inextricably intertwined.

The need to be a critical consumer of information is especially true at present with the profusion of information, not all of which is reputable, on the Internet , wherein anyone can publish anything without peer review. With the whole 'fake news' narrative that has spring up following the 2016 presidential election, it is critical for people to know how to think for themselves. Perhaps the only thing of greater disservice to the pursuit of knowledge than false information are the calls by some that the government do something about reining in 'fake news' and other misinformation. By giving government control over media, which I strongly disagree with and have no doubt in my belief that Carl Sagan would feel the same way, we the people would be giving away our freedom to think for ourselves by allowing the government to control the flow of information. If 'fake news' is public enemy #1 on the government media police's most wanted list now, what's next? Political opinions contrary to the controlling party's beliefs? Comedians' material that certain groups find 'offensive?' Anything deemed by government to be 'corrupting' to today's children? Scientific discoveries and ideas that threaten prevailing religious beliefs? The list could go on and on, thus showing the slippery slope government policing 'fake news' could lead us toward. It's better to take false information hook, line, and sinker once and then discover the truth on one's own at a later time than it is to have the government spoon feed us only what it thinks we need to know. There's nothing wrong with being wrong in itself, to err is human, it's how we learn.

In the final chapter, Sagan contrasts the Founding Fathers with today's leaders. The Founding Fathers were all products of the Enlightenment, and two of them, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, were actually scientists. The Founding Fathers saw political actions as experiments in that, whenever a policy was implemented, the results must be carefully monitored and any changes made if the policy had its shortcomings. Democracy, like science, can be self correcting if the people and leaders both pay attention to the decisions made and correct the bad ones accordingly. Sagan also contrasts the Founding Fathers' attitudes toward education with those expressed by today's politicians. Quoting Jefferson, Sagan notes that the cost of education is miniscule when compared to the cost of ignorance. In contrast, most of today's politicians do not understand the process of education, science, or critical thought, yet seek to influence such fields, anyway. Sagan rightly notes that this is a recipe for disaster. The Founding Fathers were well-versed in the methods of skeptical thought, had their principles, and acted accordingly. Today's leaders are more often than not told what to do by way of opinion polls. In summation, Sagan concludes that free speech and education in skepticism, science, democracy, the Bill of Rights, and how to use and protect them (and what will happen if we don't) are crucial for a free society because they serve as the tools we can use to prevent ourselves from becoming enveloped in darkness.

In writing The Demon Haunted World, Carl Sagan was finally coalescing into a single work his thoughts on pseudoscience and skeptical inquiry on both the individual and societal levels. Perhaps (he never did say) this book was inspired by his own health, which was in a precarious state come 1995. The year before, Sagan was diagnosed with myodisplasia, a rare blood disorder that commonly morphs (as it did in Sagan's case) into leukemia. His life already saved by a bone marrow transplant, perhaps being confronted with his own mortality inspired Sagan to put pen to paper and write a book that systematically dismantled various pseudosciences, taught skeptical inquiry, and made a case for why critical thinking skills are vital not only to science, but to democratic society as a whole, all while offering suggestions as to how and achieve the goals of a well-educated, skeptical citizenry.

Perhaps more so than any other of his books, Sagan's Demon Haunted World will stand the test of time. As iconic as Cosmos is and as heavy on science his other books are, science, as Sagan so often acknowledged, is a self-correcting process wherein current knowledge will be updated and old theories discarded in the face of new evidence. It is for this reason that, as the decades pass, Sagan's other works will become dated in the face of new discoveries while The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, will remain forever current as this book does not state scientific facts, but teaches how to think scientifically. Needless to say, this is an absolute must-read for anyone interested in not only science, but in psychology, sociology, history, and politics, among other topics. 

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Carl Sagan: 20 Years Later

It was 20 years ago that astronomy, or perhaps even science itself, lost the best friend it ever had when Carl Sagan died at age 62 from complications of leukemia. For the better part of 2 decades, Sagan was the face of astronomy and science itself, the first true celebrity scientist since Albert Einstein. Now, 20 years later, the young people who Sagan sought to inspire into careers in science were, for the most part, not even born when Sagan was alive.
So, who was Carl Sagan.
Sagan is best known for his iconic Cosmos mini-series, which hit the airwaves in 1980. While Cosmos propelled Sagan to international fame, made him a household name, and the most recognized scientist in the world, there was a lot more to the man than Cosmos.

Born in Brooklyn in 1934, Sagan was interested in science from an early age. Throughout his life, Sagan would recount two distinct episodes that set him on his life's journey of discovery. The first was a visit with his father to the 1939 World's Fair, which touted the world of tomorrow as envisioned through advances science and technology. The second event was a question (and its subsequent answering by way of a local public library): what are the stars? Though a 5 year-old Sagan did not know what science was, he was fascinated by what he saw at the World's Fair and left with a sense of wonder at the realization that the stars were Suns at a great distance (and that the Sun was a star up close).

For the rest of his life, Sagan would credit his parents, who were not scientists and who actually understood very little science, for his career thanks to their encouraging of his early curiosity as a child. As an adult, Sagan would urge parents and adults across the nation and around the world to do the same for their children, lamenting that many potential scientists are put-off as children by adults' discouragement.

Finishing high school, whose science courses he recounted as being rather dull and made of mindless memorization and experiments wherein the desired solution was already known from the start, Sagan entered college, eventually earning his Ph.D. in 1960.

For Sagan, the timing couldn't have been better. 1960 was the dawning of the space age and Sagan was right in the middle of it. Degree in hand and scientific method in mind, Sagan quickly made a name for himself as a research scientist, playing a key role in t he understanding of the Venusian atmosphere and the planet that it shrouded. Long the subject of wild speculation because of its hidden surface and near-Earth size, Venus was, with a large credit to Sagan, finally understood to be the world it is: a hell-in-space if you will with an acidic atmosphere and a surface temperature hot enough to melt lead.

Following his work on Venus, Sagan also took part in a variety of further missions to Venus and other planets through the1970s, most notably the Viking missions to Mars and the Voyagers to the outer solar system. Additionally, Sagan became a consultant to NASA and briefed many astronauts before their flights. In between, Sagan wrote several well-received books that started to cement his reputation not only as a scientist, but as an educator and a spokesman for popular science itself.

Then came Cosmos, for which Sagan put up a considerable sum of his own money, worked constantly to secure donations for more, worked on publicity, risked his job (Sagan was constantly away filming and not teaching/researching at Ithaca University), and endured ridicule by his peers (some felt Sagan was neglecting his university duties while others considered popularizing science for the general public a waste of time). Through it all, Sagan and his team persevered and Cosmos finally hit the airwaves in August of 1980.

And the rest, they say, is history.

His fame cemented, Sagan would return to a more traditional role as an academic teacher and researcher but would remain in the public eye as the face of astronomy and science for the rest of his life through appearances on TV, in documentaries, and through books. In the 1980s, after his marriage to Ann Druyan (one of his Cosmos co-writers), Sagan became increasingly outspoken on social issues, championing causes including but not limited to: the environment, education, world peace, and the teaching of the scientific method and its applications not only to science, but to being an informed consumer and citizen.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the awards rained down on Sagan for his achievements in a wide variety of areas. The scientist had become a renaissance man.

Sagan's last book about astronomy, Pale Blue Dot, was published in 1994 and was inspired, in part, by a picture. After the 1989 Neptune flyby, the mission was complete for the Voyagers, but then Sagan had a big idea: why not turn the craft around and get a picture of the entire solar system? This was done and all 8 planets were captured in a single image, with Earth being a pale blue dot less than a pixel in size suspended in a sunbeam. In the 1990s, Sagan's activism, especially in the areas of protecting the environment and ensuring world peace, continued. As Sagan noted himself, Earth is tiny against the blackness of space and is, so far, the only place where life is known to exist in the universe. That undisputed, mankind has a duty to protect its only home but this is made more difficult because humans now have the technology to end all life on Earth through both environmental destruction and war, hence the need for global awareness.

At age 60, Sagan was diagnosed with a rare blood disorder, myodisplasia, which commonly transforms into leukemia (as it did in Sagan's case). For the remainder of his life, Sagan's health was in a precarious state and was even saved by a bone marrow transplant. As 1996 progressed, Sagan's cancer returned and he once again endured another round of chemotherapy. In his final interview just days before his death, Sagan expressed optimism about not only his recovery but that of the future in general.

Sadly, his immune system depleted by the chemotherapy, Sagan shortly thereafter contracted pneumonia, which took his life 20 years ago today.

Yes, while Carl Sagan has not been with us for 20 years now, his legacy will endure so long as there are people on this Earth who are still inspired by a sense of wonder to ask big questions when confronted with the unknown, thus continuing the scientific journey of discovery that Sagan so passionately encouraged.