Happy 50th Anniversary!

Thursday, September 8th, 2016 marks the 50th anniversary of a cultural milestone – “Star Trek” as the original series premiered on September 8th, 1966.  While this blog discusses issues of a scientific and/or historical nature, this anniversary was one of those occasions that cannot be ignored.

As most people, especially those intelligent folk who read blogs like this one, know, “Star Trek” followed the exploits of the crew of the Starship Enterprise and its womanizing egotistical captain James T. Kirk.  Despite not being terribly popular during its original network run, struggles with budgets, and other pains, the series became legendary.  This was in part due to its success in syndication, but it also was due to the writing, the characters, and the stories.  While the late Joseph Campbell (professor of Comparative Religion at Sarah Lawrence college and renowned expert on the connections between mythologies and religions) never mentioned “Star Trek” as far as I can determine, Casey Biggs (Damar on “Star Trek: Deep Space 9” and a fan of Campbell’s works) believes that the “Star Trek” franchise fills the function of a mythology in modern society (a system of stories that metaphorically explore universal truths).  This is probably the key to its grip on the public mind.

Before this gets too mythological, it should be noted that the “Star Trek” franchise was extremely influential on our society.  It is generally thought that the concept of the flip phone was inspired by the communicators from the original series.  Today, scientists who are working on handheld analyzers say they are inspired by the tricorders (very portable scanning devices) from the franchise.  And the people involved in research on artificial vision systems that promise to help blind people all say they found inspiration in the visor worn by Geordi LaForge, a blind character from “Star Trek: The Next Generation”.  Those who work on non-lethal weapon technology cite the phaser (the standard issue Starfleet weapon) as their ideal, since it could be set to stun enemies rather than kill them.

However, “Star Trek” has also inspired a number of scientific cul-de-sacs or outright dead-ends.  One prominent example is research into teleportation.  It is thought to have been inspired by the transporter used in the franchise, a device used to transmit matter (people, cargo, or whatever) from point A to point B.  The reason it was used in the series was not because people believed it would be developed in the future, rather it was because Gene Roddenberry wanted a way to get people from the Enterprise to a planet surface and could not afford to do special effects shots of the shuttlecraft transporting people to their destination.  But when people saw it on the show, many believed that if it was on “Star Trek”, it was in our future.  What real teleportation does is it merely transfers the quantum state of a particle to a similar particle some distance away.  While it is impractical for Trek-style uses, it is expected to play a part in quantum computing technology.

Another Trek-inspired false lead is warp drive.  Warp drive was how starships were able to travel throughout the galaxy in reasonable time scales without messy things like Lorentz contraction, time-dilation, and those other nasty relativistic effects that happen when one travels near the speed of light.  While the idea of a warp drive does not seem to contradict relativity and there is (if you accept cosmic inflation) one example of something that was similar to warp physics – the cosmic inflation that explains why the universe appears flat and also why there is so little variation across the Cosmic Microwave Background.  In that case, space itself expanded – for a very brief time – at speeds that would make the Enterprise-E (the latest version of the ship) look extremely sluggish.  Cosmic inflation was thought to be the result of processes associated with the Big Bang.

But this didn’t stop Mexican physicist Miguel Alcubierre from coming up with an idea for a warp drive to move starships.  However, Alcubierre found a problem that has persuaded most physicists that the idea of warp drive was crazy to begin with.  In the original equations, the energy required is truly enormous.  It would take energy equivalent to the entire mass of Jupiter (remember E=MC2?) to generate a tiny warp field.  And if it could be generated, it would be virtually impossible to control.  However, NASA scientist Harold White has picked up where Alcubierre left off and is studying the idea.  White claims that, if the shape of the warp field is modified, the power requirements are reduced to the energy equivalent of a ton of matter.  That is still quite a bit of energy.  White has also claimed that his tiny-scale experiments have gotten some results, though most people think that White was merely observing some kind of quantum phenomenon unrelated to what he is looking for.

Of course, there are the people who like “Star Trek”.  And to the surprise of some people, not all fans of the franchise are like those negative stereotypes seen on “The Big Bang Theory” (discussed in my earlier post about that program).  Among the people who like the Trek franchise are many NASA employees, most astronauts, many professionals from all walks of life, the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and even one head of state (King Abdullah II of Jordan).

Then there are some surprising folk who really liked “Star Trek”.  Nichelle Nichols, the actress who portrayed Nyota Uhura on the original series, was at a book-signing in London when an enormous man with a shaved head, numerous tattoos, and all the regalia of a skinhead walked into the store.  Even the security guards were frightened.  The man then said that he stopped by because he had a message for Nichelle.  He explained that he used to be a skinhead.  One night, while he was bored, he turned on the TV and a station was running a marathon of “Star Trek” episodes.  As he was watching, he noticed how the crew got along with one another and how they dealt with various moral issues.  He then decided that the skinhead life was not the way to go.  The man then thanked Nichelle for her work on the series and offered his help if she ever needed any assistance during her stay in London.

Naturally, when there is something that popular, there are always those to try to denigrate its positive contributions.  On top of the vast multitude of negative stereotypes of fans, there are incidents that are even uglier.  A few years ago, the weekend edition of “Good Morning America” did a story on research into visual prosthetics.  Some of you might remember from an earlier paragraph that almost every scientist in that field was inspired by Geordi LaForge and his visor.  Did the GMA story bring that up?  No, it didn’t.  Rather than crediting the correct inspiration, they tried to imply it was inspired by Steve Austin’s bionic eye on “The Six Million Dollar Man”.  Those of us who knew the truth were not taken in, but some people might have been.  Why did the folks at GMA do this?  One could argue they disliked the Trek franchise.  I suspect something more vile.  Steve Austin was portrayed by Lee Majors, a white actor.  Geordi LaForge was portrayed by the talented LeVar Burton, an African-American actor.  Was racism involved?  Given our society, it can’t be ruled out.

On a happier note, I have been fortunate enough to have met most of the surviving actors and actresses from Trek franchise as a result of my convention travels.  They are all interesting people and all deserve credit for being part of the success of the Trek franchise.  With the J. J. Abrams movies and their alternate take on the Trek universe, the upcoming “Star Trek: Discovery” series, as well as tons of fan-created stories, songs, etc., who knows what’s going to happen at the next milestone anniversary?  And what do you think of this magnificent franchise?

In honor of this occasion, I leave you with a video featuring one of the franchise’s most beloved characters – Montgomery “Scotty” Scott.  The video was released by Paramount shortly after James Doohan, the actor who created the character, passed away.

 

 

Why Wink When You Should Salute?

August 25th, 2016 marks the fourth anniversary of the death of Neil Armstrong, the first human being to set foot on the lunar surface.  Shortly after his death, the Armstrong family announced that, to honor Neil, every August 25th, people should wink at the Moon if they see it.  I feel that does not go far enough.  One should salute it instead.

One of the main reasons for this was that the man was a true American hero.  While taking over the lunar module’s controls to steer the craft away from a field of boulders that would have brought the mission to a fatal end would be considered a very heroic feat, it wasn’t his only one or even his first.

In the Korean War, Armstrong flew fighter jets from a carrier to attack targets in North Korea.  On one of his missions, his plane ran into a cable stretched across a valley by the North Koreans to wreck low-flying American planes.  For most pilots, the level of damage would have been enough to cause the pilot to eject, which would have likely resulted in a stay at a North Korean POW camp.  But Armstrong was no ordinary pilot.  He managed to maintain some control over the plane.  While returning to the carrier was impossible, there was a Marine base that was within flying range.  Armstrong proceeded to fly to the base.  Just before he reached the base, the plane became uncontrollable and he was forced to eject.  Armstrong made it safely to the ground and was promptly rescued by Marines from the nearby base.

Another heroic feat was during the Gemini 8 mission.  This was to test the concept of docking spacecraft in orbit.  The test target was the upper stage of an Agena rocket.  Shortly after docking, the crew noticed the capsule was moving in an odd manner.  Thinking the problem was with the upper stage, they quickly undocked.  The problem only got worse and the capsule started to spin.  What had happened was one of the Gemini capsule’s thrusters got stuck in the on position and was causing the spacecraft to spin, almost to the point of uncontrollability.  Sizing up the situation, Armstrong decided to use the thrusters designed for reentry as a means of stopping the motion, something that nobody had considered.  Fortunately, the maneuver worked but it meant that they had to return to Earth immediately.  But that quick action saved the life of Armstrong and that of his fellow astronaut.

However, heroism wasn’t his only claim to greatness.  There was his character.  He never bragged about his heroic deeds.  When Apollo 11 returned from the Moon, Armstrong was always quick to credit the success of the mission to the vast number of engineers, scientists, and workers who designed and built the spacecraft.  He never lorded his accomplishment over others and, after he retired from NASA, he became a professor of aeronautics.  If our elected officials had only one-percent of his character, this country would be a better place.

Armstrong’s post-Apollo conduct was reminiscent of that of another great American hero – one of our first.  After the Revolutionary War, George Washington could have asked for, and got, anything he wanted.  Yet, he decided to return to his home at Mount Vernon and operate his plantation.  At the end of his two terms (he felt two terms were enough) as president, he again went back home and kept to himself.

So, if you see the Moon on August 25th, don’t wink, salute.  Let’s honor a great American hero, one who never disgraced himself and one we don’t have to apologize for.

T-Minus 1 Year

Today is August 20th, 2016 and that means it is one year until the Great American Eclipse, the first total solar eclipse to cross the continental United States since 1979.  This is the first post on that eclipse and there will be others as we get nearer to the date.

If you want information about the eclipse, such as its path, weather prospects, and such, the official Great American Eclipse website is the best place to look as it is frequently updated, has a wealth of maps, and very detailed information, including input from Fred Espenak, considered by many to be America’s foremost expert on solar eclipses.

While the information on the site is accurate, there are quite a few things that would-be eclipse observers should be aware of.  Most (if not all) the people intelligent enough to read blogs like this one already know that looking directly at any portion of the uneclipsed Sun without proper filters will result in severe retinal damage.  But there are other less obvious issues.

Most people live a considerable distance from the eclipse track (except for the 12 million or so who live on it) and that means that they must travel.  Unfortunately, long distance travel is quite a challenge these days, especially to those who have limited time and limited means.  The pundits say that one should choose their observing spot as soon as possible.  If we lived in a world with perfectly predictable weather, that would be easy.  Unfortunately we do not.  If one is traveling by air, and they see on the weather forecast that the weather their chosen site is going to be bad, that can mean a scramble to select another site, cancel the flight plan, and book another flight.  And as most people realize, changing air travel plans at the last minute can be rather costly.  On top of that, I predict that the airlines will raise airfares substantially next August just because of the eclipse.

Some people will travel by car to an eclipse site.  Driving to an eclipse site does take time and, if one can’t get much vacation time from work, that greatly limits possible eclipse sites.  Car travel does offer flexibility in terms of dealing with the weather, but there is a catch.  Travel range is limited.  According to Sky & Telescope magazine, given one day’s notice of a change in eclipse plans, it is thought that an eclipse observer can cover something on the order of 500 miles or so, depending on how long they plan to drive continuously.  Of course some will try to add to the range by increasing their travel speed.  But the interstate highway system is not like the German autobahn.  There are speed limits.  And I predict that police and state troopers all along the eclipse track will be instructed to be out in force with their radar guns to nab speeders.  According to the Great American Eclipse website, transportation departments in states along the eclipse track are well aware of the upcoming eclipse and I suspect the information will be passed along.

Does this mean that you should give up on observing the total eclipse next year?  Not at all.  It does mean that you should be aware of potential pitfalls when you make your plans.  Future posts will bring up other aspects of this truly astronomical event.  Stay tuned.

Going Buggy Over the Rio Games

Friday, August 5th marks the opening ceremonies of the Summer Olympic Games in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil.  This time around, the Games are quite controversial with allegations of corruption amongst the various contractors, incomplete work, the fact that this is taking place during a political coup in the host country, etc.  But one thing that is getting lots of press is also one of the smallest (literally) issues.

By now, most people have heard about the Zika virus.  It is mainly known from Brazil, though it has appeared in other parts of the world as well, is spread by mosquitoes and, in most cases, the symptoms range from none to rather minor.  That is if the victim isn’t a pregnant woman.  By processes that are poorly understood at present, the Zika virus can cause microcephaly (an abnormally small head due to an abnormally small and deformed brain).  Microcephaly is incurable and untreatable.  Naturally, this has caused a great measure of concern.  So much so that some athletes have bowed out of the Games (even male athletes who, last time I checked, can’t get pregnant).  Even TV networks have changed their plans with NBC replacing some of the female reporters they were originally going to send with Meredith Vieira and Hoda Kotb (that is not a typo – it is an issue of transliterating her Egyptian last name from Arabic writing to Western writing).

There is also some concern in the United States as the mosquitoes we have are capable of carrying the virus.  But what I think has the government in near panic mode is the fact that Zika is a nightmare for the right-to-life crowd.  For most other birth defects, they can argue that, with appropriate therapy, the victims can have some semblance of a life.  They also claim that future advances in fetal surgery and other medical technology can mitigate defects as well.  Not so with microcephaly.  That’s it.  Hence the pressure that is being exerted on the scientific community to derive some sort of method to combat Zika and its mosquito carriers.

At least one scientists claims they found a weak spot in the mosquito genome that would make it possible to wipe them out completely.  Then there is talk that a vaccine is being worked on.  However, given past history in humanity’s struggle to deal with mosquitoes, there is ground for skepticism.  Mosquitoes are highly adaptable and have a proven ability to acquire resistance to whatever insecticide or strategy we can throw at them.  And it does seem unusual that someone claims to be near to developing a vaccine for a virus that is little known.

If the effort to control Zika is as successful as the effort to control other mosquito-borne diseases, Zika is here to stay.  Since it mainly poses a threat to pregnant women, perhaps it might be a good idea to consider strategies from that angle.  Perhaps it might force people to actually put some thought into the idea of whether or not to have kids.  Currently, most people put more thought into choosing players for their fantasy sports teams than they do in reproduction.  There could be other changes in how people reproduce.  Can you think of some?

Of course it could be worse.  In Kurt Vonnegut’s book “Galapagos”, he postulated a microbe that destroyed the ovaries.  It spread throughout the world via air travel until the only group that wasn’t affected was a band of tourists in the Galapagos Islands (hence the title).  Cut off from the rest of the world due to the disease, the tourists are the last breeding set of human beings.  Over long spans of time, the humans gradually evolve into something resembling a very intelligent and dexterous seal.  The story was said to be inspired by Vonnegut hearing about the evolution of Darwin’s Finches (birds on the islands that evolved from a single group of birds blown to the islands in a storm).  Then there is the story and film “The Children of Man” which recounts how human reproduction ceases and the utter chaos that takes place when a pregnant woman is discovered.

While Zika is nowhere near as bad as its fictional counterparts, I think it may take some effort and time to come up with ways to bring it under some measure of control.

Is Resistance (to Light Pollution) Futile?

For the benefit of the few readers of this blog who may not be familiar with the term, light pollution is excessive and misdirected outdoor lighting that makes it difficult to impossible to observe objects in the night sky.

With the definition out of the way, some organizations such as the International Dark Sky Association and Globe at Night claim that their efforts to raise awareness of this issue have met with a measure of success.  While this may indeed be the case, I think the progress has been minimal.

One example concerns Earth Hour, which was from 8:30 PM to 9:30 PM on March 28th.  What is supposed to happen during Earth Hour is that people are supposed to shut off their outdoor lighting for the duration.   Instead, very little of the sort actually happened as is usual for every year this event has been held.  The lamestream media did give it some mention and pointed out that some towns and cities celebrated it.  These “celebrations” were quite noncommittal and merely involved turning off the outdoor lights around a prominent local landmark or two.  Besides this governmental involvement, nobody appears to have done anything.  Yet, when there is an occasion that asks for people to turn lights on, such as the National Night Out held every August, the level of participation is very high.  Apparently, people have a strong aversion to turning off their outdoor lights even though it costs them money for the electricity and the security benefits are limited (according to sources such as the FBI).

What I would like to see is a city or town decide to celebrate Earth Hour with a partial reenactment of a World War II-era blackout.  Younger readers of this blog might not be aware that, during the war, people were in fear of being bombed at night by the enemy.  For the British, this fear was very real as the Luftwaffe frequently bombed targets in Britain under the cover of night during the early part of the war.  In the United States, the fear was more hypothetical as the capabilities of the enemy were not well known.  While the country was definitely out of range of German aircraft, the range of the Japanese planes was largely unknown in the early days of the war and there was speculation that they could reach targets on the west coast.  To frustrate night bombers, towns and cities adopted a blackout strategy where, when a signal was given, every source of possible outdoor illumination was either shut off or completely shielded.  While this was not 100% effective in Britain (the Germans had an early sort of radio navigation), it did make it harder for British cities to be struck, and in the United States, blackouts did raise war awareness among the public.  Getting back to the main point of the paragraph, towns and cities should celebrate Earth Hour by turning off as much outdoor illumination as possible (except traffic signals) and possibly even compete with one another for achieving the greatest light reduction.

Another example was a recent news article that carried a night-time satellite image of the Korean peninsula.  South of the 38th parallel, there were brightly lit cities and towns.  North of it, almost complete darkness.  The author of the article was implying that light pollution is a sign of economic vigor and is a good thing, despite growing evidence of health and ecological problems it causes.  By not having light pollution, North Korea was dysfunctional.  Actually, one doesn’t need a satellite image to figure that out.  Any society where the police manual has a chapter devoted to cannibalism has very serious problems and lighting is not going to fix that.

However, for any serious progress to be made against light pollution, there would need to be a change in mentality that I do not see happening.  An example of the kind of thinking that helps perpetuate light pollution was aired on my local AM radio station.  Every Wednesday morning, they have a short (about forty minutes) program hosted by Milton Paris, titled “Getting Ahead in Business”.  Each program, Paris would bring on a business owner that he met at one of his public functions and that owner would describe his business while Paris would ask questions and make favorable comments.  Recently, he had the owner of a sign company and the two of them waxed rhapsodic over illuminated business signs.  The part that caught my attention was when they said that it made good sense to leave said signs on all night as advertising.  Aside from the obvious contribution to the light pollution problem, such an approach would be wasting money for those businesses since they would be spending money on electricity to power the signs when there is nobody around to see them.  While I am not advocating doing away with illuminated business signs, nor am I against their use for advertising, I believe that an intelligent business would have them shut off after a certain time when potential viewers of the signs are not around.  After all, a sign shining at three in the morning is not likely to be seen by anyone except the occasional over-the-road truck driver or police officer on patrol.  In short, why pay to put on advertising when there is no audience?

The point of all this is that there cannot be much real progress against light pollution until the mindset of leaving lights on all night even when there is no need for them is changed.  Does anyone see any way to change that?

Glenn Wargo’s Astrology Notes #14

Due to the long pause in postings,  here is a heaping helping of horoscopic humor from AAI’s Glenn Wargo.

ASTROLOGICAL NOTES:

Fashion: Since Asteroid 4 Vesta was in conjunction with the Sun on 1/11, this will be the proper season for 3-piece suits.

Relationships: Asteroid 3 Juno was in opposition on 1/29.  Expect to take flak from your spouse if you stayed up to observe Jupiter.

With Comet Lovejoy (C2014/Q2) sparkling between Andromeda and her hero Perseus, the first half of February is a time to spark up the romance with your sweetheart. Flowers, candy, fine food, even jewelry can help, but loving words and tender attention are also essential.

Weather: With Mercury at minimal elongation around 1/30, look for the rest of January and early February to be chilly.

Finance: Nearly stationary Pluto is relaxing with the Teapot in Sagittarius while Hercules, The Strong Man, is up at dawn. The Fed will remain blissfully unconcerned about inflation while sports authorities strive to tackle the problem.

Nutrition: With gas giant Jupiter up all night in opposition on 2/06, you’d be well advised to skip “seconds” on the cabbage and bean casserole.  Heck, skip “firsts” if you think you can get away with it.  And with a very noticeable Moon on Leo for 2/04-06, it’s time to put your cat on a diet.

Are Some Astronomers (Culturally) Illiterate?

Sometimes, the public perceives astronomers, especially professionals, as being somewhat out of touch.  Every now and then, an incident comes along which explains how that impression may have come about.

As  chronicled in an article from Space Daily, two astronomers from Northwestern University, Sourav Chatterjee and Jonathan C. Tan, published a paper in which they discussed Earth-sized and super-Earth-sized extrasolar planets that orbit exceptionally close to their suns.  These astronomers explained that those planets likely formed at or very near to their present locations because they accreted (came together) from material that spiraled in towards the star from the protoplanetary disk.  So far, nothing very controversial and it probably is how it actually happened.

Where the cultural illiteracy enters the picture is the terminology the two scientist use to describe the planets.  They refer to them as “Vulcan planets”.  Their rationale is that, back in the 19th century, astronomers noticed that the orbit of Mercury was a bit off from what Newtonian mechanics said it would be.  Inspired by the discovery of Neptune from variations in the orbit of Uranus, Urbain Leverrier proposed the existence of a planet that orbited closer to the Sun than Mercury and named it “Vulcan”.  Despite a reported sighting by a French amateur astronomer, nobody found anything that fit the description, and when Einstein explained the variation in Mercury’s orbit as being caused by relativistic effects due to the warping of space-time by the Sun, the whole business was forgotten.  Since this non-existent planet orbited very close to the Sun, the two astronomers thought the term “Vulcan” should be used to name the planets described in their paper.

While the whole history of the close-to-the-Sun planet that wasn’t was well-known to astronomers, it flies over the head of the general tax-paying public (the people who fund a lot of astronomical research these days) like the Blue Angels at an air show.  If you asked people on the street what pops into their mind when you mention the term “Vulcan”, probably nine out of ten would answer either an arid Earth-like planet envisioned by Gene Roddenberry or a pointy-eared, green-blooded, inhabitant of said planet, the most famous of which was portrayed by Leonard Nimoy (and portrayed in the J. J. Abrams version of the franchise by Zachary Quinto).  Either those two astronomers were extremely ignorant of popular culture (very unlikely) or they thought they were better than other people.

Should astronomers show more awareness of popular culture when they come up with names and terminology?  Does their ignorance and/or contempt for popular culture show a contempt for the public that provides much of their funding?