Tuesday, December 17, 2013

An open letter to save Planetary Science at NASA

Please feel free to copy+paste this letter and change the names or anything you like to send to your representatives. 

Dear Mr./Ms. President/Senator/Representative,

Due to budget cutbacks, NASA may soon be forced to cut short one of its two most important planetary science missions: The Mars Science Laboratory, Curiosity, and the Cassini Orbiter around Saturn. Despite years of potential life remaining in both vehicles, which have given us wonderful discoveries and images which help captivate and inspire us all --like evidence of fresh, clean water on early Mars and the potential existence of a habitable ocean under the ice of Saturn's moon Enceladus-- one of these missions could soon be cut short in a foolish effort to save an effectively irrelevant sum of money. This is unacceptable, both practically and in principle.

As both of these missions are already active, they require only operational costs to continue providing invaluable data and perspective on our solar system --ending them would mean discarding functioning vehicles already delivered to distant planets at great expense. Further, replacement of these vehicles' capabilities would require an investment of many times the funding required to ensure that both continue operating as planned. If you believe, as I do, that scientific discovery, exploration, technological development, and the marshalling of our best efforts and ingenuity to solve the challenges of space flight have value, then this waste of potential discoveries already within our grasp is not worth the fraction of a fraction of a percent that could be saved from the federal budget by dismantling our crowning achievements. I believe that there are far better, more effective, and less destructive ways of lowering expenses, if that is a goal we wish to achieve.

I also find the very idea of cutting back on our most bold and exciting areas of scientific exploration foolish at a time when people need more than ever to see that the future is bright and that the greatest and most challenging problems can be solved by our best and brightest minds. When pondering the greatest challenges that lay ahead of our civilization, the ingenious systems devised by our engineers and the incredible discoveries made by our scientists are proof that, given the chance, this nation can overcome even the most daunting obstacles. These bold steps taken into the unknown are sure to inspire and energize the minds of millions of young people to dream of better futures for themselves and for all of us. If we long for improvement in our worldly station, then there is no more powerful force that can be marshalled to achieve it than to instill in this generation a dream and the belief that to see the future they have only to dare to build it.

Planetary science at NASA is about more than distant machines exploring the cold, dusty reaches of space; it is about the people who build them, those who use them to discover, and those whose lives are enriched and inspired by the knowledge of our origins. It is about all of us, who live in a world understood and improved every day by those lives. NASA needs $1.5 billion, less than one twentieth of one percent of the 2013 federal budget, for its entire planetary science program to remain funded at levels that will save these missions, most of which is already granted. I support granting them the rest, and I hope you will too.

Thank you,
Dustin Summy

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The wonders of evolution - Deep in the heart of Texas

Over the Thanksgiving break, I was fortunate enough to have a chance to visit the Texas Memorial Museum on the University of Texas campus. It's a small building, but each of its four levels is packed with wonderful exhibits. There were some fantastic examples of the weird and wonderful products of evolution on display, not least of which was the 40-foot Quetzalcoatlus northropi fossil soaring over the great hall. I've embedded a slideshow of some photos I took during my visit for you to enjoy. Don't miss the last few photos of comments made by museum patrons about the evolution exhibit. (Album and more after the break)

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Science vs. Wishful Thinking

"Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence." —Traditional
It seems that there is some distance between most people's understanding of this traditional aphorism, often mistakenly attributed in origin to Carl Sagan, and its meaning. The cause in most cases may be found in the nuance of its usage, but I'd like to explain another principle which is likely leaking into its meaning: the impossibility of induction.

Scientific knowledge is based on inductive reasoning; you take a small sample and infer the larger result. This is actually a very bad way of proving things! Imagine being asked to prove that there are infinitely many prime numbers and responding by listing all the prime numbers you can think of, noting that there are more than you can count, and pointing to a bunch of other problems in math that would be solved if there were an infinity of primes. You'd be laughed out of the room if you claimed this was proof of anything in front of a  mathematician! Mathematicians use this kind of reasoning to make conjectures and hypotheses, but since math is based on a set of axioms (facts that are considered true by definition), any claim in mathematics ought to be able to be proven deductively and inarguably (there are some complicated caveats to this, but for the kinds of math useful in practical problems, this is fair to say. Before anyone goes all Gödel on me, consider that you may be being an asshole, you know what I mean.)

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Don't forget Kennedy's most enduring legacy.

A lot of people are still wrapped up in JFK's presidency, especially the end. Regardless of our obsession with conspiracy (and honestly, how hard is it to believe that a nut took an opportunity and shot the president as he rode by in an uncovered limousine?), let's remember something that Kennedy started that has not stopped affecting the way the entire world works: The Apollo Program.

This is a spectacular video starring a bit of JFK's speech at Rice University. You've all heard the clip "We choose to go to the moon!", but how much of the rest have you heard? It's as relevant today as it was then, and I hope you get that tingling feeling I get every time I watch it.


Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Memory Engineering

I had no idea when I wrote Death Demystified that there was active research in this field, but it turns out that memory engineering is here (at least in mice, and maybe what's being engineered is more like feelings of unease than real episodic memories... but still!).

The technique is actually very highly advanced: Mice are genetically engineered to produce neurons that are photosensitive. The neuronal patterns associated with one particular habitat are recorded, and later those same neurons are excited by researchers while electric shocks are administered (If mice had a culture, I'm sure they'd all be anti-science hippies) in a second habitat, with the result that (apparently) the mice develop a memory of receiving shocks in the first habitat. The evidence is in their behavior, which includes increased fear-related actions (freezing in place, etc.) in the first habitat, as well as avoiding entering that habitat altogether. All this despite nothing bad ever happening to them in that room. Kind of spooky.

It's still a long way from my little sci-fi tale, but it does seem to make what I thought would be the harder part (implanting the memories and experiences of a simulated brain into a physical one) seem a lot more realistic than I'd imagined. It also should make it more clear that your entire personality and memory are completely encoded in the structure of your brain, not some ethereal super-entity that remains unchanged by petty physical manipulation.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Scalia makes the case for nationwide marriage equality.

Justice Scalia dissented from the Supreme Court's majority opinion on scrapping the Defense of Marriage Act in a rather interesting way today—He actually started writing the court's opinion scrapping all restrictions on marriage equality. See page 23 of his "Old man yells at cloud"-esque opinion here.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Reason is what is left.

There is a problem with unconstrained human thought that dogmatism is fairly good at correcting over the short run: Sensible, coherent, valid arguments are far more difficult to construct than nonsense, but proper reason is often required in response to bad arguments. The result is that it is easily possible to spend all of one's energy debunking bogus critiques of good works, essentially spinning one's intellectual wheels in an unfathomable quagmire of ignorance or even dishonesty. This is one of the huge benefits of dogmatic thinking- It quashes the spread of heretical ideas and even their formulation in the minds of its subscribers. No lay Catholic need waste time grappling with the intellectual difficulties of salvation and damnation; they already know that the Church is guaranteed to be right.

Those of us who wish to forge ahead into the intellectual frontier are then deprived of the protected status afforded established religions and other doctrines. The result is the production of and response to articles such as "Christopher Hitchens' lies do atheism no favors" by Curtis White. I hesitate to attach adjectives to pieces like this unless they apply to the text as a whole so, while parts may be dishonest or ignorant*, I can't call it anything but depressing. The obviously interested and engaged White is so far off the mark that it enters the realm of things which make the aforementioned unfathomability of the pseudo-intellectual muck readily apparent. From a list of anecdotes as part of his response to Hitchens' so-called anecdotal God Is Not Great, to what seems like an out of hand rejection of the physical manifestation of conscience in the brain**, to a rather obvious straw man argument in which White essentially converts Hitchens' thesis from "religion poisons everything" to "only religion poisons anything".

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Belief in Belief

Dear Christian,

Consider the Westboro Baptist Church.

Clearly these people fall into the category of "religious fanatics" and not into the category in which you place yourself, but you're not being honest with yourself if you think that the benefits of supporting an institution like Christianity come independently from the negative outcomes. That might be true if Church leaderships were advancing our conception of morality and ethics instead of digging in their heels and refusing to be dragged any further from their Bronze Age piety than they absolutely-must-be dragged. Even "liberal" major Christian churches (whom many of you would accuse of being way off the mark already) are far more resistant to gay rights and many other things that we really should have figured out by the dawn of the 21st century than the average secular person or group (there was a recent decision in the Methodist church which highlights this easily).

Friday, May 10, 2013

The Earth is a Coop to be Flown

When I was growing up, we were lucky enough to live on ten acres of land in the East Texas Piney Woods. We were doubly lucky enough to have a small creek flowing across our property, dividing the "yard" from the "pasture" (that is to say, the "place we mow every two weeks with a lawnmower" from the "place we mow twice a year with a tractor"). Unless you were born to be a politician and are therefore immune to fun, I'm sure you can immediately see the appeal for a pair of school-aged boys.

This looks fairly familiar. via: KM&G-Morris

Friday, April 26, 2013

My letter to Congress in support of funding space exploration.

Dear Senator or Representative,

I strongly oppose the proposed cuts in NASA's budget. I would ideally like to see NASA's funding stay at or above 1% of the total US budget in order to properly fund the more daring and exciting human exploration missions, but I will not accept any cuts to the already low level of funding for planetary science.

My argument is simple:

Recall the landing of the Curiosity Rover on Mars and the enormous amount of public interest that was generated and is maintained as more discoveries pour in. I can't recall a more exhilarating event than that moment (I'm far too young to have experienced the amazing Apollo program) when the descent program worked flawlessly and deposited a metric ton of nuclear-powered, mobile geology lab on the surface of another planet, and a good deal of that excitement comes from the knowledge that this impressive mission is partially my own. My tax dollars were spent on something bold and adventurous, yet peaceful and innocent, probing a distant world for answers to questions that could not be more important to all of us. There is no more noble endeavor than exploration, no more virtuous characteristic of a society than curiosity, and I am proud to support these ideals with the few dollars I have to spare.

The achievements of the planetary science section of NASA are incredible, but they are merely the first drops of an ocean of discovery that awaits us within our solar system. Did you know that we (the human race, not just NASA) have sent only one mission to Uranus and Neptune? Every picture you've seen of the blue and green ice giants and their moons came from a single spacecraft whizzing by in a matter of days using technology developed in the 1960's. Imagine what we could learn with a mission that stayed for years with modern equipment! As interesting a place to look for signs of long-extinct life Mars is, there are potentially entire oceans of life beneath the crusts of moons like Ganymede, Europa, Enceladus, and perhaps even Triton. To paraphrase Neil deGrasse Tyson: I want to drill down to the oceans beneath Europa's crust, stick a camera in, and see if anything licks the lens.

If this sounds more science fiction than science fact to you, please know that I have met countless exceedingly bright scientists and engineers, and I have heard them speak and read their plans at length for entirely feasible missions to accomplish all of these goals. We don't need any miracles to make these dreams come true, we need only the resources - we'll supply the hard work and the intelligence - and along the way we'll discover new technologies with applications back here on Earth. There are those that say that the government can't do anything right, and there may be some departments where that holds, but NASA is not one of them. Given the freedom to follow where the science and engineering lead, the people at this agency can accomplish anything. They have proven it again and again, and they should be rewarded and trusted for it.

Our nation is hungry for the thrill of an open frontier, and here we have dozens of worlds just waiting to be explored. Please support NASA, specifically the planetary and human exploration sectors, and give this generation a chance to be a part of a path of discovery that will literally lead us to a whole new world.

Dustin Summy