Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Organic Panic -OR- How I learned to stop worrying and love the produce section!

This article by Christie Wilcox at Scientific American is a very cool-headed look at the concerns supporting the half of the organic food movement concerned with pesticide toxicity (for a look at the debunking of claims of more nutritious and healthy organic food, head over here). It does a great job of casting a wide net and hits all the points:

  • Organic pesticides are not less harmful (short or long term) than conventional pesticides. They are often much more hazardous and stick around longer than the conventional equivalent.
  • Conventional pesticides are tightly controlled, with acceptable limits set to 100 times less than the smallest amount shown to cause harm in a wide range of animal studies (short and long term). Typically, levels detected in actual produce are 100 times below the limit, or 10,000 times less than levels necessary to cause any noticeable harm.
  • Organic pesticides do not have these same controls and guidelines because the same regulations don't apply. You don't know what or how much you're eating. I'm not saying that this is necessarily dangerous, just that you're being hypocritical if you avoid conventional foods to avoid unknown effects of low exposures to pesticides. The organic pesticides are the (relatively) unknown, unstudied, untested option.
  • Organic and conventional farmers show no difference in their overall health, for those of you worried about their exposure.
  • Most pesticide exposure is environmental, and doesn't even come from food-related use of pesticides!
  • There is even evidence for hormesis (a beneficial effect of exposure levels below that shown to cause harm) for many pesticides and other "chemicals". Weird, but true.

You have to think about the difference between the leafy-green, sunshine and rainbows image that the word "organic" puts in your head and what it actually means. I would also prefer to eat food grown on the farm I imagine when I sing "Old McDonald had a farm", but that's not what's going on. What's going on is the creation of a false perception of danger in order to get you to pay more for less. I'd say that sounds more Animal Farm than Old McDonald.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Death demystified.

"…life does not consist mainly—or even largely—of facts and happenings. It consists mainly of the storm of thoughts that is forever blowing through one’s head."  
—Mark Twain 

Update: I just found this great post over at Math With Bad Drawings, as well as the great little cartoon above which seem to be at odds with what I've said on the topic of death and transferring consciousness. Both use the Star Trek transporter, or something just like it. I wonder if I can convince them that there's nothing to be afraid of about these kinds of transporters? So here is a cleaned up version of my argument on the topic, presented as a thought experiment. Enjoy!

Think for a moment about what it's like to die.

Don't worry about how you got that way; there's no need to be gruesome! Just think about what it would be like to experience the moment or process of death, absent all of the messy, external confusions. If you think there is an experience of being dead that comes afterward, try and imagine that experience. Consider what you could imagine others coming up with in response to such a question. Imagine what your friends might think of death. Picture the death experience of anyone else—a psychic medium, a skeptic, a clergyman, an atheist, a neurologist, a suicide bomber—and just come to a conclusion about which one you think is most likely to be the actual experience for you before you read any further, OK?

Good. Now think of your favorite animal with a silly hat on. You just died. How was it?

Obviously you're not dead and you didn't just die insofar as we understand those words at the moment, but what I'm going to try and convince you of over the course of this blog post is that death (the root experience, not all the moaning and groaning leading up to it) is not really any different from the moment between two thoughts.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Cosmos "Lost Worlds of Planet Earth": Nitpicks, Nods, and News

Perhaps all of our great^N-grandmother. (cosmosontv.com)
This episode was a fantastic look at the amazing story of the skin of our home planet, how we came to understand the Earth's history and how it literally set the stage for us all, from the first human to spark a chunk of flint to Shakespeare to you. We learned about mass extinctions and how they gave rise to new eras dominated by different groups of living things, we saw how an overabundance of indigestible plant matter in one epoch became the coal that burned millions of years later to fuel the chain of events that resulted in the Great Dying, and we saw how a tiny isthmus halfway across the globe forced tree-dwelling apes onto the Savannah, eventually forcing them to evolve into you, me, and everybody else.

Unfortunately, the FOX station in New Orleans is apparently run by a producer or two who have yet to make the ape-human transition and didn't want us to hear about it. A friend of mine claims to have seen a similar event to that which made meager headlines in Oklahoma, where the local FOX station cut to a nightly news promo to cover up Neil deGrasse Tyson's mentioning of human descent from the trees. Creationists like this are beyond reproach for their actions, because they obviously haven't even considered the value of viewpoints other than their own, but that doesn't stop me from feeling very, very sorry for them and their myopic little cage in which they lock their intellects.

But that shouldn't stop us from having all the fun they're missing, so let's move on and talk about something interesting!

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Cosmos "Sisters of the Sun": Nitpicks, Nods, and News

The Carina Nebula is a bustling stellar recycling plant. (cosmosontv.com)
The last two episodes have been wonderful. Both have been able to be much more focused on their respective topics and this episode even delved into a bit more depth than we ever usually see on popular science shows with the short segment on stellar spectral classification. Further, we got to see a second example of scientific growing pains, those first few moments in the life of a profound discovery where it is vulnerable to being quashed and forgotten. Last week's debate over the use of lead in gasoline was due to profit, but this week's rejection of the discovery of the dominance of hydrogen and helium in stellar spectra was due to prestige; scientists can be just as vulnerable to closed-mindedness as the rest of society and must constantly check our biases when examining the data. The importance of keeping an open mind must be constantly balanced against the filtering power of skepticism. Too much of the latter and you'll miss new ideas and discoveries that will advance human knowledge. Too much of the former and you'll... well... do you guys ever watch the History Channel?

But let's move on. There was a lot of mind-blowing science in this episode, so let's get started!

Sunday, April 27, 2014

We can afford a fully-funded NASA

The group Space Advocates, which I support with a few dollars monthly, has produced this cute video highlighting the broad talking points of how sad the state of funding for NASA is, and how little it would cost us to fix it. Check it out!

Here are a few ways to bring this conversation into the spotlight:
  1. Share this video!
  2. When space comes up in conversation, mention how pathetic it is that we spend many times more money subsidizing the already-booming oil industry than we do maintaining our slipping hold on leadership in space exploration.
  3. Point out that NASA's budget is 40 times smaller than the military's budget. Build rockets, not bombs!
  4. Mention that we will very soon (after 2017) have ZERO functioning spacecraft exploring the outer planets, some of which have moons that could potentially harbor life. The reason? These planets are far away and more costly to reach. That's like hearing there might be treasure buried in your backyard and complaining about how far it is from the couch.
  5. "We should solve our problems here on Earth before we go mucking around in space." Sigh... You are bound to hear this. It's pretty easy to just point out that we already spend 100 times more on social programs to solve problems down here, and that we spend about as much per year on the military (which the kind of person using this excuse might say is spending money on making problems) as we have on all NASA programs in history combined.
There are a lot of other things you can do, but the best thing is to just take a moment to think about how big of an impact we can make if we just turn this into an issue that people care about. Once you've thought about how this matters for a few minutes, then it's a good idea to check out the Space Advocates "Get Involved" page. They'll give you an easy way to write to Congress.

Don't stop there, though! Ask about candidates' positions on the state of funding for space exploration when they're on the campaign trail. If you can get someone to comment on it publicly, their opponents may be forced to join in. Don't give up. It's hard to get the Leviathan moving, but once it's gained momentum we can do great things: See Apollo Program, ISS, Hubble, Cassini, Voyager, Curiosity, and on and on.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Cosmos "The Clean Room": Nitpicks, Nods, and News

The beauty of crystalline solids on the atomic scale. (cosmosontv.com)
The Bible is hilariously wrong about the age of the Earth, Christmas is just a pagan holiday repurposed by the young Church to attract more converts, and the global warming "debate" is the result of a smokescreen operation on par with those put forward by the lead and tobacco companies to selfishly risk the public health to avoid a hit to their profit margins. For conservatives, truth bombs abound in this episode. Are we still watching FOX? This honest, pull-no-punches approach is all too rare in today's climate of "You believe what you want as long as I don't have to hear about it." Science is founded on questions first and foremost, so it's easy to be laissez-faire with people's deeply-held opinions, but science is also in the business of knowledge and when we work something out to a practical certainty we shouldn't mince words to shelter others from the truth.

So if you're ready to learn more, but especially if you're not, click on through...

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Cosmos "Deeper, Deeper, and Deeper Still": Nitpicks, Nods, and News

This week takes us from the farthest we can see in the universe to the tiny heart of an atom. (cosmosontv.com)
This week's episode took us from the unfathomably enormous to the unimaginably tiny, with stops along the way at the mind-bendingly complex. We learn immediately that there are more atoms in the tip of your little finger than there are stars in the observable universe, so you know that atoms must be small. Then later in the episode we learn that if an atom were scaled up to the size of a cathedral, the nucleus would be no bigger than a mote of dust. One thing that could have been mentioned here is that the nucleus contains essentially all of the mass of an atom, which makes it incredibly dense. If you could somehow fill a teaspoon with matter as dense as an atomic nucleus, it would weigh 2 billion tons, or about 330 Great Pyramids of Giza. It would be so massive that from about 3.7 meters away (12 feet) it would have the same gravitational pull on you as does the entire Earth. Luckily, these super-dense objects are safely cocooned and separated from one another inside their diffuse electron clouds, which also happen to do all of the chemical bonding work necessary to build complex molecules like DNA and ethanol.

If you thought that was cool, come deeper still and let's get down to nitpicks.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Going Deeper: "Is it wrong to talk people out of their faith?"

Hey everyone. I've noticed a few interesting points in the flood of comments on my article at RDFRS that I'd like to respond to. I'll keep updating this post as I find interesting points to comment on, so keep checking in.

About that headline...

"Take away someone's faith" and "Talk someone out of their faith" are the ways that it is commonly phrased by the defensive believer. Obviously it would be wrong to dogmatically assert that their religion is wrong, as it would be wrong to deceive someone into being convinced by bad reasoning and faulty logic to abandon their faith. That's not what I advocate, and it's why I explain how the wording of this dodge is meant to change the subject and make you seem like the bad guy. What I am doing when I have a conversation with a believer is (hopefully) having a plain and open discussion of the evidence and reasons for their belief. The goal is to get them to evaluate that evidence for themselves (as you should constantly do for yourself!). If you're both honest about it then you should together reach the correct conclusion (which I am currently convinced is non-religion and the abandonment of faith). You and they are learning to be better at reasoning!

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Cosmos: "Hiding in the Light" Nitpicks, Nods, and News

Pink Floyd's major contribution to popular science knowledge. (cosmosontv.com)
It seems that this episode was a bit polarizing. Based on the opinions of those I've spoken with, some people saw one of the more disjointed, rambling, incoherent installments in the series, while I thought it was one of the most engaging and explanatory (Luckily I'm not alone). I really enjoyed the entire story of light, from discovering that it travels in straight lines to finding Fraunhofer's lines in the spectra of distant stars and planets, proving that everything we see in the cosmos is made of the same "human stuff" (chuckles to self).

We'll get to the power of science stuff shortly, but the other thread in this episode was pointing out early steps towards a modern scientific method, the only approach to knowledge that doubts even itself while still leading us to all the mind-warping conclusions that we've been hearing about for the past few weeks. One of the main themes of the show is the fragility of free thought. We've seen fantastic ideas and questions silenced by authorities selfishly preserving their own power from doubt and inquiry, and this week we saw how an act of kindness and the gift of an education lead to huge technological leaps for a different-minded king.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Cosmos "A Sky Full of Ghosts". Nitpicks, Nods, and News.

Hubble's view of the Antennae Galaxies made it on TV! (cosmosontv.com)
This week, Neil deGrasse Tyson and Cosmos showed us a little bit of how incredibly strange the Universe can be when you just consider that light travels at a finite speed. The jaw-dropping scene above (discovered by William Herschel!) shows two colliding galaxies as they were 45 million years ago because it has taken the light from this titanic gravitational maelstrom that long to reach us. Given that the lifetimes of the largest and brightest blue stars can be as short as a million years or so, much of the light recorded here comes from long-dead starshence the title of this episode.

It's even weirder when you think about travelling at close to the speed of light. Einstein's theory of special relativity basically boils down to "Everyone measures the same speed of light". Then, for emphasis, it adds: "No, I mean it. No matter what absolute nonsense has to be true for that to happen, that's what happens." Note here that "what absolute nonsense has to occur" includes things like time passing more slowly the faster you travel relative to someone else, light shifting wavelengths so that you could see radio waves or gamma rays with your eyes, objects behaving as though they have more mass at high speeds, and on and on. Then, once you add in the principle that gravity is equivalent to acceleration, you get massive objects bending light travelling past them, clocks running slower the closer you are to a massive object, and those ridiculous objects that are so massive not even light can escape their gravity: black holes.

Oh, and maybe there is an infinite hierarchy of other universes in each black hole.

Let's get started!

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Cosmos "When Knowledge Conquered Fear": Nitpicks, Nods, and News

A young Edmond Halley is more curious than frightened. (cosmosontv.com)
Missed this episode? Check it out for free here!
This week, Cosmos took us on a journey from our childlike fear of the unknown to the edge of the Solar System, from astrology to astronomy, and from what we thought was an ad hoc chaos, to the law-abiding cosmos. The story of comets begins with our inchoate understanding of the night sky as a divine gift to aid us in knowing when to sow and when to reap. Any disturbance in such a wondrous and orderly display was certain to foretell some disturbance on Earth, just as the rising of Orion foretells the coming of winter. The Chinese had even worked out a relationship between the kind of disaster and the number of cometary tails!

Kepler's laws of planetary motion implied something simpler was going on, though. The planets didn't move in perfect circles, but rather ellipses with the Sun at one focus. What a peculiar arrangement for God, the ultimate clock-maker, to use—Every good horologist knows that circles are simpler. There had to be a reason, some force that pulls the planets towards the Sun, but no one could think of what it could depend on. After a few interesting speed bumps (like the History of Fish eating up the Royal Society's annual budget), Edmond Halley was able to convince Isaac Newton to publish his Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, and are we ever glad he did. Not only did it propose the correct form of the gravitational force (it was considered just a force then, fellow nitpickers), but it detailed the mathematical relationship between the force and the motion of the planets, and introduced us to Newton's Laws of Motion, still the backbone of engineering mechanics over 300 years after their discovery.

The last link in the chain comes with Halley's use of the new gravitational laws to compute the period of the comet which we now call his. He predicted its return 16 years after his death, and when it was confirmed it became the first object known to orbit the Sun apart from the planets. So returning to the original model of comets as harbingers of doom, either God had something nasty in mind every 76 years, or the ancients were a tad oversure of the correlation between disasters and bad stars.

Let's take a look at some of this week's notables:

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Cosmos: "Some of the Things that Molecules Do" Nitpicks, Nods, and News

"These are some of the things that molecules do..." (cosmosontv.com)
This week's Cosmos was all about how the "star stuff" from last week managed to stick together into a form that looked up at the stars and discovered where it came from. There are two things that are amazing about the Cosmos, and the first two episodes hit each nail on the head. Last week was about scale: You can't imagine just how big it all is. This is the other half of the cosmic coin: You also can't believe how incredibly complex it is! "There are as many atoms in a strand of your DNA as there are stars in a typical galaxy." Oh, and they didn't mention, but could have, that there are as many galaxies in the observable universe as there are stars in a galaxy too.

It's. So. Big. And. Complex. I. Don't. Even...

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Cosmos Premiere: Nitpicks, Nods, and News

The Cosmic Calendar makes its return (cosmosontv.com)
Update: Missed the first episode? No problem, watch it online here!

The premiere of Cosmos was stunningly gorgeous and a great introduction to what I hope is the format for the series: A whirlwind tour of the scientific subject at hand using the Ship of the Imagination and flashy visual effects coupled with an animated story about a weekly "hero" story from the past. Seth MacFarlane and Ann Druyan, the executive producers, have said that the show is aimed at people who never knew they had an interest in science, and the flashy style of the presentation certainly shows that entertainment is a top priority, but even for someone like me (who obviously is already pretty far down the rabbit hole) there was something new, interesting, and provocative on this first episode alone. After a quick look at everything from the scale of the Earth and up, I'm already anxious for the next episode, which looks to be another jaw-dropping romp, this time of the tiny, inner universe between the wisps of our upper atmosphere and the dark bottoms of our oceans.

To bide my time and keep myself from watching all the previews and sneak peeks and spoiling it all, I think I'll publish a quick look each week at the latest episode.  I'll try and highlight something I thought was inaccurate (Nitpicks), something I was glad to see in the show (Nods), and something I learned (News). If I can't find something for a category on a given week, then I get to rant a little! Sounds fair? OK, let's get started.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

The return of Cosmos

I couldn't be more excited. Finally, after years of teasing and hype, Cosmos, Carl Sagan's mind-expanding love letter to wonder, is returning in a new form, with Neil deGrasse Tyson, the closest thing to a modern Carl, hosting. The show is co-written by Sagan's co-writer, his widow Ann Druyan, and will have animated sequences directed by Seth MacFarlane, the creator of Family Guy. Along with Tyson, these two will give it a connection to the honest and childlike style of the previous incarnation of the series, as well as a fresh look and a new voice. Oh, and I should mention: We've learned a hell of a lot about the cosmos in the last 34 years.

I've seen the whole series (thank you, Netflix), but when I undertook to watch it all together, I realized I already had heard and seen so much of it from other sources. I had heard voice clips of Sagan's poetic narration over video images of terrific beauty, pleading for me, the viewer, to simply look about at the magnificence of all that there is, or ever was, or will ever be; I'd seen video clips from the series with the great demonstrations of the experiments that taught us about who and what we all are; I'd heard phrases and ideas that originated on Cosmos from other scientists, who would often credit Carl as an inspiration to them, as they described the wonder and beauty in scientific investigation. Cosmos truly made an impact.

Sagan and others that have taken his message and carried it like a nobler Olympic flame through the decades have found something amazing and they'd love nothing more than to share it with the whole world. The poetry and the honesty of the original Cosmos has surely touched every person with a love of discovery; anyone who has ever been awed at the immensity of the Universe and then, holding that in mind, tried to comprehend the complexity of a single cell in a drop of water, collected from a puddle of rainwater that at any other moment could be passed by unthinkingly. Carl felt the way we all do when we really ponder these things, he just put it into words for us.

There is beauty and music, in our understanding of the natural world. To give you an idea of what to expect-- What makes me what I am and fills me with excitement, joy, and the drive to go further, learn more, and wonder more deeply-- consider this image of Earth, taken by Voyager 1 as it began to leave our solar system:

Yes, that's us in the center-right. The tiny speck with a blush of blue. Now watch this short video, with audio from the original Cosmos, as Carl tells us what we can all see in this Pale Blue Dot:
This series will impress you with its visual magic, but I hope that some of you can also be amazed and enriched, that you may feel something like the knot that tightens in my chest when I look at this picture with the knowledge of what it is and what it means.

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey premiers the evening of March 9th on your local Fox network.

A bad reason for supporting marriage equality

A group Republicans have filed a legal brief containing their argument for rejecting prohibitions on civil marriage between partners of the same sex. While we agree in the end, I must say some of their reasons are specious. There are tons of reasons to allow everyone to marry the consenting adult of their choice; we don't need the bad ones. Let's start with their quoting of this passage from this report on marriage from the National Marriage Project:

Children who grow up with cohabiting couples tend to have more negative life outcomes compared to those growing up with married couples. Prominent reasons are that cohabiting couples have a much higher breakup rate than do married couples, a lower level of household income, and a higher level of child abuse and domestic violence.

Sounds good, right? I mean, married couples raise children with less negative life outcomes. So more marriage = better families and better lives for kids? Not necessarily. In fact, this is a perfect example of correlation not implying causation. Just because married partners do a better job of raising their kids than unmarried partners doesn't imply that getting married will make two people better parents. In fact, when you say it that way it sounds kind of crazy.

Take Alice and Bob (sorry, I know I shouldn't use these names unless I'm talking about the firewall paradox or encryption protocols), a couple of crack addicts who are madly in love with each other as long as there is enough money to stay high, but whose chemically-enhanced bliss devolves into a melee after a day without a visit from their dealer. Lately they have had to choose between buying condoms and buying more crack, and are soon to discover the consequences of their decision. How good a parenting pair will they be? What if they got married?

Take Carl and Doug (I don't know the standard names past Alice and Bob!), Carl works for a software company and Doug is a moderately successful artist (the kind that wouldn't starve even without Carl, but that isn't famous enough that anyone would recognize the name Doug). They love spending time with their nieces and nephews, whom they babysit regularly. They are thinking of adopting kids and have started combing the parenting section of Amazon books. Would they be better parents if they lived in California (and hence had gotten married) or if they lived in Texas (and hence were "just roommates")? For that matter, what if they lived in California but just didn't believe in marriage? Is that a strike against them?

Maybe the kinds of people who are interested and invested in raising their kids the right way (and would therefore be predisposed to be good parents) are also more likely to be enchanted by the romantic ideal of being married and raising a family a la the Cleavers. Maybe. Maybe not. But I doubt the actual act of getting married has much to do with how well adjusted a couple's children will be, whether it's legal or not in your state.

Think of this the next time you hear a correlation used as evidence of causation in a political debate or column. It'll save you time by letting you wave your hand dismissively at the monitor/TV screen and mutter "Cum hoc ergo propter hoc", because correlation does not imply causation!

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Everybody needs a pet asteroid!

Hello from orbit!

This looks like a good chance to introduce you all to my absolute favorite game of all time, Kerbal Space Program (KSP). It's a fantastically ambitious game that lets you build, fly, and probably crash rockets in a fictional universe where the challenge of space flight is just a little bit simpler than in ours. Play however you want in Sandbox mode, or play a career version of the game where you do science throughout the solar system to earn better parts (engines, fuel tanks, power supplies, etc.) to go further. The game is under development, but the aspects that are included are very polished and you can already play it and receive all future updates for free as the project finalizes.

The reason I bring this up is because the KSP development team has partnered with NASA to develop an in-game version of the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) that will be released very soon. ARM is an incredibly ambitious project in which NASA plans to send a robotic spacecraft to a small asteroid (about 500 tons or so) with an Earth-like orbit, grab on to it, and fly it back to Earth, using some fancy orbital mechanics to swing it into orbit around the Moon. Astronauts would then be sent on the first ever manned flight of the Orion capsule to rendezvous with our moon's new moon (our grandmoon?) and take samples. To me, this is tremendously exciting, as it starts to push us towards the capability to manipulate our environment beyond the Earth. We will become interplanetary engineers! Check out the concept animation below to see how NASA plans to do it.

NASA's concept animation shows their version of how to catch a pet asteroid.

As for the game, players will receive new in-game parts based on real NASA hardware, and the game's solar system will now include asteroids for players to fetch from the depths of space. Since NASA is involved (and it seems that this game is very popular with NASA employees, for obvious reasons), it appears the KSP team is taking this project very seriously, and has included all three major aspects of the ARM mission: Players must Identify a target asteroid of suitable size and favorable orbital alignment, Redirect the object to a suitable location for exploration, and finally Explore their bounty with a manned (or... kerbaled?) mission to investigate it.

The project looks like it could help generate some excitement with the public for the mission which otherwise has received mixed appraisals. One interesting question related to this would be to ask how  this benefits our ability to potentially deflect a dangerous object in the future. As we currently have no plans in place for such an event (not even with the help of a rag-tag bunch of roughneck oilmen and a drunken cosmonaut), this could be the first steps towards developing the relevant technology. What do you think? And (more importantly) what would your ARM mission look like?

Thursday, January 2, 2014

The clock is ticking on properly funding NASA

Meet Titan:
Src: Wiki

The above image of Titan (compared with the Earth and Moon) was taken by Cassini, humanity's only ever orbiter around Saturn, which is fighting for its life against budget cuts. The image is not what your eye would see, but rather it is an infrared image which peers through the haze to the surface below. While our eyes would only see a smooth, butterscotch/orange fog, Cassini sees the dark and light areas as different types of terrain. Titan certainly has some interesting features, like boulders of ice, possibly ice volcanoes, and even seas of methane!

Src: Wiki

This radar image of the north polar region shows seas of methane in dark blue. Titan is so cold that methane, forever a gas on sweltering Earth, actually has a cycle like the water cycle responsible for much of our weather. It exists as a solid, liquid, and gas, and even forms clouds and rain! Titan is one of two known bodies in our solar system with liquid on its surface, and you're sitting on one of them.

This is incredibly exciting, and scientists have been clamoring for a probe to investigate the lakes ever since they were discovered. The problem is that Titan is so incredibly far away, getting a mission out there takes years and sending signals back to Earth takes hours and a lot of power.

Additionally, the lakes are at the north pole which is tilted (like the Earth's pole, which gives us seasons). Since Earth is so close to the Sun (viewed from Saturn), we can basically think of daylight on Titan as a good sign of a line of sight to the Earth. Like our own, Titan's poles experience long periods when the Sun never sets (when the pole is tilted towards the Sun), and long periods where it never rises (when tilted away). Currently, Titan's north pole is tilted toward us, giving us an opportunity to communicate with a probe floating in the lakes directly. In 2025, however, that will change, and the north pole will enter its winter season, never seeing the Sun or Earth for years (until 2040). This gives us a deadline: Get a probe onto the lakes in time to complete its mission before the clock nears 2025, or else we'll have to either wait 15 years, or pay the extra cost of bringing along another Saturn orbiter with our lake probe to relay communications (which may be impractical for other orbital-mechanics-related reasons as well as hugely inflationary for the mission cost).

2025 sounds far away, but when you realize that Cassini took 7 years to reach Saturn, it means that in order to ensure enough time for a successful mission, we'll have to launch our lake probe by 2016 or else there's a good chance we won't see the shorelines of Titan until after 2040. To put it in human terms: If you've got young children now, they'll probably give you grandchildren before we find out what it's like to float on an extraterrestrial sea if we miss this opportunity. The odds are not looking good with the current funding situation though, which highlights again the importance of properly supporting NASA's exploration and science directorates. If you want to find out what's in those seas, then join me in letting Congress know.