Wednesday, March 26, 2014

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

A young Edmond Halley is more curious than frightened. (
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..." (
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 (
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?