25 December 2006

On Space Exploration- with a taste of earthly sentiment

"You realize that...on that little blue and white thing, is everything that means anything to you- all of history and music and poetry and art...on that little spot you can cover with your thumb..." Apollo Astronaut "Rusty" Schweickart

I often wonder about the value of space exploration, as I'm sure do many. I have not examined the subject in depth, but it has been lingering on the edge of my mind as I have continued to invest more and more time in science.

At what point does space exploration benefit science?
What are our main objectives in such endeavours?
Is space really the next frontier, or rather a whole new ball game?
Is it worth it?

Richard Feynman in his video-recorded interview turned book "The pleasure of finding things out" (1) criticises space exploration claiming that no significant scientific breakthrough has ever come from our presence in space. Some have contended this, and I have not taken the time to investigate particular instances. (please feel free to give any cases you can think of) Still, off hand, I can think of no great scientific discovery that would not have come about without our presence in space. So what is the benefit?

Clearly communications satellites have revolutionized modern daily life in developed countries and thus have driven globalization. Could we have ever known during the space race of the '60's that such technology would develop? We did not have to. We only needed to predict that if the tools were provided, great technologies would be developed. But here we are considering unmanned crafts. What tools are being acquired by way of manned space exploration?

As those driving the space race of the '60's may not have even been able to predict what tools would be provided as a result of their efforts; as the many similar cases of exploration in the past with no prediction as to future benefits, perhaps we need to keep exploring, as we, mankind, always have. The story goes like this:
We wondered what was outside of the cave and we took a look. We then became curious as to what lay beyond that hill, then over those mountains, then over the sea...and now we must head Up! But, something is wrong here.

First, this story is eurocentric. For example, in the sequence of exploration we habitually count the "discovery of the new world". Yet, I need not point out that humans, animals, and other living organisms counted the "new world" as their home long before it's "discovery". It might be argued that the true discovery was when the area was first called home. But all parts of earth have been called home (maybe not explicitly by trees and company) since not long after there were humans, animal and other living organisms. Yet the same cannot be said for locations of space.

Living organisms, especially humans, are not meant to be in space. That is not to say that we should never go there, rather, it's simply not a good place to live. As they say in real-estate: it's about location, location, location...and who is going to pick a location where there is nothing to eat, drink, or even breath!

Space is not the next frontier. At least not like any of the frontiers we have seen before. Life is meant to be on earth, and we, living beings, have been exploring places on earth. Sure we have started to explore the deep seas, where our kind is not meant to live. But how many manned missions have you seen to the depths of the ocean? How much public demand have we seen for exploring the deep blue? The answer is not much. Why then have we turned our sights upward? Why do 74% of Americans agree that the "U.S. should continue the manned space shuttle program?" (2) Are we giving up on our little blue home?!

If this is the case, are we looking to move? Perhaps this is our main objective in manned space missions. Are we recognizing that we are treating our little blue home like a frat house and we need to cut our losses and find a new place to live? Problem- the market is not so hot right now and there is no up-swing in sight. No one is selling.

Are we really considering living on the moon? I can think of no other reason for President Bush's push to re-explore a place we have already been. I mean was he like AWOL during the '60's or something...Oh, right.

I am not claiming that all space exploration should be discontinued. In fact I would much sooner suggest cutting funding from defense -US spending in the range of $520 billion, over NASA -~$30 billion.(3) While it is true that $30 billion allocated differently would make a real difference in the fight against hunger and disease, we could make the choice to find that money in our budget if we really wanted. I do think that we need to keep our eye on realistic accomplishments and benefits of our space exploration. Unmanned space endeavours are unarguably less expensive, less dangerous, and more productive than manned missions. The value of having localized human control does not outweigh the burden of man in space. Again, what are the benefits?

We must ask ourselves if our value for our little blue home would be so great without having ever seen it from above?

"...the beauty of the planet has been an epiphany eliciting deep concern for earth's health, a visceral understanding of human 'oneness,' and clarity about the interconnectedness of things. Unlike those of us here among the trees, they have seen the forest.... Many consider the Apollo images invaluable to the ecological movement's jump start in the 1970's."(4)

But has our space adventures made us realize how small our home really is, then led us to think that we can find another. Perhaps we are forgetting how big a place space really is. Sure, we have shown that we can go to the moon, a mere 238,856 miles (on average), a trip of about three days. (5) But the moon isn't really the most comfortable place to live. So we ask our real estate agent about the reddish planet. It will take a bit longer to travel the 48,000,000 miles (6) but we're humans, we can take it, right guys? Yet, Mars is even less hopeful as a comfortable new home. So we check out the rest of the planets revolving our sun and become even more discouraged about real estate prospectives. The only chance we have to find a comfy new planet is to check out new neighborhoods around other stars. Here is were we REALLY start to get discouraged. The next closest neighborhood, the three stars of the Alpha Centouri system, which we're not even sure have any planets available, is 4.36 light-years away- that's 25,630,259,200,000 miles- not a trip I want to take without a pit-stop. (7)

My point is we have nowhere to go. We can play in our own neighborhood, even run around in the adjacent yards, for life is no fun without a little adventure and we might even learn some valuable lessons as we grow. But after the play, when mom calls us home for dinner hopefully we will realize that mom's cooking will always be the best and she will only feed us if we clean up our room and straighten the house. If we want to eat, we better do our choirs...then we can go play some more.

What do you think the benefit of space exploration is?

(1) http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=6586235597476141009
(4) Our expanded View. Seed Magazine, December 2006

24 December 2006

Science, Wonder, and The Greatest Game Ever Played

"Equipped with his five senses, man explores the universe around him and calls the adventure Science."--Edwin Powell Hubble

Science begins with Wonder. We ask "Why?" and go from there. What we do next we call Science.

We watch, feel, listen, taste, smell...then interpret. We use reason to relate what we experience to what we have experienced. We group and categorize our experiences, cutting the world into individuals then grouping the individuals into categories.
We pick out objects and note events with those objects as the players.
We note temporal relationships of events. We note frequency of one occurrence followed by another and call common trends causal. When this happens enough we call it a law.
We are skeptical. We amend our law when the evidence is against it. We appeal to no authority but Nature.
Nature is the most beautiful story, the most intricate and elegant game, and we are simply trying to listen to the story and from what we hear learn the rules of the game. We translate the story into the language of mathematics and simplify. We know that Nature is complex, but not convoluted; simplifyable to very basic rules.
The process of simplification is long and tiresome...but the "Eureka!" (I've got it!) moment is well worth it. The simplification takes time and often it seems that it is just too damn complicated...though, with time and effort the pattern will unfold and it is guarantied to be beautiful. The initial appearance of convolution is what I think scares most people...but if well explained ANYONE can understand.
Science does not strip Nature of its beauty! It allows us to see its beauty in all its glory, in all its magic, in all its grandeur.
And after all this, we still wonder "Why?" For we can always try to understand the rules of the game but to try to understand why the game is being played is a much greater task. But we must start with the rules, and enjoy the game...for it truly is the Greatest Game Ever Played.

"This world, after all our science and sciences, is still a miracle wonderful, inscrutable, magical and more, to whosoever will think of it."--Thomas Carlyle