Category Archives: Science

Before you book that trip to Mars …

Mars

From Natural News:

The idea of heading out to space and traveling to the red planet is thrilling but consider this for a moment: Going to Mars significantly increases your chances of acquiring cancer. That’s what the latest study published in Scientific Reports concluded. Cancer risk for humans who go on a mission to Mars or on long-term space missions doubled because of exposure to radiation from cosmic rays. Being away from the protection of Earth’s magnetic field increased the risk of radiation because cosmic rays which contain iron and titanium atoms severely damage the cells due to very high rates of ionization.

That’s a fascinating and well-done article, so you’ll want to read the whole thing, but here’s the bottom line: There is no Planet B.

Occasionally, I’ll hear from science fiction aficionados who fancy that one day, humans will spread out across the galaxy. We must, they say, because when Earth dies, we’ll just blast off and leave this old burned-out hulk behind for new, more exciting worlds. Problem is, even if we proved Einstein wrong and developed faster-than-light travel, we can’t just pack up and leave Earth the way we can move to other states or countries.

The beautiful planet we’re on is where we originated, and where we live. We used to think people were autonomous entities, but in fact, our lives depend on Earth’s many processes. It hasn’t been that long that we’ve come to appreciate the existence and our relationship with gut flora, which help regulate our immune system, our digestion, and even the way our minds work. And look at the essential relationship we have with mitochondria, those living things with their own DNA, and without which we could not function.

There is no Planet B.

We’re not monads, those free-floating, ultimately simple entities cooked up by rationalistic philosophers. We’re humans, evolved beings with deep, deep roots in the natural world, and here is where we were meant to be.

The Linguist as piñata

Noam Chomsky

From Scientific American:

Noam Chomsky’s political views attract so much attention that it’s easy to forget he’s a scientist, one of the most influential who ever lived. Beginning in the 1950s, Chomsky contended that all humans possess an innate capacity for language, activated in infancy by minimal environmental stimuli. He has elaborated and revised his theory of language acquisition ever since.

It’s a great article, and includes an interview with another accomplished linguist, Steven Pinker. Pinker concludes that even after decades of brutal examination and criticism, Chomsky’s famous thesis best explains how children master language. The alternatives boil down to arguing that language is an artificial construct of the rational mind that children, starting from a blank slate, must learn.

This vindication of Chomsky’s universal grammar theory is interesting on two counts, and both impact my writing. First, I’m fascinated by language. More important, scientific support of language as an inborn capability bolsters the view that people are naturally social, as opposed to the atomistic, rationalistic view of humanity pushed by both Hobbesians and Marxists.

We’re not plopped on this planet to enrich ourselves and consume; we are born to experience the world and find ourselves in it. That’s the worldview that animates everything I write.

Quote of the day

Raymond Chandler

“There are two kinds of truth: the truth that lights the way and the truth that warms the heart. The first of these is science, and the second is art. Neither is independent of the other or more important than the other. Without art science would be as useless as a pair of high forceps in the hands of a plumber. Without science art would become a crude mess of folklore and emotional quackery. The truth of art keeps science from becoming inhuman, and the truth of science keeps art from becoming ridiculous.” – Raymond Chandler

Water on Mars?

AnnetteActual NASA photograph of Mars

A lot of folks are giddy over NASA’s announcement that its Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has found evidence of liquid water on Mars. They imagine this points the way to a Martian colony and human expansion into space.

Put me down for a big ol’ “meh” on this waste of taxpayers’ dollars. While the Trekkies may swoon over this news, I (and many others) suspect we are too acutely tuned to the rhythms, radiation fields, and cycles of this planet to go skipping about the galaxy like disembodied brains.

I agree with Kim Stanley Robinson: “I think Earth is the one and only crucial place for humanity. It will always be our only home. … Maybe there’s only one planet where humanity can do well, and we are already on it.”

As to terraforming an alien planet to make it suitable for human habitation, Robinson says, “… there’s no place other than Earth where humanity can be healthy and safe. When we land on another planet, we’ll find out if it’s either alive or dead. It it’s alive, we’ll be in trouble because the life that’s there already will either make us sick or kill us. If it’s dead, we’ll have to terraform it, in which case we’ll die before it’s ready.”

Robinson’s objection is valid. In fact, there are so many variables involved in reverse engineering alien planets to accommodate human needs that such a project would be utterly impossible. Then there are the countless unknowns we will never grasp. It wasn’t until the past decade or so that we understood the vital role played by human flora, which outnumber human cells by 10 to 1.

I’ll believe we can terraform other worlds to our liking when we’re able to rid our own planet of earthquakes, tidal waves, volcanic eruptions, and telemarketing calls.

Apollo 11

Apollo11

Where were you when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon?

I remember that night well. I was in my second week working at my first job as a projectionist at WGHP-TV in High Point, North Carolina. Since we were on network feed all night, all I had to do was load our station ID slides and run a few commercials. In addition to me, there was the director and an engineer. That was the skeleton crew, and we were pretty well psyched all night. Nothing could have torn me away from the video monitor when Neil Armstrong stepped out of the lunar lander. The three of us stood motionless in that cramped control room full of racks of electronics and stared in total awe.

So — when’s the next bold adventure in space?