carl sagan (3)



Topics: Astronomy, Astrophysics, Carl Sagan, Civilization, Existentialism, Star Wars, Star Trek, STEM

Apollo 11 (July 16–24, 1969) was the American spaceflight that first landed humans on the Moon. Commander Neil Armstrong and Lunar Module Pilot Buzz Aldrin landed the Apollo Lunar Module Eagle on July 20, 1969, at 20:17 UTC, and Armstrong became the first person to step onto the Moon's surface six hours and 39 minutes later, on July 21 at 02:56 UTC. Aldrin joined him 19 minutes later, and they spent about two and a quarter hours together exploring the site they had named Tranquility Base upon landing. Armstrong and Aldrin collected 47.5 pounds (21.5 kg) of lunar material to bring back to Earth as pilot Michael Collins flew the Command Module Columbia in lunar orbit, and were on the Moon's surface for 21 hours, 36 minutes before lifting off to rejoin Columbia.

Apollo 11 was launched by a Saturn V rocket from Kennedy Space Center on Merritt Island, Florida, on July 16 at 13:32 UTC, and it was the fifth crewed mission of NASA's Apollo program. The Apollo spacecraft had three parts: a command module (CM) with a cabin for the three astronauts, the only part that returned to Earth; a service module (SM), which supported the command module with propulsion, electrical power, oxygen, and water; and a lunar module (LM) that had two stages—a descent stage for landing on the Moon and an ascent stage to place the astronauts back into lunar orbit. Source: Wikipedia/Apollo_11

The first communal experience I recall is one now doubted by people swearing they "have the proof" in grainy YouTube videos and that I should "do my research!" Yeah.

June 3, 1969, the third and final season of Star Trek: The Original Series aired "Turnabout Intruder," its 24th and last episode. There was no "final curtain" or neatly wrapped-up script tying plot points. Many of us fans were left adrift. Syndication made the franchise a legend.

In July of 1969, I was six, one month from turning seven years old. In my maturity, then, there were a few priorities: eating, sleeping, playing, and cartoons.

My cartoons were interrupted on July 19, 1969, a Saturday ritual that any kids born after 2014 are bereft of the experience. It was my "chill time" to not think of the pending school year starting a few days after my birthday in August, which is probably why I've never made a big deal about my birthday. My cartoons were interrupted. I was missing "Tom and Jerry," "Woody Woodpecker," "Bugs Bunny," "The Herculoids," and I was pissed!

I calmed down, seeing that my parents were transfixed to the black and white TV.

A year and a few months before, we were transfixed after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the cities burning with the rage I would later see in Los Angeles with Rodney King. We were transfixed in our communal mourning.

This transfixion has been repeated over and over again, as if society has us as sadistic voyeurs in a play, we are constantly made to see in a culturally communal act of PTSD.

I started recognizing that Apollo 11 didn't have Nacelles that combined matter-antimatter for faster-than-light space travel. Before Star Wars, George Lucas, and Industrial Light and Magic, warp speed was indicated by a theatrical "swooshing" sound as the Enterprise's saucer section sped by intro and exit credits. The silvery capsule and landing module were attached to each other, and it detached with mechanical efficiency and elegance. No sound travels in space, and none was needed to communicate to me that before Zephram Cochrane, or someone like him, is to be born, this is the first small step.

I tried to communicate this feeling to my youngest son. He sent a video of how dark it momentarily got in Dallas, Texas. He and his girlfriend spoke briefly about how dark it became. My oldest was geeked and profoundly moved as our daughter-in-law made sure they had similar safety shades in Texas that we used to view it. In Greensboro, we got about 84% of the eclipse: it was dim but not dark, but my Texas box turtle, Speedy, went to sleep instinctively. My wife is now determined to follow the next eclipse on the planet so long as we can afford it. Our granddaughter is days from turning five, and the daycare opted to keep the children inside for safety concerns. She is sure to ask "Mimi and Paw-Paw" about it.

I lament that this is the last season of Star Trek: Discovery, just as I will lament the last season of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds. As a "Trekkie," I watched the franchise's iterations on free network TV. It made Trek accessible, at least to people who were channel-surfing that they might stop and peek into the future, exposure to STEM through fictional drama. I think this exposure to the possible created the communal experience that a boy in East Winston could share with his parents and people in Rural Hall, North Carolina, during a time before forced busing when I would meet others who didn't look like me.

I begrudgingly bought subscriptions to view it and the other iterations on Paramount Plus.

But streaming services, newsfeeds on social media, AM Talk Radio, and Podcasts do not create "communal experiences": they create silos, isolation, and tribalism.

Posting on Facebook, I said: "A communal experience. The universe experienced and witnessed itself." I said it without context regarding the eclipse. Here is the context:

"The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of 'star-stuff.'"

"The cosmos is within us. We are made of star stuff. We are a way for the universe to know itself."

Carl Sagan, "Cosmos"

“Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.

Our posturing's, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.”
― Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space

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Brookhaven and Fake News...


Climate of fear Anti-science protestors led to the closure of the High Flux Beam Reactor at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in the US 25 years ago using tactics that are widespread today. (Courtesy: iStock/DanielVilleneuve)

Topics: Biology, Cancer, Carl Sagan, Civilization, Climate Change, Philosophy, Physics

I typically don't comment on articles, but this one resonated with my memories of Carl Sagan desperately trying to raise the critical thinking skills of an entire essential nation with "The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark." The host of Cosmos would succumb to pneumonia as a consequence of bone marrow disease. I will be the age Carl was when he passed away this year, 62, but not as accomplished as he did in the six decades we all had access to him.

The framework of our current duress was already here in the form of celebrity worship, gossip columns, and talk shows where sensationalism equaled eyeballs, just as the Internet rouses the primitive lizard portion of our brains to be afraid, get angry, and "buy-purchase-consume" products (a friend who's a sound engineer likes to say that a lot).

Underhand tactics by environmental activists led to the closure of a famous physics facility 25 years ago. We can still learn much from the incident, says Robert P Crease.

Fake facts, conspiracy theories, nuclear fear, science denial, baseless charges of corruption, and the shouting down of reputable health officials. All these things happened 25 years ago, long before the days of social media, in a bipartisan, celebrity-driven episode of science denial.  Yet the story offers valuable lessons for what works and what does not (mostly the latter) for anyone wanting to head off such incidents.

The episode in question concerned one of the more valuable scientific facilities in the US, the High Flux Beam Reactor (HFBR) at the Brookhaven National Laboratory. As I mentioned in a previous column and in my book The Leak, the HFBR was a successful research instrument that was used to make medical isotopes and study everything from superconductors to proteins and metals. “Experimentalists saw the reactor as the place to go,” recalls the physicist William Magwood IV, then at the US Department of Energy.

But in 1997, lab scientists discovered a leak of water from a pool located in the same building as the reactor, where its spent fuel was stored. The leak contained tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen that decays with a half-life of about 12 years, releasing low-energy electrons that can be stopped by a few sheets of paper. The total amount of tritium in the leak was about that in typical self-illuminating “EXIT” signs.

The protestors’ tactics are a familiar part of today’s political environment: tell people they are in danger and insist that anyone who says otherwise is lying.

The article goes on to recount the actor Alec Baldwin using his celebrity to put a ten-year-old child on the Montell Williams Show to claim that the tritium and the research facility caused his cancer. It wasn't true, but it was LOUD, drowning out the experts who are used to spirited peer review and erudite discussions of research, not tears and gnashing of teeth.

Montell Williams ended his talk show after announcing that he had multiple sclerosis. Alec Baldwin, though I enjoyed his SNL skits, has other pressing issues.

I have a physicist friend who's using tritium in his research with optical tweezers, separating isotopes to detect and treat cancers, among other applications. I am opting not to give his website as those same elements described in the article about Brookhaven National Labs have metastasized into our current societal mass psychosis. If his research leads to your cancer cure, you can thank him later.

Twenty-five years ago, we weren't as far along in climate disruption as we are now. Twenty-five years ago, CNN was 19 years old, and its clones, Fox and MSNBC, were 3 years old. Five years after the Y2K scare (exquisitely setting us up for election 2000 and 9/11), humanity further siloed itself into warring tribes, first posting on Internet bulletin boards, MySpace. Then, the logical progression was to Facebook, Twitter (now X), and its myriad progeny.

A side note: CERN would go on to discover the Higgs Boson because we, in the spirit of fiscal stewardship, closed the superconducting collider in Waxahachie, Texas, 48 kilometers south of Dallas. Peter Higgs and François Englert owe their 2013 Physics Nobel Prize to Switzerland. U-S-A. U-S-A.

How much further along in cancer research and nuclear energy as an alternative to fossil fuels would we be if, prior to Facebook and the former Twitter, we exercised a little critical thinking and common sense? I'm not talking about tritium, but fission reactors, which we know how to build (fusion, though cleaner and less radioactive, is still far off), but the environmental activists have terrorized anyone from building newer and safer facilities that might have had some positive impact on our warming climate. To paraphrase a famous saying, "Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good." Our air quality improved during the pandemic, so the logic leads to upgrading public transportation to something matching other countries that rely on it more than we do, or within our borders, the subway systems in New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, or Washington, DC. You end up doing nothing of any importance. We could replace the fission reactors one by one as fusion comes online.

That is what enrages and disappoints me.

The American reactor that was closed by fake news, Robert P Crease, Physics World

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From Redshift to Enlightenment...

Topics: Astrobiology, Astronomy, Astrophysics, Carl Sagan, James Webb Space Telescope, SETI

The relief was as deep as the stakes were high. At 7:20 A.M. (ET), the rocket carrying the largest, most ambitious space telescope in history cleared the launchpad in French Guiana, and the members of mission control at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore roared their elation.

The suspense was not quite over. Half an hour postlaunch, the telescope still needed to decouple from its host rocket, after which it had to deploy solar panels to partly power its journey. Only after that first deployment proved successful, said a NASA spokesperson in a statement to Scientific American, would “we know we have a mission.”

Astronomers have more riding on the rocket than the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). Also at risk is the viability of NASA’s vast space-science portfolio, if not the future of astronomy itself. As the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope (HST), JWST is one of those once-in-a-generation scientific projects that can strain the patience of government benefactors, as well as the responsible agency’s credibility, but also define a field for decades to come—and possibly redefine it forever.

The telescope that would become JWST was already under discussion even before HST launched in April 1990. By orbiting Earth, HST would have a line of sight free of the optical distortions endemic to our planet’s atmosphere. It would therefore be able to see farther across the universe (and, given that the speed of light is finite, farther back in time) than any terrestrial telescope.

The James Webb Space Telescope Has Launched: Now Comes the Hard Part, Richard Panek, Scientific American

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