A Universe of Knowledge

 

 

What’s Been Happening Lately

 

Excitement galore people!

I just finished reading Andy Weir’s “The Martian”and I have to say that if you haven’t picked it up yet, you are missing out on some great literature!

In the same way that Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” and Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity” spark an old curiosity for space exploration, Mr. Weir’s book- which is being turned into a movie by Hollywood and scheduled to be released next year- does the same, and in a great way!

Praised for its technical accuracy and flowing story line- even by actual astronauts- this story about an astronaut who gets stranded in Mars after a series of freak accidents is a total page-turner. From the moment that you open the book until the last paragraph read, it’s evident that Andy Weir did his homework researching each and every element of space exploration, not just the big-picture stuff, but even the most minute details, and it is these that make the book so realistically possible. Most authors will only go so far as to research only the essential stuff while leaving some room for interpretation or for fantastical elements (what is known as “creative license”), but as we seem to enter a new literary age of hyper-realism, it’s clear that Weir did not wish to leave anything up in the air. And as you read paragraph after paragraph you begin to imagine the scenario come to life in a way that leaves no room for creative licenses to distort the story. The math alone will make your head spin, but Weir is always careful not to lose you. Told from a first-person perspective, in a sort of entry  log or diary-type situation, all the technical stuff is essential to the story, but if you are not math-savvy, don’t worry- neither am I; the story takes care of itself and unfolds effortlessly, even with the math which is told as if you yourself were NASA, being part of the tale in a one-way conversation with our hero. But the calculations that Weir clearly did research on, baffle you, but they don’t belittle you. In fact, its gravity pulls you stronger and faster and soon enough you’re sitting there amazed at all the technical bits that are often missed in the science-fiction genre.

As the world comes together in this age to begin a new chapter of space conquest, this book, whether it self-includes or not, is part of a new wave of interest in space, a legacy that was briefly forgotten after the last of the U.S.’s Apollo missions and the Soviet Union’s Luna missions concluded.

For the past several years, new breakthroughs, both in technology and in research, have been building up to tackle the mother-lode of all space projects, Mars.

On December 5th, the unmanned spacecraft Orion– an updated version of the old Apollo spacecraft, and in a way the first of its kind- completed two full laps around the Earth before splashing down just off the coast of Baja California. Technicians and scientists working for NASA (that’s the guys that put someone in the moon all those years ago) declared that the launch, trajectory, and crash had gone exactly as planned, in other words a perfect flight. Completely flawless. Now that is good news because eventually, that same rocket will deliver a payload of supplies, technical equipment, and research stuff…oh yeah and humans, to Mars sometime in the 2030s. Mars. Not shitty, old moon, but Mars. Okay it would still be pretty cool to send someone up to the moon again, but you gotta walk before you can crawl. Or something like that.

If it works, that’ll be a huge step for mankind and something that we have dreamt about doing since humans had imagination. I mean if we put someone on the surface of the planet at any point during the 2030s- albeit without killing them- then that means that less than a hundred years before the crew of the Apollo 11 landed on the lunar surface, and a little over a hundred years after the invention of the airplane, a yet-unknown crew will have set foot on Martian soil, effectively colonizing the planet in the name of mankind.

This is very exciting for a lot of reasons. For one, it would be the most ambitious project humanity has ever worked on. Secondly, it would give us a foothold into another neighborhood turning the planet into a sort of gas station that would help us hop onto other worlds. Eventually- I mean far into the future- I’m sure humanity will be able to colonize all the other planets, providing us with immeasurable information about our little galactic corner. Thirdly, the moment the first human sets foot on Mars, we will know for sure that we are not grounded to this world forever; that day we will know that there is always a horizon to cross. But the main reason why all of this is exciting, is that perhaps humanity will come together for some other purpose than destroying ourselves and the only home we have ever known.

But that’s not the only thing that’s been going on lately.

Over the next few years another very ambitious, although much less dangerous, project will poise to tackle another one of those scientific conundrums that at some point even scientists thought would be impossible to accomplish. I guess we still haven’t learned not to use that word anymore- impossible.

With a “little” tool called the Event Horizon Telescope, or EHT, researchers at M.I.T. will be taking high resolution images of the black hole that lives right at the heart of our very own Milky Way galaxy. And if you know just how much of a diva our black hole is (that sounded weird) then you might guess just how hard it is to paparazzi a pic of it.

In this groundbreaking project  all the major super-telescopes around the world- and outside of it- will work in tandem in unprecedented collaboration to basically turn them into a giant mirror the size of Earth. Working as one, the new “it” will be programmed to snap a series of composite pictures of unrivaled quality (even by the Hubble Telescope) that, if it works as it is supposed to, will finally prove the existence of black holes by taking the very first picture ever of the one that resides near Sagittarius A.

Super-massive black hole (SMBH) swallowing nearby star. photo credit: NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center via photopin cc

Super-massive black hole (SMBH) swallowing nearby star.
photo credit: NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center via photopin cc

How is it that we know where black holes are, if their namesake says it all? Up until now, the famous black holes we hear so much about have only existed on scientific papers and in computer simulations, even though there is very strong evidence that supports the idea that such phenomena actually exists in the universe. Scientists and researchers have been able to find where these black holes exist by measuring the loops and velocity of the stars that surround them (and the ones being gobbled up by them) with great success although lacking in actual visual technology. By using an array of existing equipment and powerful infrared and radio telescopes, these astronomers have spotted where most major super-massive black holes, or SMBH, are.

But why haven’t we done this before- you may ask? As I said before, black holes by definition are exactly that- super-massive vacuums that range in size, from several million solar masses to several billion (meaning the weight of several billions of our suns); however, they are totally and completely black. That’s because their gravity is so powerful that any information they eat, cannot escape, and that includes light- so far as we know. Hawking Radiation, named after astrophysicist Stephen Hawking, does a good job at explaining what goes on in the life of a black hole. By using light refraction and other methods, scientists have a pretty good idea of the size of these monsters and where they reside. And it just so happens that with some very advanced math (more advanced than your run-of-the-mill high school physics), they know just where to look. Up until now, the only impediment we ran across was that we didn’t have a sophisticated-enough camera to take that picture. Well, that is just about to change. And if it works, not only would they prove a theory that many thought could never be proven, but we, as humanity, would be taking a huge step forward in science, and THAT my friends is worth talking about.

Now if for some reason you think this is bullshit science or you believe that it cannot be possible, when you consider the amount of resources and thinking that go into making this possible, your head would spin faster than a neutron star (for this specific science reference check this out).

Just think about this, from our planet to where astronomers believe this SMBH is located- at the center of the Milky Way in the cluster of stars that is known as Sagittarius A– is a distance of 26 THOUSAND light-years. That means that going at the speed of light, it would take you 26 thousand years to reach it. That translates to a measurable distance of 141,087,012,989,961,860 miles. quatrillion is it? Not sure, but that’s a lot of numbers. Anyways, even with the most star wars-y ship ever constructed, there is nothing we could build that can go at the speed of light and thus, nearly impossible that we’ll ever see one up close. Then again, impossible is not something that applies anymore.

As for a wormhole that could bring us close to the black hole- impossible, they are purely theoretical, despite what the movie Interstellar might suggest. And besides, who the hell other than Matthew McConaughey- and maybe Han Solo- would want to get close to an object that swallows you forever? Okay I would actually want to see one…but still! Even though the math does have some evidence that wormholes could exist, they are not nearly as observable as black holes, and that is saying A LOT.

And then there’s the telescope itself. The technology involved in the project is state-of-the-art, and it even makes the Hubble Telescope look like a disposable camera next to a Canon EOS. Not to mention the painfully exacting level of coordination that it requires to coordinate most of the world’s major telescopes. The most precise atomic clock ever constructed was tailor-built specifically for this project in order to get all these major telescopes to work together in tandem.

So imagine being able to peer through the lens of a very, very, very expensive camera that is able to take a few pictures of something we cannot see, at a distance that is inconceivable. Not an easy thing to do. And that is why it is impressive.

 

The Push for Knowledge

 

It is the hunger for knowledge that drives humans to forgo the quickly-aging concept of conflict and war in order to discover the secrets the universe has in store for us. In a more adult way, we are like children being distracted at playing Indians and cowboys by the fireworks.

Right now, the world is currently experiencing the most peaceful era yet since we evolved into our current form of existence. I know what you’re thinking, “Are you fucking nuts?” Yes I agree with you, just when the world seems to be at its most fucked up, how can anyone say that nations are at their most polite behavior with each other? That says a lot about our nature. But if you step away from a minute from the constraint of time and become omnipotent- not sure how you could achieve that, but if you manage it let me know- then you would see that most of the wars that have been fought throughout history have been wars of ideologies and greed and not exactly for the acquisition of resources. I’m no one to argue with an historian, but I will venture my personal opinion and say that from my own look at history, it seems that until very recently, we’re talking merely a few dozen years, wars have been fought for the acquisition of resources. Even if it might appear that kingdoms and governments went to war for the natural resources of other nations (England and France are experts at this), with a little research what we start to realize is that following the collapse of the Soviet Union, conflicts due to ideologies are quickly becoming the thing of the past. Now this is actually a bad thing, for it means that the types of conflicts we are engaging in now are becoming increasingly about resources and less about “you don’t think what I think so therefore I must kill you.” Even at its most depleted, the world had healed enough that every nation- or nearly every nation- had enjoyed a higher level of natural comfort that urbanization has now taken away. So what we are left with is to investigate other reasons for why conflicts happen other than to take the same stuff that the people we are conquering already have.

Ideas. Mankind has fought and died for them, only because we had nothing to fall back on. In the good old days when you could make a claim about pretty much anything and if you made it sound convincing enough turned out to be “true”, nobody had the burden of proof. This created a huge problem because what the majority said, was law. This is a momentum that was violently halted several times by those in power who had different ideas about how the world was and about the questions and answers that a sixth grader could easily answer today. What we were left with were endless conflicts and violent suppressions of knowledge precisely because we knew nothing.

Since reason made its leap, humanity has slowly realized that the need for war is an obsolete human concept, a bad habit that is hard to get rid of. More and more people are banding together to cash in from the accomplishments of earlier men and women who dared to ask how and why. And their curiosity is justified. Scientific projects like the I.S.S. (International Space Station), the thousands of research efforts to eradicate disease, those others aimed to create more sustainable ways to keep the planet producing fuel and food for us while at the same trying to keep from destroying it, are only possible because more and more humans know now that together we make bigger and more significant leaps than the small steps we all take alone. How could any one country hope to do this all by itself? It would be nearly impossible, it takes a whole world to make it happen.

It is true that wars of ideologies still exist, you see them all the time on the news. But so do the wars for control of natural resources, and it is unfortunate that in this day and age, more and more battles are being fought to claim the resources of other nations. This only means that we should be doing a better job at keeping the planet healthy and alive. But it also means that there is still time and that opportunities should not be squandered fighting for them, but working actively and proactively to share them. It is illogical to use the resources you are fighting for, to make war to destroy another nation for those same resources. In this endless cycle of destruction, these resources like oil and natural gas and coal pollute not only the planet itself, but our future. And while the water-wars are claiming more lives every day, on the other side of the world, we couldn’t be happier about getting our new swimming pools installed. This is not a criticism for either party, for we should all be able to enjoy a drink of water as well as a morning swim, but it is a harsh criticism at the inability for all of us to help each other.

Meanwhile, there are idiots still fighting 14th century wars. And as the guns and bullets (objects shaped and created and dominated by scientific principles used for nefarious purposes) fly all about, those who fire them are still stuck in the notion that they know everything there is to know without any proof whatsoever. While the rest of the world is already several steps ahead of the curve, these miscreants are still killing each other over what a curve is. Now this wouldn’t be so bad if these children didn’t drag the adults behind. By this, I’m not saying that the rest of humanity doesn’t have a responsibility to stop this type of behavior, or that we should be content with the ignorant killing each other, but simply that some ideas warrant more attention than others. In my personal opinion if I have the choice to stop two idiots from killing each other over what the color red means, or to be able to peer into the depths of space with a telescope, admittedly 99 times out of 10 (you read that right) I would choose the latter. Of course if I can get the idiots to stop fighting by letting them peer into the universe themselves, then even better. But realistically it can’t be done simply because of the adamant ingrained hatred these idiots have for knowledge. What we come away with is a deep sense of sorrow that the rest of us can, quite literally, see the stars that dot the night sky, while others merely imagine that they’re there.

But do we have the resources to make the proverbial blind see? The answer is an easy ‘yes’. I would assume that if the transcendental works of Plato, or Newton, or Curie, or Einstein, or Hubble, or Hawking could bring us nearly infinite sources of energy like nuclear power, or things like rockets that shuttle us to structures of unimaginable size that house people that live outside of our planet, or devices that allow us to see trillions upon trillions of miles into the heart of the cosmos- then we certainly have the power and ability to get everyone on Earth involved in the future that all these people imagined for us.

 

What Does Science Do For Us? 

 

Science dominates our wor…err… our universe rather. It is is not a concept that can be divorced from our physical reality because it itself is our physical reality. Science is not just one thing that we can choose to ignore if we don’t like one, or all elements of it, it is an explanation for how things work, for how they are, for why the are. Science is both the interpretation of the order of things and the order of things themselves. But what is most beautiful about it is that we don’t have to rely on the interpretation of anyone else to know it is there, we can see it for ourselves if we are willing to look.

Everyday, the various fields of science create, destroy, discover, unearth, build things that only the crazy minds of all those science-fiction writers have thought of. In essence, science as a whole is a discipline of creativity.

A friend and I were talking about astronomy the other day and she explained to me how she is in love with math. I told her that I love that math exists (and how could it not), but that I cannot understand it even though I have such a passion for it as an amateur observer. As our conversation went along, she said that sometimes to think about math is to think outside the box, and I corrected by telling her that from what I’ve seen, especially in all those Wikipedia articles- probably the easiest way to read advanced math for me- is that all the math that has been discovered by all of those men and women who have dared to go into the crazy that crazy and abstract territory, have formulated these theories outside the box. There’s no other way really. Math in essence is a gift for those who are crazy enough to be that creative, and a curse to all of those who simply understand it. Math being the framework of all things scientific, is rebellious in that more rules exist outside of it than within it, we just haven’t discovered them all yet.

But from a practical standpoint, science has given humanity everything we see around us. Everything from your shitty old cellphone to your shitty new cellphone. Just think about the world that we are living in today and you will realize that all the stuff you see is the product of scientific discovery. From the pavement we walk on, to the very shoes we wear, to the cars we drive and yes, even the pollution that they cause.

problem solving concept

I know what you’re thinking- … okay I don’t know what you’re thinking but I can guess. Yes science can and has been used for nefarious purposes, in fact science is always being used for nefarious purposes. Guns, poisons, missiles, explosives, nukes! All of these inventions cause pain and suffering every single day. So why trust something that creates morally reprehensible objects of death! Valid question. Nuclear power, for example, has brought much calamity to humanity since its discovery. During World War II- a time when most of mankind’s greatest discoveries went to cheapen humanity’s ingenuity by being applied to things to kill other humans- two whole cities were obliterated and literally leveled due to man’s appetite for destruction. Over time, thousands of lives have been extinguished both in intentional and unintentional incidents involving nuclear power, some of them very recent. It is a bit depressing, after all, to know that the first thing created after the discovery of nuclear power was specifically invented to incinerate the bodies of living people, and whether or not you believe that dropping those bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki saved more lives than they took, we will never know. What we do know is the unprecedented destruction that they caused, not to mention the millions of lives (Men, women, children, the elderly, and animals) that they took as the terrifying mushroom clouds towered up into the Japanese skies. And then there’s the peace-time accidents such as those in Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and the most recent in Fukushima. But if we look at things objectively- hard to do when you’re talking about human lives, or any lives actually- since their invention, guns alone have killed many times more people than all the nuclear accidents combined. And just like any other invention, guns too hold a special place in the Wall of Shame of human inventions. In this case, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that nuclear power has been grossly misused, when it could be used, as it has been, for peaceful purposes, creating cheap energy that is virtually limitless.

Yes, science can be scary and deadly, but it is also a thing of beauty. And without going too much into philosophical or religious themes, I can also say that contrary to what many people believe, science does offer a moral framework that we need not look anywhere else for, and it lies in the peaks and valleys of human comfort (to borrow from Sam Harris‘ “The Moral Landscape”). By how we behave with ourselves and others, we can infer as to the type of people we are and the type of humans we hope to be. By learning more about the world and about the universe and about humans and how we relate to everything and to each other it is possible to have a good moral standing when it comes to knowing what to do with the power at hand. In effect, science can bring us together, as it has before.

 

The Humans of Today

 

And then we have the scientists who actually push the envelope to educate and inform the people about what science is, how it works, and why it’s useful. People like the astrophysicsts Carl Sagan and Neil Degrasse Tyson, and Bill Nye “the science guy”, and the team of the Orion project, and the White Coats who work in labs and hospitals all over the world, and those honest ones who wish to advance this knowledge, all of them, a few among many, who wish to change the environment of ignorance that still to this day plagues our schoolrooms. With their own knowledge, they wish to entice people to learn about science and to be curious about it.

And behind them there are students, artists, bloggers, reporters, and amateur scientists, or simply the ranks of the curious, always pushing for new discoveries and always standing by when called upon for help. These people are the modern humans of today who see a benefit to all this. Those are the humans that our early ancestors considered gods as they wondered what was in the plants and in the waters and in the stars as they gazed up at the firmament.

science

The humans of today, well most of them at least, understand the importance of scientific discovery. And one of the beautiful things about science in general is that we can all be players to a game for which its rules we all understand and one where we all stand to benefit in some way. Which is why we are spending more and more money on scientific research worldwide- granted, not as much as we should be spending, but still a lot.

But as we acquire a deeper understanding of those mysterious and hidden things, it would serve us well to exercise a measure of control in the way we use that knowledge. Unless we want to see the next invention disappear an entire country into a plume of dust a la Angels and Demons, we need to be morally responsible for how we use science and be held responsible for when we misuse it. It’s bound to happen again, hopefully our discoveries will not end the planet as we have threatened to do in years past.

 

WHY SCIENCE?

 

Why not? Nothing else is- or has, for that matter- advanced knowledge the way science has in all of human history. Let’s go back a couple of million years when our primate cousins were starting to get down from the trees and were experimenting walking upright. The thing we now know as science was pushing these creatures to discover new “heights”. Now let’s move forward a few thousand years. Sometime in our early past, a person discovered how to make fire, how to carve a wheel out of stone, how to wield iron; all of these examples of our early ingenuity are examples of the early science of mankind. And although we don’t know the names (if they even had names) of these early humans, their discoveries remain with us to this day. That’s pretty impressive for someone who still fought sabretooth tigers!

So as we enjoyed watching the meteor shower that just happened a few days ago, or the bright objects in the firmament some of which are planets, other stars, and yet others objects made by the hands of men and women, we can be certain that scientific inquiry will not only find ways to explain the seemingly unexplained but can also create seemingly impossible things to create in a universe where the “impossible” is just another frontier waiting to be crossed.

 

 

A beautiful nebula (irregular galaxy, NGC 4449) over the Earth

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For more information about the Orion spacecraft and other space articles, check out these interesting pages:

http://www.theverge.com/2014/12/5/7338839/the-first-test-flight-of-nasas-new-orion-spacecraft

http://www.theverge.com/2014/12/8/7353221/us-navy-rescued-orion-from-ocean-nasa

http://www.nasa.gov/sites/default/files/files/OrionMARAugust2013.pdf

http://news.yahoo.com/russian-scientist-spies-mountain-sized-asteroid-heading-way-170022867.html

And if you wish to know more about science in general check out these websites:

http://www.livescience.com

http://www.nasa.gov.

http://www.howstuffworks.com

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Oh and by the way, if you wish to see a really intersting movie about one of humanity’s brightest living minds, you should check out “The Theory of Everything” about astrophysicist Stephen Hawkins’ life. It will not disappoint you.

 

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