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41gl5ENbKZL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ Today on Medium I saw a post, Shouldn’t We Fix Poverty Before Migrating to Mars? The substance of the piece is less important to me than the title, because the title expresses a viewpoint common among many. Why look to the heavens when we don’t have heaven here on earth? The first time I heard this sentiment was as a child when I saw Joe Kennedy II express this opinion on the floor of congress in relation to funding to NASA in the 1980s. As something of a space-nerd the sentiment shocked me to my core. Obviously I understood poverty in at least a sensory fashion. I was born in Bangladesh before it was a textile powerhouse and there wasn’t at least the promise of development. But as a nerd it seemed to me that sacrificing knowledge of the world for a full stomach seemed like a false trade-off. Of course I was self-interested. This is what I wanted to be true.

But as it happens, I do believe that it is the truth, and that is because what we know from economic history. The rise of the post-Malthusian consumer economy validates the position that we should have one eye to the heavens above, and another focused on the concerns of the earth. The two are synergistic. What is needed for prosperity in a manner we understand to be prosperity in our day and age are two things. First, increased economic growth through gains in productivity. Second, a lack of concomitant population growth to eat up the gains in productivity. The demographic transition. In other words, get smarter to get wealthier, and don’t divide that wealth between too many children.

410uvoV1qDL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ The West, and more precisely Britain, was the first society to break out of the “Malthusian trap,” whereby gains in productivity were eaten up by population growth. This change was not foreseen by the economists of the day. Thinkers such as David Ricardo and Thomas Malthus assumed that the “end of history” was always characterized by a stationary state where population and economic production balanced out so that much of humanity was caught in a condition of immiseration. The irony is that they were flourishing just during the period that Britain was breaking the iron laws of economics as they were understood at the time. What we term the industrial revolution was triggering the rise in gains of wages to unskilled workers that would continue to 1970, and the demographic transition would lead to the emergence of the two-child nuclear family. There are many books which chronicles this change, but one is particularly good for a lay audience is David Warsh’s Knowledge and the Wealth of Nations: A Story of Economic Discovery. It traces the evolution of endogenous growth theory, basically a model which accounts for economic growth by parameters such as innovation and human capital (this problem is not solved by the way). Greg Clark’s A Farewell to Alms and Kenneth Pomeranz’s The Great Divergence as two alternative takes forwarding specific more empirical theses.

41W-0XB-m2L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ But let’s think about this in a more high level manner. Compare the Chinese intellectual and political tradition and that of the West. Since the Axial Age there are broad similarities, particularly with the rise of humanistic traditions. But to generalize one might assert that the Chinese tradition has been more pragmatic and concrete, while the Western tradition has allowed for more abstract concepts and considerations. The most otherworldly element of traditional Chinese thought actually turns out to be exogenous, that of Buddhism (the rise of Buddhism coincides with the decline of scientific Daoism and the rise of religious Daoism). After the Tang dynasty Buddhism lost its place at the table of Chinese elites, and the dominant ethos was that of Confucianism, which prioritized proper governance on earth to maintain harmony and order. A key consequence of this was that scholar-officials were fixated on the need for the peasantry, the true productive units of society, to be prosperous and fruitful. The Chinese system was deeply humanistic and civilian in its orientation. It can be argued that the Chinese state and society by the 18th century had reached the stationary state at the “end of history.” Every unit of production was being squeezed that could be squeezed by traditional means agriculture and trade between regions to maximize comparative advantage. They were at the end of the line of economic growth as could be conceived by Adam Smith’s model.

In contrast the West has been subject to less cultural continuity, and was more fragmented. The medieval scholastics, and men such as Baruch Spinoza, reflected a fixation on deep abstraction and a concern with ontology which was marginalized early on in the mainstream of Chinese intellectual thought. Arguably this flight from the pragmatic can be traced back to Pythagoras and the pre-Socratics. Mathematical mysticism continued in Western civilization because of the influence of Plato. Empirical science had its origins with the interests of Aristotle. The fusion of mathematical formalism and empirical methodology in the early modern era wrought a miracle: science. Over time science was turned into the handmaid of technology, and the elixir of innovation emerged from the synthesis.

20130601_FBC699 I assume most people can understand how this ties back to the piece in Medium, and the concern of people about poverty now, rather than future dreams and horizons. But we also have to remember that it is a fact that global poverty is declining. China is a big reason, and the root is not the revival of Confucianism,* but the expansion of technological civilization. The production of iPhones is driving the decline in misery, not redistribution or primary production through agriculture. We already have a map to abolish material misery: growth and demographic transition. It may happen in our age that extreme material want will be a memory, just as slavery is.

SaganPaleBlueDot What drives growth? Innovation. How do we get innovation? By investing in crazy projects whose payoffs we can’t calculate rationally and whose outcomes are not foreseeable. The reality is that Chinese civilization over ~2,000 years was caught in a local optimum of maximizing prosperity in Malthusian conditions. The Chinese sages were wise, but their eyes only saw to the edge of the horizon. The West’s intellectual forebears were less practical, but more diversified. This allowed for it to break out of the trap of fixating on the practical-before-our-nose. Rather, Western thinkers should dream delusional visions of abstraction and imagination. Worlds beyond imagining for the common ken. When you explore more of the parameter space you are likely to find novel optima which you would otherwise never have arrived upon. To some extent this is how evolution may work, with mutation, drift and co-evolution perturbing cozy fitness peaks. More plainly, we can only realize true innovation when we are able to understand that that entails blue sky long-shots into the deep. That is just the empirical and factual trend over the course of history, not a mystical vision.

But these issue are not simply nakedly utilitarian, they’re also normative. If we crush the spirit to explore and unleash a touch of insanity, even in the face of misery, we crush the human spirit. We were the crazy apes who dreamed to cross the vast blue oceans. Only our ancestors settled Oceania and the New World. We do not stay at home. That is not in our nature. For some of us, to explore is part of who we are. Denying that aspect denies a filament of our being.

Addendum: I have noticed and unfortunate trend of some biologists to denigrate space science as a “waste of money.” That goes to show that even among scientists horizons and wonderment can be constrained by narrowness of vision and zero-sum psychology.

* Confucianism is reviving actually in response to prosperity.

• Category: Science • Tags: Space 
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220px-ESO-L._Calçada_-_Pluto_(by) Last week The Los Angeles Times had a write up about the new Pluto mission, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft zooms in on Pluto. This has been many years in coming, as the spacecraft launched in 2006. The “flyby” is going to occur in July of this year, when spacecraft whizzes by the planet. But the first photos are now being taken. Unfortunately it’s going to take a long long time to analyze and process the data. For the details, see Emily Lakadwalla’s post. Cassini-Huygens is still ongoing, but the excitement of New Horizons is that Pluto is very much virgin territory, rather like the original Voyager missions to the outer solar system.

I know it’s in vogue to talk about all the lack of progress in our current epoch (see: Peter Thiel). And to some extent I think there’s something to this critique of the age. But it also speaks to how far we’ve come in terms of our velocity that there hasn’t been much press coverage of these planetary missions. They’re now “normal science.”

• Category: Science • Tags: Space 
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It has been 40 years since he last human being set foot on the moon. I was not alive when this occurred. The Whig views history as a progression. When we recall the past we remember, perhaps pity, a less developed age.

Overall I disagree with declinists who simplistically portray our age as one of silver, that perhaps we live in the modern Western equivalent of late antique Rome. Certainly there is greatness all around us. And one can argue that the “space race” was driven not by ennobling sentiments, but rather the raw competition between the United States and Soviet Union. Be as that may be, could we soon look back to the 1960s as the ultimate high point in the spirit of the West? Perhaps we do live in a fallen age in a sense, unable to rouse ourselves and recapture past glories, and even surpass them. The Hellenistic Greeks were a civilized people, who were more advanced than their Classical predecessors in particular details of science and engineering. Yet most scholars would suggest that there was something derivative and unoriginal when compared to the ferment of Athens’ golden century.

I wonder. Did Neil Armstrong ever consider when he set foot on the moon that humanity would not return for the last four decades of his life?

• Category: Science • Tags: Culture, Space 
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It’s been a big few weeks for space, with the success of Dragon. I don’t have anything to add in a descriptive or analytic sense, I know as much (or likely less) as you on this issue (this is why should read Bad Astronomy). Needless to say I’ve been rooting for Elon Musk’s enterprise, so to speak. I’m not old enough to remember the “space race,” which put a man on the moon. Rather, for my generation space and NASA had become rather pedestrian, with the shuttle being a sky ferry par excellence. Space is important not because of what it will do for us in concrete terms (e.g., Tang), but what will do for us on a deeper level. Otherwise we may fall prey to the sort of ennui one reads about in science fiction universes such as the city of Diaspar. Remember, we’re the species which made it to the New World and Oceania. This sort of crazy and irrational endeavor is part of who we are.

On a different note, hope people are enjoying the de facto start of the summer (Memorial Day weekend in the USA).

• Category: Science • Tags: Space 
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Amos Zeeberg, the person you should pester (hopefully ineffectually!) when I’m not being nice to you in the comments, has an interesting opinion piece up lambasting the Shuttle program. Here are the numbers which jumped out at me (I knew the broad outlines, but nice to have precise numbers):

The most important thing to realize about the space shuttle program is that it is objectively a failure. The shuttle was billed as a reusable craft that could frequently, safely, and cheaply bring people and payloads to low Earth orbit. NASA originally said the shuttles could handle 65 launches per year; the most launches it actually did in a year was nine; over the life of the program, it averaged five per year. NASA predicted each shuttle launch would cost $50 million; they actually averaged $450 million. NASA administrators said the risk of catastrophic failure was around one in 100,000; NASA engineers put the number closer to one in a hundred; a more recent report from NASA said the risk on early flights was one in nine. The failure rate was two out of 135 in the tests that matter most.

To take the intangible value of human life out of the question, if we were going on the cheap then a 2 out of 135 failure right might be understandable. But we weren’t. The shuttle cost a lot. To whom much is given (in dollars) much shall be expected. It didn’t live up to the expectations.

In an unrelated vein, I wonder if the aging of the earth’s population is going to put a damper on space exploration in the short term. The explorers of the future are more likely to be de facto intelligent robots.

• Category: Science • Tags: Shuttle, Space 
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This is a big time for space, though not in a good way. The James Webb Telescope is in jeopardy, and the space shuttle program finally expired. I don’t talk about space too much on this weblog because I wouldn’t add any value. I leave the details and nuances to those who know better. But in my earliest interests in science astronomy and physics played a big part in bringing home to me the wonder of it all. At the end of the day nature is one, and the great mystery is divided into pieces due to our own cognitive limitations, not because it lacks coherence.

As far as personal biography one of my first memories which has an exact date is the return of Columbia from orbit on April 14th, 1981.* I recall being somewhat confused as to the shape of the vessel. It seemed awkward and ungainly even compared to the small planes which I had in my toy collection at the time. As I came to understand the nature of the space shuttle I felt a conjoined tendency toward awe at its technological sophistication and ambivalence at the expense of manned space flight. I do not cry for the passing of the practice of space flight which the shuttle embodied, but I do worry about the diminution of the principle of looking to the heavens.

Not to be excessively grave about it all, but the nature of the discussion of space in the public forum is I think a signal as to the health of the body politic. If the arguments boil down to pragmatic and utilitarian talking points I suspect that we’ve lost the game already, that society has lost the will to look above and strive for something more than our material sustenance. In ancient China there was a debate between radical utilitarians and more traditional humanists exemplified by the followers of Confucius. The utilitarians criticized the Confucians for supporting luxuries such as music and ritual when war and famine were part of the human condition, to which the Confucians responded that music and ritual were part of the full lived human life. The arts and traditional forms did not need utilitarian justification, they were the ends of existence in some deep sense. We would not flourish as humans without them. The behavioral complexities which characterize us as a species are elaborations on our natural sentiments. History bore out the validity of the arguments of the Confucians, insofar as the moral vision which they outlined was the robust foundation for a political and social order which persisted for over 2,000 years. It is as if the elites of the 19th century West were not just steeped in the thought of Seneca, but that they were direct continuous and unbroken intellectual descendants of Seneca and the order which he held up.

It is a cliché that man does not live by bread alone, but a true one indeed. Our lives are filled with baroque cultural richness. We may find the avocations and passions of others trivial or silly, but we do not deny the principle of their importance in a well lived life. But what of society and a culture? Athens of the 5th century before Christ was a brutal place characterized by unimaginable squalor, and yet it shines down to us today because of its cultural ferment. Even when the larders were bare, the Agora was rich and teeming with activity, direction, and spirit. You may accept that a society is simply the sum of its individual parts, so that there is no necessity for public direction and collective unity of purpose. Individual brilliance aggregated is all that is necessary for flourishing.

That is not a proposition I can or will dismiss out of hand, but what about the rest who do not accept this? What shall the orientation of our society be? How do we as a nation, as a culture, direct our collective energies outward? What will edify us now, and echo down to generations to come and uplift them? Your specific answer may vary and differ. But you can accept the principle of it. When speaking of space I too often get the sense that we forget this. Do we really want to continue to repeat the laundry list of reasons why space exploration is beneficial to our material wants and comforts? This reduction of a grand endeavour which should sate our existential desires into a means of production in our consumer culture is low indeed. How will we measure the gains in “utils” achieved because we are among the generations which have seen with our own eyes this world of ours from afar?

We may argue in the trenches about the effective use of funds on specific projects, or the waste of monies on manned space flight. A range of products which benefited from the demand induced by massive public outlays on high technology in the public space sector may be impressive. But space is more in the class of the Pyramids of Giza, the Pantheon, and the Parthenon. The point is the wonder. I hope we don’t forget that as a society.

* There are memories which I have with I know predate this specific date, but I am not certain as to the date of those with such specificity.

• Category: Science • Tags: Shuttle, Space 
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By now you’ve probably seen headlines such as A Habitable Exoplanet — for Real This Time. Phil Plait has a more sober assessment. Still, he concludes:

But perhaps the most interesting and exciting aspect of all this is what it implies. The Milky Way galaxy is composed of about 200 billion stars, and is 100,000 light years across. The fact that we found a planet that is even anything like the Earth at all orbiting another star only 20 light years away makes me extremely optimistic that earthlike planets are everywhere in our galaxy. 20 light years is practically in our lap compared to the vast size of our galaxy, so statistically speaking, it seems very likely it’s not unique. I don’t want to extrapolate from a data set of two (us and them), but if this is typical, there could be millions of such planets in the galaxy. Millions.

So we don’t know if this planet is all that much like Earth — the surface gravity may be quite high if it’s dense and small, for example, or it may not have any air, or it may have a thick atmosphere like Venus — but what it’s telling us is that smaller, lower mass planets at the right distance from their star for liquid water are almost certainly common in the galaxy.

I assume this means we can play around with the Drake equation? In any case, I am now reminded of Poul Anderson’s essay “The creation of imaginary worlds: the world builder’s handbook and pocket companion.” You can read most of the essay online at Google Books. Or, find it in Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy. For us “squishy science” lovers the biochemist Hal Clament has an essay which follow’s Anderson’s which outlines how to create imaginary life.

• Category: Science • Tags: Science Fiction, Space 
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Several people have pointed me to Stephen Hawking’s warning about ‘First Contact’ with aliens. Specifically that we’d be on the short end of the stick. His worry reminded me of something I read as a child which shocked me somewhat when I encountered it, as I was conditioned by a post-Cosmos optimism. Here’s the author:

…I find it mind-boggling that the astronomers now eager to spend a hundred million dollars on the search for extraterrestrial life never thought seriously about the most obvious question: what would happen if we found it, or if it found us. The astronomers tacitly assume that we and the little green monsters would welcome each other and settle down to fascinating conversations. Here again, our own experience on Earth offers useful guidance. We’ve already discovered two species that are very itnelligent but less technically advanced than we are-the common chimpanzee and pygmy chimpanzee. Has our response been to sit down and try to communicate with them? Of course not. Instead we shoot them, dissect them, cut off their hands for trophies, put them on exhibit in cages, inject them with AIDS virus as a medical experiment, and estroy or take over their habitats. That response was predictable, because human explorers who discvered technically less advanced humans also regularly responded by shooting them, decimating their popualtiosn with new diseases, and destroything or taking over their habitats.

Any advanced extraterrestrials who discovered us would surely treat us in the same way….

That was Jared Diamond in The Third Chimpanzee. In terms of this particular concern I have to admit that my attitude is encapsulated by Arthur C. Clarke’s third law of prediction. An advanced alien race is basically going to have magical powers in relation to humanity, and I doubt anything we do will matter either way (i.e., I don’t think we could hide, or, get their attention). But my main question is why haven’t the von Neumann machines already co-opted all the matter and energy in the universe? The Fermi paradox is a real issue. There are still big questions that we have no idea or clue about.

• Category: Science • Tags: Anthropology, Space 
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The End of the Space Age:

It’s important to recognize, though, that the decision in question belongs to all of us, and not just to Barack Obama. The administration wouldn’t be cutting the manned spaceflight program if Americans were still enthusiastic about going to the stars — if space exploration still occupied a privileged place in our imagination, if our jocks still wanted to be astronauts and our nerds still wanted to build rockets. Obama is simply bowing to our culture’s priorities: Our geeks want to build a better XBox, and our jocks want to buy it to play Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. Our technological energy is still immense, but it’s increasingly turned inward — toward communication, life-extension, and computer-generated adventure — rather than outward toward the stars.
In this sense, James Cameron really is an appropriate choice to opine about the space program. “Avatar,” not NASA, probably represents the future of the American relationship to distant planets. In the real world, we’ll be permanently earthbound — but inside the carapace of virtual reality, we’ll be kings of infinite space.

It’s been over 40 years since our species first landed on the moon. The small number of humans who have ever stepped foot on another world are now very old. I remember back in 1990 when George H. W. Bush made a declaration that some day we’d make it to Mars. That day keeps disappearing over the horizon.

• Category: Science • Tags: Space 
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NASA to Review Human Spaceflight:

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is preparing for a major evaluation of its human spaceflight program, even as many who will conduct the survey have yet to be informed of the agency’s revised mission.

The administration might also enlist the help and financing of other nations to handle parts of space exploration — perhaps giving the European Space Agency the job of building a lunar lander, for example.

Perhaps China vs. the world? Fodder for near-future science fiction.

• Category: Science • Tags: Space, Technology 
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Dynamic of the Cats as some commentary on the LCROSS landing the moon. The “big news” is the very high confidence now that one can put on the proposition that the moon does have water. Since humans are mostly water by weight, this is very important when assessing the practical difficulties of colonization or settlement. Would have been a drag to lug or synthesize H 2O.

• Category: Science • Tags: Space 
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Hawking steps down as Lucasian professor in UK. H/T

• Category: Science • Tags: Space 
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I notice that the NOVA documentary, Is there life on Mars?, is viewable online (from December 2008). Check it out.

• Category: Science • Tags: Space 
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I just listened to a radio segment on public sentiments toward the Apollo space program expenditures in hindsight. The polling had a small N, 3 people in Los Angeles on the street. But it got me wondering: who supports the space program? There is a variable in the GSS, NATSPAC, with a large sample size, which states:

We are faced with many problems in this country, none of which can be solved easily or inexpensively. I’m going to name some of these problems, and for each one I’d like you to tell me whether you think we’re spending too much money on it, too little money, or about the right amount.

I limited the results to between 1998-2008. Below are the demographic trends.

Now, sorted….
The secular, the intelligent, the educated and males exhibit inordinate support for a space program. In contrast, blacks, women, the stupid and the extreme poor (that is family income below $25,000 in the past 10 years) are skeptical of funding for the space program. I was surprised by the lack of difference in political clusters, with even a slight tilt toward liberals. I’ve heard the “rockets vs. butter” argument in public forums from Left-leaning individuals many times. In particular I recall as a child being annoyed at Joseph P. Kennedy for making a crass speech on the floor of the House of Representatives in this vein, suggesting that people starve on earth so that rockets may orbit above us.

• Category: Science • Tags: Space 
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Hawaii Looks to Space Tourism to Aid Recession Woes:

According to the Honolulu Advertiser, the state would start by spending up to a million dollars developing a spaceport.
But Hawaii isn’t alone: The state is already facing heady competition from states including Florida, Okalahoma and New Mexico, all of which are moving into the space tourism market.

Hawaii has one comparative advantage: it’s further south. I recall that the increased velocity of the earth’s rotation the closer you get to the equator means that you get some energy for lift-off for free. This is why the French launch their rockets from French Guiana, and the Soviets had a facility in Kazakhstan.

• Category: Science • Tags: Environment, Space 
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ffddpm.jpgSeed‘s Mr. Space Lee Billings has an interesting piece, The Long Shot:

“If planets are found around Alpha Centauri, it’s very clear to me what will happen,” Marcy said. “NASA will immediately convene a committee of its most thoughtful space propulsion experts, and they’ll attempt to ascertain whether they can get a probe there, something scarcely more than a digital camera, at let’s say a tenth the speed of light. They’ll plan the first-ever mission to the stars.”

The premise seems to verge on science fiction. But then much of science could be fiction if it weren’t fact. In any case, some perspective:
Alpha Centauri is 136,379 times as far from Earth as Mars is currently.
Mars is 793 times as far from Earth as the Moon is currently.
If New York to Chicago = from Earth to Alpha Centauri, then Earth to the Moon is equivalent to 0.3 millimeters.
Discovering the habitable planets would be the easy part. Waiting for WolframAlpha to become sentient so it could make the trip is the hard part.

• Category: Science • Tags: Space 
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Photo credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
I rarely post anything on space because I really don’t know much more than the average reader of this weblog; no value-add from me. But yesterday I ran across an article which reported the financial overruns in the Mars Science Laboratory project. Today NASA said that the project will launch on schedule. It seems that to make this work they’ll have to ax some other missions, though they’re putting a happy-face on their claims today (as if the money will magically appear in these strained financial times!).

I’m very happy that the is all-go. Space exploration and science is something I really care about. I remember how angry I was when I saw a speech in Congress by representative Joe Kennedy II where he argued for the cutting of the NASA budget by suggesting that people were going hungry so that we could launch vehicles into earth orbit. I thought that was a low blow; after all, why doesn’t Joe Kennedy and his clan divest themselves of their wealth and funnel it to organizations which aid the needy? Why don’t obese & consumerist Americans start diverting their economic wealth to those in need, especially to places where malnutrition and hunger are endemic? I’ve lived in very “progressive” & “conscious” locales where there’s plenty of affluence and useless “bling.” It’s more complicated than a simple trade-off between basic blue sky science and human necessities. Why do we continue to fund space science is something that can’t be resolved through material utilitarian calculus; rather, it is an issue of values, dare I say, a matter of transcendence?* Those who support unmanned space exploration often gripe about the costs of the manned projects and their lack of basic science yield. But of course, that too is an issue of values.
At the end of the day reasonable people can disagree. I accept that many humans do not share my fascination with space science, and appreciation of its fruits. In fact, it may be that my relative security in terms of basic necessities allow my head to be “in the clouds.” But, I would offer that all humans are “in the clouds” in some way. Even the poor in many developing nations give some of their meager income to religions and bow to social custom which demand that they take on debt so as to finance outrageous displays such as weddings for their children. I could ask why Joe Kennedy allowed children to starve so that he could afford ski trips to Aspen? And yet I am sure he could make a case for the joy and the intrinsic value of racing down a ski slope at incredible velocities. I don’t begrudge him that.
* I am not persuaded that the engineering byproducts of space exploration warrant the enormous cost. Zero gravity might be the ideal laboratory for some experiments, but the cost to attain zero gravity could probably be better allocated so as to the make the research in regular gravity more productivity.

• Category: Science • Tags: Space 
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merc_span_600.jpgFlyby of Mercury Answers Some Old Questions:

Mercury, the smallest planet, bakes in the heat of the Sun, but it has water in some form. It has volcanoes. It appears to have an active magnetic field generated by a molten iron core. And it has shrunk more than scientists thought.

• Category: Science • Tags: Space 
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As you probably know, the Phoenix has landed on Mars. No problems so far. I assume the best place to track the data as it comes back is the NASA mission page for Phoenix. Here are the mission goals:

–Determine whether Life ever arose on Mars
–Characterize the Climate of Mars
–Characterize the Geology of Mars
–Prepare for Human Exploration

• Category: Science • Tags: Space 
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I too defend space cadets, what is mankind without a dream? I remember back in the late 1980s a speech by Joseph P. Kennedy II as he stood on the floor of the house of representatives and asked his fellow members if people here at home should eat less so that vessels could fly above them in the cosmos. Should we be forced to make this choice? (shall I point out that many Americans should eat a bit less!)
I’m not going to defend the details of Hawking’s argument, I think the time scale is a little compressed (I’m being generous). But, I am going to defend the dream, because to venture into space isn’t just a utilitarian decision, it is an artistic act. Yes, you heard me right. Human beings engage in a lot of peculiar and “wasteful” activities, from massive architecture to baroque entertainments, and yes, even to esoteric scientific projects. Calls to be more “practical” and “realistic” neglect the fact that we are fundamentally a race of nutcase dreamers whose “spark” of sentience can be gleaned 25,000 years ago via to ochre splashes in dark caves which were emblazoned by the imagination of man.

As for this “pale blue dot” in the universe, its great, and there are powerful practical reasons to be good stewards, but some of the arguments about humans being rats or roaches swarming on this planet seem to be as normative as the ideas of those who argue for space travel because we can. Just as our own bodies are nothing but atoms, so this planet and all its creature are atoms, there is no spirit, no world soul, the rape of the planet is ultimately simply the destruction of self-organizing replicative molecules by other self-organizing replicate molecules. Oh, but what beautiful molecules they are in their endless forms! My point is that the reverence and love of life in all its diversity, what E.O. Wilson calls “biophilia,” has its equivalent in the only face of god that many of us will ever see, the blackness of the deep which calls out to us.
Ultimately this comes down to values. What are they? Where do we get them? You, sitting there in front of the computer reading frivolous science commentary, people starve while you leisure! Do you stand in judgement of the musings of a man dying of ALS while you fret over your corpulence?
We do not give away of all our possessions to feed the unfortunate though most of us grant that that would be a greater good. Life is filled with such contradictions, values unacted upon, dreams which draw us closer than reality. We’re a race of impetuous romantics and ambivalent egoists, not one of judicious saints. We’re all sinners, but sometimes it is easy to call out the transgressions of others against the Benthamite orthodoxy rather than acknowledge that we too have our indulgences, personal pleasures which flower amidst the reality of suffering in the world.
The Quinault rainforest, the spider’s web, a resplendent peak and the milky way, all are manifestations of the altamira principle, all can elicit in some the declaration, “and so I believe in God!” I personally think that’s a small answer to a big question, but I can’t deny the existence of the root sentiment.

• Category: Science • Tags: Space 
Razib Khan
About Razib Khan

"I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. If you want to know more, see the links at"