Sunday nibble #81: Me and my Shadow

Seven years ago today, I said good-bye for the last time to Shadow, my middle dog and problem child, although given subsequent events in real life, it seems like it’s been forever.

I’m not sure exactly how old she was. I adopted her on May 11, 2001, which was eleven days after the passing of my dog Dazé. The rescue group thought she was about a year and a half old, which would have put her birth around October, 1999 and she didn’t grow much after I adopted her, so the age was probably accurate.

I set her official “birthday” August 23 mainly because it was close enough, plus that was also Dazé’s official birthday, although in her case it would have been within a week of the truth either way because we adopted her as a puppy and knew how many weeks old she was.

That does mean, though, that Shadow hadn’t quite made it to her 15th birthday — or maybe she was just past it. And we never figured out why she died. Her vets had ruled out a lot of things, including cancer. It was just that she started to lose weight but didn’t seem to have anything wrong with her.

I do remember that after they had shaved her on one side to do an ultrasound, it took forever for that fur to grow back and it never really got to its original length, would did imply some sort of metabolic problem that was interfering with her body’s ability to absorb nutrients.

She was sick for a couple of years, and then one evening her back legs collapsed and she couldn’t stand up. I placed her in her bed and made her comfortable but in the morning she was barely mobile and I could tell that she was no longer happy. I don’t know whether she was in pain, but her eyes told me that she’d given up.

I took her in to the vet at the earliest appointment that day but already knew. They took one look at her and agreed that it was time. While they prepared her by putting a catheter in her foreleg, I ran home and got my other dog Sheeba, because I wanted her to be there — one of the advantages of living five minutes from the Vet’s office.

It was quick and painless and then it was done. The only thing that made it easier was that I was going home with Sheeba and not to an empty home like I had after Dazé died, or like I would after Sheeba died in 2020.

Like I mentioned at the beginning, Shadow was my problem child, so I think that I learned more from her than I did from my other two dogs.

Our adventure together began on that May day in 2001 when two volunteers from German Shepherd Rescue of Orange County (GSROC) brought her over.

Shadow wasn’t actually a German shepherd, though. I couldn’t have adopted her if she had been because of rules at my apartment. They thought she might have been a white German shepherd mix, which isn’t recognized by the AKC, so skates through a technical loophole on the breed thing, but eventually I think I figured out that she was probably a Belgian Malinois mixed with a smaller breed, like American Eskimo.

I’d found her in the first place because Dazé had been an American Eskimo and West Highland terrier mix, and when I searched for Esky mixes, Shadow was the only dog that came up. I wasn’t able to test her DNA before she passed, although I wish that I had because when I tested Sheeba’s DNA, she came up with all kinds of surprises.

Anyway, the volunteers brought her over and into my place, then each of them snuck out when she wasn’t looking, leaving her alone with me. However, long before the first one of them left, she went out onto my patio, curled up against the fence, and just stayed there, looking very apprehensive.

When the volunteers were gone, she wanted to have nothing to do with me, and I had that sinking feeling of, “Oh no. This isn’t going to work, is it?” So I inadvertently did the best thing I could. I ignored her and went about my day.

Eventually, I was in my bedroom, sitting on the bed with my back to the door when I heard the faintest of jingles from her dog tags clinking together and realized that she was standing in the doorway. I didn’t look at her, but instead I slid my right hand pack, patted the bed, and then left my fist sitting there.

I could sense her as she very cautiously approached, gently climbed onto the bed and then walked over slowly, finally sniffing my hand. Curiosity had gotten the better of her, and then she sat next to me.

Right after that, I fed her, and when she realized that I was not going to eat her but feed her instead, all of her fear of me vanished and she was joined at the hip from that moment on.

Considering how afraid of me she was in those first couple of hours together, it’s amazing how much she came to depend on me as her protector. If the slightest thing scared her, she would run right to Daddy, and either try to awkwardly climb onto my lap if I was sitting — even though she could have easily jumped onto it — or to hide behind my legs if I was standing.

At night, she had to sleep on the bed, and as close to me as possible. She preferred to curl up behind my legs, which was fine because I tended to sleep on my side with my legs bent, and she happened to be just the right size, curled up, to fit between my ankles and my ass, and fit into the curve of my legs.

I just had to remember not to move too much at night, because she was definitely a liquid dog, and would flow to fill whatever space was available. If I got too close to my edge of the bed, she’d be right there behind me, as close as possible.

Her nemeses were thunder, fireworks, and loud noises in general. Fortunately, we didn’t have a lot of thunderstorms in L.A., but we certainly get a lot of fireworks at certain times of the year, and the place I first lived in with her was in a neighborhood that seemed to believe that celebrating the 4th of July started around the middle of June and continued on a daily and nightly basis until Bastille Day.

That would get her to climb onto my lap and tremble like a leaf for sure.

We were also in exactly the right place to experience the unique double sonic-boom whenever a Space Shuttle returned to Edwards AFB, which happened nine times during her life.

The thing is, those booms were loud, there would be two of them slightly separated, and they would always rattle the windows. Even when I knew that a shuttle flight was coming in, it was never an exact science to know the moment when it would happen, so there was no way I could prepare her for it.

The only way I ever had luck in helping her in this regard came when we had a very rare but very active thunderstorm in the days before I’d adopted Sheeba.

I’ve told this story before, but the short version is that I heard the storm coming, so went into my office, which was the bedroom on the street side of the apartment, and opened the blinds, then called Shadow onto my lap.

I’d watch for the lightning flash, knowing that thunder was coming, and then would start to tell her, “Her it comes. Here comes the boom. Here it comes. Ready?” or words to that effect, over and over, until… thunder. And then I would hug her and say, “Yaaay!”

I think I even got to the point where I could raise one of her paws up along with the “Yaaay!” part. But I managed to turn it into a game, and  I think this gave her a sense of control, which might have been all that it took.

After an evening of our thunder game, she seemed less frightened by loud noises after that.

When it came to play, though, that was Shadow’s big thing. Dazé would sometimes decide to indulge in a little fetch or tug-of-war, but it always felt more like she was doing it because she thought I wanted to. Meanwhile, Sheeba couldn’t be arsed with any of it. Toss a ball her way, and she’d just watch it pass, then give me a look like, “What? You expect me to get that for you? As if.”

Shadow, though, went nuts for things she could chase, toys she could “kill,” or any other way that she could basically just be a dog and bond with Daddy. By the time she passed, I had one of those plastic storage bins that was absolutely stuffed with her toys, most of them hard rubber or squishy plastic, because she could and would destroy any plush toy in two seconds.

And she knew most of them by name, too.

Did Sheeba care when Shadow was gone and the toybox was hers? Of course not.

Despite my presence and protection, Shadow was always a nervous girl, which sometimes turned into aggression toward other dogs but also manifested itself as her suddenly peeing on the floor. And she wasn’t doing either out of any kind of malice. It was just that something would trigger her fight or flight response, and that’s how she reacted.

So a big thing that Shadow taught me was the necessity of patience in dealing with issues like this. After all, if your first instinct when your dog is aggressive toward another one or panics and pees on the floor is to yell at or, far worse, smack it (never do this), you’re only going to make the problem far, far worse.

Gently lead them away from the dog they’re getting aggro at. Put on their leash and lead them outside for a walk when they squat on the carpet. And so on.

The key is not “discipline,” it’s “deflect.” Redirect a timid, scared, insecure dog to what you want them to do, then praise them when they do it.

That was actually what I was doing in the thunder game without realizing it. I never had to tell Shadow, “No! No shake. No scared. Bad!” Instead, when thunder came, I was just there for her and redirected her to having fun.

Success.

This lesson from Shadow really stuck with me, and it applies to people, too. That is, you can’t make dogs or people stop fearing things by yelling at them or berating them. Rather, you can only do it by calming them down, embracing them, and then slowly turning them in the right direction.

Farewell again, little girl. You were special while you were here, and always will be in my heart.

Wednesday Wonders: Let’s get dark (Part 2)

Last week in Part 1, I looked at failed scientific hypotheses, the scientific method, and how Einstein’s Special and General Theories of Relativity hold up and yet are completely incompatible with each other, mainly because one explains gravity very well but nothing on the quantum level, and the other is the opposite. Here’s the rest of the why of that. Cheers!

May the force(s) be with you

In physics, there are four fundamental forces. They are gravity, electromagnetism, the weak force, and the strong force. We’ve already met gravity, which works with enormous masses across great distances but doesn’t seem to really have much effect in the sub-atomic realm.

The electromagnetic force, mediated by electrons and photons, seems to work on both a macro and micro level. It gives us electricity, lightning, and a sense of touch — all rather large phenomena quite visible in the quotidian world. On a subatomic level, it gives us friction and holds solid objects together, among other things.

An ice cube, for example, is just the electromagnetic force acting on water below a certain temperature. The electromagnetic force is also why you don’t just fall through the floor.

The weak nuclear force facilitates one kind of subatomic particle changing into another via the exchange of Bosons. This force is essential for powering the fusion that keeps stars alive, as well as transforming one kind of particle into another.

Finally, there’s the strong nuclear force, which is responsible for keeping the fundamental particles that keep atoms together. It bonds the quarks to create protons and neutrons, then bonds those to create atomic nuclei, to which the electromagnetic force attracts elections, creating elements.

Now, here’s the funny thing. In theory, the strong nuclear force is much, much stronger than the force of gravity — if its force is set at 1, then gravity is 6×10-39. However, there’s a catch. Gravity’s effective range is infinite, while that of the strong nuclear force is only 10-15 meters.

This is the basic stalemate between Einstein’s Theories of Relativity and quantum physics. The former explains the gravitational force very well, but doesn’t do that with the others. The latter explains the other three, but really has dick-all that can explain the former.

It’s kind of like the ultimate Nerd-Fight Cage Match, really.

Is it elementary?

I find it kind of interesting that modern physics settled on four forces, though (and four dimensions, but I’m not bringing that into it) when the ancient world settled on four “elements.”

This was long before any kind of theory of atoms, but by the age of Alchemists, who sought the holy grail of turning lead into gold long before anyone even realized that the only way to do that was via nuclear fusion, the prevailing wisdom was this.

There were only four “elements.” They were earth, fire, air, and water. This four-split in human culture, at least of the Western European kind, became so prominent that it was ridiculous.

How many suits in a deck of cards? How many Gospels? How many cardinal directions on the compass?

And don’t forget those famous Elizabethan “humors” that you probably learned about in high school: Melancholic, Choleric, Sanguine, and Phlegmatic.

Finally, how many limbs do we have, not counting our heads?

Somehow, this tetrapartite symbolism crept into Western culture and while the initial concepts about which elements actually existed are laughably wrong, let’s take a look at those naïve assumptions one more time, and map them onto modern physics.

Alchemists’ elements: Earth, fire, air, water

Elizabethan humours: Melancholic, Choleric, Sanguine, and Phlegmatic

Physics forces: Gravity, electromagnetic force, weak force, strong force

In at least the first and the last cases, it’s a game of “one of these things is not like the others.” Earth — which you can think of as soil or dirt or the planet itself — is solid matter. The other three are plasma, gas, and liquid.

Likewise, gravity seems to be a force created by the existence of matter, but unlike the others has no apparent particle that transmits it.

Little trouble in big bang

The idea that the universe began with a so-called “big bang” started with Edwin Hubble, the person, when he proved that the universe was expanding in all directions.

It followed that if the universe was expanding now, it had to have started expanding at some point in the past, and rewinding the clock indicated that the entire universe had been a single point 13 or 14 billion years previously.

So much for the idea of the universe being created in six days in 4004 BCE.

But this led to all sorts of logical questions. What caused the Big Bang? What came before it? And how did everything we know in the universe come into being in that instant and after, since all the energy and matter we’d ever have to work with had to have been generated at that point?

The other big question: How will the universe end? Will the expansion continue forever, eventually slowing down and stopping as entropy reaches a maximum, leaving the place cold, dark, and empty? Or did that first bang only give a sufficient kick to reach a certain point before the whole thing started to contract again, eventually returning to that initial point, slamming everything together into a Big Crunch that would recreate the original singularity?

In 1998, Hubble the Telescope did its namesake proud by throwing a wrench into things.

A little push

It turned out that the expansion of the universe was not slowing down or reversing at all. No — it was accelerating, meaning that not only might it never reverse or stop, it might just keep on going forever.

But this brought up the biggest and still unanswered question: What was causing the acceleration?

If we continue with the explosion analogy for the creation of the universe — which isn’t really that accurate, since the Big Bang happened everywhere at once — there’s no way to account for the acceleration without adding some outside factor.

But imagine this scenario. You launch a firework into the air and it blows up like it’s supposed to, sending its colorful pyrotechnics and sparks outward in a short series of multi-colored showers that make the crowd ooh and aah.

Now, when you designed the firework, it was meant to be a five second air-burst at a safe height of 200 meters, expanding to a maximum diameter of maybe 110 meters if you launched a 20-centimeter shell.

After all, all of the mass and energy that would ever exist in that explosion was packed into that shell before launch; before the Big Bang.

But then, your shell gets up there, and not only does it hit its intended 110 meter burst size before five seconds, but it keeps on going and growing, gradually expanding faster than the initial 22 meter-per-second growth rate — and it never stops expanding.

This is kind of what the universe appears to be doing.

The universe has lost your luggage

Other discoveries indicated that galaxies were acting like they had a lot more mass than they should have, or that we were able to observe because of their rotation. This led to the postulation of the concept of dark matter.

Meanwhile, the accelerating expansion of the universe led to various hypotheses, including the idea of dark energy.

By the way, please keep in mind that the terms “dark matter” and “dark energy” really should not be taken literally. They’re placeholders to indicate two things. The “dark” part just says that we cannot detect them. The “matter” and “energy” parts just tell us that, at the moment, we’re looking for force carrier — i.e. particle/wave thingie — and a specific force.

It’s like the term “dark saber” in The Mandalorian. George Lucas just needed to pull something out of his ass to justify a light saber that was black — hence, technically, not involving light at all.

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The takeaway here, though, is that dark matter seems to be pulling on galaxies to affect their spin, while dark energy seems to be pushing on the universe to speed up its expansion.

The real scary part of this though, is that the fallout of these two ideas is that less than 5% of our universe is made up of the familiar matter and energy that we know.

None of the dark energy hypotheses has been tested yet, although I lean towards modified gravity, or MOND concepts myself, since these truly seek to reconcile the two theories of relativity and unite the fundamental forces at last.

Ether frolic II

My problem with the idea of dark energy and dark matter is that they could just be this generation’s ether and phlogiston. Maybe the acceleration of expansion is an error in the original measurements of the Cosmic Microwave Background.

Or maybe something about the inflationary period created an artefact that only makes it look like acceleration is expanding when it’s not.

There was a very long period after the Big Bang, called the Cosmic Dark Ages, before stars or galaxies even formed. This may have been when Dark Matter arose — or it may just be an era we can’t really peer through because fusion had not lit up the cosmos.

Finally, we cannot really discount universal inflation, which is when everything expanded much faster than the speed of light. This was possible because nothing was moving that fast. It was space itself that ballooned, so that anything that moved with it was moving at the same speed as space relatively — i.e., it was stationary, so no violations at all.

But, since space-time seems to be the macro-fabric that gravity acts on instantaneously but in an attractive and not repulsive manner, could inflation and not the dark ages actually have been the period when whatever dark energy might exist was created?

Could this also be how gravity got separated forever from the other forces? Who knows? However, since gravity also apparently has no particle that transmits its force, it also has no anti-particle, at least that we know of.

Finding a particle for it would probably lead directly to solving the dark energy problem, since gravity’s anti-particle would be the particle transmitting dark… well, at that point, it would probably just become anti-gravity.

One other mind-fuck in the basket. As noted previously, we have confirmed the existence of gravity waves, which ripple through space-time on a super-macro scale. But if gravity waves do exist, is there a way to observe them that will show their particle nature as well?

Because if we manage to pull off that trick, well then… Special and General Relativity are going to need to get a room.

Image Source, European Space Agency, licensed under (CC 4.0) International

Wednesday Wonders: Let’s get dark (Part 1)

Sometime between when humans discovered fire and when Antoine Lavoisier finally figured out how it worked, there was an hypothesis floated in the 1660s that things burned because of an element called phlogiston that existed within things that could burn, and letting it out created the flames.

It’s kind of chicken and egg, really — did things burn because that’s what the phlogiston in them did, or did they only burn when it was somehow let out?

But Lavoisier and his experiments ended all that nonsense just over a century later, when he proved that combustion was actually the result of rapid oxidation of a flammable material in the presence of a fuel source.

Also: some substances lose mass when they burn and others gain it. It all depends upon how oxygen deals with the reaction.

Ether frolic

Then there was also the idea of ether (or aether), the postulated medium necessary for light to be able to propagate through what was otherwise the vacuum of space. This was another product of the 17th century.

Sir Isaac Newton, to his credit, rejected the idea early, mainly based on the idea that any media that would channel and direct light would also fuck with gravity, and so the orbits of the planets wouldn’t work the way that they did. In a very weird way, this was kind of a prediction of how relativity and quantum mechanics would suffer a nasty break-up centuries later.

The more that scientists determined the properties that the ether would have to have in order to guide light the way it had been alleged to do, the more ridiculous the concept became. Newton had been right. The density of the ether required would have totally screwed every star and planet in space by making them motionless.

Einstein eventually drove the nails into the coffin of the concept of ether with — surprise — his special theory of relativity, which really changed a lot of things in science.

One of the big ones is something that’s going to come up here later.

A brief note on terminology

One of the most misused scientific terms is “theory,” because it means two really different things depending upon who’s using it. Unfortunately, far too many non-scientists of the politician/armchair pundit variety have abused the word “theory” in order to attack actual science.

So you’ll quite often hear things like people saying “Evolution is only a theory,” not realizing that the words “only a” do not belong. The problem is that to most non-scientists, the word “theory” means “an idea I have about how the world works but with no research yet,” or, more frequently, “something I pulled out of my ass.”

This makes it very easy for them to look at something like Evolution and say, “Oh, it’s just a theory.”

Funny how you never really hear people say that about gravity, right?

But what lay people like to call theory is, in scientific terms, an hypothesis. And yes, it absolutely is nothing more than an idea, or a concept, or something that a researcher in a particular field really did pull out of their ass.

Why? To do the work necessary to see whether it’s true.

The best part is that it does not matter at all how ridiculous that original hypothesis is. Why? Because this is when we pick up the scientific method, and it works like so:

  1. Determine what your hypothesis is and how you want to test it. Note: Keep it to real science. Once you start to try to measure or theorize on things like people’s behavior or ideas or whatever, you’ve veered off into social “science,” which is not science at all. Fight me, biatches. I minored in psych in college, so I know what I’m talking about.
  1. A real scientific hypothesis might be something like this: “Why can we not predict whether stars under X solar masses will either go nova, collapse into a neutron star, or become a black hole?” “Why do we still find DNA from Denisovans in modern humans when there is no evidence at all that they ever co-existed?” “Why does natural selection seem to like to re-create crabs over and over?” (Note: Humans and Denisovans did cross-breed at one point. The examples are just “what-ifs.”)
  2. And everyone of those questions then ends with, “Because… this,” and that’s where the hypothesis goes. These are still just guesses, though, of how a process might work. “Because we do not know the exact composition of the ultimate solar core, and the density of the elements in it,” or “Because Denisovans never met modern humans directly, but they did interbreed with earlier species of compatible breeders who did mix DNA with modern humans,” or “Because that kind of shelled, flat form with multiple arms and giant weapons up front provided a lot of protection on land and sea, so that’s why it kept coming back.”
  3. .. after the “because this,” it’s data collecting time, and that’s where the science happens. Observe stars with ever-increasing resolution to figure out the exact composition of their cores; keep testing that DNA, both Y and mitochondrial, and you will eventually figure out when and where the first Denisovan got horny enough to hump the first proto-human and, ta-da… another uplink on that Y-DNA chain.

And, finally, if you’ve ever had crotch crickets, you know that crabs are obviously the most evolved to survive lifeform on the planet, whether they’re zip-lining down your pubes, torturing the hell out of your crotch (and anyone it’s ever been near to in the last 36 hours), or reminding you of the real reason that Anakin hates sand. But a really good scientific subject for this would be, “How the hell do I destroy these little itch-mongers without having to shave everything and then carpet-bomb my crotch?”

  1. Ask “why” question, postulate “because” answer, compile a shitload of data and analyze it. Trust what tells you you’re full of shit, take several more looks at what tells you you’re right — then run the whole damn experiment all over again with a different group.
  1. Lather, rinse, repeat, and eventually come up with something that either completely proves that your hypothesis was wrong, or that is a study you can share, which you do, with your fellow scientists.
  2. They go out, look at your study, try to get the same results within their own group, and then report back. Sometimes, they will find the exact same things, which is “Hooray!” Other times, they will find discrepancies, which might mean that there were errors in the original data or design, but these can just lead to more scientific studies.
  3. Lather, rinse repeat, until it looks like the hypothesis does explain the process. Peer-review one last time, then publish.

And that is the scientific method in a nutshell. All of those various experiments and peer-reviewed studies eventually lead to some sort of consensus with replicable results that explain how and why a particular thing occurs.

Then, and only then, do you get to jump out and declare…

THEORY!

So, for example, going back to one of the original hypotheses, the theory might now explain “How stellar dynamics determine whether a star of given mass will go nova, collapse into a neutron star, or become a black hole.”

And this new theory will include hard data, along the lines of “A star needs to have a mass less than X but diameter of Y in order to go nova, mass greater than X and diameter between Y and Z in order to become a neutron star, and mass greater than X and diameter less than Z in order to become a black hole.

A theory can also be disproven, rewritten, or confirmed multiple times. That’s how science works. But then there are those rare occasions where two theories both seem to be true, and yet create completely incompatible explanations for how the universe works.

Big and little

You’ve probably heard of Einstein’s “Theory of Relativity,” but there are actually two. The first, published in 1905, was his Special Theory of Relativity, most famous for giving us E=mc2, giving us the idea of mass/energy equivalence. That is, for any given mass, if you convert it entirely to energy, you’re going to get a really, really big boom because the value of c (the speed of light in a vacuum) is so huge, and then you square it and use it as a multiplier.

I think that most people have an intuitive understanding that this formula is what predicted the ultimate destructive power of nuclear weapons, which don’t even completely convert the mass in them into energy.

But the real purpose of this first theory of relativity was to show how space and time are connected, and it proved why no object with any rest mass could move at the speed of light. Its mass would increase with velocity, becoming infinite before hitting the speed of light, therefore making it impossible to make it go any faster, because there just isn’t enough energy.

See, the equation works both ways. But it did not account for acceleration. It only dealt with objects moving at the speed of light. It took ten years, but then Einstein published his General Theory of Relativity.

Here, among other things, accounting for acceleration and momentum made the results even freakier because the expanded formula squares both the E and (mc2) parts, then adds the product of that mass’s momentum, also times c squared.

It also dragged (pun intended) gravity into the equation, as in the Special Theory explained how space and time were linked, and the General Theory explained how gravity could affect them — reading “affect” as bend and distort.

That was the major mind-bending idea behind it that still hasn’t been disproven. Gravity is some kind of force that works across the universe on cosmic scales, and it basically tugs on the fabric of reality — space and time — doing things like making objects with mass attract each other or making objects with mass slow down time.

This theory came with an easy test. Since Gravity actually affected the fabric of space, any collision of two sufficiently massive objects should create ripples in space itself. It took a century, but in 2016, the first gravity waves were measured, confirming Einstein — yet again.

So we have plenty of evidence showing what gravity can do, that it is probably an inherent property of mass, and it can bend space, time, and light — but we still have no idea what it does.

Attempts to come up with a hypothetical “graviton” particle that carries the gravitational force, analogous to things like the photon, gluon, and electron, have so far been unsuccessful — meaning that gravity cannot be explained via quantum physics.

This is probably entirely a matter of scale.

To be continued next week…

Image Source, European Space Agency, licensed under (CC 4.0) International

Ride with pride

Today would have marked the 70th birthday of American astronaut Sally Ride, who has so many firsts or near-firsts associated with her that it’s nothing short of remarkable.

Born in 1951, she joined NASA in 1978 and became the first American woman in space five years later in 1983. She was third woman in space overall after Soviet cosmonauts Valentina Tereshkova and Svetlana Savitskaya, who had gone up in 1962 and 1983 respectively.

She was also the youngest American astronaut to ever go into space, achieving the record with her first flight, when she was 32. She served with NASA until 1987 but still racked up another first — she was the only person to serve on both of the committees that investigated the disastrous losses of the Space Shuttles Challenger and Columbia.

And that may be where you had a Mandela effect moment and said to yourself, “Wait. Didn’t she die in the Columbia crash?” While she is dead, the answer is “No.” I think a lot of people get her confused with Christa McAuliffe, the first teacher-astronaut, who died in the Challenger disaster in 1986.

Sally Ride died of pancreatic cancer in 2012, at the age of 61, but she did leave another first as her legacy.

She had been married to a fellow astronaut, Steven Hawley, for the five years leading up to her leaving NASA, but her obituary revealed that she had been with her partner, children’s book author and women’s tennis professional Tam O’Shaughnessy, for 27 years.

In other words, not only was she the first American woman in space, but she was also the first member of the LGBTQ+ community (that we know of) to have been in space.

The “that we know of” is significant there, since Ride was not out while with NASA or, indeed, in her lifetime — at least not publicly. And, due to circumstances, that has been the case with all astronauts for all of NASA’s history but it also extends to China, the USSR, and later, Russia.

There may have been other astronauts that fell into one of the LGBTQ+ categories, but if so, none of them has ever said a word about it. It also didn’t help that a lot of NASA’s operations were centered in Texas (thank LBJ for that) where sodomy was illegal up until 2003.

And the so-called STEM fields — science, technology, engineering, and mathematics — have not been very gay- or lesbian-friendly, let alone any other member of the community. The fields have traditionally been male-dominated, particularly through most of the previous century.

That’s because science, et. al, was focused on big developments for society-at-large. There was also the built-in misogyny of expectations: Men would become the breadwinners, and women would take care of the homes and children.

Complete and utter bullshit, yes, but for decades, women rarely got the chance to even go to college. If they did, it might be “only” a junior college or secretarial school where they would pick up just the skills necessary to work some menial support job in an office or factory, along with all those necessary skills to keep a tidy, functioning household, handle the shopping and budget, and manage the kids along with the housework.

The shorthand code for this was “learning to keep your husband happy,” and that was the whole point. Shortly before that wedding but definitely around the time of the first baby, Mom was out of the workforce and she even added a new, inanimate spouse, going from just “wife” to “housewife.”

I wish I were kidding.

This really started to hit its peak from the 1920s onward, ironically (or maybe not) because of improvements in technology. Home appliances made big advances going into the 1930s, and suddenly it was possible for one woman to do all of the cooking and cleaning and sewing and whatever all by herself, without a fleet of servants.

Not that poorer households had servants, of course. That’s what daughters were for once they were old enough to wield a mop and change a diaper.

There was a brief glimmer of light during WW II, oddly enough, and to this day the image of Rosie the Riveter, actually based on a real person, is still held up as a progressive icon on many fronts. She stands for not only gender equality, but for the power inherent and the change possible when members of marginalized and oppressed groups work together and speak out.

The original “Rosie the Riveter,” as an abstract concept represented all of those “housewives” who went on to take factory jobs in positions more directly involved with STEM because there were not enough men of the right ages to do it. As a song from the era lamented, They’re Either Too Young or Too Old, and that was exactly the case.

It’s all spelled out in this song from 1943, written for the movie Thank Your Lucky Stars, which was one of those late-war feel-good films showcasing a bunch of Hollywood stars as sort of a USO show for the home front.

Her number is absolutely hilarious, by the way, and the lyrics are quite clever. It’s worth a watch.

Anyway, all of these women (plus people of color who couldn’t get in) experienced a few brief years in the workforce, and realized that, well, “Yes, we can!” And then were promptly put right back where they’d been beforehand when the men came back.

But from that point, it didn’t take long for things to come bubbling back, it’s no coincidence that the sexual revolution, the gay liberation movement, the Civil Rights movement, the women’s movement, and all the others began about a generation after the war ended.

Well, okay. The Civil Rights movement began pretty much immediately, but the others started with their own baby steps in the 1950s, and followed the model of the CRM.

Certain groups snuck under the STEM barrier earlier than others of course. For example, the film Hidden Figures finally brought to wide attention the important role a group of African-American women played in the American Space Flight effort from the beginning of the 1960s — although it’s easy to forget that while these women were doing the complex calculations that made sure we put humans into space and brought them back safely, it really wasn’t an appreciated skill.

They were referred to as “computers,” and not as a compliment. It was still the boys having all the fun with the engineering and mechanics and actually building stuff. They never seemed to notice that most of it probably would have come flaming back to Earth without the help of their “computers.”

Still… women and people of color did find wider acceptance in STEM. Openly LGBTQ+ people? Rarer, even up until the middle of the 2010s. This is visible every time there’s some scientific study done with a strong heteronormative bias.

There are plenty of studies on why straight men look at women’s boobs, as well as studies on why, but damn little on things like do straight women look at women’s boobs? Do gay men? Do lesbians look at women’s boobs as much as straight men? And so on.

Unfortunately, the subject of LGBTQ+ experience only entered via the so-called soft sciences, like sociology, psychology, and anthropology. They’re considered “soft” because it’s much more difficult to come up with absolute and concrete measurements in these fields.

These sciences are based on statistics rather than discrete data points. Sure, the entire field of calculus, which underlies much of modern physics, aeronautics, and the like, is sort of statistical in one sense, but it’s a kind of statistics that is narrowed down to such a small degree — and which doesn’t rely on human variables — that it’s not at all mushy.

In case you’re wondering, calculus deals with changes in systems based on vectors of movement; e.g. “If we launch a missile at x degrees, it weighs m kilos with fuel at launch, lifts off accelerating at a meters per second per second squared, and burns fuel at a rate of r liters per second while accelerating, at what height will the missile run out of fuel, and what will its trajectory be when the force of gravity, G, reacts with the remaining mass, m-(r-r1), how fast will it be pulled back to Earth, at what angle and what velocity, and where will it hit?

Sounds complicated, doesn’t it? And it is, and this is the kind of thing those human “computers” had to do by hand. But here’s the thing… each step of the way, there is a specific value to plug in, and exact rules that determine behavior.

Thomas Pynchon called this Gravity’s Rainbow, and he wasn’t really wrong even if he did write a completely incomprehensible book. It’s a phrase that describes ballistic travel and pays homage to the inventor of calculus, Isaac Newton, who also pioneered optics, hence the rainbow.

But, when it comes to the “soft” sciences, there is no rainbow because things cannot be plugged in as neatly. That’s because those equations may evolve things like, “We tried to determine how many men have had homosexual experiences, and out of a sample of X, we determined that the percentage is p.

The big problem, of course, is that there are so many possibilities not only for the number in X, but the source, so the p could wind up being anything.

Start with the question “Have you ever?” and only ask 5,000 males who attended British boarding schools between, say, 1900 and 1950, and you might get something like 75% or higher.

Start with the question “Do you now?” and limit it to 500 American males regardless of school status, and a lot depends on timing. Ask that question in 2021 among people agreed 13 to 23, and you might get a really high percentage. Ask that question in 1990 but only among men over 40, and you might get single digit percentages.

Also don’t forget… the rules of physics and things you can measure on a scale or with a ruler don’t lie. Humans do. So any study in the soft sciences is going to have a huge margin of error because it all depends on whether someone actually answers the questions honestly.

And, come on, when it comes to sex and sexuality, very few people have the gonads necessary to just answer the questions honestly without trying to put themselves in the best light.

So… we really don’t know how many LGBTQ+ astronauts there have been. We could have had half a dozen by now, or Sally could be truly the only example. (Though I doubt it.) The only thing we do know is that there are definitely a ton of LGBTQ+ people in the sciences, and The Advocate recently compiled this self-reported list of 500 Queer Scientists in STEM fields.

Enjoy!

THIS JUST IN! Announced right before publish time, Sally Ride and Maya Angelou to be the first two women depicted on American quarters. Of course, the linked article mentions nothing about Sally being gay.

Image source: John Mathew Smith & www.celebrity-photos.com from Laurel Maryland, USA, (CC BY-SA 2.0), via Wikimedia Commons

New Horizons

I’ve always been a giant nerd for three things: History, language, and science. History fascinates me because it shows how humanity has progressed over the years and centuries. We were wandering tribes reliant on whatever we could kill or scavenge, but then we discovered the secrets of agriculture (oddly enough, hidden in the stars), so then we created cities, where we were much safer from the elements.

Freed from a wandering existence, we started to develop culture — arts and sciences — because we didn’t have to spend all of our time picking berries or hunting wild boar. Of course, at the same time, we also created things like war and slavery and monarchs, which are really the ultimate evil triumvir of all of humanity, and three things we really haven’t shaken off yet, even if we sometimes call them by different names. At the same time, humanity also strove for peace and freedom and equality.

It’s a back and forth struggle as old as man, sometimes forward and sometimes back. It’s referred to as the cyclical theory of history. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. developed the theory with specific reference to American history, although it can apply much farther back than that. Anthony Burgess, author of A Clockwork Orange, explored it specifically in his earlier novel The Wanting Seed, although it could be argued that both books cover two different aspects of the cycle. The short version of the cycle: A) Society (i.e. government) sees people as good and things progress and laws become more liberal. B) Society (see above) sees people as evil and things regress as laws become harsher and draconian, C) Society (you know who) finally wakes up and realizes, “Oh. We’ve become evil…” Return to A. Repeat.

This is similar to Hegel’s Dialectic — thesis, antithesis, synthesis, which itself was parodied in Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea’s Illuminatus! Trilogy, which posited a five stage view of history instead of three, adding parenthesis and paralysis to the mix.

I’m not entirely sure that they were wrong.

But enough of history, although I could go on about it for days. Regular readers already know about my major nerdom for language, which is partly related to history as well, so let’s get to the science.

The two areas of science I’ve always been most interested in also happen to be at completely opposite ends of the scale. On the large end are astronomy and cosmology, which deal with things on scales way bigger than what we see in everyday life. I’m talking the size of solar systems, galaxies, local clusters, and the universe itself. Hey, when I was a kid, humans had already been in space for a while, so it seemed like a totally normal place to be. The first space disaster I remember was the Challenger shuttle, and that was clearly human error.

At the other end of the size scale: chemistry and quantum physics. Chemistry deals with interactions among elements and molecules which, while they’re too small for us to see individually, we can still see the results. Ever make a vinegar and baking soda volcano? Boom! Chemistry. And then there’s quantum physics, which deals with things so small that we can never actually see them, and we can’t even really be quite sure about our measurements of them, except that the models we have also seem to give an accurate view of how the universe works.

Without understanding quantum physics, we would not have any of our sophisticated computer devices, nor would we have GPS (which also relies on Einstein’s Relativity, which does not like quantum physics, nor vice versa.) We probably wouldn’t even have television or any of its successors, although we really didn’t know that at the time TV was invented, way before the atomic bomb. Not that TV relies on quantum mechanics, per se, but its very nature does depend on the understanding that light can behave as either a particle or a wave and figuring out how to force it to be a particle.

But, again, I’m nerding out and missing the real point. Right around the end of 2018, NASA did the amazing, and slung their New Horizons probe within photo op range of the most distant object we’ve yet visited in our solar system. Called Ultima Thule, it is a Kuiper Belt object about four billion miles away from earth, only about 19 miles long, and yet we still managed to get close enough to it to get some amazing photos.

And this really is the most amazing human exploration of all. New Horizons was launched a generation or two after both Viking probes, and yet got almost as far in under half the time — and then, after rendezvousing with disgraced dwarf planet Pluto went on to absolutely nail a meeting with a tiny rock so far from the sun that it probably isn’t even really all that bright. And all of this was done with plain old physics, based on rules worked out by some dude in the 17th century. I think they named some sort of cookie after him, but I could be wrong. Although those original rules, over such great distances, wouldn’t have really worked out without the tweaking that the quantum rules gave us.

Exploring distant space is really a matter of combining our knowledge of the very, very big with the very, very small — and this should really reflect back on our understanding of history. You cannot begin to comprehend the macro if you do not understand the micro.

Monarchs cannot do shit without understanding the people beneath them. This isn’t just a fact of history. For the scientifically inclined, the one great failing of Einstein’s theories — which have been proven experimentally multiple times — is that they fall entirely apart on the quantum level. This doesn’t mean that Einstein was wrong. Just that he couldn’t or didn’t account for the power of the very, very tiny.

And, call back to the beginning: Agriculture, as in the domestication of plants and animals, did not happen until humans understood the cycle of seasons and the concept of time. Before we built clocks, the only way to do that was to watch the sun, the moon, and the stars and find the patterns. In this case, we had to learn to pay attention to the very, very slow, and to keep very accurate records. Once we were able to predict things like changes in the weather, or reproductive cycles, or when to plant and when to harvest, all based on when the sun or moon rose or set, ta-da. We had used science to master nature and evolve.

And I’ve come full circle myself. I tried to separate history from science, but it’s impossible. You see, the truth that humanity learns by objectively pursuing science is the pathway to free us from the constant cycle of good to bad to oops and back to good. Repeat.

Hey, let’s not repeat. Let’s make a concerted effort to agree when humanity achieves something good, then not flip our shit and call it bad. Instead, let’s just keep going ever upward and onward. Change is the human condition. If you want to restore the world of your childhood, then there’s something wrong with you, not the rest of us. After all, if the negative side of humanity had won when we first learned how to domesticate plants and animals and create cities, we might all still be wandering, homeless and nearly naked, through an inhospitable world, with our greatest advancements in technology being the wheel and fire — and the former not used for transportation, only for grinding whatever plants we’d picked that day into grain. Or, in other words, moderately intelligent apes with no hope whatsoever of ever learning anything or advancing toward being human.

Not a good look, is it? To quote Stan Lee: “Excelsior!”

Onward. Adelante. Let’s keep seeking those new and broader horizons.

5 things space exploration brought back down to Earth

Previously, I wrote about how a thing as terrible as World War I still gave us some actual benefits, like improvements in plastic surgery, along with influencing art in the 20th century. Now, I’d like to cover something much more positive: five of the tangible, down-to-earth benefits that NASA’s space programs, including the Apollo program to the Moon, have given us.

I’m doing so because I happened across another one of those ignorant comments on the internet along the lines of, “What did going to the Moon ever really get us except a couple of bags of rocks?” That’s kind of like asking, “What did Columbus sailing to America ever really get us?” The answer to that should be obvious, although NASA did it with a lot fewer deaths and exactly zero genocide.

All of those Apollo-era deaths came with the first manned attempt, Apollo 1, which was destroyed by a cabin fire a month before its actual launch date during a test on the pad on January 27, 1967, killing all three astronauts aboard. As a consequence, missions 2 through 6 were unmanned. Apollo 7 tested docking maneuvers for the Apollo Crew and Service Modules, to see if this crucial step would work, and Apollo 8 was the first to achieve lunar orbit, circling our satellite ten times before returning to Earth. Apollo 9 tested the crucial Lunar Module, responsible for getting the first humans onto and off of the Moon, and Apollo 10 was a “dress rehearsal,” which went through all of the steps except the actual landing.

Apollo 11, of course, was the famous “one small step” mission, and after that we only flew six more times to the Moon, all of them meant to do the same as 11, but only the other one that’s most people remember, Apollo 13, is famous for failing to make it there.

I think the most remarkable part is that we managed to land on the Moon only two-and-a-half years after that disastrous first effort, and then carried out five successful missions in the three-and-a-half-years after that. What’s probably less well-known is that three more missions were cancelled between Apollo 13 and 14, but still with the higher numbers 18 through 20 because their original launch dates were not until about two years later.

Yes, why they just didn’t skip from to 17 so that the numbering worked out to 20 is a mystery.

Anyway, the point is that getting to the Moon involved a lot of really intelligent people solving a lot of tricky problems in a very short time, and as a result of it, a ton of beneficial tech came out of it. Some of this fed into or came from Apollo directly, while other tech was created or refined in successive programs, like Skylab, and  the Space Shuttle.

Here are my five favorites out of the over 6,300 technologies that NASA made great advances in on our journeys off of our home planet.

CAT scanner: Not actually an invention of NASA’s per se — that credit goes to British physicists Godfrey Hounsfield and Allan Cormack. However, the device did use NASA’s digital imaging technology in order to work, and this had been developed by JPL for NASA in order to enhance images taken on the moon. Since neither CAT scanners nor MRIs use visible light to capture images, the data they collect needs to be processed somehow and this is where digital imaging comes in.

A CAT scanner basically uses a revolving X-ray tube to repeatedly circle the patient and create a profile of data taken at various depths and angles, and this is what the computer puts together. The MRI is far safer (as long as you don’t get metal too close to it.)

This is because instead of X-rays an MRI machine works by using a magnetic field to cause the protons in every water molecule in your body to align, then pulsing a radio frequency through, which unbalances the proton alignment. When the radio frequency is then turned off, the protons realign. The detectors sense how long it takes protons in various places to do this, which tells them what kind of tissue they’re in. Once again, that old NASA technology takes all of this data and turns it into images that can be understood by looking at them. Pretty nifty, huh?

Invisible braces: You may remember this iconic moment from Star Trek IV: The One with the Whales, in which Scotty shares the secret of “transparent aluminum” with humans of 1986.

However, NASA actually developed transparent polycrystalline alumina long before that film came out and, although TPA is not a metal, but a ceramic, it contributed to advances in creating nearly invisible braces. (Note that modern invisible braces, like Invisalign, are not made of ceramic.)

But the important point to note is that NASA managed to take a normally opaque substance and allow it to transmit light while still maintaining its properties. And why did NASA need transparent ceramic? Easy. That stuff is really heat-resistant, and if you have sensors that need to see light while you’re dumping a spacecraft back into the atmosphere, well, there you go. Un-melting windows and antennae, and so on. This was also a spin-off of heat-seeking missile technology.

Joystick: You can be forgiven for thinking that computer joysticks were invented in the early 1980s by ATARI or (if you really know your gaming history) by ATARI in the early 1970s. The first home video game, Pong, was actually created in 1958, but the humble joystick itself goes back to as far as aviation does, since that’s been the term for the controller on airplanes since before World War I. Why is it called a “joystick?” We really don’t know, despite attempts at creating folk etymology after the fact.

However, those early joysticks were strictly analogue — they were connected mechanically to the flaps and rudders that they controlled. The first big innovation came thirty-two years before Pong, when joysticks went electric. Patented in 1926, it was dreamt up by C. B. Mirick at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. Its purpose was also controlling airplanes.

So this is yet another incidence of something that NASA didn’t invent, but boy howdy did they improv upon it — an absolute necessity when you think about it. For NASA, joysticks were used to land craft on the Moon and dock them with each other in orbit, so precision was absolutely necessary, especially when trying to touch down on a rocky satellite after descending through no atmosphere at orbital speed, which can be in the vicinity of 2,300 mph (about 3,700 km/h) at around a hundred kilometers up. They aren’t much to look at by modern design standards, but one of them sold at auction a few years back for over half a million dollars.

It gets even trickier when you need to dock two craft moving at similar speed, and in the modern day, we’re doing it in Earth orbit. The International Space Station is zipping along at a brisk 17,150 mph, or 27,600 km/h. That’s fast.

The early NASA innovations involved adding rotational control in addition to the usual X and Y axes, and later on they went digital and all kinds of crazy in refining the devices to have lots of buttons and be more like the controllers we know and love today. So next time you’re shredding it your favorite PC or Xbox game with your $160 Razer Wolverine Ultimate Chroma Controller, thank the rocket scientists at NASA. Sure, it doesn’t have a joystick in the traditional sense, but this is the future that space built, so we don’t need one!

Smoke detector: This is another device that NASA didn’t invent, but which they certainly refined and improved. While their predecessors, automatic fire alarms, date back to the 19th century, the first model relied on heat detection only. The problem with this, though, is that you don’t get heat until the fire is already burning, and the main cause of death in house fires isn’t the flames. It’s smoke inhalation. The version patented by George Andrew Darby in England in the 1890s did account for some smoke, but it wasn’t until the 1930s the concept of using ionization to detect smoke happened. Still, these devices were incredibly expensive, so only really available to corporations and governments. But isn’t that how all technological progress goes?

It wasn’t until NASA teamed with Honeywell (a common partner) in the 1970s that they managed to bring down the size and cost of these devices, as well as make them battery-operated. More recent experiments on ISS have helped scientists to figure out how to refine the sensitivity of smoke detectors, so that it doesn’t go off when your teenage boy goes crazy with the AXE body spray or when there’s a little fat-splash back into the metal roaster from the meat you’re cooking in the oven. Both are annoying, but at least the latter does have a positive outcome.

Water filter: Although it turns out that water is common in space, with comets being lousy with the stuff in the form of ice, and water-ice confirmed on the Moon and subsurface liquid water on Mars, as well as countless other places, we don’t have easy access to it, so until we establish water mining operations off-Earth, we need to bring it with us. Here’s the trick, though: water is heavy. A liter weighs a kilogram and a gallon weighs a little over eight pounds. There’s really no valid recommendation on how much water a person should drink in a day, but if we allow for two liters per day per person, with a seven person crew on the ISS, that’s fourteen kilos, or 31 pounds of extra weight per day. At current SpaceX launch rates, that can range from $23,000 to $38,000 per daily supply of water, but given a realistic launch schedule of every six weeks, that works out to around $1 to $1.5 million per launch just for the water. That six-week supply is also eating up 588 kilos of payload.

And remember: This is just for a station that’s in Earth orbit. For longer missions, the cost of getting water to them is going to get ridiculously expensive fast — and remember, too, that SpaceX costs are relatively recent. In 1981, the cost per kilogram was $85,216, although the Space Shuttles cargo capacity was slightly more than the Falcon Light.

So what’s the solution? Originally, it was just making sure all of the water was purified, leading to the Microbial Check Valve, which eventually filtered out (pun intended) to municipal water systems and dental offices. But to really solve the water problem, NASA is moving to recycling everything. And why not? Our bodies tend to excrete a lot of the water we drink when we’re done with it. Although it’s a myth that urine is sterile, it is possible to purify it to reclaim the water in it, and NASA has done just that. However, they really shouldn’t use the method shown in the satirical WW II film Catch-22

So it’s absolutely not true that the space program has given us nothing, and this list of five items barely scratches the surface. Once what we learn up there comes back down to Earth, it can improve all of our lives, from people living in the poorest remote villages on the planet to those living in splendor in the richest cities.

If you don’t believe that, here’s a question. How many articles of clothing that are NASA spin-offs are you wearing now, or do you wear on a regular basis? You’d be surprised.

Momentous Monday: Welcome, Peter Bean

It’s a very special and, well, momentous Monday for a couple of reasons.

First, I’m very excited to announce that today is the launch of what I hope will be many guest bloggers here, and my first guest is Peter Bean, who is a truly amazing human — the kind of person I really admire in that “I want to be him when I grow up” way. You can visit his blog and more at The Flushed.

Second, since today is the ninth anniversary of the decommissioning of the space shuttle Discovery, in its honor I asked Peter to share his experience up close and personal with another shuttle, OV-105, better known as Endeavour, the one that wound up here in L.A. — my original, and his  adopted, hometown.

We finally both got to see the shuttle together a little over five years after it arrived here at the California Science Center, and it was a profoundly moving experience. Walking into that room and seeing the thing up close was like walking into a cathedral.

But now, I’m very proud to turn it over to Peter Bean, one of the most amazing and inspiring people I’ve ever met, and a walking anti-depressant. But don’t tell him I said any of that!


I hate you Space Shuttle, I love you Space Shuttle

By Peter Bean

Peter Bean as Endeavor continues its final voyage

The retired Endeavour space shuttle lumbers down an average Los Angeles street on October 13th, 2012, set to be on display in a local museum. As it rumbles towards me, feelings of love, hate, and sadness mix inside. The United States shuttle program crippled, gut-punched, and inspired humanity. The wings of the shuttle spread outward. Crowds of people push past me for a better look as I squint to see this plane. This is no rocket that pushed Neil Armstrong upward. I’m left wondering about when exactly we gave up the future. The Moon? Mars?

It was in a wood-paneled sixties-looking room complete with an ashtray, patterned fabric chairs, and white carpet. I can imagine the room was brimming with a specific old man funk due to the many, many reporters packed into the small space.

It’s January 5th 1972 and President Richard Nixon announces the shuttle program. He, his administration, and a Space Task Group he created all decided that the United States would not commit to a Mars mission, but instead to low-Earth orbit.

He’d be well out of office by the time the program began in 1981 due to his underhanded interest in getting dirt on his rivals. Between 1983 and 1992 space shuttles Columbia (1981), Challenger (1983), Discovery (1984), Atlantis (1985), and Endeavour (1992) were built and flown. Their primary function: deliver satellites into Earth’s orbit. No longer would we stretch humanity’s arms. No longer would we touch the soil of alien worlds.

The gut punch. Space isn’t easy. The Endeavour space shuttle is now directly in front of me as I stand on the sidewalk and I can see the nooks, the knobs, and the scrapes. It’s not the hulking beast I came to think of in my head. It’s fragile and vulnerable.

A miracle it too didn’t retire in the tragic way its sister ships did. Challenger disintegrated upon launch and killed all seven astronauts in 1986. Columbia broke up during reentry in 2003, killing all of its seven crew.

Challenger’s error came from an O-ring malfunction due to cost-cutting with new shuttle ship building. Columbia’s was a more systematic error in its underbelly shielding. Its sleek black bottom was meant to take on the heat of re-entry. Each tile is quite fragile and lightweight. It’s a marvel of engineering, but its fragility became its downfall.

After these public disasters we realized, as a country, that space very much was not, and is not easy. If there could be a silver lining to these tragedies, it came in the form of international relations. The Russian space program Roscosmos would help us with continued access to the ISS and beyond from then until the present day.

Endeavour’s many cones that form its butt inch past me at a snail’s pace and I can now see the other side of this wide Los Angeles street. There’s a large crowd of people smiling and waving at this space ship. A little girl sits on her dad’s shoulders watching.

With all of the missed opportunities, bloodshed, and limitations, there’s one thing the shuttle program has that Apollo missions before it didn’t: An Enterprise. The prototype ship named Enterprise was built in 1976 and never flew a mission.

I was a child when the shuttle program was in full force, but the television show Star Trek: The Next Generation got me falling in love with space exploration. Much like the beloved Enterprise ships of Captain Kirk and Picard, these real-world shuttles are objects that represent our need to explore. There are four surviving shuttles that a little kid can look upon seated high on their parents’ shoulders.

I recently had the chance to experience an Apollo VR game. It began with me sitting in a similar wood-paneled room much like the room in which Nixon announced the shuttle program, complete with an ashtray and blue fabric chairs. On the rounded television, President John F. Kennedy’s moon speech is blaring. His words echo around the room “Surely the opening vistas of space promise high costs and hardships. As well as high reward. So it is not surprising that some would have us stay where we are a little longer.”

The game carts me to the tall Saturn V rocket and I’m tucked in. I’m blasted off and ultimately in the lunar lander with Neil Armstrong. As we stand on the moon with my cats rubbing my leg, attempting to break my immersion, I glance upwards at the blue Earth.

It’s a mesmerizing sight that I’m in awe of. It’s often said that when we went to the moon, we discovered Earth. Neil and I (we’re on a first name basis) look back at our fragile world and Carl Sagan‘s voice pounds in my memory from his show Cosmos, when he talked about future space explorers:

“They will strain to find the blue dot. They will marvel at how vulnerable the repository of all our potential once was. How perilous our infancy.”

Since the Apollo program, the shuttles launched many Earth-monitoring satellites that helped us understand climate change. The Hubble space telescope was launched to help us see into deep space, stretching our eyes farther than the Apollo missions ever could.

The space shuttle Endeavour is now in the distance on this 2012 October day and, despite the potential crippling effect it had on getting humans beyond Earth’s orbit, the crowd around me is a testament to our affection for this object, this ship.

The shuttle program was a step towards something greater. It helped us see beyond our solar system and helped us understand the danger of space. It didn’t dull our curiosity about space, it enflamed it. As President Kennedy described, “It is one of the great adventures of all time.”

Shuttle Visit 02

Image credits:

Header: ©2018 Jon Bastian: Peter and Endeavour meet face-to-face at the California Science Center to talk about their love-hate relationship.

Top of Peter’s post: ©2012 Peter Bean: on the trail of Endeavour’s final voyage to its new forever home. That’s right, it’s a shelter shuttle!

End of article: ©2018 Peter Bean: Curtis Crumbie, Peter Bean, and Jon Bastian under the shuttle at the California Science Center.

If you’d like to be a guest-blogger, use the form below, or send me an email if the form isn’t showing up for you. I anticipate launching the program on May 16, 2020.

Wednesday Wonders: Now, Voyager

+Wednesday’s theme will be science, a subject that excites me as much as history on Monday and language on Tuesday. Here’s the first installment of Wednesday Wonders — all about science.

Now, Voyager

Last week, NASA managed something pretty incredible. They managed to bring the Voyager 2 probe back online after a system glitch forced it to shut down. Basically, the craft was supposed to do a 360° roll in order to test its magnetometer.

When the maneuver didn’t happen (or right before it was going to), two separate, energy-intensive systems wound up running at the same time and the probe went into emergency shut-down to conserve energy, turning off all of its scientific instruments, in effect causing data transmission back to home to go silent.

The twin Voyager probes are already amazing enough. They were launched in 1977, with Voyager 2 actually lifting off sixteen days earlier. The reason for the backwards order at the start of the mission is that Voyager 1 was actually going to “get there first” as it were.

It was an ambitious project, taking advantage of planetary placement to use various gravitational slingshot maneuvers to allow the probes to visit all of the outer planets — Jupiter and Saturn for both probes, and Uranus and Neptune as well for Voyager 2.

Not included: Pluto, which was still considered a planet at the time. It was in a totally different part of the solar system. Also, by the time the probes got there in 1989, Pluto’s eccentric orbit had actually brought it closer to the Sun than Neptune a decade earlier, a place where it would remain until February 11, 1999. While NASA could have maneuvered Voyager 2 to visit Pluto, there was one small hitch. The necessary trajectory would have slammed it right into Neptune.

Space and force

Navigating space is a tricky thing, as it’s a very big place, and things don’t work like they do down on a solid planet. On Earth, we’re able to maneuver, whether on foot, in a wheeled vehicle, or an aircraft, because of friction and gravity. Friction and gravity conspire to hold you or your car down to the Earth. In the air, they conspire to create a sort of tug of war with the force of lift to keep a plane up there.

When you take a step forward, friction keeps your back foot in place, and the friction allows you to use your newly planted front foot to move ahead. Note that this is why it’s so hard to walk on ice. It’s a low-friction surface.

The same principle works with cars (which also don’t do well on ice) with the treads on the tires gripping the road to pull you forward or stop you when you hit the brakes — which also work with friction.

Turning a car works the same way, but with one important trick that was discovered early on. If both wheels on opposite sides are on the same axle, turning the wheels does not result in a smooth turn of the vehicle. The axles need to be independent for one simple reason. The outside wheel has to travel farther to make the same turn, meaning that it has to spin faster.

Faster spin, lower friction, vehicle turns. While the idea of a differential gear doing the same thing in other mechanisms dates back to the 1st century BCE, the idea of doing it in wheeled vehicles wasn’t patented until 1827. I won’t explain it in full here because others have done a better job, but suffice it to say that a differential is designed to transfer power from the engine to the wheels at a relative rate dependent upon which way they’re aimed in a very simple and elegant way.

Above the Earth, think of the air as the surface of the road and an airplane’s wings as the wheels. The differential action is provided by flaps which block airflow and slow the wing. So… if you want to turn right, you slow down the right wing by lifting the flaps, essentially accelerating the left wing around the plane, and vice versa for a left turn.

In space, no one can feel you turn

When it comes to space, throw out everything in the last six paragraphs, because you don’t get any kind of friction to use, and gravity only comes into play in certain situations. Bookmark for later, though, that gravity did play a really big part in navigating the Voyager probes.

So, because no friction, sorry, but dog-fights in space are not possible. Hell, spacecraft don’t even need wings at all. The only reason that the Space Shuttle had them was because it had to land in an atmosphere, and even then they were stubby and weird, and even NASA engineers dubbed the thing a flying brick.

Without friction, constant acceleration is not necessary. One push starts you moving, and you’ll just keep going until you get a push in the opposite direction or you slam into something — which is just a really big push in the opposite direction with more disastrous results.

Hell, this is Newton’s first law of motion in action. “Every object persists in its state of rest or uniform motion — in a straight line unless it is compelled to change that state by forces impressed on it.” Push an object out in the vacuum of space, and it will keep on going straight until such point that another force is impressed upon it.

Want to turn right or left? Then you need to fire some sort of thruster in the direction opposite to the one you want to turn — booster on the right to turn left, or on the left to turn right. Want to slow down? Then you need to fire that thruster forward.

Fun fact: there’s no such thing as deceleration. There’s only acceleration in the other direction.

Also, if you keep that rear thruster going, your craft is going to keep on accelerating, and over time, this can really add up. For example, Voyager 2 is currently traveling at 15.4 kilometers (9.57 miles) per second — meaning that for it to take a trip from L.A. to New York would take five minutes.

Far and away

At the moment, though, this probe is 11.5 billion miles away, which is as long as four million trips between L.A. and New York. It’s also just over 17 light hours away, meaning that a message to and response from takes one day and ten hours.

And you thought your S.O. was blowing you off when it took them twenty minutes to reply to your text. Please!

But consider that challenge. Not only is the target so far away, but NASA is aiming at an antenna only 3.66 meters (12 feet) in diameter, and one that’s moving away so fast. Now, granted, we’re not talking “dead on target” here because radio waves can spread out and be much bigger than the target. Still… it is an impressive feat.

The more impressive part, though? We’re talking about technology that is over forty years old and still functioning and, in fact, providing valuable data and going beyond its design specs. Can you point to one piece of tech that you own and still use that’s anywhere near that old? Hell, you’re probably not anywhere near that old, but did your parents or grandparents leave you any tech from the late 70s that you still use? Probably not unless you’re one of those people still inexplicably into vinyl (why?)

But NASA has a track record of making its stuff last well beyond its shelf-life. None of the Mars rovers were supposed to keep on going like they have, for example, but Opportunity, intended to only last 90 days, kept on going for fifteen years, and the NASA Mars probes that actually made it all seem to last longer than intended.

In the case of Voyager, the big limit is its power supply, provided by plutonium-238 in the form of plutonium oxide. The natural decay of this highly radioactive element generates heat, which is then used to drive a bi-metallic thermoelectric generator. At the beginning, it provided 470 Watts of 30 volt DC power, but as of 1997 this had fallen to 335 Watts.

It’s interesting to note NASA’s estimates from over 20 years ago: “As power continues to decrease, power loads on the spacecraft must also decrease. Current estimates (1998) are that increasingly limited instrument operations can be carried out at least until 2020. [Emphasis added].”

Nerds get it done.

Never underestimate the ability of highly motivated engineers to find workarounds, though, and we’ve probably got at least another five years in Voyager 2, if not more. How do they do it? The same way that you conserve your phone’s battery when you forgot your charger and you hit 15%: power save mode. By selectively turning stuff off — exactly the same way your phone’s power-saver mode does it by shutting down apps, going into dark mode, turning off fingerprint and face-scan recognition, and so on. All of the essential features are still there. Only the bells and whistles are gone.

And still, the durability of NASA stuff astounds. Even when they’ve turned off the heaters for various detectors, plunging them into very sub-zero temperatures, they have often continued to function way beyond the conditions they were designed and tested for.

NASA keeps getting better. Nineteen years after the Voyagers, New Horizons was launched, and it managed to reach Pluto’s orbit and famously photograph that not-a-planet object only 9½ years after lift-off — and with Pluto farther out — as opposed to Voyager’s 12 years.

Upward and onward, and that isn’t even touching upon the utter value of every bit of information that every one of these probes sends us. We may leave this planet in such bad shape that space will be the only way to save the human race, and NASA is paving the way in figuring out how to do that.

Pretty cool, huh?