Icarus Reborn

The Parker Solar Probe, photo simulation by JHUAPL in Nature.com.

In the decade that I grew up, Americans went to the moon. Then, we flew reusable planes into space, a couple of which turned into spectacular disasters. Since then, most of NASA’s activity has been relegated to the back sections of newspapers or museums. Astronauts dying have a tendency to turn off people’s appetite towards science. Add in the politics of government financing, and when you can’t even agree to spend money on providing food or medicine to people, then funding decade-long programs to shoot a few people off towards a distant planet seems pretty impossible.

But a couple of stories this week in those science sections caught my eye, and I am pleased to report that NASA, as well as international space exploration, is alive and well. Humans have been going into space, one small research grant at a time. Well-played, NASA.

Barbecue Spacecraft

What’s the fastest human-made object that’s ever traveled? The Parker Solar Probe zipped near the sun in September of this year at 213,000 miles per hour. In comparison, the escape velocity of rockets leaving earth is only about 30,000 mph, which is still hundreds of times faster than we’d experience in a plane. Parker, which was named for University of Chicago (my alma mater) scientist Eugene Parker, who first hypothesized about solar winds, was launched two years ago to explore the sun. Apparently, it’s finding out some really cool things.

Of course, the probe has to get very close to the sun to do this, and in its third dive around Sol, Parker was about 15 million miles out—halfway between Mercury and the sun. Plans are for it to make another couple dozen circuits, which should generate speeds nearly twice as fast and bring it twice as close. On the surface of the sun, the temperature runs around 10,000 o F, although at the corona, the thin covering around the sun, the temperatures can be millions of degrees, up to 300 times hotter. Parker won’t get quite that close, but it’s built to withstand up to 1400 o C, which is steel-melting territory.

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The Singularity Always Happens

How did the Mongols conquer Asia? Where did knights come from? Look at the feet. Photo from arstechnica.com.

Will the Singularity happen? I’m currently reading an international spy techno-thriller pot-boiler whose premise centers around the creation of Artificial General Intelligence (AGI), just asTerminator: Dark Fate is raking in big bucks in theaters. Scary futures are big entertainment business. It’s a perfect time for a provocative question like the one Fandango asks today:

Do you think the singularity will occur? If so, what time frame do you think it will happen in and how will it impact humanity? Alternatively, do you think or care at all about the potential for reaching singularity?

The short answer is: World-threatening technology is perpetually created by humans. Humans then create an alternative to pull civilization back from the brink. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

My autocorrect: “You didn’t type candy corn, you typed child porn….” Your IP address has been forwarded to local law enforcement.
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Why Johnny Can’t Adult

The world is definitely going to hell in a handcart. Civilization has reached the breaking point. I’m talking about multiple stories in the NY Times this past week that suggest the relationships between colleges, their students, and students’ families have become completely dysfunctional. Today, the discussion about the 50% increase in traffic on Facebook pages for student parents was the last straw. Here’s my suggestion. Chill Out. Remain aloof. Just say, “I don’t know exactly what goes on at college these days.” Leave it at that.

Colleges Are Not Summer Camps

Apparently, more than 200,000 people joined university parent groups last year, which means such social media participants number in the millions by now. Typical posts discuss whether there are fire alarms going off, where parents can buy mattress toppers, what’s going on during sorority/fraternity rush week, and how to arrange to have cupcakes delivered. Yes, you read that right. A parent wanted to know how to have cupcakes delivered to her nearly-adult son for his birthday. As she might have done, maybe, every year when he was in elementary school. Do you suppose she had cupcakes delivered when he was in high school? Was her son mortified? Did he try to throw them in the trash before anyone outside the office saw them? Or disavow them? Or sell them to friends for extra cash? I have so many questions about this behavior…

Fun Memoir Fact. When my high school son was getting a ride to somewhere, like high school or a skate park, (which was often because he didn’t have a car), he wanted to be dropped off at least 50 yards away. And liked to get out of the car when it was still moving.

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Curious Reasoning of True Believers

If you believe in magic, come along with me
We’ll dance until morning till there’s just you and me
And maybe, if the music is right
I’ll meet you tomorrow, sort of late at night
And we’ll go dancing, baby, then you’ll see
How the magic’s in the music and the music’s in me

The Lovin’ Spoonful

The illustrious blogger Fandango has posed the question today: Do you believe in magic? Quite a can of worms, isn’t it? This is partly a question of definition and categorization, taxonomy as much as philosophy. What’s just as interesting is the blurred lines between religion, magic, expertise, intuition, evidence, and conclusions without evidence, and how they lead people to take actions that are self-contradictory.

The question was instigated by a recent incident in a Tennessee Catholic school where the pastor removed the Harry Potter series from the elementary/middle school library because: “These books present magic as both good and evil, which is not true, but in fact a clever deception. The curses and spells used in the books are actual curses and spells; which when read by a human being risk conjuring evil spirits into the presence of the person reading the text.”

Well, as Hermione might say, Revelio!

The most knowledgeable wizard from Harry Potter. Photo from Warner Bros.

Is it a Natural Law If I Don’t Know it Exists Yet?

But first, definitions are required if we’re going to talk about magic and belief. Belief refers to a personal conviction which can either be backed up by facts or not. Belief can be based on unseen evidence. I believe that antibodies and quarks exist because scientific studies have identified them and described how they work. I don’t have to see them. Belief can also occur without evidence. I believe that people have experienced things not yet explained by science, such as dreaming about things that occur in reality but outside the dreamer’s knowledge.

Magic, according to Merriam-Webster, is the art of producing a result …through human control of supernatural agencies or of the force of nature. Hmmm. So what is supernatural? Beyond what is natural; unexplainable by natural law. (I’m excluding stage magicians here, who perform amazing tricks through explainable but complicated processes such as hidden doorways or misdirection.) What this definition points out is that magic, in essence, is something that occurs which is unexplainable. Let’s also add: CURRENTLY unexplainable.

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The Grand Larceny of Accu-Weather

We’ve seen plenty of bold and brazen corporate thievery in recent years. “Pharma Bro” Martin Shkreli upped the price of life-saving medicine 5000% because he could; he’s now serving years in the pen for securities fraud. There was the Enron bunch, led by Jeff Skilling, who created blackouts in San Francisco and the west coast in the early 2000s by manipulating the temporarily de-regulated California electric market. The traders were caught on tape laughing about stealing money from the “poor grandmothers.” Such a grand level of avarice is hard to stomach, but one that tops them all must be Barry Myers. Because Myers has been trying to steal the weather.

There’s a backstory, of course. A grain of legitimacy, a swirl of political intrigue, a schadenfreude twist of fate, and a who-knows-what-happens-next part to this tale. The most important question to me is exactly which circle of hell Myers will end up in, the one where his shade is bitten by snakes or the one where he is thrown into the lake of boiling pitch?

Thieves in Dante's Hell
Gustave Dore depiction of the section of Dante’s Malbolge circle of Hell specifically for Thieves
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