Category Archives: Science And Society

Don’t Know Much About Geography

I’m reading Old Man’s War by John Scalzi, and while it’s entertaining, I was irritated early on by technical errors in it. In the discussion about the “beanstalk” (which I can only infer is a space elevator), the supposed physics professor explains that it’s used so that that it’s not necessary to “reach escape velocity” with a rocket to get to earth orbit. Of course, it’s not necessary to reach escape velocity to get into orbit–in fact, it’s not possible to do so. Escape velocity is the velocity necessary to leave orbit, and depart from the gravitational pull of the body you’re orbiting altogether.

This one is forgiveable, though, and a common error. What really boggled my mind was the next one, in which he explained that the earth physicists didn’t understand what “held it up.”

Either Scalzi is appallingly ignorant of physics himself, or this is some future in which the people of earth have forgotten basic physics (though if that’s the case, this is the only hint of it that I’ve seen in the book so far). The physics of space elevators is well understood. A space elevator is “held up” in exactly the same way that water is held inside a bucket being swung in circles on a rope–through inertia which appears as a centrifugal “force” in the rotating reference frame. The intergrated mass of the elevator times its centripital acceleration exceeds its weight if it extends sufficiently far beyond its natural orbital altitude (in this case, geostationary orbit, since it rotates with the earth once every twenty-four hours).

Scalzi has been compared to early Heinlein by many reviewers, but Heinlein always worked pretty hard to get his basic science right (which is one of the reasons that I liked to read him–it was entertainingly educational). It’s disappointing that Scalzi doesn’t seem to take the same care in his exposition, particularly since many may take his descriptions at face value.

[Update a few minutes later]

I discussed this topic more extensively last fall.

[Sunday night update]

When I was a kid, if I had a question about one of Bob Heinlein’s books, it would remain a question. There was no place to discuss it, except with my (few) friends who’d also read the book. But now, I can read a book, I can make a comment on it, and the author himself shows up to clarify the issue in my comments section. Just how cool is that?

And I’ve no idea how he knew that I was whining about the book. I’d be both flattered and amazed to learn that he reads this blog daily, so I’m guessing that one of my other readers emailed him to tell him.

Of course, if you visit his bio section, and read the comments (including his), in addition to being a very imaginative and entertaining writer, Mr. Scalzi seems to be a genuinely good guy.

Anyway, don’t consider this post a book review. It’s just a comment that occurred to me shortly after beginning reading it. Other than what I wrote above (which may be just a consequence of misreading on my part, as noted in comments), I expect to enjoy it quite a bit.

Don’t Know Much About Geography

I’m reading Old Man’s War by John Scalzi, and while it’s entertaining, I was irritated early on by technical errors in it. In the discussion about the “beanstalk” (which I can only infer is a space elevator), the supposed physics professor explains that it’s used so that that it’s not necessary to “reach escape velocity” with a rocket to get to earth orbit. Of course, it’s not necessary to reach escape velocity to get into orbit–in fact, it’s not possible to do so. Escape velocity is the velocity necessary to leave orbit, and depart from the gravitational pull of the body you’re orbiting altogether.

This one is forgiveable, though, and a common error. What really boggled my mind was the next one, in which he explained that the earth physicists didn’t understand what “held it up.”

Either Scalzi is appallingly ignorant of physics himself, or this is some future in which the people of earth have forgotten basic physics (though if that’s the case, this is the only hint of it that I’ve seen in the book so far). The physics of space elevators is well understood. A space elevator is “held up” in exactly the same way that water is held inside a bucket being swung in circles on a rope–through inertia which appears as a centrifugal “force” in the rotating reference frame. The intergrated mass of the elevator times its centripital acceleration exceeds its weight if it extends sufficiently far beyond its natural orbital altitude (in this case, geostationary orbit, since it rotates with the earth once every twenty-four hours).

Scalzi has been compared to early Heinlein by many reviewers, but Heinlein always worked pretty hard to get his basic science right (which is one of the reasons that I liked to read him–it was entertainingly educational). It’s disappointing that Scalzi doesn’t seem to take the same care in his exposition, particularly since many may take his descriptions at face value.

[Update a few minutes later]

I discussed this topic more extensively last fall.

[Sunday night update]

When I was a kid, if I had a question about one of Bob Heinlein’s books, it would remain a question. There was no place to discuss it, except with my (few) friends who’d also read the book. But now, I can read a book, I can make a comment on it, and the author himself shows up to clarify the issue in my comments section. Just how cool is that?

And I’ve no idea how he knew that I was whining about the book. I’d be both flattered and amazed to learn that he reads this blog daily, so I’m guessing that one of my other readers emailed him to tell him.

Of course, if you visit his bio section, and read the comments (including his), in addition to being a very imaginative and entertaining writer, Mr. Scalzi seems to be a genuinely good guy.

Anyway, don’t consider this post a book review. It’s just a comment that occurred to me shortly after beginning reading it. Other than what I wrote above (which may be just a consequence of misreading on my part, as noted in comments), I expect to enjoy it quite a bit.

Don’t Know Much About Geography

I’m reading Old Man’s War by John Scalzi, and while it’s entertaining, I was irritated early on by technical errors in it. In the discussion about the “beanstalk” (which I can only infer is a space elevator), the supposed physics professor explains that it’s used so that that it’s not necessary to “reach escape velocity” with a rocket to get to earth orbit. Of course, it’s not necessary to reach escape velocity to get into orbit–in fact, it’s not possible to do so. Escape velocity is the velocity necessary to leave orbit, and depart from the gravitational pull of the body you’re orbiting altogether.

This one is forgiveable, though, and a common error. What really boggled my mind was the next one, in which he explained that the earth physicists didn’t understand what “held it up.”

Either Scalzi is appallingly ignorant of physics himself, or this is some future in which the people of earth have forgotten basic physics (though if that’s the case, this is the only hint of it that I’ve seen in the book so far). The physics of space elevators is well understood. A space elevator is “held up” in exactly the same way that water is held inside a bucket being swung in circles on a rope–through inertia which appears as a centrifugal “force” in the rotating reference frame. The intergrated mass of the elevator times its centripital acceleration exceeds its weight if it extends sufficiently far beyond its natural orbital altitude (in this case, geostationary orbit, since it rotates with the earth once every twenty-four hours).

Scalzi has been compared to early Heinlein by many reviewers, but Heinlein always worked pretty hard to get his basic science right (which is one of the reasons that I liked to read him–it was entertainingly educational). It’s disappointing that Scalzi doesn’t seem to take the same care in his exposition, particularly since many may take his descriptions at face value.

[Update a few minutes later]

I discussed this topic more extensively last fall.

[Sunday night update]

When I was a kid, if I had a question about one of Bob Heinlein’s books, it would remain a question. There was no place to discuss it, except with my (few) friends who’d also read the book. But now, I can read a book, I can make a comment on it, and the author himself shows up to clarify the issue in my comments section. Just how cool is that?

And I’ve no idea how he knew that I was whining about the book. I’d be both flattered and amazed to learn that he reads this blog daily, so I’m guessing that one of my other readers emailed him to tell him.

Of course, if you visit his bio section, and read the comments (including his), in addition to being a very imaginative and entertaining writer, Mr. Scalzi seems to be a genuinely good guy.

Anyway, don’t consider this post a book review. It’s just a comment that occurred to me shortly after beginning reading it. Other than what I wrote above (which may be just a consequence of misreading on my part, as noted in comments), I expect to enjoy it quite a bit.

Stop Global Warming

Cut down the rain forests:

Keppler and his colleagues discovered that living plants emit 10 to 100 times more methane than dead plants.

Scientists had previously thought that plants could only emit methane in the absence of oxygen.

David Lowe, of the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research in New Zealand, said the findings are startling and controversial.

“Keppler and colleagues’ finding helps to account for observations from space of incredibly large plumes of methane above tropical forests,” he said in a commentary on the research.

But the study also poses questions, such as how such a potentially large source of methane could have been overlooked…

Hey, I can answer that one–maybe because we haven’t come up with a way to blame it on the rapacious, capitalist, resource-scarfing western world.

Seriously, it really is amazing, given that living animals definitely emit a lot more methane than dead ones (particularly after a Mexican meal).

Is ID Conservative?

I was going to comment on the post from Tom Bethell here, but Derb handles the situation well, and I’m busy as hell, what with NASA releasing their final CFI for CEV today (I’m working with one of the major subcontractors for one of the bidders on the proposal), which I have to read, pronto. Not being a conservative, I don’t really have a dog in that particular fight, but I do find it amazing that so many people who call themselves conservatives are so profoundly anti-science, even if they don’t realize it. It’s certainly not a classical liberal (which is probably the best description of me) position.

But actually, I guess I do have a few more thoughts, or expansions on Derb’s thoughts, regarding the flawed logic in the argument of the blind watchmaker.

William Paley’s flawed argument has been refuted over and over again, and yet Tom Bethell repeats it. Here it is:

In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there; I might possibly answer, that, for anything I knew to the contrary, it had lain there forever: nor would it perhaps be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place; I should hardly think of the answer I had before given, that for anything I knew, the watch might have always been there.

There are significant differences between watches and living creatures, that render this argument specious. If one examined a living creature, one would first discover that it is, in fact, living, and not a mechanical artifact that would wind down after time and cease to work, unless one wound it again, at which point it would be resurrected. The living creature reproduces, and its offspring, while resembling it, are not exact replicas. The watch would not reproduce, no matter in how much proximity one brought it to other watches, of whatever watch gender (if such a thing even existed and could be determined by examination). In other words, unlike the living organism, there are no obvious mechanisms by which a watch could possibly have descendants that were different from, and perhaps improved over, itself.

And there is a ready explanation for the watch that requires no invocation of supernatural powers–simply put, watchmakers exist. They are real, material beings, whose existence no serious rational person doubts, for whom the evidence of existence is in fact indisputable from a scientifically objective viewpoint, from whom one can procure watchmaking and watch repairing services.

Life in general, on the other hand, appeared long before man. Even biblical literalists admit to this–man (and woman) weren’t created until the sixth day, after all the other beasts, over which they would have dominion.

The same argument applies to Tom Bethell’s archeological artifact. The most natural explanation for an archeological artifact is that it was created by a human, because that is, as Derb points out, one of the fundamental precepts of archeology.

But that doesn’t satisfy when explaining life, because in order to postulate life as designed, one must postulate a designer. In the case of the watch, it’s easy–people done it, and there are plenty of people around to blame it on, and no one disputes the existence of people. Their existence is scientifically, indisputably provable.

But who is the designer for those things that came before people? If Behe et al want to pretend they’re talking about space aliens, to avoid the issue of bringing religion into the classroom, then they have to also confess that they’re only delaying the problem, because who then designed the space aliens?

It’s not possible, ultimately, to talk about “intelligent design” without talking about a god of some kind, and once one does that, one leaves the realm of science which, like it or not, is the realm of materialism. Humans, being a form of life, are material beings themselves, capable of designing things, so artifacts requiring designers that were designed after humans came along are readily explained. The mystery is how life came to its diversity in the absence of humans, since humans came to the show pretty late. And once we resort to designers, we end our scientific inquiries, and simply yield to the same ignorance we had before the enlightenment.

The IDers (and creationists) may be right, but they’re not being scientific. My predilection remains with the people who have given us the knowledge and technology that allow me to live a long, comfortable and healthy life, relative to the nasty, brutish and short one that prevailed prior to the scientific method.