“W” Stands For Wisdom

Another great read from Mark Steyn.

…Let’s take it as a given that George W. Bush lacks the intelligence to hold down a really demanding job like columnist at the New York Times or Slate. Let?s take it as read that he’s a stupid man leading the stupid party of a stupid country. Granted all that, his blissful indifference to the hotshots of the International Who’s Who is as brilliant a distillation of global reality as any. Bush couldn’t name the Prime Minister of Hoogivsadamistan, but in the weeks before 11 September, having already spotted his predecessor’s neglect of the matter, his administration was working on new strategies to combat international terrorism. What a chump, eh? Too dumb to be Prime Minister of Canada.

“W” Stands For Wisdom

Another great read from Mark Steyn.

…Let’s take it as a given that George W. Bush lacks the intelligence to hold down a really demanding job like columnist at the New York Times or Slate. Let?s take it as read that he’s a stupid man leading the stupid party of a stupid country. Granted all that, his blissful indifference to the hotshots of the International Who’s Who is as brilliant a distillation of global reality as any. Bush couldn’t name the Prime Minister of Hoogivsadamistan, but in the weeks before 11 September, having already spotted his predecessor’s neglect of the matter, his administration was working on new strategies to combat international terrorism. What a chump, eh? Too dumb to be Prime Minister of Canada.

“W” Stands For Wisdom

Another great read from Mark Steyn.

…Let’s take it as a given that George W. Bush lacks the intelligence to hold down a really demanding job like columnist at the New York Times or Slate. Let?s take it as read that he’s a stupid man leading the stupid party of a stupid country. Granted all that, his blissful indifference to the hotshots of the International Who’s Who is as brilliant a distillation of global reality as any. Bush couldn’t name the Prime Minister of Hoogivsadamistan, but in the weeks before 11 September, having already spotted his predecessor’s neglect of the matter, his administration was working on new strategies to combat international terrorism. What a chump, eh? Too dumb to be Prime Minister of Canada.

Ooooohh, Nice Touch

In an article entitled “Harsh conditions await prisoners” in the BBC Online, in which they describe the situation at Guantanamo, I found this little nugget:

They will be allowed to pray according to their faith.

But members of a movement that tried to prevent women working may be disconcerted to find that some of their guards are women.

XCOR Test Flight Live

Darrin Kagan announced at the top of the hour that CNN will broadcast live the latest test flight of the XCOR EZ-Rocket sometime between 8 and 9 PST (i.e., within the next half hour, though it may be delayed).

[Update 8:53 AM PST]

Apparently they’re sorting out some engine problems, so there’s a flight delay. Still expected to go, though according to announcements. They’ve been taking the opportunity to interview Dick Rutan on other current aviation-related events (i.e., recent military plane crashes). Unfortunately, they’re also covering the “rink-rage” trial. Now there’s a pressing story…

[12:25 PST Update]

Sorry for the delay–I had to run out for a dental appointment. Apparently the burn went well, but they didn’t broadcast it live–CNN thought that Ari’s press conference was more important. I’ve heard that they’ve been showing tape replays of it, however.

And here’s a link to the story at the CNN website.

Dodging Cosmic Bullets, Part Trois

I previously missed this column by Jim Pinkerton at TechCentralStation from December 31st (thanks to Ralph Buttigieg for the link). Though he’s generally a political commentator, he’s a closet space enthusiast (I met him briefly at the Cato conference last spring). This is a general piece about space policy, some of which I agree with (though not his assessment of Dan Goldin), but I cite it because he expends quite a bit of it on the asteroid defense issue.

He claims that it is not a NASA responsibility, but a DoD one. I agree, with the caveat that it shouldn’t even be viewed as planetary defense per se. The DoD should definitely be in charge of defending us against willful agents (i.e., bug-eyed monsters from Zeta Reticula, or Marvin the Martian and his disintegrator ray), but not natural events.

No, the natural terrestrial analogue for asteroid management is flood control, or fire control. Thus, I believe that it should be made the responsibility of the Corps of Engineers. When the populace lies in a flood plain, they build dams to mitigate the danger. When earth lies in the path of potential planet-busting objects, they should land things on them to divert them. Taking NASA out of the picture would have the effect of forcing an emphasis on more practical solutions, rather than “science,” or “international cooperation,” or endless “technology development” that only feeds sandboxes in Huntsville or Hampton.

Also, as Ralph points out, it would provide NASA with some useful and much-needed competition.

This needs to be thrown into the space policy mix with which Sean O’Keefe is grappling right now.

How Many Hairs Can Dance On The Head Of A Human?

My little contretemps with Iain over the difference between theory and fact, and the nature of epistemology in general, inspires a rant^H^H^H^Hdisquisition on the nature of science and how it’s taught (or not).

Several years ago (probably more than a decade), I saw a special on my local affiliate of the Public Broadcasting System (so named because that’s who pays for it–not, in a manner similar to National “Public” Radio, because it’s necessarily of any particular benefit to them) called something like “The National Science Quiz.”

It consisted of a bunch of multiple-guess questions that were in fact, facts, as opposed to theories. For example, they asked something like, “How many hairs, on average, are on a square inch of the human head?”

I threw something (it’s been too long to remember what, and being a skinflint, and not one to destroy a television that I will have to pay to replace, I’m sure that it was relatively soft) at the TV.

“This is not science!” I yelled at it, ineffectually. “Very few scientists would know the answer to that question (though they would know where to look it up, if it had any relevance to a scientific inquiry). Not only is this not science, but it’s the reason that many people get turned off to science, and it’s why very few people understand anything about science!”

Science is not a compendium of “facts.” Science is about how we turn unrelated, boring facts into useful knowledge. Science is a method, not an encyclopedia. That’s why I get upset when someone says that “evolution is a fact.” Not just because it’s untrue, but because it misses the point entirely.

Science is a means of inquiry. It cannot be learned by simply memorizing a set of dry unconnected facts, but that’s what is implied by the “science quiz” described above, and much of what passes for science education in primary schools (and even more frighteningly, in many colleges and universities).

When I was in college, physics was my favorite subject.

Why?

Because I have a lousy memory (one, but by no means the only, reason that I never seriously considered going into medicine). Because I could pass the tests without memorizing a vast compendium of “facts,” (which I couldn’t manage in biology, or even chemistry, which I still don’t consider a true science, but it may become when physical chemistry reaches a sufficient degree of sophistication and maturity–perhaps it already has in the intervening decades). I could pass the tests by simply taking the few basic laws, and applying the basic rules of logic and mathematics to them, even rederiving more advanced laws if necessary, rather than having to memorize them.

What’s my point?

Learning physics wasn’t about remembering what the atomic weight of a given element was, or how many wombats lived in a given state of Australia at a given point in time. Learning physics was about learning some basic principles, and applying them to more general problems. That’s what all science should be about.

But instead science, when it’s taught at all (often by primary-school teachers who don’t understand it themselves), is taught as a body of knowledge, a set of known facts, rather than as a method of inquiry. The emphasis is not on thinking, but on memorization. Science, properly taught, opens the mind to a vast array of topics, even beyond science. Science, as it’s generally taught, is pure drudgery. It’s little wonder that most kids are turned off to the subject by the time they enter high school.

It’s also little wonder that the phrase, “it’s only a theory” has such power when attacking evolution. After all, science is about facts, right? And if evolution is “only a theory,” then it’s not a fact, and we need not believe it.

So those defending evolution must take one of two tacks–to claim (mistakenly, as occurred on the web site that Iain cited) that evolution is a “fact,” or to take the more difficult, but in the long run, much more valuable road, by performing a rectification of names. That is why I kill so many electrons to make this point, in multiple posts.

I just hope that my struggle doesn’t long remain a lonely one.

Turnabout Is Fair Play

Ken Layne, under the influence of some unknown substance, writes (in reference to his own blog),

This filthy site began in March 1999 — that’s four years ago, Jacobs!

Well, by my arithmetic, that’s a little less than three years…

This is the Internet–we can recalculate your ass, Layne!

Dodging Cosmic Bullets, Part Deux

My, it’s a red-letter day. I’m compelled to disagree with Iain Murray twice in a single day, on two different subjects.

The Professor is worried about asteroids on InstaPundit.Com. I take his point that he’s not worried about this particular rock, but Steve Milloy’s point on JunkScience.com is important here:

Gasp! Shock, horror! Er… hang on. Doesn’t this particular rock cross the orbits of Mars, Earth, Venus and Mercury (twice) every 1,321 days (3.6 Earth years)? And hasn’t it been doing so for millions of years? Wow! That was a close call alright…

Mr. Milloy is indulging in a fallacy here, similar to the one of the man who jumps off the building, and calls out as he passes every floor, “Doing fine so far!”

It was a very close call in astronomical terms. And in fact it doesn’t “cross the orbits” of those planets with any regularity–space is three dimensional. There is no way to know for how many millions of years that particular object has been avoiding hitting planets (it may be a chunk broken off from a larger one that did, in fact, collide with some planet, such as our own Moon).

Of course we shouldn’t lie awake now sweating over the fear that this particular object will hit us the next time around the carousel. The point is that it’s a reminder that many such objects are out there, some of them have our number on them eventually (as evidenced by past extinctions, and the cratered surface of the Moon, which didn’t get that way from too many sweets during adolescence), and that now that we have a civilization worth saving, and the technical means to save it, we should be thinking about it and devoting appropriate resources toward that end.

Of course we must colonize whatever worlds we can, but at the moment that’s beyond us. So let’s just keep on with our lives until we have the technology. Until then it’s best for us to treat this as the interplanetary equivalent of crossing the road. Look both ways, don’t build a bridge.

I’m not sure what Iain’s point is here. It is not, in fact, beyond us to colonize other worlds now–we simply choose not to. Will it be more affordable in the future? Of course. But that rationale can also be used to put off forever the decision to buy a new computer.

When he says, “just keep on with our lives until we have the technology,” one might infer from that that acquiring this magical “technology” is a passive act, like receiving manna from heaven, or cargo from the airplanes and control towers built from palm fronds. Technology is something that we develop (active voice), in response to some perceived need. Glenn and I point this little event out as a reminder that there might be reasons to develop space technology sooner rather than later.

How much we should devote to such an endeavor depends on the expected value of it (i.e., the probability of a catastrophic extraterrestrial event times the cost of it should it occur). I haven’t done that computation, partly because I don’t know the probabilities (because we aren’t even spending the trivial amounts necessary to adequately fund the sky surveys to gather the data with which to do so). But it’s certainly not zero, which is approximately how much we’re currently spending on it.

And as for “…Look both ways, don’t build a bridge,” I have no idea what this means in the context of the discussion. The point of the article was that even if we “look both ways” (right now, as I said, we are barely looking at all) we currently have no policy options if we see the car is bearing down on us–bridges are entirely beside the point.

[Update at 10 PM PST]

A reader who calls him/herself “skeptic” asks:

What is the probability and how was it calculated? If it is based on known events and conditions, that is fine. But what is it?

As I pointed out, we don’t know, because we haven’t even spent the money needed to gather the data necessary to do the calculation. The known events are many (e.g., in 1910 a meteor or comet known as the “Tonguska Event” hit a remote region of Siberia. Had it occurred in a populated area today, it would have caused billions of dollars in damage, and thousands, perhaps millions, of lives).

If it is based on what we don’t know, that is *not* fine. I don?t care what it is; it is speculation.

So we should ignore it if it’s based on willful ignorance?

What can we do about it? It would take a massive, massive amount of energy to alter the orbit of anything substantial.

Do you have some calculations to back up this claim? In fact, the amount of energy required to divert an object from its path sufficiently to prevent a collision with earth is quite small.

Hydrogen Bombs would be insignificant.

Ummm… no. Do you have any idea whatsoever what you’re talking about?

Even if we could amass the required energy, how would it be delivered?

By landing a small probe on the body, setting up a solar-powered or nuclear de-vice that could utilize its own mass as a rocket to divert it the few meters per second that would be required to prevent the catastrophe.

I am all in favor of space exploration. But I am not big on tax-funded research: who gets to set priorities? Politicians ? I hope not. Speculators ? I hope not. Scientists – How do we choose?

I said nothing about tax-funded research. Presumably we would choose based on who would do the best job of providing results.

Biting Commentary about Infinity…and Beyond!