People actually study this?

In the wake of several threads regarding the study of theology on other blogs, such as Why Evolution Is True and EvolutionBlog, I feel compelled to weigh in [yes, this post has been in draft form for a little while – not to mention I like to try and break up the long ones.] I have, for many years now, felt that large portions of philosophy were far more evidence of people trying to impress themselves with their own intelligence, than the actual application of intelligence. Theology has repeatedly demonstrated itself to be firmly within this category.

There are two leading principles of theology (among countless examples) vague enough to apply to virtually all religions and general enough not to directly contradict scientific evidence: the Ontological Argument, and the Cosmological Argument. You are, of course, welcome to investigate these on your own and come back here to challenge my points, but I tend not to get sidetracked from the crux of matters, and I don’t fall for paragraphs of linguistic obscurity. I say this up front because this seems to be a favorite tactic of theologians and their various sycophants.

The Ontological Argument states that, if we can conceive of a perfect being, then the very nature of perfection would confirm that such a being exists. No, seriously. I’m a bit astounded to think of how human beings, stupid though many might be, could still maintain such a vacuous argument for the many centuries it has existed. It smacks all too closely to the brain-damaged concept of “The Secret,” where positive thinking is supposed to bring about physical changes in reality. With the Ontological Argument, we are apparently maintaining that our concept of perfection either brings it about by our mere recognition, or that we could only conceive of it if it was a real thing. I can conceive of many things, among them decent arguments for the existence of a god, but this doesn’t really have any effect on such arguments existing.

The key, as I’m sure someone would try to tell me, is the “perfect” part – the definition of perfection is what leads undeniably to a deity. Of course, I could also put forth that the definition of a perfect being would be one that has no need of vague wordplay to establish its existence – feel free to explain how this is out of line with the argument itself. I’ll also point out that, even if there was some way to demonstrate that such wordplay actually explained reality, we’re beholden to actually conceive of perfection. It should be universal, shouldn’t it? A perfect being couldn’t possibly disappoint anyone, so a perfect being should be easily defined by anyone, and agreed upon by everyone else. Have fun with that, if you like. Alternately, start small, and conceive of a perfect meal for your very next meal (which by the same argument should exist,) or perhaps a perfect bicycle, which must, by definition, be one that you own (it wouldn’t be perfect if you couldn’t use it, of course.) Is it perfect if it is effortless to ride, thus the most energy efficient vehicle imagined, or perfect in that it produces just the right level of exercise? Is it perfectly comfortable, like an easy chair, or perfectly balanced for cornering? Do I need to keep spitting out examples to show that “perfection” is a vague, opinion-related idea?

Further, the mind absolutely boggles at the sheer egotism that this argument infers. I think I’m safe from contradiction when I say humans are not perfect beings ourselves (I know, I’m an atheist and just referred to myself as “human”, but humor me this one time,) but this argument implies that we are both not mistaken about perfection, nor about our ability to conceive of it. Stunning.

The Cosmological Argument is only slightly better. It states that everything must have a cause, and since causes cannot go back infinitely, there must be a First Cause, ergo god. On the face of it, it seems somewhat logical, but only if you accept a pretty bastardized view of logic, which I suppose is fine for philosophers but not a good move for anyone who has to routinely deal with the real world (i.e., everyone else.) We actually cannot establish that everything must have a cause, nor that causes cannot go back infinitely – about the best we can say, based on most physics that we routinely use every day, is that change requires some kind of instigator, generally some input of energy. I said “most physics” above because quantum indeterminacy does not demonstrate this trait. This could be because it really is unlinked to causative factors, e.g., it happens truly randomly without any internal or external causes; or simply because we have not yet found the causative factor.

What’s interesting is if we do a simple substitution experiment and say, “Rocks must have a beginning,” which is the same argument but freed from human ego. Rocks, however, are merely collections of atoms that temporarily hold a particular shape. Before they were rocks, they were molten lava, and going way back, interstellar dust coalescing into the planet. Before that, hydrogen atoms that eventually drew together under their own gravity into a sun, where heat and pressure created fusion. What this illustrates is that we never see the beginning of something, as in, the sudden appearance of atoms that had not previously existed, and we cannot destroy anything either – we see only form changes. Sometimes this is into, or from, energy itself, but the basic premise of cosmology (we’re not talking the theological concept here, but the one that uses real physics) is that the atoms and the energy that forms them is a fixed constant in the universe, tracing back to the Big Bang. Things change, but we see only the exact same amounts, no increase or decrease.

Aha!” says the triumphant yet addled theologian, “You just admitted that the universe started with the Big Bang! Gotcha, neener neener!” But this is a typical misrepresentation – the only thing that has been proposed by the Big Bang Theory is that the universe that we know right now traces back to a particular point of sudden expansion. Does that mean everything, all the energy and matter, sprung into existence then? Not at all, only that we have no way of tracing anything further back than that, because there is nothing to examine – all we can do is some speculative mathematics.

The ugly part of this, naturally, is that matter and energy (which are interchangeable) are constant, based on every last bit of evidence that we have. The whole “there must be a beginning” thing really only applies to just one small aspect: life. And since life is simply a collection of mutual energy exchanges among a mass of atoms with the same history as the rock we examined earlier, what we really consider beginning is consciousness, or our own memories. This is an amazingly self-centered thing on which to base the claim that the entire universe is beholden to First Cause. We think “everything” begins simply because we only relate to the start of life, the beginning of consciousness or even, like a tree, the beginning of a growth cycle from a reproductive stage. Even this is pretty far off the mark, since life springs only from life, from a parent stretching back to the first RNA billions of years ago, and haven’t the faintest idea when consciousness began (nor, for that matter, an effective way of defining it.) It is only because we relate personally to a “start” and “end,” because we view consciousness as a special state, that we think a beginning is even necessary. Once again we’re back to the egotistical attitude.

I think I was thirteen or so when I pointed out the biggest flaw in First Cause arguments, which is, “What caused god then?” You have to admit, it’s phenomenally lame to posit a law of causation that is defeated by the very thing it proposes to prove. “But you don’t understand,” whine the theologians, or more often, the ones who think they make reasoned arguments, “the real argument is that everything that has a beginning has to have a cause!” (You think I’m putting words in their mouths, don’t you? I wish that it were true, really.) What this does, supposedly, is to explain that god does not therefore need a cause, just everything else. Yet I already answered that above – matter/energy has every appearance of being perpetual, so it becomes exempt too. Even if we accept one part of the argument as a given, that “everything that begins must have a cause,” we still can question why a never-ending string of causes (or a periodic causal force) is against the rules while a never-ending god is not. The reasoning behind one being able to be perpetual but others things cannot? There’s none at all.

Which leads us to the biggest flaw of theology itself, which is that it exists only to try and reach a particular conclusion, whereupon the careful and meticulous philosophy stops dead and pretends nothing else matters. Lest you think I’m not going deep enough with such simple arguments, I can also point out another flaw in the Cosmological Argument: time and change are pretty much the same thing – we cannot have one without the other, and in fact cannot distinguish them. For a “First Cause” to even exist, there would have to be no change/time before it, and if there is no passage of time, there cannot be a “first” to mark the change from an unchanging state. “Going back through infinity” (or “eternity” if you prefer) is actually the only thing that doesn’t defeat itself – as hard as it is for us to conceive of it, the physics bears it out, and the logic supports nothing else. Change is constant.

Are you getting the impression of why I find theology so fatuous? Well, hold on, I’m not done yet. But I’ll pause here long enough to say, in the face of those who maintain that theology cannot be rendered as simple as I’ve made it here, that you have the very flaws I’ve pointed out above to explain first. If I’m misrepresenting them, so is everyone else, because these are the exact same arguments I’ve heard for years. Feel free to explain how it’s more “nuanced” than this.

The flaws, however, do not stop here. I want to point out that, even if either, or indeed both, of these major theological arguments could be established as true (I won’t be losing sleep over that anytime soon,) neither of them comes even remotely close to the gods that are supposed to be supported by them. “First Cause” could mean nothing more than a law of physics we have not discovered yet, and involves in no way anything resembling intent, design, perfection, or consciousness, much less beneficence, interest, love, or “goodness.” And a Perfect Being™, naturally, is unlikely to demonstrate the petty and undeniably human emotions that it is claimed to possess, from any religion you care to name, and would also have to pony up to the wildly random expenses of energy in the universe and the incredible waste of space. Religious apologists, as far as I’m concerned, have to explain the huge contradiction between the “conceived perfection” required for the Ontological Argument and their handwaving excuse for all of the misfortunes we suffer through (and the very existence of evil in the first place): “We can’t know the mind of god.” Doesn’t that say we can’t conceive of perfection? Is it really asking too much for explanations regarding god to be consistent? Or are we talking different gods here?

Either concept has a huge gap between the properties it attempts to infer must exist, and the gods that such concepts are used to prove. Neither, nor any other aspect of theology I’ve ever come across, makes any attempt to explain what realm such gods must exist within; where such gods obtain their raw material to forge creation; why such gods would have the faintest interest in creating such temporary edifices, nor why they would think that the affairs of man, tiny little fragile beings in a tiny little fragile shell on one planet among perhaps millions, should be of any importance whatsoever; how such gods could have thought processes so similar to our own; or even why an omnipotent/omniscient being could or should create anything in the first place – the answer, the whole history of mankind and indeed creation, should already be known (that’s what omniscient means.) These are not idle questions, mind you, but rather important to establishing a working theory and key factors in why we seek a god at all. This, to me, has always been the nature of religious answers, in that they raise a far greater number of questions than the ones they purport to answer in the first place (Ha! I kill me…)

Credit where it’s due: I’m sure that these very questions have indeed been faced by theologians throughout history. But the answers that spring to mind end up working directly against our preconceived ideas of omnipotent, omniscient, beneficent gods. If theology were a true aspect of philosophy or (god forbid) science, then it would be obligated to deal with these very issues, which are fundamental problems with the overall theory. String Theory, a scientific concept about unifying quantum and relativistic physics, yields the possibility of untold thousands of universes when extrapolated outwards (well, okay, at that point they cannot be universes but by definition become multiverses.) This isn’t ignored in the slightest by physicists, but instead they start considering what might happen with two -verses in close proximity, or whether the Cosmic Microwave Background might be patchy because of such interactions. That’s how science works – you are locked into the necessary consequences of any theory. Not so with theology, which produces countless additional questions while still not completely answering the ones it set out to, and is expected to be considered important.

Even worse, when faced with these questions, with the very failure of theology to form a decent explanatory theory, theologians frequently resort to rather elitist attitudes, often saying that you need to read umpteen books to truly understand the arguments. Yet, there isn’t one aspect of science I have come across that is not capable of being rendered into a synopsis. I’ve read great explanatory chapters on abiogenesis, the formation of the first cells based upon inherent chemical interactions, using an analogy of mayonnaise (oil and water don’t mix, unless they couple with a compound that binds with either simultaneously, called an amphiphile.) Stephen Hawking explained numerous concepts of space-time and quantum behavior in a remarkably accessible book, A Brief History of Time. The English language is made like that: it is possible to render everything into less detail as desired. Except, it would appear, when it comes to theology. Pose these questions to theologists, and you’ll typically get references to other writings, or a verbal diarrhea of esoteric terms that might sound wonderfully erudite, but make no sense together.

Watch this, because I’ll demonstrate how it should be done: “Theology is indistinguishable from total bullshit.” Notice that I didn’t call theology bullshit (not this time, anyway,) but what I pointed out was that there is no way to determine its value, since it provides nothing to test against, no verifiable results, and no impact on anything that we do or experience. As mentioned above, it provides a weak excuse to go on believing something that we want to, without having proposed it in the first place nor explained how it should work to produce what we already know. Like being told we’re pretty or handsome by our parents, it’s something that we’d like to hear but in a way that lacks authenticity, and as such it provides no value except to those who need to hear it so badly. And they probably don’t need umpteen books on the subject…

It’s a trap!

I was actually on the phone when I spotted this, and rudely begged off the call to go get my camera. Or at least, it might have been considered rude if I wasn’t conversing with another nature photographer; instead, I was encouraged not to waste time ;-)

Jagged ambush bugs (genus Phymata) are common throughout the US, but most people have no idea what they are, or look like. The flower seen here is about 35mm (1.5 inches) across, so the little green bugger could hide under a pea with room to spare – if you’re not looking close, you’re not going to notice it. This lack of attentiveness holds true for many different pollinating insects, which visit the flowers that serve as the favorite hunting grounds of ambush bugs, and thus transition to a different stage in the food chain. Ambush bugs are predatory and insectivorous, fitting in with mantises and spiders, and are quick to react when something comes near. I would have thought their camouflage would be a bit better than this, but I certainly couldn’t pass up this color palette, could I? This is most likely a nymph, based on the half-formed wings seen jutting from the midsection, with a splash of reddish-brown at the base.

It wasn’t long before my subject had taken its prey underneath the blossom and drained it of nourishment, using a piercing proboscis rather than eating its capture whole like a praying mantis. Then the carcass was discarded on the leaves below and the ambush bug took up a position under the flower to await further developments, as they say. You can see the mantis-like forelegs used to seize their food, and just barely make out the tucked-under proboscis (between “wrist” and “nose,” as it were.) The flower later shed its petals and began to look quite unappetizing, but my subject here remained in place for days.

And I realize, as I type this, that’s it’s going up alongside another nasty-looking bug photo in today’s National Geographic Photo of the Day widget on the sidebar. I’m sorry, I’ll try to find some fluffy bunnies for a future post…

We get what we pay for

This is something that’s been bugging me for a while, and while I started on a post some months back, I never finished it. I need to, especially in response to a new article. More below.

Let’s say you have heard of a new species of fish in Lake Tanganyika, and your job entails studying rare fish breeds. Your boss turns to you and say, “We need to bring back live specimens. How much is it going to cost?” Can you work up a budget for this?

There’s too many variables, aren’t there? Where is the fish? How deep does it live? How numerable is it? What’s it eat, what eats it, does it migrate for spawning, can I hire dive boats and equipment nearby, or perhaps seine boats… it’s pretty hard to come up with a budget, isn’t it? Instead, if you have any sense at all, you simply set “obtaining live specimens” as a goal, and attempt to secure open funding for it.

Maybe your task is to create a new fuel efficient engine, from scratch. How much would that cost? You’d certainly be within your rights to look askance at someone making that inquiry and consider them naïve and, certainly, not good management material. After all, you’re not using off-the-shelf parts, cannot determine how long research is going to take, and have only basic physics goals to aim for. One can certainly set a budget, but cannot reasonably guarantee results within those constraints.

Why, then, do we expect something different from NASA? A scathing article in Discover Magazine demonstrates this approach, as well as a near-total innocence of space programs in general and the Space Shuttle Orbiter in particular.

Nearly every time I hear NASA mentioned in any form of popular media, some comment about “budget overrun” is made, and this article is no exception. And it is abundantly clear that such issues are what helps direct Congressional funding decisions. The other item you hear often enough is “management problems,” which has been paraded endlessly throughout the media as being responsible for the space shuttle accidents.

If you’re faced with a project or a department that suffers from bad management, what is your choice of action? Slash funding? That’s going to fix the matter, is it? If you have any sense at all, you raise the standards for managers, and try hiring better choices. Are these going to come cheaper? Well, fast food franchises think so, but I’d suspect that’s not a model of business we’re really aiming to emulate. Quite often, the solution is to bite the bullet and hire the best person available, even though they are very likely to come at a higher price.

If you buy a bargain DVD player and it fails within a month, who, exactly, is to blame for this? No, wait, let me rephrase that: if you hand your employee $20 and instruct them to get a DVD player, which fails, now who’s to blame? If you blame the employee, you’re not good management material yourself (I was going to leave the question hanging, figuring it was self-evident, then I remembered some of the idiots I’ve worked for.)

I do feel the need to point out here that the entire United States consistently runs over budget. We should either slash taxes or figure there’s serious management problems, shouldn’t we? Maybe we need to be looking carefully at those people we keep putting in management positions ourselves, the ones that generally couldn’t pass a high-school science final exam. Are these the people we need making decisions on funding such programs?

Leaving congressional incompetence aside, another aspect that continually comes up is what kind of returns we can expect from things like space programs. It’s just research – there’s nothing we can sell afterwards, right? Why bother with NASA at all?

You see, this is a significant part of the problem with a capitalist society – everything is supposed to make a profit. I could go into the economics of how there’s a finite supply of money in the world, and the quest for this to increase is what drives inflation, but that’s not even as direct a point as can be made. Instead, I’ll ask you how much you’re paying per day to receive a GPS signal in the car, or to see weather reports on TV. Do we pay royalties to Maxwell’s family, for the advancements of electrical theory, or Salk’s for the idea of vaccines?

Knowledge itself is a worthwhile investment. Once we have knowledge, we never actually stop using it – it is a permanent, perpetual benefit to all of us. In fact, it is demonstrably the best investment we can make, period. How much is too much to pay for something the entire human race (and even other species) can use forever?

When Einstein proposed the Theory of Special Relativity, where the passage of time between two bodies depended on their velocities relative to each other, it remained just a curiosity for 55 years, because we had no way to test it before then. If, when he presented it, he was asked what the practical applications were, he could only have spoken in terms of a space program we did not have. I doubt he would, in his wildest dreams, have said, “it will one day be used to prevent people from getting lost, for navigation of aircraft and sailing vessels, for pinpointing accident victims, finding missing children, and determining cheating spouses.” Yet the aforementioned Global Positioning System requires precise time measurements to even function, and these could not be made without the knowledge imparted by Special Relativity, since time passes differently for those satellites in orbit than it does here on earth.

If that knowledge had required a demonstrable, immediate profit to even have received funding in the first place, we would not have it now. We would not, in fact, have at least half of the scientific advancement we now use every day.

Returning to NASA, countless pundits decried the lack of foresight demonstrated by both the Challenger and the Columbia accidents, and continue to do so with the lack of a space shuttle replacement program. This borders on the asinine, however, and needs to remain in context; NASA has never been short of ideas, contingencies, and projects. The question has always been, how many actually get funded? Zeeberg might have exercised his remarkable journalism prowess, and referred to Wikipedia if he found himself that unaware of how the program works:

Based on the advice of the Space Council, President Nixon made the decision to pursue the low earth orbital infrastructure option. This program mainly consisted of construction of a space station, along with the development of a Space Shuttle. Funding restrictions precluded pursuing the development of both programs simultaneously, however. NASA chose to develop the Space Shuttle program first, and then planned to use the shuttle in order to construct and service a space station. [Emphasis mine]

Another example is the X-38 Crew Return Vehicle, a proposed standby spacecraft to evacuate up to seven people from the ISS in the event of an emergency. Able to be launched on a rocket and docked autonomously with the ISS, it can simply remain in place until needed. Or at least, that was the idea, until funding for it was cancelled. Because of this, the emergency evacuation option is a Soyuz capsule, a product of the 1970s which holds only three people. So the greatest crew the ISS maintains due to this is three, which is far from both functional and supportable capacity. While Congress may make noises about both efficiency and safety, it doesn’t appear that they know what either word means.

The Space Shuttle Orbiter was proposed as a fast turnaround, frequent-flying craft able to perform multiple functions. Once built, however, it turned out to be more expensive and higher maintenance than proposed. Is this bad planning? Perhaps – unlike others, I wouldn’t presume to judge without knowing at least something about the management of such a program – but possibly a lot more like non-psychic designers. No one had ever produced a vehicle even remotely like it before, and virtually none of the parts or components existed. Remember that, when proposed, we’d been in space less than a decade. This was uncharted territory and no one could operate from experience. That’s the very nature of space exploration. The only attitude that makes sense is to accept what comes. However, the inability to meet initially proposed expectations has been held against the shuttle from the flight test days, despite the long list of successes throughout its history.

Yes, the Challenger and Columbia accidents are a tragedy. Were they avoidable? With the wisdom of hindsight, it’s easy to say, “Yes” – but that’s true of any accident, isn’t it? The car you drive right now could be safer – I can say that without having the faintest idea what you drive, and you probably know you cannot reasonably argue with me, either. To be fair, though, automobiles are a new technology, only existing since before powered flight began…

Space exploration encompasses a list of hazards that will remain unsurpassed for decades. This is not news to anyone in the industry, and most especially not the people flying them. Yes, it’s dangerous – so is firefighting. Any pundit insisting or implying that space exploration should be safe is talking out of their ass, and such an attitude need not be fostered or continued – it actually deserves to be treated with contempt and derision. It can be argued that safety can be increased, and this is almost certainly true – but that comes at a cost, does it not? Complaining that the US space program isn’t safe and costs too much is talking out of both sides of your mouth (or ass, or we determined previously.)

The media likes to present simple explanations to people, but this is a bit of a disservice when it comes to space flight, and we need to stop falling for the attitudes implied in every hand-wringing sensationalistic article. The number of people who have died in space flight, the world over, doesn’t even approach monthly highway deaths for most states, much less “friendly fire” incidents in military endeavors. Aren’t these both avoidable? Let’s use some intelligence, here – orbital flight involves accelerating machines magnitudes faster than anything else on earth, using highly volatile compounds. Thousands of factors bear on every flight, every exercise, and they all bring a certain degree of reliability, or lack thereof. Weighing these risks is a routine aspect, but there is no way to reliably assess the total risk involved. The confluence of factors in both the Challenger and Columbia accidents were known, as were countless others that had no bearing whatsoever on the accidents. One must also consider, for instance, the lost opportunities for effective orbital insertion (one of the payloads on the STS-51L, the fateful Challenger mission, had to rendezvous with Halley’s Comet, and needed a very specific trajectory to do so.) One must know how soon the orbiter will be back and overhauled for the next mission (and its own time constraints); one must have emergency options for launch abort available (one of the 51L delays was the unavailability of the emergency landing field in Senegal, a specific and important safety procedure); one must calculate what expensive missions will be thrown away if the SRBs go in for radical redesign. You may have noted that Thiokol repeatedly maintained that they warned NASA about the O-ring issue; did you also consider that this was their own design flaw, incorporated into every solid booster for decades? Why did it take them so long to find it, much less fix it?

You notice that Zeeberg, in the Discover article, points out the difference between projected launches per year, and actual; he also points out projected launch costs, and actual. Did he point out that these were based on initial funding requests from Congress, something that was never received? Did he tumble to the fact that number of launches per year and cost of launches are directly related, having to be worked into the yearly budget approved by Congress? Welcome to the New Journalism, where having some knowledge of your subject is considered completely unnecessary.

Was he thorough enough to compare shuttle costs against other launch vehicles capable of performing the same missions? Too much to ask, I suppose. How about considering the multiple mission scenarios practiced in virtually every flight? How about the construction of the ISS – was an unmanned rocket going to handle that? Repairs to satellites? While Hubble was launched with an unfortunate major problem, most definitely avoidable, it also received not only the repair it needed, but also a major upgrade extending its life, not something even remotely possible with an unmanned mission. The Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo manned vehicles were all discontinued, and the products of long-obsolete technology, so some manned vehicle had to be in place, and the shuttle performed far more than simply boosting a small capsule.

Now, of course, we find ourselves with a gutted program and countless cancelled projects, and the absolutely brilliant idea of farming virtually everything out to private contractors. Somehow, this is supposed to make sense, as if a profitable organization is somehow going to provide the services we need cheaper and/or safer than a specific government agency. Now, think about this a second: Congress, in effect, has said that a government agency under their direct purview is too incapable of maintaining both oversight and efficiency, and subcontracted these both out to large-scale corporations with no oversight whatsoever. I suppose we’re lucky they didn’t turn it over to the banking industry.

Too few seem to understand that no private organization is going to pursue this unless they can make a profit, which remains to be seen, and that they’re under no obligation to produce anything, much less the specific launch vehicles we might need in the next few decades. While innovation is all well and good, and I applaud the idea of seeking outside input, I can’t feel that dropping everything in the laps of companies that are far behind their own projected schedules and have no track record to speak of is establishing this “foresight” that everyone seems so concerned was lacking in the shuttle program. I mean, if you find the family car is getting a bit unreliable, does it make sense to throw it out and wait for a brand new one to be created from a company that has never even built a go-cart? And when they cannot, or it turns out to be far worse, what then? And most especially, who’s to blame for that utter fiasco?

Notice that almost nobody ever says anything about the successful NASA missions, either. How we landed people on the moon within the projected schedule, despite it being a complete unknown, and negated the Soviet Union’s head start in doing so (NASA’s budget has never been higher than that period, by the way.) How we landed probes on Mars and radar-mapped Venus through an obscuring cloud cover, and the numerous probes both in orbit and fully operational right now, returning information on a daily basis. How the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity are just a wee bit over their projected 90 day mission profile. How we are taking for granted the surveyors of both Mars and the moon which provide exceptional information with every pass; satellites orbiting Mars have returned repeated photos of the rovers, previous missions like Viking 1, and even the parachute descent of the Phoenix Lander. Hubble has confirmed and refined numerous theories regarding the age of the universe and measuring distant stars, and has produced images of the most distant (and thus oldest) objects to date, and Kepler and Spitzer are responsible for the frequent announcements of new planets found orbiting other stars. This says nothing of the global communications, weather, and navigational satellites that every one of us uses multiple times daily.

Now, we hear that the James Webb Space Telescope is proposed to be removed from the budget by Congress – again, citing cost overruns and management issues. The JWST, considered Hubble’s successor, is designed to be capable of many times the imaging power of the hugely successful Hubble, working in bandwidths much better suited towards the information we’ve been receiving. What we learned from Hubble, we can expect to be multiplied significantly from JWST. Not only that, but this is a joint venture with both the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency, and bailing on this is, in essence, reneging on an agreement.

I can ask a lot of questions regarding this. I can ask what the monthly cost of maintaining troops in Iraq and Afghanistan is (better than twice JWST’s total budget of 6.81 billion dollars); and what the expected advancements from those investments are (nothing – we’ve already achieved the supposed goals, and have been doing nothing but damage control for years.) I could ask what benefit we can receive from the not-quite half of the budget already spent (nothing); or what percentage of the bank bailout that JWST’s budget represents (estimates vary, since it’s ongoing and constantly revised, but 10% is close enough to illustrate); or what percentage JWST is of the annual corn subsidy budget, which largely supports the total boondoggle of ethanol fuel additives (they’re roughly the same, showing that Congress once again needs some help in identifying inefficiency and mismanagement, or even basic science.)

If we’re going to have any space program at all, then we need to speak up to Congress, and emphasize that the goal is to have a space program, not to see if one fits into “disposable funds.” We need to reiterate that science (and education as well, while I’m at it) are not goal-oriented programs, but investments in future prosperity, health, and advancements – there is nothing more important. If management is an issue, then commit to good management, which often means deferring to those that actually work in these fields, rather than treating them as opportunistic swindlers, which has been the attitude towards science advisory in Congress for at least the past decade. We spent twenty billion dollars a year having air conditioning in tents in Iraq – how much could it have possibly cost to start a factory in Iraq that manufactured the damn things (and would have provided ten times the benefit on top, creating jobs and improving economy and relations in that country)? Science and educational funding is a drop in the bucket of the annual budget, and a smidgen of the defense budget – where I don’t see Congress worrying about efficiency or management, much less recognizing that there is literally no country that could effectively pose a threat to us. If you want to argue that, figure the logistics of forcefully occupying half a continent.

We need to be able to dispose of the senseless rhetoric, and focus on what produces results. And we need to hold our representatives to this as well – which means we actually write to Congress over this issue.

And you might notice that this is more of a solution than Zeeberg’s idiotic rant…

Evolution issues

A little previously, I’d made an offhand comment in a post about the religious issues with evolution, and since this is something that’s been apparent in the background of countless forum discussions for years, I thought I’d examine it a little closer.

It comes as no surprise, I suspect, to say that evolution is the single biggest contention to religious folk, at the very least in the US, but predominantly muslim countries suffer from it too. The question is, why evolution? It’s extremely easy to come across numerous religious sources that consistently, oft times vehemently, deny that the evidence for evolution is compelling, usually going so far as to maintain that it’s a vast educational conspiracy or a bastion of scientific dogma. Parents routinely try to pressure schools into reducing or eliminating their reliance on such a concept, or at the very least teaching the “alternate theories.” The tendency to refer to the collected body of knowledge of evolution as a scientific theory has produced the triumphant (yet resolutely ignorant) cries of “Just a theeeory!” from all quarters, and the profuse amount of gross misrepresentation, most of it completely intentional, boggles the mind.

First off, a little tip, offered with some impish anticipation because I know it will mostly be ignored: If you’re the type who uses the arguments, “It’s just a theory,” and “If man descended from monkeys, how come we still have monkeys?” and “How come we never see a half cat, half dog?” – just stop. You’re only announcing your total inability to sit at the grownup table, and being played for a total rube, seriously, by your religious leaders. Google will enlighten you.

Getting back to our topic, we can attempt to explain this rabid animosity towards evolution by observing that it specifically disproves the abrahamic scriptures, mostly in genesis where the creation of the animals, and man, are related. But while this no doubt bears some of the blame, the very same can be said of astronomy, cosmology, physics, geology, and to some small extent even geometry, since all of them present evidence that the creation accounts (yes, there’s more than one in genesis) are flat out wrong. But finding someone who rants about geology is next to impossible, while you can’t throw a stone without hitting an evolution denier.

More compelling, perhaps, is the idea that human beings do not hold a special place in the universe, or indeed even on earth, and are just one among many species. This runs against both the basic idea of our being “in god’s image,” since our present state is a relatively recent one, and the idea that we’re somehow removed from the rest of the animal kingdom. While I suppose this is reassuring if you think of animals as “beastly,” and immoral and beholden to primal instincts and all that, this is more a matter of gross misunderstanding about animal behavior (including our own.) It’s fairly inane, when you think about it – knowing about evolution does not in any way suddenly alter what we are or how we act, and whether or not anyone wishes to accept adaptation by natural selection, it’s rather obvious that we possess distinctive traits regarding cognitive functions, the ability to manipulate our environment, abstract visualization, and so on. In other words, our place apart from the rest of the animal kingdom is not going to magically disappear if and when someone accepts natural selection as valid.

The close relation to the great apes may stick in some people’s craws, perhaps. Chimpanzees are silly and funny at the zoo, but often very disgusting and perverted, at least by our standards of behavior, so thinking of them as close relatives may be unsavory. “Close,” however, is relative to the distance we have from all other species – millions of years still separate us, long before we had a spoken language, made tools, or even used clothing. The similarities, noticed long before Darwin came along and expanded with the ability to sequence DNA, are quite compelling, but the differences undeniable as well.

Almost certainly, what it is most about is church influence. Evolution denial has gone through an upsurge in the past three decades or so, and it is very clear that this is being fostered by organized fundamentalism. As we gained a better understanding of nature, through meticulous scientific study, the things attributable to gods became fewer and fewer, which isn’t good for anyone that derives their power from being a mouthpiece for gods. Churches have a vested interest in maintaining the belief in divinity, and perhaps the easiest aspect to exploit is people’s egos. Not to mention that, without souls and even without original sin, the threat of eternal reward or damnation loses effect. As we got to witness with the opportunistic abuse of the “terrorist” card from our administrations in the past decade, the wolf at the door is a commonly-used influence for whatever behavior most benefits someone in power. Without being able to wield fear, leaders would have to make sense instead.

What is particularly damning is the way that such denial is approached. Censorship is a favorite tool, but it has a few problems: one, that is becomes obvious that you’re afraid of the information you’re trying to suppress; and two, that many people already classify censorship as a bad thing. So it’s important to demonize, sometimes literally, the things that will take away your power. Evolution becomes both atheistic, a common label anymore, and immoral, denying the “good standards” that parents want to instill in their children. It takes only a moment of thought to recognize that it represents neither, and has no more to do with them than geology or botany does – but this would require a moment of thought, something that a disturbing amount of people seem unable to spare. Instead, they go with the kneejerk emotional response to the exhortations of their religious leaders, believing that “good” is equitable with “obedience,” something that we still haven’t learned from a few thousand years of history.

There are two things I want to point out that pertain directly to the whole affair. The first is that science is only a methodical process of learning – it is a method of investigating what happens naturally, and seeing what connections and useful processes can be derived. It does not make assertions about how things must be, but demonstrates what is. Evolution was not the pronouncement of the high priest Darwin (who virtually no one had heard of before anyway,) but an orderly set of observations and inferences, much of which was previously in place, at least in part – we had been breeding horses, dogs, roses, and food plants for hundreds of years previously. Making the connections among the pieces into the whole theory was one of those “why didn’t we see that?” moments for countless scientists, and the theory was even duplicated simultaneously by Alfred Russell Wallace – Darwin received the lion’s share of credit simply by beating Wallace to publication. Yet the scientific method categorically requires skepticism of any such pronouncement, and theories remain only because they withstand the scrutiny of others. For 150 years, this has been hundreds of thousands of “others.” Overall, of course, what Darwin observed is easily, and abundantly, found in nature.

This would lead any rational person to ask why it could be found so easily in nature if, indeed, the entire thing was false – the only way to support the idea of fixed, unchanging creation is that the creator intentionally planted deceptive models of adaptive species, throughout even the fossil record. But this is a supposition, an explanation that allows the idea of accurate scripture to be retained, while not even proposed or supported by that scripture, much less by any evidence whatsoever. It speaks of an elaborately deceitful deity, and commensurately to the concept that we should not believe anything about the world (including that it is round and does not possess four corners,) or indeed our own senses. Obviously, there are distinct benefits to paying attention to our surroundings, but much worse for this explanation comes the realization that we interpret scripture through those same senses…

The second point is that worrying about evolution belies a true faith in scriptural accuracy. What do the religious have to fear? If the theory is false, it’s false, and most especially, the value of religion should easily be able to overcome the myths of mankind, right? Yet… what we see is desperation, the anxiety of those who think that evolution makes more sense, is easier to accept, and applies far more accurately and usefully to the world that we inhabit than scripture does. It has been demonized precisely because arguments against its true nature hold little water, and the misinformation that abounds regarding the theory cannot charitably be called an honest mistake. In fact, one of the more ironic aspects of the whole affair now is that learning about evolution will reveal the abundance of outright lies the churches have been spreading. To declare that the churches have never heard responses to such claims before is hopelessly naïve – they’ve been around for decades.

What is also quite likely at work is the reluctance to abandon the parent figure, the overseeing, everything-will-be-all-right god that wouldn’t leave its creation fend for itself in competition among other species (see this episode of “But How?”). This is the same childish mindset that fosters global warming denial and the dismissal that we, as a species, could actually overuse our planetary resources and get into a world of hurt. Yet, we have abundant evidence that the intersession of a deity isn’t really a concern, from disasters every year to the constant genocide that we engage in as a species (any “good christians” who think that their religion breeds understanding and tolerance need only talk to their African-American neighbors, or just try to find their Native American neighbors…) There is no shortage of reminders from the religious, mostly in the face of the failure of prayer, that “god helps those who help themselves” and “every prayer is answered, but sometimes the answer is no” – this would seem to say we’re on our own, would it not? The fact that science routinely, and undeniably, saves lives every minute almost certainly indicates that it’s an accepted part of the grand plan, whatever that might be – it also represents far more evidence than what we have ever found for evolution being a hoax from god. I need also mention that if, as I am often told, we “cannot fathom gods plan,” then there is no action or even belief that is not up for grabs (oh, wait – I wasn’t supposed to accept that argument in that way? Damn, my bad.)

There are many ways that we can determine what is “true,” and I put that in quotes because the word is interpreted in such widely disparate ways, two of which I’m about to demonstrate. One way is to examine what is presented to us (scientific studies, scripture, political claims, advertising) and see what applies most effectively to our lives, what works best and dependably, what isn’t contradicted by other information. The other is to seek what makes us feel the best about ourselves or our preconceptions, paying attention only to things that validate our emotions and egos, ignoring contradictory info. The former provides the best chance of giving us accurate information; the latter, while perhaps more satisfying, can easily lead to self-deception and believing in false premises.

The former is science – we only find out information by constantly testing it, questioning it, by specifically not trusting it but having it proved to us instead. The latter is, very often, religion, where select parts are chosen to fit with what we most desire to see. But if we fool ourselves simply for the sake of indulgence, what does this really say about ourselves, or what we consider “truth?” Moreover, how often can it, does it, provide information that actively harms us? And is it really going to serve in our best interests to actively deny and misrepresent any aspect of qualified, proven science because we’re trying to protect religion from its haphazard and contradictory roots?

Finally, if we are so wrapped up in our distinctive differences from “the animals,” then perhaps we shouldn’t be afraid of exercising that one undeniable trait that demonstrates that difference above all others: our brains. Rational thought, and the ability to deal with complex issues, is either an evolved trait or a gift from god – but whichever we accept doesn’t stop us from using our brains in any way. Indulging in base emotions and kneejerk responses? I thought that was what defined those other species?

Pluto’s posse

I’m not following the latest breaking astronomical websites like I used to, so this news is a little old to those that do. But recently, astronomers confirmed that Pluto has another moon, bringing its total to four (counting Charon, known since 1978, and Nix and Hydra discovered in 2005.) For the time being, this one is simply called “P4” until a name is agreed upon.

It was found when the Hubble Space Telescope was doing survey images of Pluto to map out the area as best we can, since we have a planetary probe on its way there, the New Horizons probe (definitely a cool site there.) Pluto is so remote that we have only smidgens of information about it, and New Horizons is going to expand that by thousands of times. Launched in 2006, it will not be making its rendezvous until 2015.

Now, a quick illustration. P4 is estimated to be between 13 to 34 kilometers (8 to 21 miles) across, the size of a moderate city, or Atlanta’s airport. Being able to spot it from Hubble’s orbit around Earth is much the same as sitting here in central North Carolina and being able to see a penny – in Chicago. The best resolution images we have of Pluto itself, which is about 2,390 km, are only a few dozen pixels across themselves. We’re actually kind of vague on P4’s size not just from the smudge it makes on the image sensors, but because we don’t know how reflective it really is. If it’s highly reflective, it’s among the smaller measurements, but if it’s low in reflectance it can be at the larger end. It is supposed to be much the same reflectance as Pluto and the other moons, since they’re all assumed to be from a collision many millions of years back, and thus composed of the same elements. But this isn’t known by any stretch, and P4 could be an extraneous body from the Kuiper Belt captured into Pluto’s gravitational field. That’s part of the fun of working at this kind of distance from a subject.

There are tricks, however. We had a few guesses at how much light Pluto itself reflects, which would make its diameter different depending on each, but then pinned down its size pretty accurately by watching Charon eclipse it, as well as watching it eclipse a distant star. Corroborating methods like this help a lot, but New Horizons is going to make all of that look like scraps of paper.

The probe is taking so long to get there since it is limited on the fuel it can carry, as well as what its mission is. New Horizons used an orbital pass around Jupiter to serve as a free slingshot, accelerating it without fuel, and will be coasting most of the way to Pluto now. The mechanics of launching probes and such is responsible; Earth’s gravity has to be defeated for every milligram we send into space, and this includes fuel as well. The more fuel, the more fuel is needed just to move the fuel, and a process of diminishing returns comes into play. It doesn’t take much before you’re looking at a bigger launch vehicle, of which our options are limited, and it can actually reach a point (with something much larger than a probe, anyway) where the fuel is not efficient enough to boost a certain quantity out of earth’s orbit. In other words, one can’t just keep building bigger rockets, at least until we discover a fuel source that provides more bang for the gram.

Once in space and at a sufficient speed to reach a target before the batteries run down or mankind turns into another species, such probes can coast – there is too little in space to provide drag and slow them down, of course. But this works a little against the goals, too, and it shaped the profile of New Horizon’s mission. Fuel would also be needed to slow the spacecraft and put it into orbit, like Cassini is in around Saturn, and this wasn’t available, either, so New Horizons is instead doing a flyby, passing Pluto only once before continuing onward to study other Kuiper Belt Objects. This is part of the reason that Hubble is scouting the territory: the more we know ahead of time, the better we can plan activities for its brief time up close.

There’s another reason, too. Light, and by extension radio waves, takes over four hours to reach Pluto from Earth, and the same amount back, so “real time” instructions to the probe just ain’t happening. The instructions need to be planned in advance and sent to the probe, and there’s a distinct limit on how many changes can be made based on new information from the probe itself. For safety’s sake, there also needs to be enough time to get confirmation signals from the probe, so we’re sure it received everything without dropping out portions (and there’s no cell towers around.)

There’s yet more planning involved. In order to use that orbital assist trick around Jupiter, the locations of Jupiter, Pluto, and Earth in their orbital paths had to coincide so that the probe could be aimed correctly and not have to waste fuel and time zig-zagging across the solar system. While we tend to think of the planets lining up like they’re diagrammed in astronomy textbooks, in truth they’re all tracing their own orbits and can be widely varying in both distance and direction. Our window of opportunity to use these mission parameters was pretty narrow, and we would not have had the opportunity to do this again for three hundred years. When I first heard that Congress had voted down funding the mission, I was livid at the stupidity – you don’t put off exploratory missions for three centuries. Apparently, wiser heads prevailed, because funding was restored and New Horizons was able to be launched before the window closed.

I mentioned “Kuiper Belt” a few times and you may be wondering what that is. Basically, it’s the sawdust left over when you make a planetary system. Clouds of interstellar dust form into disks, and ever so slowly, mutual gravity causes a star to form at the center while planets form further out. The larger planets attract nearby bits of matter and incorporate them, sweeping clean the space in their orbital area, but at the outer edges of the system disk, things are too spread out to attract each other well, so they tend to stay scattered and small. The Kuiper Belt is very much like what the original disk that eventually formed the planets was like, except with fewer gases (more easily attracted to the larger bodies) and with more ice, because of its distance from the sun. The Belt serves as the source of most of the comets we see here from Earth, “dirty snowballs” of ice and grit that had been orbiting happily way out there until some other body passing nearby dragged it by mutual gravitational pull, like two magnetic balls passing close to one another. With the angle of momentum altered, the comet now progresses on an elongated elliptical orbit deeper into the solar system, generally getting realigned as it gets closer to one of the larger bodies, which isn’t always the sun – some comets actually whip around Jupiter instead (or crash into it.) Of course, far more get re-aimed in virtually any other direction and trundle off into deep space…

In four years, we’re going to be getting fantastic images of the distant edge of our planetary system, which is going to add a lot to our knowledge about how the solar system formed, no doubt confirming a few theories as well as trashing a few. That is, if the probe can find it. When New Horizons was launched, Pluto was still a full planet, but in the intervening time it has been demoted to dwarf planet, which might defeat the probe’s programming. I wonder if Neil deGrasse Tyson thought this through carefully…?

On composition, part 10: Foreground elements

So, you find yourself (wait, isn’t that a goofy phrase? Like you might have lost yourself, or perhaps been paying no attention, look down, and whoops, there you are?) in a scenic location, faced with a gorgeous view, great lighting, and a cooperative sky. The photo is made for you, isn’t it? All you have to do is take it. And this is the thinking of countless people when they travel to common locations.

There are definitely things you can do to improve on a great scene, however, and one of them is to include a foreground element. It’s hard for me to say why this is, but having a focal point in the foreground of the shot, obviously closer to the viewer than the majority of the image, provides a lot more character. With wide angle views like this one, something “at your feet” puts the viewer in the picture, making the depth much more apparent and letting them feel able to step into the scene themselves.

Finding such an element, or selecting one, is a trick in itself. For this shot, the large leaf actually provided the idea to do the scenic, and made me aware of the channel of the sky mimicking the riverbed. But perhaps more often you’ll see the potential of the scene first, then try to compose it with something in the foreground. It should be topical and appropriate, of course, though there’s something to be said for anachronistic elements, too, like a old doll in thick woods. It should draw the eye enough to make a focal point, which allows it to be smaller and not dominate the frame if necessary. If it can work with the lines or other aspects of the frame, all the better.

Sometimes, getting lower to the ground enhances the foreground element, and making it loom larger than the distant background elements is a compositional style itself. This can make something small and subtle become attention-worthy, accentuating the idea of discovery, and bringing this idea of disparate sizes and scale to the viewer.

Here, the gravestone with the flag is the foreground element, balancing the tree on the right and providing a line leading into the image, as well as some depth that wouldn’t be there with the background gravestones alone. The flag adds just enough draw to make the marker the focal point, but it is subtle enough to let the scene itself remain the subject of the image. One almost gets the impression of isolation from that headstone, separated as it is from the bulk of the others, but it makes a great anchor for the way the rest is framed.

Alternately, you might want to make the foreground element the primary focus, and let the background become more subtle or simply a setting. Old Well on UNC Chapel Hill’s campus is a well-known landmark and probably the most photographed item in central Carolina, certainly in Chapel Hill, so I decided to approach it a little differently while I was there with a student. Its color and shape are instantly apparent, no subtlety here, but being out of focus makes it a setting rather than a subject, and we look instead at the sharp flowers. The tallest flower gains dominance in the frame, assisted by placing it between columns and against the shadow of the dome, and the color leaps out, even on the overcast day, contrasting significantly with the remainder of the frame. One might argue that this isn’t really a foreground element, rather the prominent subject, but the known disparity of sizes between foreground and background, as well as the enhanced distance from the short depth-of-field, makes this up for grabs I think. The upward angle means we’re down lower than normal, putting us in close among the hedge and almost disdainful of the tourist attraction (this probably illustrates my whole approach to photography pretty well.) (“Well,” heh.)

While this doesn’t have anything to do with the topic of my post, there’s a further subtle element that comes out in a larger version of the image, which can be seen if you click on this one. The recent rain is still apparent on the flowers, fitting in with the sky and lighting and adding just a little atmosphere. If the sky had been bright and sunny, the viewer would likely believe the water drops were due to a sprinkler rather than rain – environment does matter in the image.

It isn’t paramount that a foreground element be included in every scenic shot, and doing so would likely get your images into a rut. But there are times when it adds much more to the scene – if in doubt, try shooting both and see what garners better reactions. But at the very least, always keep such elements in mind, and consider how they can enhance your composition.

35 years ago, Viking 1 shakes hands with Mars

On this date in 1976, the NASA Viking 1 lander touched down on the surface of Mars, becoming the first manmade object to contact that planet. The US space program, until that time dealing largely with the moon missions, satellites, and Skylab, had now extended its reach phenomenally.

Now, I’m going to put a damper on nationalism in the interests of accuracy, for a moment. The Soviet Union had crashed a Venera probe on Venus just a wee bit earlier – like a decade. If it makes you feel better, they’d lost communication before contacting the surface so the mission returned no data, but credit where it’s due. Functioning probe missions had succeeded in 1970, still well ahead of Viking.

One of the things that distinguished Viking, however, was its ability to transmit high definition images back to NASA, and in turn (because NASA shares its images as a matter of policy) to the rest of the world. Now, you get to hear some of this from a photographer’s viewpoint – lucky you!

Your digital camera renders color by having a teeny little bit of colored plastic over each individual “pixel” sensor, in a standard pattern just like a TV screen. Digital sensors can only read light intensity (or brightness if you prefer,) not color, so each pixel has to be dedicated towards a particular color by filter. What this means, however, is that red pixels only represent 1/4 the resolution of the camera. The camera software, once the image is captured, interpolates the color of each pixel in the finished image by comparing the intensity of each color in the pattern against one another, and then changing them to try and represent “true” color. Of course, it matters a bit just what color filter is over the pixel in the first place, and what settings for images the user has chosen – high contrast, more saturated colors, and so on. The long and short of it is, there is no particular way to tell what the most accurate rendition of an image is.

Most astronomical cameras do not have color ability built into the sensor; instead, they have color filters within the lens arrays that can be switched at will, and creating a full-color image takes at least three separate exposures that are transmitted separately back to NASA. But there can also be additional filters, for more colors, infrared, ultraviolet, and so on, allowing the camera a lot of versatility. It’s not going to get updated next year, after all. A small aside, too: development of a satellite, probe, or lander requires the coordination of every component, its weight, power needs, ability to transmit data back, and so on. Because of this, new developments and upgraded hardware rarely ever make their way into a space vehicle under construction, so the digital sensors within are often very far behind the abilities of the current consumer cameras, and would typically be considered seriously obsolete in comparison.

Image courtesy of

Personally, I’ve spent no small amount of time in scanning slides and trying to adjust them to appear the same on the monitor as they do on the light table. And I live on the planet where the images were taken! When the atmosphere is entirely different and vital information about the environment is determined by what’s showing in the images, calculating what the most accurate color rendition is becomes a matter of no small debate, and the application of some pretty advanced science. Seen here at the base of the antenna arm, the lander has several color targets within visible range of the cameras, which provide known baseline colors (and resolutions) to help calibrate the resulting images. In a way.

The color register on another planet should be different, from the sunlight being filtered through a different set of gases in the atmosphere. As I mentioned earlier, this color cast is something that you may not want to correct for, most especially if you’re trying to see what the planet is like. But it does present some issues with figuring out how to interpret the color channels of the images. On earth, the lander may be white (at noon, anyway) but on Mars it probably never gets brighter than pale apricot, and during a dust storm, who knows what color the light turns? Figuring this out is what makes the technicians’ jobs interesting.

At the time, one of the prime questions that Viking was supposed to answer was regarding the possibility of life. Nobody expected to find little green men, but the speculation about ice and organic compounds made it clear that the possibility was real. The landscape of Mars also gave distinct indications that some time in the past Mars had featured a more hospitable atmosphere, meaning that traces of past life might also exist. Of the four different methods that the lander possessed to try and determine answers to these questions, three came up negative, and one positive. Later analyses, with better understanding of the nature of the atmosphere, still haven’t actually resolved the question; the possibility is still there, and we may have found evidence of it. Not anything really compelling like bacterial traces or microorganisms, but the chemical aftereffects. In fact, Viking may have actually damaged the traces it was trying to detect.

This is part of the challenge of investigating things such a vast distance away. The tests have to be planned well in advance and incorporated into the lander, and obtaining new samples usually takes another mission. The sudden insight – “What if we tried this?” – requires a decade of planning and a few million dollars to implement, or the ability to find a way to deduce or infer the answer with existing data. Impatient people don’t get assigned to work planetary probes.

Today, and tomorrow, marks another anniversary by the way, but I’ll refer you back to an earlier post for that one. If you’re confused, bear in mind that the mission was run by Universal Constant Time (UTC, or Greenwich Time) and the delay between landing and EVA meant Armstrong actually stepped out the next morning ;-)

Just look at it

As I type this, I’m picking grit and yard debris out of my navel, the cost of getting down to a necessary level to obtain shots like this. So I want you to take a good look at this in consideration of my efforts, even if you don’t like snakes.

Worm snakes (Carphophis amoenus) are found across much of the US, but only if you know where to look. They’re very secretive, typically burrowing under leaf litter and rocks to hunt their food, which they resemble to no small degree. It’s actually easy to mistake one for an earthworm, from their size, body shape, and coloration – while this is a nice close shot, the eyes are so subtle they often appear not to have any. The head and tail taper almost exactly like a worm’s body, with no visible narrowing at the neck and a blunt tail. Even their habit of wriggling when handled can convince someone it’s a worm, if they fail to notice that the skin is quite dry and the body firmer than an invertebrate. Those paying attention may observe that, when disturbed, these snakes can shoot for cover in a manner far more directed than most earthworms.

What I like about this is how the lighting brought out the glassy smoothness and the delicate intricacies of the fitted scales, illustrating a trait that helps them cut through soil and debris with ease. Once their head disappears under cover, they can appear to have stopped moving until the tail abruptly follows, so deceptive is their motion. Completely harmless to anything thicker than macaroni, I’ve never known one to even attempt to bite, but they’re very good at vanishing. Once I was done with my photo session, my model here slipped under the grass cover almost magically.

Watch your tongue. And ass.

Did you ever wonder, since alien visitors seem to have this thing for sexually examining humans and cutting out cow tongues (because, of all the organs that prove interesting to study, the tongue certainly tops the list,) do they ever abduct insects as well? You’d think they’d have to, wouldn’t you?

Anyway, I was playing around with a new softbox attachment, intended for handheld macro work, and while it needs some tweaking, I really like the result. Having an overhead light source looks much more natural, but typically this is hard to do and still retain some mobility. This rig, however, hangs right from a hotshoe-mounted flash – it needs a little bracing, because it’s weight that’s hanging over the front of the camera, but it’s completely portable and allows a great deal of freedom of movement. The shadows are managed and there are no overbright highlights – check the glow in the forward part of the eyes, which is the illuminating surface being reflected. Direct flash is useful for getting detail, but it often provides poor shaping and texture rendering, and has a harsh look. The softbox allows for more artistic approaches, and lets the camera get very close to a subject without having the shoe-mounted flash blocked by the lens, or simply firing over top of the subject.

Watch for more examples soon. Meanwhile, I’m going to keep an eye out for tiny UFOs beaming up bugs.

But how? Part four: Religious belief

Walkabout podcast – But how? Part 4

For this topic of the series, I’m going out on a limb, because this is largely personal speculation, and I’m the first to admit I have no educational background in any of this. There are writers out there who have examined this in detail, but I have yet to read any of those works, so this is me talking out of my ass. It’s a blog – chill. So with that out of the way, let’s talk about a curious question that crops up from time to time: how come so many people are religious?

If we accept the premise that there is no supernatural force guiding our development, now or in the past, then we should by rights have little reason to keep expecting supernatural entities – in other words, from an evolutionary standpoint religion makes no sense, yet a whole lot of people accept it and follow it, well, religiously. There should be a method of explaining this in naturalistic terms in order to be consistent, shouldn’t there?

Continue reading “But how? Part four: Religious belief”