I floated the idea last week of doing a book club on Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars, the first book in his three-part exploration of human colonization of the Red Planet and the attendant issues of climate change, relationships between Muslims and the West, and how we process culture change in a world of increasing longevity. Enough people seem to be in that we’re going for it, so this is how it’ll work. Let’s read parts 1 and 2—up to, but not including “The Crucible” for Friday. I’ll write a post outlining some issues during the day, and we’ll hash them out in comments.
Stories tagged with “Space”
As veteran readers know, I love doing book clubs on the blog. So let’s get one started for the summer. Normally I take requests and we vote, but I actually wanted to propose a book myself this time. I’d love to revisit Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars since it will, somewhat unbelievably, be 20 years old this summer, and explores everything from the relationship between Islam and the West to futurist architecture. Let me know over the weekend if you’re interested, and if we’ve got enough people, we’ll kick off next week and I’ll post the first set of chapters we’ll tackle on Monday.
Reihan Salam talks to the Economist:
DIA: What are some areas where you think Republicans can successfully work with Democrats in the future.
Mr Salam: In the far future, I imagine that there will be bipartisan cooperation on space colonisation and efforts to terraform Mars. In the nearer term, I’d like to see Republicans work closely with the Obama White House on education, an area where Jeb Bush and Arne Duncan, the secretary of education, agree on everything important. I’d also like to see cooperation on Medicare reform, but that won’t happen. Democrats and Republicans should be able to agree on giving states and local governments more flexibility when it comes to designing transportation initiatives and welfare-to-work programmes. Efforts to decentralise government united congressional Republicans and the Clinton White House, and perhaps we’ll see more of that under Barack Obama.
On space colonization, I’m afraid I have to strenuously disagree. The problem is that the Spacers will inevitable become politically independent of earth, and then use their command over superior natural resources and robots to oppress us.
On education, I’m basically in agreement. There are, however, fundamental limits to the potential scope for cross-party cooperation on much of anything as long as conservative activists succeed in making it all-but-impossible for Republican politicians to embrace taxes of any kind. Their current stance toward fiscal issues points in the long run toward their not being any money with which to fund education programs of any kind.
Revisiting Barack Obama’s education speech, this bit near the beginning touched on some interesting themes:
I know there are some who believe we can only handle one challenge at a time. They forget that Lincoln helped lay down the transcontinental railroad, passed the Homestead Act, and created the National Academy of Sciences in the midst of Civil War. Likewise, President Roosevelt didn’t have the luxury of choosing between ending a depression and fighting a war. President Kennedy didn’t have the luxury of choosing between civil rights and sending us to the moon. And we don’t have the luxury of choosing between getting our economy moving now and rebuilding it over the long term.
I agree with Obama’s conclusion, but this Moon analogy seems terrible. It’s true that there was no zero-sum tradeoff between civil rights and the moon, but at the same time we obviously did have the luxury of just not going to the moon. The point I would make about education is that the quality of the education the current generation of children receive is critical to the economic well-being of the country 20, 30, and 40 years from now and if screw it up, you can’t get the kids back in school. We really don’t have the luxury of choosing, but Kennedy did.
The Lincoln business, meanwhile, is one of congress’ great untold stories. People generally don’t think about this very much, but one important consequence of secession was to radically shift the balance of power in Congress since almost every southern member was gone. Suddenly, the super-empowered northern-based Republican majority could pass all sorts of legislation on all sorts of topics. And legislate they did—Homestead Act, all kinds of trade protections, railroad schemes, etc. Just imagine would happen in congress today if the South seceded? It would change everything! And, obviously, it’s not as if there was less regional polarization back then. Conversely, what if Southern Democrats hadn’t seceded back in 1860-61 and had just instead decided to mount a ton of filibusters of all Lincoln’s key legislative priorities? Of course back then we didn’t have the present-day understanding that routine filibusters are okay. But just for fun, project today’s alleged supermajority requirement back to the election of 1860 and a Southern decision that obstructionism was a better path to the preservation of slavery than secession.
Max asks about the great beyond:
I, sir, would like to now what your issue with the space program. And by issue, I mean, what exactly are you beefing about? NASA itself? Launching people into space in general? The ‘no waste’ argument of black boxing the solar system (already done, actually)? The argument that the money could be spent on other expensive science projects (known as ‘we could fund MY project with that money instead’ argument)?
The first place to start is that, of course, we have two different space programs — one military and one civilian. The existence of some sort of military concern with outer space is natural for a great power, but this is an area in which we tend to go too far. Instead of agreeing to abide by and help enforce the existing international law on the demilitarization of space, the United States has in recent years been pushing the envelop toward the militarization of space complete with a Bush administration National Space Strategy that sets perpetual military hegemony in space as a national goal. The upshot of this sort of policymaking is to help create a self-justifying “space arms race” with the Chinese in which Chinese responses to our moves become the justification for further moves that lead to further Chinese responses and further moves. It’s bad for you, it’s bad for me, it’s bad for the world, but it’s good for the aerospace industry.
Then you have the civilian space program for science and exploration purposes. This is a fine idea. My only beef with it is that the program has been disproportionately focused on the idea of manned space exploration. Human beings, being fragile creates who evolved on the planet earth, turn out to be hard to send into space. They also, being humans, tend not to be interested in taking extremely long trips even though many interesting things in space are very far away. Under the circumstances, it’s just not very practical to send human beings into space unless there’s something important that only human beings can do. And in recent decades, there just having been the sort of compelling projects that justify the difficulties of manned space flight. Instead, we’ve been making up missions — most recently the preposterous idea of a manned mission to Mars — in order to justify the human-oriented space program.
But what we ought to do is leave the manned space flight to eccentric billionaires looking to do something weird, and focus our civilian space activities on doing science and exploration through unmanned probes and telescopes and the like. There’s lots of perfectly legitimate things for NASA to be doing, including sending vehicles to other planets to tell us more about them and establishing better systems for tracking (and better understanding) the asteroids and comets that are flying around.
One of the less important things I liked about Barack Obama back during the primaries was that on a couple of occasions he indicated a desire to cut back on NASA’s wasteful human space exploration missions in favor of doing more actual science. It appears that this has not endeared him to NASA, and that the space agency is proving to be a major dark cloud in a transition process that’s otherwise gone very smoothly.
Gregg Easterbrook, a writer employed as a science expert by a prominent Washington think tank, evidently doesn’t understand basic science. Easterbrook, a prolific writer and editor for The New Republic, Atlantic Monthly, the Washington Monthy, and NFL.com, is a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, whose mission is to “conduct high-quality, independent research and, based on that research, to provide innovative, practical recommendations” for general prosperity and democracy. Easterbrook’s Brookings profile claims expertise in a remarkable swath of knowledge — environmental policy, global warming, science, space policy, “well-being” research, Christian theology, and professional sports — evidently based on his work as a journalist after receiving degrees in political science and journalism.
Dr. Joseph Romm, a Center for American Progress Senior Fellow, has well documented that Easterbrook knows nothing about global warming and environmental policy, as have other bloggers. More simply, Easterbrook knows nothing about science. To wit, in his weekly Tuesday Morning Quarterback sports column, Easterbrook digressed into other matters of his purported expertise, science and space policy:
A few columns ago, I speculated that even if there is never any way to exceed or circumvent the light-speed barrier, relatively nearby planets might still fight by hurling nuclear bombs at each other at 99 percent of light speed — with existing technology, something moving that fast wouldn’t even be seen until nearly here. Let’s hope any world advanced enough to build near-light-speed stardrive will also have become wise enough to forswear war. But based on the only model we know, human society, technology and wisdom do not go hand in hand. Anyway, John Duezabou of Helena, Mont., adds this creepy postscript: “A bellicose or paranoid extra-solar civilization that could accelerate an object to 99 percent of light speed wouldn’t need to launch bombs at us. They could shoot anything with devastating results, because the kinetic energy of a moving object is half its mass multiplied by the square of its velocity, or KE = 1/2 mv2. Thus, one pound of anything — a pint of vanilla ice cream, for instance — accelerated to 99 percent of light speed has an energy of about 4.8 megatons, roughly the blast yield of the largest hydrogen bombs.” A moderate-sized object, say a small asteroid, if accelerated to 99 percent of light speed, could conceivably shatter the Earth.
Ignoring many of the obvious problems with Easterbrook’s thought experiment, the science here is simply wrong. The kinetic energy of a moving object is actually m0c2(1/(1-v2/c2)1/2 – 1) (where m0 is the rest mass, v the velocity, and c the speed of light) which the Newtonian formulation closely approximates only for non-relativistic speeds. A one-pound mass accelerated to 99 percent of light speed actually has a kinetic energy of about
68 58 megatons of TNT, greater than the largest thermonuclear device ever detonated.
This isn’t grad-school level physics — this element of relativistic mechanics is taught in high schools across the nation and is of course readily available online.
This kind of scientific illiteracy is of no great shakes for a sports columnist, and science fictional scenarios are an excellent learning tool for non-scientists. But under no circumstances should anyone who writes this be considered a science expert, let alone by one of the most august think tanks in the nation. Or, as the Poor Man Institute bloggers write, “Dear God make it stop.”
In a fit of sloppiness, my initial calculation was for the total relativistic energy, not simply the kinetic energy. I apologize.