Odds and Ends
Since this is an "Odds and Ends" column, you can expect me to be all over the place this time out. For those of you who dont know, every now and then I do a column which consists of short takes on matters pertaining to my earlier columns, or to other matters appearing in this magazine, or to current events, or to just about anything else that I want to gas off about, but not for an entire Alternate View.
First up, see if you can figure out what the "mystery thing" is from the following paraphrase of a passage I read from a book (hint) published in the 90s. "Persons who are occupied with other branches of science or philosophy, or with literature, and who have therefore not kept quite abreast of physical science, may possibly be surprised to see the intimate way in which (blank) is now spoken of by physicists, and the assuredness with which it is (searched for). They may be inclined to imagine it is still a hypothetical (thing) whose existence is a matter of opinion. Such is not the case. The existence of (blank) can legitimately be denied in the same terms as the existence of matter can be denied, but only so. The evidence of its existence can be doubted or explained away in the one case as in the other, but the evidence for (blank) is as strong and direct as the evidence for air." As additional hints, this book was written by a leading British physicist, and is a textbook for physics majors.
Ill return to reveal the answer to this mystery at the end of the column, so dont peek!
In a recent column ("Only On TV," Sept., 03) I was critical of NASA for its cavalier attitude toward the safety of the astronauts aboard the ill-fated Columbia. Granted, I wrote that column only weeks after the tragedy happened, and my feelings were raw. For me, the Challenger disaster of 1986 remains a vivid memory, and those astronauts, it turns out, did not have to die. The booster problem was known and should have been corrected, but it took a calamity to shake the agency out of complacency. So when the Columbia came apart over Texas, I did not want to believe that NASA had once again given complacency too free a hand. But the explanations coming from the top about how there was nothing anyone could do rang hollow from the get go. Hence, the bitterness of the earlier column.
Has time changed my feelings any? No. If anything, Im even more ticked off. Heres why.
Early in June, I came upon this Associated Press report written by Marcia Dunn. My local paper (The Grand Rapids Press, June 5, 2003, pg. A13) had the headline as follows: "Impact of Foam in Test Shot Amazes NASA Investigators." The first paragraph reads as follows: "A 1 1/2-pound chunk of space shuttle foam hurled at a fiberglass wing replica struck with enormous force and deformed some of the pieces, to the amazement of the Columbia accident investigator in charge of the testing." So, this was deemed "amazing." Hmmm.
One Scott Hubbard, identified as a high-ranking NASA official on the investigation board, is quoted as saying, "Peoples intuitive sense of physics is sometimes way off. You dont feel that this (foam) can do anything." You dont feel? Double hmmm.
As I recall, we were told right after the accident happened that the NASA engineer types had looked at the foam insulation impact on the wing of the shuttle and determined that there was no danger to the shuttle.
On what basis, pray tell, was this determination made? Since the very first test made using a foam projectile and a mock-up of the wing demonstrated that significant damage could occur, we must conclude that no such test was performed prior to this shuttle mission. Otherwise, the engineers would have known that damage might have happened. Apparently, no such test was performed before this accident even though the shuttle had been hit by falling foam on other occasions. So the determination made by the engineers was pure eyewash, moonshine . . . bullshit, if you will.
In late June, NASA said they might start sending up shuttles again in December or early 2004. One can only hope weve reached the end of the bullshit. I doubt it.
Heads should roll.
I noticed in the July/August 2003 Brass Tacks that Stan got quite a load of letters concerning his editorial on Intelligent Design (from the February 2003 Analog). I dont particularly want to wade into the details of the argumentsfor me, its all "been there, done that." I was raised in a Christian home and learned early on that Genesis is not a science book (I arrived at 90% of my current understanding of the issue by the time Id left eighth grade). In my tenth grade biology class at Calvin Christian High School, we were taught evolution just like biology students in the public schools. And regardless of semantic distinctions about what is a Theory as opposed to "just a theory," evolutionary theory is what biologists use, and Creationism is not. (Note: By Creationism with a capital "C," I mean biblical literalism with respect to Genesis. Lower case creationism, to which I do subscribe, accepts God as Creator, but doesnt treat the Bible like a science text and accepts science as the means by which the physical universe is explored.)
Im jumping into the discussion now because I dont think Intelligent Design should be confused with Creationism. Granted, some Creationists want to make God the Intelligent Designer, but as any science fiction reader should ask, couldnt it be aliens instead? Indeed, I think some form of "intelligent design" theory does belong in the classroom, and heres why.
It is certain that the physical laws of the Universe are sufficient to support life such as we are, otherwise we wouldnt be here. However, it (1) does not necessarily follow that those laws are sufficient to produce life like us, and (2) even if they are, it is not certain that the early Earth was an adequate breeding ground. If we accept from point 2 that the Earth could not produce life, this does not immediately lead to a Designer. It does leave open the chance that life started elsewhere "all by itself," and was seeded here later. And on point 1, even if life like us could not start "all by itself" anywhere in the Universe, this also doesnt lead automatically to God. Perhaps physical laws allow for the development of intelligent life unlike us (electromagnetic beings or some such) that then designed life such as us.
My point is not that I think evolution needs to be challenged as just one of many other theories. It is, after all, the biggy in biology, extensive knowledge of which is mandatory if one wishes to pursue a career in biology or any of the related fields (anthropology, paleontology, etc.). But all big theories rest on certain assumptions that it would be nice to turn into facts, and for evolution, one of those assumptions is that life can originate from non-living matter. In my opinion, modern science education tends to undervalue the teaching technique of considering the alternative. If we deliberately point out that alternative assumptions exist, this prohibits the mistaking of an assumption for a fact, and starkly highlights those places where more work needs to be done. Creation science, with its obvious ties to religion, is unwelcome in the public school classroom, which renders it unsuitable to be used as that alternative. But modern Design theory does not (as I showed above) need to be tied to religion at all, and so can serve.
Granted, the question remains open as to whether or not, say, electromagnetic beings could self-originate, but at that point were no longer dealing with biological evolution. And anyway, the question of ultimate causes is essentially religious in nature and this is so whether youre an atheist or not.
I also noticed that of the seven letters Stan printed concerning his Intelligent Design editorial, he only actually replied to one. How is the letter writer, or any of the readers, to interpret what it means when a letter appears without comment? I cant answer for Stan, of course, but in my own case, there are several reasons why I might deliberately decide not to offer a reply.
One reason for not supplying a reply is that some letters are fine just the way they are. That is, they say something that needed to be said, or they offer a different, but equally valid, viewpoint to my own, or they add something that I wish I would have included. In these cases, I dont want to muck up the letter by penning a reply to itthese letters can stand alone, and Im content to let them do so.
Another reason is something like the opposite of the above. Now and thenand fortunately, rarelya letter comes in that is so stupid or mean-spirited or flat-out farcical that it is self-discrediting. In these cases, a reply serves no purpose since the contents of the letter itself reveal more about the letter writer than they do about the supposed sins of the author. Put in a more pithy way, some people are assholes, and (this should be one of Nivens Lawssee the November, 2002 Analog) no intelligent person should get into a farting contest with an asshole.
And a third reason is that sometimes the task of writing an adequate reply is simply too overwhelming. Nice, well-meaning readers, with a particular point of view theyd like to get across, sometimes write letters filled with assertions masquerading as facts and idiosyncratic opinions poorly disguised as self-evident truths. If the letter deals with one of my hot button issues, the desire to reply is nearly impossible to resist. But to adequately address the points raised would require that one first expose the writers assertions and opinions for what they really are.
This could take up several issues of Analog (entire issues, not just Brass Tacks).
So in this last case, I "just say no," and then get on with other work.
Now, back to that passage I started with. Did any of you think the author was talking about dark matter? Thats what it sounds like to me. After all, most astrophysicists are confident that some kind of dark matter existstheyve been spinning theories about it for most of my adult life. Even though no one as yet has actually found dark matter, the observational, though indirect, evidence of its existence is accepted as firmly established.
But the passage is not about dark matter. I pulled a fast one on you. The book does come from the 90s, but by that I mean the 1890s. It is Modern Views of Electricity by Oliver Lodge (later to be Sir Oliver Lodge) and he was talking about the ether (or aether, as I prefer). Lodge wrote with such confidence, yet within twenty years, his eras mainstream view of the ether would be banished, even though the empirical evidence leading to his confidence would go unchallenged.
The passage caught my eye because I think those who today write with equal confidence about dark matter are destined to find themselves in the same boat with Lodge a few years from now. I dont dispute the validity of the observational evidence that leads the modern astrophysicist to infer the existence of dark matter. I just think that appeals to various forms of mystical matter to supply the extra gravity needed to explain the observations is misguided, and this will be obvious to everyone once we have a fuller understanding of galactic structure as the result of electrodynamic, as well as gravitational, forces.
But thats a subject that deserves a column all to itself.