Archive for the ‘Astronomy’ Category

More Anti-Science from Trump: Climate Denier to Head NASA

September 13, 2017

This is absolutely incredible. It really is like something from dystopian Science Fiction, but unfortunately it’s true. In this clip from the Jimmy Dore Show, the American comedian and his co-hosts, Ron Placone and Steffi Zamorano comment on a report from Democracy Now! that Trump has decide to appoint Jim Bridenstine as the new head of NASA. Bridenstine has no scientific credentials, and doesn’t believe in climate change. In fact, in 2013 he stood on the floor of the senate and demanded that Barak Obama apologise for promoting it.

The trio begin the clip by remarking on the evidence from the hurricanes to hit America that climate change is real. Before storm Harvey, only three magnitude 5 storms had hit America. They then show how ludicrous the decision is by stating that as Trump has appointed someone, who doesn’t believe in a scientific fact to head a scientific agency, then Richard Dawkins should be appointed to head the national prayer breakfast. Dore jokes that there hasn’t been a government this anti-science since Galileo. And the Pope has apologized for him. The papacy also acknowledges climate change. Which means the world’s most religious Roman Catholic is more progressive than Trump and his minions.

There’s no way this is anything other than an attempt by the Republicans and their paymasters, the Koch brothers, and the other big polluting industries, to hobble and silence research into climate change in America. One of the functions satellites carry out is weather and climate monitoring. Space research generally has also led to greater understanding of weather systems on Earth. For example, the massive storms that rage across Jupiter are driven by the same laws and forces as those, which generate similar storm systems on Earth. Countries like India have invested in their space industry for the promise it offers of monitoring the weather and the progress of crop diseases, which can be disastrous for a developing nation, much of whose population are subsistence farmers.

Dore’s wrong about the Pope’s treatment of Galileo, however. Yes, it was scandalous, but at the time Galileo’s own research was actually undersupported. And he didn’t help himself in his book, the Dialogue of the Two World Systems. He knew the pope was an Aristotelian, but deliberately made the Aristotelian speaker in the book appear as stupid as possible. Even so, the Church was not uniformly against him. He did have supporters within the church and amongst the cardinals. See James Hannan’s God’s Philosophers: Science in the Middle Ages.

But this is like something from Science Fiction. Stephen Baxter’s Titan is an alternative history, in which a rabidly anti-science senator becomes president of the US and closes down NASA. It’s because he’s a Creationist, and doesn’t believe in the Copernican heliocentric system, or the discoveries revealed by Galileo. What isn’t shut down, is given to the USAF and given over to defence instead, while the agency’s museum is shut, except for its museum. This is then altered to stress the religious experiences many of the astronauts had when exploring space.

This isn’t quite fair on the Creationists. Those I knew did not reject Galileo and they didn’t reject heliocentrism, although I’ve since come across people, who do on the Net. But there are still clear parallels between Baxter’s book and Trump and those who back him.

Yesterday I found an interview with the veteran comics creator, Pat Mills on YouTube. I’m going to have to write a piece about it, because Mills is very left-wing and a fierce critic of capitalism and Britain’s class system. In the video, he states that when he started writing for 2000 AD, he and the others were told to create futures, which people would live in. And now we are. He pointed out that there really were robots, which looked like Robusters, and we also now had Donald Trump, who was very much like something from 2000 AD’s often bleak view of the future.

And he’s right. Trump’s appointment of a scientific ignoramus like Bridenstine is almost exactly like something from Science Fiction. And Mills compared Trump himself to Judge Cal, the deranged Chief Judge of Mega City 1, who behaved like Caligula. He appointed his pet fish as judge, and had one of the other judges pickled. Oh yes, and he called in the alien Kleggs to keep the human population of Mega City 1 under control. Trump hasn’t made contact with an evil alien life forms yet, but the nepotism and corruption is all there. Even if he hasn’t made his goldfish senator. But given the fictional parallel drawn by Mills, Bannon, Kelly-Anne Conway and the others he’s got rid of should be glad he just had them sacked. The real trouble’s going to start when he starts ordering human-sized pickled jars.


Painting of Blake’s 7’s ‘Liberator’ by David A. Hardy

September 9, 2017

This is for all the fans of the classic British SF series, Blake’s 7. It’s a painting of their spaceship, the Liberator, before it came crashing to an end in ‘Tereminus’, the last programme of the third series. I found the painting on the SF/ weird art site, Tomorrow and Beyond.

David A. Hardy is one of the great veterans of British space and SF art. He’s illustrated numerous books on astronomy, including several with the late Sir Patrick Moore. The best known of these is probably The Challenge of the Stars. Hardy’s unusual in that he crosses the divide between space and SF art. It seems ridiculous to me that there is such a division, considering how so much science fiction art is set in the Black, and the care with which many SF artists take to portray it. I was rather surprised to find this. I knew Hardy also painted SF, I didn’t think he’d painted any TV material.

‘Horizon’ with Mark Gatiss on a Crewed Mission to Mars

September 6, 2017

After the programme with Drs. Stephen Hawking, Danielle George and Christophe Galfand on BBC 2 next Monday, 11th September, discussing the colonization of Proxima B, the Beeb are also dedicating an edition of the long-running science documentary programme, Horizon, to the issue of sending humans to a nearer planet, Mars. The programme’s called ‘Mars – A Traveller’s Guide, and will be screened at 9 pm on Tuesday, 12th September 2017.. The blurb for this on page 82 of the Radio Times runs as follows

The reality of sending humans to Mars is getting so close that certain scientists think that somebody who is alive today will be the first person to set foot on the Red Planet. But where should the first explorers visit when they get there? Experts on the planet take their pick from extraordinary Martian landscapes ranging from vast plains and towering volcanos to deep valleys and underground caverns. They also consider what people will need to survive, the best place to land, how to live and even where to hunt for traces of extraterrestrial life.

There’s also another section giving more information about the programme on page by David Buthcer. This says

The first person to walk on Mars is probably alive today. And they might watch Horizon. So here’s a rough guide to Mars, the even lonelier planet, with a rundown of its finest sights, drily narrated by Mark Gatiss.

Visitors should certainly look out for the Valles Marineris, he tells us, the grandest canyon in the solar system at 10 km deep and long enough to stretch from New York to Los Angeles. Or there’s Olympus Mons, a volcano 100 times higher than any on Earth.

But getting to see them won’t be easy. One scene where an engineer describes what’s involved in landing on the planet puts the challenges in perspective. And the weather’s not great either.’

Mark Gatiss is, of course, one of the League of Gentlemen. Having escaped from Royston Vesey, a year or so ago he presented a programme on the great master of the British ghost story, M.R. James, and was one of the presenters of a series of programmes marking the 50th anniversary of the decriminalization of homosexuality in Britain a month or so ago. He is also no stranger to outer space, if only in fiction, as he’s also one of the writers of the relaunched Dr. Who.

Stephen Hawking on Why We Need to Colonise Space

September 6, 2017

Next Monday evening, 11th September 2017, on BBC 2 at 9 pm, Professor Stephen Hawking will present a programme arguing that humanity needs to colonise another world. Entitled The Search for a New Earth, the blurb for the programme on page 72 of the Radio Times runs

Physicist Stephen Hawking thinks the human species will have to populate a new planet within 100 years if it is to survive, with climate change, pollution, deforestation, pandemics and population growth making life on Earth increasingly precarious. In this programme he examines whether humans could relocate to other planets, travelling the globe to meet scientists, technologists and engineers working on the means and method.

There’s more information about the programme on page 71. This passage states that

Stephen Hawking is convinced that, if we are not to risk annihilation, humans need to leave Earth within the next 100 years and make a new home on another planet.

It sounds like sci-fi, but a planet has already been discovered “in our neighbourhood” that’s a contender: Proxima B is in the Goldilocks Zone (the narrow orbit where conditions are perfect to sustain human life), but we’d need a massive technological feat just to get us there.

Astrophysicist Danielle George and Hawking protégé Christophe Galfard explore the practicality of where and how e could create a human colony in space.

There’s also a single page feature about the programme in the Radio Times on page 31, which includes Danielle George’s replies to the following questions

Do we really need to leave Earth?

What does a new planet need to be human-friendly?

How many people will it take to set up a colony?

Stephen Hawking believes Proxima B may be the most suitable planet. Why?

How far away is Proxima B?

How long would it take to travel 4.2 light years?

Could we fit 20 years’ worth of astronaut food into a spaceship?

Dow we have the right to take over another planet?

Do you think there is the will to make this happen?

Regarding the amount of time required to journey to Proxima B, George states that using current chemical rockets it would take 250,000 years. But there is a project at Caliphornia where they are experimenting with propelling a nano probe the size of a mobile phone sim card using a laser beam. This may make it possible for such a probe to reach Proxima in 20 years.

That last sounds like a version of the old proposal to use space-based lasers to send a light sail to another star. One of the proposed missions was Starwisp, which would use solar sails to carry a 50 kilo instrument package to Alpha Centauri. The probe would reach a speed of 1/3 of the speed of light, and make the journey in something like 20 years.

The veteran hard SF writer, Larry Niven, also used the idea of laser-driven solar sails in his classic The Mote in God’s Eye. This is about the encounter between an expanding human galactic empire, and an alien race, the Moties. These are so called because their homeworld is a planet in a nebula dubbed Murchison’s Eye by humanity. The Moties are highly intelligent, but lack the Anderson Drive that has made it possible for humans to move out into the Galaxy. Instead, they have sent a vessel out on the centuries long voyage across interstellar in a ship using such a solar sail, powered by laser beam from their own system. It is the light from the laser beam which has given the Moties’ nebula its characteristic red colour.

As well as being super-intelligent, the Moties also possess between three and four arms, depending on their caste and function, and change sex throughout their life. Which makes me wonder whether the writers of the X-Files’ episode, ‘Gender Bender’, about a group of sex-changing aliens, who live an existence like the Amish had also drawn on the book for their inspiration. As well as the writers of Doctor Who when they decided that the Time Lords are also not restricted to remaining the same sex when they regenerate.

BBC 2 Programme on ’21st Century Race for Space’ Next Tuesday

August 30, 2017

Here’s news of yet another BBC programme on space exploration and science. Next Tuesday, 5th September 2017, physicist, broadcaster and massive Carl Sagan fan Dr. Brian Cox will present a programme, The 21st Century Race for Space, on BBC 2 at 9.00 in the evening, on the private companies planning to take humanity into the High Frontier. Among the scientists and engineers he interviews in the programme are Richard Branson and the founder of Amazon, Jeff Bezos. The blurb for it in the Radio Times runs

As a new age of interplanetary exploration dawns, it is private companies and their maverick owners who are planning to finance space tourism, asteroid mining and even colonies on Mars. Professor Brian Cox investigates the technical challenges that could stop these billionaires achieving their dreams and also finds out how they hope to overcome the daunting obstacles to human space travel. Sir Richard Branson is among the stargazers explaining how they plan to fly through the heavens. (p. 76).

Another piece about the programme on the previous page, page 75, by David Butcher, also adds the following

When the likes of Richard Branson or Amazon founder Jeff Bezos enthuse about space travel it’s easy to be skeptical. But when Brian Cox meets both billionaires for this engaging look at “the prospect of us becoming a space-faring civilization” he comes away convinced by their vision, their desire to push boundaries and to make sci-fi stuff happen.

And for us, it’s hard to see the various hangars and labs and prototypes and launches and not get the feeling that space tourism, mining on asteroids and trips to Mars really aren’t that far off.

Cox is a good guide, leaning towards the deeper questions implicit in the subject. Ultimate, one designer argues, space travel is about “building life insurance for the species.” Though you hope we won’t need it.

That snippet also has a photo of Cox and with the space scientist, Brian Lillo, in space suits outside a Mars Society Research Station in Utah, ‘exploring the Red Planet’.

I went to a symposium 17 years ago on space tourism at the British Interplanetary Society’s headquarters in London. There are no end of really great ideas, and very motivate, intelligent people out there planning and discussing ways to take people up into the Deep Black for their holidays. One of the scientists, reviewing previous spacecraft designs going back to the early days of spaceflight, showed how sophisticated some of these were. He made the case that we’re actually decades behind schedule in our ability to explore and commercially exploit space and its resources.

Radio 3 Programme Tonight on the Voyager Interstellar Record

August 29, 2017

Tonight, 29th August 2017, at 11.00 O’clock Radio 3’s contemporary music show, Late Junction, has an edition marking the 40th anniversary of the golden record, which has taken sounds from Earth into interstellar space aboard the Voyager space probe. The blurb for it in the Radio Times reads

Late Junction marks the 40th anniversary of the Voyager Golden Record, a sonic time capsule sent into space by NASA to transmit earthly music , sounds and languages to extraterrestrials. A committee chaired by Carl Sagan selected the contents of this ‘message in a bottle cast into the cosmic ocean’. Nick Luscombe wonders what sounds we would send out into the universe were we to do it again, as well as playing the best bits from the original Golden Record, including a Navajo field recording, mariachi from Lorenzo Barcelata and court gamelan music from Robert Brown.

Stephen Hawking’s Defends NHS as Hunt Lies about its Privatisation

August 22, 2017

I know the Tories will immediately complain about the title of this article, but that’s exactly what’s going on. The Tories have been privatizing the NHS piecemeal since the 1980s, when Maggie Thatcher wanted to sell it off completely and replace it with an American-style insurance based system. Thatcher was prevented from doing so through a massive cabinet revolt, plus the fact that her private secretary, Patrick Jenkin, found out how appalling the American system was after he actually did some research and went there.

But the privatization is still going on. There was a mass exodus of dentists in the late ’80s-early ’90s, after Maggie – or was it Major?-refused to give them any more money. Then came Peter Lilley and his Private Finance Initiative, in which hospitals were to be built and run for the NHS by private contractors. Then New Labour expanded this massively, breaking up the NHS internal structure to model it after the American private healthcare system, Kaiser Permanente. Blair was approached by a whole slew of American private healthcare companies. His idea was that hospitals and clinics should be taken over by private healthcare companies, like Circle Health, Virgin Healthcare and so on. The community care groups of doctors, which were supposed to commission healthcare for their patients, where to obtain it from both private healthcare providers as well as the NHS. And they were also given the powers to raise money from private enterprise.

And before anyone objects that Blair was a Socialist, no, he wasn’t. He had Clause 4 removed from the party’s constitution. He was also profoundly hostile to the trade unions, who have formed part of the very core of the Labour party since it was founded in the very early 20th century.

Blair was a true, blue Thatcherite. The first thing he did when he got into power was invite Thatcher round. And she responded warmly, declaring New Labour her greatest success. Remember, this is the woman, who proudly shouted about how she was going to destroy socialism.

And the Tories have carried on her project of gradually destroying the NHS, bit by bit, while loudly proclaiming how much they’re in favour of it.

The present Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, is a prime example of this. He even wrote a book in which he declared how much better everything would be if we had a private healthcare system, like America.

Yeah, like America, where the poorer parts of the country don’t have any doctors at all, because it isn’t profitable. Where once a month, in Virginia, people sleep in cars overnight in order to join the queue for the doctor’s or dentists’ surgery offering free dental care that Saturday.

Where something like 20 million Americans can’t afford their medical coverage, and 30,000 people die every year because of this.

And where the Republicans and corporate Democrats have been lying and smearing Bernie Sanders, because he dared to run on a platform of ‘Medicare for all’. You know, giving Americans state-funded healthcare, like in the other parts of the world.

This is what the Tories are doing to Britain. And last week, as Mike reported on his blog, Stephen Hawking, the great cosmologist, called them out on it. He also accused Hunt of cherry-picking the data about the supposed deaths caused by NHS staff not working Saturdays.

Hunt got terribly upset about this, and declared that Hawking didn’t understand statistics.

This is a joke from a professional moron. Statistics are a vital part of science and medicine. Much of modern science, including astronomy and cosmology, is going through the data, trying to find something that is statistically significant. It can be time-consuming, tedious work, requiring sophisticated techniques to sort out what’s importance from apparently random results.

Hawking’s a physicist, who has been working with some extremely advanced maths as part of his investigation into the origins of the cosmos and the nature of Black Holes for his entire career. I don’t believe in his ‘No Boundaries Solution’ to the problem of the origin of the universe, but it’s abundantly clear that he understands stats. And as a man stricken with Motor Neurone Disease, a terrible illness, which has left him confined to a wheelchair, unable to speak and scarcely a muscle, Prof. Hawking clearly has first-hand experience of NHS care.

In short, don’t believe Hunt. Believe Hawking.

And yesterday one of the doctors weighed in, to request that a televised debate should be held between the two. See that story on Mike’s blog.

I’ve got no doubt that this will never happen. The schedules are full already, and the last thing the Tories will want is putting their man in a position where he’ll lose against a vastly more popular, far more respected and definitely more intelligent opponent.

Although they’re both authors. Hawking’s most famous work was A Brief History of Time, published back in the 1980s. It was a national bestseller, following very much in the footsteps of Carl Sagan’s epic Cosmos, another pop-sci blockbuster from a great science communicator, as well as a concerned scientist who attacked militarism, imperialism and man-made global warming.

As for Hunt, very few have read his book, which is why he can still repeat the lie that the Tories aren’t privatizing the NHS with a straight face, despite having advocated himself.

Such a debate would be so unequal in Hawking’s failure that I’ve no doubt that the Tories in charge of BBC News, the same people, who gave Corbyn such overtly biased coverage during the general election, are blanching at the very thought of it. Such a debate will never happen, just as the BBC will never own up, and confess that they, and particularly Laura Kuenssberg, are massively biased and everyone, who has complained about this painfully obvious fact is absolutely right.

Rush Limbaugh: Evidence of Flowing Water on Mars Is Leftist NASA Plot

August 20, 2017

Here’s another right-wing gasbag, who should lose his radio show. In this clip from two years ago – 2015 – host Sam Seder of The Majority Report comments on Rush Limbaugh’s pronouncements about signs of flowing water on today’s Mars by NASA. NASA announced that they had found evidence that water still flows today on the Red Planet at the right season. The space agency states that this is a survivor from the period, 3 billion years ago, when the planet was much warmer and wetter than today, and a great ocean may have covered the entire northern hemisphere. The discovery is of immense importance in the search for possible life elsewhere in the solar system.

This is science, but it’s too much for Rush Limbaugh, who sees a conspiracy where there is none. NASA is part of the leftist plot to delude the world into believing in global warming, and this announcement, he goes on to suggest, may be part of it. He ridicules his producer, Sneedley, who was excited and enthusiastic about NASA’s announcement. Limbaugh then declares that he is a ‘big time science guy’ who gone past ‘science 101’. He then goes on to cast scorn and suspicion about the announcement. It’s part of some leftist plot being pursued by the agency, but he doesn’t quite know what yet. But it’s probably about global warming. Soon, he predicts, they’ll announce that they’ve found a graveyard.

Limbaugh’s a Republican broadcaster, who’s been a fixture of American right-wing radio since the 1980s, loudly applauding Ronald Reagan and ranting about how the ‘Leftists’ are trying to destroy his country. In the clip, Seder and his co-hosts and producers ridicule Limbaugh not only for his scientific ignorance – what, pray, is ‘Science 101?’, as well as the way he has openly sneered at and belittled his producer.

They then conclude the programme by further mocking him. They imitate Obama’s voice to declare that Islam is the one true religion. The Martians rejected this, which is why they were hit by a devastating drought. That’s why Obama is going to declare shariah law, and have a child from every White family in the mid-West sold into slavery in the Middle East.

This is to poke fun at Limbaugh, and the stupid, paranoid opinion amongst many American Republicans that Obama is a secret Muslim advancing the plans for an Islamic takeover of the US.

The clip shows much of what’s wrong with the American right’s attitude to science, their massive ignorance, which they think shows how perceptive they are, and their stupid paranoia about ‘leftists’. Which in this case, means anything and anyone, who isn’t as crazily right-wing as they are.

I’ve put up several pieces here about the possibility of life on Mars, and the use of certain genetically modified organisms to terraform the Red Planet. I know that several of the readers of this blog have science backgrounds and similar interests. I’ve put this up because I thought people might like to see just how stupid and ignorant Limbaugh, and by extension, his audience, is about this whole issue.

Firstly, as Seder points out, when NASA made the announcement they said it was about the state of Mars 3 billion years in the past. It’s nothing to do with global warming.

Absolutely correct. Planetary scientists now believe that there was a period during the early history of the solar system, when Mars was warm and wet. I think the National Geographical mentioned this when they did a piece on Mars in the 1980s or ’90s. It’s also discussed in Kim Stanley Robinson’s epic SF novel about the colonization of Mars, Red Mars.

What killed Mars was not global warming, but global cooling. Mars has no tectonic plates, and so it is theorized that the planet’s atmosphere was not renewed through releases of gases released from its rocks through geological forces. Over millions or billions of years, the atmosphere evaporated into space. The surface pressure is about 5 milibars – that of a laboratory vacuum. Without an atmospheric blanket to focus and increase the sun’s light, the planet cooled. Without atmospheric pressure to sustain it, water rapidly sublimates into vapour on the Martian surface. What water has survived is locked up in the ice caps, and may be as permafrost below the Martian surface.

Mars has never been cited as a warning of the dangers of global warming. That’s always been Venus. Venus lies closer to the Sun than Earth, and so has suffered runaway global warming as ever increasing amounts of carbon dioxide was released from its rocks. The result of this is that the planet is covered by a permanent cloud layer. Surface temperatures reach something like 400 degrees C, the rain is sulphuric acid, and its surface pressure is enough to squash a human flat. If you want an example of how different the histories of Mars and Venus are, go have a look, or read, the chapter ‘Blues for a Red Planet’ in Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. Sagan was a major believer in the threat of global warming, and in that episode of his epic science history blockbuster, explicitly drew a parallel between Mars’ fate and that of our own world, if we don’t cut carbon emissions.

As for finding a graveyard on Mars, some scientists have speculated on the possibility that we may find fossils of the creatures that may have lived on Mars, far back in ancient geologic time. There are also serious scientists, who have suggested that we should look for evidence of advanced extraterrestrial civilisations in the planets of our solar system. Our solar system lies in a part of the Galaxy, where the stars are an average of a single light year away from each other. That’s a short enough distance for an advanced civilization to make the difficult journey across interstellar space to another solar system. And the solar system is so old, about 4 billion years if not more, that it is statistically likely that intelligent life has arisen elsewhere in our Galaxy. And just as the Earth orbits the Sun, so the Sun orbits the centre of the Galaxy, taking 225 million years to complete one revolution. This is long enough for our Solar system to have come close to one of those other stars, harbouring alien life.

So signs of an extraterrestrial civilization may well exist on Mars. However, Mars has been dead for so long, that it’s unlikely that there exist any remains of an indigenous Martian civilization on the planet’s surface. In their entry ‘The Surface of Mars’, subtitled ‘Desert’, in their book Catalogue of the Universe, astronomers Paul Murdin and David A. Allen write

If once great cities stood here, they have crumbled to unrecognizable shapes. If trees bowed before moist zephyrs, they have returned to the dust whence they rose. If aircraft landed here, they too have vanished, or been buried beneath unknown depths of sand and rocks. (pp. 205-6).

Not all scientists are convinced that the features NASA suggested was evidence of flowing water were actually produced by it. Others believe that the marks on the surface may instead be produced by the release of other chemicals in liquid form from the underlying rock.

But if liquid water still flows on Mars, albeit it occasionally, not only does it augur well for the possible survival of some life, even if only primitive bacteria, but it also makes the planet more hospitable for possible colonization.

NASA’s claim to have found evidence of surface liquid water was therefore immensely exciting. And Limbaugh’s producer, Sneedley, was actually absolutely right to be excited about it. It’s his host, Limbaugh, who’s ignorant. And dangerously so.

No-one expects ordinary people to be experts on science. Science has advanced at such a rate that it’s too much for many ordinary people to keep update with scientific advances, some of which can be very arcane to laypeople.

But we do need people to be reasonable well-educated. And especially about threats to the planet, like global warming. It’s why there’s a need for good scientific writers and broadcasters to explain the issues clearly.

Limbaugh with his stupid denial of global warming, and his paranoid suspicion that NASA is part of some larger ‘left-wing’ plot, is actually doing the opposite. He’s disparaging real science and trying to keep people ignorant in order to promote his own, extreme right-wing views.

He’s also a danger on racial issues. A day or so ago I reported that Trump had cut funding for FBI and Department of Homeland Security initiatives against White racist terrorism. This included a charity, Life After Hate, that helps former Nazis leave these organisations without being attacked by their fellow stormtroopers. It’s a real danger. Matthew Collins, one of the founders and leaders of the anti-racist/ anti-religious extremism organization, Hope Not Hate, had to migrate to Australia in the 1990s after he appeared in a documentary exposing the violence of the NF and BNP. Obama had given $400,000 to the charity. He would have funded them sooner, but he was prevented from doing so by the ravings and possible denunciation by Limbaugh.

It’s debatable, however, how long Limbaugh will actually carry on. Far from being the influential Republican spokesman he thinks he is, his radio station in recent has been haemorrhaging sponsors and advertisers. His ratings have fallen to the point, where fewer people listen to him than to College radio stations with the range of only one or two miles. The only thing keeping him on air is money from Republican and similar extreme right-wing think tanks. If they pull out, he’s off the air.

Two ‘Super Earths’ Discovered around Nearby Star, Tau Ceti

August 10, 2017

Today’s I newspaper, for Thursday 10th August, has the news that two planets, which may be suitable for human colonization, have been found around Tau Ceti, a nearby star similar to our Sun.

The paper says on page 2

Astronomers have discovered two potentially habitable “super-Earths” orbiting a star 12 light years away. British led experts have identified four rocky planets, similar in size to Earth, in Tau Ceti’s “habitable zone” orbiting the nearest Sun-like solar system, neighbouring ours.

John Von Radowitz’s article, The Climate’s Nice 12 Light Years Away on page 5 also adds that the two ‘super-Earths’ are at the edge of Tau Ceti’s “habitable zone”, and that

British-led astronomers speculate that the system might be a potential candidate for future interstellar colonization. But there is evidence of a massive debris disc circling the star, increasing the chances of the planets being pounded by asteroids and comets.

Dr. Fabo Feng, the lead researcher from the university of Hertfordshire, said: “We’re getting tantalizingly close to observing the correct limits required for detecting Earth-like planets.

“Our detection…is a milestone in the search for Earth analogues and the understanding of the Earth’s habitability.”

The findings are to be published in ‘The Astronomical Journal’.

Philip’s Astronomy Encyclopedia (London: Philips’, 2002) states that Tau Ceti ‘is the most Sun-like of all the nearby single stars’. (‘Cetus’, p. 81), and that it is a G8-type star lying at a distance of 11.9 light years. This means its a yellow dwarf star like our Sun.

Tau Ceti is one of the stars making up the constellation Cetus, and is quite visible, unlike some of the other nearby stars, like Barnard’s Star. It’s so much like Sun that it was one of two stars, the other being Epsilon Eridani, which were the subject of Project Ozma in 1960. This was a program led by Frank Drake, using the 26 metre radio telescope at Green Bank to listen for possible signs of alien civilisations broadcasting messages along the 21 cm band. That wavelength was selected because it’s close to the wavelength occupied by the noise of cold hydrogen in space. Drake and his fellow scientists believed that it would therefore be a natural wavelength for advanced alien civilisations to use to broadcast to each other across the vast gulfs of space.

The search was, however, unsuccessful, and after a couple of months it was discontinued. Frank Drake still remains an influential figure in the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) for his formulation of the Drake Equation, a formula which allows the number of possible alien civilisations in our Galaxy to be calculated.

The Equation has also come under attack. James E. Oberg, a NASA scientist, criticized it over thirty years ago in his article, ‘New Case Against Extraterrestrial Civilisations’ in the 1981 Yearbook of Astronomy. Part of the problem with the equation is that no-one actually knows how common Earthlike planets are, nor how likely the emergence of life is, and how like intelligent, technological life is either. According to the numbers selected, the Equation gives an answer for the number of alien civilisations in our Galaxy as anywhere from several to several million. I have a feeling Carl Sagan, one of the greatest advocates of the search for alien life, believed that there may have been around a thousand or so extraterrestrial civilisations out there in our Galaxy.

Astronomers have since found many tens, if not actually hundreds of extra-solar planets since then, some of which are rocky worlds like our own. This is very encouraging for SETI advocates and researchers, but later projects to search the sky using radio telescopes have still not found any conclusive evidence of alien intelligence.

As for missions to neighbouring stars, the costs of constructing a suitable spaceship that will get there in decades, rather than centuries or millennia, is immense. However, it has been estimated that the global economy should have grown sufficiently to make such a mission affordable by the 22nd Century A.D. Always supposing that Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un haven’t destroyed the world before then.

Forthcoming Programme on the Destructive Consequence of IT

August 1, 2017

Next Sunday, the 6th August, BBC 2 is showing a documentary at 8.00 pm on the negative aspects of automation and information technology. Entitled Secrets of Silicon Valley, it’s the first part of a two-part series. The blurb for it in the Radio Times reads

The Tech Gods – who run the biggest technology companies – say they’re creating a better world. Their utopian visions sound persuasive: Uber say the app reduces car pollution and could transform how cities are designed; Airbnb believes its website empowers ordinary people. some hope to reverser climate change or replace doctors with software.

In this doc, social media expert Jamie Bartlett investigates the consequences of “disruption” – replacing old industries with new ones. The Gods are optimistic about our automated future but one former Facebook exec is living off-grid because he fears the fallout from the tech revolution. (p. 54).

A bit more information is given on the listings page for the programmes on that evening. This gives the title of the episode – ‘The Disruptors’, and states

Jamie Bartlett uncovers the dark reality behind Silicon Valley’s glittering promise to build a better world. He visits Uber’s offices in San Francisco and hears how the company believes it is improving our cities. But Hyderabad, India, Jamie sees for himself the apparent human consequences of Uber’s utopian vision and asks what the next wave of Silicon Valley’s global disruption – the automation of millions of jobs – will mean for us. He gets a stark warning from an artificial intelligence pioneer who is replacing doctors with software. Jamie’s journey ends in the remote island hideout of a former social media executive who fears this new industrial revolution could lead to social breakdown and the collapse of capitalism. (p. 56).

I find the critical tone of this documentary refreshing after the relentless optimism of last Wednesday’s first instalment of another two-part documentary on robotics, Hyper Evolution: the Rise of the Robots. This was broadcast at 9 O’clock on BBC 4, with second part shown tomorrow – the second of August – at the same time slot.

This programme featured two scientists, the evolutionary biologist, Dr. Ben Garrod, and the electronics engineer Professor Danielle George, looking over the last century or so of robot development. Garrod stated that he was worried by how rapidly robots had evolved, and saw them as a possible threat to humanity. George, on the other hand, was massively enthusiastic. On visiting a car factory, where the vehicles were being assembled by robots, she said it was slightly scary to be around these huge machines, moving like dinosaurs, but declared proudly, ‘I love it’. At the end of the programme she concluded that whatever view we had of robotic development, we should embrace it as that way we would have control over it. Which prompts the opposing response that you could also control the technology, or its development, by rejecting it outright, minimizing it or limiting its application.

At first I wondered if Garrod was there simply because Richard Dawkins was unavailable. Dawko was voted the nation’s favourite public intellectual by the readers of one of the technology or current affairs magazines a few years ago, and to many people’s he’s the face of scientific rationality, in the same way as the cosmologist Stephen Hawking. However, there was a solid scientific reason he was involved through the way robotics engineers had solved certain problems by copying animal and human physiology. For example, Japanese cyberneticists had studied the structure of the human body to create the first robots shown in the programme. These were two androids that looked and sounded extremely lifelike. One of them, the earlier model, was modelled on its creator to the point where it was at one time an identical likeness. When the man was asked how he felt about getting older and less like his creation, he replied that he was having plastic surgery so that he continued to look as youthful and like his robot as was possible.

Japanese engineers had also studied the human hand, in order to create a robot pianist that, when it was unveiled over a decade ago, could play faster than a human performer. They had also solved the problem of getting machines to walk as bipeds like humans by giving them a pelvis, modeled on the human bone structure. But now the machines were going their own way. Instead of confining themselves to copying the human form, they were taking new shapes in order to fulfil specific functions. The programme makers wanted to leave you in new doubt that, although artificial, these machines were nevertheless living creatures. They were described as ‘a new species’. Actually, they aren’t, if you want to pursue the biological analogy. They aren’t a new species for the simple reason that there isn’t simply one variety of them. Instead, they take a plethora of shapes according to their different functions. They’re far more like a phylum, or even a kingdom, like the plant and animal kingdoms. The metal kingdom, perhaps?

It’s also highly problematic comparing them to biological creatures in another way. So far, none of the robots created have been able to reproduce themselves, in the same way biological organisms from the most primitive bacteria through to far more complex organisms, not least ourselves, do. Robots are manufactured by humans in laboratories, and heavily dependent on their creators both for their existence and continued functioning. This may well change, but we haven’t yet got to that stage.

The programme raced through the development of robots from Eric, the robot that greeted Americans at the World’s Fair, talking to one of the engineers, who’d built it and a similar metal man created by the Beeb in 1929. It also looked at the creation of walking robots, the robot pianist and other humanoid machines by the Japanese from the 1980s to today. It then hopped over the Atlantic to talk to one of the leading engineers at DARPA, the robotics technology firm for the American defence establishment. Visiting the labs, George was thrilled, as the company receives thousands of media requests, to she was exceptionally privileged. She was shown the latest humanoid robots, as well as ‘Big Dog’, the quadruped robot carrier, that does indeed look and act eerily like a large dog.

George was upbeat and enthusiastic. Any doubts you might have about robots taking people’s jobs were answered when she met a spokesman for the automated car factory. He stated that the human workers had been replaced by machines because, while machines weren’t better, they were more reliable. But the factory also employed 650 humans running around here and there to make sure that everything was running properly. So people were still being employed. And by using robots they’d cut the price on the cars, which was good for the consumer, so everyone benefits.

This was very different from some of the news reports I remember from my childhood, when computers and industrial robots were just coming in. There was shock by news reports of factories, where the human workers had been laid off, except for a crew of six. These men spent all day playing cards. They weren’t employed because they were experts, but simply because it would have been more expensive to sack them than to keep them on with nothing to do.

Despite the answers given by the car plant’s spokesman, you’re still quite justified in questioning how beneficial the replacement of human workers with robots actually is. For example, before the staff were replaced with robots, how many people were employed at the factory? Clearly, financial savings had to be made by replacing skilled workers with machines in order to make it economic. At the same time, what skill level were the 650 or so people now running around behind the machines? It’s possible that they are less skilled than the former car assembly workers. If that’s the case, they’d be paid less.

As for the fear of robots, the documentary traced this from Karel Capek’s 1920’s play, R.U.R., or Rossum’s Universal Robot, which gave the word ‘robot’ to the English language. The word ‘robot’ means ‘serf, slave’ or ‘forced feudal labour’ in Czech. This was the first play to deal with a robot uprising. In Japan, however, the attitude was different. Workers were being taught to accept robots as one of themselves. This was because of the animist nature of traditional Japanese religion. Shinto, the indigenous religion besides Buddhism, considers that there are kami, roughly spirits or gods, throughout nature, even inanimate objects. When asked what he thought the difference was between humans and robots, one of the engineers said there was none.

Geoff Simons also deals with the western fear of robots compared to the Japanese acceptance of them in his book, Robots: The Quest for Living Machines. He felt that it came from the Judeo-Christian religious tradition. This is suspicious of robots, as it allows humans to usurp the Lord as the creator of living beings. See, for example, the subtitle of Mary Shelley’s book, Frankenstein – ‘the Modern Prometheus’. Prometheus was the tAstritan, who stole fire from the gods to give to humanity. Victor Frankenstein was similarly stealing a divine secret through the manufacture of his creature.

I think the situation is rather more complex than this, however. Firstly, I don’t think the Japanese are as comfortable with robots as the programme tried to make out. One Japanese scientist, for example, has recommended that robots should not be made too humanlike, as too close a resemblance is deeply unsettling to the humans, who have to work with it. Presumably the scientist was basing this on the experience of Japanese as well as Europeans and Americans.

Much Japanese SF also pretty much like its western counterpart, including robot heroes. One of the long-time comic favourites in Japan is Astroboy, a robot boy with awesome abilities, gadgets and weapons. But over here, I can remember reading the Robot Archie strip in Valiant in the 1970s, along with the later Robusters and A.B.C. Warriors strips in 2000 AD. R2D2 and C3PO are two of the central characters in Star Wars, while Doctor Who had K9 as his faithful robot dog.

And the idea of robot creatures goes all the way back to the ancient Greeks. Hephaestus, the ancient Greek god of fire, was a smith. Lame, he forged three metal girls to help him walk. Pioneering inventors like Hero of Alexandria created miniature theatres and other automata. After the fall of the Roman Empire, this technology was taken up by the Muslim Arabs. The Banu Musa brothers in the 9th century AD created a whole series of machines, which they simply called ‘ingenious devices’, and Baghdad had a water clock which included various automatic figures, like the sun and moon, and the movement of the stars. This technology then passed to medieval Europe, so that by the end of the Middle Ages, lords and ladies filled their pleasure gardens with mechanical animals. The 18th century saw the fascinating clockwork machines of Vaucanson, Droz and other European inventors. With the development of steam power, and then electricity in the 19th century came stories about mechanical humans. One of the earliest was the ‘Steam Man’, about a steam-powered robot, which ran in one of the American magazines. This carried on into the early 20th century. One of the very earliest Italian films was about a ‘uomo machina’, or ‘man machine’. A seductive but evil female robot also appears in Fritz Lang’s epic Metropolis. Both films appeared before R.U.R., and so don’t use the term robot. Lang just calls his robot a ‘maschinemensch’ – machine person.

It’s also very problematic whether robots will ever really take human’s jobs, or even develop genuine consciousness and artificial intelligence. I’m going to have to deal with this topic in more detail later, but the questions posed by the programme prompted me to buy a copy of Hubert L. Dreyfus’ What Computers Still Can’t Do: A Critique of Artificial Reason. Initially published in the 1970s, and then updated in the 1990s, this describes the repeated problems computer scientists and engineers have faced trying to develop Artificial Intelligence. Again and again, these scientists predicted that ‘next year’ ,’in five years’ time’, ‘in the next ten years’ or ‘soon’, robots would achieve human level intelligence, and would make all of us unemployed. The last such prediction I recall reading was way back in 1999 – 2000, when we were all told that by 2025 robots would be as intelligent as cats. All these forecasts have proven wrong. But they’re still being made.

In tomorrow’s edition of Hyperevolution, the programme asks the question of whether robots will ever achieve consciousness. My guess is that they’ll conclude that they will. I think we need to be a little more skeptical.