politics, science

We chose to go to the Moon.

I was nine. The space program was a reason for me to have optimism about the crazy, chaotic world I’d been born into. It encouraged my interest in science and the future. A huge national effort of engineering and planning devoted to something other than someone else’s idiotic war.

This was the reason America had been founded. This was what we were supposed to be about: solving enormous technical problems, striving to reach places we’d never seen, hoping to learn things about the universe. Nothing to do with killing millions of people over ancient bullshit land grabs.

I watch “From the Earth to the Moon” every two or three years. For several hours I revel in the memory of a time when I was part of a culture that took pride in accomplishing things that bettered all our lives—not just those of a few billionaires.

And then the final episode’s end title leaves me crying uncontrollably for the end of my wonderful space program, and for the end of my optimism. I grieve for both in a way I never have for any human being.

science, spew

The Brood.

They're climbing the building!

“Don’t see a lot of your kind around here.”
“At these prices, you’re lucky to see any.”

Too bad if you missed them. They were worth seeing.

A remarkable horde of fascinating visitors to our neighborhood are dying off, having run through most of their brief life-cycle with a degree and quality of sound I’d normally attribute to heavy industrial machinery.

Ten days ago we marveled at the degree to which their nymph forms covered certain trees. Last week, we tried to avoid their adult forms as they fitfully crawled across sidewalks and shrubbery. Soon after, we had to duck as they capriciously flew from tree to brick wall to rain gutter. This week, we’re sadly avoiding the dead bodies of these beautiful, ephemeral creatures as the first wave of them begins to die.

Their sound was composed of several components; an understandable result of their population having been composed of several species (more background for the curious can be found here: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/04/science/one-place-cicadas-get-a-warm-welcome.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0.

My first impression of the massed whirring noise they made was that of a 1964-era Star Trek phaser cannon, possibly boring into the side of a nearby mountain or Cayman Islands bank vault. A closer listen to a local stand of ancient trees which they seemed to favor revealed a secondary sound, which reminded me of thousands of tiny tambourines being shaken by thousands of underappreciated backup pop singers. I doubt my recording does any of this justice.

One visitor to our home-office window gave us our first performance of a component song. It was all exhilarating.


You should see the lawn flags we didn’t get a good picture of.

I can understand how homeowners with gardens might be upset at the consumption of some of their carefully-tended flora. But this will pass, unlike the more profound devastation wrought by the gypsy moth infestation of a previous decade.

We’ve been privileged to observe a remarkable event, a tiny slice of a big picture we don’t often get to see much of, and one which our forebears could only view with superstition and ignorant fear. We should revel in its novelty and celebrate the science it teaches us.

Farewell, Magicicada. Most of my neighbors — posh suburbanites who’d rather not deal with too much of the natural world or hear about where most of their food comes from — probably considered you a frightening, squishy pestilence. I did not. Hope I get to see you critters again.

A bit of science: http://magicicada.org/magicicada_ii.php

A few more of my images: 

science, spew

What happened to us?

I’m watching video from a time when we were capable of sending live television from the moon. We were capable of great things. How could we as a species do anything more enormous and impressive than convert weapons of extermination into vehicles of exploration?

Reach down into what makes me need to live another day. Tell me we will explore space again someday soon. Tell me we will be great again.

Losing my mom was difficult, but I’ll recover. Losing my space program makes me weep every time I think about what we gave up.

science, technology

I’m a fucking weepy nerd, and I don’t care.

I just posted a comment over at Gizmodo—of all places—because they had the smarts to publicize JPL’s Mars Phoenix lander and the fantastically smart people who made it possible. One of these stupendous folks was Veronica McGregor, who was Mars Phoenix’s voice on Twitter. Her enthusiastic posts did the job of transforming a dry piece of science into something more.

This was possibly the best use of Twitter I’ve ever seen and a great way to get almost anyone with a heart involved in the farthest-reaching and most efficiently-run part of my space program that has ever existed: JPL’s unmanned robots. Twittering brief progress reports in the manner of an online acquaintance sucked me in almost immediately.

Ms. McGregor nailed me right in my 1960’s childhood with her wonderful personification of the hard-working, stalwart Mars Phoenix lander. Her bravely poetic words, cheerfully forecasting MP’s inevitable death while reminding us daily of all its accomplishments, personified the entire team of JPL and Arizona U’s wonderful engineers and scientists. Her first post about MP’s ultimate fate did make me cry for the same reasons that the end of the Apollo program did in 1972 (and its portrayal in HBO’s From the Earth to the Moon miniseries).

This is my space program. Doing heroic, pure research with tiny amounts of money and enormous ingenuity. And involving me emotionally in the enormity of what it discovers on my dime.

science, technology

Another shoulder to stand on.

Artist\'s depiction of Phoenix\'s powered landing, which took place on Sunday.

The Phoenix Mars lander touched down yesterday on Mars’ northern polar region, where it will prospect for frozen water and any possible artifacts that the presence of water might have enabled.

Despite the seemingly relentless tide of foolish anti-science sentiment our culture has made its hallmark since 1980, despite sham budgets and ignorant indifference from visionless leaders, and despite occasional setbacks that get far more tabloid-level press coverage than their victories….

Amazing people at NASA, JPL, and the University of Arizona continue to accomplish heroic levels of engineering, coordination, and sheer cleverness. They ably carry on the work of the old big-ticket manned programs, solving problems that nobody has ever run up against (or could have foreseen), and push back the limits of what we know—all on a far grander scale than the public’s attention would suggest.

I suggest anyone who feels similarly to have a look at the respective sites of those entities responsible for this wonderful work.

And for more apt commentary about the ever-present noise competing for your attention, I direct the reader to this gentleman, who is very good at shining a light on the cockroaches.

Also, my thanks to Randall Munroe, whose brilliant online comic XKCD inspired part of the inscription for my latest gadget acquisition: