The Asimov That Was


Were they sideburns or mutton chops? Does it matter? (Illustration by Jay R. Thompson)

My imperfect memory tells me that the first grown-up book I read and enjoyed was “2010: Odyssey Two,” the sequel to the far more famous “2001: A Space Odyssey,” both written by Arthur C. Clarke.

I wasn’t seeking “2010” when I happened upon the book in the LaPorte High School library. Maybe I was looking for a book-report subject. I don’t know. But I ended up loving that book. Still, for some reason, 20 years or so passed and I still never read any Isaac Asimov.

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Atomic super robot in space!

Yeah, yeah, NASA budget, blah blah blah. I know, I really do. I wish NASA had the budget the Department of Defense currently enjoys and I wish we lived in a world where the DoD didn’t need a budget at all. We’ll get there, not tomorrow, but we’ll get there.

In the mean time, while space exploration isn’t as far along as space enthusiasts wish, exciting stuff is still happening. Specifically, one of the boldest missions NASA has ever attempted is about to reach its most nail-biting moment. First, you should sit down. Good. Now slide forward until you’re on the edge of your seat. No? Well, whatever.

Here’s the thing: A one-ton, nuclear powered, laser wielding, six-wheeled robot the size of a small car is going to land on Mars in less than a month. There. I said it. And I’m not making it up. This robot is called the Curiosity rover. Docile-sounding name? Yes. But here’s how I picture the rover:

Artist’s interpretation of Curiosity rover ruthlessly doing science.

Okay, now here’s what Curiosity really looks like (Curiosity is the 6-wheeled guy with the Wall-e head to the immediate right of two engineers having a picnic):

Image courtesy of NASA (Photographer: Dutch Slager)

On Nov. 26, 2011, right around the time people on the East Coast of the U.S. were pouring their second cup of morning coffee, the Mars Science Laboratory launched from Cape Canaveral. When the craft arrives on Mars Aug. 6 it will have traveled 352 million miles.

The rover is powered by a Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator, or MMRTG (pronounced: muh-muh-ER-tig … just kidding). That loosely translates to “nuclear generator that runs on plutonium dioxide.” The rover really is equipped with a drill and a laser (see drawing above), as well as an arsenal of cameras, spectrometers, detectors and sensors. The purpose of Curiosity’s permanent visit to the Red Planet is to determine whether the planet ever had conditions capable of supporting microbial life. But that purpose only bears fruit if Curiosity survives its arrival at Mars.

The process through which Curiosity will land on Mars is laughably complex, and at the same time awe-inspiring. Here’s NASA’s sci-fi-style computer-generated animation of Curiosity, from when it enters the Martian atmosphere to when it touches down. Remember those charming touches of realism in the 2009 Star Trek film, or in the Firefly series, such as lens flare, zooming in and out, and a little bit of wobbly camera action? Yeah, they’ve got that:

Regardless, the Curiosity rover reaches Mars in less than a month. Maybe all the engineers’ calculations were solid and nothing goes wrong. Or, maybe something does go wrong. I’d prefer the former but will accept the latter. That a group of people planned and attempted such a complex project is good enough for me. Success or failure, we learn. If Curiosity does set foot on Mars and get on with the mission, hold your breath. It probably won’t find life or signs of life (I just have a feeling, or maybe I’m trying not to get my hopes up) but it will find something, probably something groundbreaking or Earth-shaking. This is science in action. Don’t miss it.

You can follow the Mars Science Laboratory on Twitter here and on Facebook here. Want to see where the space probe is now? Or would you like to see the countdown clock to Curiosity’s arrival on Mars? Click here. And set aside some time Aug. 6 to watch a little NASA TV. I imagine they’ll provide live coverage of the rover’s successful or unsuccessful landing here. I’ll be watching too, but my mind will be hundreds of millions of miles away.

Of Shuttles and Star Parties


The space shuttle Discovery aboard its transport, Tuesday 4/17/2012. I totally stole this photo from my classmate, Jay Thompson, who was lucky enough to be in Washington, D.C. to take this picture!

After the space shuttle Discovery was ferried across the sky on the back of a specially-equipped 747 from The Kennedy Space Center to its new home at the Smithsonian, I was filled with a sense of bittersweet nostalgia. I grew up along with the shuttle program, as well as anything else that had to do with NASA and space. I probably watched close to every launch on the news if I wasn’t in school when they occurred.

If you asked most little girls in my kindergarten class what they wanted to be when they grew up, you would generally get a range of answers from ballerina to teacher, while a select few would opt for attorney or doctor. But, I was the only one who wanted to be an astronaut or a pilot. This desire and love of all things space and flight-related was in part later fostered by my amazing fourth grade teacher who not only started and headed my elementary school’s ‘Young Astronaut’ program, but also built a ¼ size scale model of the space shuttle’s cockpit. She expertly attached white and black plastic sheets together that could be essentially blown up with big fans, like a giant balloon, and reinforced with plastic tubing so that it maintained its shape. We could crawl in and out of this “inflatable shuttle,” which we had to blow up in the gym because it was so big, and would have mock missions inside of it after school. It was a thing of beauty, and I don’t think any other classroom in the world had anything like it.

Anyway, aside from Mrs. Greenstein, my dad had always been a major role model in my life first and foremost. He used to be a pilot, and I always remember seeing him fly over my house in his little Piper Archer II. I would know it was him because he would quickly bank the plane back and forth, essentially wiggling the wings; a pilot’s wave from the air. I would point him out to my friends- that was MY dad and he was the coolest. He also has always been an amateur astronomer, and on summer evenings we would set up the telescope and spend the night looking at whatever we could find. He would even wake my mom and me up at whatever super early hour in the morning to see a meteor shower, and helped me put those little plastic glowing stars on my ceiling based on real constellations illuminated from his mini star projector.

These memories are some of the fondest of my childhood. In fact, Mrs. Greenstein would often invite him to come to our Young Astronaut meetings and talk about what it was like to be a pilot, and then he would also talk about how airfoils worked. Another fond memory was a tradition that we all did every year, where my classmates and I, along with our parents and Mrs. Greenstein, would get together at some point in the summer and have what we called a “star party.”

One of the reasons I am writing this post is to spread the idea if you haven’t heard of star parties already- they really are a lot of fun. We would go out to a field in a local park on a nice clear evening, bring as many telescopes as we could find, and aim each at something different in the sky. We would bring snacks, hot chocolate, and flashlights covered with red cellophane to reduce their brightness. We would spend the evening marveling at what we saw, while the adults taught us lessons about the cosmos. It was a humbling experience- realizing just how small we were in the vast scheme of things, and just how amazing the universe is when you are out there looking at it in all its splendor.

This sense of wonder as well as camaraderie has always inspired me to pursue science in school in one form or another. Whether from the grand scale of the universe to the microscopic scale in a biology lab, science has been a part of who I am. However, the National Center on Education Statistics has shown that only a small percentage of high school and college students choose to major in what they call ‘STEM’ (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) fields. According to their research, students in these majors make up only 16% of all students throughout the country. The main reason that they feel this is the case is due to the sheer difficulty of these fields and the ensuing lack of interest due to this. The center also fears that soon there will be such a lack of students in these fields that the number of people available upon graduation will not be sufficient to meet the U.S. workforce demand.

This needs to change. I feel that if students can be properly inspired, they will have more of a drive to do well in STEM fields. I also feel that a love of science doesn’t just develop overnight. Perhaps an interest may, but a deep love is something that is nurtured over time. Let us find more teachers like Mrs. Greenstein and people like my dad to inspire kids to love science and to want to do well in it. Let parents get more involved in their kids’ education. Let the next generation experience and understand the sense of wonder that I felt throughout my childhood and want to strive to learn more. Maybe it can all start with star parties.

Calvin and Hobbes and Childhood Science

Imagination can be awfully addictive. I spent a lot of my childhood dreaming about made-up worlds, outer space and how the universe just doesn’t seem to make sense. I also ate up stories by other dreamers, from fantasy to science fiction. But there was one particular dreamer whose fantasies drew me in so long ago I can’t even remember when I got hooked.

Calvin and Hobbes was a story about an out-of-control dreamer. Not only that, but Calvin was a lover of the beauty of nature, so he tended to dream about the same things lovers of science dream about. Why is the universe the strange-seeming way it is? What happened millions of years ago? Is there intelligent life on other planets, and if so why haven’t we encountered it? All questions from a typical young mind trying to figure out the world.

I haven’t read the funny pages regularly since Calvin and Hobbes ended in 1995 — a wise decision by its creator, Bill Watterson, who didn’t want the strip to get stale. Fans of Calvin and Hobbes are also some of the most loyal, nostalgic comic fans out there. When the strip ended, it left a gap behind for a lot of us obsessive dreamers.

Now we live in an age of web comics. Many of these comics are far better than most of what you’ll find in newspapers today because these artists can lay their dreams and ideas out without worrying about the restrictions of syndication. Some of them wonderfully touch on the joys of science and explore the joy of childlike imagination much like Calvin and Hobbes did. But for me, Watterson’s strip will always be when I first saw science, beauty and imagination mix seamlessly.

The strip has been gone for longer than 15 years, but because its focus was on the timeless aspects of being human, Watterson’s humor and observations hold up today. Here’s a sampling of the most prominent science in Calvin and Hobbes:

Physics:  The duo decides to test special relativity by rolling down a hill in a wagon. Calvin famously renamed the Big Bang with the more sensationalist term “The Horrendous Space Kablooie” which even some cosmologists are fond of. Our protagonist even remarks on orbit trajectories as he flies off a swing.

Environmental and Planetary sciences: The strip had a heavy environmental message. A major setting was a vast plot of woods Calvin had access to and he hated to see it disrespected and damaged. At one point, Hobbes reminds Calvin that we need the Earth more than we need it. In one storyline, Calvin gets so frustrated with pollution that he and Hobbes go to Mars instead. This opened up a long storyline in which they have an encounter with the Viking spacecraft and even run into an alien. Calvin’s adventures visiting other worlds as the self-narrating Spaceman Spiff are also among his most dramatic and notorious.

Dinosaurs: But, for all his outer-space adventures, if Calvin was any kind of scientist, he’d probably be a paleontologist. He was obsessed with dinosaurs, and they were frequent guest stars in the comic. Oftentimes, Calvin imagined he was one. A lot of people who loved dinosaur science as a kid can probably identify with Calvin here. Though not everyone shared his wild imagination about the ancient reptiles.

Math: Contrary to his love of space and dinosaurs — and I’m guessing many biologists and my fellow writers will relate to this — Calvin struggled with math. He did everything he could to avoid it. Spaceman Spiff was not particularly helpful with Calvin’s math woes. Hobbes was full of smart-sounding but unhelpful advice. At one point Calvin, in my personal favorite of all the strips, even abused the abstract nature of mathematics to declare himself a math atheist.

Science Fiction: Calvin used his imagination to defy the laws of nature in a manner many kids do — with a simple cardboard box. That box became machines straight out of science fiction, using it for everything from shape-changing machine to a cloning machine to a time travel machine. Calvin predictably used his time travel machine to visit the dinosaurs, and narrowly escape being devoured by one.

Inquisitiveness: The 6-year-old protagonist didn’t spend the entire time in his head, though. He asked questions, and a lot of them. Calvin’s dad liked to play with his son’s curiosity, giving ridiculous answers to Calvin’s questions, such as what the wind is, what happens when the sun sets, and how load limits on bridges are determined. Calvin is largely remembered for testing his parents’ patience, but he tested a great many things. At Calvin’s best, he could be regarded a model for one of developmental psychologist Jean Piaget’s “little scientists,” intuitively testing and exploring how the world works.

What are some of your favorite strips?

GPS Demystified


Image courtesy of Digitalart,

Not long ago, a friend of mine told me she was planning on taking a long road trip to visit some national parks. I asked her if she had all her maps, and she laughed and said, “Oh I have my trusty GPS.”

“What if it doesn’t always work?” I responded.

She looked at me questioningly. “Why would it not work?”

I realized then how blindly we rely on technology today, and just how little many of us actually know about it. “Do you know how it works?” I asked.

“Um, I think it has something to do with a satellite, right?”

This is the conversation that inspired this blog post. Ancient travelers used to navigate based on the positions of the stars and constellations. Nowadays, many people use a different kind of constellation to find their ways, and most that I have spoken to don’t know that it even exists or how it really works. They view their GPS devices as pseudo-magical objects, and although I am by no means a total expert on the science, I do know the basics of how they work and hope to help explain it so that it is a little more understandable. This is the super-simplified answer.

Let’s start with a few definitions. “GPS” stands for the Global Positioning System, which is a combination of satellites and their ground stations that enable users to navigate if they have a receiver (for most people, it’s that piece you carry or put in your car). There is a network of 24 satellites with an additional 4-6 in reserve that act as ‘spares’ and form what is considered a ‘constellation’ that orbits the earth. These satellites are pretty far out—about 12,500 miles up. To put this in perspective, the International Space Station is only about 185 miles up, and the Hubble Space Telescope is about 365 miles up. Despite this distance, they move very quickly, and it takes each GPS satellite roughly 12 hours to circle the earth one time.

The GPS’s ground-based stations monitor where each satellite is at all times, how well each is working, as well as make corrections to the signals being transmitted from them and coordinate which ones are running at a given time. The master control station is at Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado, but the other stations are located in Hawaii and Kwajalein in the Pacific Ocean, Ascension Island in the Atlantic Ocean, Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, as well as Cape Canaveral and Colorado Springs.

This constellation of satellites also has a name: NAVSTAR. This stands for “Navigation System using Timing and Ranging.” This is a very important concept. Each NAVSTAR satellite is equipped with an atomic clock, and each emits its own unique radio signal that can be picked up and identified by a receiver on earth. The receivers have their own clocks too.

Your receiver’s clock is synched with the ones on the satellites as closely as possible. However, since atomic clocks are extremely expensive and super accurate, the average consumer receivers typically have to have the next best kinds. These clocks may not be quite as accurate, so there is usually a miniscule difference between the ones in the receivers and the satellites. Usually, the more expensive your device, the better the clock can keep time compared to the satellite and/or correct for any inconsistencies.

The receiver makes note of the time it was when a signal left a satellite compared to the time it receives it. Based on this information and the speed of the radio signal transmission itself, it can then calculate how far away each satellite is that it gets a signal from. If your receiver’s clock is not too accurate, the reading can sometimes be a little off. This typically doesn’t affect someone who is trying to get from one place to another, but it may if you are trying to get exact coordinates of a specific location.

Then, the receiver does some figuring. For example, if it is known that you are 10,000 miles away from a particular satellite, you can be anywhere on earth within a circle of that distance from it. But if you are also 11,000 miles from another nearby satellite, you would thus have to be at one of the two points where the two circles overlap on the ground, like a Venn Diagram. This narrows your location down significantly, but it is not precise. This is why if your GPS receiver says there are “only two satellites in range,” it won’t work well if it works at all. You need a third that would narrow it down even further and intersect one of the two points to confirm where you are, and the more satellites you have sending signals, the more accurate your receiver will determine your location. There usually is a minimum of 3 satellites needed at all times, which is why this is called trilateration.

In addition, the reading on the receiver may not be as accurate if the satellites happen to be clumped in the same general area of the sky, as opposed to being more spread out. Think of a bunch of circles being drawn on top of each other rather than being spread out enough to see where they actually overlap. This is called the Positional Dilution of Precision (PDOP), which can be another reason why your GPS receiver may not always work well.

But ultimately, once your receiver has figured out your location, it compares that to pre-loaded maps of roadways, etc. and displays them together. That is why you are supposed to periodically update your maps, though I don’t know anyone who actually does.

Finally, you may sometimes lose a radio signal in the event that a satellite moves behind a tall building or mountain that blocks it. If you have more than three satellites in range, this isn’t a problem, but I know my receiver gets confused when I drive in a city or through a tunnel. Some newer models can actually plan ahead—if they know based on the pre-loaded maps that a tunnel is coming up for instance, they can calculate your future trajectory and take that into account, so it never appears that the signal is lost in the first place.

Fun Fact:

Civilian GPS units weren’t always as accurate as they are today, but it was on purpose. Selective Availability was a term coined by the US military for their intentional degradation of the satellite signals accessible to the public for national security reasons, which would ensure a receiver’s reading would be at least 300 feet off. In the year 2000, President Bill Clinton ordered Selective Availability to be turned off because he and the government felt that it would be for the greater good. What do you think?

Mad Rant: Outer Space

Photo by Jay R. Thompson, taken Saturday, March 10, 2012, in Baltimore, Maryland.

Ask me to draw a diagram of a two-loop pressurized-water nuclear reactor and I can probably do it — I love to draw and it’s been a while since I tested myself on basic reactor layout. But understanding the fundamental design of nuclear reactors is simple compared to describing my enthusiasm for outer space.

I’m one of those who want our species to explore the emptiness, populate the solar system, and eventually wander the galaxy. But that’s not the enthusiasm I’m talking about. My adoration of the great beyond is simpler, and yet I can’t find a container in which to put that adoration so as to carry it around and show to others. I’m just geeked that outer space exists at all and that we’re a part of it, composed of its fused particles.

To me, the fascination seems obvious. I’ve tried more than once to put this feeling into words, and have achieved consistent and complete failure. The response is usually a raised eyebrow or something like it. Words fail me, or maybe I fail the words. Regardless, I’m going to take another shot at articulating my glee, or whatever it is. Hang on, let me put on my seatbelt and crash helmet. Right then, off we go.

So space is there, several dozen miles above your head, but so what? Humans have been there and back. No biggie. Space is nothing new. In fact, it’s the least new thing ever. Space has been out there (and here, for that matter) as long as time has existed, and I’m not trying to be hyperbolic or poetic about it. Time and space seemingly arrived on the scene at the same time. Maybe I should shrug and put on some fashionable air of “been there, done that.” But it would go against my very nature.

You may have noticed lately that two stars dominate the western sky shortly after sundown. They’re the planets Jupiter and Venus, the bright objects you saw in the photo at the top of this post. But which is which? Go ahead and guess. You might guess that the brighter one (bottom right) is Jupiter and the dimmer one is Venus.

Here, I’ll give you a clue. This is a close-up of the planet in the upper left of the photo:

Notice anything? Those little specks lined up near the planet are the four largest Jovian moons. From top to bottom they are Europa, Io, and Ganymede, with Callisto barely visible below Ganymede. That means this planet, the dimmer of the two, is Jupiter. If you want to double-check my interpretation of the image, see page 38 in the March issue of Astronomy.

Jupiter is more than twice the mass of all the other planets in our solar system combined, but its orbit is also 483 million miles from Earth’s orbit. That’s 18 times farther away from Earth than the orbit of our next-door neighbor, Venus. Hence, Jupiter is the dimmer of the two.

You can look up and see these things and so what? They’re just a couple of planets. What’s the big deal?

Jupiter, Venus and their brethren aren’t just points of blurry light. They’re three-dimensional worlds composed of the same stuff as our own. They’re planets, huge spheres of matter, entire worlds that no Earthling has ever visited. They just float there, out of reach, perpetual mysteries. Some have their own earthquakes, volcanoes, or lakes. Others have wind and storms, while others have no atmosphere whatsoever. The planets in our solar system have been there for billions of years, the only witnesses to the entire history of our solar system.

Even when the sun is up and the sky cloudless, the blue is only a veil, behind which the ultimate dynamo — the universe — continues to crank along as it has for all time. In a way, these worlds (and everything beyond) are reassuring. Being human if often frustrating and scary, but the worlds, the solar system and the universe don’t need anyone to mind the store. We can disappear, and everything will be fine. Our neighboring planets are just there, indifferent and presumably lifeless.

When I look up, I don’t really see the points of light that my eyes see. I see huge islands among emptiness. I see the forever-baking surface of Venus, Jupiter’s 60-plus moons whirring about, the Oort Cloud, the galaxies with solar systems of their own. Outer space is the place of mysteries, with room for the mind to ponder the strangest ideas imaginable.

Oh dear, I’ve failed again. Maybe I need a different medium. Poetry? Song? Modern interpretive dance? Maybe someday.

In the mean time, what do you think about when you look up at the stars? What is outer space, or the universe, to you?