Martian Climate Cycles

Omigosh! Mars has suffered both Global Warming and Global Cooling! Quick—pass another subsidy! Charles Q. Choi reports for Fox:

Peering beneath the ice at the north pole of Mars has now revealed the red planet may be surprisingly colder than was thought.

Any liquid water that might exist on Mars therefore might be hidden deeper than once suspected, closer to that world’s warm heart, researchers suggested. …

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter… scans revealed the polar cap has up to four layers of ice rich in sand and dust, each separated by clearer sheets of nearly pure ice. Each dirty and clean layer is some 1,000 feet thick (300 meters).

These dirty and clean layers were created by ages of intense dust storms followed by icy eras. This five-million-year-long cycle was likely driven by wobbles in Mars’ tilt and fluctuations in the shape of its orbit around the sun.

The more sunlight the red planet saw because of these changes, the more the polar icecaps retreated and the more dust storms Mars saw.

You mean something other than human production influences climate? You mean, like, maybe the sun?

Whether and to what extent human emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases influence Earth’s climate, liberty remains the best policy.

Liberty also offers people the greatest promise of mining that Martian ice and generally setting up camp on the planet. There’s a whole solar system filled with natural resources just waiting for people to exploit them.

How It’s Made

Last time I had access to cable TV, I watched several episodes of the show “How It’s Made.” It’s a spectacular show that reveals how various products are mass produced.

What has mass production done for us? In short, a lot fewer people can make a lot more life-advancing stuff. That allows more people to enjoy the products. Practically all of the clothes we wear, most of the food we eat, and just about every product in our homes was mass produced (or significantly assisted by mass production) using advanced technical processes.

Many of today’s labor-intensive jobs are made possible by mass production, which frees up labor for other jobs. When the country first started, most people worked in agriculture. Now a tiny minority do. Today, businesses exist to wash your dog or provide it with therapy. “In 2003, more than 15 million people practiced Yoga, according to Yoga Journal magazine,” writes one practitioner. Several massage clinics have recently opened up near my house, and chiropractors are everywhere. These are just a few examples.

Yet who pauses to recognize the profound improvements to their lives made possible by science, technology, and a market free enough to develop the wonders of mass production?

Milloy on Mercury and Evolution

There is all the difference in the world between reasonable skepticism regarding some particular religious or scientific claim and universal skepticism that brings all knowledge into doubt. Steven Milloy seems to have stumbled across that line.

I was impressed with Milloy’s recent article about the environmentalist flip-flop on mercury. While environmentalists have typically screamed bloody murder about any trace amount of mercury anywhere, when it came to laws mandating the use of light bulbs that happen to contain mercury, environmentalists were strangely mute. Milloy concludes, “First mercury was dangerous. Then, temporarily, it became no big deal. Now that the Greens have caught us in the CFL [compact fluorescent lightbulb] trap, they’re reverting to form on mercury — all to cause the sort of chaos resulting in increased government control of our lives.”

However, after I promoted this article via e-mail, Doug Peltz pointed me to a Cato interview in which Milloy expresses doubts about biological evolution as applied to humans. While Cato’s web page no longer seems to host the interview, it is available through Archive.org:

[Question:] What’s the real deal on evolution? Twenty years ago on “Cosmos,” Carl Sagan said it wasn’t a “theory” but a “law.” My Christian friends tell me it’s a theory shot full of errors. And my scientist friends tell me it’s provable in the everyday world.

[Reply:] Explanations of human evolution are not likely to move beyond the stage of hypothesis or conjecture. There is no scientific way – i.e., no experiment or other means of reliable study – for explaining how humans developed. Without a valid scientific method for proving a hypothesis, no indisputable explanation can exist.

The process of evolution can be scientifically demonstrated in some lower life forms, but this is a far cry from explaining how humans developed.

That said, some sort of evolutionary process seems most likely in my opinion. But there will probably always be enough uncertainty in any explanation of human evolution to give critics plenty of room for doubt.

Here Milloy implicitly casts doubt on inductive knowledge as such.

Obviously billions of years of biological evolution cannot be reproduced in a laboratory environment. However, extensive research into fossil records and genetics proves conclusively that all life on earth arose from evolutionary processes.

Moreover, the only alternative to evolution (broadly meaning the development of life through natural processes not guided by some higher intelligence) is some variant of creationism, either natural or supernatural. Natural creationism would involve something like the the process found in 2001: A Space Odyssey. There is no evidence for such creation, making any claim about it completely arbitrary. But those of a religious bent would dismiss natural creationism as quickly as they dismiss evolution, for their entire motive is to create room for supernatural creationism. So, in effect, Milloy sacrifices the very possibility of objective knowledge to religion.

‘We Made Bold Moves’

On Wednesday night, my wife and I watched In the Shadow of the Moon, a documentary about the Apollo missions. The film consists mostly of interviews taken recently with several of the astronauts and video and photos that the astronauts shot on their voyages. I spent the film alternately gasping, cheering, chuckling, and blinking back tears. (Make sure to watch the extra interviews, too.)

Paraphrasing, one of the astronauts says, “It was a time when we made bold moves.”

Watching the videos while listening to the men explain what was going on is riveting: I got some sense of how exciting, how fantastic, and how scary these trips were. These men were basically strapping themselves to a missile inside a glorified tin can.

We enjoyed many of the comments by the astronauts, but our favorite interviews were those of Alan Bean. To take just one humorous example, he says something like, “Some of the tabloids claimed that we staged the whole thing in a hanger in Arizona. Maybe that would have been a good idea.” His joyful spirit is fun to watch. Bean has devoted his later years to painting moonscapes. I rather like many of these paintings; “Hello Universe” says it all. Viewers can flip through all of the paintings.

Elsewhere I might discuss the politics of space travel, but for this blog I’ll look for the religious themes. In my view, the only error of the documentarians was to include near the end gratuitous material about religion and environmentalism. That one of the men found Jesus after his Apollo mission hardly seemed relevant. Yet, obviously these trips were profoundly moving for the astronauts, and I got the sense that they sometimes had a hard time expressing the spiritual dimensions of traveling beyond the earth.

One of the astronauts talked about how, prior to the moon landing, those orbiting the moon on Christmas Eve read passages from Genesis for transmission to earth. One woman sued them for it, which struck me as taking things a bit far.

By coincidence, on Thursday I was reading Joseph Campbell’s Though Art That. He had the following to say about the reading (page 4):

The incongruity was that they were several thousand miles beyond the highest heaven conceived of at the time when the Book of Genesis was written, when such science as there was held the concept of a flat earth. There they were, in one moment remarking on how dry the moon was, and in the next, reading of how the waters above and the waters beneath had been walled off.

One of the most marvelous moments of that contemporary experience was described in stately imagery that just did not fit. The moment deserved a more appropriate religious text.

Though Ayn Rand would have had little patience with Campbell’s Kantian presumptions regarding “the ineffable nature of the divine” (page 17), Rand did write an essay about Apollo 11 that appropriately celebrates the achievement:

The meaning of the sight lay in the fact that when those dark red wings of fire flared open, one knew that one was not looking at a normal occurrence, but at a cataclysm which, if unleashed by nature, would have wiped man out of existence — and one knew also that this cataclysm was planned, unleashed, and controlled by man, that this unimaginable power was ruled by his power and, obediently serving his purpose, was making way for a slender, rising craft. One knew that this spectacle was not the product of inanimate nature, like some aurora borealis, or of chance, or of luck, that it was unmistakably human — with “human,” for once, meaning grandeur — that a purpose and a long, sustained, disciplined effort had gone to achieve this series of moments, and that man was succeeding, succeeding, succeeding! For once, if only for seven minutes, the worst among those who saw it had to feel — not “How small is man by the side of the Grand Canyon!” — but “How great is man and how safe is nature when he conquers it!”

That we had seen a demonstration of man at his best, no one could doubt — this was the cause of the event’s attraction and of the stunned numbed state in which it left us. And no one could doubt that we had seen an achievement of man in his capacity as a rational being — an achievement of reason, of logic, of mathematics, of total dedication to the absolutism of reality.

Amen.

SpaceShipTwo

Yesterday The New York Times published a story about Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipTwo:

Burt Rutan took the cloak off of his new spacecraft on Wednesday.

Mr. Rutan, the creator of SpaceShipOne, the first privately financed craft to carry a human into space, traveled to New York to show detailed models of the bigger SpaceShipTwo and its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo. …

Officials at the press conference said that the WhiteKnight aircraft is 70 percent complete and that SpaceShipTwo is 60 percent complete. Test flights of the planes could occur this year. Passenger flights are not expected to begin before late 2009 or 2010.

This is a modest step toward commercial space exploration, but it is an important step. While I probably won’t be able to afford a seat on any of Rutan’s crafts, I’ll cheer on those who can. “You can’t take the sky from me.”

Shift Happens

Thanks to an article from the Rocky Mountain News, I found a short video created by Karl Fisch of Arapahoe High School in Centennial.

Fisch’s first video was so popular that he created a second version. Both videos summarize various trends in education and the advance of technology. These videos brought tears to my eyes. Human achievements in the computer age are astounding.

I have two minor criticisms. First, the videos do not distinguish between “new information” and universal truths. It remains the job of philosophy to teach us how to organize information conceptually and hierarchically. Second, the videos make it seem as though the advance of technology is inevitable. It is not. Human productivity is inextricably linked to political freedom. Technology can be smashed much more easily than it can be created. A socialized economy will grind to a halt and then deteriorate. A virulent theocracy will systematically destroy the freedom of the mind and the technology that flows from it.

What Fisch’s videos demonstrate is how much we humans have achieved — and how much there is worth fighting for.