NASA: 50 Years of Figuring Out What They Do

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration was signed into existence 50 years ago today. The Economist has a good, reasonably breif, article about the intentions and directions of the agency. Being the Economist, it’s partially speculation about potential private-industry virtues of “space exploration”. But the article is more about the division between the dreams of the manned and unmanned branches of the agency. It also mentions the earth-observing program, which I think is a third NASA branch unto itself. The article suggests the unmanned probe makers may tolerate the manned exploration romantics just as cover and funding-bait. And possibly vice a versa. Maybe the earth-observers can likewise use both the manned and the unmanned missions as an infrastructure to exploit. Either dream is closer to the original mandate of the massive NASA bureaucracy than building satellites to measure the environment, which could be a hard sell on it’s own. Or maybe, nowadays, astronauts and probes both just draw away money and steam it off into space.

Many happy returns? — The Economist

Also see A Rocket to Nowhere, from a few years back.

A Whole Population of Unicorns in the Lab

For several weeks I have been meaning to read up on Lenski et al‘s 20-year test tube experiment, in which they observed the rise of novel, beneficial traits in populations of bacteria they stored in a closet. It’s interesting to me because (if I read the summaries right) only some of the test tubes evolved the traits, which suggests an interesting contingency in evolution. I love ragged ass evolution.

The research is interesting to the folks at Conservapedia because they don’t like anything that purports to demonstrate evolution. Because they are intelligent design supporters. Or, as this nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy researcher puts it, an “army of homeschooled numbnuts”. Now now. So they sent some letters demanding to see the data. The correspondence is well documented elsewhere, but I wanted to draw attention to this particular reference from Lenski, made after some goading from the conservapedia crowd:

(Read the whole damn thing on conservapedia itself if you want)

“It is my impression that you seem to think we have only paper and electronic records of having seen some unusual E. coli. If we made serious errors or misrepresentations, you would surely like to find them in those records. If we did not, then – as some of your acolytes have suggested – you might assert that our records are themselves untrustworthy because, well, because you said so, I guess. But perhaps because you did not bother even to read our paper, or perhaps because you aren’t very bright, you seem not to understand that we have the actual, living bacteria that exhibit the properties reported in our paper, including both the ancestral strain used to start this long-term experiment and its evolved citrate-using descendants. In other words, it’s not that we claim to have glimpsed “a unicorn in the garden” – we have a whole population of them living in my lab! And lest you accuse me further of fraud, I do not literally mean that we have unicorns in the lab. Rather, I am making a literary allusion.”

Space Movies In Space

From the log of the space station crew:

5 JAN 2001: Finished the 2nd disk of “2010”. Something strange about watching a movie about a space expedition when you’re actually on a space expedition.

Oh they so watched 2010 just so they could breezily make that comment.

Simple Chaos: A Three Body Problem

Woke up to find this elegant little conceptualization in my inbox. It’s from Jim Lyons, who is one of the alpha boffins on the ridiculously helpful netlogo-users discussion group. While I was preparing my hangover, apparently Jim was preparing something for me to peer at through it.

(I stuck an online version here if you want to see it go. I recommend slowing it down a little.)

Simple Chaos
Posted by: “Jim Lyons”
This simple model exhibits chaotic behavior with very little code.

Each turtle moves towards the centroid of the others, accelerating at a
rate inversely proportional to its distance from that point — except
when the distance is below a certain small threshhold, it just coasts.

As you watch the turtles wander erratically, remember that the code
they are executing is entirely deterministic — randomness is used only
to set their starting positions. Even so, very slight differences at
the beginning produce very different outcomes, the defining
characteristic of chaotic systems.

It is really quite entertaining, and is fun with more than 3 turtles,
too. (It even works with only two turtles.)

Paste this code into the Procedures of a new NetLogo 4 model. In the
Interface, make setup and go buttons and set View Updates to On Ticks.

Jim Lyons

turtles-own [ vx vy ] ; x and y components of velocity

to setup ;by observer
ask patches [ set pcolor sky + 3 ]
create-ordered-turtles 3
[ set shape “circle” jump 1 + random-float .1 ]

to go ;by observer, forever
foreach sort turtles [ ask ? ; this keeps order same
[ setxy (xcor + vx) (ycor + vy) ; update position
; find centroid of others
let $x mean [xcor] of other turtles
let $y mean [ycor] of other turtles
let $d distancexy $x $y
if $d > .02 ; apply acceleration if not too close
[ facexy $x $y ; so dx and dy yield components
set vx .9 * vx + .01 * dx / $d
set vy .9 * vy + .01 * dy / $d

Lincoln Had Holograph Technology

From Wikipedia’s article on the Lincoln Bedroom:

“A holograph copy of the Gettysburg Address is displayed on the desk. This copy is the only one of five that is signed, dated, and titled by Lincoln.”

What are the implications?

Agent-based Modeling as Manhattan Project

Steve Steinberg argues that human terrain mapping, and in particular emergent group simulation, may be a damaging technology we are developing without due thought to it’s consequences.

With regard to Paul Torrens‘ work:

“The next example was more disturbing. The scenario this time is a public demonstration, similar to the WTO protests that occurred in Seattle a few years ago. The model includes such details as tear gas which causes civilians to stampede, extremists who are trying to instigate violence, and mounted police. Torrens shows that changing a few small initial conditions controls whether the protest spins out of control or not, and suggests this simulation is a valuable tool for policing. Indeed. Demonstrating either startling ignorance or touching naïveté, Torrens argues that this scenario is really a public health issue, due to the possibility of injury. Well, yes – but, more importantly, it’s a democratic, human rights issue, and improving the state’s ability to squash demonstrations doesn’t strike me as a desirable development.”

Taking Chances with Nuclear Reactions, Part 2

I’m currently listening to Brian Wynn in the How to Think About Science series. He tells a story reminiscent of the physicists wagering the apocalypticness of the first atomic bomb explosion. Wikipedia provides a slightly drier, but more complete recounting of the decision to use water to put out the reactor fire at the Windscale Pile 1, Oct 11 1957.

I’m also reminded of this photo I took at the Los Alamos science history museum a few years ago.

please do not climb on little boy

Tony Blair Really Tastes Like Desiccated Coconut

Best blog post title of recent memory:

Tony Blair Tastes Like Desiccated Coconut…

And not a bad post either. Apparently Tony Blair really does taste like dessicated coconut, to a certain fellow with something called “lexical-gustatory synesthesia”. Now I want lexical-gustatory synesthesia, although not necessarily for the purposes of Tony Blair.

The End of the World is a Legal Matter Now

NYT: Asking a Judge to Save the World, and Maybe a Whole Lot More

“But Walter L. Wagner and Luis Sancho contend that scientists at the European Center for Nuclear Research, or CERN, have played down the chances that the collider could produce, among other horrors, a tiny black hole, which, they say, could eat the Earth. Or it could spit out something called a “strangelet” that would convert our planet to a shrunken dense dead lump of something called “strange matter.” Their suit also says CERN has failed to provide an environmental impact statement as required under the National Environmental Policy Act.

Although it sounds bizarre, the case touches on a serious issue that has bothered scholars and scientists in recent years — namely how to estimate the risk of new groundbreaking experiments and who gets to decide whether or not to go ahead.”

I’m reminded of the (variously reported, often contradictory) stories of Fermi and others at the Trinity site laying bets on whether the atom bomb would ignite an atmospheric chain reaction consuming the state of New Mexico. I guess the stakes are higher this time.

1971 Protein Assembly Video that Strives to Not Be Static

As marvelous as the blissed-out semi-dance sequence which forms the meat of this demonstration may be, my favourite part is how committed the impossibly MITish man who introduces the proceedings is to the merits of depicting protein formation “in the dance idiom”.

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