Archive for the ‘Weird Science’ category

The Blacker the Berry, the hotter the Torch

August 17, 2010

For an individual who spends as much time using technology as I do, I’m really something of a closet Luddite. My Luddism, however, manifests in odd, inconsistent ways. (Inconsistent to a casual observer, that is — my often oblique approach to things makes perfect sense here in Swanworld.)

I resisted owning a cellular phone for years. Part of my resistance stemmed from the fact that, as those of you who know me in meatspace are well aware, I despise talking on the phone. I rarely use the phones in the house or office, I reasoned, so why would I want to tote one around? Another part was that, being something of a lone wolf, being constantly connected to the rest of the world by a mobile device rankled me more than a little.

At long last, as my family’s needs for contact evolved, I surrendered to the inevitable and purchased an inexpensive phone that could be loaded with usage minutes as I needed them. The device didn’t do anything except make and receive the occasional call or text message — and I’d owned it for years before I sent my first text — which suited me just fine.

With the most recent alterations in my life, however, I’ve rethought a lot of long-held practices. Among these: my cell phone. More and more frequently, I find myself in situations where an Internet-enabled mobile device would come in mighty handy. Plus, with The Daughter heading back to college in a week — and with our primary means of communication over that distance being text messaging — I wanted something with which I could generate a text more quickly (and less fumble-fingeredly) than I can on the numeric keypad of my Motorola handset.

In addition, as my career has changed focus, I’ve been paying an unseemly amount every month for a business phone line that I rarely use. (Everything is e-mail and file transfer these days.) Those funds could be redirected toward upgrading my mobile communications experience.

It was time to buy a smartphone.

Yesterday afternoon, with The Daughter along as my technical adviser, I ventured out into the harsh, unfeeling world of wireless merchandising and came home with this… the BlackBerry Torch 9800.

I'm picking BlackBerrys... who's with me?

We spent the better part of an hour fiddling with the floor models of the various smartphones affiliated with AT&T. (Before you AT&T Wireless haters wax all self-righteous on me, I had significant logistical reasons for going with that provider. Don’t shoot the messenger.) The Daughter liked the Apple iPhone 4, and with good reason — it’s a beautiful device which appeared, based on my limited exposure, to function like a dream. But the iPhone posed one serious hurdle for me — its thin frame and glass faceplate looked and felt fragile in my chubby fist. It’s also a bit too lengthy to fit comfortably in a pocket.

BlackBerry’s newest innovation, while lacking some of the dash and flash of the iPhone (though we all know how Steve Jobs really feels about Flash), had a thickness and heft that felt more solid — and less breakable — to clumsy me. Its grippy rubberized backplate clung to my palm as though tailored to fit it. I also was entranced with the Torch’s slide-out QWERTY keyboard, which elegantly alleviates my ineptitude with multitap texting. And, although the Torch’s touchscreen — a BlackBerry first — may lag somewhat in performance when compared with the zippy-slick iPhone, to my aging eyes it’s slightly less glare-inducing than the iPhone’s mirror finish, and the Torch’s plastic face simply feels more forgiving to my fingers than the iPhone’s glass.

I’m well aware that the techies are less than impressed these days with Research in Motion’s product line, including the somewhat tepidly reviewed Torch. But I’m not trying to impress anyone. I just want to be able to surf the ‘Net wherever I am at any hour of the day, swap text messages with my outbound offspring, keep up with my friends on the various social networks, check and respond to my e-mail, and maybe even call the local pizza joint with an order once in a while. Based on the last 24 hours’ exploration, my new BlackBerry torch will do all of that just fine.

Besides which, I have it on excellent authority that Facebooking from the porcelain throne is wicked cool.

I can hardly wait.

The Phoebe ring

October 7, 2009

Fascinated as I am by all things astronomical, today’s news of the discovery of a new ring of Saturn piqued my interest.

I know what you’re thinking: Saturn’s got a bunch of rings already. What’s the big deal?

The big deal is that the Phoebe ring, as the newly identified phenomenon is being called, is not another of the familiar rings that encircle the equator of the sixth planet from the sun like a series of enormous belts. For one thing, the Phoebe ring is beyond huge — its inner edge begins at about 128 times the radius of Saturn. The ring itself is about 20 times as thick as Saturn’s diameter. So it’s less like a belt than like a cosmic inner tube, with an antlike Saturn at its hub.

To put it another way, more than one billion Earths could fit inside the Phoebe ring.

Is that big enough for you?

Astronomers have been searching for something in the vicinity of the Phoebe ring since the 1970s, when Cornell University’s Joseph A. Burns first suggested the object as an explanation for the unusual properties of Saturn’s moon Iapetus. It’s taken this long to find the mystery ring because, although the Phoebe ring is ginormous, it’s nearly invisible. Scientists used NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope — a orbiting satellite that “sees” in infrared (and apparently, no relation) — to pinpoint what Dr. Burns first postulated three decades ago.

The fun part of the news for me was hearing Andrew Fraknoi on the radio tonight, chatting with the anchors on KCBS about the discovery. Andy is the head astronomy professor at Foothill College, and for many years was the chairman of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. Whenever there’s an astronomy event in the news, Andy’s usually the guy to whom the Bay Area media reaches out for an explanation. About 25 years ago, I took Andy’s introductory astronomy class at San Francisco State, to fulfill a natural science requirement. I don’t recall the grade I received, but I remember that it was an interesting course.

I’m still waiting, though, to learn why such a significant scientific discovery was named after Lisa Kudrow’s character on Friends.

Moonwalkers, part two

July 21, 2009

As we commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing, we continue with the second half of that most exclusive of clubs: men who have walked on the moon. (You can read about the first six moonwalkers here.)


7. David R. Scott, mission commander, Apollo 15. Reached the moon July 31, 1971.

Although Dave Scott finished fifth in his class at West Point, he joined the Air Force instead of the Army in order to pursue his dream of becoming a jet pilot. By the time he took command of Apollo 15, Scott was already a space veteran — he had accompanied Neil Armstrong on the glitch-plagued Gemini 8 mission, and had become the last American to orbit the Earth solo as the command module pilot on Apollo 9. He became the first member of Astronaut Group 3 to command a mission, and the first astronaut to lead a so-called “J Mission,” with an extended stay on the lunar surface (Scott and teammate Jim Irwin spent nearly three full days on the moon) and use of the Lunar Rover excursion vehicle.

Beyond the moon: Scott’s NASA career came to an abrupt end due to what came to be known as the Apollo 15 postage stamp incident. Scott, with the knowledge of his crew, had smuggled 398 commemorative stamp covers on his trip to the moon, and later sold 100 of the covers to Hermann Sieger, a collectibles dealer from Germany. The action was neither illegal or forbidden by NASA protocol, but when certain members of Congress got wind of the back-door business deal, political furor and Capitol Hill hearings ensued. As a result, neither Scott nor his two crewmates ever flew another space mission. (The 100 “Sieger covers” are now valued at between $15,000 and $18,000 each.) Today, Scott lives in the Los Angeles area and is a frequent consultant on film and television projects. He is 77 years old.

8. James B. Irwin, lunar module pilot, Apollo 15. Reached the moon July 31, 1971.

Like Dave Scott, Jim Irwin graduated from another service academy — in Irwin’s case, the U.S. Naval Academy — before joining the Air Force. Apollo 15 was Irwin’s first and only spaceflight, though he played key backup roles in training for two prior Apollo missions. The scientific nature of this particular mission required Irwin and Scott to undergo extensive training in geology — training that led to their discovery and identification of the so-called Genesis Rock, a chunk of lunar material believed to date from the formation of the moon.

Beyond the moon: Although Irwin never flew another NASA mission because of the aforementioned stamp incident, it’s likely that he would have been decertified for space in any event. He experienced cardiac symptoms during his and Scott’s time on the moon, and suffered a heart attack a few months after their return to Earth. Resigning from NASA in 1972, Irwin began a new career in ministry. He later led several unsuccessful expeditions to Turkey in search of the wreckage of Noah’s ark. Jim Irwin succumbed to a heart attack at his Colorado home in 1991 — the first of the moonwalkers to die, as well as the youngest. He was 61.

9. John W. Young, mission commander, Apollo 16. Reached the moon April 21, 1972.

Navy test pilot John Young was one of the graybeards of the Apollo program. He had already been into space three times before his trip to the moon — as pilot alongside Mercury veteran Gus Grissom on the first manned Gemini mission (Gemini 3); as command pilot aboard Gemini 10; and as command module pilot on Apollo 10, the second and final lunar orbital mission before Apollo 11‘s historic landing. During the latter mission, Young became the first man to orbit the moon solo, as his colleagues tested the lunar module. Commanding Apollo 16 earned Young an additional distinction as the first individual to make a return trip to lunar orbit.

Beyond the moon: John Young may well hold the title of NASA’s busiest astronaut. He continued with the  program into the Space Shuttle era — the only Mercury veteran to do so — and was at the helm for the Shuttle’s first space mission as well as one later flight. The first individual to make six journeys into space, Young is also the only person to have piloted four different types of spacecraft — a Gemini capsule, both Apollo vehicles (the command module and the lunar module), and the Shuttle. He retired from NASA in 2004 after 42 years in the space program. Young still lives in Houston, and is 78 years old.

10. Charles M. Duke, Jr., lunar module pilot, Apollo 16. Reached the moon April 21, 1972.

A Naval Academy graduate and Air Force pilot, Charlie Duke was already familiar to followers of the space program before his rookie flight on Apollo 16. It was Duke’s Carolina drawl at Mission Control that viewers heard speaking with Armstrong and Aldrin during the Apollo 11 moon landing. (Astronauts were frequently assigned capsule communicator, or “CAPCOM,” duties for flights on which they were not the designated backup crew.) Duke also had figured in the run-up to the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission. As Apollo 13‘s backup lunar module pilot, Duke’s bout of rubella resulted in fellow astronaut Ken Mattingly — who had not previously been exposed to the disease — being removed from the mission and replaced with Jack Swigert. Mattingly then joined Duke and Young as Apollo 16‘s command module pilot.

Beyond the moon: Duke retired from NASA in 1975 and became a successful entrepreneur. He is also active as a speaker and consultant. At age 73, Duke is the youngest member of the moonwalkers’ fraternity.

11. Eugene A. Cernan, mission commander, Apollo 17. Reached the moon December 11, 1972.

Gene Cernan, the son of immigrants from eastern Europe, came to NASA as a Naval aviator and aeronautical engineer. His first space mission was the star-crossed Gemini 9, where Cernan and Thomas Stafford moved from backup to primary crew after the astronauts originally assigned were killed in a plane crash. On Apollo 10, Cernan served as lunar module pilot (with Stafford as mission commander), making him the only astronaut to have descended to the moon in a lunar module on two separate occasions — albeit without landing on the initial trip.

Although the 11th person to walk on the moon, Cernan also holds the current distinction of having been the last person to have accomplished the feat, as the second man to reboard the lunar module after Apollo 17‘s final EVA. Cernan spoke the final words to date by a human being standing on the lunar surface:

As we leave the moon at Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came, and God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind. As I take these last steps from the surface for some time to come, I’d just like to record that America’s challenge of today has forged man’s destiny of tomorrow. God speed the crew of Apollo 17.

Beyond the moon: Gene Cernan has spent most of his post-NASA career as a businessman and as a speaker on space-related topics. For a number of years, he was the regular spaceflight commentator for ABC News. He is the author of the autobiography Last Man on the Moon, which chronicles his astronaut years. In January of this year, Cernan appeared here in Santa Rosa at the Charles M. Schulz Museum for the opening of a space-themed Peanuts exhibit. Cernan is now 75 years old.

12. Harrison H. Schmitt, lunar module pilot, Apollo 17. Reached the moon December 11, 1972.

Harrison “Jack” Schmitt’s arrival on the moon was preceded by controversy. Originally, astronaut Joseph Engle had been scheduled as Apollo 17‘s lunar module pilot. When the final three Apollo missions were canceled, however, the scientific community that had so enthusiastically supported NASA insisted that a scientist — as opposed to a military officer (although Neil Armstrong had retired from the Navy before joining NASA) — should be part of the final moon mission of the era. Thus, Engle was replaced by Schmitt, a geologist with degrees from Caltech and Harvard — the only geological expert in the astronaut ranks.

Although Gene Cernan was vocal in his disapproval of Engle’s removal from his team, by all accounts he and Schmitt worked well together during their lunar excursion. During Apollo 17‘s outbound voyage, Schmitt snapped one of the most famous photographs ever taken — the shot of Earth from space usually referred to as “The Big Blue Marble.”

Beyond the moon: Schmitt left NASA in 1975 to run for the U.S. Senate. He served a single term as a Republican from New Mexico. After being defeated for reelection, Schmitt focused on consulting and education. Until last year, he chaired the NASA Advisory Council, a group of scientists, policymakers, and former astronauts charged with providing technical guidance to the NASA Administrator. Schmitt still lives in his native New Mexico, and is 74 years old.

And that’s it.

To this date, these are the only 12 people who have stood on the surface of the moon. No new member has joined their elite fraternity in almost 37 years.

Nine of the moonwalkers survive. Given that all nine are in their 70s, that status will likely not hold for long. It’s my sincere hope that at least some of them live long enough to see others do what they alone have done.

What a shame it would be for the human race if the moonwalkers — the representatives of our loftiest purpose, our greatest collective endeavor, our highest material achievement — became extinct.

As a citizen, I challenge President Obama, the members of Congress, and the administrators of NASA:

Ignore the naysayers.

Let’s go back to the moon.

And on to Mars.

Moonwalkers, part one

July 20, 2009

No, this is not a Michael Jackson post.


If you were five years or older on this date 40 years ago, you remember.

You remember the tingle of excitement. You remember the wonder. You remember the grainy images of two men in bulky white pressure suits and their static-charged banter with their handlers a quarter of a million miles away. And you remember the words:

That’s one small step for a man… one giant leap for mankind.

How could you not remember?

For the first time, human beings had set foot on the surface of another world.

Had you told me then, a third-grader basking in the glow of a cathode ray tube in a military-base townhouse in central Maine, that four decades later, the exclusive club opened on that amazing day by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin would have a grand total of twelve members, I would not have believed you.

I find it nearly impossible to believe even now.

And yet, it’s true. Two generations after humans first stood on the moon, only a dozen of our kind have ever done so. None have accomplished the feat since 1972 — 37 years ago.

I think that’s one of our greatest failures. As a nation, and as a species. We gave up on the incredible, and began settling for the mundane.

In an effort to inspire ourselves, let’s reflect for a moment on those bold pioneers who first touched the stars.

1. Neil A. Armstrong, mission commander, Apollo 11. Reached the moon July 20, 1969.

A former U.S. Navy aviator and experienced test pilot, Armstrong was one of only two civilians selected in 1962 for NASA’s second astronaut group, dubbed “the New Nine.” He commanded the Gemini 8 mission, and had been forced to abort that flight early due to a malfunctioning attitude thruster. Armstrong was chosen to lead the first lunar landing because he was considered NASA’s most capable pilot in critical emergency situations.

Beyond the moon: Armstrong left NASA shortly after Apollo 11. He has worked mostly as an engineering consultant and member of several corporate boards of directors. Armstrong served on the panel that investigated the explosion that prematurely terminated the Apollo 13 mission, and was vice-chairman of the Rogers Commission, which investigated the destruction of Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986. He is now 78 years old.

2. Edwin E. (Buzz) Aldrin, Jr., lunar module pilot, Apollo 11. Reached the moon July 20, 1969.

The MIT-educated Aldrin was a U.S. Air Force jet fighter and test pilot before joining NASA’s third astronaut group. His first spaceflight came as the pilot of Gemini 12, during which he undertook three EVAs (extra-vehicular activities, or “spacewalks”) totaling 5.5 hours. Aldrin’s experience working outside the spacecraft led to his selection for the Apollo 11 team. Aldrin’s “Contact light… okay… engine stop” as Apollo 11‘s lunar module Eagle came to rest were the first words ever spoken from the moon’s surface.

Beyond the moon: Aldrin’s early post-NASA years were marked by struggles with alcoholism and depression. He wrote about these difficulties in his 1973 autobiography Return to Earth, and more recently in its follow-up, Magnificent Desolation, published earlier this year. Aldrin has been and remains an active advocate for space exploration, and speaks extensively on the subject. The Disney/Pixar animated character Buzz Lightyear is named after Aldrin.

3. Charles M. (Pete) Conrad, Jr., mission commander, Apollo 12. Reached the moon November 19, 1969.

Pete Conrad overcame dyslexia to excel as a U.S. Navy aviator and flight instructor. At the time of his moon flight, Conrad was one of NASA’s most experienced astronauts, making his third trip into space aboard Apollo 12. Previously, Conrad had served as pilot on Gemini 5, and as commander aboard Gemini 11. Among the shortest members of the astronaut corps, the iconoclastic Conrad famously wisecracked about his size as he took his first step from the lunar module: “Whoopee! Man, that may have been a small one for Neil, but that’s a long one for me.”

Beyond the moon: Conrad was scheduled to return to the moon as commander of what would have been the Apollo 20 mission. The cancellation of the Apollo program found him instead as the initial commander of America’s first manned space station, Skylab. Conrad’s Skylab 2 crew (the Skylab 1 mission designation referred to the unmanned launch of the space station itself; the first launch of astronauts to the station was thus Skylab 2) set a space endurance record of 28 days. Leaving NASA, Conrad worked for McDonnell Douglas for 20 years. In 1996, he led a team that set the record for circumnavigating the globe in a Learjet. Conrad was killed in a motorcycle accident near his southern California home in 1999, at the age of 69.

4. Alan L. Bean, lunar module pilot, Apollo 12. Reached the moon November 19, 1969.

A member of NASA’s third astronaut group, Alan Bean was a former student of Pete Conrad’s at the Naval Flight Test School. The death of another astronaut in a motor vehicle accident opened an opportunity for Conrad to request Bean for his Apollo 12 crew.

Beyond the moon: Bean returned to space in 1973 as commander of the second Skylab crew, designated Skylab 3. After this record-setting mission, Bean served for several years as the civilian director of Astronaut Candidate Operations and Training. These days, he’s an accomplished artist who specializes in painting lunar landscapes. Bean also recently co-wrote, with fellow astronauts Owen Garriott and Joseph Kerwin, a book about the Skylab missions entitled Homesteading Space. Alan Bean lives is Houston and is 77.

5. Alan B. Shepard, Jr., mission commander, Apollo 14. Reached the moon February 5, 1971.

America’s first man in space became its oldest man on the moon when 47-year-old Mercury veteran Alan Shepard made his long-delayed return to active duty as commander of Apollo 14. Shepard had been deemed unfit for space for several years following his initial flight due to Ménière’s disease, an inner ear disorder. He spent the intervening years as Chief of the Astronaut Office until his condition was surgically corrected.

Ironically, Shepard replaced another member of the Mercury Seven, L. Gordon “Gordo” Cooper, on the team when Cooper was bumped due to his lackadaisical training habits and adversarial relationship with the NASA brass. Avid golfer Shepard made history in another way during his moon expedition, when he volleyed off a couple of golf shots into the lunar night with a jury-rigged six-iron (he attached the head of a Wilson club to the handle of a NASA-issued shovel).

Beyond the moon: Shepard resumed his duties as chief astronaut after Apollo 14. He retired in 1974 and became a successful entrepreneur. Moon Shot, a book Shepard coauthored with journalists Jay Barbree and Howard Benedict, formed the basis of a TV miniseries in 1994. Shepard died from leukemia in 1998, at the age of 74.

6. Edgar D. Mitchell, lunar module pilot, Apollo 14. Reached the moon February 5, 1971.

Ed Mitchell became a moonwalker on his one and only spaceflight. A member of NASA’s fifth astronaut class in 1966, the former Naval research pilot and flight instructor held a doctorate in aeronautics from what is now Carnegie Mellon University.

Beyond the moon: Mitchell is probably best known today for his widely publicized views on the paranormal. He conducted ESP experiments during the Apollo 14 mission, and believes that UFOs may actually be alien spacecraft. He has stated in interviews that the infamous Roswell, New Mexico event in 1947 was the crash of one such craft, and that NASA, the Pentagon, and other U.S. government agencies are involved in shielding the general public from the truth about evidence of visitors from other planets. Mitchell, now age 78, lives in West Palm Beach, Florida.

These are the first six. We’ll take a look at the other half of the Moonwalkers Club in tomorrow’s post.