Saturday, April 23, 2016

Looking to space

Homesteading in Space! This recent February, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) worked with NASA, Fox Studios and the National Academy to assemble a gathering in Los Angeles  Homesteading in Space – Inspiring the Nation through Science Fiction, aimed at “imagining how manned space efforts can take us to our neighboring planets, not just for a short visit, but for longer durations.” Co-sponsoring the event was Washington D.C.’s developing Museum of Science Fiction.

In his 2015 State of the Union, President Obama noted that we want to go to space, “not just to visit, but to stay.” That theme carried throughout the LA event. The morning portion – at Fox Studios – featured Ridley Scott, director, and Andy Weir, author of The Martian, as well as Bill Nye, Adam Savage and many Hollywood notables.  The later, UCLA portion, gave perhaps seventy film and media myth-spinners a chance to interact closely, in breakout sessions, with actual space scientists.  I found myself filling both roles!

Said OSTP Policy Director Tom Kalil: I believe that science fiction can provide a simulator for the societal risks and benefits of new technologies. This is useful in the same way that scenario planning helps organizations prepare for the future.”

The meeting was covered in this gizmodo article, with terrific artwork.

Help solve the problems of space exploration: The 2016 NASA Space Apps Challenge is happening right now... See the challenges in aeronautics, Mars or techsploration. Join a team and collaborate to innovate, code, and design our future in space.

== Living and exploring space ==

What can we learn from living in space? Col. Chris Hadfield, who logged more than 4000 hours in space, offers his inspiring perspectives about humans in space and innovative problem-solving in his recent book, Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth: What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything -- which will help you think like an astronaut... a citizen of our ambitious future.

So, what are some good destinations? A fascinating article by Lee Billings on the tradeoffs re where on Mars astronauts should land. The first meeting on site appraisal – in Houston – brought out the Groundlings and Trailblazers, Conservationists and Burrowers and so on.  A conference I would have very much enjoyed. Though apparently there were no Smackers… folks who’d harvest some comets and just smack the Red Planet real good, slapping it (perhaps) back awake again.  AH… read HEART of the COMET. 

As a next step in its Journey to Mars program, NASA is seeking ideas for deep space habitats to house astronauts during long-duration missions, such as a trip to the Red Planet.

My NIAC colleague Ariel Waldman also has a terrific book - What's It Like in Space?: Stories from Astronauts Who've Been There. It received a mention in Oprah Magazine(!) this month: "Houston, we have a winner." 

Of course it won't just be humans -- our robotic envoys will explore on our behalf.... The latest cubesats are amazing.  When coupled with new instruments and new propulsion methods, they may soon enable mere universities to send robotic emissaries – not just to Low Earth Orbit but exploring across the Solar System. 

NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) arrived at the Red Planet on March 10, 2006 and has done yeoman's work in the decade since. To mark the occasion, NASA created this video celebrating the MRO's 10 years at Mars .

Phil Plait waxes effusive and poetical about a dustdevil (a twister!) caught with its stereo cameras while exploring the rim of a giant crater. On Mars. For you. 

Interesting list! Space missions that never/almost/barely happened.

Boeing has patented technology to 3D print objects while levitating in space.  

Even more cool is the Made In Space endeavor, which, having won a NASA contract, aims to make zero G 3D printers for use in space.

ARPA-E has granted a contract with Aurora Systems to develop a unique VTOL aircraft that will rise vertically, thrust upward by 24 ducted hybrid-electric fans embedded inside the wings. (In a sense, it is a biplane.)   Cool and next. And aficionados will recognize it from William Gibson's prophetic-gritty "The Gernsback Continuum" -- from his collection Burning Chrome.

Mercury!  What makes so many portions of the innermost planet so dark? (Low Albedo.) It appears to be carbon, remnants of a graphite layer that floated on the surface of Mercury’s ancient magma. Wow, and this while scientists are calling graphene the wunder-material. Calling all self-assembler robots.

Cool to this cosmetologist: JPL and Goldstone managed to radar image comet  P/2016 BA14 on March 22. The comet, about 1 kilometer in diameter, passed about 3.5 million kilometers away, making it the third closest comet flyby in recorded history. Also fascinating.  It has an albedo of about 3%, which is lower than fresh asphalt.

Pluto: another world with an ice-roofed, liquid water ocean?  Meanwhile, on the surface, signs of recent Nitrogen rain and lakes.  If a methane-breathing astronaut from Titan were to visit, she’d evaporate these lakes just by walking nearby!  I guess everything is relative. 

And Pluto's moon Charon may have once had a subsurface ocean that has frozen and expanded, causing massive fracturing of the surface.

A look back at the early days, remembering how we got to space: Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us from Missiles to the Moon and Mars, by Nathalia Holt honors the hard-working women pioneers of the 1940s and 50s who helped launch NASA into the space age, and win the space race. Holt relates the life stories of the early "human computers" who performed the extensive mathematical and calculating work (with pencil and paper, not silicon chips) which was vital to the success of NASA's early missions -- in that long ago era before we carried computers around in our pockets!

== Further out in space ==

Just as we look to other stars to detect transits of orbiting planets, perhaps intelligent extraterrestrials have adopted the same astronomical methods as us. Therefore, it might be a good idea to identify which sun-like stars are at just the right angle to see our Earth pass in front of our sun from their perspective. Researchers have now mapped a thin band they call the Earth’s “transit zone” that projects along the plane of the ecliptic. Any denizens of that band will be able to see Earth orbit in front of the sun, thus realizing there’s a small rocky world orbiting within the habitable zone of a star. 82 nearby sun-like stars occupy this zone and could therefore be very inviting SETI targets. 

Phil Plait – the “bad astronomer” – can be so interesting!  Here he correlates gamma ray bursters and Fast Radio Bursters and the recent detection of Gravity Waves…. And pieces are falling into place!  

Zowee. See this the spectacular X-ray producing jet from an 11 billion year old quasar and its possible implications.  

Want to go even farther back?  The Hubble Space Telescope has found a galaxy that formed only 400 million years after the Big Bang.

But wait! Perhaps Fast Radio Bursters don’t come from massive collisions, after all! FRBs are bright radio flashes that last just a few milliseconds, and until now have never been known to repeat. But if they do repeat, there goes the neutron star collision theory. 


Tacitus said...

I may have missed the discussion on it, but any chance that the talk about the new "Shawyer" EM drive system is actually workable? The physics seems implausible, but maybe anything that would work would have to look that way.


Acacia H. said...

You know... it would be kind of nice if we could start hollowing out asteroids, spinning them for "gravity," and set one aside as a wildlife preserve. You could have an asteroid with the African ecosystem, without the impact of humanity intruding constantly. Though you might require a human scientific presence to not only ensure the asteroid-station remain in a decent trajectory so that there are good day/night cycles (maybe using fiber optics to bring in sunlight but not more intense radiation types).

We could probably do something similar for our ocean ecosystem. Though convincing governments to "waste" space ice that way (seeing it could be turned into rocket fuel) might take some doing....

Rob H.

Anonymous said...

My current 500 year plan includes hollowing out a nice sized asteroid for "Rendezvous with Rama" adventures. But first I need to find a way to put my consciousness in a 1/10th scale human-like body, otherwise the needs of this hydrocarbon sack I am currently wearing will take up precious resources better spent on fancy aquariums and vivariums. Great thing is that a 1/10 scale down-conversion would be 100X increase in area and 1000X increase in volume. The USS Asteroid McAsteroidface will then be easily able to fit dozens of "natural" ecosystems and tens of thousands of copies of me and my friends. Hopefully we will have a decent Alcubierre Drive up and running so as to dodge various dark matter elder gods and hive-mind insectoids.


Tony Fisk said...

I would have thought the stars along Jupiter's ecliptic would be a better bet. (Although the difference in inclination is not that large.)

David Brin said...

Tacitus there are some recent, impudent theories to attempt to explain how you can increase momentum of a closed system in relation to a larger one, without exchange of force. Despite some measurements that suggest something is happening in these Em Drives... I must as a physicist react with skepticism.

Paul451 said...

Re: EM-Drive.

It makes no sense from a physics perspective, the theoretical explanations proffered are classic pseudo-science garbage, the handwaving away of the inherent free-energy side-effect even worse, and the size of the effect conveniently seems to change depending on how sensitive your instruments are; getting larger for amateurs and smaller for better equipped labs, but always hovering just above the noise limit.

But it's a copper frustum and a microwave emitter. And a whole bunch of independent builders copying it. Plus a lightly funded group out of NASA. If it turns out to be a genuine effect, it will float (ha!) to the surface eventually. So feel free to be skeptical, even aggressively mocking. It won't hurt the outcome. But its a long, long way from being worth getting your hopes up over.

David Smelser said...

@Dr. Brin - "My current party registration is a product of laziness, since CA adopted the best election laws in the nation, and party registration stopped mattering."

Except in presidential primaries. To participate in the republican presidential primary you must be a registered republican. To participate in the democrati presidential primary, you must be a registered democrat or have registered as "no party preference".

The deadline to register in California is May 23, 2016. The primary is June 7th.

So, Dr. Brin, which republican are you going to vote for?

David Brin said...

David S... you have me cornered. Switch and vote in the demmie primary, between two decent-smart homosapiens, in June when that contest is likely all sewn up? Or stay a "gopper" and help pick between monsters? Without any doubt, the latter is both lazier and the more interesting option. To actually see those names in front of me. I'll likely feel dystopic shivers that'd be good grist for a writer.

Your opinions are welcome.

Catfish N. Cod said...

@Tacitus -- the latest theorizing I've seen on EmDrives would be a quantization effect of inertia. In theory it would tremendously interesting as it implies a macroscale quantum gravity effect, which is exactly the sort of paradigm-breaker you'd need for the thing to be real. At the very least it gives testable predictions. Even so, you still have to explain energy and momentum conservation. The thing has to be pushing on something. My money is on this being a real effect with much more mundane causes and minimal utility, like the Casimir effect.

@Dr. Brin -- the article on the Mars landing site conference intrigues and dismays me. Speaking professionally as a scientist, I see the Conservationists' point that we might kill or outcompete the Martian microbes we'd love to find. The "planetary protection" shown in the Andy Weir book and movie made me cringe. Were I designing a Martian expedition, I'd place my base many kilometers from suspected life-sites, have a double-sealed repository for unrecyclable organics, and have the crew or colonists use waldoes to collect potential bio-samples. But there comes a point where our caution is itself foolish.

Never mind Musk's gung-ho Colonial attitude. If we remain too frightened to ever poke at the object of our curiosity, we might as well become Platonists. The Conservationists seem to want to be able to characterize all requirements to protect micro-Martians in advance of knowing a single parameter of their existence. The result is a Catch-22 situation: we could literally spend a thousand years debating and implementing safeguards. The exact same arguments would apply to any other world we suspect might harbor life: Europa, Ganymede, Titan. These are also the other worlds with the best possibilities for resource extraction (aside from asteroid mining).

Push planetary protection too far and we could deny ourselves the ability to explore other worlds at all -- at which point:

(1) solar system exploration crashes, or
(2) some other nation or corporation with less scruples jumps the barriers and does whatever the hell it wants, or
(3) we actually do dither for a thousand years, or until our civilization has an Admiral Zheng Ho moment and denies itself space capabilities.

Perhaps some other species and civilization could afford one of these scenarios. I'm not convinced our current one can.

Jumper said...
Older footage of Martian dust devils with static electricity bursts which are cool.

Another older, perhaps better view of the static bursts:

LarryHart said...

Dr Brin:

Switch and vote in the demmie primary, between two decent-smart homosapiens, in June when that contest is likely all sewn up? Or stay a "gopper" and help pick between monsters?

By this point in the presidential primaries, it probably doesn't matter so much whether you select between Democratic contenders or Republican ones. What might matter more is which down-ticket races you get to select in.

Two years ago, for the first and only time, I voted in the Illinois Republican primary to try to defeat Bruce Rauner for governor. It didn't work. Then again, in Illinois, you don't have to register for a party in advance. You just pick one of the two ballots when you go in to vote.

I'm surprised at how many people seem to think that registering as a Republican or a Democrat during the primaries somehow means you have to vote for that same party in the general election.

I may be the only one these days who thinks superdelegates are a good idea, and that the Party as a whole should have a say in choosing (or vetoing) its nominees. Of course, the devil is in the details as to what constitutes the will of "the Party as a whole". I get that. However, I also don't think it's a good idea for Rush Limbaugh (as an example) to have a vote in who the Democratic nominees are, for the same reason that Russian or Chinese or Saudi nationals don't have a vote in who the US president is. It's not a good system if the ones who actively wish harm to your political party get to choose the candidate who will maximize that harm.

David Brin said...

Catfish: I'd give high priority to (1) finding out IF there's residual life on Mars. (2) investigating lateral contamination transport. The latter would advise whether we can use a "regions" approach -- setting aside zones where Human never-ever go vs. others where we can "science the shit out of" the area and even colonize, knowing that any Martian life in those Sacrifice Zones will have to learn to adapt, as it has already for billions of years. It is a rough cosmos and it's not convenient for anyone. We need to generate ever-better ethics and understanding... but we do the universe no favors by cowering, afraid to move.

LarryHart, the superdelegates should be folks who have faced election themselves. But yes, they bring political experience to the floor and to the meetings, making it an actual convention.

Jumper said...

I think it's ironic so many think the Republicans ought to elect their candidates "democratically." No one has any idea what the Republican party stands for anymore, except they hate taxes.

Jumper said...

Perhaps Al Gore should fly in one ;>]

Jumper said...

MIT has verified the new EM drive, so I perked up my ears. Nothing beats a good revolution in physics to get the optimism up.

Acacia H. said...

Dr. Brin, you will no doubt be amused to learn I just inflicted math on a climate denier. They were claiming that a change of 300 parts per million to 350 parts per million wasn't that much. So I pointed out how many molecules was estimated to be in the atmosphere, the amount of carbon dioxide that would be, and the number of carbon dioxide molecules (approximately) that would result from differences between the higher level (350 parts per million) and the lower level (300 parts per million) (which came to 5.449*10^39 if my math was correct).

I suspect the climate deniers don't expect to be hit with the actual numbers. But he deserved it when I pulled the terrarium experiment on him and he said "I doubt an increase to 350 parts per million would make a difference" - I applauded him on wanting to do precision science, urged him to do the experiment if he could do the two terrariums to that level of carbon dioxide difference accurately, and THEN hit him with the math of what "parts per million" meant.

Including the actual number of molecules - a number with lots and lots of zeros and commas. ;)

Dunno why. He just got my whimsical goat.

Rob H.

Tony Fisk said...

Rob, you could have smilingly followed up by pointing out that 350 ppm is *so* 1989, and that we're now above 400 (409 at the moment. That will drop as Spring comes to Siberia, but let's not confuse matters with 'wiggle' room)

Meanwhile, with all the GBR affected by coral bleaching, and 93% of the atolls in the top quarter experiencing severe bleaching, our learned Environmental Minister proclaims to be in great shape. He even has the clueless audacity to cite David Attenborough's recent series (Attenborough has 'respectfully suggested' that Hunt watches past the first episode.)


Paul451 said...

"MIT has verified the new EM drive"

Link? All I've seen connecting MIT with the EmDrive is that a researcher theorising that inertia might be quantised at sufficiently low accelerations.

But it's worth pointing out that this is not Shawyer's theory, and hence we're supposing that he mistakenly calculated a non-existent effect which resulted in discovering an actual but completely different effect.

Re: Mathing the shit out of climate deniers.

It's also worth noting that 300ppm is enough to get us from freezing average temps to 18deg C average global temp. If the effect was merely linear, 350 would take us to 21deg C. It's likely to be more complex than that, but that's your starting point.

I mean, if 300 grimlicks does 18 units of work, why wouldn't you expect 350 grimlicks to do 16% more work? If you upgraded from a 300ci engine to 350ci, you'd be pretty annoyed if it didn't result in more power.

So if you want to claim that some secondary effect precisely balances out the increase, keeping the system precisely in check, great! But the burden of proof is on you, you don't get to just assume it.

Paul451 said...

Re: Mars biocontamination.

The issue that I see with Mars is that it's a single sample. You break it, you don't get another one.

If there's simple life on comets (a la panspermia), it doesn't matter if we do a bunch of unclean science missions (even a particularly filthy manned mission) and dirty them up, there are always more comets. So if one of the dirty missions gets an ambiguous result that might be comet-life, you can always send new specially cleaned mission to a fresh comet.

But Mars might be a one-and-done. If you have manned settlement and then you get a controversial claim for Martian life, how do you ensure a clean site to double check the results?

Better to hold off on manned missions (which are impossible to clean) until science missions can rule out the existence of most candidates for life, on the Martian surface.

That said, if that's our policy, then the burden is on NASA/etc to perform those bioprospecting missions as a priority, and at each of the high-probability sites (brines, glaciers, sub-surface water, lava-caves, etc). These are more expensive than none-bioprospecting missions (due to the higher level of decontamination), but given the potential pay-off and the potential lost opportunity from any manned mission, the cost is trivial.

Annoyingly, NASA seems to cringe away from even the most basic tests for extant life. In spite of the current wave of Mars missions (Pathfinder, MPL, MER 1/2, Phoenix, MSL, InSight & 2020) they still haven't attempted a single direct bio-mission, an updated Viking missions. Terrified of another ambiguous result?

Paul451 said...


"we could literally spend a thousand years debating and implementing safeguards."

This is the same as the active-SETI/METI argument against silence. "What if everyone makes the same decision? What if everyone is just huddling in fear forever?..." We're not saying we have to stay quiet forever, just until we know a lot more about the neighbourhood. We've only just started detecting the existence of exo-planets, surely we can wait until we know a bit more about the frequency of life on those planets before we start shouting for attention?

Likewise, we've done precisely one bio-detection experiment. The two Viking landers on Mars. We've not done a single bio-detection experiment on a comet, nor on Titan, nor (obviously) on Jupiter's moons.

Give us a freakin' chance.

David Brin said...

No one related to this "article even spelled Soros's name right. Diebold - as of the previous presidential cycle - was owned by Republican operatives. If I recall correctly, a pair of brothers with organized crime ties. If Soros took over from the likes of them, then this is good news. Til we finally get electoral reform.

"Hillary’s biggest contributor “George Sorros” owns Diebold. His daughter “Andrea Sorros” is on the board of a company called Scytl, Scytl has bought the software used in the Diebold (or ES&S) machines for many states in the US, including New York."

Of course these are jibbering idiots, since NY has prcinct auditing, as do most blue states. It is in red states that officials can order up any results they want, with almost no chance of being caught in an audit.

donzelion said...

re voting in June - one way to think about how to vote in a primary is to imagine if a candidate knew you'd voted for them, and was able to broadcast that vote to his/her supporters: "And now we have Dr./Mr. So-and-So also among our supporters!" How would that feel?

For a Hillary/Sanders vote, there'd be a shrug: lots of other smart people joining in that vote, perhaps drawing a little comfort from yet another voice jumping aboard.

For a Cruz/Trump vote, there'd be crowing: "see! Even scientists like Dr. B agree with us! Proof that smart people know climate change is a lie and immigrants are a threat!"

raito said...

I've always been both amused and appalled that our government hires economists and political scientists to figure out science and technology. Thus it is with Mr. Kalil.

Oh well, maybe that frees the scientists to do science. At least I can confirm that Mr. Kalil has read a pile of science fiction. He and I were one of that bunch of D&D playing, science fiction reading nerds in high school. However, whereas the rest of us were interested in doing science, etc., he was mostly interested in figuring out how to convince people of anything (whether or not it was true).

While I'm reminiscing, I recall that my last year in high school they reconfigured the English program. There were to be a set of rotating classes such that, in theory, a student would have the chance to take any of the electives once during their tenure. I got lucky, as the two available in my senior year were Shakespeare and Science Fiction. Unfortunately, the students knew far more about science fiction that the teacher. One of the (pre-internet) assignments was to do a bibliography of a sci-fi author. We all got together and chose authors we knew the teacher had never heard of (except the one guy who insisted on doing Asimov...). Presenting those got interesting.

David Brin said...

Interesting reminiscence, raito! Maybe we should all do that here... a little background anecdote or two. Me? We chipped our sci fi in stone. It was about newfangle wheel things.

Acacia H. said...

Be nice.

Alfred Differ said...

If kids today learned some of their science like I did back in the day, they'd be on a terror watch list and not be permitted to fly. BOOM!

I wonder what happens if I short the two prongs of an electrical plug and insert it in an outlet. Hmm... I better get another kid in the lab to do it. BZZZT! School basement goes dark, but outlet scorch mark identifies the culprit later.

Anyone want to run with scissors? I've been told I shouldn't, but I'm curious as to why.

Jumper said...

Ah, good times, Alfred... When I was around 5 I stuck a fork in an outlet and got a shock. I determined to see how long I could stand it. The answer turned out to be pretty long. Lucky my hand worked enough to pull it out when I was done.

Re. the em drive, I read in several seemingly respectable places (among them the MIT press) that NASA ran their own tests and found real thrust. However, I can't find NASA themselves saying that. Curious.

LarryHart said...

Alfred Differ:

I wonder what happens if I short the two prongs of an electrical plug and insert it in an outlet.

I actually did that at my house. Luckily (I suppose) the thin wire I used to wrap around the prongs gave out before damage was done to the house itself. I also wondered what would happen if I stuck wires into the leads of a flash-cube and plugged the other ends into the outlet. Answer: it gives a heck of a flash and melts the plastic.

Alfred Differ said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Acacia H. said...

Whereas when I was stupid enough to stick something in a plug and get shocked, I didn't do it again. ;)

Guess I'm less of a scientist.

Rob H.

Alfred Differ said...

I did the foil-gum-wrapper-in-an-outlet thing a number of times. POW! No scorch mark. Last time I did it was in 9th grade and my pinky finger wasn't placed correctly. Couldn't use my hand for about half an hour and it was a typing class. The shorted plug was 10th grade, so I had learned to get others to do it by then.

Those flash cubes were lots of fun to look at. Obviously lots of thin wire in them getting hot as the melt showed. The igniter implications were obvious and put to use in 11th grade on my friend's brother's car. Imagine any movie where a car explodes because someone turned the key. Windows rattled a block away. Easy peasy.

No. I don't do this anymore. I'm a father now and can easily imagine these experiences from a parental angle. I'd rather find other ways for our kids to express their genius.

No. I don't expect them to listen to my concerns any better than I did back then. 8)

I remember being interested in the em drive things briefly while I was in grad school. If you work your way up the ranks a bit, students start bringing you their crackpot files. The neatest thing about any drive that violates the continuity of energy-momentum (relativistic extension of the conservation laws) is they must necessarily imply a local breach in the translational symmetry of the universe. Imagine displacing your experiment one meter to the left and getting a different result. You'd know something about the experiment's context. Continuity laws imply symmetries and visa versa. Since I get almost religious about symmetries, you might imagine my disdain for the em drive ideas. Next thing they'll try is to square the circle. 8)

Alfred Differ said...

If you really, really want to learn physics, you have to put your hands on the stuff. The best educational accident for me was lucking into a TA job as an undergrad. The school needed someone to cover labs and didn't have enough grads. I was about one class ahead of the students taking the labs, so I was about 18 and looked to be about 14. The luck came about because I could play with the equipment between labs. No matter how obtuse the vector cross product is, you can see and feel the planes and vectors when you put your hands on the spinning, tube-less bicycle tire demo. You can feel the spinning wheel nutate and precess. That came in handy in my junior year Mechanics class.

I've been told by education majors that different people learn different ways, but I was never a fan of picking one. For me, they worked better as a package deal.

Jumper said...

I get almost religious about asymmetries. Cobalt is the clue.

Jumper said...

Wu means sorcerer, among other things.

David Brin said...

Alfred's True Confessions are a hoot! Post of the day award.

duncan cairncross said...

My last year in High School I did a physics project – I built a linear induction motor
After a fair amount of faffing about I was able to fire pieces of aluminium across the bench,
The teacher came across to see how I was getting on,
He looked at the lab power supply and asked what voltage I was using
at about the same time as he touched one of my coils
Only after he had picked himself back up did he notice that the wires were going straight into the 230v mains socket

All further experiments involved a minor ritual
Before he would examine my equipment I had to show him a disconnected mains input,
he would have a closer look
Then he would move and stand behind me before instructing me to switch it on

We were a troublesome year – one of my friends did a number of pump tests – one of which involved pumping 45 gallons of water up to a 45 gallon drum in the lab above us
Unfortunately the drum upstairs was already full of water

Tony Fisk said...

I don't recall any truly mad science moments in my school years. My fun was usually had watching how soap bubbles changed colour when you blew on them, or the way surface tension broke when you dropped detergent in the sink, or how you could make diving bells with a glass, or the way the residual cocoa hung around in a mug.

Washing the dishes in our household could take a while.

One year at primary school a very long nylon chord was strung across the oval, and balsa carved rockets powered by CO2 'soda sparklers' were launched along it. Much love went into carving the rockets, but not many got very far. Later on, I recall attempting to launch old tin cans from someone's outdoor barbecue into orbit with 'bullemite' penny bungers. Even without the benefit of guidance systems, a few of them got surprisingly high, leaving pretty impressive rocket exhausts.

Coincidentally, TED is currently pushing a talk about 5 dangerous things you should let your kid do. I don't think the message is to let natural selection take its course... good grief, it's nearly ten years old!!

Jumper said...

I think for me the ultimate point is how long it took me to understand survivor bias. I have done a lot of risky things when younger and survived, and the temptation is to declare them okay, which they aren't. Running electicity through your heart, for example, or climbing up the side of 120' oil rigs without the safety line. Just because I didn't die doesn't mean those were reasonably safe activities.

Anonymous said...

Talk about doing stupid things, in college I was in Chem Lab doing an experiment. I filled up a glass beaker of distilled water and another one of concentrated Hydrochloric acid. I then turned around to do something and when I turned back I had forgotten which was which. They both look like water. Easy I thought. Hydrochloric acid has a very strong odor so I waved a beaker gently under my nose. It was the acid and it destroyed the olfactory nerves in my nose. I couldn’t smell anything for about a year. Beer was flat, pizza tasted like cardboard and worse of all I was incapable of detecting human female pheromones. It was a fate worse than death for an undergrad.

David Brin said...

Eeep! Great stories!

I have a new posting but continue here if want.


LarryHart said...


Talk about doing stupid things...

In Chem 101, we had to fill up soap bubbles with air and with a lighter-than-air gas (I forget which) and note the differences in characteristics. My lab partner and I got the brilliant idea to also fill some up with the methane input for the bunsen burners, let the bubbles drift a bit, and then set them on fire.

When the TA saw what we were doing, in order to prevent everyone in the class from doing the same thing independently, he actually stopped class and had everyone watch us ignite a few bubbles, and only then forbid any more such antics.

Alfred Differ:

If you really, really want to learn physics, you have to put your hands on the stuff.

Agreed. I learned to love classical mechanics in high school, and then again in college because I could feel it all. I could kinda/sorta do the same for electromechanics. By the time we got to quantum mechanics, I was lost. I could work out the math, but couldn't feel any of it.