Thoughts on Colonizing Space

OSIRIS_Mars_true_color

[Image found here.]

It is no secret than I am not a fan of our current president, Donald Trump. I’ve been watching him carefully, and have found exactly one point of agreement with the man: humans should colonize the planet Mars. The two of us differ, however, on the details. What follows is my set of reasons — not Trump’s — for supporting colonization of Mars.

First, we should not start with Mars. We should start, instead, by establishing a colony on Luna, our own planet’s moon. There are several reasons for this. First, as seen in this iconic 1969 photograph brought to us by NASA, we’ve been to the Moon before; it simply makes sense to start space-colonization efforts there.

apollo-flag2

At its furthest distance, the Moon is ~405,000 km away from Earth’s center, according to NASA. By contrast, at its closest approach to Earth in recent history, Mars was 55,758,006 km away from Earth. With the Moon less than 1% as far away as Mars at closest approach, Luna is the first logical place for an extraterrestrial colony. It need not be a large colony, but should at least be the size of a small town on Earth — say, 100 people or so. There are almost certainly problems we haven’t even discovered — yet — about establishing a sustainable reduced-gravity environment for human habitation; we already know about some of them, such as muscular atrophy and weakening of bones. Creating a lunar colony would demand of us that we solve these problems, before the much more challenging task of establishing a martian colony. (To find out more about such health hazards, this is a good place to start.) Once we have a few dozen people living on the Moon, we could then begin working in earnest on a martian colony, with better chances for success because of what we learned while colonizing the Moon. 

An excellent reason to spend the billions of dollars it would take to colonize Mars (after the Moon) is that it is one of the best investment opportunities of the 21st Century. Space exploration has a fantastic record of sparking the development of new technologies that can help people anywhere. For example, the personal computers we take for granted today would not be nearly as advanced as they are without the enormous amount of computer research which was part of the “space race” of the 1960s. The same thing can be said for your cell phone, and numerous other inventions and discoveries. Even without a major space-colonization effort underway, we already enjoy numerous health benefits as a result of the limited exploration of space we have already undertaken. Space exploration has an excellent track record for paying off, big, in the long run.

Another reason for us to colonize Mars (after the Moon, of course) is geopolitical. The most amazing thing about the 20th Century’s Cold War is that anyone survived it. Had the United States and the Soviet Union simply decided to “nuke it out,” no one would be alive to read this, nor would I be alive to write it. We (on both sides) survived only because the USA and the USSR found alternatives to direct warfare: proxy wars (such as the one in Vietnam), chess tournaments, the Olympics, and the space race. In today’s world, we need safe ways to work out our international disagreements, just as we did then. International competition to colonize space — a new, international “space race” — would be the perfect solution to many of today’s geopolitical problems, particular if it morphs, over the years, into the sort of international cooperation which gave us the International Space Station.

Finally, there is the best reason to establish space colonies, and that is to increase the longevity of our species, as well as other forms of life on Earth. Right now, all our “eggs” are in one “basket,” at the bottom of Earth’s gravity well, which is the deepest one in the solar system, of all bodies with a visible solid surface to stand on. A 10-kilometer-wide asteroid ended the age of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, and there will be more asteroid impacts in the future — we just don’t know when. We do know, however, that past and present human activity is causing significant environmental damage here, so we may not even need the “help” of an asteroid to wipe ourselves out. The point is, the Earth has problems. The Moon also has problems, as does the planet Mars — the two places are far from being paradises — but if people, along with our crops and animals, are located on Earth, the Moon, and Mars, we have “insurance” against a global disaster, in the form of interplanetary diversification. This would allow us to potentially repopulate the Earth, after the smoke clears, if Earth did suffer something like a major asteroid impact.

Since Moon landings ended in the 1970s, we’ve made many significant discoveries with space probes and telescopes. It’s time to start following them with manned missions, once again, that go far beyond low-Earth orbit. There’s a whole universe out there; the Moon and Mars could be our first “baby steps” to becoming a true spacefaring species.

[Later edit: Please see the first comment, below, for more material of interest added by one of my readers.]

Beautiful, Clean . . . Coal?!?

Type “beautiful clean” into Google, and it suggests these endings to the phrase:

beautiful clean coal

There is no such thing as “beautiful clean coal” — coal is actually, of all energy sources, the most harmful to the environment, as scientists have shown again and again. The phrase has been made famous by our current president, Donald Trump, who appears to have the lowest level of scientific literacy than any other American president, living or dead.

Move over, George W. Bush.

Pluto and Charon, Adorning an Icosidodecahedron

 

icosidodeca

Images obtained by NASA’s New Horizons space probe. Geometrical rendering done using Stella 4d, available at http://www.software3d.com/Stella.php.

An Eighty-Atom Fullerene Molecule

c80-fullerene

The fullerene molecule that gets the most attention is C60, so I’m giving C80 a little bit of the spotlight, for balance. I made this using polyhedral modeling software called Stella 4d; you can try it for yourself at this website.

A “Thumbs Up” for Google Classroom

This is my 22nd year of teaching, but my first year using Google Classroom. We’re finding it to be a useful tool. This, for example, is the diagram for the Atwood’s machine lab we are doing in Pre-AP Physical Science, beginning today. My students will find this waiting for them in their virtual classroom (on Chromebooks my school district provides), with discussion-prompts to get us started:

atwoods-machine-diagram

I had no idea that four years of blogging, here on WordPress, had been preparing me to use this teaching tool. However, active blogging does require one to develop some transferable skills, especially in fields (such as what I teach) which are similar to the topics of one’s blog, as is the case here.

One Possible Definition of Physics

Visual definition of physics

With my metaphorical “mathematics of sets” hat on, this is what physics looks like, to me. The further you go in the field, the more challenging the mathematics gets; also, the better (and more expensive) the toys become.

We’re Going Back to School Tomorrow, and I’m the Teacher.

Trunc Icosa

This is my 22nd year teaching. This year, I teach in only one department. This is nice; I’ve spent much of my career in multiple departments, simply because I am certified in multiple subject areas. This year, in my building, I am one of three science teachers. Our high school has become so large that the 9th grade has been “spun off” to a new freshman campus, while remaining part of the high school, and I’m one of the teachers who gets to go to the new campus. This provides my students, my colleagues (especially at the new campus), and myself the opportunity for a fresh start, to a greater degree than is usually the case when a new school year begins.

My students are in just two subjects, this year: Physical Science, and Pre-AP Physical Science. I don’t want the students in the class without the “Pre-AP” prefix to feel that they are in a “lesser” class, in any sense of that word, so I am renaming “Physical Science,” slightly: “High School Physical Science.” It is my hope that this change in wording serves to communicate high expectations, and 9th grade is the first year of high school — which, in the USA’s public school systems, means 9th grade students must pass courses to earn credits toward graduation, usually for the first time.

In the other class, Pre-AP Physical Science, I am teaching that version of the course for the first time, but I feel well-prepared by the extensive training I had this Summer, and last school year, through my university, the school where the Summer training was held, and the College Board. Both classes will challenge students, but it is also true that the two classes will be different, for Pre-AP Physical Science have to leave students prepared to function effectively, later, in other Pre-AP and/or AP science courses. 

Physical Science is an introduction to two sciences: physics, and then chemistry, at least in my school district. It helps me that I have experience teaching both subjects as higher-level, “stand-alone” classes. In this class (both versions), we also touch on some other sciences which are also physical sciences, such as geology, astronomy, and the science of climate change. However, those sciences do not dominate these courses, as physics and chemistry do. The image above is from chemistry (and was created with Stella 4d, which you can try here), and shows a model of a sixty-atom all-carbon molecule called buckminsterfullerene, one of a class of roughly-spherical carbon allotropes called fullerenes. Mathematicians call this particular fullerene’s shape a “truncated icosahedron,” and, in sports, this same shape is known as the (non-American) “football” or “soccer ball.” Physical modes of this shape may be made with molecular model sets of various kinds, Zometools, and other materials. In both versions of my science classes this year, building models of this molecule will be one of many lab activities we will do; one of my goals this year is for my students to spend a third of their time doing labs. The legal requirement for science class time spent in lab, in my state, is at least one-fifth, so more than that is fine. Science classes helped me learn both science and mathematics, but what I remember the most is the labs. I don’t think that’s just me, either; students learn more effectively, I have observed, by conducting scientific experiments themselves, than by being “lectured at” for extended periods of time.

I’m looking forward to a good year — for all of us.

What Is Attempted Orthoism?

attempted orthoism

When the topic of labels for belief systems, life philosophies, and the like comes up, I find that I tend to become uncomfortable with labels which are also used by, well, anyone else. For this reason, I’ve named my own system “attempted orthoism,” which I will now try to explain.

First, I’ll deal with that elephant in the room: the Creator of the Universe, by any name. Does such an entity exist? Well, I simply don’t know, but I also realize that this could change. If there is a deity, and that entity chooses to make evidence of his/her/its existence known to me, I’ll pay attention to the evidence, and see where it leads me. This is, to me, given my present state, the only position that makes sense.

“Ortho-,” as a prefix, can mean “right” (as in a right angle), or “correct,” either one. The suffix “-ism” is used in words such as Catholicism, capitalism, materialism, socialism, Communism, Hinduism, etc. — the “-isms” are simply systems of belief and/or thought. The meaning of “attempted” is obvious, so if you put it all together, here’s what it means: I simply attempt to be correct. Less formally, I try do the right thing, in the various situations I encounter in life.

These are some of the features of attempted orthoism:

  • The desire to hold positions on various issues which are correct.
  • The desire to do the ethical thing in all situations.
  • Honesty. Lies are not helpful in any effort to be correct.
  • The willingness to admit it when I do not know something, once I realize that I do not know it.
  • The refusal to reject the possibility that supernatural entities exist, in the absence of empirical evidence for their non-existence.
  • The inability to embrace a belief in any supernatural entity, as long as no compelling, empirical evidence is found that such a being does exist.
  • Respect of the rights of others peacably disagree, on these or other issues.
  • Maintaining high standards for evidence, and acceptance of principles. This means using and testing hypotheses, reasoning logically, and guarding myself from error with a mental shield: my skepticism. To prove something to me, a mathematical proof would be an excellent approach. If you simply want me to accept that something happens provisionally, until and unless new evidence arises to disprove it, then the scientific method is the way to go. I place a premium on logic, and reasonable arguments.
  • Refusal to accept emotional arguments, or arguments from authority, for the simple reason that such methods so often lead to serious error.
  • Re-testing previously-accepted principles, for we can all fool ourselves better than anyone else.
  • Reservation of the right to question anything and/or anyone.

This is not a complete list. Attempted orthoism is a work in progress.