31 July 2012

Dare Mighty Things

This Sunday, the 5th of August, at 2231 Pacific Daylight Time, the Curiosity rover is scheduled to land on the surface of Mars. The red planet, on average, is about 158 million miles away. That creates an interesting communication problem we don't experience here on terra firma. A radio signal--traveling at 186,000 miles per second--can circumnavigate the earth a little more than seven times in one second. The earth's circumference is about 25,000 miles, and geostationary satellites orbit at just short of that distance, or about 22,000 miles. Thus we earth-bound mortals do not notice any significant delay when we use phones or TVs. Rather, what I should say, is that any delay we do experience is not due to the speed of light. Even those large distances are nothing to an electromagnetic wave. But Mars is another story. Divide 158 million by 186,000 and you get 850 seconds, or about fourteen minutes. That's how long it will take a message from Curiosity to reach the army of scientists, engineers, technicians, and the rest of the people at NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. When the spacecraft descends from orbit into the Martian atmosphere, it will take about seven minutes for all the stages to be completed and the rover to be set upon the surface. That means it will be seven additional minutes before they will know if everything was OK at the start of the descent. Add another fourteen minutes before anyone will know if the landing worked and Curiosity is intact and able to complete its mission. And if they need to send a signal to make a correction or initiate a program, they won't know if it has been received for another 28 minutes.

What agony! After months of planning, preparation, construction, and testing, not to mention the almost two years of space flight required to get to our planetary neighbor, the radio delay has to be an exquisite kind of torture. The Mars Science Laboratory is an ambitious effort, being ten times larger than the other Mars rovers and requiring a more complex deployment procedure. Unmanned, robotic space exploration is far better for science than putting people up there. When you use humans you have to spend so much time and energy keeping them alive that very little actual work gets done. These missions, nonetheless, are daring, sophisticated enterprises that ought to inspire awe and excitement amongst the citizenry. Here's something Americans are doing together, with public entities and private enterprise collaborating and cooperating. It isn't about party politics, and all the various ways we can divide ourselves into tribes and holler at each other about words and symbols are mercifully absent. Instead, our fellow humans are reaching for the stars, daring to do mighty things that will benefit all of us regardless of nation or creed.

I think it's fantastic, and I hope they succeed brilliantly. Some day Americans will return to space to explore beyond earth orbit, adding the drama of actual astronauts out there risking their necks in pursuit of our collective dreams. Right now, though, the pathfinders are charting the course for us, showing us the hazards, and revealing the engineering solutions we need to make the possibilities real. The men and women at JPL may not leave their seats, or go too far from their computer screens, but they are sowing the seeds for a 21st century Magellan to reap. Here's to a homegrown Cook emerging in the next decade or two! I can't wait much longer than that, I want to be young enough to jump for joy when he or she makes it, unlike those great captains, all the way safely home.

24 July 2012

edX and the Future of the Human Race

My alma mater is no longer dipping its toes in the uncertain waters of the 21st century--it has stripped off its clothes and taken the full plunge. The University of California's flagship campus at Berkeley has joined MIT and Harvard in the X University Consortium to deliver college courses for free to anyone who has access to the internet. The project is known as edX and was created as a not-for-profit online-learning collaborative between those two world-famous private schools from Cambridge, Massachusetts. UC Berkeley, of course, is a public school. The UC/CSU system was once the jewel of California, offering the finest and most affordable higher education of any state in the union. I was one of those ordinary citizens whose life was transformed by this remarkable, visionary creation. I earned my undergraduate degree at Cal and my teaching credential at Cal State Hayward (now CSU East Bay) in the years 1977-1984, which really marked the end of the golden era. Costs soared after that, and budgets were slashed, but more importantly the belief in the dream, the political will needed to grow and improve faded from the public consciousness. Anti-intellectualism is now in the fore, and the government commitment to public education for all citizens is under fire by a new breed of "every man for himself" yahoos who seek only their own hegemony and lack any sense of social responsibility. The Golden State has lost its luster, and has only itself to blame--its citizens gobbled up the pablum served by this new breed of corporate fat cats and their army of dupes.

Throughout history education has been a luxury reserved for the upper classes. The idea of universal education is a recent one, only emerging in the last century. At the time of the Second World War, about half of school-age kids in the US finished high school. My dad, for example, quit school at 16 to work, then joined the Marines a year later in 1948. In my own generation (I was born in 1959), dropping out was almost unthinkable, and damn rare as well. I've worked in the state's secondary schools for 28 years, and I've seen plenty of failure, but illiteracy is so unusual as to be remarkable, and the vast majority of kids complete at least some kind of high school program even if they don't earn a traditional diploma. The schools are actually victims of their own success--high school is taken for granted. This extraordinary accomplishment of the modern world, the mass education of tens of millions on a global scale, is not seen for the near-miracle that it is. Consequently, we have neglected to view it with the necessary awe and respect and have failed to infuse it with a proper spirit of growth and renewal. Schools are political battlegrounds instead, and every election cycle sees a new batch of politicos and talking heads determined to undermine what's been built for no reason other than to serve their selfish ambitions.

The internet has been likened to the printing press for its transformative effect on society. Luther owed a lot to Gutenberg, actually, can you imagine the Reformation without that new communication technology? If we are to bring the benefits of education to the masses, the brick-and-mortar school will have to evolve. The internet, most people forget, was a government creation. Its existence is a continuing collaboration between public and private entities, proof that we can work together and build something that benefits all of society. I love the delicious irony of survivalist and anarchist websites--what could be more communal and collective than the World Wide Web?

I'm proud of my beloved mother. They've seen the future, and it's not all about dorm rooms and football. When amazing things like The Khan Academy are out there free for anyone with a modem, the message is loud and clear: change or die. The dream of a university education available to everyone may never be fully realized, but that does not mean that the goal is not a good one. Too many people in the world lack clean water and adequate food, and live in constant fear and want, and what's worse, see little hope of change. I like to think it's those people--the oppressed and dispossessed--who will ultimately benefit from things like edX. Maybe I'm a dreamer, but I believe a new generation of the traditionally under-served and under-represented who get the chance to succeed will not forget their roots and will use their knowledge and opportunities to help those who are less fortunate. That was once the ethic of this country, and I think it can be again. The creation of a free on-line university education is a baby step, nothing more. It will take more than that to see the dream come true. But all journeys have to start somewhere. UC Berkeley's motto is Fiat lux, taken straight from Genesis, chapter one, verse three: Let there be light.


22 July 2012

O'Connor's Three Laws of Science

I often tell my students about O'Connor's Three Laws of Science. I was inspired by Newton, of course, as his Three Laws of Motion are the jump-off point for many explorations of mechanical phenomena. My laws are more abstract, and are about the nature of science itself, not about a specific area of study. Number One: all measurements are uncertain. I like to say the corollary to Number One is find the degree of uncertainty you are willing to live with. If you are rough-framing a house with 2x4s, being off now and then by a quarter of an inch is no big deal. If you are building cabinets, however, being off a quarter of an inch is a catastrophe. Measure as precisely as you need to. And please don't tell me the answer with the eight decimal places your calculator gave you! People on a diet care about pounds, not ounces. Number Two: science is a description of nature, not an explanation. As Alfred Korzybski opined, "the map is not the territory." Science does not concern itself with Truth, and at least, in my view, it should not. Leave that to philosophers and holy men. They can talk all they want about the subjective and the mystical, none of those things can withstand the rigors of experimentation. Science requires repeatability--if you can't get my results then one of us is wrong. I don't mean to say that subjective experiences aren't real, they just aren't amenable to analysis. Scientific "truths" are contextual, that is, they are only as good as the paradigm they fit within. (I use that word in the sense that Thomas Kuhn did in his The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.) All experiments operate within a theory of how nature works. Scientists don't investigate randomly--they look for things they believe they "should" find, that is, what the theory (or dominant paradigm) predicts. Or they look at anomalies, things that don't fit the theory, and try to enlarge their understanding so that these outliers will fit within the current models. Only when the paradigm fails to produce satisfying (i.e., consistent) results does a "revolution" occur. Think Copernicus, or Einstein. Nature doesn't change, only our way of seeing it. Number Three: correlation does not imply causality. The Romans would have said "post hoc, ergo propter hoc." That's a logical fallacy, and the Greeks (Rome's teachers) would have drilled that notion into their rhetoric students. Just because A happens after B does not mean that A causes B to happen. The sun rises after my alarm goes off. If I turn off my clock, will that plunge the world into darkness? We see this sort of thinking every day, especially in politics. So-and-so got elected and then the economy (or whatever) did this-or-that, obviously so-and-so deserves the credit or blame. I remember when everyone got excited that sunspot cycles appeared to correlate with drought in California. That's it! Explanation! Mystery solved! Until the drought persisted, of course, and we were left once again with the complexity of the global climate system.

So that's it. Science in a nutshell. And I like to end my talk with my favorite line from Shakespeare:

               There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
               Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
               (Hamlet, Act I, scene V).

To me, this means never underestimate nature. The vastness of the universe should awe us and keep us humble. Science is a product of the human mind, and is thus subject to all the vagaries and frailties of humankind. It is also the most powerful and most fruitful of all human endeavors. Without science, I would like to note, religions would have nothing to talk about. The pope, for example, spends a lot of time on birth control. The pill wasn't invented by priests, man. I'm not religious, as you might imagine, but I also don't really see the supposed conflict between science and religion. After all, religion is about things that cannot be measured or experimented upon. Religions don't have "testable" questions. If people want to believe that tablets with God's Laws on them were handed out to Moses or discovered by Joseph Smith, that's all fine and dandy. Science can't respond to such notions because they cannot be falsified. Many scientists possess religious faith (like Newton, for example), and that seems to make the point moot, don't you think? A belief in the afterlife won't prevent anyone from determining the chemical composition of nebula, and reading the gospels won't stop a polymerase chain reaction.

Sorry for the long-winded rant, I got inspired this morning when I dropped in the on the website BETTER EXPLAINED and read their delightful thumbnail sketch of Bayes' Theorem. Good stuff, check it out!

02 July 2012


I love that movie. And Jason Statham is my favorite "action hero" as he combines all the fabulous kung-fu stuff with an epic dry wit (being English helps) and easily the most likeable mug of the lot. If Jet Li and Bruce Willis had a child, he'd be Jason Statham. But this isn't about Mr. Statham, or even the aforementioned film. No, this is about "Transporter." That's the official name of the famous Volkswagen van. The old hippie buses from back in the day were Type 1 and 2 (T1 and T2 in VW jargon) as those were the years from 1950-1979, with the changeover happening in 1967. The T1 was mostly a Beetle with box around it. The T2 was a little larger with a new chassis and new motor options. The T3 was called the Vanagon in the US and production ran from 1979-1992. It was redesigned but still featured the air-cooled, rear-mounted engine unique to VW. Gradually that motor was phased out and replaced by a more conventional water-cooled one. The T4, or Eurovan, appeared in 1990 and was completely redesigned with a front-mounted, front-wheel drive configuration. It eventually came standard with a six-cylinder water-cooled engine that could put out 139 HP! That may not seem like a lot, but it is positively nuclear compared to, say, a '69 four-banger that putted along at less than half that. The Eurovan was phased out in 2003.The newest VW van, the T5, is not sold in the US. Apparently there is a T6 in the works as well.

We recently purchased a 1999 Transporter, specifically a Eurovan camper (Winnebago). It has yet to be adventure-tested, but we are pretty excited about it. We don't know quite what to call it, and every vehicle gets a name and nickname around here. Maybe re-watching The Transporter will inspire me.