Thursday, December 31, 2009

2009 in Review, Part Two

[Part One of 2009 in Review can be found here, and Part 1.5 can be found here.]

It's been a very interesting year in science and technology. Of course, just about any year is these days. So much is happening, and in so many fields, that it's literally impossible for one person to keep up with it all. My list will be slanted by my own prejudices and interests. If you feel that I have omitted anything important, please feel free to add to the list in the comments below. Also, this list is in no particular order of importance. I'm not sure I'm qualified to assign that kind of importance, anyway.

The Limits of Peer Review: Peer review is an important part of the modern scientific method. When done right, it enforces logical rigor and correct methodology. It can expose important errors before they reach print. And it can keep a scientist from the embarrassment of stating something in public that turns out to be complete nonsense. But, like any other human institution, it's not perfect. Once a view, any view, has achieved "consensus" status, it's very expensive to a scientist's reputation to hold a contrary opinion. Peer review can then become institutionalized group-think. This is when the role of the contrarian can become most important. The health of science itself depends upon the professional heretic. We need to periodically review the things we believe to be true. We need to re-examine assumptions that may have heretofore been unquestioned. This needs to be done not once but continually, so that new evidence can be inspected and interpreted. My main point here is that a consensus isn't a destination, it's a temporary way-point. The fact that you have one doesn't mean that you can stop asking questions.

Polywell Marches On: There's not a whole lot being said in public, but the Polywell experiments in inertial electrostatic confinement continue apace. We will probably know in about a year if the effort is bearing fruit. We probably won't see any public announcements ... the thing to watch will be continuing contract awards. If the Navy keeps throwing money at it, they're probably making progress. I will be watching with keen interest. Fusion power plants are a transformational game-changer where energy policy is concerned. Hydrogen, being the most abundant element in the known Universe, is something we're quite unlikely to run out of anytime soon.

Fuel Cell Airplanes: Which is all well and good, since it is possible at least in principle to convert all of our ground-based transportation to electrically-powered vehicles. There's a big segment of our economy that does not address, though. What do you do about aviation? Can you come up with an electrical system that's small enough yet powerful enough to drive an airplane? The answer would appear to be yes, you can. This should not be a terribly astonishing development. After all, back in the late 1960s and early 1970s the Gemini and Apollo series of manned spacecraft derived all of their electrical power from fuel cells. It was just a matter of boosting the power-to-weight ratios enough to make them practical airplane powerplants. This provides an avenue for replacing all prop-driven engines with fuel-cell equivalents, eventually.

Water on the Moon: This has been speculated for the last fifteen years, at least, and so was not exactly news to me. But this year we actually got the first direct measurement of actual water, frozen into actual lunar craters, in the polar regions that never get any direct sunlight. This is more interesting than practical, generally speaking. Long-term, it's not a terrifically useful resource. Water frozen into sunless lunar craters over eons is basically a non-renewable resource. Some uses would be reasonable, like feed-stock for a closed-loop life support system. Feed-stock for rocket propellant, on the other hand, is just plain dumb. You don't base your logistics on a resource that you know that you're going to run out of. We've done that by accident with oil, we sure don't need to do it on purpose.

More Extrasolar Planets: They're finding more all the time, and the techniques are improving such that they're finding smaller planets. When they found the first extrasolar planets back in the early '90s, the only things they could find were gas-giant behemoths that would make Jupiter look puny; now, we're finding planets closer to Earth-size. There are enough of them to form a category: Super-Earths. Thirty have been found in all, four in 2009 alone. It is only a matter of time before we find a twin world to our own Earth, out there in the cosmos. Mind you, finding is one thing, going there another matter entirely. Don't expect to book a ticket, round-trip or one-way, anytime in the next couple of centuries.

The Coming Biotech Revolution: The panic news this last spring and summer was all about Swine Flu. This flu season, not so much; between the rapid development of a vaccine and the availability of Tamiflu, the pandemic has been rather less damaging than had been feared. There's a lot we still don't understand about molecular biology, but we're beginning to close some of the gaps. Between them, nanotech and biotech will be the transformative technologies of the next fifty years. One of the first fruits of biotech has been Tamiflu, which has made this year's flu outbreak much less scary than it might have been otherwise. And that's only the tip of the iceberg. It could well render our current concept of medicine obsolete. A hundred years ago, a doctor might have said, "Take two of these and call me in the morning" because he didn't know what else to do. A hundred years from now a doctor might say the same thing, but in that case, "two of these" will be a swarm of medical micro-robots that will go in and fix what ails you. Some of you reading this will be alive to see these things happen. Truly, some amazing days are ahead of us.

At the end of the day, if I have faith in anything at all, I have faith in the power of human ingenuity. Invenium viam aut facium is the motto carved on Robert Peary's headstone, "I shall find a way or make one," and it's a fit motto for the human race as a whole. I look ahead to 2010 and beyond with guarded optimism. Problems we have, and in plenty; but we also enjoy the benefit that ninety percent of all the scientists who have ever lived are alive and working today. We may not lack for problems, but neither do we lack for brainpower to find solutions. When I think about them, patiently and diligently piecing together the undiscovered secrets of science, I'm reminded that our best days aren't behind us. They are yet to come.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas

[Ed. Note: I haven't given up on 2009 in Review, but am taking a short holiday break. Part One is here, Part 1.5 is here, and Part Two will be forthcoming shortly. Today, I'm sharing a repost about Christmas eight years ago. Enjoy!]

The story that follows is true. Names have been changed to protect the innocent.

The year 2001 started out well enough, but with September began a bit of a slump, for reasons that should be obvious. Christmas left me with little to celebrate that year, newly unemployed and wondering what I'd be doing next. So, when we all decided to go to the midnight Christmas Eve service, that gave me something to look forward to. I had never been to a midnight service before. It promised to be something new, something wonderful, and something inspirational.

It lived up to the new part. I'm still not sure about the rest.

We had been attending the little Presbyterian church for about three months, maybe four. We had all enjoyed the experience so far. The interim minister had just preached his last service, and we were sorry to see him go. The new minister hadn't started yet. As I understand it, there's a list of pastors without regular commitments who will preach on an as-needed basis, and we had rounded up one of these. He came with good recommendations, and had done well with the earlier service. So, we settled in for a comforting, enlightening message about the Advent of our Savior.

Right away, it became apparent that something was simply not right.

You have to understand something about Presbyterians. They live and die by the Book of Order. There is a very specific sequence in which things are to happen within a service. You can almost set your watch by the order of worship. In, say, a Baptist service, the minister might well deviate from the plan if he thinks of something better; in a Presbyterian service you bloody well stick with it to the bitter end. It is simply the way it is done.

So, when the minister began skipping around within the order of worship, we suspected something might be up.

He called for the offering mighty early. He skipped around with the hymns, which flustered the choir director mightily. He even skipped a few hymns, I think. Parts of that evening are still a blur. But the staff rolled with the punches fairly well, and the thing hung together, up to the time he began his message. We settled back into our pews, expecting a sweet message on the miracle of Christmas, the birth of the Christ child.

Oh, no. It wasn't going down that way, not at all. Those poor, unsuspecting Presbyterians looked on in mute horror as the Right Reverend Punchy MacAngry regaled them with a fiery sermon on the Gospel of the Two-Fisted Fightin' Jesus.

"I hear all this talk about love, but no one ever wants to talk about SIN," he thundered from the pulpit. I thought this to be a decidedly odd way to begin a Christmas sermon. It went downhill from there. He went on to rant about his sister, who had apparently told him once that being a military chaplain wasn't a man's job. His response: "It takes more of a man to preach the Word of God than to be out WHORING AROUND!" I had never actually heard anyone curse from the pulpit before. Oh sure, I have heard ministers talk about Hell and damnation. But outright cursing is something I hadn't heard in that venue before that night. And the fist-shaking rage, the purple-faced profanity-laced tirades, which would not be at all out of place for a Marine Corps drill instructor, but not quite what you expect from a mild-mannered Presbyterian minister.

Me, I was bewildered and somewhat confused by all this. But I had been raised by a retired Senior Master Sergeant, cussed at by an experienced professional, and didn't take any of it personally. The other poor people in that room, who had not been so inoculated, stood transfixed like deer in headlamps. The white-hot profanity seared their ears like branding irons. When the tirade finally wound down to a conclusion, you could hear a pin drop.

The choir director somehow had the presence of mind to direct the conclusion of the service, Christmas hymns sung by candlelight.

It was more or less at this point that my sister-in-law's hair caught fire.

Part of our goal in going to the late service was to tire out the children so that they would sleep in the next morning. (A dismal failure, by the way. They woke up as early as they always do.) Problem was, they were so tired, they couldn't hold the candles without setting fire to themselves. She leaned down to help one of her kids hold it steady, and one of the locks of her hair dipped into the candle's flame. The fire wasn't big, thank God, but she had to beat it out or it would have spread.

After the last hymn, the crowd filed out in silence. Not the respectful silence following a solemn service like, say, Good Friday, but the stunned silence of the witnesses of a massacre. Not a word was spoken, until we were in the car, on the way home. Then, I think I turned to my wife and asked, "Did I imagine that, or did he really go there?"

And so it has come to pass that re-telling this story is now part of my family's Christmas tradition. A very surreal ending to what had been a pretty dismal autumn. Sometimes the things that happen make no sense, no sense at all, but you just have to get through them anyway.

Life does, after all, go on.

More Christmas cheer can be found in a piece by David Sedaris. Part One can be found here, Part Two here, and Part Three here. Or, if you would prefer not to patronize YouTube, the transcript is here.

Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

2009 in Review, Part 1.5

Part One is here.

There are a few late developments that fit into the "domestic and foreign affairs" bucket that I didn't get around to last time. There are three things in particular that I'd like to touch on before moving to Part Two.

The President's Style: The one thing you must understand about this man is that he's a ruthless pragmatist. Nothing that he does makes any sense at all unless you realize this. He's a liberal in his heart of hearts, sure enough, but he's also keenly interested in what can actually be done. He seems to recognize that the perfect is the enemy of the good. This is unusual in a liberal politician. It's unusual in modern politicians, period. We've become accustomed to "my way or the highway" stonewalling. I won't necessarily agree with everything that he does, but I do like the way he uses the process to let Congress define the zone of possible agreement.

The Coming Republican Crack-Up: I've been expecting one for a few years now. The Reagan coalition amongst social conservatives, fiscal conservatives, and national security conservatives is falling apart at the seams. The only remaining question is: who's going to be in control of the GOP apparatus when the dust settles? We probably won't know until after 2012, but one possibility intrigues me. What if the Tea Party crowd bolts the GOP entirely, and makes a run of it as a real third party? I hear grumbling along these lines. I don't know if it's going to get any traction, but it could. A weak Republican party becomes less attractive for conservative politicians, from organizational and fund-raising standpoints both. There comes a point when a third party might well make sense. Long odds, I agree, but it could make life very interesting for a few years.

Epic Fail, Military History Department: Speaking of the Tea Party, Michelle Bachman recently compared them to the Light Brigade, immortalized in the famous poem by Tennyson. I wonder if anyone ever told Rep. Bachman that Balaclava was a defeat, not a victory? Probably not: the Crimean War wasn't what you'd call important, and isn't studied much unless you're a history buff or an officer candidate. I fear that most of my knowledge thereof comes from George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman series rather than from actual history books. Still, Balaclava provides a good study in how not to draft orders. Depending on who you talk to, the fault lay with the overall commander Lord Raglan, or his adjutant Brigadier Airey, or the courier Captain Nolan, or the cavalry chief General Lucan, or with Lord Cardigan who actually led the charge. The truth is probably some combination of all of the above. We will probably never know. Of the five men involved, only Captain Nolan had knowledge of the process from end to end, but since he ate a cannonball during the charge, he was unavailable for comment afterwards. The end result of Raglan's vague, poorly-drafted order was that a brigade of cavalry charged into a valley fortified with cannon on three sides, to attack the battery at the far end; the result was pretty much what you'd expect. In any case, a Balaclava experience isn't anything I'd want to see happen to a group I had fond wishes for; one must therefore assume that Rep. Bachman didn't really understand what she was talking about. Mind you, the Charge was awesome, in the same sense that the attack of Torpedo Squadron Eight at Midway was, and the Spartans' last stand at Thermopylae; but I'd rather not re-enact any of them. But if the Tea Partiers really want to re-enact the British Cavalry at Balaclava, more power to 'em.

Friday, December 11, 2009

2009 in Review, Part One

Now that the first decade of the 21st Century is drawing to a close, it is a good time to look back and take stock of the year's important events. By "important" I mean what I think people will look back on in twenty years, not what the howling heads on cable news label newsworthy. The two are occasionally related ... But I assure you, in twenty years' time, L'Affaire Woods will only be of interest to trivia completists. So, on with the show: Part One will cover domestic and foreign affairs, and Part Two will cover science and technology.

Obama Administration, Year One: Graded R, for work-in-progress. No matter who takes office, the Presidency has a very steep learning curve. Obama has done fairly well so far. Not necessarily exceptional, but still more or less what I thought I was buying last November. While no plan ever survives contact with reality, he's rolled with the punches, and moved the chains. He understands that politics is often the art of the half-loaf, as opposed to "my way or the highway." It's an approach that moves both faster and slower than people realize. For example, while Obama has not gotten his health-care overhaul through Congress yet, he's gotten closer to that goal in his first year than any President since Truman ever did.

Financial Crisis: This is probably what 2009 will be remembered for most by historians of the future, as the worst year of what some have been calling the Great Recession. But bear in mind that, only a year or so ago, some were fearing an actual depression as opposed to a recession. It's too early to say that a corner has been turned, but even so there's reason for guarded optimism. While the stimulus didn't work as well as its planners had hoped, it did work somewhat. And while many were outraged at the Wall Street bailout, it was a necessity at the time. Taken together, those two measures returned a sense of stability to the financial markets. The next few years may well be tight, and credit will probably never again be as easy as it was five years ago. But at least the money is moving again. And, as inventory is drawn down, hiring will rise as demand for production increases. With luck, the worst is over.

Cleaning Up The Mess: Closing the prison at Guantanamo has proven rather more complex than it had been assumed at first, which didn't really surprise me. But we're moving in that direction, and moving forward on trials for detainees still in custody, which is a very good thing. The trials will expose for the public record what was done to the detainees while in our custody. The torture that was condoned under the Bush Administration is a stain upon America's honor. The stain can only be washed clean by the disinfecting power of sunlight. I wish that it were not necessary to say that, but the actions of Bush and Cheney forced it upon us. The sooner we face up to that and acknowledge what was done in our name, the better.

Winding Up, Winding Down: While we are winding down our commitment in Iraq, we are also winding up our presence in Afghanistan. In my opinion, this is overdue by at least two years. We don't want to be in Afghanistan forever. But at the same time, we also need to make sure it doesn't turn right back around and become a nation-sized terrorist training camp. That, at least, is still an achievable goal. Looking back, I think people will mark this as the year Afghanistan moved back to the front burner. It's still to early to tell if the shift was just in time, or too late.

Our New Best Friend: I think it's telling that Obama's first state dinner wasn't with one of our neighbors or with a long-time ally, but with the Prime Minister of India. Our growing partnership with the world's largest democracy is our most important relationship with a developing country. Though our cultured differ, we are alike in that we are both former British colonies; and through India's inherited British-derived institutions, we are more alike than different in many ways. India will graduate into major-power status sometime in the next hundred years. They will be a very important friend to have when they do. It's good to see that we're still building on the foundation laid by the Bush Administration's State Department. It's one of the few things they didn't screw up.

The Right Doubles Down On The Crazy: The Reagan Coalition continues to disintegrate. The Republicans managed to lose a seat in New York that they had since ... well, basically since there was a Republican Party, and the social conservatives hailed that as a victory. They have no economic program except for tax cuts, they have no foreign policy besides mindless belligerence, and have more or less run off the serious economic conservatives and the serious national-security conservatives. There are a few serious-minded Republicans out there, but they're keeping a low profile while the Tea Party fanatics run wild. It will be interesting to see what happens. Will the fanatics finally purge all opposition from their party? Or, will they decide they don't need no stinking Republican Party, and opt for going it alone? If that happens, look for a three-way race in 2012. Or 2016. Either way, that will probably mark the nadir of the right's descent into madness.