Friday, July 27, 2012

Watch That First Step...

If plummeting were an Olympic sport, Felix  Baumgartner would be a leading contender for a gold medal. On July 25th, he made the second test jump for the Red Bull Stratos project. He rode a balloon up to 96,640 feet, and jumped. Several minutes later, he popped his chute and floated down to a safe landing. Next up: the free-fall record.

I couldn't find an embeddable video, but here is the clip they posted on their own site. This is what they're aiming for, though:

But, I have to give an honorable mention to a man whose story I read about earlier this week. Cliff Judkins was a U.S. Marine Corps pilot, ferrying an F-8 Crusader fighter across the Pacific. What should have been a routine tanker rendezvous went horribly wrong. In short order, he experienced just about every kind of mishap you can have in an airplane. First, his engine failed. Then, it caught fire. If that weren't bad enough, his primary ejection handle failed, as did the backup. The manual canopy jettison worked, though. But his parachute didn't. Amazingly enough, he lived to tell the tale. Yes, you heard that right, he fell FIFTEEN THOUSAND FEET with NO PARACHUTE, and ... well, you don't exactly walk away from that, but after six months he was flying again.

Go here to read it. It's an amazing story.

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Real Space Age

Forty-three years ago today, we saw one of those moments that are true watersheds in history. Before July 20, 1969, humanity had only known one world; afterwards, it would forever know two. That said, for all its accomplishments, Project Apollo was always going to be a dead end. It was never going to lead to a long-term human presence on the Moon. There were a number of good reasons to go. One was the fact that no one had ever been, another was the fact that we didn't want the Soviets to get there first. But there just weren't very many good reasons in the early 1970s to stay.

One day, perhaps one day soon, that will change. The problem was always that there wasn't a clear way for anyone to make a profit out of it. Or if there was, the operating costs were so absurdly high that it just wasn't feasible. That's changing, slowly but inexorably. I've been saying for a while now that the center of gravity of the American space effort was shifting towards private industry. The successful mission in late May was an important signpost on that path. There will be more to come.

A while back, I made the statement that the real Space Age had just begun. Now, I'd like to take a few minutes to expand on why I think that's the case. SpaceX and companies like it are going to bend the cost curve to the point that proposals that were once ludicrously ambitious will become feasible. By way of example, let's look at two different proposals, one from about twenty years ago, and another more recent.

It's been speculated for a long time that ice could be hiding out in craters near the Moon's poles that never see sunlight. Vacuum is a very good insulator, and polar craters that are never sunlit can be very cold indeed. Water vapor that finds its way there somehow or other will freeze out, and never escape. The speculation was fanned to high heat by results from the Clementine probe in 1994, when a radar experiment returned reflections from polar craters that were consistent with ice sheets. Within the space enthusiast community, this solved one of the big problems attending lunar habitation: water. Hauling enough water up from Earth to sustain a settlement is hideously expensive. If there's a significant amount of water already up there, it simplifies things tremendously. But the problem remained, how do you finance the voyage to begin with?

Someone hit on the idea of financing it as an entertainment venture, at least initially. Sell the film rights. There'd be plenty of gripping, exciting footage from the mission. Then, once you're there, you can start up a mining operation. This was the beginnings of the Artemis Project, and of the Lunar Resources Company. I was never directly involved, as I was up to my earlobes in grad school at the time, but I kibbitzed on the discussion boards they had on GEnie. One suggestion was fairly well-received: I said that they should time the first mission to coincide with a lunar eclipse. I still think that's worth doing. It's a perspective no one's ever seen before. And, I think it'd be awesome to be able to see every sunset and every sunrise on Earth, all in once glance. They got an impressive amount of planning and preliminary design work done. That's about as far as they got.

What killed them, in the end, was transportation costs. With high-lift launches costing upwards of a quarter-billion dollars, there was no way on (or off) Earth that they were going to be able to drum up that kind of money. This is the same wall that every effort has run up against to date. Every time you have a plan that requires the fabrication of a lot of equipment down here that needs to be put up there, you run up against the fact that the cost of moving it from here to there puts the cost out of reach.

And that's the thing that's changing. New entrants into the launch market are going to bend the cost curve down to the point where ambitious projects become practical.

Earlier this year, a company calling itself Planetary Resources unveiled their plan to mine nearby asteroids for both metals and for water. They're not going to jump right into it, of course. First, they have to be able to spot likely candidates for exploration. Then, they have to get a close-up look. Finally, they have to develop an automated mining and processing unit. Accordingly, their first product is a small space-based telescope. It can be used to look both ways, down towards Earth and up towards space. That's their first revenue stream: people will pay to look at stuff. Universities will pay for telescope time for a variety of reasons. Not just astronomy departments, you can do a surprising amount of archaeology work from a high vantage point. But what Planetary Resources actually intends to use the Arkyd-100 for is to find and prospect likely mining targets. Then, the next step is to fit a small engine to such a telescope, and maneuver it towards such a target for a more detailed look. The last step is obvious: land, and begin digging up goodies. Metal for sale Earthside, and water for fuel.

The reason that they haven't been laughed out of the room yet is that the Arkyd-100 is small enough that it's going to be damn cheap to put one into orbit. They're piggybacking on Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic project for their initial launches, from what I hear, and even if they weren't the Arkyd-100 doesn't weigh a whole lot. Maybe 100 kilograms. They can ride along on just about any satellite launch, for a relatively tiny fee. Eventually, they'll have to be the primary customer, because the mining plant isn't going to be especially small. But by then they'll have a nice bankroll to work with. And they'll have a choice of powerful and relatively inexpensive rockets to choose from.

If successful, they'll attract investors to the market looking for other angles to exploit. That's where things will get really interesting. Because many of our problems are problems of scarcity: not enough materials, not enough energy. There's plenty of both out there, once we learn how to get at it.

Forty years ago, we crawled out of our cradle. Now, we're learning to walk. Soon, we'll learn to run. I wonder what kind of adults we'll be, when we've grown up?

Friday, July 13, 2012

The Last One

The Universe is a very weird place. But one of the weirdest things is also one of the most subtle.

Mathematics is a thing of pure logic, something that people built up over the centuries by deducing its principles starting from a handful of axioms. It is pure abstraction. Ostensibly, it has no actual connection to the real world. Teachers of geometry in ancient Greece were actively offended if their students suggested that their studies might have practical benefit.

How very odd, then, that mathematics should be so very useful for describing the world we live in.

Isomorphism is the word for it: if two systems are sufficiently similar to one another, then insights gained in one can be applied to the other. Gradually, natural philosophers came to understand that for reasons that no one adequately understood, mathematics and physics were isomorphic. The first fruit of this insight was Isaac Newton's masterwork, Philosophiae Naturalis Prinicipia Mathematica, which laid the groundwork for both differential calculus and the science of physics as we know it today. Ever since then, advances in physics have always been preceded by advances in mathematics. Before physicists could find the words to describe new phenomena, they had to learn nature's syntax in its own native tongue.

No one knows why the Universe works this way. It just does, and we go along for the ride.

The latest stop on this road began with Einstein's discovery of Special Relativity in 1905 and his discovery of General Relativity in 1916. It continued with the development of Quantum Mechanics by Max Planck and others, in parallel with Einstein's work on Relativity. The mathematics got more and more complex, but the predictions kept bearing fruit. Scientists began to plumb the secrets first of the atoms, then of their nuclei, and at last of the protons and neutrons themselves. They began to see clues that these weren't fundamental particles after all, but were themselves made up of smaller parts.

Then, in the 1960s, Sheldon Glashow discovered an internally-consistent way to describe a unification between the electromagnetic force and the weak nuclear force. The only problem was that this method predicted that all of the particles would have zero mass. This was obviously not true, so the problem was then to figure out how to get around that issue. Later on in the decade, Steven Weinberg and Abdus Salam found a way to apply the Higgs mechanism to Glashow's theory, which then allowed the particles to gain mass. This paved the way for what we now call the Standard Model: a list of all of the Universe's fundamental parts. The Standard Model, as of 1967, was able to describe all of the sub-atomic particles then known. But it predicted a whole bunch of particles that hadn't been seen yet. Theoretical physicists then settled in for a long wait, while experimental physicists worked feverishly at ever-larger atom smashers to discover them.

Most of the quarks were found fairly early. The heavier ones took longer. The bottom quark was discovered in 1977, but the top quark wasn't discovered until 1995. By then, only a handful of holdouts remained. In 2000, the tau neutrino was discovered at Fermilab. That left one last piece to find.

Leon Lederman wrote a book about it in 1993, with the famous title The God Particle. His original manuscript had another four letters in the title, but of course they'd never publish it that way. He never meant to imply that the search for the Higgs boson was akin to finding God. He meant that it would be excruciatingly hard to find. And he was right. It would take an absurdly powerful scientific machine, straddling several national borders, to reach the staggering energies required to summon it out of its hiding place. A machine so mind-meltingly powerful that some people were afraid that if it ever ran at full power, it would mean the end of the world.

Nonsense on stilts, of course. The Large Hadron Collider is an incredibly powerful instrument, but it won't bring about the end of everything. Except, that is, for the end of the hiding place of that most elusive of particles. On July 4th, the announcement confirmed the rumors that had been flying around for a while. Not quite four years after it had been first turned on, instruments in the LHC had detected the prey for which it had been built.

Mind you, they're not quite calling it a capital-D discovery just yet. They need to do some confirmation tests, and comb over the results to be absolutely, totally sure. But they did call it a five-sigma result. To me, that says that unless someone on their team has discovered a brand-new way to screw up experiments, they've got the sucker dead to rights.

So, does this mean the end of physics? Not hardly. There's still a rather impressive list of unsolved problems in physics. They've found the Higgs boson, they still don't necessarily know why it works. And there's also dark matter and dark energy, about which we know next to nothing. What this probably does mean, though, is an end to new particle discoveries for a while. Quite probably a very long while. Unless the Standard Model is incomplete, and quarks themselves have constituent parts, that was the last one.

Friday, July 06, 2012

Election 2012: RNC Minus 52 Days And Counting

The summer doldrums are upon us. Genuine news items are few and far between, so the silly stuff gets amped up to eleven, and passed off as real news. This is a direct consequence of modern cable news. They have twenty-four hours a day to fill, regardless of whether or not anything truly interesting is happening. If no real news is available, they have to invent it.

The biggest news of the last week was less interesting than it might have been. The most interesting story was always, "What will Obama do if his signature domestic policy initiative is overturned by the Supreme Court?" But we'll never know, since the Supreme Court upheld the ACA. There's an untold story there that's probably pretty fascinating. Justice Scalia's dissent actually reads as if it were written for the majority, which means that Chief Justice Roberts jumped sides at some point, probably fairly late in the game. We may never know exactly how or even why Scalia peed in Roberts' Wheaties ... but the result is purely status quo ante. It might become an issue for the fall campaign. It might prove to be an energizing factor for the Tea Party fanatics. But in the end, it will probably mean far less than the unemployment rate, gasoline prices, and overall consumer and business confidence. Those will be the telling figures of merit this fall.

And now, with fifty-two days until the Republican convention kicks off in Tampa, we'll take another look at the numbers. As always, our figures are from Intrade, from Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight, and from Pollster.

From Intrade:

Barack Obama (D) 55.9%, 287 EV (+2.4%, N/A)
Mitt Romney (R) 41.0%, 259 EV (-2.1%, N/A)

Barack Obama (D) 68.3%, 299.6 EV (+5.5%, +7.8 EV)
Mitt Romney (R) 31.7%, 238.4 EV (-5.5%, -7.8 EV)

From Pollster:

Strong D: 221 (-4)
Lean D: 19 (-26)
Tossup: 107 (+30)
Lean R: 10 (-11)
Strong R: 181 (+11)

General Impressions: There's a new market on Intrade for predicting the Electoral Vote count. It was not available last time, so we don't have any deltas yet. Speaking of Intrade, there's a potentially interesting story regarding the ACA decision. I was checking the market early Thursday morning before the decision was announced, and saw that prices for the "Overturn" contract had fallen from 80% to 67% in fairly heavy overnight trading. Maybe someone in the know unloaded their positions? Suffice to say I was rather less than astonished when the decision came down. I'm thinking someone blabbed, but there's no way to prove it.

FiveThirtyEight is showing a fairly substantial improvement for President Obama's re-election bid, though the reason why is not so easy to determine. He may be getting a small bounce from the Court's affirmation of his key domestic policy initiative. It's a sure thing he'd have taken a huge hit if it had been overturned. But I'm not sure how durable such a bump is. Economic conditions are far more important ... and they're not all that bad. They're not all that good, either. Things will be far clearer come September.

Pollster tells an interesting tale. The race is tightening, somewhat. Pollster tells us that Obama's support has softened slightly since we last looked, but Romney's support hasn't improved. It's firmed up, but he's not expanded into the middle. And that's a problem for Team Romney going forward. If he's still running for the support of his base going into the convention, he's got some really hard sledding ahead of him.

What Obama Must Do: I could almost cut-and-paste my last entry. He has to remind the public that while things aren't as good as they could be, they're nowhere near as bad as they might be. But he can't lean too hard on what the previous Administration did or did not do. The Court decision gives him an opening to run on the ACA's more popular provisions -- no more pre-existing conditions, less people uninsured, and the ability to keep dependents on a parent's policy until age 26. And the Court's decision in regard to the Arizona immigration law gives him an opening to highlight the Tea Party's aversion to people of the wrong color. Tea Party supporters hate it when people say this, but I've said before that the Tea Party was originally going to call themselves the "White Guys Hopping Mad That A Black Guy Got Elected President" Party, but that wouldn't fit on their business cards. I think it's a fair criticism. Where was the Tea Party when President Bush enacted Medicare Part D? Where was the Tea Party when President Bush signed the Patriot Act? Where were they on issues where serious libertarians had serious problems with President Bush? Nowhere, that's where. But the day after Obama's election... Yeah. I find it really hard to take their libertarian posturings seriously. They give us a bad name.

What Romney Must Do: Hang the current economic woes around Obama's neck like an albatross. He can use the Right's anger at the ACA to keep the troops excited, but I'm convinced that the economy is the real swing issue this cycle. But he's got to be careful, very careful, using the ACA as a wedge issue. It's the sweatiest of sweaty dynamite in his hands. It was his baby, after all. Deny it as he might, its paternity is a matter of public record. Rarely was a more apt slogan coined when Pawlenty called it "Obamneycare." Every time he mentions it, he raises the dread possibility that people will remember whose idea it was in the first place.

And The Winner Is... Nothing important has changed, so I'd still take 3-2 odds on re-election. If you use Nate Silver's numbers, the odds are closer to 2-1, but I'm not sure I'd go that far yet. We need to see how the conventions go, first, and what the economy's doing.

Remember, vote early, and vote often!