Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Puzzlement of Discovery

The defining exclamation of scientific discovery isn't "Eureka!"

Sometimes it works out that way. "Eureka" -- from Greek meaning, more or less, "I have found it" -- is supposedly what Archimedes exclaimed upon realizing, while sliding into his bath, that displaced water may be used to measure the volume of a solid object. He'd been having a dispute with a goldsmith, you see, and suspected he'd been cheated. He needed to find a way to prove it, and a solution presented itself to him.

"Eureka" moments are far more common in engineering than in science, actually. Inspiration for the solution for technical problems tends to strike at the weirdest moments. I've had them at the gym, in the shower, and while walking across the street to a convenience store.

But moments of true discovery? Those aren't marked with glad shouts. Those are more often marked with puzzled murmurs. Not so much "Eureka!" as "What the heck did we just see?"

We're seeing one of those unfold in real time. Dawn is settling down into its science/mapping orbit around Ceres. And Ceres is proving to be a very puzzling place.

The $100,000 Question here is: What are those shiny bits? No one really knows for sure. The closer we get, the better and clearer the pictures are, but so far that hasn't brought any real clarity. One article I read compared them to Las Vegas at night, as seen from space. No one takes that interpretation seriously, mainly because Ceres is a damned odd place for ET to build a casino.

There's no real proof yet, but most people have a sneaking suspicion that what we're looking at are ice sheets. And not just those two bright spots, they're starting to show up all over Ceres' surface. Which may mean ...

... that there's just a thin layer of dusty rock on top of a thick layer of ice.

If that's the case ... this is a find of unimaginable value. Gold in them thar hills? Feh. Don't bother me with such penny-ante stuff. Water is important.

If humanity is to have a future away from Earth, we'll have to find somewhere to get water. Beyond the obvious, water can be electrolyzed into hydrogen and oxygen. We need the oxygen to breathe, the water to drink, the hydrogen can provide power via fusion (once we figure out how to do that), and hydrogen and oxygen together can be used as rocket fuel ... or, the water itself can be used as the working fluid for a nuclear thermal rocket. But all this hinges on finding a place to get water that isn't prohibitively expensive.

Water is abundant here on Earth. But you have to lift that out of Earth's gravity well, boosting it ten kilometers per second to punch through the atmosphere, up to altitude, and then up to orbital speed. Then you have to boost it from low Earth orbit to wherever it is you need to use it.

Incidentally, this is why the movie Elysium never made any sense to me. Anyone with the technical savvy to build an orbital habitat would know better than to get their routine supplies from down here. The delta-V costs will simply eat you alive. But I digress...

Or maybe I don't? Because the problem is, if you can't get water from Earth, where do you get it?

Well, lots of places. Jupiter and Saturn have plenty of icy moons. Europa, Ganymede, Enceladus, and each of those have about as much water as Earth does, in the form of ice. The problem is, though, you have to lift that ice out of either Jupiter's or Saturn's gravity well, and that ain't exactly cheap. You're better off doing that than lifting it from Earth's surface, but not by a tremendous amount.

Ceres, now... In terms of delta-V, getting to and from Ceres isn't that hard. It takes a long time, but doesn't take much fuel. Remember that Dawn flew from Vesta to Ceres on about a fistful of rocket fuel. And fuel is the long pole in this particular tent. An enormous ice supply, located in the middle of the Asteroid Belt, is a Godsend for would-be colonists. It makes a ludicrous fantasy into ... well, still a very difficult enterprise, but at least one that's within shouting distance of feasible.

Or, it could all be smoke and mirrors. Something else entirely. Soon, we'll know for sure, one way or another.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Election 2016: Too Damn Early Edition

The clown car is now complete.

Of course, there's exactly zero chance that The Donald stays in the contest long enough to actually file disclosure papers with the FEC. He's got thirty days to do that, plus two more or less automatic 45-day extensions. With four months to play with, that takes us to October, by which time he'll have pulled the plug. In the meantime he gets exactly what he wants: the opportunity to strut and preen in the spotlight while people paid toadies pretend that he's meaningful and significant.

This does a disservice to the real candidates in the race. Candidates of substance, of experience, candidates who have real policy achievements they can point to. Whether or not those policy achievements were good things or not is open to debate. But people like Scott Walker, Rick Perry, and yes, even Mike Huckabee have earned a place at the table. Feckless nitwits like Trump haven't.

Be that as it may, though, it's that time again. Time for America's political parties, all across the spectrum, to club together and figure out who they're going to put forward for the office of President of the United States.

The stakes are high ... though not necessarily for the reasons you think. Yes, all the usual things are at stake: Supreme Court nominations, legislative action, the normal stuff. But there's also a historical dimension.

Whoever wins in November 2016 is going to get an absolute boatload of unearned credit.

Why, you ask?

Check out a time history of the Dow Jones Industrial Average, plotted on a logarithmic scale:

I'd like to draw your attention to the behavior since 1940. From 1940 to about 1965, there was a period of fairly steady expansion. Then from 1965 to about 1985, a period of leveling-off. From 1985 to 2000, another expansion. Since 2000, another leveling-off.

There are policy explanations, of course, and proponents of the policies in effect during expansions will surely tout them. But there are also longer-term cycles at work, and developments that political policy has little to do with ... and we're primed for another expansion. It will probably get underway sometime between January 20, 2017 and January 20, 2021. The party of the occupant of the White House will try to claim the lion's share of the credit, earned or otherwise.

So the question remains ... who will that someone be?

For now, the Democratic Party's contest looks simpler, so that's where I'll start. (Numbers from Pollster. To keep the lists to a manageable size, I'll omit anyone under the 2% threshold.)

Hillary Clinton, 59.5%. While party unity can be a good thing, there's such a thing as too much unity. There needs to be at least some fractious debate during a primary, or the candidate is weakened. But that's beside point anyway. My issue with Clinton is the same as my issue with Jeb Bush -- there's been a Clinton or a Bush in the Presidential conversation since 1980. 1980! Two families have dominated Federal electoral politics for nearly forty years. This. Is. Not. GOOD. If you don't want an oligarchy, you kind of need to stop voting for oligarchs.

Bernie Sanders, 12.2%. Clinton's token opposition from the Left. I say "token", because I don't believe Sanders can pull enough support from the "center" part of the Democratic center-left coalition to win.

Joe Biden, 11.2%. Biden may make a race of it yet, but it's even odds that he decides to hang 'em up. The man is understandably heart-broken just right now, and may not have the fire and the thunder left for a hard campaign.

The Republican Party's list is considerably more active, and more interesting to talk about.

Marco Rubio, 11.7% No, pay attention. This isn't a continuation of the above list. It's just that there are a heck of a lot of Republicans going for the brass ring, and really, at this stage the polling really doesn't tell us much. The people at the top of the field probably have the "legs" to make a real challenge of it, but it's going to be a hard slog.

Jeb Bush, 10.9%. See? This is what I was going on about with Clinton above. We just can't seem to quit 'em. Although to be fair, as a former Governor, he's earned a right to be in the conversation. But I don't have to like it.

Scott Walker, 10.6%. And there's not a whole lot of daylight separating the top spots. Walker and Bush are duking it out for the "Seasoned Republican Governor" spot, while Carson and Rubio are still in the mix.

Ben Carson, 10.2%. And even amongst these four, their supporters only account for about 43% of the response field. It's going to be a wild ride, just like last time, with a succession of also-rans peaking and flaming out all through the Summer, Fall, and Winter.

Mike Huckabee, 8.8%. That said, while we're going to see some shake-outs from the Top Ten, I kind of suspect the Top Five will all be around for the Big Show in January. They've all rounded up enough financial support to make it through Super Tuesday, at a minimum.

Rand Paul, 8.4%. Sadly, I suspect Senator Paul will likely be one of the casualties. I say "sadly" because while I don't always (maybe even often) agree with him, I respect him. I respect a legislator who has the fortitude for an old-school, hold-the-floor filibuster. But since he doesn't have a "pocket billionaire" funding his campaign, he probably won't be able to go the distance.

Ted Cruz, 6.2%. So, we're all agreed now that "natural born" is perfectly well satisfied by jus sanguinis? By having an American parent? Sweet.

Chris Christie, 4.3%. He's not the lowest-ranked former governor in the race ... but he soon will be.

Carly Fiorina, 4.2%. I'll admit, I haven't paid much attention to Fiorina's policy views. I was too busy paying attention to her spectacular ineptitude at Hewlett-Packard. She took over an industry giant that made the finest hand-held computing devices known to Man, and left a smoldering pile of wreckage. Yeah, that's the kind of executive experience we really need in the Oval Office...

Rick Perry, 2.7%. Do not discount this man. His performance in the 2012 campaign debates was a bizarre anomaly. Expect him to bide his time, and quietly collect support from the flame-outs as they occur. He'll have swapped places with Christie on this list by the end of the summer.

Rick Santorum, 2.2%. In a normal GOP year, "It's His Turn" is powerful mojo. As the 2012 runner-up, you'd expect Santorum to be polling higher this time around ... except that this is no ordinary year. They've been out of office long enough for panic to begin brewing. The GOP is going to go one of two ways. They're either going to go for electability, or they're going to go for an ideological firebrand. I'm not sure Santorum fills either bill.

John Kaisch, 2.1%. OK, so Christie has room yet to fall to get to lowest-ranked Governor on this list.

The Donald, 1.9%. I include Captain Combover just to indicate that the bucket has clanged noisily off the bottom of the well. And there isn't any water down there. Well's dry, folks.

And that's where we are. The Democrats don't have enough candidates, and the Republicans have too many. It's liable to still be that way this Fall, when things begin to heat up in earnest.

And remember, as I always say: Vote early, and vote often!