Riding on Light – a poem by Kate Rauner

Light has mass equivalence,
E=mc squared
And though it’s frame dependent,
There is momentum there
So once you are in orbit,
If you can spread a sail,
Your silver wings can carry you
On winds that never fail.
A modest little CubeSat
That fits within your hands
Will demonstrate the concept
Far above our earthbound lands.
Japan’s Ikaros flew just as high
And didn’t burn its wings.
This inexpensive satellite
Will also spread its limbs.
Bring exploration into reach,
No student will be barred,
With low-cost parts from off the shelf
You’ll someday reach the stars.

Good luck to The Planetary Society‘s LightSail-1, which now has a launch date! The satellite is scheduled to hitch a ride into orbit aboard the SpaceX Falcon Heavy in April 2016.

Wool by Hugh Howey

woolIn a dystopian future, everyone lives in an underground silo so large it takes three days to climb from bottom to top. Howey’s story begins as a murder mystery surrounded by questionable suicides and lost loves. The people seem to be “us”, with technology at or a little behind today: there are computer monitors displaying green letters. The first part of the book gives detailed descriptions of moving around in this contained world, and realistic descriptions of the technology, from motor shafts to green circuit boards to Phillips head screwdrivers and the smoke curling up from a soldering iron. But about a third of the way through, the story begins to expand and the main characters become more complex. At this point, I would have preferred Howey reduce the amount of detail; I was not interested in learning how transmitters work or how to brew loose-leaf tea once the battles started. But the simple expedient of reading only the first one or two sentences of each paragraph moved me happily through the unexpected twists to the satisfying conclusion. While this book could support a sequel, it has a real ending that stands by itself. A fun read.

Which Came First? – a poem by Kate Rauner

Feathered dinosaurs may have looked like this

Feathered dinosaurs may have looked like this

Classic conundrums
Can be solved;
Ancestors laid eggs
Before chickens evolved.
And long before
Any bird flew,
Feathers evolved
More than we knew.
Lovely plumage,
Not just fluffy bits,
Completely covered
Long-shafted feathers
That never saw flight,
Spread wide in display,
Were a wondrous sight.

Thanks for a wonderful new fossil discussed at National Geographic. Archaeopteryx may be the best known, but is only one of many species of feathered dinosaurs and early birds; a vibrant evolutionary bush of life. Some early birds had enough feathers on their legs to be considered as “four winged”, and there is evidence of feather colors. “Of course, like any evolutionary story, this one could be falsified or complicated by the next cool discovery.”

The Ethics of Computer-Driven Cars

Plato and studentsWe call them driverless cars, but of course something is driving: a computer. When a human driver is confronted with a crisis, perhaps a choice between hitting a child who jumped out into the road or crashing to avoid her, there’s no time to think about deontological ethics. But a computer has plenty of time, and whoever programmed the algorithms it uses had nearly unlimited time.

“The answers aren’t always clear-cut. Should a driverless car jeopardize its passenger’s safety to save someone else’s life? Does the action change if the other vehicle is causing the crash? What if there are more passengers in the other car? Less morbidly, should a Google-powered car be able to divert your route to drive past an advertiser’s business? Should the driver be able to influence these hypothetical decisions before getting into the vehicle?” time.com

When something bad happens (research shows that driverless cars will inevitably crash), who will be at fault? Who will pay the bills? Who will sue whom? Should the government set ethical standards and create legal protections? Eventually, someone will decide if my car should let me die to save more passengers in the other car. Can anyone imagine our current US Congress tackling such a task?

It seems likely that the first driverless cars will feature a super cruise control, just a step away from today’s situation. The human will still be “the driver”. Cars’ capabilities, and ethics, will evolve over time.

Perhaps a career in philosophy will become more attractive, and we’ll have competing schools of philosophy, just like in ancient Greece.


Illustration was adapted from the Swedish journal Svenska Familj-Journalen (1864-1887); copyrights expired, public domain.

Better Contraception Will Improve Lives

I am reading Think Like A Freak, by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner of Freakonomics fame. They challenge preconceptions and accepted wisdom about the world, offering compelling arguments to show that what I think I know may not be so. I love their work because, as Carl Sagan wrote, “Better the hard truth, I say, than the comforting fantasy.” Besides, reality always wins.

The book reiterates their earlier conclusion about crime and abortion in America. Crime rates have been dropping steadily in the US since the early 1990s, and while more police and longer prison sentences account for some of the drop, Levitt and Dubner conclude that legalization of abortion (in the early 1970s) was the major factor. Over a million fewer unwanted children are born each year, children who would have likely been raised in difficult circumstances, notably poverty, that increase the chance they’d become criminals.

This is a jarring theory for Americans to ponder, since abortion and certain forms of contraception remain emotionally charged topics, hotly debated and far from settled legally. If we adopt policies that increase the number of unwanted children, we must decide if society (that is, taxpayers) owes them something extra, either morally or through enlightened self-interest.

The agonizing debate puts too much energy into the divisive symptom and not enough into unifying prevention. We need contraceptive methods that are easier to use and more effective “in the field” where real people live.

Now there is another step, hopefully, towards better contraceptives.

It’s worth a lengthy quote:

“A remote-controlled contraceptive computer chip which would be implanted under the skin has been developed with the backing of Bill Gates. The chip, which would last for 16 years, would release levonorgestral daily, a hormone which is used to prevent pregnancy.

However with the new implant, a woman could choose when to deactivate or reactivate the chip using a wireless control. It is designed to be implanted under the skin of the buttocks, upper arm, or abdomen. The implant provides a long-term solution to birth control and would mean no more trips to the clinic or a procedure to remove the implant… The creators believe it will be more convenient and if it passes safety tests, it could be on the market as early as 2018. They said it would be ‘competitively priced’.”

Note that levonorgestral prevents ovulation, so it avoids the divisive argument over when fertilization occurs and when the fertilized egg deserves legal protection. For those who feel the threat of pregnancy is needed to inhibit pre-marital sex (a weak argument to my mind, but important to others), the threat of sexually transmitted diseases can still be invoked.

Sixteen years is long enough to get through the impulsive adolescent/early adult years. A young woman would only have to get to a doctor or clinic once; she’d only have to make that mature and responsible choice once, only have to overcome obstacles to travel or access once. We already make a big deal out of turning thirty; I envision “chick check your chip” party favors for the Big-Three-Oh.

Of course, this will raise other issues; for example, should a woman who is found (through proper legal channels) to be an unfit mother be required or coerced into accepting the chip? The question makes me shudder when I recall early 20th century eugenics. And there will be individuals who make poor choices. Nothing is perfect, but on balance, I think this chip could be a huge advance for individual women and for society. As a taxpayer, I’d be happy to finance a contraceptive chip for anyone who wants one for free. Every baby should have a bright future.


Salty Waters – a poem by Kate Rauner

Artist's concept of Casini studying Titan

Artist’s concept of Cassini studying Titan

Salt preserves a water’s flow,
Suppresses freezing in the cold.
Cassini’s gravity data show
There is salt water down below
Titan’s outer crust of ice,
And liquid water does entice.
Salt on Mars may also say
That water flows there some days.
Ten times the salt of earthly seas
But for a very few of these.
The Dead Sea harbors microbes small
That only thrive when rain drops fall.
Alga, fungi, biofilms
Find fresh water most welcome.
Yet methane found on Titan, Mars,
Cannot survive the sunlight scars.

Here's where NASA's Phoenix landed

Here’s where NASA’s Phoenix landed

On Earth we’d say that life is there
Releasing methane in the glare.
So is there life on Saturn’s moon?
Did Martian soils ever bloom?
Now we’re poised to learn more,
To fly the missions, and explore.

There are many places to read about the solar system. Try one of these.