Friday, January 30, 2009

Love In Zero G

OK, that's a corny title for a blog post or a piece of music. But it's better than the working title I had for this little ambient creation (I first called it "Mystery Chord Chowder").

This piece uses a number of voices from Sonik Synth 2 rising and falling through a chord progression that flows through several keys in hopes of suggesting free fall (or something). It's spacey anyway, so I'll probably use it in my April astronomy podcast.

The illustration is from the Summer 1945 issue of the SF pulp magazine Thrilling Wonder Stories. The idea of love in zero G apparently occurred to people quite early in the space age. Germany's V-2 rockets must have just barely stopped raining down on London when this issue went to press.

Carnival of Space #88

This week's Carnival of Space is hosted by The SpaceWriter's Ramblings. It's a great collection of blog posts on a variety of space and astronomy related subjects. A few bloggers remind us that this is a good time to remember the men and women who lost their lives in tragic space flight disasters that occurred around this time of the year (Apollo 1 , 1/27/67, space shuttle Challenger, 1/28/86, space shuttle Columbia, 2/1/03). But many more of the posts this week relate to current and future developments in space - it's good to remember the past, but it's important to stay optimistic and focused on the future, even when the present is looking pretty tough.

Creepy/Cool Technology

DARPA-funded scientists at UC Berkeley are hot-wiring live beetles so they can control their flight behavior by remote control (video here - big insect!). They mount a small package of electronics including a radio receiver on the back of a giant flower beetle. Six electrodes implanted into the insect's nervous system allow them to command it to take off, turn right or left, and land. Future applications might include search and rescue missions where the creatures would carry tiny cameras and thermal sensors.

Cyborg beetles? Weird, but it makes a lot of sense. The flying capabilities and energy efficiency of insects have evolved over millions of years, and robotic systems to match this are tough to develop. It's one of many R&D areas today that are combining the capabilities (or tissues) of animals with electronics. Creepy or cool? Both I think.

I do wonder how the remote control commands will interact with instinctive behavior - what happens if the beetle senses a predator? Will it ignore the electronic commands and take evasive action? And what about bug spray?

The Boss Is Back

I've been listening to Bruce Springsteen's new album with the E Street Band, "Working on a Dream."I like it a lot. I'm not a solid Bruce fan (though he has that great first name). My favorite albums are his second and third, "The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle" (1973), and "Born to Run" (1975). I saw him with the E Street Band in 1974 in Pittsburgh, a great concert. Since then, I've bought a few of his albums and have liked a few of the songs. I think I appreciate him more as a songwriter than as a performer. I think he's also a pretty cool person, based on the articles and interviews I've read over the years.

This album is pretty heavily produced, reminding me of "Born to Run" in some respects. The customer reviews on Amazon are mixed, but it's working for me! I think it's also cool and inspiring that a guy who's almost 60 and has plenty of laurels he could rest upon is still making vital, original, and enjoyable music. I think I need to go see him in Boston when he plays there in April.

Spirit and Opportunity Videos

As you probably know, this month marks the five year anniversary of the Mars Rovers Spirit and Opportunity landing on Mars. Famously "warrantied" for just 90 days, both rovers are still roving Mars five years later, though in recent days, Spirit seems to be having a few problems. It has not been responding normally to some commands.

But thanks to a robust design and a very clever and dedicated team of operations people at JPL, Spirit has managed to overcome other serious problems in the last five years, so don't write her off just yet! I just watched two recent JPL videos looking back on the amazing "careers" of these two plucky robots. The rover drivers and and other team members sound like proud parents describing the accomplishments of their children. There's no embed option for these 6 minute videos, but Spirit is here, and Opportunity is here. There's also a 4 minute video "Five Years On Mars" - it's funny (and real) when they ask Steve Squyres how he feels about the five years, and he says, "Exhausted - I mean really exhausted!" But it's clear that he is also a proud and happy father.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The World in Fake Miniature

I don't know where I saw this but it's pretty cool. TiltShiftMaker is a free web service to process photos of real scenes so they look like photos of models or miniatures. It basically creates an out-of-focus picture with an in-focus horizontal band. It also brightens the colors. For the right photo, this simple treatment can simulate the look of the very shallow depth of focus you often see when miniature objects are photographed (or when you use some special optics). I tried it on a few photos from various Europe trips (nothing else ever seems to happen with those pix!). I also applied it to some screen shots from Orbiter. Other examples on my Flickr page, and many examples by many people on the TiltShiftMaker Flickr group page.

It's not often that I want to do this, so having a free web site for it is just about perfect!

Update: How about a tiltshift video?

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Electric Rockets 101

Dawn at Ceres - Ion Engine Firing
There's a good article in the February 2009 issue of Scientific American on electric (or plasma) propulsion systems. It explains the basic principles and the differences between ion drives, Hall thrusters, and magnetoplasmadynamic thrusters (MPDT to their friends). The article does a good job explaining the limitations of each technology and what researchers and engineers are doing to overcome them to improve thrust, efficiency, and long term reliability. These highly efficient propulsion systems will hold the key to faster access to the outer parts of the solar system - an ion drive is already in use on NASA's Dawn mission to the asteroids Vesta and Ceres. The picture above is an Orbiter screen shot I took on a simulated Dawn visit to Ceres.

If you'd like to try an ion drive yourself, you can download Brian Jones' Dawn v.2 add-on for Orbiter and play around with the included scenarios. Also recommended is Asteroid Pack 1.00 which adds Ceres, Vesta, and a few other asteroids to your Orbiter solar system. Because operating with a continuous low-thrust engine is rather different from the usual "burn and coast" method most often used in Orbiter (and in real life), Brian has added some special attitude hold features that are more stable under high time acceleration. He also added a Mars flyby scenario. The real Dawn's Mars flyby is coming up in just a few weeks(February 17). The January 27 entry in the Dawn Journal includes a great explanation of the encounter

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Moon: The Movie

Moon is an upcoming science fiction movie planned for release in June 2009. Based on the trailers available here, it certainly will look cool - an updated future quite reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey. We shall see how the story and characters work out - it sounds promising, but some space-related "hard SF" movies that looked like they would have been good turned out to be disappointing in the storyline and character departments (I'm thinking specifically of Mission to Mars though there are others).

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Carnival of Space #87

There's one bad thing about getting back into music making - the fact that it absorbs all available time (and some of the unavailable time too). Plus there's just a lot of "stuff" going on with my job and other parts of my life. So my space reading and blogging have suffered in the last couple of weeks. Fortunately there's the Carnival of Space to help me continue my weekly quest to be One With The Universe. This week the carnival is hosted by The Martian Chronicles. Mars methane is there, of course, along with myriad other space and astronomy subjects, so check it out.

Bach Mystery Solved

A friend sent me an interesting Washington Post story from 2007 that I had not heard about before. Post reporters asked world-renowned violinist Joshua Bell to dress in street clothes and perform classical music in a busy Washington metro station during morning rush hour. Bell played his $3.5 million 1710 Stradivarius violin and performed pieces by Bach and others for 43 minutes. With very few exceptions, hardly anyone noticed, and he collected $32.17 from 27 people, most of whom dropped the money in his instrument case without stopping. Proving... I'm not exactly sure. That people don't appreciate beautiful music when they are rushing to get to work? Read the article and see for yourself. It includes several video clips.

I really liked the Bach piece that Bell was playing in the first video clip. It sounded familiar but I was confused by the article stating that his opening piece was "Chaconne" from J.S. Bach's Partita No. 2 in D minor (it was, but the first video clip in the article was not his opening piece). I bought a violin performance of that Bach work on Amazon for 89 cents. Very nice, but not the right piece.

So I looked more closely at the article and found that he also performed a Bach "gavotte" and I searched my own music library for that term. Bingo! It was the "gavotte" from Bach's Partita No. 3 in E major (BWV 1006), and I had it in a classical guitar performance by John Williams. Great! So I went back to Amazon and previewed a number of solo violin versions of this piece before buying one by Itzhak Perlman. Mystery solved, and $2.87 spent on three MP3 downloads (the third was the "Chaconne for Violin and Orchestra" from the film "The Red Violin," played by Joshua Bell - a red herring since this "chaconne" is a modern piece by composer John Corigliano, not Bach).

Update: The YouTube video above does feature the D minor Partita No. 2 that Bell both opened and closed with, and you can see at the very end the interaction with the one person who recognized Bell and listened to most of his closing piece.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

President Barack Obama

On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.
-President Barack Obama

I'm very proud of my country today. President Obama's inaugural address was incredible, and the events of the day were truly hope inspiring. There's a lot of hard work ahead, but in spite of all the problems we face, I'm feeling pretty optimistic tonight.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Rocket Science - Cool DVD

I bought a really great space documentary from 2004, Rocket Science. This three DVD set is "out of print" but you can still find some used and new copies from third party sellers through Amazon and other sources. It covers the early X-plane flights, the history of rocketry, the Mercury and Gemini programs, and the full Apollo moon program in substantial detail. So far I've only watched a few segments of the 9+ hours of video, but it's really great, with intelligent narration and extensive interviews with many of the astronauts and others (e.g., Chuck Yeager). Good stuff.

I learned one thing I hadn't known about Yuri Gagarin's historic first orbital flight. The Soviets had not quite worked out the soft-landing system for the Vostok spacecraft, so they installed an ejection seat, and once he reached a safe altitude under the capsule's parachute, Gagarin manually ejected and landed on his own (as shown in this frame from the video - there are a number of explanatory animations like this in the video) .

Update: Not "out of print" after all, apparently still available from Apogee Space Books. Thanks for the tip, Eric.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Rover Radiation Blues

No, it's not another song, it's a simulation. I found out about HyperKat Games through somebody's blog (probably though I can't find the post now). They have some military games but also a couple of space related simulations in work, including a Mars Colony Simulator (in development but there's a blog) and a Planetary Rover Simulator for which there is a free demo.

I downloaded the rover demo, and it's pretty cool. You control a robotic rover similar to the real Mars Rovers, including the fact that you can't personally drive the rover in real time, you have to write a script to control it and complete a designated mission. There are just five missions in the demo which is otherwise fully functional. The scripting language is pretty similar to Logo or Etoys (though it is purely text based, with commands like forward 10, steer -30, and groundsample), and there are hazards to avoid, such as thermal vents, extreme slopes, and high-radiation levels. You view the execution of your script "in real time" (though since you can't intervene, it could just as well be a playback of a video sent back from the planet after the fact). The 3D terrain and sky graphics are pretty nice. I imagine that the full package will have alternate planets with many more missions and different challenges.

This demo is a nice addition to my space simulation bag of tricks. The "buy now" link on the main page is inactive so maybe the full package isn't available yet.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

New Tune: Bottled & Blue

My songwriting and recording are coming back after about four years away from doing anything serious with music. This morning I woke up with some lyric ideas including the phrase "bottled & blue" (image courtesy Jeff Hayes - see update #2 at end). Then I saw a photo of Lincoln on the cover of a magazine (second verse), and an hour later I had completed the lyric and written the basic song on acoustic guitar. I was thinking "this is a practice song for getting back into arranging and recording, so keep it simple - a basic blues tune."

This is more or less how it turned out except it has more chords than a typical blues tune (3-5), which is typical for me. I tend to use a lot of chords. I also tend to not remember a lot of the chords when I try to play my own songs a few weeks or months later (the old forgetting curve effect). The songs I can do on a moment's notice are the ones with 3 or 4 chords (I have written a few of those). But I digress...

I did this whole thing between 9 am and 6 pm today, including making an MP3 which I have now uploaded to my account (which amazingly enough is still alive though I last used it in maybe 2005). You can listen or download "Bottled & Blue" there. I also entered it in a contest just for the heck of it. If listening to unsigned artists is something that interests you, you can sign up for a free Garageband account to listen to and vote on songs. I have three other songs there which were in contests years ago (that's why they have ratings). This new one is my only active song.

In case you're interested, here's how this thing went down. I doodled around with words until parts of the lyric emerged, singing them with different melodies. I decided at the start it was a blues-rock tune, so even with more complex chords, the music came pretty fast on the guitar, and I recorded a simple guitar/vocal demo so I wouldn't forget it.

Next I fired up Band-in-a-Box 2007 (BIAB), entered my chord progression into the intro/ verse/ chorus/ bridge structure I wanted (this goes fast with copy and paste). I set the tempo at 64 bpm and searched for blues styles that would be good for such a slow tempo and also supported "Real Drums" instead of MIDI drums (BIAB comes with hundreds of styles but few of them are made for Real Drums). BIAB is mainly based on MIDI - this defines patterns of notes which are played by the synthesizer that's built into most PC sound cards. This produces decent but not highly realistic instrument sounds. With "Real Drums," they define patterns that are played by piecing together pre-recorded segments of real drums played by human drummers. So they sound more dynamic and less computer-precise than MIDI drums (so more realistic).

Then I exported the MIDI track from BIAB to a file I could import into SONAR 3. I couldn't find a way to export the "Real Drums" so I used a sound card setting to play the drum track solo in BIAB and record it directly in SONAR. I had to be careful to make the drum (audio) and MIDI tracks line up properly.

Now I had a band track with good sounding drums and MIDI for the other instruments that would play back through my sound card ( bass, piano, trumpet, and sax). These didn't sound so great, so I inserted a copy of Sonik Synth 2 (SS2) on an audio track and started selecting instruments there that I could substitute. SS2 has great sounding instruments, so I picked out piano, bass, and horn section sounds. The horns sounded good enough playing just the BIAB trumpet track (I chose a pre-mixed horn section voice), so I assigned a nice sounding SS2 guitar voice to that track for some additional texture. I played around with the levels and left-right position of the various instruments until I got a reasonable mix.

Next I recorded my vocal. I did 3 or 4 takes plus some "punching in" to re-record sections that I messed up (this is really easy to do in Sonar). I experimented with some different reverbs and finally chose a fairly light slapback echo effect from a free plugin called AriesVerb. I also applied some equalization to improve the "presence" of my vocal. It still needs some work and possibly some harmonies or background vocals if I get ambitious.

Finally I tried to do an electric guitar lead for the intro and break. I'm a lousy lead guitarist but these are short sections and I thought I could play something vaguely BB King-like, but I failed miserably. I resorted to playing keyboard leads which can be tweaked by editing the MIDI notes with the mouse. I chose two different B3 organ voices in SS2, mixed them, and assigned this nice, fat sound to my lead track. The sound is good but the solos should be redone. Oh well, it's a one afternoon demo! I also played the chords for the song using this SS2 B3 organ voice to add a little more texture and some human imprecision to the track.

After another hour of playing with levels and adding a fade to the output track, I mixed it to WAV and MP3 files and had some dinner. Then I uploaded the MP3 to so anyone who is still awake after reading all this can go listen to it.

I've been doing multitrack recording on and off since the early 1970's, and I've had a PC based recording studio at home since 2002, but it still amazes me that I can do all this stuff on my own and get something that sounds pretty good, if not exactly like a "real record." It's also a nice feeling to write a new song after a few dry years. Going from two words to a full song uploaded to the web in one day has happened once or twice before, but it's unusual and pretty cool, for me at least!

Update #1: OK, this is already the longest blog post in the history of me-kind, but to complete the record, here's the lyric for "Bottled & Blue."

Bottled & Blue

Yesterday’s colors
Yesterday’s tunes
Used to be wonders
Now more like cartoons

The news of the world
Too bad to be true
Cheap wine from Australia
Got me bottled and blue

I look in the mirror
Eyes dark as new moons
And I see Lincoln’s smile
So sad, wise, and doomed


Memories, oh memories
Frozen like photos in time
Memories, memories
Feels like I’m losing my mind

(repeats first verse & chorus)

Words & music (c) 2009 by Bruce Irving

Update #2: I've gotten permission to include the image I had wanted before I jumped the gun with this post last night, "Blue Bottle" by Boston area painter Jeff Hayes. Jeff creates "contemporary realist paintings" - I discovered him through a search for "blue bottle" and I really like his work. He has a blog in addition to his main web site.

Friday, January 16, 2009

365 Days of Astronomy Podcasts

I've mentioned the 365 Days of Astronomy podcasts a couple of times, including the fact that I'll be doing the one on April 14. But what I may not have mentioned is that these podcasts are really quite good, and in many cases, of interest even to people who don't think of themselves as astronomy fans. A few notable examples: January 3 (Five Years of Spirit on Mars), January 6 (Top 10 Reasons Stargazing is Cool), and January 10 (a vivid description of Galileo's 1610 discovery of the moons of Jupiter).

So if you aren't listening, you should, and if you know people with even the slightest curiosity about nature, encourage them to listen too. You can listen (or read) directly on the web site, or listen or subscribe through iTunes (for free). And if you're an astronomy or space hobbyist or blogger, or even just a casual stargazer who saw something cool in the sky, consider contributing a podcast yourself. There are probably still some openings for later in the year.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Space Renaissance!

Becoming Spacefaring: Integrated Space Policy is a very interesting post by FerrisValyn that appeared on the Daily Kos a couple of days ago. It's a well organized argument in support of the commercial development of space, going well beyond exploration and current "utilities" like comsats and GPS to establish a space-based economy. Space is outside the direct experience of most humans (not to mention outside the atmosphere), but the analogy with the use of the oceans and the air by seafaring and "airfaring" nations is still apt. There are a lot of resources and opportunities out there. We'll eventually use them, but whether that starts soon or in a hundred years probably depends on decisions made in the next couple of years.

A version of this report was provided to the Obama transition team - and we'll soon see how much the issue of space will show up on Obama's radar. I read some reports that the new NASA adminstrator is likely to be a retired USAF general, Maj. Gen. Jonathan Scott Gration. He is said to be close to Obama but is unknown and inexperienced in the space domain. Is that a bad thing? I don't know. It will certainly be a change from Mike Griffin.

Somehow this article (and its follow-up on technology investment) led me to Space Renaissance and the call for a Space Renaissance Forum, which I signed. The ideas are very similar to what FerrisValyn proposes, and they are calling for a presence at the upcoming G20 summit in April to try to put space development on the world economic agenda. I like some of their "basic concepts" which may not seem so basic to everyone:
  • Earth is not sick: She's Pregnant!
  • Space Tourism, key to open the High Frontier
  • Humans are resources, not problems!
  • Space is safer than Earth
  • Space is easier than Earth
  • Space is more convenient than Earth
I think we're about due for a new Renaissance.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Carnival of Space #86

My brain may be on music, but space goes on and on and on...

has collected a nice selection of space and astronomy blog posts at the 86th Carnival of Space.

My Brain On Music

I've decided on a name for my style: serial obsession. It's been physics, computers, music, Japanese, flying, space, blogging, and a few other things (it was even "getting an MBA at UCLA" for a couple of years back in the 80's, but I didn't manage to finish it, too much business travel, see "Japanese"). Now it looks like music is making a big comeback. This is a great thing - it's creative and fun to write and record music. There are a lot of toys, many of them free, all of them with some sort of learning curve (or at least an exploration curve). So it's not quick. Hours go by and I don't realize it. Enjoyable hours.

One of the non-free toys of recent days is Sonik Synth 2 (it was $99 at, a great deal compared to suggested price of $399). This is a soft synth plugin that comes with 8 GB of sound samples and hundreds of presets. It works great in Sonar and with my cheesy Casio keyboard. You can blend and modify these samples in limitless combinations, with a very simple interface, and it sounds fantastic. Everything from realistic pianos, organs, and orchestras to emulations of dozens of vintage hardware synthesizers. I have to write songs to use these sounds!

So this is Your Brain On Music - or my brain in this case (that's also the title of a book I bought two years ago and am finally reading, about the neuropsychology of music). I won't give up space or blogging (or my job!), but I know how these things work. One thing leads to another and before you know it, it's 2:30 in the morning. Or it's October, and you've recorded a new CD. I hope that happens anyway. I listened to my 2003 CD the other day, and I still like it, but I think I can do better now.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Podcast: Live from Io!

Jupiter Rising on Io
I signed up to do a podcast for 365 Days of Astronomy, and my "broadcast" date will be April 14. My topic will be "Exploring Space With Your Computer," so I need to figure out how to turn this very visual topic into an 8 minute audio-only talk (of course most topics in astronomy are visual, so I'm not alone with this problem). Naturally I will talk about Stellarium and Orbiter (among other things), and I plan to use some sounds from Orbiter to "illustrate" my talk as I tool around the solar system in some of my favorite Orbiter spacecraft. I will probably open the talk from a spacecraft orbiting Io since I always enjoy watching Jupiter rise.

I also plan to include some background music, and I thought that some spacey, Eno-like, new agey music would be nice to set the mood - the kind of thing you often hear in planetarium shows. So I'm working on writing and recording some music for my podcast. This isn't my usual style of songwriting but I have some ideas and a good bag of audio tricks on my computer, and I can mix it all up nicely with Sonar.

So far I'm collecting sounds and some additional tools and creating some test pieces. One of these new tools is a weird little program called Sounder. It has a very Windows 3.1 look and feel (latest version seems to be from 1997), and it has a very odd approach to the musical interface. Little icons bounce around in windows, sounding a musical note on each bounce. You can pick the instruments from all the MIDI sounds available in your sound card or keyboards, and you can choose various other things like the note palette, the window sizes, the number of objects, their x and y speeds, etc. It's pretty easy to get something that sounds cool, and if you play around with the controls, you can shape the sound in various ways.

So far I've just recorded some of these things into Sonar as audio, though I read that there is a way to use some MIDI tools to capture Sounder's MIDI stream into sequencer software (which Sonar also is), which would give more control including the ability to edit note sequences and assign the sounds to various soft synths (of which there are about a million you can download, not to mention "sound fonts" of various sampled instruments). I've also recorded some samples from music tools on the iPod Touch, such as Pocket Guitar and Bloom.

This is really great fun and it's a nice "mission" that should help me to get back into writing and recording music, which is one of my goals this year. Of course I still have to remember to write and record the podcast itself. It's due by March 14

Friday, January 09, 2009

Robots & Astronauts Online

I just learned about a really cool web site called, where you can (you guessed it) share your PowerPoint and other sorts of presentations with the world or with selected people. It's similar to Flickr for photos and YouTube for videos, and it is also free. You just have to set up an account to upload things. There are zillions of presentations to search and view and you don't need an account for viewing. You can also embed presentations in web sites as I have tried to do above.

So I set up a FlyingSinger account and uploaded a PowerPoint presentation I developed and used a lot last summer and fall, "Robots, Astronauts, and You: Exploring Space." Just for the heck of it. You can view it online, and I also set it up for download. The online viewer doesn't include animations or sounds which I used quite extensively in this PowerPoint, so some of the slides may look a little odd. The downloaded PPT file (21 MB!) contains all the sounds and slide transitions. The Orbiter space flight simulator is available for free download at

Air Traffic Flow Worldwide

A friend sent me this video and it's really cool. It shows the worldwide flow of airline flights over a 24 hour period. Note the big burst of overnight flights from North American to Europe, the blossoming of flights over North America that migrates west with the emerging daylight (westbound Europe flights too). This is a great example of a dynamic information graphic. Go to the YouTube page and click the "watch in high quality" button if you have the bandwidth.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Very Space

I was intensely focused on the periscope, and after we docked, I looked out my window and suddenly the radiators and solar panels show up. There's this bloody great structure there, and it's very dramatic. You dock with the sun behind you, so it's very, very stark, and everything around it is completely black. It's very stunning, very space, and very cool.
-Mark Shuttleworth

Technology Review has a great feature this week, "an oral history of the launch of space tourism." Over a period of six months, they interviewed five of the six private citizens who have taken flights to the ISS on Russian Soyuz spacecraft (Mark Shuttleworth, Greg Olsen, Anousheh Ansari, Charles Simyoni, and Richard Garriott). They were interviewed separately, but the article interweaves their individual comments about the phases of their Soyuz/ISS missions. It's interesting to read their differing reactions to their nominally similar experiences, to see what was important and notable to each of them, what they thought was great and what they complained about. Charles Simyoni seemed to complain the least. He liked it so much, he's going back this spring (he exercised a $5 million option for a return ticket).

Several thought that the hardest part was learning Russian! That wouldn't bother me - I studied Russian for four semesters in college and I'm sure I could get it back without much trouble, especially if it were part of preparing for a spaceflight! I'd sign up to go in a minute, but I don't think it's something I can put on my American Express.

There's also a video with excerpts of the interviews here.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Staying Ten Years Old

Here's a cool TED talk from 2006 by scientist Penelope Boston. She has specialized in searching for life in extreme places, from the Antarctic to high deserts to caves to Mars. She talks about the importance of "staying ten years old" (and curious) and the idea that "perspective is everything" (looking at Earth as an "exoplanet"). Some of the caves she has explored are incredibly hostile to human life, full of sulfuric acid and lethal levels of poisonous gases - but various non-human life thrives in these nasty places. Based on the surface discoveries of the Mars rovers and high-resolution images from Mars orbit, she believes there is a good chance (25 to 50 percent) that there is life on Mars now, most likely in caves, and quite likely very different in chemistry and biology from life on Earth. She even gets into how caves on other planets may help future humans to survive there.

Update: For a fictional (hard SF) view of life in caves on Mars, The Martian Race by Gregory Benford is really good. One of my favorite Mars exploration novels.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

The Future of Human Spaceflight

In December, a report called "The Future of Human Spaceflight" was issued by MIT's Space, Policy, and Society Research Group. I just read the report, and I have to say that it makes a lot of sense. Most fundamentally, it recommends a more careful evaluation of the objectives and risks of human spaceflight, suggesting that "primary objectives" of exploration, national pride, and international leadership are worthy of significant risk to human life. As the report says,
Human spaceflight achieves its goals and appeals to the broadest number of people when it represents an expansion of human experience.
Think Apollo astronauts walking on the moon - definitely a new realm of human experience. Science, economic development, technology spin-offs, and education are "secondary objectives" - potentially valuable but not necessarily worth the costs and risks of direct human involvement. I guess I agree with this, though I think it's somewhat short-sighted in terms of economic development and educational inspiration.

Apollo was very much about "primary objectives" (especially national pride and international leadership in the Cold War). But the "secondary objectives" paid off handsomely for the US in development of high tech industry and in the inspiration of baby boom kids like me who went on to become the engineers and scientists who drove the technological and economic development of the US in the 1970's and beyond. Could the US have achieved those results by directly investing in Earth-focused technology and education? Possibly, but it was really the fact that there were human astronauts that got me intensely interested in science and technology (after first wanting to be an astronaut).

In any case, they definitely see a continuing role for human spaceflight, but they suggest that we be more clear on why we're doing it. In practical terms, they recommend completing the ISS, retiring the shuttle on schedule, keeping the ISS operational as an international laboratory until 2020 (current plans end at 2016), and clarifying the moon/Mars strategy that was defined (rather vaguely on Mars) in the 2004 Vision for Space Exploration. They briefly mention expanded use of commercial space flight services and they also discuss ideas for increased international cooperation on space, including China and India. I think this report is a useful document for people interested in human spaceflight and the future of NASA, whether you're a space fanatic like me, or the president-elect of the United States.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Amazing Art at RISD

My daughters invited me to visit the Museum of Art of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) with them this afternoon. We saw a special exhibit of the glass art of Dale Chihuly. Somehow I had never heard of Chihuly, but he does astounding things with glass. Photos can't do justice to the colors and sensual shapes of his sculptures, some of which are huge and contain hundreds of elements. Simply beautiful "optics." Check his web site for samples of his work and information on other exhibits (the RISD one closes tomorrow).

The other special exhibit we saw at RISD was "Building Books: The Art of David Macaulay." David Macaulay is perhaps best known for The Way Things Work (1988, updated as The New Way Things Work in 1998). I first discovered him when my first daughter was a young child and I bought several of his "building" books ostensibly for her (Cathedral, Castle, Pyramid). His books and art are wonderful in explaining the intricate details of how things are built and how things work. It was cool to see many of his original illustrations and to learn about some of his more recent and different works. Like Chihuly, Macaulay is a RISD graduate and former professor. This exhibit continues until February 1, 2009.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Cheap Entertainment: Carnival of Space #85

The International Year of Astronomy is finally here. To start the astronomical festivities, you might check out some of the best recent space and astronomy blog posts at the Carnival of Space, hosted this week by Cheap Astronomy. As its name suggests, Cheap Astronomy is about doing and enjoying astronomy without a lot of fancy equipment. The site offers a number of resources and tips to help you do just that.

If you'd like to (literally) hear more about astronomy, check out 365 Days of Astronomy which this year will present a daily podcast on a wide variety of astronomical subjects by a wide variety of speakers. You can listen on the web site or subscribe to the podcast via iTunes. Yesterday's podcast was an introduction to the series, and today's episode discusses tips for your first telescope.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Newtonian Convergence

I'm experiencing an odd sort of Newtonian convergence today. I'm reading Gleick's Isaac Newton, including descriptions of the many things he observed and read and wrote about in his notebooks, observations that led to his laws of motion (not to mention the calculus and other major topics in physics).

I'm also re-reading sections of Seymour Papert's 1980 book Mindstorms (subtitle: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas). In fact I've just read the chapter called "Microworlds: Incubators for Knowledge" in which Papert discusses how computer-based "microworlds" can provide children with a way to gain direct experience with "laws of motion" including Newton's famous three Laws of Motion. It's easier and less abstract when you have actually played with objects that behave in a Newtonian fashion (as opposed to objects like real blocks that tend to not continue in motion at a constant speed after you apply a force to them with your hand - friction makes Aristotle's ideas of motion seem more plausible at first to most people). You can also play with laws of motion other than Newton's, and if you have explored a "Turtle geometry" microworld, you will already be familiar with some "laws of motion" though you may not have called them that (e.g., the FORWARD 10 command moves the turtle by the 10 steps in its current direction, and the TURN 30 command changes the direction by 30 degrees).

Papert used Logo in his microworld education work, and I'm now using Etoys, which in many ways is a direct descendant of Logo. My evolving "Moonhopper" project is basically a prototype microworld for playing with Newtonian physics. I still have a lot to figure out on this, not so much about how to simulate frictionless motion with gravity and rocket thrusters (this is pretty easy in Etoys), but on how to structure this into a teaching unit so a middle school kid can follow a general game plan and discover these powerful ideas for him or herself. This is exactly the kind of exploratory learning that Papert discusses in Mindstorms and that the Etoys/Squeak and similar environments can encourage.