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Archive for August, 2012

Earworms are for Science!

If humans love anything, it’s our tools. Yes, hammers and wrenches and probes and mass spectrometers, but also the subtler tools. Tools that help us play well together, like the arts, and tools that help us learn. Like science.

Humans also love shortcuts. There’s a reason articles on tips, tricks and secrets are so popular on the web. And we writers are anything but immune to the temptation of the cheat – what is storytelling but a canny twist on reporting?

Because everyone finds devices of one kind or another irresistible, I’ve dug up a few of the mnemonic sort that make an infamously formidable tool rather more approachable. Yes, thanks to the magnificent multi-tool that is arts, Ye Olde Periodic Table of Elements earworm has a few new music videos.

Watch and learn, then pass them on. After all, isn’t that why we built the internet – to share information?

Look up, go there, send home pictures

Humans have been throwing things at Mars since at least 1960 (I’ve never been convinced that we really know all the unsuccessful Soviet space missions). The first US mission to Mars was launched in 1964, but Mariner 3 didn’t make it.

Mariner 4 was the first to get there, entering Mars orbit doing its flyby on July 15, 1965.

After a bunch of failures (the Mars Curse in action) and a couple of successful orbiters, Viking 1 landed on July 20, 1976, ten years after the first orbiter reached Mars, and its twin Viking 2 landed shortly thereafter.

The next batch of missions, both ours and Soviet, failed (see above, Mars Curse). Mars Global Surveyor entered orbit in 1997, and sent back data for ten years, far longer than expected. Mars Pathfinder landed in 1997 and sent the rover Sojourner out to look around.

Mars Odyssey entered orbit in 2001, and is still sending pictures home.

My favorites until earlier this month were the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, wandering Mars since 2004. Planned to run for 90 Martian days, Spirit chugged on until 2010, and Opportunity is still roving.

XKCD Spirit

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has been in orbit since 2005, with the HiRISE sensor sending back some incredible high-resolution images (end of mission planned for 2010, but still going). (The missions that have gotten there have done amazing things.)

The Phoenix Lander studied Martian water in 2008-2010.

Mars Science Laboratory (Curiousity rover), sent to look for organics, landed on August 5, surviving the seven minutes of terror quite nicely.

I watched Curiosity land (on Mars! from a tent! on a hand-held computer! truly we live in the future), and so did the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Curiousity has been sending back amazing photos of its surroundings, which have been assembled into a 360-degree panorama.

Not only did they drop Curiousity safely, NASA’s been doing a brilliant job with the social media and internet. Curiosity is on twitter as @MarsCuriosity, and can be tracked here. This educational/citizen science website is wonderful: Be a Martian.

We’ve done amazing things, and learned a lot: just compare the Mariner 4 images to HiRISE or Curiosity’s pictures. I can’t wait to see what we do next.

Metamorphosis, Transformation and Evolution

In the huge, crisp cocoon, extraordinary processes began.
The caterpillar’s swathed flesh began to break down. Legs and eyes and bristles and body-segments lost their integrity. The tubular body became fluid.
The thing drew on the stored energy it had drawn from the dreamshit and powered its transformation. It self-organized. Its mutating form bubbled and welled up into strange dimensional rifts oozing like oily sludge over the brim of the world into other planes and back again. It folded in on itself, shaping itself out of the protean sludge of its own base matter.
It was unstable.
It was alive, and then there was a time between forms when it was neither alive nor dead, but saturated with power.
And then it was alive again. But different.
~ Perdido Street Station, China Miéville

ManducaThe metamorphosis of caterpillars into butterflies (either beautiful or terrifying) is an amazing process.

The larva encases itself in a chrysalis or cocoon and enzymes begin to break down its tissues. Eventually all that is left of the original larva are clusters of cells known as imaginal discs.  The digested tissue from the remainder of the caterpillar supplies nutrients to the imaginal discs which rapidly grow and differentiate into the wings, antennae, legs and other parts of the adult butterfly.  The adult emerges from the chrysalis fully formed.

Amazingly, a recent study has shown that behavior learned as a larva can be retained in the adult, suggesting that the neurons involved in memory also survive metamorphosis and are integrated into the adult nervous system.

There are a number of hypotheses to explain how such a complicated system might have evolved. But the oddest hypothesis comes from zoologist Donald Williamson , who suggests that the larval caterpillar and adult butterfly evolved from two completely different organisms, whose genomes somehow fused together. He proposes that the transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly is more one creature turning into another, than a juvenile turning into an adult.

Williamson’s idea has been pretty thoroughly debunked in light of what’s known about butterfly and moth biology and evolution. It’s especially hard to explain in light of the experiments showing the persistence of memory through the process. But I think it’s a great science fictional idea.

In Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead the alien Pequininos (or piggies) go through metamorphosis from animal to plant, which never seemed very biologically plausible to me.

So are there good science fiction examples of hybrid lifeforms that shift from one to the other during their lifetime?  What do you guys think?

Related reading:

Top image: Manduca sexta (tobacco horn worm) larva devouring a tomato plant in preparation for metamorphosis. Photo by me.

Bottom image: Adult butterfly, species unknown. Photo by me.

Those Who Never Got to Fly

Note: this article first appeared on Starship Reckless.

Sally Kristen Ride, one of the iconic First Others in space flight, recently died at the relatively young age of 61: she was the first American woman to participate in missions. Her obituary revealed that she was also the first lesbian to do so. Like other iconic First Others (Mae Jemison comes to mind), Sally Ride was way overqualified – multiple degrees, better than her male peers along several axes – and she also left the astronaut program way before she needed to (more about this anon). Even so, Ride remained within the orbit of space exploration activities, including founding NASA’s Exploration Office. She was also part of the board that investigated the crashes of Challenger and Columbia; Ride was the only public figure to side with the whistleblowing engineer of Morton-Thiokol when he warned about the problems that would eventually destroy Challenger.

When Sally Ride was chosen for her first mission – by an openly sexist commander who still had to admit she was by far the most qualified for the outlined duties – the press asked her questions like “Do you weep when something goes wrong on the job?” This was 1983, mind you, not the fifties. The reporters noted that she amazed her teachers and professors by pulling effortless straight As in science and – absolutely relevant to an astronaut’s abilities – she was an “indifferent housekeeper” whose husband tolerated it (she was married to fellow astronaut Steve Hawley at the time). Johny Carson joked that the shuttle launch got postponed until Ride could find a purse that matched her shoes.

Ride and Jemison had to function in this climate but at least they went to space, low-orbit though it had become by then. There were forerunners who never got to do so, even though they were also overqualified. I am referring, of course, to the Mercury 13.

This was the moniker of the early core of women astronauts who trained in parallel with the Mercury 7 and outperformed them – except, as is often the case, they did so in makeshift facilities without official support. Here’s the honor roll call of these pioneers whose wings were permanently clipped (the last names are before marriages changed them): Jane Briggs, Myrtle Cagle, Geraldyn Cobb, Janet Dietrich, Marion Dietrich, Mary Wallace Funk, Sarah Gorelick, Jerrie Hamilton, Jean Hixson, Rhea Hurrie, Irene Leverton, Gene Nora Stumbough, Bernice Trimble.

The Thirteen, never officially part of NASA (they were selected by William Lovelace, who designed the NASA astronaut tests, and the initiative was supported by private donations), had to have at least 1000 hours of flying experience. They underwent the same physical and psychological tests as the men and did as well or better at them: all passed phase I, several went on to phase II, and two completed the final phase III. This was not because any failed II or III, but because they didn’t have the resources to attempt them.

When the Thirteen gathered at Pensacola to show their abilities, the Navy instantly halted the demonstration, using the excuse that it was not an official NASA program. The women, some of whom had abandoned jobs and marriages for this, took their case to Congress. Several people – among them “hero” John Glenn – testified that women were not eligible to fly in space because 1) they didn’t have the exact advanced degrees specified by NASA (neither did Glenn, but he got in without a whisper) and the agency would not accept equivalents and 2) they were prohibited from flying military jets (yet women flew such jets from factories to airfields in WWII; when some of the Mercury 13 flew military jets to qualify, NASA simply ratcheted up that rule).

Space aficionados may recall that the Mercury program’s nickname was “man in a can” – the astronauts had so little control that engineers had to manufacture buttons and levers to give them the illusion of it. Nevertheless, NASA made military jet piloting experience a rule because such men, notorious cockerels, were considered to have The Right Stuff – and Congress used this crutch to summarily scuttle the Mercury 13 initiative, although there was brief consideration of adding women to space missions to “improve crew morale” (broadly interpreted).

It took twenty years for NASA to decide to accept women as astronauts. Just before it did so, hack-turned-fanboi-prophet Arthur C. Clarke sent a letter to Time crowing that he had “predicted” the “problem” brought up by astronaut Mike Collins, who opined that women could never be in the space program, because the bouncing of their breasts in zero G would distract the men. When taken to task, Clarke responded that 1) some of his best friends were women, 2) didn’t women want alpha-male astronauts to find them attractive?? and 3) libbers’ tone did nothing to help their cause. Sound familiar?

Women have become “common” in space flight – except that the total number of spacenauts who are women is still 11% of the total. Furthermore, given that the major part of today’s space effort is not going to Mars or even the Moon but scraping fungus off surfaces of the ISS or equivalent, being an astronaut now is closer to being a housecleaner than an hero. We haven’t come so far after all, and we’re not going much further.

I’m one of the few who believe that women’s rights and successful space exploration (as well as maintenance of our planet) are inextricably linked. As I wrote elsewhere:

“I personally believe that our societal problems will persist as long as women are not treated as fully human. Women are not better than men, nor are they different in any way that truly matters; they are as eager to soar, and as entitled. The various attempts to improve women’s status, ever subject to setbacks and backlashes, are our marks of successful struggle against reflexive institutionalized misogyny. If we cannot solve this thorny and persistent problem, we’ll still survive — we have thus far. However, I doubt that we’ll ever truly thrive, no matter what technological levels we achieve.”

This holds doubly for space exploration – for the goals we set for it, the methods we employ to achieve it and the way we act if/when we reach our destinations.

Addendum: I did not discuss Valentina Tereshkova, who was both the first woman cosmonaut and the first civilian to fly into space. because I wanted to keep the focus of this article on NASA. Nevertheless, I should mention her as well as Sveltana Savitskaya, the first woman to do a space walk, whose first mission preceded that of Sally Ride.

Sources and further reading

Martha Ackmann, The Mercury 13: The True Story of Thirteen Women and the Dream of Space Flight

Julie Phillips, James Tiptree Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon (one source of the Clarke “distracting breasts” incident and also excellent in its own right)

Site dedicated to the Mercury 13: http://www.mercury13.com/

2nd Image: some of the Mercury 13, gathered to watch the launch in which Eileen Collins was the first woman to pilot a space shuttle mission. Left to right: Gene Nora Stumbough, Mary Wallace Funk, Geraldyn Cobb, Jerri Hamilton, Sarah Gorelick, Myrtle Cagle, Bernice Trimble.