Thursday, September 29, 2005

science vs engineering on the moon

There's a bunch of upheaval going on right now in the space community (NASA, non-government space companies, and advocacy groups). As has been widely reported, Pres. Bush and NASA have decided on a plan to push towards human exploration of the moon and Mars, replacing the space shuttle with a more traditional-looking, cheaper, and simpler set of expendible boosters. In addition, with the beginnings of space tourism just around the corner, several credible private companies have stated their intentions to build rockets capable of sending people into orbit as well.

But the real point of this article is to talk about the conflicting goals of human space travel beyond Earth's orbit. Pres. Kennedy said we should go to the moon not because it was easy, but because it was hard. That's a technological goal -- to develop the ability to do a seemingly impossible task. But the International Space Station was developed for a scientific mission -- to study the basic science of materials and people in zero-G. (Not that it'll be able to to much of that given how stripped-down it's going to end up.)

So the question is, why are we going to the moon? To do science? To develop and test the technology required to go to Mars? Because we're the richest country in the world?

There's not a lot of critical lunar science left to do. We sent a bunch of people there in the '70s, including one actual geologist, and brought back a bunch of rocks. It's fairly well understood what the moon's made of and how it's formed. The new program will very likely put people near the South lunar pole, where there might be water ice in shadowed craters, but that's about the only really important mystery remaining. (And mostly because it would be convenient to have ice around if we wanted to establish a base there.)

Although some of the technology required to go to Mars could be tested on the moon, a lot of it couldn't. In particular, the technology to generate rocket fuel out of the Martian atmosphere, which is basically required to get the people back, can only be tested on Mars. And that's one of the biggest challenges. Building structures on the moon isn't, well, rocket science.

And what about patriotism? Well, it's certainly true that China's talking about putting people on the moon. 7 years after John Glenn's orbital flight, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon. China's second orbital flight is expected in the next month or so. Some people are worried.

The stated purpose of the new lunar program is to develop technology and to be inspirational. A recent commentary in Nature expressed anxiety about this, saying that science has been neglected. I'm not so sure what the right rationale should be. To me, the most interesting stuff in astronomy right now is not on the moon, but planets around other stars. Perhaps the scientific goal of a moon base should be to establish really fantastic telescopes?

Unlike on the Earth, where there's clouds, rain, a shimmering atmosphere, and glare, telescopes on the moon could operate constantly. Orbital telescopes like the Hubble and its follow-ons are great, but they have comparatively small mirrors. One of the next steps in orbital telescopes is to develop fleets of telescopes and use them to combine their images for amazing resolution. (They do this on the ground fairly well, now.) The only problem is that you need to keep the telescopes from drifting more than, oh, a nanometer or two, and that's really, really hard. But if you put these telescopes on the moon, they won't drift. So what do you get? Well, you get a big array of telescopes able to resolve extremely small objects (like planets around other stars), not susceptible to interference from weather or the atmosphere. Plus, you can have the people at the lunar base go out and wiggle the wires if there's a problem.

My intuition is that people think astrobiology is really cool, way more so than studying the ionosphere of the outer planets or how people's blood pressure changes in zero-G. In my opinion, NASA's best hope of keeping public support is to continue to do really cool things, and to sell them as really cool things. Like build amazing little robots, and put people on the moon, and send them to Mars, and build telescopes that show us planets around other stars.

Friday, September 23, 2005

the mob

The mafia, of course, is a longstanding fixture in New York City. And New Jersey (see, On the Waterfront, The Sopranos). So as an immigrant from squeaky-clean Wisconsin, it's interesting to me to see to what extent that's still true. My impression is that there's not a lot of mob influence left, what with the racketeering laws and crackdowns starting in the 1970s. Of course, "not a lot" doesn't mean "none".

This week, in fact, there have been several mob stories in the news. The venerable Fulton St. Fish Market, in lower Manhattan, will soon be moving to the South Bronx, where land is cheaper and transportation is now easier. They built a swanky new fish market facility in the Hunts Point neighborhood with cool things like... air conditioning. You probably didn't want to know that all that great fresh New York City fish you've been eating was sitting in a sweltering hot warehouse for half a day before your restaurant got around to buying it... Anyway, back to the mob. The fish market is still at Fulton St. for now because a lawsuit alleges that the wholesale companies that unload the fish from the boats and sell them to retailers at the market are mobbed up. To the gills, no doubt. The city has investigated the wholesalers, and says that they're clean. More details in this NYT article (link valid just for a week, I think).

Also this week, a jury deadlocked on the racketeering, murder, etc., charges against John "Junior" Gotti, son of the late mob boss, John Gotti, aka "The Teflon Don". Gotti, Sr., after beating raps for years, was eventually convicted in 1992, and died in prison. Junior just got out of jail last year, but they found these new charges for him. He might well be out on bail very soon...

There was also an article in today's Times talking about a set of robberies from the early 1990s. A nice young couple decided that they would start robbing, uh, the mob. Right. They'd show up at a mafia social club, wave around a submachine gun, and take all the mobster's cash. They did that four or five times, embarassing the mob to no end, before they were whacked in their car while waiting for a red light in Queens. They finally charged the gunmen this week.

Speaking of the mob, but not in New York, I highly recommend a book called
I Heard You Paint Houses. It's the confessions of an ex enforcer in the corrupt Teamsters union of the 60s and 70s. He claims he personally shot Jimmy Hoffa, and has some hints about the conspiricy around the JFK assassination.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

food safety

A food blog I read, ReMARKable Palate, had a recent article on the safety of tea. The author, a chef, and thus someone who has to take periodic food-safety classes, asserted that sun tea can be dangerous. Sun tea just involves putting a bunch of tea bags in water in a big glass jar, and letting it sit out in the sun for an afternoon. Food safety people worry that bacteria on the tea (or in the water, or on the jug) could grow in the warm conditions of the jar and cause illness. Fair enough, I suppose, except that the evidence that this happens often is very very sketchy. Some Google searches shows that there a couple of suspected cases of someone getting food poisoning from sun tea, but I couldn't find any evidence that this happened recently. Really, I think this is just paranoia. If you're a restaurant, sure, hold the sun tea. But otherwise, if you put the tea in the fridge once it's brewed, I think you're in the clear.

On a related note, I once had a house-mate who was an environmental toxicologist. He spent all day feeding pollutants to populations of mice to figure out how much you need to kill half the mice. (The LD50, in jargon.) He had this bizzare habit of roasting a bunch of chicken in the oven, then after it had been cooked, putting it on top of the stove to cool, and leaving it overnight. Then eating it the next day! Upon seeing the shocked and astonished looks and my and the other housemate's faces, he stated that it's actually pretty safe. All of the bacteria that was in the raw chicken (which can be pretty nasty stuff) would have been killed by the baking. And there are, according to him, essentially no airborne bacteria that can actually grow on cooked chicken and cause illness. My only proof that this is so is that he's still alive. I can't say I'm willing to try it, despite my happiness to drink sun tea.

Oh, and in case you missed in the news a few years back, the Five Second Rule is partially valid. If you drop food on a dry floor for five seconds, even one that's been walked on by people, it's almost certainly fine. Dropping food on a dirty or wet floor is another story, though. This is research from the University of Illinois, the fine institution where I went to grad school...

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

another classic New Yorker cartoon

Some of my extremely small readership may remember the classic New Yorker cartoon, "On the Internet, no one knows you're a dog." (With a dog sitting at a computer.) A few weeks ago was another one, sure to be classic on the blogosphere:

Used without permission -- sorry. If you like it, please buy a t-shirt.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

filming a movie in our 'hood!

One of the things that New Yorkers sometimes have to deal with, that people in other towns usually don't, is the hassle of having movies and TV shows filmed on your street. Now, I live in Queens, not an area that Hollywood usually spends a lot of time in. (With a few exceptions.) Usually it's people in trendy places like SoHo and the Upper West Side that have to deal with having their streets blocked off. Imagine our surprise when giant semis from Paramount starting showing up in the neighborhood! Apparently they were filming a movie called "A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints," starring Robert Downey Jr. For about a month, they would close of streets, drive in a bunch of junky 1970s cars, and put up fake graffitti. The eeriest bit of it was one night shoot they did. I woke up in the middle of the night to see a moon-like blue light streaming through the apartment, as if in a dream. (Or a Hollywood version of a dream.) They had set up a bunch of giant floodlights on the roof of the school a block away, filtered to look like moonlight, to shoot some scenes on a roof. Very odd. The movie looks like, well, not my type, but it'll be worth renting to see if our apartment is visible in any shots!

No celebrity sightings to report, though...

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

exploded food -- the new trend!

I've got this little gadget, a thing you'd pick up for $3 at K-Mart. It's two pieces of plastic that you can use to microwave eggs. You crack an egg in the bowl of one piece of plastic, cover it with the other piece of plastic, and voila, 50 seconds later, one poached egg. It actually works pretty well... if you remember to poke a hole in the yolk with a fork! Otherwise, well, about 40 seconds into the cooking process you hear a big *pop* as the yolk explodes!

Add to "scrambled," "fried," and "over-easy," the new trendy type of egg -- "exploded"! It'll be the newest trend, just you wait. I mean, Ferrán Adrià in Spain makes foams out of any ingredient he can think of; Homaru Cantu in Chicago prints flavors onto edible paper with an ink jet priner. Can detonated cuisine be far behind?

ps - Someone wittier than I should make, er, crack a joke about using a bomb calorimeter...

attention, memory, and booming buzzing confusion

Way back in 1891, William James wrote one of the most (over-)quoted phrases in psychology. Describing the nature of perception and development, he said: "The baby, assailed by eyes, ears, nose, skin, and entrails at once, feels it all as one great blooming, buzzing confusion." Over time, though, we learn to make sense of the world, to divide our perceptions into interesting and uninteresting, and to ignore the details of the world around us if they're not relevant to what we're doing.

Now there's some new research, mostly recently including a report published in Nature Neuroscience, that seems to show that our ability to do this task, to ignore unimportant perceptions, weakens with age. This seems to underly problems older people have with another important cognitive function -- memory. In particular, short-term ("working") memory, which refers to your ability to hold a limited number of ideas in your head at the same time. The researchers looked at how well young and older adults did at ignoring photos that they were told they should ignore, and remembering the ones they should remember. Most of the older adults were significantly less good at the task than the younger adults. Even more interestingly, the participants' brains were imaged as they performed this task, specifically a part of the brain that's believed to be involved with memory of visual events. The younger adults showed less activity when they were told to ignore the photos, and more activity (than a baseline) when they were told they should pay attention. The older adults, however, showed moderate levels of activity even when they were told they should ignore the photos! If you can't ignore things in your environment that you know to be irrelevant, then the world starts to revert, at least a little bit, to that buzzing confusion. You can't remember everything, and if you can't successfully ignore unimportant things, your ability to function will certainly be reduced.

(On the other hand, they didn't control for whether or not the older participants were just too jaded and cynical to believe them when they were told that the irrelevant photos were in fact irrelevant...!)

Saturday, September 10, 2005

What's this all about?

There are a lot of blogs out there. Almost all of them are read by like 3 people, tops. People even study that phenomenon. I'm not going to try to be Instapundit, but I am going to try to be interesting. I think my goal is that someday, someone I don't actually know will read my blog more than once. That's not too ambitious, is it? Anyway, people have recommendations about how to make a blog interesting, and I'm going to try to follow them as best I can.

Here is what I intend this blog to be about:
  • Talking about new developments in science, and particularly cognitive science, and explaining why I think they're interesting and important.
  • Talking about new developments in science that are getting a lot of press, and suggesting why I think the media is missing the point. (This happens a lot...)
  • Talking about cooking and food in an amusing, informative, and personal way. This isn't going to be the type of food blog where I post beautiful food porn of the $300 dinners I have, nor will there be a lot of recipes. More likely, I'll talk about mistakes I've made...
  • Talking about New York City events that I think are interesting even to people who don't live here.
Here are some things this blog isn't going to be about:
  • My life, except as it pertains to science, food, or NYC events interesting to non-New Yorkers.
  • The news and politics. I have opinions about politics, of course, but I don't think I'm likely to have very much to add that you can't get at other blogs. (Which I can recommend... See the links in the sidebar, once I get around to figuring out how to set that up.)
  • Technology. Ditto. (Ditto.)
  • "Thought this was interesting" with no additional perspective. That's boring.
My goal is to write interesting posts a few times a week.

Incidentally, I recommend blog aggregators. They inform you of when there are new postings at all of the blogs you read, so you don't have to store bookmarks and check each of them. I use Bloglines, which is a web-based aggregator, so it works from any of the computers I use. Very convenient, really...