krpalmer: (Default)
The radio news this morning led off reporting a Canadian scientist was sharing the Nobel Prize in Physics. "National pride" focused much sharper in the next few moments when it was mentioned the scientist was at the University of Waterloo, which I went to. Her name then being announced as Donna Strickland had me thinking "Did she teach some of my undergraduate courses?" Looking into some of the reports turned up she'd joined the university when I was going there, so it was at least possible.

It's easy enough for "making too big a deal of any kind of encounter with a celebrity" to go awry, perhaps even when that celebrity involves science. Thinking back to the relative impressions different parts of university have left on me up to now, I am bit a conscious to what an extent "memory" is "reconstruction," too. Still, knowing Strickland's specialization is optics had me remembering I'd done all right in that subject; going off into the weeds, only a few years later I'd wondered if "comedic mad science" might take on that subject rather than the usual disciplines of "biology," "engineering," and "high-energy physics." In any case, I'm certain there are plenty of other University of Waterloo graduates taking a similar interest in this.
krpalmer: (Default)
When Scientific American ran an article on New Horizons's voyage to Pluto written by Alan Stern, principal investigator of the project, I read it with interest. At the end of the article, there was a little notice a book on the same subject by him and another author would soon be published, and that got my attention too. The way things worked out, I was able to get a copy of Chasing New Horizons for my birthday. Sorting out as I started reading that the coauthor David Grinspoon included "astrobiologist" and "at the launch" among his qualifications even if he could seem to have much less of a presence in the narrative, I headed through an attention-grabbing prologue about the loss of contact with the probe days before the long-awaited encounter with Pluto and got back to Alan Stern's space-age youth. There, a 1970 article in National Geographic about what we did know then about the planets from the photographs blurred by long exposures through the atmosphere, and the preparations to do a lot more than fly a few probes past Venus and Mars, was described as formative for a lot of planetary scientists his age. (I recognised the article from having found that magazine in my grandmother's National Geographics, if over a decade later when it was interesting as a piece of history.) The article had mentioned plans for the "Grand Tour," gilt-edged probes intended from launch to last all the way down separate courses to Neptune and Pluto that had unfortunately made assumptions about just how much money would continue to be made available for NASA. (The book cast another light on those assumptions with the casual mention there had been plans for four Grand Tour probes, one pair per trajectory; after noticing what seemed a proofreading error or two later in the book I did some quick searching and did turn up a NASA document mentioning four probes.) The more budget-minded "Mariner Jupiter Saturn" program that turned into Voyagers 1 and 2 had been faced with "Titan; Uranus and Neptune; Pluto--pick two of three" and had gone for the quicker, surer things, but as Stern had started his scientific career, invigorated rather than dismissive at new observations of Pluto from Earth, he'd contemplated "finishing the job."
The long trip )
krpalmer: (smeat)
While trying to come up with the next thing to post to this journal, I happened to think back to an article in the August issue of Scientific American about "inner speech," talking to yourself in your head. That a part of thought is unvoiced speech is an idea I've seen before, but all of a sudden I happened to wonder about the times I've just been trying to think only to find everything in my mind fragments, breaking off and jumping to something else. It felt a lot less involved than the "dialogues" I remembered seeing mentioned in the article, along with comments that reading dialogue in fiction can key into inner voices. I have been conscious for quite a while now of not reading fiction as regularly as I could. Even going back to the article and seeing a comment that inner speech can be telegraphic in brevity didn't quite help. The question is how to concentrate and stay focused.
krpalmer: (Default)
Not that long after wondering if there might be problems with tossing around the term "Dunning-Kruger effect," I ran into that effect being mentioned in a book I was already reading, Robert Burton's A Skeptic's Guide to the Mind. (That title did get me wondering if some would expect "just" a treatise on materialism, but the book seemed more subtle than that to me in that, while it in no way tried to suggest "any mystery demands mysticism," it discussed modern neuroscience while questioning whether we can yet go from what we can detect of brain function using scanning equipment to conclude "the mind can explain itself," much less that minds are predictable.) Burton commented that "there's no point in name-calling; after all, none of us can be certain that we are not one of the affected." Again, it's perhaps because I saw the effect twice invoked against people I'd be ready enough to suppose aren't questioning their own conclusions enough that I'm willing to be humble, even if it's only "making a show of it."
krpalmer: (Default)
I happened to look in the right direction at the library to see the books on polar exploration, and one of the titles, "An Empire of Ice," caught my eye. Even though I might have imagined the book from that to bring up the usual arguments for "British polar incompetence," I took it off the shelf anyway to see the subtitle brought up "science" in the Antarctic, and remembered an article in Scientific American from a few years ago during the centennial of the first journeys to the South Pole. (After finishing the book, I hunted out the issue and saw the article had also been written by the book's author Edward J. Larson.) In the introduction, Larson mentioned how whenever someone learned just what he was writing about they would dwell on the contemporary conventional wisdom of Robert Falcon Scott as the compleat incompetent and Ernest Shackleton as the man who brought the men under his immediate command back alive. (Roald Amundsen, who closed out the era when polar explorers would only get "nearest" to their goals through repeated success, seems to have made it look so easy that efforts to make a big deal of him still don't seem to direct too much attention his way.) He promised that in focusing on the scientific efforts of the two British explorers he wouldn't dwell on the contemporary perceptions, which got my attention enough to make me sign the book out.

While there have certainly been efforts made to condemn Scott's scientific ambitions too by pointing out how Edward Wilson, "Birdie" Bowers, and Apsley Cherry-Garrard went through "The Worst Journey in the World" to collect emperor penguin eggs during the months-long Antarctic night on the hope the embryos in them would prove some theories soon disproven anyway or making a big deal of Scott's party pausing to collect some geological samples on their doomed journey back from the South Pole, the book puts them and the other efforts in perspective, connecting them to previous scientific expeditions and contemporary theories. Along with the collecting of biological and geological samples, the study of ice (although I wondered if the explorers suggesting the Antarctic ice had retreated when they reached it might attract undue attention from some) and plenty of meteorology (Larson brings up Susan Solomon's "The Coldest March," which argues Scott was caught by unexpectedly and unusually cold weather, but doesn't make as much of a point of that himself), there does happen to be some pointing out of the contemporary racism that sought "scientific" justification. In the end, though, the book suggests that the scientific side of the expeditions, in being downplayed in favour of mere "ordeals," left things open to be taken apart by a later and less easily impressed age. The question that gets asked in different contexts about whether "knowledge" is "worth losing lives for" may still lurk all the same, although I did get to thinking how Cherry-Garrard's own book tries to tackle it in closing. Given that my strange sympathy for "convenient targets" can extend to some historical figures, I was willing to accept this book in any case.
krpalmer: (Default)
It was pointed out that today could be called "Carl Sagan Day," it being the anniversary of his birth, and that got me thinking. Unlike many of the other people offering their own comments, I didn't see his TV series "Cosmos" at the beginning of the 1980s (to this date, I've only seen one of its episodes, borrowed on videocassette from the local library, I suppose just to get a sense of what it was like)... but I did happen to read the companion book of the series at a quite early age, signing it out from my home town library again and again to tour through the solar system (as of the Voyager encounters with Jupiter) and beyond (one of the most memorable images from the book for me are four paintings showing the Earth boiling away as the sun turns into a red giant billions of years in the future), until one unfortunate day it wasn't in the collection any more. Years later, I managed to get my own copy of it from a used bookstore.

The book, I suppose, keyed into a general early interest in "space" (the first space shuttle launches, and even seeing the movie Star Wars, might have had something to do with that too) and "science" beyond that, rather than sparking it all by itself, but I wouldn't underrate Carl Sagan's importance in helping to explain science to the world at large; I also appreciate the modern works of others. To mark the day, I started reading a copy of his book "Comet" that I bought at the annual library used book sale just last week. Very similar in format to "Cosmos," but tying into the return of Halley's Comet, it was on my home town's library shelves for longer than "Cosmos" itself, although I do have to admit it didn't seem an adequate consolation at the time. Now, though, it seems a worthwhile companion. I also happened to notice a whole page of essays for the day.
krpalmer: (Default)
I was driving back through the night from a shift at work today when, somewhat to the south and west, I seemed to notice an odd, orangish, vertically elongated light in the sky for just a moment. Wondering just what it was, I kept driving, and then I got to thinking how things had become embroidered about different "lights in the sky" so as to help produce interstellar spacecraft from them... and then clouds I hadn't noticed before kept shifting, and I realised the light had been the crescent moon. I don't know what I would have wound up wondering what else the light could have been had the clouds not kept moving, but it's good to have some certainty.
krpalmer: (Default)
I was listening to a weekly science radio show that featured something I had heard a little while before, about how looking at blue colours seems to be better if you're doing something creative but red colours help you with analytical tasks. Then, all of a sudden, it hit me that when I was first setting up my computer in my place, I did it in a room with walls painted maroon, and wondered if that had something to do with why I often find myself just writing in my spare time at work, where the dividers and the carpet are sort of bluish... but perhaps it also has to do with the relative number of distractions in each place. Of course, it's just one study.
krpalmer: (Default)
(...and Mr. Lincoln.)

"It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the external conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved."

(from The Origin of Species, first edition.)
krpalmer: (Default)
I signed some books on science out of the library lately, several of which I had read before. I may not have been putting too much thought into their selection beyond "I'm going to read this book I haven't read before, but I think I'll read these again too," but somewhat later I found myself a little intrigued by one of my choices. "The Fly in the Cathedral," by Brian Cathcart, is subtitled "How a small group of Cambridge scientists won the race to split the atom," and the first time I read it I thought of the history contained in it as a sort of "untold story" from the era I had seen described in some of the earlier chapters of Richard Rhodes's "The Making of the Atomic Bomb," which focused more on events mentioned almost in passing in this book, such as the discovery of the neutron. With the book out of the library again, though, I happened to think that it was, in fact, as much about the construction of the first particle accelerators as about "splitting the atom." This was no doubt prompted by the recent publicity about the activation of the Large Hadron Collider (even if it had to be shut down not that long after being started up for troubleshooting). The thought formed did perhaps leave me wondering if "nostalgia is a deceptive thing," if a machine assembled in a laboratory lecture room, vacuum-sealed for a time with plasticene, and whose detector was an observer crouched in a lead-lined box at the base, peering through a microscope at a fluorescent screen that registered particle impacts, is more "appealing" than modern "big science." On the other hand, the book's description of the press coverage at the time did note that there was just a bit of worry back then about how it "might get out of hand." The quest for deeper knowledge is, of course, a deeper consistency.
krpalmer: (Default)
Assorted discussion of late about the switching on of the Large Hadron Collider, and especially the efforts by some to find "risks" in it, have made me think a little. I suppose I agree quite firmly with those who aren't worried, such as the Bad Astronomer, but I can somehow see it as a "comforting" "technological apocalypse," if you're worried about "our own cleverness doing us in!" Worries about "too much stuff being put into the air" or "too little stuff to take out of the ground" seem to sound as if they threaten the way everybody lives, but a particle accelerator seems to be something the worried can do without... of course, I can also see it as being something for people to not take quite seriously, the way we wound up being able to look back on "Y2K" fears. (And at least for the moment, there are status reports on whether we're here or not.)
krpalmer: (anime)
In the latest issue of "Scientific American," there's a small article on the Japanese space agency working on that old dream of collecting solar power in space and beaming it down to Earth. That would be interesting enough (in a sort of "I hope that can happen" way), but the introductory paragraph to the article also caught my attention: it mentioned how "solar power from space" is also a world thread in the latest Gundam anime series. (The original Mobile Suit Gundam anime, made close to thirty years ago, featured the huge "O'Neill cylinder" space colonies designed then to possibly be used to build solar power satellites, although that idea seemed more or less absent from the series; "space colonies" wound up their own justification.) It sort of amused me to see this reference to a recent anime series, licensed now but not yet released in North America, be accepted by a writer (based in Tokyo, I noted, which is an obvious suggestion of where the reference came from) and the editors of a general science magazine alike. For at least one reader, too, it made perfect sense instead of just being an odd, half-understood note. For everyone else, I suppose, the magazine's humour columnist provided some very brief synopses for science fiction and fantasy movies. ("The Matrix: A man discovers his true destiny. Star Wars: An adolescent discovers his true destiny. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone: A boy discovers his true destiny. Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring: A hobbit discovers his true destiny.")
krpalmer: (mst3k)
I was starting to think about just what I might add to my journal to go in between posts about Mystery Science Theater 3000 episodes when I got around to listening to the weekly "podcast" of a radio science show. A feature on a book about how people can justify their own mistakes and "hear what they want to hear" caught my attention... and for some reason, instead of contemplating how I perhaps "seek out reinforcement" in general myself, I started thinking about how that might apply to the turbulent waters of "fandom" in particular, about how I can be irked by criticism of things I'm interested in... and then turn around and figure "they must be 'reinforcing' their own negative beliefs." Maybe it's always so turbulent when it comes to fandom because it's harder to "prove your opinion" than in real life.

While trying to figure out if I could find the time to expand those thoughts into a full and worthy post, though, I noticed a very interesting post elsewhere... it seems that Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie may well be returning to DVD at last. An old release of it went out of print long ago, and I always counted myself lucky to have noticed a local video store was selling off its tape of it, but of course it wasn't the same thing... and looking back at my thoughts, I started wondering if somebody might say something to the effect of questioning becoming excited over a mere chance to spend money.
krpalmer: (mimas)
Leafing through this month's issue of Scientific American, I saw that its "Working Knowledge" page (a sort of "how it's done" feature) was looking at blue screen effects. One little bit in the article mentioned seeing "how software has improved matting" by getting the two-disc release of The Empire Strikes Back, also mentioned in its timeline as showing how "mini-computers automated the blue-screen process." I have to admit, though, that one of my first reactions was the ungentlemanly "What, Star Wars itself isn't good enough for you?" Then, though, I remembered how, when watching the Vintage Editions, it was during The Empire Strikes Back that the visible matte lines really started catching up to me. I suppose that's one product of having a lot of special effects composited against blue sky and white snow. Still, some other points in the article did seem a little sketchy to me as well, such as referring to "computer-animated characters" in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

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