Sunday, July 19, 2009

Moon Landing Anniversary

Forty years ago today, three American men—Neil Armstrong, Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin, and Michael Collins—were floating in a tiny spacecraft above the surface of the Moon getting ready for two of them to make history: tomorrow will be the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

If Neil, Buzz, and Mike could have looked ahead 40 years from that point, where would they have thought we'd be right now? The reality is that we haven't been back to the moon in decades, and our space program has languished by trying to do too much (space shuttles, space stations, earth science, planetary science, astronomy, robotic exploration, etc.) with too little funding. And here we are, finally talking about going back to the moon. But we're going to be doing so with basically the same level of technology that those three brave explorers had at their disposal.

That's not to say that we haven't learned anything in that time. We know far, far more about the effects of weightlessness on the body, about how the radiation of space will affect the next wave of explorers we send beyond low Earth orbit (LEO), and the avionics that control the spacecraft will be vastly more advanced than the mostly analog and mechanical components that powered Apollo 11 and the Eagle landing craft to the Moon.

But we have numerous challenges to overcome before routine flights to space stations and beyond are within the grasp of mere mortals like you and me: the cost of just getting to LEO are unimaginably high (they say that once you've gotten to LEO, you're halfway to anywhere in the Solar System); we still don't have a good way to protect the intrepid explorers aboard the space craft in the event of a solar radiation storm; we still don't have the ability to survive once we get where we're going without sending replacement supplied from Earth at great expense.

Decades before the U.S. space program was even conceived, science fiction writers painted a picture of a future with flying cars, asteroid mining, people travelling the stars in highly advanced spacecraft, extrasolar colonies, and more. And for the most part, they thought we'd be there by now. What went wrong?

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Science at the Creation Museum

What happens when a group of scientists—attendees at the North American Paleontological Convention—take a trip to the Creation Museum? Science and religion clash, that's what.

The New York Times has an article this week about that very occurrence, with interviews with both the scientists and the staff at the Museum. There are some scary things in what the creationists have to say. Apparently the Great Flood was the cause of everything that turned the world into what it is today, including creating the layers of soil and rock that paleontologists dig through, as well as separating the continents and putting them where they are (all in a matter of a few days, not over the course of billions of years). One wonders what happened to all of the lava that would have welled up if you had ripped apart a massive land mass that quickly.

One also must wonder if the Great Flood changed the rate at which carbon-14 decays, since that's how scientists determine how old the various layers of soil and rock are. Did carbon-14 decay more quickly before the flood? Did God change the laws of nature on us, just to confuse us? Was He trying to deceive us into thinking that the world is billions of years old?

Or is it more likely that the Bible was written by people, not by God, people who are by their very nature flawed? The earliest stories in the Bible happened long before the Hebrews had a written language, so they were told verbally from one generation to the next. Isn't it possible—even likely—that some of the stories may have changed a little bit with the telling over tens or hundreds or thousands of generations? Not to mention the fact that there are numerous versions of the Bible, some of which have had translational errors over the years. So why do people insist on ignoring scientific evidence and believing that the Bible, as written, is the Word of God?