Is an International Nonprofit Space Program Possible?

Ever dream of being an astronaut?  Ever fantasize about developing a new rocket system to take people to Mars?  Ever wanted to be a colonist on the Moon?  For decades only the richest of nations could afford a space program.  In the last decade several rich men have started their own space programs for rich space tourists.  But what about us poor folks, with big final frontier dreams?  Could we collective scrape up a few billion to build our own space program?  The idea was once silly, but now that ordinary people are winning lotteries approaching a billion dollars, digging up the money to finance an amateur space program doesn’t sound as impossible as it once did.

Space programs 1.0 for most of history have been huge nationalistic affairs.  Only rich governments and astronauts with the right stuff could participate, leaving most would-be final frontier explorers on the ground.  The last decade has shown the rise of private space enterprises with the focus on space for profit, space programs 2.0.   But you still have to be a billionaire to own a space company, or a multi-millionaire to be a space tourist. 

I’m asking if a 3.0 generation of space exploration isn’t possible, one based on non-profit, open source, volunteerism, where ordinary people design, build and travel into space?

What motivates people?  As Daniel H. Pink explains in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, it isn’t the outer rewards that drive us the hardest, but the inner desires.  There’s not enough people interested in colonizing the final frontier to motivate Congress to spend more tax money on space exploration, but is there enough people interested by their own inner desires to finance a space program collectively?  We are seeing more and more projects developed around the world by volunteer effort.  Linux, the operating system that fits on everything from tiny embedded controllers to giant supercomputers, is produced by volunteer effort.  Kickstarter and Kiva show the power of individuals to financially back new ideas.  TED and Khan Academy illustrate the power of individuals with ideas to influence change.  Projects like Wikipedia show that people all over the world are willing to spend long hours working without pay to create something that almost everyone uses.

If you don’t know about the open source movement you should follow the link and read about it.  It’s about why and how programmers develop free computer programs for everyone to use.  Eric S. Raymond wrote a famous philosophical essay about open source software called The Cathedral & The Bazaar.  It’s hard to explain the open source movement in a few words, but it’s about people all over the world working on large projects, and through their own  self-starting initiative, creating something very valuable, that’s used by millions and billions of people.

The open source movement follows in the footsteps of the 19th century amateur scientist.   Now this power to the people philosophy is moving on to bigger projects, such as ARKYD: A Space Telescope for Everyone by Planetary Resources.

By using the crowd source funding site Kickstarter, Planetary Resources promises to build a space telescope for everyone to use.  You make it happen by donating money, and depending on how much you donate, you get various participation rewards.  The ARKYD is no Hubble Space Telescope, but it does show the power of people working together.

But what if we could crowd fund something bigger, like a manned lunar base?  The Bloomberg link sites one study claiming it will take $35 billion to put a four person base on the Moon.  The ARKYD project is aiming for $1 million dollars, and they are half-way funded, a Moon base would require 35,000 millions.  That’s several quantum leaps in crowd funding success.  Is such people funded projects even possible? 

What would a people’s space program cost?  Let’s imagine a private open source crowd funded space program with an annual budget of $5 billion dollars.  That’s 5,000,000,000 – lots of zeros.  It would require 50 million people donating $100 a year.  There’s probably not that many space enthusiasts in the world, because if there were, NASA would have solid public support when it comes to Congressional appropriations. 

A five billion dollar space program is also 5 million people donating a $1,000 a year.  That sounds like a lot, but that’s $83.33 a month, or about the cost of a monthly smartphone bill.  What if such a commitment would get you into a lottery to fly in space?  What if you got to help design a lunar colony?  That’s the kind of inner motivation that inspired Daniel Pink’s book, Drive

A club of 5 million people might be possible.  Especially when you think about how many volunteer type tasks would be required to start an open source space programs.  Let’s assume our open source space program doesn’t build rockets, but hires the 2.0 generation of private rocket builders, and our goal is to develop a lunar colony, it could take decades to evolve such a space program.  Let’s say for the first twenty years we devote ourselves to robotic missions to the Moon, how many people out there would love to design and build robots for the purpose, get no pay, but spend their their own money?

If we look around we can find thousands, if not millions of people already spending lots of their own money in scientific-like endeavors.  If you just include open source programmers, robot builders, amateur astronomers, amateur rocket builders, the Maker crowd, amateur AI developers, gamers who love to create complicated simulations, X-Prize enthusiasts, and get them all working on one big project, could we have an open source, non-profit space program?

In recent weeks I’ve seen quite a few internet stories that make me think such synergy is possible.

Amateur Astronomy

Amateur astronomers has always made significant contributions to real science. Timothy Ferris wrote a whole book on the topic,  Seeing in the Dark : How Amateur Astronomers Are Discovering the Wonders of the Universe.  With modest equipment, dogged determination, and disciplined  systematic effort, people without PhDs can add important information to scientific journals and research.  Take a look at the trailer for the PBS documentary that’s based on the book.  It’s available on Netflix.

Amateurs have recently discovered exoplanets by going through public data.  Amateurs often discover comets and supernovas.   Amateurs track asteroids and near Earth objects.  Amateurs monitor sunspots and double stars.  Telescopes are becoming more powerful and affordable to amateurs, and CCD astronomy lets amateurs take astronomical photographs that surpass what the Mt. Palomar telescope could take back in the 1960s.

The ARKYD space telescope is probably just the first of many amateur spaced based telescopes.  Because of the internet, there are many robot control ground based telescopes around the world that amateurs can use

Imagine amateur astronomers having a robotic lunar based telescope to share.

Make, Makers and Robots

Make Magazine has had a tremendous impact on the world of Do-It-Yourselfers.   Small cheap microcontrollers  like the Raspberry Pi and Arduino inspire people to become inventors of intelligent gadgets.  Look what Dave Ackerman did with a Raspberry Pi and a weather balloon.  Please follow the link to read a fascinating article.  These pictures look better than what the U.S. government with German scientists took with early sounding rockets back in the 1940s.


Make Magazine shows the tip of the iceberg for how many would-be inventors live in our world.   Now take a look at Robot Magazine.  How many boys and girls out there dream of building a robot that does something really cool?  Why should only JPL and NASA scientists have all the fun?

Science Fairs

Eesha Khare, an 18-year-old student from Lynbrook High School, Saratoga, California, won second place in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair this year for developing a super-capacitor that would allow cellphones and other electronic devices to be recharged in 20-30 seconds, instead of hours, and upped the recharging lifetimes from 1,000 charges to 10,000.  Ionut Budisteanu, 19, of Romania, developed AI for a self-driving car.  Henry Lin, 17, of Shreveport, Louisiana, develop a computer simulation “that simulated thousands of clusters of galaxies, providing scientist with new data that will allow them to better understand dark matter, dark energy and the balance of heating and cooling in the universe’s most massive objects.”

It’s obvious that individuals, without years of graduate school can do significant science.  Is it possible to coordinate amateurs to work on a much larger project that spans years of effort?

Open Source Space Program

What if we applied the open source programming  philosophy to amateur science to develop larger amateur projects?  The way open source software begins is when a software inventor starts a project and then Tom Sawyers other people to volunteer.  I imagine an open source space program to be an organization like Wikipedia that gives a collection of centralized tasks to thousands of volunteers.

An open source space program could start by designing itself with a virtual world version first.  That initial projects would be created in simulations, and once they are worked out, then start building real world projects.  Let’s imagine the first project is to design a lunar lander. Given the constraints of costs and the payload capacity of private launch rocket services, how big of a lander can we design?  For example, lets say we can get a 1000 pounds sent towards the Moon for $300 million.  How sophisticated can we make such a lander?

For any self-sufficient lunar colony to succeed it will require living off the land.  What elements exist on the lunar surface or in it’s scant atmosphere that can be used to build a base for human habitation?  The Moon has water, and that gives us raw material for oxygen to breathe, and oxygen and hydrogen for rocket fuel.  But can we find nitrogen on the Moon?  Trace amounts have been found in the atmosphere.  Could we build a machine that gathers significant amounts of nitrogen, so we could have a safe breathable atmosphere for when we robotically dig our underground Moon City?

The possibilities are endless.  We design a series of robots that process lunar resources into goods we don’t have to send to the Moon.  We keep sending robots to build what we need until we have a base that’s safe for humans.  Then we send people.

Now, is this possible through volunteer effort and open source techniques?

JWH – 6/5/13

The Second Renaissance in Astronomy

If you are young, are you prepared for the next fifty years?

If you are old, have you digested the last fifty years?

The future will be everything you never imagined.  And it gets here far faster than you planned.

When I was a boy the solar system had 9 planets, 31 moons, and an asteroid belt.  This was before the discovery of the cosmic background radiation and Fred Hoyle was still making a good case for the steady state theory against the big bang theory.

Fifty years later the solar system has 8 planets, 5 dwarf planets,  178 moons, an asteroid belt, a Kuiper Belt, and an Oort Cloud.  The Big Bang won.

… and we’ve discovered thousands of exoplanets!

The world’s largest telescope from 1949 to 1992 was the 200 inch (5 meters) Hale Telescope on Mount Palomar.  In the 1960s we were told it would be extremely difficult to engineer a larger land based scope, so we’d need a telescope in space to surpass the physical limitations of ground based observatories.  Of course, the world of astronomy was knocked on its ass by the success of the Hubble Space Telescope in the 1990s.  Most astronomy photos I admired in the 1960s were black and white, which left the impression that the universe was little more than fifty shades of gray.  The Hubble Space Telescope revealed an immense Technicolor reality beyond our skies, liked Dorothy opening the door to Oz.

The futurists of the past were wrong.  For the past twenty years there’s been a building boom in giant Earth based telescopes.  Astronomers are now using 10 meter telescopes like the W. M. Keck Observatory, and the Gran Telescopio Cararias.

Last week  the Thirty Meter Telescope got permission to build at the summit of Mauna Kea, with an estimated completion in 2018.


The European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) has also gotten permission to build a 39 meter telescope in Chile with an estimated completion date of 2022.


Both images are artist’s conceptions.

The list of the largest telescopes now shows 18 telescopes larger than the Hale Telescope that was so mind blowing to me as a kid.  Plus technologies like astronomical interferometry and adaptive optics let astronomers get more bang for the buck per aperture meter than ever imagined by pre-digital age telescope designers.  Essentially, modern engineers have gone way beyond the laws of 1960s physics.

For most Earthlings, astronomy is a science best left to super-geeks, but that will change, just like society changed after Copernicus and Galileo made their orthodox shattering observations.  As the telescopes get larger, the closer they get to detecting life and even intelligent life on far off extrasolar planets.  With more powerful telescopes we’ll be able to image planets directly, and do spectrographic analysis of their atmospheres.  Scientists will be able to detect biomarkers that will prove whether we’re alone in the universe.

Now that’s big!  How will such news change us?  Will it cause a new renaissance?

Probably such discoveries won’t change human life at the rat-race eye view.  We do live in a world where most people still think pre-Enlightenment thoughts.

Ever since Copernicus there have been people writing about life on other worlds.  Even the classical Greeks theorized about other worlds inhabited by intelligent beings.  For over a hundred years now, since H. G. Wells, popular media has entertained us with stories of alien invaders.  So what will happen to the people of Earth when astronomers point to stars and tell us they have planets orbiting them with chemicals in their atmospheres that can’t be made naturally?

Astronomy describes the scope of reality beyond Earth, it’s size and how it works.  Copernicus shook up the world by telling us the Earth moves.  What will it mean when astronomers prove we’re not alone?

Engineers are designing 100 meter telescopes.  What if we built a 100 meter telescope in space, say on the Moon.  That could happen in fifty years.  There is no way to imagine what discoveries it could make.

If you are young, in fifty years you will be writing an essay like this one.  The details will be much different.


JWH – 4/20/13

p.s.  Back in 1964 my younger self sided with Fred Hoyle. I thought the steady state theory more elegant philosophically. Hey, I was only 13. But if the multiverse pans out, old Fred and I will be vindicated.  So, what comes around, goes around.

A Universe From Nothing Lawrence M. Krauss

As far back as I can remember I’ve often contemplated why there is something rather than nothing.  And by nothing, I don’t mean empty space, because even that would be something.  I finally decided that nothing can’t exist.  That it’s impossible for “nothing” to exist, because if it could, we wouldn’t be here, and there would be nothing.  I concluded that reality is all the possible some-things coming into being. 

When I first saw a copy A Universe From Nothing by Lawrence M. Krauss I wondered if he had a scientific theory to explain why nothing cannot exist to support my own philosophical theory.  Sad to say, he doesn’t actual work with the same concept of nothing as I imagined it, but I think he’s getting close.  Theology has always been burdened with the question that intellectual pesky kids eventual ask, “Who created God?”  Smart kids will also ask scientists, “What created the Big Bang?”  Sooner or later the ontological question has to be:  “How did something come from nothing?”

Cosmology has always invaded the territory of theology and Krauss does not shy away from this conflict.  In fact, Christopher Hitchens had promised to write the introduction to A Universe From Nothing, but he died too soon, so Krauss got Richard Dawkins to write the afterward, which uses the science in this book to attack theology rather sharply.

It seems like every popular cosmology book I read has to reiterate all the cosmological discoveries since Edwin Hubble figured out that nebulae are galaxies existing outside of the Milky Way, and they are speeding away from us.  For a short 224 page book, Krauss gets the background covered quickly and moves on to the title topic, but it requires the reader to grasp quite a bit of recent research.  To understand nothing requires understanding a lot of some-things.

Now here is where I wish I had the writing skills of Brian Greene, my current favorite science writer.  Of course, if I had such writing skills I’d end up writing a book much like what Lawrence M. Krauss wrote – however, I’d still like to summarize what I learned from reading A Universe from Nothing.  I’ve lost count of how many books I’ve read on cosmology, or documentaries I’ve seen, but I feel the need to summarize just to get things straight in my head by listing them on paper.

And if Krauss and Dawkins are right, and cosmology deposes theology, then the average person needs to learn a lot to catch up with science.  Cosmology is science’s Book of Genesis.   But unlike the Bible myths, cosmology explains how the universe came about by studying the evidence, a lot of evidence, a whole lot of evidence.  And for some concepts, like the Big Bang, there are multiple paths that prove the theory that makes the scientific research more and more definite.  This is a lot of learn and its no wonder that most people prefer the Bible to answer their origin questions.

Here’s quick and dirty study guide to modern cosmology.  The more you know will make understanding A Universe From Nothing easier to understand and comprehend.  Also, it’s impossible to understand cosmology without understanding particle physics.

Now this is a lot to learn, and even after reading many books I only have a vague layman’s idea of what’s going on, but what’s fascinating is how everything interconnects.  Reading A Universe From Nothing just inspires me to read more, to keep putting more puzzle pieces together to get the big picture. 

Just take what we’ve learned about the cosmic microwave background radiation in my lifetime.  Reading The First Three Minutes by Steven Weinberg and The Very First Light by John C. Mather tells the long story of how the CMB was theorized, discovered, and measured to finer and finer accuracy.  The Very First Light is about building the COBE spacecraft to measure the CMB.  Then I read about the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe that studied the CMB with even more accuracy.  Then there was Planck spacecraft that explores even deeper.  If you aren’t familiar with the cosmic microwave background radiation then I beg you to study it.  It’s a near perfect example of how science works.   Just look at the list of the major experiments studying the CMB.  This history shows how experiments are constantly refined and evolved to find more evidence, or how to look for evidence from other sources, or from other approaches.  Science is a beautiful Chinese puzzle where the pieces interlock in elegant ways.

Don’t worry about not knowing mathematics to enjoy reading about cosmology.  Most of the popular science books are about the men who invented the mathematics, and their stories are told by the experimental evidence.  Their numbers are validated by real world experiments and applied engineering.  Did you know that GPS systems in your smartphones depend on mathematics that involve relativity?  Without Einstein’s equations they wouldn’t work.

Back to the book – does Krauss explain how something comes from nothing?  No.  But he does explain the current theories on dark energy, which suggests that powerful forces come from apparently empty space.  Of course, once we understand how dark energy, and dark matter work, they won’t seem like nothing anymore – they will be some-things.

The nothing Krauss is talking about are just some-things that science can’t see right now.  The nothing I say can’t exist is pushed further back into the unknown, into the multiverse.  Like the kid who asked who created God, I’m asking what created the multiverse, but if science could tell me, there would still be another layer of unknown to explore.  It’s still turtles all the way down.

Other Reviews:

JWH – 2/24/12

Accepting Reality

For most of the history of mankind, gods or God, explained reality.  God made us, the plants and animals.  Any event in nature, whether good or bad, was caused by gods or God.  Then science came along and explained rain, thunderstorms, earthquakes, eclipses, droughts, stars, planets, and so on.  When science explained the origin of animals and people, some religious people rebelled.

We now have people that reject science because they want to keep God.  They feel science is explaining away God.  I’m afraid they are right.  But instead of accepting reality and letting God fade away, like the gods before monotheism, they are rejecting reality.  When I was very young I rejected God and accepted science mainly because of the size of reality.  Reality seemed too immense to have been created by one being, especially one in our image.  Take a look at this video to see what I mean.

God was a great concept when our awareness of reality was small but once you realize the size of reality, age and scope, even at the limits of what we know now, that knowledge changes everything philosophically.  Humans can’t be the crown of creation.  We can’t be the center of the universe and the focus of God’s attention.  We can’t be special if we’re so small and insignificant.

So what is our place in the reality?  Years ago I would have asked, what is our place in the universe, but it appears our universe might be one of an infinity of universes, and this round of 13.7 billion years since the Big Bang, only a single bubble in a foam of universes.  Science now talk of the multiverse, but I prefer the term reality to encompass it all.

Humans are here in this vast reality by an accident of randomness.  We won’t always be here.  Reality existed before us, and it will exist after us.  Being here is the biggest miracle we’ve yet discovered.  It’s a miracle that outshines any miracle ever recorded in all of the religions of the world.

I think its time we reject the theory of God and start accepting reality for what it is.  Start asking questions about what existing in this vast reality means.  Becoming self-aware in this immense reality is a great opportunity.  Instead of destroying the Earth and committing species suicide we need to think about what we could become.  Don’t ask what is our purpose.  Under religion our purpose was to obey God.  Reality doesn’t work that way.  We each have to find our own purpose if we want one, but reality expects nothing of us.  We can’t have a personal relationship with reality.  Each of us is an awareness of reality, but most of us pretend we’re not here.

Erase all the past thoughts of religion and philosophy.  You just woke up in an unknown place.  Take stock in your surroundings.  You know that old saying, think global but act local – do the same for reality.  Our philosophy should be based on our best picture of reality.  Start with cosmology and work your way down.  Most people define reality by their very small personal delusions.  I say, any philosophy that doesn’t account for the size of reality dooms itself to a cockroach mentality.  A cockroach scurries about satisfying its personal urges unaware of its environment.  A cockroach does not know it’s in your kitchen because it doesn’t see the big picture.

There is only one human endeavor that tells us about reality, and that’s science.  I suggest starting at the top, and work down.  NOVA presented a wonderful four part series called The Fabric of the Cosmos hosted by Brian Greene based on his book of the same name.

Fabric of the Cosmos 1: What is Space?

Fabric of the Cosmos 2: The Illusion of Time

Fabric of the Cosmos 3: Quantum Leap

Fabric of the Cosmos 4:  University or Multiverse

Maybe there’s still room for religion in reality, I don’t know.  But any religion that ignores what we know about reality is delusional.

JWH – 2/11/12

Gave Away My Telescope

I haven’t used my telescope for about 3 years, so when a lady at work started talking about saving up for a telescope I gave her mine.  Now, it’s not that I’m losing my interest in astronomy, but it’s a recognition I’m not much of an observational kind of amateur astronomer.  The night before I bought Archives of the Universe:  A Treasure of Astronomy’s Historic Works of Discovery by Marcia Bartusiak.  What does it say about me that I find it far more exciting to read about the history of astronomy than look through a telescope?

I’m learning a lot about myself in my fifties.  Or maybe I’m learning the same things a second time.  My fifties, and I’m 58 now, have turned out to be a decade of returning to the interests and desires I loved in my teens.  I had a telescope in my teens and I gave it away too.  I even took astronomy and physics courses in my first two years of college, and dreamed of being a real astronomer, but I didn’t stick with it.

I’m a bookworm at heart and not a doer.  I’ve always dreamed of being a doer, but I just don’t have the personality for action.  I had a hard time adapting to the world of 9 to 5 work in my twenties, and for decades now my job has used up all my active energy.  I think about retirement all the time now.  Like in my teen years when I fantasized about what I would do when I grew up, I now fantasize about all the things I’d like to do when I retire, but I’m starting to think I won’t do that much.

It’s sad to say, but I’d rather spend time looking at a big picture book about astronomy than looking through a telescope.  Or I’d rather read biographies about astronomers than trying to recreate what they did.  My telescope was better anything Galileo, Copernicus or even Kepler had, and I did so little with it.

There are several pitfalls to owning a telescope.  The primary problem of small scopes is they never give views like the photographs you see in Sky and Telescope.  However, photographs are never as exciting as seeing Jupiter, Saturn or the Moon in real time with your own telescope.  After those three objects, how well a person will enjoy using a small telescope is determined by their temperament.  Most new scope owners will go hunting for the faint fuzzies, the term amateur astronomers use for all those gorgeous galaxies and nebula you see in Sky and Telescope, but when you find them they are more like tiny gray smudges than swirls of stars.  And they are damn hard to find.  

And it’s the skill in finding faint fuzzies that determines whether you’re going to really love owning a telescope.  I was never patient enough to develop a knack for star hopping, a technique of finding a naked eye star and looking at fainter stars through a low power lens to hop from one pattern to another until you find your target.  Through a telescope, you can aim it in the sky where you see one star, and through the eyepiece see twenty stars.  Learning those patterns within patterns is essential, and I never developed that skill.  Comet hunters learn the sky so well they can spot a new dot of light among old familiar patterns by memory. 

Amateur astronomers are a noble group, and some of them actually perform useful scientific research.   Another trait that separates me from real amateur astronomers is I don’t like  being outside or staying up late.  Oh, I love being out in the country, under dark skies looking up at the whole sky full of stars, but after about an hour, I’m satisfied.  Real amateur astronomers can stay out all night.  I’ve even discovered I prefer to stargaze without a scope under remote skies because I like the magnificent wide-field vistas to close-ups of tiny points of light .  Through a telescope you see way more stars, but a eyepiece full of tiny lights gets boring to me quickly.

The one skill I hoped to develop with my telescope was getting some kind of 3D sense of awareness of where I am in the universe.  Living on a big ball that’s spinning between day and night skies makes that difficult.  If the Earth wasn’t spinning on its axis or orbiting the Sun, most objects in the sky would remain fixed, and it would be easy to learn and remember their positions. 

I always wanted to master the constellations, so when a star or galaxy was mentioned, I could mentally picture in which direction of the sky to look.  Except for a handful of constellations, I never did this.  In urban skies, it’s very hard to make out constellations.  Ancient people saw far more stars than we do, and they spent way more time under the night sky, so memorizing the constellations was second nature to them.  Now, the night sky is a theoretical concept to most people.  That’s a shame.

I hope the lady at work can do more with my telescope than I did.  She has good vision and likes spending time outside, so I’m expecting to hear some great observing reports from her.

JWH – 6/20/10

The Edge of Physics by Anil Ananthaswamy

If you are the kind of person who believes that science explores reality and would love to catch up on  the latest explorations in cosmology and subatomic particles, then The Edge of Physics (2010) by Anil Anathaswamy is the book for you.  For years I’ve wanted to know where the big experiments are taking place, and even daydreamed of being a science journalist whose nine-to-five job would be to visit them, well Anil Ananthaswamy has my dream job.

The Edge of Physics is mostly a travel book, and Ananthaswamy even has photos for each of the sites he visited at his web site, collected chapter by chapter.  What Anil has done, and I hope he pardons my familiarity, because typing his last name is work, is weave science history in with his travelogue and then explain what each experimental site he visits hopes to achieve. 

To enjoy this book does not require a deep understanding of experimental physics or math, just a sense of wonder.  I’m praying to Einstein that  PBS’s NOVA makes a multipart series based on this book.  The average person is afraid of science, and Anil really goes a long way to making it accessible.  Anyone who hates that we’re spending billions on theoretical science needs to read this book too, because it makes you wish they’d spend billions more, because in the end, Anil helps us understand the mysteries that are remaining to be discovered.  And I hope I live long enough to hear those results reported too.

On the day I started this book I experienced a bit of serendipity.  The first chapter is about Mount Wilson and why the work it did back in the 1910s and 1920s is so important to the work being done today.  While listening to the book on audio I wished I could see pictures of what Anil was writing about.  Well, my wished was grant that very day, because that night NOVA started a two part Hunting the Edge of Space that featured photos and films from the early days of the Mount Wilson Observatory.  This documentary overlapped wonderfully with The Edge of Physics

Now, if NOVA would only film the other chapters.  Most people are familiar with visual telescopes but how many have heard of a neutrino telescope?  One of the more adventuresome trips Anil makes is to Lake Baikal, to where scientists brave the Siberian winter to build an underwater telescope beneath the ice of a large freshwater lake.  Anil also visits two sites in Antarctica, Chile, Hawaii, South Africa, deep underground in Northern Minnesota, India, and of course Switzerland where the LHC is located.

I read Sky and Telescope every month but I never knew there was so many big telescopes around the world.  I wish someone would build a web site for telescopes like they have for the Top 500 Supercomputer Sites.  And I also wish someone would build the Top 500 largest science research sites.  And reading The Edge of Physics I could imagine a new tourist industry based on visiting scientific research.  I don’t have the money to take up that hobby right now, but I’m inspired to see if I can find web sites for all the places Anil visited in his book:

All this travel is glamorous but the real value of The Edge of Physics is what Anil reports about the status of all these experiments.  He really is trying to show his readers where the edge of physics lies, and what that means.  I can’t summarize that, you need to read the book, but if you haven’t read any science books in a few years, you’ll be surprised by how far science has gotten to explaining all of reality.  We are far from finished, but wow, scientists are hot on the trail of explaining almost everything.  Research in particle physics, dark matter, dark energy, cosmic background radiation, string theory, multiverses, radio astronomy, neutrino astronomy, are converging towards filling in missing puzzle pieces. 

It’s like doing a Sudoku puzzle.  Finding any one number can solve problems in all nine quadrants.  Breakthroughs at any one of these sites Anil visits means more evidence for the other sites.  Everything is interrelated.  I’d love to be able to list all the areas of research covered in this book with hyperlinks and explanations, but I’d have to write a book and Anil Ananthaswamy has already done that for us.  Be sure an visit Anil’s blog for newer reports.

JWH – 4/24/10

Pale Blue Dot

I discovered over at Mike Brotherton’s blog that today, 11/7/9, is Carl Sagan Day, and Mike makes some interesting observations about Sagan and Richard Dawkins and the public’s attitude towards their atheism.  For awhile, Carl Sagan was the face of science to the general public, sort of like Stephen Hawking is today.  Any second rate pop/rock/movie/sports star is more famous than these scientists, but they have great influence on millions of Earthlings.  I think Sagan’s Cosmos book and TV documentary series introduced cosmology and science to a generation of people and it’s impossible to judge his impact.

Mike Brotherton’s blog is a favorite of mine because he and I share a similar fascination with science and constantly wonder why science isn’t more widely accepted by the public.  Read his recent essay “Smarts, Spontaneity, Science, and Science Fiction.”  It explores just how hard it is to teach science, or even just express scientific ideas.  That’s why Carl Sagan was so admired, he could communicate scientific ideas.  And I agree with Mike, Sagan wasn’t as successful as his popularity, too often Carl Sagan was ridiculed on SNL other LCD comedy shows as being a geeky guy, too overly enthusiastic about billions of stars.

The people of our planet focus too narrowly on their own personal immediate reality, and all too often they believe silly theories about ontology.  Carl Sagan tried to show people we live in a vast Cosmos and reality can’t be explained by just what we see in front of our noses.  Look at this photo:


If you look close you’ll see a little pale blue dot in the center, a bit bigger than all the other dots in this grainy photograph.  That’s Earth as seen from Voyager 1 on the way out of the solar system.  By astronomy standards, this is an extreme close-up.  We’re use to seeing high-powered electron-microscope photos of our planet in comparison. If a photograph could be taken of the universe as a whole, our galaxy wouldn’t even be visible.  It’s hard to take our silly ideas about the meaning of life seriously when we see the relative perspective of our existence in relationship to all of space and time. 

That’s why I call existence the foam of reality.  From most perspectives, whether 10 to the +25 or 10 to the -25 magnitude vantage points, reality looks like a homogenous foam or fuzzy collection of points of reflected light.  We only see details at magnitude 0

The universe is so vast in scope and dimensions, that it’s hard to imagine a deity even noticing us.  One of the major lessons that Carl Sagan taught us, is we are insignificant in relation to the rest of the universe.  That little dot is home to seven billion people, and from their perspective their lives are the center of the universe, but we must remember that’s an illusion. 

Carl Sagan is most famous for his book Cosmos, but he wrote a sequel that is less famous, based on this photograph, and also called, The Pale Blue Dot.  Any philosophy or theology that tries to explain the meaning of reality must incorporate our true position in the universe, anything less will be delusional.  Science is hard to teach because you have to get little minds to think big, and Carl Sagan could do that.

JWH – 11/7/9

The Very First Light by John C. Mather

I just finished a revised and updated version The Very First Light by John C. Mather (and John Boslough), subtitled: The True Inside Story of the Scientific Journey Back to the Dawn of the Universe.  This makes a great book to read during the International Year of Astronomy 2009 because it shows how modern day Galileos do their work, not with handmade telescopes, but with space probes that look backwards in time, capable of finding direct evidence to when the universe was just 300,000 years old.  I intentionally selected this book to be a sequel to my reading The First Three Minutes by Steven Weinberg.  Both Mather and Weinberg won Nobel Prizes in Physics.

The Very First Light is the story of Mather’s development as a scientist, from graduate student to becoming the one of the lead scientists on the team that built the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) spacecraft, which collected data that validated basic ideas about the Big Bang theory origin of the universe.  The book chronicles how Mather got involved with doing experiments with balloon launched scientific instruments, that led to proposals for NASA to launch better instruments on sounding rockets, to designing a mission for the space shuttle that had to be redesigned after the Challenger disaster, to succeeding with a vast team of scientists that successfully orbited the COBE satellite with a Delta rocket that was so old and rusty that it had patches, but in the end the COBE team made discoveries that astounded the scientific world and proved what space based astronomy laboratories can do for the field of cosmology. 

In the revised edition of this book, Mather adds new information about his work on the James Webb Space Telescope, a telescope that could be more exciting than the Hubble Space Telescope.  (Follow the links to official NASA sites for each telescopes.)

I found The Very First Light to be a richly rewarding read into how scientists work and think.  Mather, along with his co-writer Boslough, make the story into a first person account, that quickly sketches pre-thesis discovery of the cosmic background radiation problem, to how a young scientist gets involved with NASA’s bureacacy and eventually goes to work on one of the most exciting scientific teams of the 20th century.  The book was too short for me, it could have been three times as long, and still I would have hungered for more details.

I’ve always wondered how those densely packed satellite probes are designed and built, and this book only roughly describes the process.  The book covers the three sensors of the COBE probe with NOVA science show level of details, but I ended up wanting a 13 part Ken Burns miniseries, the topic was so fascinating.   NASA does offer Legacy Archive for Microwave Background Data Analysis that has great detailed information on the COBE mission, as well as related probes that’s covered in The Very First Light for those people who want to know more.

When researching this review on the web, I noticed a lack of reviews for this book.  It first came out in the early days of the web, and the version I read is a revised edition published 9/29/08.  This book deserves more attention.  George Smoot, Mather’s co-winner of the Pulitzer, wrote his account of the COBE story in Wrinkles in Time, which appears to be out of print, but readily available used on Amazon and ABE.

JWH – 8/2/9

How to Introduce Physics to Your Friends?

My friends know I’m a bookworm and often greet me with, “What are you reading?”  This past week I’ve been causally replying, “A book on physics.”   To which all my friends give me a strange look that asks, “Why the f#@* would you want to do that?”  Last night, when Janis asked, and gave me the same facial response, I felt compelled to try and explain myself, but I came up short.  How do you quickly sum up the beauty of physics in a few sentences?

Later, while driving home, I wondered if there were any books to give my friends that would introduce them to physics.  Is there any physics book that the average person would be willing to try?  I flipped through some popular titles and textbooks on my bookshelves and immediately knew they wouldn’t do.  I went to the bookstore and looked at intro books like Physics for Dummies, Physics Demystified and Head First Physics.  The answer was still a big “No Way!”

Is there a way to introduce physics in a short blog essay?  Physics is a very big subject, beginning with the smallest objects in reality and ranging up to the very largest.  This made me think of the videos Powers of Ten by Charles and Ray Eames and Cosmic Voyage, the Imax movie narrated by Morgan Freeman.  If my friends could watch those videos on a big screen television and study them I think it would be a fantastic start.  They are easy to understand but have a huge sense of wonder impact.  However, I’m not sure if the crude versions found on the Internet will be that inspiring.  I did find a DVD copy Cosmic Voyage at Amazon for $8.99.

Thinking about these impressive films got me to wondering if it might be possible to introduce physics by showing DVDs that illustrate the most exciting aspects of physics.  Are any physics documentaries good enough that if I lent them to my friends they’d come back and ask if I had any more great DVDs like that one?  I’ll order Cosmic Voyage and give it a try.

How Big is the Universe?

I do believe understanding the Powers of Ten is a key starting place.  I have the original Powers of Ten book by Charles and Ray Eames and studying it really helps to grasp the scope of the world of physics.  It’s very important to teach people the size of the universe, from the very smallest to the largest and get a feel for scientific notation.  Recently The National Geographic Channel showed the documentary, “Journey to the Edge of the Universe.”  This beautiful film uses state of the art computer animation to survey the macroverse from Earth to the edge of the Universe.

The value of the visuals is diminished by not knowing the numbers behind glorious images, so that’s why I think a good understanding of the Powers of Ten video should come first.


Physicists now think in terms of trillions of years.  Right now, I can’t think of any documentaries to teach about time.  I love all those analogies about the history of the universe and life on Earth, comparing time since the Big Bang to one year, and then explaining that human civilization is just the last couple of seconds of that year.  I need to track down a great documentary on time.


Classical physics is about motion.  Knowing about distance and time prepares us for studying movement.  Again I can’t think of any standout documentaries.  DVD courses like “The Great Ideas of Classical Physics” from The Teaching Company come to mind, but I don’t think I’ll get my friends to sit through its 24 lectures.

If only the series The Mechanical Universe were easily available.  If you follow the link you can register and watch small Windows Media coded versions online for free, but it costs $450 for a set of 52 thirty minute episodes on 12 DVDs.  Again, not something my friends are likely to pursue.  The great thing about The Mechanical Universe, the 1985 PBS television series, is its an introductory course to physics from California Institute of Technology.  What made the show really stand out was the mathematical animation by Jim Blinn – if only all math courses included such animation.  It’s sad that the tiny free Internet versions also have tiny impact.


You’d think I wouldn’t have to promote the teaching of electromagnetism because our society depends so much this technology that was first discovered in the 18th and 19th century and turned into tech magic in the 20th.  But how many people know that magnets are used to generate electricity?  Or that electricity can be used to turn a piece of iron into a magnet?  I think when Arthur C. Clarke said his famous phrase, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” he was referring to far future technology, but for the average person, all modern technology is magical.  Does the public even understand the relationship between quantum physics and televisions?

Weak and Strong Forces

Exploring the world of the very tiny means understanding the building blocks of nature.  It also brings us closer to understanding how something came out of nothing.  And isn’t it strange that the only science that fundamentalist terrorists pursue is the one that leads to atomic bombs?  Again, I can’t think of a good film to illustrate this area of physics, although quantum physics is often covered in documentaries.  I’m hoping the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) will generate tons of news and documentaries in the coming years so maybe my physics pooh-poohing friends will even remember its name.


Probably most people have seen documentaries about gravity.  All kids are taught about Galileo and Newton, but I doubt people know that NASA is planning a series of gravity probes like LISA and Big Bang Observer.  These deep space instruments will study colliding stars, ripples in space-time, and echoes of the early universe.  There is no way to explain the magnitude of this research.  The only analogy I can think of is if Christians built a time machine and went back to the Garden of Eden to interview God.  The more science studies the Big Bang the closer we come to understanding the Genesis of our physical reality.  How can my friends think this is boring?

How Limited is Your View of Reality?

An earlier draft of this essay pursued the idea that people who ignored physics chose to have a small view of reality.  I referenced my earlier blog post, “What Shape is the Universe?” where I was going to chide my friends for living in a small dinky universe of only a few magnitudes of dimension.  I can’t help think that many of the failings of our societies on Earth are due to only reacting to nearby reality without trying to see the big picture.  Would Israelis and Palestinians be killing each other if they all understood how big reality is and how small their feud?  Shouldn’t the whole Arab-Jew conflict resolve when they see their religions disappear in the light of science?  Israel and Gaza are probably less than two electrons in comparative size if we relate the size of our world to the Universe.

On the other hand, if humans are the crown of creation, the pinnacle of 13.7 billion years of evolution, then we are big things indeed.  But if we kill each other like viruses are we really all that evolved or intelligent?  As long as our guiding knowledge comes from speculation about reality derived three thousand years ago by nomadic people closer to cave men than to us, is there any wonder why science is ignored?  Most of my friends are well educated, with very few even concerned with religion, but people who base their knowledge on the humanities and literature are still stuck in the past.  Most of our social customs and beliefs developed during the Middle Ages.  Science is the only systematic pursuit of knowledge that consistently succeeds in explaining reality, but it’s a relatively recent development and hasn’t fully integrated into human behavior and thought.

We build our society on the handmaiden of science, technology, but we ignore the wisdom of science.  I’m intrigued by the idea of The Third Culture proposed by John Brockman.  Brockman gets his idea from C. P. Snow who wrote a book called The Two Cultures, comparing literary intellectuals and scientists, and suggests that a third culture would form when the two merged.

This makes me think of flipping through a university catalog of courses.  You can divide them into science base courses and all others, usually what we might call the humanities, or practical courses like business and law.  What Brockman seems to be saying, until the humanities and the rest of university courses are based on science, even with areas like the study of English literature, we won’t begin to see the true value of science pervade society.  Now the idea that science might infuse with all areas of knowledge could be a science fictional dream, but it is something I hope for, because until then the average person will think physics is boring.

JWH 1/11/9

Hubble Telescope at 10x or 100x or 1000x

The other night I caught a new documentary, “Hubble’s Amazing Universe” on the National Geographic Channel that in high definition wonder showed how the Hubble Space Telescope revolutionized astronomy since 1993.  Sadly, I can’t find a link to an online version.  I hope they repeat this HD documentary often because seeing the spectacular Hubble images on a 52″ inch screen was beyond beautiful.  Using technology that I can’t name, they made the images look three dimensional, and the stories that went with them explained why Hubble was well worth it’s price tag of billions.

Now, I’ve got to wonder, what will a telescope that is 10 times more powerful than the Hubble will see and discover?  What about one 100 times more powerful, or even a 1,000 times more powerful?  We really won’t know what such futuristic telescopes will discover, because like the Hubble’s discoveries, they will be unexpected.  In my mind, the most exciting thing these future space telescopes could discover are Earth-like planets orbiting around nearby stars that show indications of life or technology.


Pillars of Creation

Ever since our cave dwelling days, humans have been asking how we got here in this unbelievable reality.  Well, the Hubble telescope has shown us how big here really is, both in dimension and composition.  Hubble has revealed stellar nurseries and black hole graves.  It has helped scientists make discoveries about dark matter and energy, and revealed the largest structures in the universe discovered to date.

Most people never ponder the size of reality.  They never grasp that we live in space-time.  Hell, few people even look at up at the lights in the sky at night.  If Genesis had to encompass the scope of Hubble’s vision, imagine how different God and the Bible would have been.  Is there any analogy that I can give that can convey the scope of how far Hubble can see?  If you were the smallest sub-atomic particle in an carbon atom that’s part of a molecule in a one cell of your heart, would any scientific instrument you build show you how big your body would be?  Imagine being one grain of sand and trying to count all the others on a beach?  In the photo above, our solar system is so small it wouldn’t be seen in those dust pillars that are light years high.  But look at the picture below.  The above scene is smaller than you in relation to the solar system compared to the objects in the photo below.


This is the famous Hubble ultra deep field photo, where scientists tried to photograph an empty patch of sky.  Each speck of light is a galaxy containing billions of stars.  Now imagine a more powerful space telescope picking a black patch in this photo and zooming in on it.  What would it see?

We know the universe is big.  Back to that analogy of being a sub-atomic particle in your heart, now imagine trying to figure out that you are part of a body of organs, each with its purpose, could you ever imagine what the brain does from just looking at its parts from your tiny vantage point?  It’s no wonder that so many want to embrace the Biblical view of creation, because the scientific view is too much work to grasp by us little fellas.  Individually we are tiny, but scientists stand on each other’s shoulders to get the bigger view.  Now imagine future space telescopes spying on nearby stellar systems and seeing other Earth-like worlds, worlds where we analyze the chemicals in their atmospheres.  What if we discovered what we call man-made chemicals?

Now imagine, if we could get our giant artificial brains to communicate with the distant giant AIs of their world.  How far can two species see standing on each other’s shoulders?

Think of it another way.  If we consider every human as a cell in the body of a single being called humanity, a space telescope could be its eyes, and all our computers and knowledge, its brain.  The mirror lens of the Hubble telescope was slightly wider than a very tall man.  Now imagine building a pair of eyes in space where the pupils were the size of a football stadium?  How far could our new body see?  Then hook them up to immense armies of computers and swarms of natural philosophers and you might begin to imagine what I’m asking.  And, I’m only wondering, “what might we see?”  We won’t know until we build these new eyes.

The primary question we’ve always asked is, “Where do we come from?”  The next important question is, “Are we alone?”  We hoped that SETI would answer that question, but it might be astronomy and space telescopes that will actually answer it.  The manned Apollo missions to the Moon answered a lot of scientific questions, but the Hubble Space Telescope has answered an immense amount more in comparison.  Some people are now asking, what if we went back to the Moon and built truly giant telescopes on its far side, how far could we see?

The James Webb Space Telescope is schedule to fly to L2 orbit in several years, and it’s eye is 6.5 meters in diameter, compared to Hubble’s 2.4.  The JWST is designed to see in the infrared, and not the visible spectrum like Hubble, but then the visible spectrum is such a tiny fragment of the total spectrum to be explored.

What if Congress had said no to the financial bailout, and given the $700 billion to astronomers, how much more would we have gotten for our money?  Just try and speculate what life on Earth would be like if we found out we weren’t alone in the Universe, and had nearby neighbors.  The Hubble Space Telescope gave us a quantum leap in knowledge about the universe, so think about a Hubble telescope at 10x, or 100x or 1000x.

JWH 11-18-08


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