About This Moon Malarky

I try to be tolerant and understanding of other people’s positions, but moon-hoax conspiracists really get my dander up. I mean….I mean…no, we’ll come back to that.
My recent post, Yes virginia we really did land on the moon has been very popular, and prompted someone on Quora to asked what are the best pieces of evidence that the moon landings were faked. Well, there are none. No, really. None at all. There are only assertions made by people who have absolutely. No. Clue:
  • No stars in pictures (camera stopped down for lunar surface )
  • Flags waving (held by wire)
  • Apollo 11 flag “billowing ” (it was curled from long storage)
  • No blast crater under the LEM (early engine cutoff was to prevent cratering)
  • Dust around the lander. Or something.
  • Non-parallel shadows. (The moon has terrain)
  • Seemingly identical backgrounds. (when kilometers away)
  • Lander unable to balance itself on a rocket. (Like Surveyor and Lunakod did? Like space-X did–YESTERDAY–with six times the gravity and cross winds?)
  • Lunar trainer impossible to fly. (It was not, except when it broke).
  • No flames from lunar launch. (small UDMH engine in a vacuum)
  • Herky-jerky movement of LEM (in low frame rate engineering camera films)
  • No RCS plumes (in same footage with shutter speed less than thruster duration)
  • Astronauts footage shot in slow-motion (demonstrably not so)
  • Why was every picture perfect? (Because NASA didn’t put the crappy ones in Life—but they are on the website)
  • Missing crosshairs in photos (because LIGHT)
  • The deadly radiation of space (is not deadly for a mere camping trip)

accident-christmas

Every single assertion made by these hoaxicanians only demonstrates their own ignorance of physics, optics, basic science, basic math, how to keep a secret (tell only two people–then kill them), how rockets work, how air works, how inertia works, the effects of radiation on the human body, how static charge affects objects, the state of electronics in the 1960s, how TV works, gravity–and EVERY OTHER SINGLE THING

But that’s okay. If it will make the world a better place and my blog a busier nexus of nerd-dom, I’m prepared to refute every single claim by any hoaxicanian anywhere, no matter how daft or ditsy–if that’s what you all would like.

But first, what think ye of this quick and dirty stab? Does this do it in a nutshell? Want more? Have a few dozen more assertions to add to my list (I’ve heard some doozies)? Let me know. The more the merrier.

Outer Spacey Music

The media has been all abuzz today with amazing “revelations” of alien music heard by the crew of Apollo 10 on the dark side of the moon and “classified” until 2008.

Really?

Got a source for that guys? A source other than Fox News or the Interwebs? Cause I do, and it’s not classified, it’s right on the official web site of Nasa’s history office: http://history.nasa.gov/ap10fj/as10-day5-pt20.htm

Some Apollo data was classified at the time (remember the Cold War and the Space Race?) and some of it might not have been released in a timely manner due to oversight, but there was certainly no special treatment given to this event on some “spooky” account. How do I know? Simple. I read the freakin transcript.

Here’s the deal. Apollo 10 went to the moon and did everything but touch down. They detached the LEM and maneuvered in space, the CSM and the LEM, orbiting together as the LEM prepared to go down on a checkout flight. The idea was to run through a landing, but do a planned abort to test the ascent propulsion system and guidance without getting too low for rescue by the CSM in case of failure.

What is being reported as some great mystery is this exchange, plainly recorded in the publicly available transcript just as they were testing their radar (Snoopy is the Lunder lander, flying free of the CSM):

102:12:53 Stafford (in Snoopy): You want some more brownies?

102:12:54 Cernan (in Snoopy): No.

102:12:56 Stafford (in Snoopy): [Garbled] go hungry.

102:13:02 Cernan (in Snoopy): That music even sounds outer-spacey, doesn’t it? You hear that? That whistling sound? (This is the first mention of the sound.)

102:13:06 Stafford (in Snoopy): Yes.

102:13:07 Cernan (in Snoopy): Whooooooooooo.

102:13:12 Young (in CSM): Did you hear that whistling sound, too?

102:13:14 Cernan (in Snoopy): Yeah. Sounds like – you know, outer-space-type music.

102:13:18 Young: I wonder what it is.

102:13:20 (Cernan and Stafford discuss burned insulation outside their LEM windows.)

102:13:29 Cernan (in Snoopy): – eerie, John?

102:13:34 Young: Yes, I got it, too. I was going to see who was outside.

102:13:45 Stafford (in Snoopy): You mark that set of features, Gene-o. I’m going to fix us some grape juice. OK? (Stafford is clearly taking Young’s remark as a joke. All is well.)

. . .[The next three minutes are spent discussing photography of a lunar crater, altitude and range, and how well the radar is performing.]. . .

102:17:58 Cernan (in Snoopy): Boy, that sure is weird music.

102:18:01 Young: We’re going to have to find out about that. Nobody will believe us.

102:18:07 Cernan (in Snoopy): No. It’s a whistling, you know, like an outer space-type thing. (He means like a theramin, commonly used in scifi movies of his youth. In fact, it sounds more like a lightning strike creating shortwave radio noise that travels around the ionosphere back on earth, but its much more uniform than that.)

phasing-insertion-sml

102:18:10 Young: Probably due to the VHF ranging, I’d guess. (Yeah, that’s what it sounds like to me too, either that or electrical noise from static charge movement we now know to occur near the lunar terminator due to the solar wind.)

102:18:16 Cernan (in Snoopy): Yes. I wouldn’t believe there’s anyone out there. OK, Tom, I’m going to call up P20 (Program 20, universal tracking–using the radar).

102:18:26 Cernan (in Snoopy): We want to pressurize our APS here. You get your Rendezvous Radar breakers all In?

102:18:29 Stafford (in Snoopy): Oh, yes. I’m locked on to him (The LEM radar is locked onto the CSM)

102:18:31 Cernan (in Snoopy): OK.

102:18:42 Stafford (in Snoopy): It may be a side lobe (The “music” might be a side lope of the radar beam interfering with the radio.

102:19:01 Stafford (in Snoopy): It’s weird, isn’t it?

102:19:03 Cernan (in Snoopy): Isn’t that weird?

102:19:11 Stafford (in Snoopy): I think that’s a side lobe.

102:19:15 Cernan (in Snoopy): Is it? Huh?

102:19:17 Stafford (in Snoopy): Yep.

And there you go. Later analysis confirmed the cause to be interference between the VHF radio gear on the two spacecraft. The great mysterious “space music,” which according to “News” reports was “classified till 2008” was just the rendezvous radar leaking into the radio spectrum. You know, my college radio station had sideband leakage into the shortwave bands, and even though our transmission was FM, we once got a letter from a guy 600 miles away in Illinois saying he listened on shortwave (AM).

I’m not sure where this “classified” recording would have come from. Apollo uses a special recorder to store voice and instrument data for compressed transmission back to earth. The recordings were transcribed back in the ’70s, and stuck in a warehouse somewere. The have been out on the Internet for a few years, but there is no good index and the recordings are raw. Crew voices are often inaudible beneath the thrum of the instrument signal data. It’s possible someone went looking for the “music” and was able to extract it from the background noise. It would not be surprising if it survived, given that it was heard over the radio by both the CSM and LEM.

At any rate, it wasn’t little green DJ’s playing “Space Music.” It was interference from the rendezvous radar other radio emmissions from the two spacecraft, and the (rather obvious) testement to that fact is the crew’s reaction: Hey what’s that? The Radio. Great, want some juice.

As if going to the freakin moon isn’t entertaining enough.

Geez.

Help for a Moon Hoax Fence Sitter

Someone recently asserted that “his dad” said th moon landings couldn’t be real because blah, blah, blah and that’s impossible, to which I responded with reality. The questioner that came back with these followups:

“What was the radiant barrier [that keeps spacecraft cool] made of?” Several layers of aluminized Mylar (the same stuff that is now used in attics) over a “superinsulation” of alternating layers of Kapton and glass-fiber cloth.

“Water cooled, [referring to spacesuit thermal control undergarments] that must have weighted a lot” No. Tiny plastic tubes filled with glycol and water were sewn to a mesh garment worn over the permanent waer garment, so one layer over the underwear. The purpose was mostly to remove the astronaut’s body heat. The suit reflected much of the sun’s heat and the remaining extremes between the sunlit and shadow sides canceled each other out. Movement, air circulation, and the water garment ensured no hot or cold spots. Thermo regulation was absolutely not a problem..

“If I remember correctly, the suits were at 250 F which is 121 C, at 100 C water boils, so the air inside the suit, when reaching 100 C would make the body of the astronauts burn and the blood boil.” No, dark surfaces would have heated up, but the white suit and reflective visor, combined with insulation, prevented the surface from getting so hot and prevented the heat from reaching the astronaut. Air entering the suit was cold anyway, because it was stored under pressure. The was not a problem. Firefighting gear has it far, far harder.

“Since they were in low pressure inside the suits, they would have boiled at even less temperature.” Yes they would, at about 170 F, but that was never going to happen.

“And cooling that water would be really hard.” No, cooling that water was simplicity itself. When they were in the shade or resting they didn’t need to cool it much at all. Gemini suits had no water cooled undergarment at all, and they worked just fine until the astronauts started doing physical work. In the A7 suits used by Apollo, when they we in the sun for a while or getting hot, a porous plate sublimator was used to cool a heat exchanger, which cooled the glycol loop. The Astronaut could control how much of the glycol went through the heat exchanger soas to avoid overcooling. This method is still used today, and was used for supplemental cooling on the LEM as well.

“Handling half a tank of water in the tank would make a pretty unstable astronaut” Good thinking! Naturally, the engineers thought of that. Water for the sublimator was stored in two flexible bladders, a primary holding about a gallon and a secondary holding about half that much. This were no more problem than today’s CamelBak packs. Really, the inertia of the entire PLSS pack was more of an issue than water slosh.

“Since they were in space, I suppose those are psi absolute, which would mean about 1/3 of the pressure at sea level.” Correct. Apollo spacesuits were pressurized to 5.5 psi of pure oxygen.

“Bizarre that they would use only oxygen given Gus Grissom’s death because of that in 1967.” Not at all. They still use pure oxygen in suits to this day. The reason is that inflating to 14.7 PSI would cause the suits to balloon and make flexing the joints too hard for the wearer, and adding nitrogen to the mix would make the life support pack far more complicated, prone to failure, and tricky to operate. Fire is no more a risk at 5.5PSI and 100% O2 than normal air at sea level. The Apollo 1 pad fire was caused by procedural oversights that led to the cabin being filled with more than sea level pressure of pure O2—a very bad idea. Also, suits are carefully constructed to prevent any source of sparks, and the astronaut can’t exactly forget and light up a stogie.

Hamilton standard’s tests showed that a man can live on pure O2 down to 3.7PSI–provided it’s all oxygen.

“If they weighted 1/6 of earth gravity they would have been able to kick a ball and put it into orbit.” No they wouldn’t. The minimum speed for lunar orbit is well over 2km per second.

“Without atmosphere and with an escape velocity of just 2 m/s, even an astronaut jumping would have been able to put himself into orbit,” No, because we are talking about the moon, where the escape velocity is 2.38 THOUSAND m/s. Even if your astronauts brought a clown cannon, they aren’t entering orbit.

“all the recorded videos and photos show the moon as having its horizon between 100 and 200 m” No they don’t. The horizon on the moon is about 2 kilometers away if you are standing on a plain, and that’s what all the photos show, but there is nothing to give a visual sense of scale.You can’t tell how far away a lunar mountain is without looking at a map. Jack Schmitt took this telephoto image of the Apollo 17 LEM from a rise 3 km away, with mountains in the background:

luna16

Or consider this shot of Apollo 15 from its ALSEP site, which all by itself it about 100 meters away:

as15-82-11054 thru as15-82-11058

Or maybe you mean like this shot of Pete Conrad inspecting the Surveyor 3 probe that landed two years before he did, with the LM in the distance (note the big antenna used to improve TV reception back on earth.)

stou_s12

And lest you are concerned by the lack of a crater beneath the probe—like Apollo, it was designed to cut off the engine early to avoid disturbing the soil it was sent to sample. It malfunctioned, and ended up bouncing 35 feet in the air, no worse for wear.

“A normal person would have recorded around himself…that is what we do when we explore, naturally, we go up and take a look.” Yeah, they did that. I believe it was Apollo 12 in which the commander opened the docking hatch first, then stood up to survey the landing site before going down through the door to the surface. Every major site of every surface mission produced at least one panoramic photo.

“wouldn’t it be normal for astronauts to record the stuff they left on the moon as they take off? You mean turn around and take a picture as they were lifting off? You mean like this movie frame from the Apollo 14 liftoff?

ap14-s71-19500

Why is the Moon Receding?

When the Apollo astronauts set down on the moon, they didn’t just plant the flag and take a selfie–they had science to do.

One of the experiments left by Apollo was a laser range finding experiment. By means of high quality retro-reflectors left by Apollo and two Soviet Lunakod missions, we now know that the moon is receding by nearly 4 cm per year. We also know our day is slowing down. So what gives?

The moon’s gravity constantly creates a bulge in the Earth, mostly in our oceans. But our daily rotation constantly carries that bulge eastward. The moon must then constantly pull it back toward itself–and the bulge constantly pulls the moon forward in its orbit. This has the effect of slowing our rotation and accelerating the moon’s orbit.

tide-frictionDon’t worry, though. Although the moon is now almost a foot farther away that it was when we first set foot on it, it’s not going anywhere. The recession is slow enough, the sun will die before the moon can get away.

 

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Does worrying about the moon keep you up at night? Leave a comment and let me know. And while you’re up, drop by my website for a free scifi sampler.

Of Space and Pens

The story goes that NASA spent millions of dollars developing a high-tech space pen while the more practical Russians just used a pencil.

Only it isn’t true. At all. 1838a

During the first NASA missions, US astronauts used pencils. For  Project Gemini, for example, NASA ordered mechanical pencils in 1965 from Tycam Engineering Manufacturing, Inc., in Houston. The fixed price contract purchased 34 units at a total cost of $4,382.50, or $128.89 per unit. That created something of a stink, as many  people believed it was a frivolous expense. NASA backtracked immediately and equipped the astronauts with less costly items.

During this time period, Paul C. Fisher of the Fisher Pen Co.  designed a ballpoint pen that would operate better in the unique  environment of space. His new pen, with a pressurized ink cartridge,  functioned in a weightless environment, underwater, in other liquids, and in temperature extremes ranging from -50 F to +400 F.  He developed his pen with no NASA funding, at a reported cost of $1 million–then  patented the pen and cornered the market as a result.

Fisher offered the pens to NASA in 1965, but, because of the  earlier controversy, the agency was hesitant in its approach. In 1967,  after rigorous tests, NASA managers agreed to equip the Apollo  astronauts with these pens. NASA purchased 400 pens at $6 per unit for Project Apollo.

The Soviet Union also purchased 100 of the Fisher pens and 1,000  ink cartridges in February 1969, for use on its Soyuz space flights.  Previously, its cosmonauts had been using grease pencils to write in  orbit.  Both American astronauts and Soviet/Russian cosmonauts have continued to use these pens.

I use them too. They are great for autographs and won’t leak or go dry when left for months in a car. Of course, the price has gone up.

 

Yes Virginia, We Really Did Land On The Moon

For those genuinely in doubt as to whether we sent twelve men to walk on the moon, some facts.

220px-alsep_as15-85-114681. We left retroreflectors on the moon, just like bicycle reflectors only bigger and not as pretty. Visit the McDonald Observatory or any other with the proper laser range-finding equipment and you can see for yourself that the laser energy returns when the telescope is pointed at the designated landing sites and does not return elsewhere.
2. Two recent survey missions have photographed the landing sites. The LRO has dipped low enough to resolve not just shadows and disturbed soil, but the descent stages and rovers we left behind. No word yet on the poop bags, but they’re here somewhere.584640main_apollo17-right-670

3. We have films of much of the research and testing, and if you know enough about science and engineering to know what you are looking at, it’s all clearly the real thing.

4. We still have much of the hardware. For example, F5 engines from the Saturn-V are currently being disassembled and in some cases fired as part of an effort to develop a cheaper follow-on engine. They clearly are what they claim to be. I’ve personally seen the Saturn-V stack on display in Houston, and it is clearly authentic. Among other things, a  prop would not be made of the same materials, and it would either have phony components or all off the shelf 1960’s hardware. But much of the Apollo hardware was custom developed at great expense, and if you know what you’re looking at, you can see it’s for real. A prop or fake would not have details that only an engineer (or nerd who’s studied the blueprints) would notice.

news-031605a

Workmen at JSC in Houston inside the SLA (the adapter where the LM sat during launch), looking up at the heat shield of a real Service Module without an SPS engine installed. The hole at top (behind the strut) is an access port for fueling, venting, and testing the SPS propellants.

5. We have thousands of pictures taken on the moon, which clearly are what they claim to be. All alleged problems with these materials only demonstrate the ignorance of the conspiracy nuts alleging the problems.

For example: Many conspirators complain that the lander didn’t kick up a lunar dust cloud. Of course it didn’t. Billowing dust can only occur in an atmosphere. In vacuum, each particle—no matter how small–flies off in a straight parabolic arc never to be seen again.

For another example: Motions of the flag claimed to be caused by air currents are—in every case—clearly inertial movements or static electric attraction caused by astronaut movement. The very movements the nutters complain about prove the landings were real. (For many other such examples, visit Bad Astronomy)

6. We have hundreds of pounds of moon rocks. Granted, you need access to them and you need to be a geologist with the right credentials to evaluate them, but at least some, such at the helium-3 impregnated rocks from by Apollo 17, could not have been produced on earth.

7. The Soviets were watching everything we did. They would have ratted us out. They would have LOVED to rat us out.

8. Thousands of people saw it. Not just the spectacular launches and the sailors on the recovery ships, either. Thousands in Hawaii, for example witnessed the Trans-Lunar-Injection burns.

Apollo 8 burn at about 165 miles altitude photographed by the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Maui.

 

 Others around the world watched the spacecraft on its way to the moon:
 S-IVB third stage venting over spain.

S-IVB third stage venting remaining propellants (oxygen from one end, hydrogen from the other, both illuminated by sunlight) a few minutes later, photographed from Spain

Apollo CSM, S-IVB and SLA panels photographed from Table Mountain SA.

observers at Table Mountain Souther Africa, and the Navel observatory in Arizona photographed the S-IVB stage, CSM, and adapter panels through telescopes, and counted revolutions of the panels.

Apollo 11 streak in time exposure from SA.

Apollo 11 was observed by thousands in British Columbia, and the streak in this photo from Table Mountain South Africa shows the spacecraft in time exposure, midway through the lunar coast phase.

 

Telescopic image of Apollo 13, with S-IVB and O2 cloud after the explosion, captured by an amatuer.

Thousands of people observed the missions using telescopes set to coordinated pre-calculated by NASA. Jim Gallivan at Corralitos captured the Apollo 13 explosion in real time, and published this image in Sky & Telescope at the time.

 

Another amatuer shot of the Apollo 13 O2/debris cloud captured in British Columbia.

A Mr. Younger in British Colomber, using a .4 meter telescope, took this photograph of the oxygen and debris cloud surrounding Apollo 13 moments after the explosions. Calculations referent to the prominent stars confirm the spacecraft was in the location NASA calculated at the time.

9. We have documentation in the form of operations manuals for the command and service modules, the LEM, the suits, the rover and much more–all completely authentic and sprinkled across the world including depository libraries like the one at Lousiana Tech where I read them before the conspiracy nuttery had gotten any legs.

10. This guy:

I’ll be posting in more detail soon about specific conspiracy claims and how what they really prove is the ignorance of those making them.

We went to the moon. It was expensive, but like Frosty the Snowman, we’ll be back again some day.

If Man Evolved From Apes, Why Are There Still Apes

Evolution is not a religious issue. It isn’t. If you make it a religious issue by pitting your religion against science, your religion looses. Period. That’s not an atheistic science conspiracy, it’s just a predictable byproduct of mistaking for divine revelation, what are actually stories passed down from people living in the iron age. Maybe the authors of genesis were inspired by God, but they clearly weren’t taking shorthand.

Maybe God made us in his image, but he took 4.6 billion years to do it and by “his image” is probably meant something other than “an old guy up in the clouds”. God or no God, evolution is how we got to be what we are, and if that seems to contradict some of the stories in scripture, that’s okay. God may have inspired the scripture, but he MADE the world, and this is it, right here holding up all these fossils.

Still, evolution is a vast and fascinating field, and there are a few things that are understandably confusing to the layman. This question, though, shouldn’t be one of them.

Australia was colonized by the British. Why are there still British? Because Australia was a penile colony, and most of the Brits stayed home and worked on bits for what would one day become Monty Python. Get it? Notice how Australians have a new dialect that is quite distinct from their ancestors? And yet, the Queen’s English is alive and well. Get it now?

No? I know, I know, you weren’t paying attention. The dog is chewing on the table leg, and somebody called you a monkey’s uncle, and you just have one question: If we evolved from apes, why are there still apes?

Because the apes that were living 6-8 million years ago didn’t all line up and march through the mouth of Vol (Star Trek reference) and come out human. There were thousands of these apes, you see. Tens of thousands, in fact, and lots of different groups and kinds—far more than today, partially because we weren’t around with our Land Rovers and our taste for bush-meat and penchant for taking away everything from everyone all the time except in church when we remember that the Big Man is watching. But I digress.

There were all these apes see, and some of them lived over there under those trees and they were just okay. And some of them lived yonder in the valley and they were cool with that. And a lot of them lived way over through the mountains and they don’t ever call or write. But this other group here, let’s call them the Skins, they kept rubbing elbows with those ugly bad-tempered dudes at the edge of the jungle who ate all the bananas, the Shirts.

The Shirts really stunk. No really, they smelled of bananas and Old Spice, and between you and me, they were bullies anyway. So the Skins, they started foraging out into the savanna a bit. Now, the African savanna was as dangerous then as it is today. They have lions and tigers and bears, oh my. Well, they have lions. And stuff. Lions loved eating them some Skins, but like every other mammal, lions have to chill through the heat of the day or they—oh what is the technical term? Oh yeah—die.

So the Skins did okay. They weren’t exactly sprinters, but if you keep following an animal through the heat of the day—keep making him run—eventually he’ll keel over (there are modern humans who still hunt this way today). This worked pretty well, though the hairier guys couldn’t take the heat. Those guys would pass out and get eaten, or they would go off and join the Shirts bowling league. After a while, no one with much fur was left among the Skins. Life on the savanna worked out pretty well, because it was getting hotter all the time and the savanna was getting larger and larger. Also, tracking prey and pacing yourself is not the easiest work. The groups with the best planning and tracking skills got more food and less, um, eaten. So, by the time the sea level dropped enough to create a pathway up into Europe and Asia, the Skins were much smarter and taller and faster and sweatier than the Shirts, who still got together Thursdays to shake down the bananas, and if anything were even bigger bullies than they had been.

“But,” I hear you asking, “if the Skins evolved from the Shirts, why were there still Shirts?”

Put down the bananas and pay attention will you? The Skins didn’t evolve from the Shirts, they both evolved alongside each other. After a while, none of the lady Shirts wanted to hang with those sweaty Skins, and the Skins hated the way the Shirts beat the crap out of them for showing off their times in the 200 meter sprint, so they just sort of left each other alone. They had become separate species—though not by much.

Migration and isolation are key parts of evolution. Forget about Gorillas and Chimps for a moment. Look at our more immediate ancestors. Homo erectus migrated out of Africa 1.8 million years ago, eventually migrating up into Europe and evolving (over more than a million years) into the Neanderthals. Meanwhile, the original population of H. erectus still existed in Africa, continuing to evolve into H. sapiens. When Sapiens migrated out of Africa 200,000 years ago, they out-competed Neanderthals and spread around the world. But Sapiens still existed in Africa–and still exist there today.

If that’s all too much to wrap your brain around, here are some simpler examples: Branches can grow from a tomato plant while the plant is still there sending off more branches in other directions. We humans bred domesticated corn from a bushy grass called teosinte, but teosinte still grows wild. Televangelists evolved from the Catholic scholars of medieval Europe, but there are still smart people in Europe. Okay, that’s not really an example; that’s cultural evolution.

There are still other apes (besides us) because we evolved alongside them, from the same ancestral stock as they come from. But we know for a fact that we evolved together.primate-hands-family-tree

And no, we did not descend from Monkeys. We descended from an ancestral population of early apes that lived 6-8 million years ago. Our last common ancestor with the monkeys was around 70 million years ago and wasn’t even a primate yet. I think they still wore tunics or something like that.

The Certain Fool

It is a peculiar form of arrogance that leads from “I don’t know” to “those who claim to know are liars, conspirators, and scoundrels.” I once knew a fellow who believed that the transistor was (and could only be) the product of alien intervention. It’s unclear why he found this explanation more reasonable than simple human inventiveness, but I suspect it’s because in some primordial way, he placed aliens in the metaphysical realm of myths and Gods with dominion over the unknown (and suspiciously complex). God couldn’t have done it because transistors brought rock & roll to America and millionaires to silicon valley, and there is nothing less godly (apparently) than a machine that gets people tapping their toes and buying things, so it must have been the aliens.
Miraculous as its impact has been, though, the origin of the transistor is quite down to earth. It was the product of a very human team of scientists (led by William Shockley at Belledisoneffect Labs) who set out to find a faster, more reliable alternative to the triode tube used in war-time radar sets. The triode (and other tubes) had evolved from attempts during the 1880’s to extend the operating life of Edison’s new light bulb. Edison, in turn, was building on earlier work by Humphrey Davy, Warren De la Rue, and James Bowman Lindsay, whose own efforts derived from simple experiments with electricity and magnetism, including the observation that lightning strikes cause a magnetic compass needle to jump (God did it after all, he just takes his sweet time). All of this is known and well documented. But none of it mattered to my acquaintance. He seemed to believe that what he didn’t understand couldn’t be understood, and that attempts to explain it could only be the work of tricksters, out to conceal the real and simple truth: the government is conspiring to hide little green men! One wonders what he would think of the idea that God (or at least the author of the bible) is necessarily in on the ruse? A healthy skepticism is vital, but the key to skepticism is diligent, objective study, not paranoia and infantile rationalization.
Everything we humans do develops in this way, step by step, one generation building on the shoulders of the last. It has taken millennia to build the modern world, and it is natural that we sometimes find it as overwhelming and inexplicable, as our ancestors must have found the elements of nature. But we have more than technology: we have the way of thinking that swept us, wave after wave and revolution after revolution, from beast to astronaut in less time than it took wolves to become pekingese.
Our problem, of course, is that we are all doomed to live and die within Plato’s allegorical cave. We know of the world only by the shadows on the walls—that is, through our imperfect senses. Empirical study may not reveal all that we would like, but it provides the only answers in which we can justify any confidence. Science cannot tell us why the earth exists, but it can tell us how it formed and how long it has been here. We are free to believe as we like, but only within the constraints set by what we can see and test. When we speculate (or accept the speculation of others) in the absence of evidence, we are literally “taking leave of our senses.” When we accept it in the presence of contradictory evidence, we are mad.
Of course, we can’t investigate everything for ourselves, so we are forced to rely on the testimony of experts. This presents a problem. How can we evaluate the expertise of someone who knows what we don’t? More to the point, what do we believe when our doctors, priests, administrators and scientists are at odds? Sadly, “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”, is not something any of us will ever have access to. We have facts, but we can only measure them against the ruler of reality, and since we must measure the ruler as well, we must accept a degree of uncertainty.
Not all possibilities are equally likely, though. We can approximate truth like an archer zeroing in on the bullseye. By testing what we can test, we can sort our beliefs until we develop confidence as to which are closest to the truth. This is the key insight behind the scientific method, and it is the key to assessing the claims that clutter our modern world. If science is a game of archery, our individual quest is more like pyramid building, where facts form a broad and shifting base, people who make claims about fact hold up the middle, and the truth, distant and precarious, balances somewhere at the apex. This is a difficult and imperfect way to understand our world, but it works.
Millions of Americans believe that the Apollo program was a hoax. They are all wrong, and I am about as confident of that as I am that those millions of people (most of whom I have not personally met) exist. This is possible because I know enough about science and engineering and human fallibility to recognize the veracity of the evidence supporting the landings, and at the same time, the laughable ignorance behind “moon hoax” arguments. When a “hoaxer” shows a flag waving as it could only wave in a vacuum and then claims this as evidence for a breezy sound stage, I naturally grow suspicious. When his arguments reveal ignorance of how dust falls in a vacuum, of optical photographic artifacts, and of basic physics; when he reveals omissions, flaws, and shortcuts in his reasoning and research and then responds to correction with anger and appeals to authority instead of gratitude and reconsideration, I can hurl his bricks away with confidence.
Consider claims that the earth is only six thousand years old and that its surface was once covered in a single flood event. Many accept these claims based on their understanding of Christian scripture. But in fact, neither claim is explicitly made in the Bible, and neither can be true based on dozens of overlapping lines of evidence and thousands of physical observations. Some of these observations are simple for even the layman to understand. Dendrochronology (tens of thousands of overlapping living and fossil tree rings) and geo-stratigraphy (millions of layers of sedimentary rock) have complex names, but are easy to understand and to see. If we assert (as some do) that God simply popped everything into existence just as it is, with the ancient sediments, the tree rings, and photons sailing in from the spaces between the stars—just to test our faith—then we are in philosophically deep water indeed. If we can’t accept basic measurements of parallax collected through telescopes, then neither can we accept anything else gleaned by our senses, including the stories in the bible. This sort of solipsism leads nowhere, which is why even the Catholic Church, having burned itself before, has acknowledged the antiquity of the earth. Besides, if the entire universe is a fraud, what does that make its creator?
Anyone can sell magazines and books making bold claims. Here are a just a few that are bouncing around our world right now: 1) Conspirators tell us the World Trade Center towers were brought down in a controlled demolition because “no building could ever fall into its own footprint on its own” They do, of course, as happened in January of this year, when one did exactly that in Rio de Janeiro after a structural failure. 2) “Psychics” offer “readings” on late night radio, even though precognition violates the laws of physics as we know them, and anyway would presumably have given the cold war to the Soviet Union (which invested heavily and consistently in occult research). If for three dollars, a gypsy woman with a pack of cards and a creepy disposition can foresee the woman you are destined to marry, surely for a Château on the Baltic she will give you a schedule of spy-plane overflights so you can disguise your missile launchers as a Cuban bazaar! 3) The local pharmacy has an extensive selection of pricey Homeopathic remedies, even though these are just highly distilled waterxi—often with real medicine added as “inactive ingredients”. Homeopathic medicine would also violate the laws of physics (or at least everything we know about chemistry and life—which is quite a lot). 4) A casino paid $28,000 for a partially eaten cheese sandwich bearing an image claimed to resemble the Virgin Mary, (though in fact, no one knows what she looked like and for a short time afterward, the Internet was abuzz with images of foods and nature scenes depicting (with sufficient credulity) various rude acts and anatomical parts).
We are all entitled to our opinions, but none of these claims is worthy of serious contemplation by anyone with a command of our shared facts. Not everything can be observed directly, but we must never be too sure of anything that can’t. When forget this, we can fall for anything—literally. One consequence is religious fanaticism; it is just that sort of certainty that leads people to strap explosives to their bodies before visiting the local market. But such misplaced certainty does more than justify extremist violence; it subverts the ability of people and cultures to manage the resources upon which their survival depends. Children can learn much from the beautiful story of Genesis, but combat disease, they need genetics, and with it, the knowledge that our last common male and female ancestors lived at least 60,000 years apart.
History shows us to be an adaptable and clever race. In an age in which we alone among God’s creation have ventured beyond our world, we must add nuclear war, pandemic, overpopulation, climate change, genocide and eugenics to an already long list of known challenges. If ever a being had the tools to face these challenges, that being is man. But how will we face our future? One possibility is to throw up our hands in prayer and hope we are delivered from this world before it comes crashing down around us. A more intelligent, and frankly, a more spiritually responsible approach, is to learn to govern ourselves as our ancient advisers could not, and use our greatest gift—reasoning—to its fullest.
We don’t have to choose between faith and science; we can reconcile the one to the other. We don’t need to seek the fantastic; the real world is fantastic enough. We don’t need to pretend to certainty, a well-founded approximation of truth is more valuable. Thomas Painex warned us ‘The word of God is the creation we behold, and it is in this word, which no human invention can counterfeit or alter, that God speaks universally to man.” More than ever before, perhaps, we are assaulted today by claims (counterfeit and otherwise) from those who would manipulate us or lighten our purse. We don’t have to give in to these claims, but neither should we see conspiracy and alien intervention in every unknown. Our nation is the fruit of the age of reason. It will survive only so long as science and clever human investigation are permitted to outstrip the darkness that came before it. Empirical thinking, if we will but trust it, will sweep us yet to new heights, whatever those may be.
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