Respite Open Thread: To the Moon, Google!

Bonus: Buzzfeed has assembled a batch of contemporary news photos that may not “Change Your Perspective Of The Moon Landing”, but that certainly have nostalgia value for those of us who can remember the original event!








I’ve Been To A Mountaintop…

Mauna Kea, to be precise — several times.  I’ve shot parts of three films there, all centered on the telescopes atop the highest mountain on the Big Island of Hawai’i.  As you may have noticed, the mountain — and a new telescope — have been in the news lately:

Construction was set to begin this week on a giant telescope on the barren summit of Mauna Kea, a volcano on Hawaii’s Big Island, considered the best observatory site in the Northern Hemisphere.

That would be the Thirty Meter Telescope, or TMT, a project that originated with the same team that built the twin ten meter Keck telescopes that were the largest optical telescopes in the world from 1993 to 2009. (They’ve since been pipped by the Gran Telescopio Canarias (GTC), atop the Canary Islands.) Astronomers and designers from Caltech and the University of California system, later joined by other partners set out to build the TMT as one of the next generation of ‘scopes aiming to explore some of the fundamental questions of astronomy, many of which were raised by discoveries made by the current generation of ginormous light buckets. That would be stuff like deeper investigations of the large scale structure of the cosmos, maybe image of planet formation around distant stars, certainly black hole inquiry and much more.

The TMT project was launched with great confidence.  The problems its leaders anticipated were technical: how to construct an light-gathering area and/or an optical pipeline that large that holds its shape, that doesn’t mind temperature shifts, that can be morphed on demand to adjust for turbulence in the air above it and so on, through a whole host of very tricking engineering issues.

But there was never any real doubt about the right place to put this instrument, or of the project’s access to the summit of Mauna Kea, which, after all, already played host to more than a dozen other observatories.  (I know this, because I talked to those in charge of the project at the time of its inception, many of whom had appeared in one or another of my films.)

They were wrong. Last week, after years of delays, some negotiations, and, by now, mistrust and more on the Hawai’ian activist side, the state governor announced that the project had cleared its last hurdles and construction would begin.  This week, protestors blocked the one access road to the summit and the observatories brought their people off the mountain.  At first, law enforcement was on the scene, but there were no direct confrontations.  That changed yesterday:

On Wednesday, that opposition had a new face: About 30 Hawaiian elders were arrested as they blocked a road leading to Mauna Kea’s summit to halt the construction, organizers said. They described an emotional but peaceful scene as the elders, who were sitting under tents on the road, were escorted by police officers to nearby white vans while dozens of other protesters chanted and cried. Some had to be carried.

“We have come to the point in time where enough is enough,” Leilani Kaapuni, one of the elders, said in a phone interview. She said she was arrested for obstruction of a government road but later returned to the blockade. “This mountain is sacred,” she said.

If I had to guess, I’d expect this to end in a loss for the protests. There’s a lot of momentum behind the TMT, and a ton of money involved — and there’s a huge investment in cash and intellectual possibilities in the existing observatories that would probably be lost if the new instrument didn’t make it to the mountain. Money and power talk, so I’d bet the Hawai’ian state authorities will muscle this through — and likely with the support of plenty of citizens of the state (though I’d bet many fewer among those Hawai’ians of original Hawai’ian descent).

Visible protest against the telescopes will be much more difficult if/when the TMT goes in, as the almost all the action of high altitude astronomy now takes place far from its mountain tops.  The Mauna Kea observatories have the headquarters well away from the summit.  Those astronomers doing science with the telescope, if they aren’t looking at a truly remote feed back to their offices back home, get no closer than the cattle town of Waimea, miles away and more than 10,000 feet in vertical distance away from anything a mere observer could break.

Those using the TMT wouldn’t see, that is, the kinds of protests going on now.  And the question of who has power over sacred spaces of interest to the dominant culture will be answered again, in the same way it has been almost every time these conflicts come up.

I should say that I’m an astronomy lover. I find the science that the TMT could do to be fascinating and utterly beautiful.  But man-o-man, have the leaders of that project botched this dispute for years. I do not know how you now get this project i any way that acknowledges and accommodates the claims of the disempowered first residents of the island.  But I do know that failure will have consequences; human goods — which scientific discoveries certainly are — achieved by the destruction of other goods are tainted.

I’ll leave you with the text of an article I wrote for The Boston Globe on this same subject four years ago.  Looking back, I can’t say I’m surprised that the astronomical community didn’t find a way to connect to its opposition.  But I am saddened by that fact.

Images:  Johannes Vermeer, The Astronomerc. 1668

US Air Force file photo, Air Force 1 over Mt. Rushmore, 10 February 2001.

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Open Thread: 50 Years of Apollo 11 Conspiracies

I’m as big a Fortean as you’ll find outside an academic instituion, but sometimes I feel like Buzz Aldrin had the best response. Joel Achenbach, in the Washington Post:

The moon hoax is a classic conspiracy theory — elaborate, oddly durable, requiring the existence of malevolent actors with a secret agenda. The moon-fakers are allegedly so competent they can fool the whole world (but not so competent that they can actually put humans on the moon).

Researchers suggest conspiracy theories are spreading more easily in today’s information universe, with the Internet functioning as a superconductor. A growing science of conspiracism seeks to understand who these people are, why they embrace such ideas, and whether there is anything that can dislodge a really magnetic conspiracy theory from the mind of a true believer.

Polls show that about 5 or 6 percent of the public subscribes to the moon-hoax theory, former NASA chief historian Roger Launius said. That is a modest number, but these folks showed up reliably whenever Launius gave a lecture on the topic: “They’re very vocal — and they love to confront you.”
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Acid Tripwire

Worse than the brown acid.

Daniel Rothman, professor of geophysics and co-director of the Lorenz Center in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, has found that when the rate at which carbon dioxide enters the oceans pushes past a certain threshold — whether as the result of a sudden burst or a slow, steady influx — the Earth may respond with a runaway cascade of chemical feedbacks, leading to extreme ocean acidification that dramatically amplifies the effects of the original trigger.

That’s from the MIT press release on Rothman’s new paper, published in PNAS.

The MIT release continues:

Scientists know that when carbon dioxide from the atmosphere dissolves in seawater, it not only makes the oceans more acidic, but it also decreases the concentration of carbonate ions. When the carbonate ion concentration falls below a threshold, shells made of calcium carbonate dissolve. Organisms that make them fare poorly in such harsh conditions.

Shells, in addition to protecting marine life, provide a “ballast effect,” weighing organisms down and enabling them to sink to the ocean floor along with detrital organic carbon, effectively removing carbon dioxide from the upper ocean. But in a world of increasing carbon dioxide, fewer calcifying organisms should mean less carbon dioxide is removed.

“It’s a positive feedback,” Rothman says. “More carbon dioxide leads to more carbon dioxide. The question from a mathematical point of view is, is such a feedback enough to render the system unstable?”

To answer that question, Rothman surveyed the carbon record for the last half-billion years of Earth history, and then built a mathematical model of the carbon cycle in the upper ocean to help him analyze the current, human-driven injection of carbon dioxide into the climate system.

When he introduced carbon dioxide at greater rates, he found that once the levels crossed a critical threshold, the carbon cycle reacted with a cascade of positive feedbacks that magnified the original trigger, causing the entire system to spike, in the form of severe ocean acidification. The system did, eventually, return to equilibrium, after tens of thousands of years in today’s oceans — an indication that, despite a violent reaction, the carbon cycle will resume its steady state.

This pattern matches the geological record, Rothman found. The characteristic rate exhibited by half his database results from excitations above, but near, the threshold. Environmental disruptions associated with mass extinction are outliers — they represent excitations well beyond the threshold. At least three of those cases may be related to sustained massive volcanism.

“When you go past a threshold, you get a free kick from the system responding by itself,” Rothman explains.

I should emphasize that all this is a theoretical approach to the question. Rothman is a mathematical geologist, not a field guy, and his business is building formal representations of complicated systems to probe action in the real world that can’t be measured or experimented upon directly.

His prediction, then, is just that, a statement about the likelihood, not the certainty of a given outcome.  But that caveat doesn’t mean this is “just a theory.” Quite the reverse: because the model builds in solid and known physics, and is driven by dozens of observations in the historical record, this theory is one supported both by the math and the gold-standard of empirical measurement.

It’s scary, in other words, because it represents a rigorous attempt, using stable, well established knowledge, to depict a scary, inhospitable future:

In other words, if today’s human-induced emissions cross the threshold and continue beyond it, as Rothman predicts they soon will, the consequences may be just as severe as what the Earth experienced during its previous mass extinctions.

I should add that I know Rothman a little — my students made a short film about a lovely little piece of work he and his students did on the branching networks of ground water drainage systems.  Just i that one encounter, on a question he tackled mostly for fun, it was easy to see that he’s an impressive thinker, combining mathematical intuition with a nose for earth-science problems that can be expressed in tractable systems of equations.

That doesn’t make this work right; it does make the suggestion that there is a chance we’re close to a trigger of a runaway feedback in the oceans a prediction to take very seriously indeed.

The TL:DR of all this?  One — there’s a risk that major and on human-lifetime scale irreversible changes for the worse are either very near or already baked into the way we’ve hacked the climate system.  The need to squelch that hack, to stop pouring carbon into the atmosphere, is thus even more urgent than we thought.

A second implication amplifies that urgency:  Rothman’s math is simple (at least for him). It exposes one vulnerability, one potential feedback that could go against preserving the basic ecological support system human society depends on. But the climate system is big, incredibly complicated, and potentially hides a bunch of such triggers.

You can read this study, that is, as a case study, an example of how something seemingly well removed from direct warming issues (the physics and chemistry of the shells of microscopic ocean animals) can produce profound global effects.  So, if acid oceans haven’t terrified you enough, remember that where there’s one such hidden mechanism of major disruption, there may well be others.

As most of you know, I have a son. He’s nineteen now, and I find so much of my dread these days is bound up in my fear that I will leave him a world that is vastly more precarious than the one I inherited from my parents.

I do not have a good answer for myself on that, but it is one more reason why current politics seem to me to be life-or-death.  If we have any time left at all to keep the damage from climate change manageable, we don’t have that many years.  The longer the GOP holds power, the worse our chances become.  Go Science! is not the rallying cry that will win next year — but it’s damned important, even so.

And on that cheery note: have at it!

Images:  Joseph Wright of Derby, The Orrery, c. 1766

Albrecht Dürer, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, 1498

 








A little good news