Monday, September 27, 2010

The Final Frontier

Most girls my age in 1995 probably had posters of Jonathon Taylor Thomas or Leonardo DiCaprio up on their bedroom doors. I had a NASA poster depicting the Andromeda galaxy. I've been fascinated by space for as long as I can remember. I wanted to be an astronaut when I grew up...alas, being decent at math seemed to be a pre-requisite (damn you, long division! You crushed my dreams!)

In fact, the only part about eventually kicking the bucket that really bothers me is knowing I won't live long enough to go into space. But who knows, maybe technology will be advanced enough in 2065 that they can launch my geriatric ass to Pluto if I so desire.

So of course, I loved reading Mary Roach's new book, Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void, which is all about the human side of space travel. And you won't believe all the problems the sheer factor of weightlessness presents. Figuring out how to eat sandwiches becomes a multi-million dollar ordeal. And as with any addictive non-fiction book, I came away with all these little interesting factoids that I've been showering on my annoyed friends and family for the past week.

Like, did you know that NASA briefly considered a one-way trip to the moon? As in, "we'll drop you off here, and then pick you up in a few years. Or whenever we actually develop the technology to launch a craft off the lunar surface..." (Side note: some astronauts have volunteered to travel to Mars without a trip home. Side side note: I would totally be willing to go on a suicide trip to Mars. NASA, call me!)

And, did you know that NASA did a series of "limited personal hygiene" tests before Gemini VII, wherein they locked people in a room wearing spacesuits for 2 weeks without allowing them to bathe? (Side note: NASA, I am NOT willing to do this). Gemini VII, if you don't recall, required 2 astronauts to sit in a capsule the size of the front seat of a VW Beetle for 2 weeks while orbiting the Earth. High price for the best view in the world.

Or, did you know NASA pays test subjects $17,000 to lie in bed for 3 months so they can study bone deterioration? If I ever get laid off...

But the entire book is fascinating and highly recommended. Here are some passages:

Quote from Ralph Harvey on giving a tour at NASA:
"I opened this one door and it was like the scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark. There were these rows of long, low freezers. They all had a little light on them that's blinking, and a temperature readout, and a piece of tape with the astronaut's name. I'm like, Shit, they stored the astronauts in here! and I quickly got the people out. I found out later that was there they stored the astronaut feces and urine." Harvey can't recall the room number. "You have to stumble onto it, that's the only way you can find it. It's like Narnia."

On the need to send actual humans to Mars:
We live in a culture in which, more and more, people live through simulations. We travel via satellite technology, we socialize on computers. You can tour the Sea of Tranquility on Google Moon and visit the Taj Mahal via Street View. ...But it isn't anything like reality. Ask an M.D. who spent a year dissecting a human form tendon by gland by nerve, whether learning anatomy on a computer simulation would be comparable. Ask an astronaut whether taking part in a space simulation is anything like being in space. What's different? Sweat, risk, uncertainty, inconvenience. But also, awe. Pride. Something ineffably splendid and stirring. ...

The nobility of the human spirit grows harder for me to believe in. War, zealotry, greed, malls, narcissim. I see a back-handed nobility in excessive, imptractical outlays of cash prompted by nothing loftier than a species joining hands and saying "I bet we can do this." Yes, the money could be better spent on Earth. But would it? Since when has money saved by government red-lining been spent on education and cancer research? It is always squandered. Let's squander some on Mars. Let's go out and play.


Every now and then, you do come across astronauts who describe an anxiety unique to space. It's not fear...It's more of an intellectual freak-out, a cognitive overload. "The thought of one hundred trillion galaxies is so overwhelming," wrote astronaut Jerry Linenger, "that I try not to think about it before going to bed, because I become so excited or agitated or something that I cannot sleep with such an enormous size in my mind."...

Cosmonaut Vitaly Zholobov described looking at a star while on board the Soviet space station Salyut 5 and grasping in a sudden and visceral way that space is a "bottomless abyss," and that it would take thousands of years to travel to that star. "And that's not the end of our world. One can travel further and further and there is no limit to that journey. I was so shocked that I felt something crawling up my spine."

I feel the same way whenever I view Hubble's Ultra Deep Field image taken back in 2004. It was taken from a pixel in the sky, and it contains 10,000 galaxies. I think about that, and realize that nothing I do is all that important, or special. Which is actually pretty comforting. Maybe because I know there's nothing I could do that could screw up anything THAT badly. But it makes you realize how silly humanity can be. We put our priorities in the wrong things. Treat each other poorly. Put our faith in the material and petty, when it's obvious by this picture that your diamond ring, your manicured lawn, your hate, ideologies, cults, and wars mean nothing in the face of 100 trillion stars.

But Carl Sagan said it a lot better than I can. From his book Pale Blue Dot, he muses on a picture taken by Voyager 1 of the Earth from beyond the orbit of Pluto:

From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of particular interest. But for us, it's different. Consider again that dot. That's here, that's home, that's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. ...

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.

I think to say a picture speaks a thousand words is a vast understatement.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Internet Lovelies

I find it impossible to read one book at a time. I'm always juggling several, unable to keep my mind focused in one direction for too long. This is why I will start a book in, say, August, and not finish it until about October...2015.

Oh, and that's not just with books. That's with everything. I wish I could find a hobby and stick with it. One thing I could pour my heart and soul into and never stray away from. Instead I have too many interests, with no way of becoming fluent in any of them. A Jill of all trades (except math). Oh, I like books. And film. And music, and comics, and photography, and astronomy, and cooking, and what the hell, maybe I should just quit my job and start an alpaca farm tomorrow!

No. No. I'll just quote stuff from the internet until I'm able to finish something with ACTUAL margins.

If you go to Niagara Falls to jump off and are caught, you will be forced to admit yourself to a psychiatric ward, for which you will be made to pay $1600 for a single night.
If you smoke two packs a day, on the other hand, you will not be locked up. Smoking more won’t change that. Drinking won’t change that. C & A don’t have the glamour of heroin or crack cocaine, they’re boring, grubby, legal, lethal little habits, the things that get you through whatever you have to get through. And if you look back over a year, you see that there was always something to get through, you spent the year getting through what you had to get through. Maybe that’s the boring, grubby little life that makes jumping off a cliff look a good idea in the first place. But that’s your problem. The reason suicide attempts look exciting, the reason they justify locking people up, is that the worthlessness of a life is inadmissible as a reason to stop trying to get through it. Your friends and fans won’t see you dying by inches, and they won’t see themselves killing you by inches either.

Helen Dewitt, Link

Dear Barack,

For a long time, you were my pretend boyfriend. You filled the hole in my heart left by John Kerry and Al Gore (even the tiny hole left by Wes Clark).
But now, I need to break up with you. This is the final straw.
I gave you a pass on the lack-of-actual-jobs thing (George’s fault!)
I was willing to give you another month or so on Afghanistan (You didn’t start the fire!)
But this is it. Gay Marriage is a civil rights issue. This is not hard. There’s a right decision and a wrong decision and you are on the wrong side of the line on this one.

So goodbye.

Your former best girlfriend,

ps. You are being replaced with the original pretend boyfriend, George Clooney. He’s for gay marriage. Probably for reasons I don’t care to know about.

comment by hockeymom at Wonkette, Link

Aristotle, who saw friendship as essential to human flourishing, shrewdly observed that it comes in three distinct flavors: those based on usefulness (contacts), on pleasure (drinking buddies), and on a shared pursuit of virtue—the highest form of all. True friends, he contended, are simply drawn to the goodness in one another, goodness that today we might define in terms of common passions and sensibilities.

Daniel Akst, Link

I also know that deciding there is one thing or one way of life that is going to make you happy, despite all the evidence to the contrary, is utter bullshit. Nothing will kill you faster than disappointment, than "But why not?" It will also, and this is the bizarre part, make you cling tighter to those exact things that are not working. You will offer a billion reasons to yourself, to those around you, why you need this, why change is not possible. There is no time, look at all those things I would need to do, it wouldn't work anyway.

Jessa Crispin, Link

I just remember being profoundly disappointed with the Internet. Here is this land of infinite space, yes? No restrictions, absolutely limitless. And yet no one was doing anything...But anyway, boredom is the mother, no, wait, maybe the creepy uncle of invention. If I had a day job where all I had to do was tap away on a keyboard, make them think this spreadsheet was totally complicated and took a really long time, then what else could I do? Catching up on the news only took like an hour. That left seven. This is why people comment (and thereby becoming insane) or become Facebook addicts. There is nothing to fucking do at your day job on the Internet.

Jessa Crispin on the origins of Bookslut, Link

If I didn't have an MLS I would never have been able to get the job as head of Adult Services / Reference. That of course means I never would have had the opportunity to yell "Put your penis away, that is inappropriate." across a crowded computer room.

Comment by mdoneil at LISNews, Link