Tag Archives: science

441. The Last Apollo

“We leave as we came, and, God willing, we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind.”        Cernan’s closing words on leaving the moon at the end of Apollo 17

Forty-five years ago, at 12:33 AM Eastern Time, the last manned moon flight took off from Cape Canaveral.

It was a stunt from the get-go. Kennedy’s speech, setting a goal of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth, was a Trump-worthy brag. If we had failed, it would be laughed at today as just another empty promise made by a politician.

One man laid down the challenge and thousands of men and women carried out the promise.

But it was still a stunt. When Kennedy made his speech on May 25, 1961, Russian had put a man into orbit. We had not, although we had managed a sub-orbital flight. Atlas boosters were still blowing up on launch, so a smaller Redstone was used for Alan Shepard’s flight on May fifth.

NASA had only been in existence for three years. By any real or imagined yardstick, the Russians were far ahead in space.

By herculean efforts, NASA forged ahead through Mercury and Gemini. The fire aboard “Apollo One” set American efforts back significantly, and when launches began again, it looked like the Russians were going to land on the moon first.

There were Soviet problems however, particularly the repeated failure of their N-1 rocket. These doomed their attempt to reach the moon first, but NASA was not aware at the time.

NASA had problems of its own. The lunar lander was not ready when Apollo 7, the first actual manned Apollo flight, left for low Earth orbit in October of 1968. Only a year remained on Kennedy’s timeline, and the Soviets — we thought — were poised to land on the moon ahead of us. Something had to be done.

That something was the Apollo 8 journey to and around the moon, without a lander, for the Christmas season of 1968. We had been to the moon first (by an ad-man’s stretch of the truth), even if the Soviets became the first to land.

Apollo 9 tested the lunar lander in low Earth orbit. Apollo 10 (the most frustrating almost in human history) returned to the moon, deployed the lunar lander, and flew it to within wishing distance of the moon without landing.

Apollo 11 landed a man safely on the moon, and returned him safely to the Earth.

Now what?

For the Soviets, the answer was to turn away from the moon. Their N-1 mega-rocket had failed, and their manned modules and lander were stored away. The Soviets began a series of long flights and space stations, studying space from low Earth orbit.

For NASA there were nine more Saturn V rockets waiting to launch Apollo 12 through 20. It didn’t turn out that way. Apollo 12 landed in a different part of the moon, Apollo 13 suffered and explosion, didn’t land, and barely made it home.

Even before Apollo 13, Apollo 20 was cancelled so its Saturn V could be used to launch Skylab. Even before Apollo 14 landed, Apollo 18 and 19 were cancelled. Why? Because it was a stunt from the get-go. Apollo 11 met the deadline. To coin-counting bureaucrats, that was enough.

For those of us who see space exploration as the future of humanity, Apollo 11 was only the  beginning. Lunar exploration, a moon base, Mars. Venus — there should have been no end.

Bureaucrats did not agree. On Thursday, 1972, at 12:33 AM Eastern Time, the last manned moon flight took off from Cape Canaveral.

more next Thursday, the anniversary of the last liftoff from the Moon

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438. Machine Porn

On Monday, we started talking about steampunk, then wandered into changes in science fiction and in real world technology. Picking up where we left off . . .

I always watch the PBS program A Craftsman’s Legacy. It is very steampunk, although that may not be obvious until later in this post. The most recent episode was a jeans maker. If I weren’t already hooked on the program, that’s something I would never have watched. In actual fact, the making of jeans was boring, but the program turned out to be twenty-five minutes of pure Machine Porn. Through the whole show, every scene was an orgy of early twentieth century sewing machines of every specialized type, all whirring and clunking with their working parts in naked sight.

The only thing moving on a modern sewing machine is the needle, but there is a computer screen where you can tell it what to do. One modern machine will do more than a warehouse full of old ones, but but everything is hidden. It is a classic black box. It does stuff, but you don’t get to see how.

You can see the procession from hands-on to hands-off, and from visible to hidden in boy’s fiction. Tom Swift (later called Senior) could build anything with his own hands back in the twenties. Tom Swift Junior in the fifties and sixties could design anything, but he usually turned it over to his chief engineer to build the prototype. In the first Rick Brant book (1947), work on their moon rocket was delayed when they couldn’t get a certain type of tube (that’s valve in the British half of the world). By book number nine (1952), Rick was learning how to make printed circuits and was introduced to transistors. We watched him build a control unit, but once it was finished, it was sealed and no one else would ever see its guts.

Real science has followed the same progression. Galileo did his experiments by rolling lead balls down ramps. Today science requires a Large Hadron Collider.

Do I miss the good old days? Not at all. I’ve been living in the future since I was eight years old. I am pointing out that one byproduct of the Good New Days is that the working parts of everything are hidden, and that has consequences.

I spent the majority of my teaching career trying to make up for this loss. When I taught pulleys, I used homebuilt equipment with heavy weights so the kids could actually feel the difference when they changed the mechanical advantage. Every year, students were divided into teams of three or four and they all built gizmos, which were devices of their own design that carried out an assigned task. It was a different task every year and they were not allowed to take their work home, so Dad or older brother couldn’t cheat. All they had to work with was a shop full of tools, a pile of donated materials, and what they had learned. They had to see their gizmos in their heads and build them with their hands. No black boxes here.

Steampunk fits in here, as well. Steampunk is the meeting of the past and the future. As part of the past, it is familiar and understandable. It is also full of all the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries’ hopes and fears. Retrofuturistic is one word used to describe it, and it fits. Of course, as a word, retrofuturistic is as strange as the thing it points toward.

The clockwork aspect of steampunk is certainly one of its charms, especially in steampunk DIY and illustrations. We look at the pictures on the page, or the pictures in our mind while we read, and think, “I understand that. I could build that.”

And we could. Or at least the better, smarter self we all become when we sit down to read science fiction could.

In clockwork, once you take the back off the watch, everything is visible. If you look long enough, you can figure our what makes it tick.

437. Steampunk Clockwork

A great deal of the charm of typical (if such a thing exists) steampunk is that it replicates the sense of wonder of early science fiction, something that is missing 147 years after its beginnings. My math refers to the publication of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea in 1870. There have been a lot of stories in that century and a half, so it is just a little hard to come up with something new.

Fortunately for science fiction, there is a new crop of readers every generation. Things that seem old and overdone to long-time readers, seem new to them. When I first saw Weir’s The Martian I thought, “Again?”, but a half million readers on Goodreads rated it highly.

In old fashioned science fiction, the hero could do anything. And therefore, so could the reader.

Among that “anything” was a world of inventions that any boy genius could whip up in his basement. When I first read Tom Swift and his Electric Rifle (published 1911; it was left behind by my grandfather and I found it in the early fifties), Tom was just putting the finishing touches on his electric rifle, but before he headed for Africa with it, he whipped up a new flyer which was half aeroplane and half dirigible to use on the trip. Easy; any boy wonder could do it.

I haven’t seen that schtick since I was a kid in the fifties, and then it was usually in books from the thirties. I think we can blame Apollo. We all saw an entire nation spend a decade of time and billions of dollars to get to the moon. Thousands of workmen (and women) in all parts of the nation made the billion parts it took to undertake a moonshot. It no longer seems possible, even in science fiction, for Sheldon to build a moon rocket in a shed out back of the house.

When I was a kid, if I wanted to build a robot, it would have been made from tin cans, old sewing machines parts, and imagination. Now kids can build real ones (if their parents have enough money) out of plug and play components. Is that better? Is it worse? Decide for yourself, but it is different in a fundamental way.

It is all part of the digitalization of the world. And no, I’m not complaining. I’m writing this while sitting in front of a computer that makes my present life not only better, but possible.

Let’s hop into our time machine and watch it all happen. Let’s make it an even century.

In 1917, if you wanted to listen to the radio, the first thing you would do was build one, out of wire, a variable resistor, a capacitor, an appropriate piece of crystal, and a set of earphones. If you were really ambitious (or more likely, really poor) you could build the variable resistor and the capacitor as well. Everything would be in plain sight there on a pine board in front of you.

The next step was tube radios (that’s valve radios in the land of Britain). Tubes were an offshoot of incandescent light bulbs with more parts inside. Like light bulbs, you could see everything through the glass casing. Things had become more complicated, but you could still see the parts and follow their wiring.

Televisions worked like this as well, and as late as my childhood, hardware stores had a device with hundreds of sockets on top where you could plug in a tube from your TV or radio and check to see if it was burned out. They burned out frequently. If it was bad you could buy a replacement right there and fix the radio or TV yourself.

Then came printed circuits. You could still follow the wiring, but you had to turn the board over and look at the back side.

Then came transistors. They took the place of tubes, but they were tiny, anonymous nuggets with three wires and you could no longer see what their guts looked like. It was the beginning of major progress, and the beginning of the end of understanding.

Finally, integrated circuits arrived, and now you could no longer see the parts or the wires that connected them.

Now if something breaks, you throw it away. That isn’t really a problem, because things are cheaper, and the replacement is usually better than the thing discarded. In terms of practicality, things are better than ever.

In terms of understanding how our machines work, much has been lost.

But steampunk brings it all back. (more Wednesday)

430. The Rocket’s Red Glare

from Congreve’s original work.

“Oh, say can you see . . .”

No, this is not going to be about the NFL. It’s going to be about the rockets which figure into the anthem, into history, and into the steampunk novel The Cost of Empire, which I am now writing.

Rockets got their start in China, where they were used as fireworks and as military weapons. Just keep that in the back of your mind. We are going to start in the present and move backward in time, but not all the way to China.

When the average American sings the Star Spangled Banner — or mouths it, since it is a hard song to sing — it is unlikely that the image in his mind looks anything like the rockets which actually burst in air over Fort McHenry. My generation has V-2 rockets in our DNA, largely because early SF films used actual films of V-2 rockets as stand-ins before special effects were perfected. A later generation has Saturn-V rockets imprinted on their brain. To both, rockets are pointy ended cylinders with the flames coming out of the bottom.

Not so in 1814. The rockets that rained down on Fort McHenry looked more like fireworks rockets. They were called Congreves and a page of drawings of them is given at the top of the post. Some were explosive tipped. Some were parachute flares, which “gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.” All were guided, more or less, by a long stick that acted like a rudder, similar in function to the fins on a V-2.

They were nothing like accurate. That was the way of things before modern times. If you recall the battle of Agincourt in the movie version of Henry V, the English longbow men drew back together and fired hundreds of arrows simultaneously at a high trajectory, which rained down en masse on the French. The battle of Hastings was lost when King Harold Godwinson looked up at a bad moment and caught such an incoming arrow in the eye. Muskets in that era were also nothing like accurate, so lines of musket men firing together in the same direction managed to hit somebody, but probably not the targets they were aiming at.

William Congreve (not the playwrite and poet) gets credit and naming rights for the Congreve rocket, and he did make improvements, but his work was based on rockets captured in India.  Which brings me to why I’m writing this post. Here is a quote from The Cost of Empire. An Englishman who has gone native in India is speaking:

“About a hundred years ago this whole region was called Mysore and Hyder Ali was in charge. He fought the British and all the Indian princes around that kept shifting from the British side to his and back again. After he was killed, his son Tipu Sultan took over and formed an alliance with the French.

“It’s an old story. The same pattern happened all over India, as we British took over one region at a time. But this story has a kicker. Rockets.

“Rockets came from China. Everybody knows that, but they were widely used in India as well. Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan used them extensively; some of their rocket brigades had over a thousand men. Rockets were made that exploded, that set fires, and even that had sword blades attached so when they came down spinning, they made a bloody mess of British ground troops.

“When the Mysore wars were over, the winners sent hundreds of captured rockets back to England. Congreve studied them and replicated them. The Congreve rockets we used all throughout the Napoleonic wars were just English versions of what Hyder Ali had used against us.”

The old guy is telling this story because a group calling themselves the Sons of Hyder Ali have built an arsenal full of rockets. They have bad feelings toward the British and a plan concerning the flotilla of dirigibles our hero is serving on.

I would tell you more, but that would be a spoiler.

429. Scales, digital and ridiculous

Ah, the good old days. They really sucked.

Even the phrase sucked falls into that category. I know that most of those who read this will not remember, but there was a time when nobody said sucked. It ranked up there with the “F” word. I remember when it arrived on the scene in my middle school students’ vocabularies, how it was an issue for a short time, and how two years later teachers were saying it. That’s what happens when a perfectly good forbidden word becomes common; it loses its flavor.

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I have a great respect for Science Olympiad, but I never liked coaching, so I always volunteered to judge events instead. I enjoyed taking on new events that needed to be shepherded through their first year of implementation, and that led me to build a lot of gadgets to use in judging the contestants’ gadgets.

The people who think up new events in Science Olympiad often show an Olympian detachment (pun intended) from reality. Case in point — and forgive me if my numbers are off, I’m writing from memory — in two events students had to build light structures and test them to destruction. First it was a bridge, and a few years later, a tower. The lightest bridge or tower that held the most weight before failing won the event. There was a formula for weight vs. load, and specifications for what constituted failure.

The students applied the weight by pouring sand into a suspended bucket and there was a set maximum. If the structure held the maximum, the lightest structure won. If the structure failed, the weight vs. load formula was invoked. All in all, it was a well thought out event.

Except for one thing. The load was in pounds — up to ten, as I remember — and the weight of the structure was in grams. Let’s do the conversion.

1 pound equals 16 ounces
1 ounce equals 28.35 grams
Therefore, 10 pounds equals 4536 grams
And 9 pounds equals 4082.4 grams
That is a difference of 453.6 grams

Did I lose you? Just look at the cartoon at the top for a moment, regain your equilibrium, and come back to me. There is no final exam on this. This is just memoir about how much fun teaching science can be on a small budget.

To measure mass in grams, you could use a triple beam balance available in any science class. To measure ten pounds, you have your bathroom scale. But wait a minute, that ten pound maximum-weight bucket of sand has to be measured in grams! How do you do that?

You do it with levers, using the gizmo pictured at the top of the page. I actually built it, and used it all the years I was associated with that event. The lever makes the scale read about 160 pounds when there are 10 pounds in the bucket. That spreads out the difference between two similar weights. The box the adult is staring at is my old Mac SE, with a preprogrammed formula in a database. The formula is:

Scale reading in pounds after the sand has been added (times) conversion factor to grams (minus) weight of bucket in grams ——- all this fed into the formula for comparing load in grams to weight of the bridge or tower in grams, a formula provided by Science Olympiad.

At the event, all I had to do was watch the contestant, and stop her/him at the moment the structure failed. He/she was only given ten pounds of sand to work with, so overfilling could not happen. I typed in the reading from the bathroom scale and the computer gave me the score — after I had built and tested the device, programmed the database, and provided ten pounds of sand, calculated to the nearest gram on the same device.

Fun? Of course it was fun. I volunteered to do this, remember?

Was it accurate? No and yes. No, there was too much friction for the gram readings to be accurate, but the friction was the same for every trial, so yes, the ranking of the contestants was completely reliable.

About three years after Science Olympiad retired the event, digital scales which would measure that much sand to the nearest gram became available for under five bucks at every-guy’s-public-man-cave, Harbor Freight. Thank goodness it didn’t come earlier and ruin my fun.

422. Little Bitty White Hunters

When he got back to his apartment, Neil dug around in his still packed boxes to find the few books he had kept as personal treasures from his childhood. The formula books had not worn well; they held little that the adult Neil McCrae could find worthwhile. But there were others that had kept their value, and he spent the next four hours accompanying the young Hunt brothers as they continued the expedition their father had had to abandon, collecting zoo animals while floating downriver on their Amazon Adventure.

That is a quote from Symphony In a Minor Key. It was the opening paragraph of Symphony 13, over in Serial.

Neil McCrae and I have a lot in common — duh — but I also kept him as a separate person. He has more patience than I do, for example. Another thing I did was give him an English class, while I was teaching science. This lets him read to kids and read their papers, and that gives me — through him — the chance to tease out what is going on in their minds.

More than any other subject, literature is about involvement and about demonstrating that involvement by writing. But please! Sixth grade papers are awful. You’ll see when you have to read some of them with Neil. I’ll be over here with my bunsen burner; call me when you are through.

I’ve done my share of teaching reading and literature, which aren’t quite the same thing. Neil encounters a ton of difficulties, and solves them, more or less. I encountered all the same problems in my first fifteen years of teaching, and the same good, bad, and ugly solutions, before science largely pushed reading out of my curriculum.

Teaching reading is tough in a school where the children have widely ranging skill levels. Teaching literature is relatively easy, if you have good literature to teach. Accepted literature is not the same as good literature. I don’t have the guts to teach Where The Red Fern Grows. If you had that piece of pornography of violence foisted on you as a child, you’ll get the pun. On the other hand, I loved teaching Fog Magic.

Truthfully, most of the children’s literature I know, I read as a teacher. There were no bookstores which featured children’s books where I grew up, and besides, most of the children’s books I read when I was a teacher hadn’t been written yet when I was a child.

Like most children who are given the choice, I read books for children, books for young adults, and books for adults, indiscriminately. I still do. Just a couple of years ago I made it half way through my childhood set of Rick Brant books before I ran out of time and steam. Any time I see a Howard Pease juvenile, I snatch it up. His popularity has waned and they are getting scarce.

So Neil looks back at his childhood (which was my childhood — Neil was born full grown on the Ides of March) and remembers the books he read. Willard Price wrote the “___ Adventure” books starting with Amazon Adventure in 1949, and continuing for an additional thirteen books, ending in 1980. I only read the first four; by the time he wrote the rest, I had outgrown them. They all followed the pattern Neil later recounts, someone young went somewhere interesting and did something exciting, without adult supervision. That isn’t much, but that is all it takes.

In some cursory research today, I ran across an interesting phenomenon. I don’t want to make too much stew out of one oyster, but the critics in the day when the “___ Adventure” books were written, said that they were full of cruelty to non-Western people and animals. That is a problem in anything written before books were sanitized in the name of political correctness. If I were a cynic, I could say that this makes the eligible to join the rest of Western literature. Fortunately, I’m not a cynic, but I did note that comments written recently by men who grew up reading the “___ Adventure” books, then became adult writers of today, praised those books. Hmmm.

The truth is, when I wrote Symphony originally, I wasn’t thinking of Amazon Adventure at all. I was thinking of Zane Grey’s Ken Ward in the Jungle, but I didn’t have a copy, and had no way to get one to cross-check my memory. Amazon Adventure was in the local library, so it was the one to be immortalized.

Today things are different. I went to the other Amazon and ordered an eBook containing all three Ken Ward stories. Kindle is my new favorite word beginning with a K. It lets me romp through my out-of-print childhood at a buck a pop, without ever leaving the chair in front of my computer.

The world has changed, and my tastes have changed as well, so I don’t have much hope, but I’m going to give Ken Ward another try.

420. Created Equal, Not Likely

I made Neil McCrae an English teacher. This has quite a few advantages in that English teachers deal with emotions and hidden meanings. That works out well in writing about teaching.

Personally, I wouldn’t teach English for five times what they paid me. It is too hard. Any question you pose has fifty answers, and you have to read all of those awful student papers. I read my share one year when the English teacher, the History teacher, and I set up a cooperative teaching situation. Every student researched and wrote a paper on some nineteenth century scientific innovation.

In case you never thought about it, the nineteenth century is when science took over mankind. 1800 if far more different from 1900, than 1900 is from 2000. Look it up.

Our kids had to look it up. This was only ten years ago — we only did it one year — and for the first time our computer lab was fully connected to the internet. We gave them the time they needed to do the work in school, since many of our students were too poor to be connected at home. While they worked, we walked around to see that they weren’t playing the latest game or copying a student paper on their subject from half-way around the world.

When all was finished, all three teachers read the papers separately, with different criteria, and the papers got grades in all three classes. They got a grade for writing and grammar from the English teacher, a grade for how their innovation affected history from the History teacher, and a grade for scientific accuracy from me. That made for some odd moments.

On student, used to all As, bright, skillful, and cocky wrote a paper on a scientific innovation without doing any research. The paper was beautifully written, carefully printed, neatly bound, and grammatical, but she had faked it. I understand that; a good writer can fake his way out of a Federal prison, and it can become addictive.

All her scientific facts were dead wrong. The paper got an A in English, an A in History, and a D in Science, along with a half-page explanation of why, and a red circle around all her errors.

Does Middle School exist do teach you how to avoid getting caught in High School? Could be.

I taught everything my first year, and a little more science every year thereafter until I was finally down to just science. It’s surprising how many people don’t feel comfortable in science. The imposter syndrome is rampant. Personally, I loved it; it was my favorite subject from the first, and there were a lot of other teachers who were glad to let me do it.

The only other subject with more people who don’t want to teach it, is math. But even math has its advantages. “The answer to the problem is 9.72, Johnny. It doesn’t matter if you think it shouldn’t be. That’s what it is!”

Try saying that in a Civics class when you are discussing Republicans and Democrats.

PE teachers get a bad rap. I’m sure there are some lousy ones out there, but the ones in my school were excellent. Still, thirty years of playing Tate-ball (invented by our PE teacher Mr. Tate) seven hours a day can get to you. Adriana, my friend and the other PE teacher, enjoyed fifteen years of outdoor teaching, but all those early autumns and late springs in the blazing sun finally took their toll. She switched to science. There will be more on this Wednesday.