News in the Science of “Looking”

Flash news: The U.S. government’s secret space program has decided to give NASA two new telescopes for orbital use, as big as, and even more powerful than, the Hubble Space Telescope. Designed for surveillance, the telescopes from the National Reconnaissance Office were no longer needed for spy missions and can now be sent with missions aimed outward, instead of inward, to study the heavens. They have 2.4-meter (7.9 feet) mirrors, just like the Hubble. They also have an additional feature that the civilian space telescopes lack: A maneuverable secondary mirror that makes it possible to obtain more focused images. These telescopes will have 100 times the field of view of the Hubble. The problem: NASA needs money to fly and operate these scopes. Sign the petition to fund the NRO telescopes.

I hope this doesn’t increase the risk that Congress will kill the James Webb Space Telescope, though now an extensive re-design of that problem-plagued project can be undertaken without it being a calamity for humanity and science. One question that won’t be answered: what does the secret space program now have to replace these now outdated telescopes?

When you are outside, look up… and smile for the cameras.

Speaking of surveillance tech… When the U.S. military leaves Afghanistan, will the West be blind to developments there? In addition to satellites, drones and human intelligence, there will be a fourth way to keep an eye on movements and activities in the region that once gave bin Laden his base to attack New York. The technological edge keeps shifting and – as I wrote in The Transparent Society (1997) the age of micro-cameras and nano-veillance is upon us.  Now the U.S. military seems about to embark on the biggest “bugging” operation of all time, planting all over Afghanistan small, almost undetectable devices that might pass along images, seismic, audio and even radar data for as long as twenty years, operating on solar power.

If my own forecasts were on-target about this, then the foresight of Patrick Farley’s “Spiders” online graphic novel is downright creepy! I have long admired this underground work and often show portions when I consult about future trends in Washington.

Take a look at Farley’s other work at electricsheepcomix… and the wonderful preview-trailer that he just made for my new novel (ready to pre-order) Existence.

And how good news brings bittersweet thoughts of might-have-beens…   Now that Elon Musk’s Spacex has achieved a fabulous milestone and won a contract to supply the International Space Station (ISS), I am reminded of how that destination could have been far, far better… for much less money.  In 1983 I authored a California Space Institute study showing how with just FIVE shuttle launches we could have had a space station vastly larger than the present one and in many ways far more capable… and twenty years earlier… using Shuttle external tanks and something called the Aft Cargo Carrier.

Note  – that article doesn’t even mention the best use, as an airlock into the hydrogen tank, so it might be used as 1500 cubic meters of laboratory/living space. Five missions, that’s all, to exceed by far what we have now. Woulda been so cool. For another coulda-been, see also my novella: Tank Farm Dynamo.

And while we’re discussing how openness – even aggressively applied – can help us all… here’s another item forecast in The Transparent Society — the rise of the whistle-blowers!  A former home appraiser will receive $14.5 million as part of a whistleblower lawsuit that accused subprime lender Countrywide Financial of inflating appraisals on government-insured loans. Kyle Lagow’s lawsuit sparked an investigation that culminated in a $1 billion settlement … The complaints were brought under a whistleblower provision in the U.S. False Claims Act, which allows private individuals with knowledge of wrongdoing to bring suits on behalf of the government and share in the proceeds of any settlement.  It is one of the best laws passed in 30 years and I know twelve ways to make this phenomenon even better.

=== “Generations” on many time scales ==

Have we entered the Anthropocene? The term was coined by ecologist Eugene F. Stoermer but has been widely popularized by the Nobel Prize-winning atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen, who pointed out that many of the past boundaries between geological eras were demarked by relatively sudden mass extinctions.  For example, at the end of the Permian, or the Cretaceous (the demise of the dinosaurs.)  Some extinction causes are known… like the asteroid that brought the dinosaurs’ reign to an end.  Others are controversial.  Few knowledgeable people doubt any longer that humanity is wreaking great changes on this planet.  Even without a major extinction event (a medium scale one seems unavoidable) we are having “geological” effects that would be noted by scholars studying the planet a billion years from now.  With our mines and drained hydrocarbon zones and cities, we are laying down what will be traceable sudden (and vast) layers of anomalous composition that will scream out  – “an adolescent species went hog-wild here, for a very short while.”

The question… will those scholars be descendants of ours, who return to study those layers, knowing that we grew up in time the beget a great posterity?  Or will they be others, who shake their heads (or tendrils) noting “well, here’s another dumb bunch of punks that didn’t make the transition. Who never matured in time to become confident starfarers and change the galaxy.”

On a scale much close to home, but eerily similar in tone: An interesting commencement address by Neil Howe  author of The Fourth Turning, about how (especially in America) generations tend to run in cycles that compensate for or correct the excesses or mistakes of their parents. “The Millennial Generation is correcting for the excesses of Boomers and Gen Xers who today run America. I need not remind you what those excesses are: leadership gridlock, refusal to compromise, rampant individualism, the tearing down of traditions, scorched-earth culture wars, and a pathological distrust of all institutions.”

Hrm, well, amen to that.  It’s an inspiring speech, even with salt.

At one level, of course, this hypothesis is utter drivel.  Only a few “generations” have congealed with the pure, nameable traits and sense of separation that the author grew up used to, in the Boomer era.  All this “turning” stuff is just another example of the power of human pattern recognition.  And yet… and yet as a metaphor for some very real trends, there is a lot here to ponder and be hopeful about (with copious grains of salt.)  I personally observe in my own teenagers and their friends, many of the traits Howe discusses.  They appear to be better, wiser folk than we self righteous boomers, who did important work, a while ago, but whose passing will be a blessing to America.

Can we use insight to think rationally? The one area where Sigmund Freud offered breakthrough insights of profound and permanent value was by demonstrating conclusively that the unconscious mind exists, that it has agendas that often differ from our surface rationalizations, values and proclaimed beliefs, and that it can affect our decisions and biases before we even begin consciously weighing them. Alas, like so many other brilliant men, Freud went on to make unjustified leaps of elaboration that – ironically – erupted out of his own tortured unconscious. Still, science is continuing to verify the original insight.  See this rumination on how difficult it is to be sure we are being truly rational. Take it as a caution. And repeat the sacred statement of science. “I might be wrong.”

=== The Science Fiction Side of Progress ===

See a lovely review comparing Ridley Scott’s long awaited sci fi film PROMETHEUS with my new novel EXISTENCE.  Both of them fresh, 2012 examinations of some disturbingly challenging questions.

Star Trek writer Marc Zicree teams with GALACTICA fx whiz Doug Drexler & Sci-Fi Legends to reinvent classic 50s show “Space Command” as feature films.  Although I am a bit dubious about using crowd based micro-funding to launch a cinema venture, I certainly cannot complain about the kinds of talent that Marc Z brings to this project, or the legacy of vivid, optimistic science fiction, offering hope instead of despair, that he and his colleagues will try to re-light.  I wish them luck and every success.

What five books do I wish I had written? Is self-publishing the new ‘slush pile’? What literary characters would I like to invite to dinner?  Michael Keyton puts me “On the Rack” with these and other tough questions…

=== And Science Potpourri ===

Neuroscience for Everyone! Backyard Brains offers the Spiker Box, which allows kids and amateur scientists to study the electrical impulses of neurons. Watch the video: Take one cockroach; dunk in icewater, then extract one leg (don’t worry: it will grow another), place needles in your leg specimen, then hook leg up to  your Spiker Box, to view neural activity on your iPhone.  Next target: Earthworms, and then…

San Antonio to track students via RFID in ID cards — in an effort to increase revenue via higher attendance.

In a groundbreaking study, researchers from the Czech Republic and the United Kingdom have discovered a link between the déjà vu phenomenon and structures in the human brain, effectively confirming the neurological origin of this phenomenon. Despite past studies investigating this phenomenon in healthy individuals, no concrete evidence had ever emerged … until now. The study is presented in the journal Cortex.  (Hm… as in my 250 word short story Toujours Voir? (Always to see) from The River of Time).

Scientists now believe it is possible to expand the DNA alphabet, substituting unnatural letters for the nucleotide bases, perhaps enabling the production of novel molecular probes, nanomachines, or …even new synthetic life forms.

Wondrous stuff!

Take a look at the Existence trailer!  And I hope to see some of you on book tour. Thrive and persevere!

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