On Friday evening, June 12th, we went to the Milwaukee Public Museum for the first of a new series of lectures, to be called “Science on Tap.” This inaugural program featured author Sy Mongomery, who would be speaking about her experiences working with Giant Pacific Octopuses that formed the basis of her new book, The Soul of an Octopus.

Given her lengthy career and past books such as Spell of the Tiger, about the tigers of Chunderbund, Bangladesh, and Journey of the Pink Dolphins, about the dolphins of the Amazon, I was expecting a rather more weather-beaten figure, someone like Jane Goodall, perhaps, but was surprised by her slim and elegant figure. She also doesn’t “lecture” in the conventional sense. Her style is very intimate and confiding, as though we were all gathered in someone’s living room, rather than a lecture hall with huge close-ups of octopuses projected on screen. This manner very well suits her fascinating and very personal narrative of interacting with the octopuses she has met, giving us no room to doubt that they were each individuals, and very intelligent, though wonderfully alien ones at that.

The octopus is stranger than I had imagined. A fifty-pound octopus can squeeze through a hole the diameter of an orange, if not smaller. Each of its hundreds of suckers can lift thirty pounds. The octopus brain can have seventy lobes, and some of its tentacles may be capable of not only independent action, but of having independent “personality” (as though your left hand were shy, but your right hand was outgoing--). The octopus tastes with all of its skin, but apparently does not hear. The eye of the octopus does not see color, but the octopus not only changes color depending on its emotions, it can change color and pattern to camouflage itself, matching its backgrounds. It is hard to imagine a creature more totally unhuman, yet octopuses are capable of recognizing and bonding with individual human beings.

Ms. Montgomery gave a very entertaining and informative talk, and I will definitely be reading her book (as soon as Georgie is done with it--). This was an excellent kickoff to the “Science on Tap” series, which is to include four programs a year, with the next one, on plate tectonics, to be in October.

Last night (October 29th) the moon was full and visible, initially through a light overcast, which then cleared a bit, revealing a very marked ring around the moon, at least twenty times the moon's diameter. I was a bit chilled by that, recalling:

"Then up and spake an old Sailòr,
Had sailed to the Spanish Main,
"I pray thee, put into yonder port,
For I fear a hurricane.


"Last night, the moon had a golden ring,
And to-night no moon we see!"
The skipper, he blew a whiff from his pipe,
And a scornful laugh laughed he."

Which is from Longfellow's "The Wreck of the Hesperus " where indeed a hurricane is in the offing. And, we have had a sailing ship go down in the great storm, the Bounty, sunk off North Carolina with one crew now confirmed dead and her captain still missing. At least most of the crew were saved, unlike the unfortunate Hesperus, which, in the poem, was lost with all hands.

The ring around the moon was due to ice crystals in the upper atmosphere, which were quite likely outriders from the collision of Hurricane Sandy and cold air masses riding down the jet stream. It's rather sobering to think that we in Wisconsin are feeling the fringes of an Atlantic storm, but that is the case. Wind gusts of up to 45 MPH are predicted, with 15 foot waves on the Lake Michigan shore and possible 30 foot waves in the center of the lake. Both lake ferries have wisely canceled trips for today.

Gusty winds are nothing new to us here, of course, and we all expect to be safe and snug. Here's hoping that those in the more direct path of the storm can be as safe.

 

Georgie and I decided we needed to economize a bit on our trip to Chicon 7, so didn't go down until Saturday. We were up early and caught the Amtrak to Chicago as we had in the past with no problem, but were a bit dismayed when the train came to a halt a few minutes after leaving the downtown station. We were subsequently informed that there had been a motor vehicle accident involving one of the supports of a bridge the train had to pass over, and regulations required that the bridge had to be inspected before the train could proceed. Fortunately, the Canadian Pacific inspector was evidently on deck, since we were underway again within half an hour. The train made up some time on the remainder of the run, so we got into Union Station only about twenty minutes later than scheduled.

A quick cab ride got us to the hotel shortly after 10:30AM. A room was not ready for us, so we checked bags and went to Con registration. This was eerily familiar, with Registration and the Souvenir sales being in exactly the same spots as the last Chicon. At this off-peak hour, picking up our pre-reg packets went smoothly, and I was also able to pick up my Masquerade documents and identification as a judge.

There were some interesting readings scheduled, so we went over to the West tower for those. There was an immense line to get into the room for Patrick Rothfuss' reading (shortly moved into a larger room--), so we decided to divert to another. We listened to some or all of readings by Todd Gallowglass, Dierdre Murphy, and Nnedi Okorafor before breaking for lunch.

We got lunch at the "Bistro" restaurant in the hotel lobby, which was OK, although I've had a better pulled-pork-barbecue-with-slaw sandwich here in Milwaukee at HoneyPie Cafe. Then, we checked back at the hotel front desk, got our room keys, and went up to change.

Since most of the rest of the day would be concerned with the Masquerade, I changed into the outfit I would be wearing to judge, which was one of my "Steampunk" variations based on my black frock coat. When we took a brief look into the Dealer's Room, I was hailed by Phil Foglio, who awarded me a "Girl Genius" Steampunk hall costume ribbon, which pleased me very much. (I was croggled by the number of badge ribbons some people had, creating bandoliers that rivaled "Doctor Who" scarves in color and length. I at first thought that the concom had run amok in this regard, until I realized that every dealer, artist, author and group had produced their own as promotional material. Fun, I suppose, but it kind of defeats the purpose of using the ribbons as an access control measure.)

I had a 4:30PM panel on Masquerade presentations, which was fun if loosely structured. We tried to give some useful tips for beginners, and I think we did, and come up with some entertaining stories, and I think we did that as well.

The Masquerade green room opened at 6PM for an 8PM 'curtain' and I was ready to begin. My co-judge for workmanship, Carole Parker, was on time as well, and we got down to work as soon as we had subjects to look at. (Workmanship judging at the WorldCon is optional, but most of the contestants did opt to be judged on part, if not all, of their costumes.) I thought Carole and I worked together well. There were some stressors—it seemed like a good idea to have the video feed from the ballroom piped into the Green Room. However, it didn't work out so well when I turned out there was no way to turn the sound down or off, and a lot of the pre-show video was LOUD. Given that this meant that "den moms" and other staff had to shout to make themselves heard, it was sometimes really difficult to conduct a detailed interview with the contestants about their costumes. Granted this wasn't something the Masquerade staff had control over, but it might be a note for future masquerade runners to check on.

Some of the entries, notably "Suzaku the Phoenix," (Sarah Mitchell), "Mad Madame M's Marvelous Machine" (Margaret Gentile), and "The Lady of the Lake" (Aurora Celeste), showed obsessive attention to detail as well as representing enormous amounts of work. These were Best Novice, Best Journeyman, and Best in Show for Workmanship, respectively. We awarded "Leather Sole Airship Pirates" Best Master for Workmanship for their amazing operating backpack helicopter device.

After the Masquerade, we pretty much went to bed, as it was pretty late.
Sunday morning we were up fairly early, and partook of the breakfast buffet at the Bistro restaurant. I had the buffet, which included a pretty nice made-to-order omelet, and Georgie had the cinnamon waffle, which she pronounced good.

We started the Con Day by attending a reading by Carol Berg, author of "The Spirit Lens" and its sequels. She read from a forthcoming book that will follow her "Lighthouse Duet," novels I haven't read but will have to look up.

At 10:30, I was on the panel "Historical Accuracy in Fantasy." This was an interesting and wide-ranging discussion that took off in ways I hadn't anticipated, but enjoyed. The audience seemed engaged as well.
After that, we caught part of the Early Music concert by "Court and Country" which we found very fine and a joy to hear.

Then, we got seats in Crystal Ballroom B early, to watch Toastmaster John Scalzi interview astronaut Story Musgrave. What a man! As the event description says, "Story is an astronaut, surgeon, jet pilot, and landscape architect. As he flew on six Shuttle missions, bred a unique new type of palm tree, and earned graduate degrees in seven different subjects, he has ignored all conventional limits." Besides that, he seems like a genuinely modest individual, and has a good sense of humor, too. I don't recall if he plays any instruments, but, as Georgie noted, he's as much like a real-life "Buckaroo Banzai" as you are likely to meet.

We then went back through the Dealers' Room, and bought a few things, including our friend Sue Burke's translation, "Amadis of Gaul, Book 1".

We finished the program day by attending "Tolkien and Me: How and When I Was First Introduced to the Books, and the Effect it Had on My Life". While in some ways this panel had some interesting information, mainly on the history of Tolkien fandom in the US in the 1960's and 70's, most of the panelist's stories started something like, "I first read The Lord of the Rings in 19XX, and I was hooked immediately." So far, so good, but no one went into why, or what about the books appealed to them. We had to make our dinner connection so ducked out before or if anyone got around to that topic--.

Sunday evening, we skipped the Hugo Awards. All honor to the nominees and winners, but we hadn't really read or seen many of the nominees, so didn't feel that interested. Instead, we went out to dinner at a restaurant called ZED 451, which was a sufficiently interesting experience I've given it its own review, following. Back at the hotel, we hung out until the London in 2014 party opened and partook of their hospitality for a time before retiring. (London got the 2014 bid unopposed. Intriguing possibilities there--.)

Monday morning, breakfast at the hotel again. We checked out of the hotel, no problems, and caught some Chuck Jones cartoons before attending the Ray Bradbury memorial panel, which was kind nice, but kind of formless.

The trip home was not as pleasant as the trip down. Amtrak at Union Station has a 'departure lounge' that was crowded and a bit too warm. Once on the train and rolling, we were hardly to Chicago's north suburbs before we became aware of gravel being thrown up against the floor of our car, a sign that something was dragging. The train stopped, and inspection showed that it was the electrical cable connecting our car and those behind us to the front of the train. The conductors did their best to reconnect it, but the incident had also shorted out the train's power control system, so electricity couldn't be restored. This meant that we had to proceed to Milwaukee with no air conditioning. We survived, but the heat was definitely getting to me by the time we arrived. The train staff did their best, but, as we overheard one say, "Mechanical (meaning "maintenance") had failed" them. We got into Milwaukee, again, about half an hour late, and cabbed home to unpack and recover.

Glitches aside, we had a good time, saw a lot of people we hadn't seen in a long time (and often their new children/grandchildren), and enjoyed some nostalgia of the 'remember when' sort prowling the Hyatt's familiar passages.
--or, climate change, as it might more correctly be referred to.

We've noted one effect of the recent beastly heat in the Midwest: the global warming curmudgeons--the ones who, when it hits 20 below in the winter are saying things like "Where's Al Gore now?" have largely been observing a circumspect silence on the topic.

I have been debating with one of my friends on this topic--neither of us is budging--but, for the hell of it, decided to publish some of the figures I noodled up on my own.

To quote Wikipedia, "Earth's average surface temperature has increased by about 0.8 °C (1.4 °F), with about two thirds of the increase occurring since 1980.[2] Warming of the climate system is unequivocal."

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Global_warming

The question I asked myself is, how much energy does this require? How much more energy has been trapped in the atmosphere to cause this raise in temperature?

Now, for what follows, I know that "earth's surface" and "earth's atmosphere" aren't necessarily equivalent. However, I don't know how the earth's surface measurement is calculated. On the other hand, similar discussions are put in terms of the atmosphere, so I decided to look at that.

How much energy would be required to raise the temperature of earth's atmosphere .8 degrees Centigrade?

Earth has approximately Earth has approximately 4.2 billion cubic kilometers (4,200,000,000,000,000,000 cubic meters) of atmosphere. Amount of energy required to raise the temperature of one cubic meter of air one degree centigrade: 1211 joules. Therefore, the amount of energy required to raise the temperature of the earth's atmosphere .8 degrees C (4200000000000000000 x 1211 x .8) = 4,068,960,000,000,000,000,000 joules required.

By contrast, one megaton equivalent of TNT releases 4,200,000,000,000,000 joules. According to web sources, there are approximately 36000 nuclear weapons in the world's arsenals. Exact megatonnage available is unknown, but I have chosen to use an average yield of 5 megatons, which would be a generous estimate since many of the weapons stockpiled are "tactical" weapons of relatively low output. Given that estimate, the energy released by detonation of the world's entire nuclear arsenal would yield 180000 megatons, or 756,000,000,000,000,000,000 (7.560000000e+20) joules. Thus it would require the detonation of at least 5.38 times the total nuclear arsenal of the planet to put an equivalent amount of energy into the earth's atmosphere.

The earth's atmosphere is a chaotic system. What happens when you put more energy into a chaotic system? It becomes more chaotic, rather than, as the simplistic view might expect, becoming uniformly warmer. Therefore, we can expect higher highs, lower lows, and more extreme weather events, which is precisely what we have been observing.

Spring!

Mar. 20th, 2012 03:36 pm
Today is 2012's vernal equinox, and for once in my life so far, I can truthfully say that we seem to be having an early spring of the type oft-predicted by the Groundhogs, but seldom actually delivered by Mother Nature.

We had snow and ice here on March 2nd, which did not last long. Last week, crocuses were up and blooming. Yesterday, daffodils, snowdrops, violets, wood hyacinths, forsithia, and even an early tulip were in bloom, some of them actually overnight. The cardinals and other birds are singing nesting songs.

In part, this is due to the jet stream dipping far south to the west of us, then veering north of Lake Superior, so that we are getting considerable southern air. How long this can last is anyone's guess--the best we can do is enjoy it while it lasts without being too worried about the strangeness of it.
As another example of climate change (or general wierd weather) I give you Milwaukee last weekend, where we had a heretofore undescribed phenomenon (as far as I know)--lake effect thunderstorms.

Everyone who lives near a great lake knows about lake-effect snow. The Great Lakes seldom freeze entirely over, and create more-or-less permananent reservoirs of relatively warm, moist air over the lakes. When prevailing winds move this moist air over the colder land, the moisture precipitates out as snow, which is why areas such as western New York state, western lower Michigan, and the southwestern shores of Lake Superior are notorious for heavy snow accumulations. In Milwaukee, we get lake effect snowstorms when the winds are out of the east to northeast, which conditions can sometimes last for days.

Saturday and Sunday, we had moist upper air masses moving off the lake and dumping rain on the city, but in a very odd fashion. There was almost no wind at ground level, but the intensity of the rainfall varied from light drizzle to utter deluge, sometimes within a couple of blocks. Some areas got no rain while others were being poured on. Three waterspouts were observed off the coast on Saturday. Georgie and I agreed that we hadn't seen the like since we had been living in Milwaukee--in my case, almost thirty years.

EDIT: Per the newspaper weather column, what we have been having is called a "cut-off" low pressure center. So it is a defined phenomenon, although still rare.
Sunday afternoon the 19th, we went to the Downer Theater to see "Cave of Forgotten Dreams," which is a documentary by filmmaker/auteur Werner Herzog about the discovery, study and significance of the Chauvet cave in southern France, which holds the earliest known artwork by humans.

Unlike other decorated caves, Chauvet, discovered in 1994, has never been open to tourists or casual visitors. It was speedily closed off from unregulated access and jealously perserved by the international scientific community. Thus, it took a film maker of Herzog's status to get permission to enter and film the cave under strictly controlled conditions. When we see the interior of the cave, we understand why this is done. Not only are there the astonishing drawings in a remarkable state of preservation, there are also such things as cave bear bones lying about, footprints of prehistoric humans and animals in the cave floor, and delicate 'soda straws' and other fragile cave stone constructions.

Scientists estimate that the original broad cave mouth was closed off more than 20,000 years ago by a rockslide, leaving only the narrow crevice through which the cave was rediscovered. This made the cave a literal time capsule.

The drawings themselves have been carbon-dated to be as old as 32,000 years, which makes them the oldest known drawings by a goodly piece. The well-known Lascaux cave paintings, by contrast, are estimated only 17,500 years old.

I joked with Georgie that the Chauvet paintings dated from before the discovery of color, since, with the exception of a couple of drawings in red ochre, the drawings are all in charcoal only. Nevertheless, they show a vital vision and very lively line. They incorporate sophisticated techniques of shading, and of composition, such as using natural features of the rock to make an eye or a shoulder blade.

There are both similarities and differences between Chauvet and later caves. Most of the creatures depicted are prey animals, such as horses, rhinoceroses, and bison. Lions, bears, and hyenas are also depicted, which is an ususal number of predators. As with most decorated caves, there are no complete human figures.

This film is fascinating for its view back into prehistory. On the big screen is probably the best opportunity most of us will ever have to see these artifacts, given the deteriorating conditions facing caves such as Lascaux. Highly recommended for those interested in human history, the history of art, archeology, or paleontology.

On Sunday afternoon, Georgie and I made our first trip to Pier Wisconsin on the lakefront to see the Discovery World Museum, and especially the Reiman Aquariums. 

 

The Aquariums are part of the “Aquatarium” portion of the complex, which, besides the fish tanks, includes a number of other exhibits. The wave-motion machine at the entrance was quite fun to play with, and the first exhibit on the ground floor is a fascinating scale terrain map of the Great Lakes basin, complete with water and fish. 

 

Upstairs are exhibits relating to the age of sail on the Great Lakes, including a full-scale replica of a small schooner, the Challenger. There are also some enjoyable interactive exhibits demonstrating the actions of simple machines as they relate to shipping.

 

The lower portion of the exhibit hall is taken up with the aquarium, which is very nice and, in my opinion, somewhat superior to the aquarium facilities at the Milwaukee County Zoo, if not as varied. The viewing areas are larger and brighter, and altogether easier to see into.  They are also daringly arranged, with tanks that you can walk over, under, and through, some of which give the starling visual effect that you could reach out and touch fish swimming just above your head. The exhibits include a “touch tank”, a smaller version of the one recently in use at the Zoo, which allows visitors to actually touch rays, small sharks, horseshoe crabs, and, in a separate tank, sturgeons. (While it’s interesting to be able to see these creatures so closely, I have to confess I am ambivalent about it, since they are almost continually getting annoyed by the people, at least on busy days.)

 

We toured through the rest of Discovery World, which is rather a work in progress. One fascinating exhibit showed various types of gear trains, escapements, and mechanical movements, interspersed with mechanical toys making use of the principles. There were a number of other interesting exhibits, such as one incorporating an infra-red camera that let us see our heat image on a screen, but we found a number of things were not labeled, or had insufficient instructions for their use. And, as always with anything incorporating interactive exhibits, some were out of order, and some under construction.

 

While Discovery World is rather cool, I have to say it’s just a bit pricey for what you get: general admission for adults is $16.95 each, plus parking for two or so hours at $7.00 brings the expedition cost to $40.90. This compares with $11.25 adult admission for the County Zoo in peak season ($9.75 in winter), and $11.00 adult admission for the Milwaukee Public Museum, both of which are larger and more extensive facilities. Parking at the Zoo is $10.00 per car all day, and it is possible to park free on nearby streets if you are canny. There’s also cheaper parking near the Public Museum, but Discovery World doesn’t have any free parking nearby at all, although the O’Donnell park garage is a short walk away and may be cheaper for future visits.

 

 

On Friday, February 22nd, Georgie and I had the day off and took the morning to see the "Body Worlds 1" exhibit at the Milwaukee Public Museum, or, as Georgie put it, "getting in touch with your Inner." We both found the exhibit fascinating and well worth seeing.

ETHICS and MORALS:

My position is that there is nothing sacred about a human body once the animating force has left it. I find the concept of a "sky burial" quite pleasing, and, were it possible over here, would be glad to have my dead self left somewhere to feed the vultures and the kites. However, short of moving to Tibet and becoming a monk, that's not going to happen, so I have opted for a 'direct cremation', which, so far, is the cheapest and tidiest way of disposing of a body. Now, coercing a grieving family that can usually ill afford it to lay out $10,000.00 PLUS for a burial plot, monument, casket, vault, etc.--THAT I find indecent.

I am aware that there are those who will be reading this who find the "Body Worlds" display repugnant on religious grounds. I respect that. There are those who find it inesthetic or just too "gross". I respect that also. However, in my opinion, Dr. Von Hagens, the inventor of the "plastination" process, has been unfairly tarred with the innuendo that some of the cadavers used in his exhibits may be of questionable provenance.

ABC's 20/20 coincidentally did an "expose" on the body exhibit business this same week (which may be viewed at their web site). This is in no way a piece of balanced journalism. Bias is evident in the narrator's continual use of descriptive words such as "grisly" and "ghoulish". Nevertheless, the focus of the piece falls not on Von Hagens, but on his purely commercial competitor, Premier Exhibitions, (which also runs the "RMS Titanic" touring show) and does business as "Bodies--The Exhibition." This company is the one that gets its prepared specimens from China. Von Hagens actually appears in the story, and relates that he had at one time received some cadavers from China himself that showed wounds indicating possible execution: he cremated them and cut all ties with China. There could not be a greater contrast between Von Hagen's clean, well lighted, and ultramodern facility (still referred to by the reporter as "ghoulish") which he obligingly gave a tour of, and the so-called "Denjheng Medical University Plastination Laboratory" which is a dark and dingy rundown warehouse with the furtive air of an auto "chop shop" and from which the reporters were politely but firmly ejected. Pressed as to whether or not condemmned prisoners were used, the chairman of Premier denied it, but admitted that the Chinese specimins were "unclaimed" bodies.

This, to me, is even more reprehensible than using the bodies of condemned felons. This means they are using the bodies of paupers, the unidentified, and the familyless, and that there is almost certainly no informed consent. (Von Hagens has extensive documentation which allows donors to set limits on how the bodies may be used.) Although I am against the death penalty in general, on principle, I don't mind the idea of criminals being used for research. If the person was such a waste of space in life that society deems it is better off with him dead, then I can see the conclusion that they might as well serve a purpose dead when they did none alive. As long as, that is, the process does not become a money mill for the state. (Judge thinks: "if we shoot this guy, it costs us fifty cents for the bullet, and we get back a couple of grand selling him for parts, as opposed to having to pay to feed, clothe and house him for twenty years. . ." No one wants that kind of analysis being made--.)

As for dignity, I did not find anything undignified in the sometimes playful exhibit poses. Most are posed to show the body in normal actions: dance, sports, everyday action, which I agree is more engaging and interesting than just standing at 'attention' or reposing would be. Besides, it's a great old tradition. Want to spend eternity as a chandelier? You could have had your bones interred someplace like the Sedlec Ossuary--
http://www.artgraphica.net/art-shop/prague-kutna-hora-bone-church.htm

THE BODY BEAUTIFUL

For those who find it distasteful, the detailed review of what we saw is behind the cut--.

Read more )
In a recent press release:
http://www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=111158&org=NSF&from=news

the National Science Foundation said: "A diverse committee of experts from around the world, convened at the request of the National Science Foundation (NSF), announced 14 grand challenges for engineering in the 21st century that, if met, would improve how we live."

I read this article with considerable interest, but was rather flummoxed by some of the proposals, some of which do not strike me as being "engineering" problems, and some so vague as to be meaningless. The list (with my notes)is:

below:

* Make solar energy affordable

* Provide energy from fusion

* Develop carbon sequestration methods

So far, so good. Reasonable goals that involve the solution to practical problems.

* Manage the nitrogen cycle

?? As far as I know, the "nitrogen cycle" was something that happened in nature. What is the issue with "managing" it?

* Provide access to clean water

* Restore and improve urban infrastructure

OK, another pair that involve applying improved technology to concrete problems.

* Advance health informatics

Again, ?? "Informatics" is a new buzzword to me. Per Wilipedia, "Informatics includes the science of information, the practice of information processing, and the engineering of information systems. Informatics studies the structure, behavior, and interactions of natural and artificial systems that store, process and communicate information. It also develops its own conceptual and theoretical foundations. Since computers, individuals and organizations all process information, informatics has computational, cognitive and social aspects, including study of the social impact of information technologies.

Used as a compound, in conjunction with the name of a discipline, as in medical informatics, bioinformatics, etc., it denotes the specialization of informatics to the management and processing of data, information and knowledge in the named discipline, and the incorporation of informatic concepts and theories to enrich the other discipline; it has a similar relationship to library science."

So, are they saying, improve health education? Improve data sharing? Pretty vague and I'm not sure how this is an engineering problem.


* Engineer better medicines

Better how? When you talk of engineering in relation to medicine, I think of drug production and delivery systems. Development of new "medicines" would be the task of medical scientific research, wouldn't it?

* Reverse-engineer the brain

Another one blurring the distinction between what I am used to thinking of as "research" and "engineering."

* Prevent nuclear terror

OK, how is this an enginnering problem, unless someone is going to invent personal radiation and blast-proof force fields? Nuclear disarmament is a political issue, and keeping nuclear materials out of the hands of terrorists is a combined political/security/law-enforcement task.

* Secure cyberspace

* Enhance virtual reality

OK, two more do-able jobs, enhancing the VR probably more so than securing cyberspace.

* Advance personalized learning

Pretty vague goal here. Perhaps after they have reverse-engineered the brain they will be able to provide the neural linkage to deliver advanced informatics as an enhanced virtual reality experience in secure cyberspace?

* Engineer the tools for scientific discovery

And this one strikes me as the vaguest of all. Of course engineers build the tools for scientific discovery. When the particle physicist says, "I need a left-handed boson sieve," or something like that, the engineers figure out how to make it, but this is an ongoing process and not some kind of single great project in the same way that creating a viable fusion energy source would be.

Over all, I give the list a C+ for fuzzy thinking: not what I want to get from a comittee of high-powered experts--.
Are they nuts?

I understand the decision to bring the space shuttle back early due to weather considerations. I understand that any spacewalk is risky. I absolutely cannot understand the decision to bring the shuttle back without attempting the repair to the heat shield tiles. It seems to me that there is far less potential risk in the repair job than in not doing it. I hope I am wrong, but the consequences of a wrong guess on NASA’s part here will be catastrophic in a number of ways. If I were an astronaut up there, I be saying, “hell no, I’m not coming down until we’ve fixed it.”
One of the great mysteries of science in the present day is that of "dark matter" and it's related phenomeonon, "dark energy." Both these things have been postulated as a way to explain the behavior of the perceived Universe. Calculations show that as much of 70% of the mass of the Universe may be made up of matter that has so far been undetectable. "Dark energy", a similarly intangible hypothetical force, seems to be responsible for the continuing expansion of the Universe. While kicking around ideas at Sue Blom's salon on Friday the 2nd of February, part of aour annual discussion of the prior year's top science stories, I was struck with the following idea:

What if the Universe is expanding and contracting simultaneously? There have been numerous theories proposing that the Universe might expand, then contract, creating a cycle of existence. But, what if serial time as we know it is also a function of the expansion of the Universe, and, when it reaches its ultimate expansion point whatever it might be, when it begins to reverse course, time reverses also?

Therefore, what is perceived as the vast mass of dark matter is actually the Universe itself rushing at us downtime, at near-relativistic speed, which accounts for our perception that it is more massive than "our" Universe. A viewer going the other way would perceive "our" Universe as both invisible dark matter, and massive due to the closing velocity. "Dark energy" is nothing more than the gravitational attraction of the downtime Universe, which, so far, is attracting us outward. (Hey, gravity works across time! Who knew? Nothing else blocks gravity. We don't know what gravity is, anyway.) When the two masses pass, the respective gravitational effects will then have a braking effect, which will cause our outrushing Universe eventually to slow to a stop and begin to contract, while the downtime Universe crashes back together and explodes outward again in a new Big Bang.

As with my hypothesis of Lumpy Time, you read it here first! Speculative as it is, I like this idea because of its elegance in that new forms of matter or energy are not needed to explain the observed behavior. Your comments, especially those of the Nobel Prize committee, are welcome.
It occurs to me that there really cannot be any explanation for "intelligent design" given that does not, ultimately involve the supernatural, or, bluntly, God. The argument that it might be "aliens", begs the question, where did the aliens come from? If they are smart enough to understand our complexity when we do not, they must be at least an order more complex than we are, true? So, who made them? Galactus? Cthulhu? A god-like holdover from a prior Universe? And if not aliens, what? If we are the products of some mystical Demiurge, who created him/her/it/them?

I am reminded of this anecdote, which exists in anumber of variations, but the punch line is always the same:

After a lecture on cosmology and the structure of the solar system, William James was accosted by a little old lady.
"Your theory that the sun is the centre of the solar system, and the earth is a ball which rotates around it has a very convincing ring to it, Mr. James, but it's wrong. I've got a better theory," said the little old lady.
"And what is that, madam?" inquired James politely.
"That we live on a crust of earth which is on the back of a giant turtle."
Not wishing to demolish this absurd little theory by bringing to bear the masses of scientific evidence he had at his command, James decided to gently dissuade his opponent by making her see some of the inadequacies of her position.
"If your theory is correct, madam," he asked, "what does this turtle stand on?"
"You're a very clever man, Mr. James, and that's a very good question," replied the little old lady, "but I have an answer to it. And it is this: the first turtle stands on the back of a second, far larger, turtle, who stands directly under him."
"But what does this second turtle stand on?" persisted James patiently.
To this the little old lady crowed triumphantly. "It's no use , Mr. James -- it's turtles all the way down."

I'm afraid that the ultimate answer to the intelligent design question may be that "it's intellgent designers all the way down."
On the otehr side of the coin, Creationists attack Evoution as being "just a theory." If we could do one useful thing in this debate it would be to clarify that in the scientific context, a theory is that explanation that best fits all the known facts at the time. It may be changed as new facts become known, but is far from a mere hypothesis, which is what people really mean when they say "just a theory," implying that it is merely a respectable title away from a wild-ass guess.

Well, guess what, Creationists, "gravitation" is only a theory, too. We have only empirical observation and some supporting mathematics to support that gravity works, and how it works, but not a scrap of evidence as to "why" it works. No one has ever detected a gravity particle, gravity wave, or gravity packet. Would you leap off a tall building in the hopes that gravity was "just a theory"?

One would think the Germ theory of disease was generally accepted. One would be wrong. Despite manifold demonstrable evidence, there are many people who persist in attributing most human disease to subluxations of the spine, or poor nutrition. Christian science holds that all illness can be treated with prayer.

Of course, there are many illnesses that, so far as we know, do not conform to the Germ theory, but the theory is well supported and there is ample evidence showing it to be applicable to infectious disease.
The theory of gravitation is notably lacking in pysical evidence; however, so far as can be observed, it is a universal phenomenon with no exceptions. Evolution occupies a middle ground. There is substantial physical evidence. No exceptions have been discovered, but, on the other hand, it is hard to observe "evolution in action." For those that can't wait, I would be glad to stage a personal demonstration of the principles of gravitation. This way to the roof--.
I wonder if the "Intelligent Design" argument would have such cachet if people realised that, ultimately, it is nothing more than animism of the most primitive and grovelling sort.

I recognized this in my atheistic youth, when reading "Golden Age" SF novels by, I think, none other than John W. Campbell. In these books, Campbell, militantly trying to throw aside superstition, had his scientists, when they needed to swear, swear "By the First Cause!". This semed pretty cool, until I thought about it a bit. Even in fiction these scientists did not know what the "first cause" was, how it happened, or anything about it. In fact, they placed it in a position of worship just BECAUSE it was the ultimate mystery. These supposed scientists were putting themselves in exactly the same position as ancient sun-worshippers who assumed the Sun must be a god becasue of its wonderous charictaristics, and because they actually knew little about it.

I ran into this again when I read an essay on the Net by a microbiologist--it might have been Scott Minnich, but perhaps not, and I can't find it right now--but the gist of it was that he became a convert to intelligent design theory through his work in microbiology. New technologies gave him ever-greater insight into cell structure, which was ultimately so complex, he concluded it "had" to be the work of an intelligent designer.

If this man were on my staff, I would have fired him at once. This is not science! He concluded that because HE could not get HIS mind around what he was seeing, there was no other explanation but a preternatural one. This is against any principle of scientific method. The true scientist will not say, "We cannot understand this," the scientist will say, "We cannot understand this NOW. We do not yet know enough. Our Science is not sufficiently advanced yet." In these times, it may not yet be a generation before we unravel the structure of the features that croggled this man, and even things an order of magnitude more complex still.

To claim that life is the product of "Intelligent design" is no different than saying that anything we don't understand is due to "spirits." As another commentator pointed out, to adopt this idea as "science" would in fact be the death of science: no need to research anything at all, if, at bottom, it all runs by the will of God.
Time is lumpy. You read it here first, this will be my official date and place of publication for Nobel prize purposes. Think about it. Nothing else in the Universe is evenly distributed. Not matter, not energy, not gravitation. We live in time, and cannot truly perceive it, although we feel its passage, like fish in the water, or birds in the air. I predict that when we are truly able to measure time (not just the passage of time) it will be found to have varying densities and currents. Our perception is good enough that we just barely notice its local variations--the time that seems fast, then slow even though we are not moving at relativistic speed, or not moving at all. I also predict that time will be found to be a quantum phenomenon, like light, and I hereby dub the so-far theoretical time-packet a "croton" (for photon+crouton).
As a human being, the sucessful (so far) launch of an astronaut by China pleases me. As an American, my feelings are distinctly mixed. Both the US and Russia have been puttering around in Earth orbit with our antiquated Shuttle and Soyuz systems, and I wonder if China will be the next nation to visit the Moon, or even Mars. Make no mistake about it, the International Space Station is a great thing, and the research we have done so far is excellent, but the short-sightedness of our space programs has been disheartening. If one of the Presidential candidates would say, "I think we should go back to the Moon," or "I think we should go back to Mars," that would go a long way toward getting my vote--.

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