Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Baloney Detection Kit: Dr. Sagan and the Death of Neil Armstrong

Carl Sagan: Who Speaks for Earth?

Landing on the Moon, July 20, 1969

Photograph Legend:

1. Annie's Carl
2. Carl's Annie
3. The surface of Venus
4. Nuclear Winter
5. Voyager's Golden Record
6. The Planetary Society logo
7. Neil Armstrong, photo taken in the Lunar Landing Module while on the Moon, July 1969
8. Neil suited up
9. Armstrong on the Moon
10. Dr. Sagan
11. A Pale Blue Dot

   Wikipedia tells us: "Dr. Carl Sagan (November 9, 1934 – December 20, 1996) was an American astronomer, astrophysicist, cosmologist, author, science popularizer, and science communicator in astronomy and natural sciences. He spent most of his career as a professor of astronomy at Cornell University where he directed the Laboratory for Planetary Studies. He published more than 600 scientific papers and articles and was author, co author or editor of more than 20 books. He advocated scientifically skeptical inquiry and the scientific method, pioneered exobiology and promoted the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI).
   Sagan is known for his popular science books and for the award-winning 1980 television series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, which he narrated and co-wrote. The book Cosmos was published to accompany the series. Sagan wrote the novel Contact, the basis for a 1997 film of the same name."
   As Wikipedia indicates Dr Sagan did a lot of things, a few of them being:
   His work greatly contributed to the discovery and explanation of the high surface temperatures of Venus (approximately 860 degrees Fahrenheit, twice as hot as any kitchen oven) due to a runaway greenhouse effect, a dire warning to us here on Earth of the consequences of the over abundance of carbon dioxide accumulation in our atmosphere.
   In 1983 Dr. Sagan helped bring to the public's attention the concept of "Nuclear Winter," which concludes that the aftermath of even a limited nuclear weapons exchange between the then Soviet Union and the United States, would have disastrous effects upon the entire planet, postulating that the smoke, dust, particulates, and other contaminants propelled into the atmosphere after such an exchange would tend to cool the planet for several years at least, to the point that agriculture would fail. It would also deplete the protective ozone layer in our atmosphere which shields us from deadly ultra violet radiation from the Sun. This concept actually helped to change the then current policies regarding the use of nuclear weapons in both the U.S. and U.S.S.R., and renewed interest in nuclear arms reduction.
   We don't hear much about it anymore, but the threat of nuclear winter is still very much with us. As of October 2009: Russia retains approximately 13,000 deliverable nuclear weapons, the United States 9,400, France 300, China 240, United Kingdom 185, Israel 80, Pakistan 70-90, India 60-80, North Korea less than 10... Estimated Total:  23,375. -Federation of American Scientists.
   "A minor nuclear war with each country using 50 Hiroshima-sized atom bombs as airbursts on urban areas could produce climate change unprecedented in recorded human history. A nuclear war between the United States and Russia today could produce nuclear winter, with temperatures plunging below freezing in the summer in major agricultural regions, threatening the food supply for most of the planet. The climatic effects of the smoke from burning cities and industrial areas would last for several years, much longer than previously thought." -"Environmental Consequences of Nuclear War." by Owen B. Toon, Alan Robock, and Richard P. Turco. Physics Today, December 2008.
   Carl chaired the committee responsible for the golden phonograph records (the records are constructed of gold-plated copper) that were included  on board both Voyager spacecraft, which were launched in 1977 (and are now celebrating their 35th birthday as operational craft. Yes, they are still working, sending back signals from the fringes of our solar system. As a matter of fact I'll be attending a birthday celebration for Voyager next month in Pasadena). They contain various sounds, images and music selected to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth, and are intended for any intelligent extraterrestrial life form, or for future humans, who may find them. In effect, they are our calling cards to the universe.
   Dr. Sagan wrote that "The spacecraft will be encountered and the record played only if there are advanced space-faring civilizations in interstellar space. But the launching of this 'bottle' into the cosmic 'ocean' says something very hopeful about life on this planet."
   If we here back on Earth somehow destroy ourselves by such mechanisms as nuclear exchanges, or runaway climate change, or whatever, or even after the Earth is swallowed by the Sun 5 billion years from now, the records of Voyager (and the plaques on the two Pioneer spacecraft also headed for the stars) are all that will be left that recognizes our existence... that we once were, and that we took the first tentative steps to reach for the stars.
   Carl wrote the story of the development of these artifacts in "Murmurs of Earth: The Voyager Interstellar Record," 1975.
   The Voyager spacecraft are not heading towards any particular star, but Voyager 1 will be within 1.6 light years of the star AC+79 3888 in the Ophiuchus constellation in about 40,000 years. I can't wait!
   Along with Bruce Murray of Caltech, and astronautics engineer Louis Friedman, Carl founded the Planetary Society in 1980. The society has grown to be the largest publicly funded space advocacy group in the world. It is a  non-government and non-profit organization dedicated to the exploration of Mars, the Solar System, the search for Near Earth Objects, and the search for extraterrestrial life.
   I've been a member of The Planetary Society since before "Salvation Diary" days (1990), and due to my membership my name was etched onto a microdot, along with every other member at the time, and placed on board the Mars Pathfinder Mission, which landed on the surface of Mars on the fourth of July, 1997, a little less than seven months after Carl died. The base platform which launched the first rover to successfully land on the planet, Sojourner, has been renamed the Carl Sagan Memorial Station.
   At the time of his death Carl was married to the lovely Ann Druyan, with whom he co-authored two books, the PBS television series "Cosmos," and sections of "The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark," the 1995 book where the Dragon in the Garage first appeared, and The Baloney Detection Kit, which we are about to examine. I highly recommend this work to anyone who wishes to apply critical thinking as a survival tool in this day and age, to protect us from invalid ideas and those who might wish to fool us into believing something that possibly is not true (such as presidential candidates, for instance).
   I never met Dr. Sagan, although his work has been a tremendous influence in my life and the way I write. I did have the pleasure of meeting Ms. Druyan once, unfortunately under exceptionally sad circumstances, a memorial service for her husband in Pasadena, shortly after his untimely death (Carl died of a rare form of leukemia at the young age of 62).
    There is not a day that goes by that I do not apply in someway lessons learned from having read this very influential book.

   "It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn't feel like a giant. I felt very, very small." -Neil Armstrong
   In a rather amazing and sad coincidence, while writing about one pioneer of our country's space program, I sadly learned of the death of another.
   While I was working on this piece yesterday afternoon, shortly before 2:00PM I read an Internet news story of the passing of Neil Armstrong, American NASA astronaut, test pilot, aerospace engineer, university professor and United States Naval Aviator. Oh yes, he was also the first human to set foot upon a world other than our own, the Earth's natural satellite, the Moon.
   He was 82 years old, and apparently died due to complications resulting from heart surgery.
   I was only 13 when the lunar lander Eagle touched down at Tranquility Base, a name invented by Mr. Armstrong, probably due to the fact they had landed on a large, dark, basaltic plain known as Mare Tranquillitatis, or Sea of Tranquility for the few of you who don't speak or read Latin.
    I was allowed to stay up real late to watch the landing on television (about 1:18AM PST). It was  Sunday morning I believe, so there was no school that day. I probably went to sleep for awhile, until six hours later when Neil first went outside for the first step, which I watched, as well as the rest of the world.
   That was probably only the second time in history when the people of the Earth stopped everything, momentarily forgetting all of their petty grievances with each other to focus on the two men walking around on a desert-like, airless surface, a quarter of a million miles away.
   The first being on "the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month" of 1918, when the treaty was signed between  the Western Allies and Germany, ending World War I, a time as author Kurt Vonnegut Jr. put it, when "millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one another," and the guns fell silent allowing the "voice of God" to be heard around the world.
   Below is a tribute to Mr. Armstrong, written by one of our members of The Planetary Society:
   "Armstrong as a Heroic Ideal," by Casey Dreier
   I wasn't born yet when Armstrong first set foot on the Moon.
   My parents remember the night, even though they themselves were young and far-removed from the world of space travel and science. But even though I wasn't there, Armstrong was always a presence. From a young age you know his name, even if most of us (sadly) don't know the others that went after him. The culture itself provides such a powerful representation of Armstrong that even though I wasn't there to see the moonwalk itself, I feel his death in my bones.
   There was something strangely comforting about the idea that this historical figure was quietly living his life on a farm in Ohio. It's very...Washingtonian (or Adamsian?) of him, I guess. The idea that after great service and fame that the man had no further pursuits beyond doing his duty. That he just wanted to go on with his life without basking in glory. It's a type of person that we all read about and convince ourselves don't exist in this day and age.
   Except they do, occasionally. We just have to look.

   In 1990, at the request of Carl Sagan, after the Voyager I spacecraft had completed it's primary mission with it's encounters at Jupiter and Saturn, NASA directed it to turn it's camera around and to take a photograph of the Earth across a great expanse of space (about 3.7 billion miles). What appears is a pale blue dot set against the black empty vastness of outer space.
   With the exception of space exploration and science fiction, as Dr. Sagan himself observed, "That is us... that is home." Everything you have ever heard of, every person that ever lived, every event that ever occurred, took place on that oh so fragile, lonely, and magnificent pale blue dot, on "a mote of dust... suspended in a sunbeam."
   Including the lives of two extraordinary modern day heros.
   Goodbye again Carl...
   And goodbye Neil.

To be continued

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