The Martian by Andy Weir

themartian

Andy Weir’s first published novel is simply awesome. I can’t believe that he couldn’t find a publisher, resorting to posting the book for free consumption on his website before being noticed and published. And now there’s even a film in the works, scheduled for release later next year.

The plot centres around astronaut Mark Watney who has been stranded on Mars after a NASA mission. He has to use all his training, mechanical engineering and botany qualifications and sheer human ingenuity to survive, until he is rescued. However, in the beginning he didn’t know he would be rescued, so it was just the sheer will to live for as long as possible. Back on Earth, everyone thought he was long dead.

I’m stranded on Mars. I have no way to communicate with Hermes or Earth. Everyone thinks I’m dead. I’m in a Hab designed to last 31 days.

If the Oxygenator breaks down, I’ll suffocate. If the Water Reclaimer breaks down, I’ll die of thirst. If the Hab breaches, I’ll just kind of explode. If none of those things happen, I’ll eventually run out of food and starve to death.

So yeah. I’m fucked.

Yes, that he was, until an observant NASA employee on earth noticed a few anomalies on some satellite surveillance photographs, and realised that he may just well have survived.

While NASA went about in earnest trying to attempt a rescue mission, Watney was left to fend for himself on a barren planet hell-bent on killing him at every turn. The science that Watney uses to survive (manufacturing air, water and growing potatoes in Martian soil) is all real. As Watney logs his daily struggles to survive with great wit in a journal, one can’t help rooting for the guy and cheering him on.

Being incommunicado did not help much, until he finds an abandoned Mars Rover whose equipment he modifies to set up a two-way communication link with NASA back on Earth. That was fun for a while, until he destroys the equipment in a freak accident. It was then back to writing Morse Code with rocks laid out on the ground, and our intrepid NASA employee photographing them with satellites. Slow, one way, but effective enough.

It takes on average about nine months to make the trip to Mars from Earth, and that is only if the two planets are lined up favourably in orbit around the sun in relation to each other. This favourable alignment occurs once every 26 months, so the lauch window is very tight. Therefore NASA can not just fire off a spaceship whenever they want to get to Mars. So if you’re stranded on Mars, it’s a long wait for help.

I’m not going to give away anything else; you’ll just have to read the book. Did I mention it’s awesome?

OMG! Why are so many people going ballistic over GMO?

If social media is to be believed, Monsanto is Public Enemy No. 1, or very close to it. Seems like even people I would normally consider as reasonable, just seem to go batshit crazy when it comes to Monsanto and GMO’s more specifically.

I’ve been conducting a running argument on this blog and over email with one of my many critics (whose name shall remain concealed from those who have not read the comments section on the relevent post), who insists that GMO’s are harmful, evil even, despite there being little to no evidence to support that assertion. He picks his evidence from websites that spread absolute bollocks, like Natural News.com (no, I’m not even going to link to it), to trusting without question the horse-shit written by wacko’s like Mike Adams. [Read this response to his latest attack on GMO’s].

I’m not going to try to convince you on my own why GMO’s are perfectly safe. I’ll just leave that to someone who is by far more eminent. Neil deGrasse Tyson.

I’m amazed how much objection genetically modified foods are receiving from the public. It smacks of the fear factor that exists at every new emergent science, where people don’t fully understand it or don’t fully know or embrace its consequences, and therefore reject it. What most people don’t know, but they should, is that practically every food you buy in a store for consumption by humans is genetically modified food.

There are no wild seedless watermelons; there’s no wild cows; there’s no long-stem roses growing in the wild — although we don’t eat roses. You list all the fruit, and all the vegetables, and ask yourself: Is there a wild counterpart to this? If there is, it’s not as large, it’s not as sweet, it’s not as juicy, and it has way more seeds in it.

We have systematically genetically modified all the foods, the vegetables and animals, that we have eaten ever since we cultivated them. It’s called “artificial selection.” That’s how we genetically modify them. So now that we can do it in a lab, all of a sudden you’re going to complain?

If you’re the complainer type, go back and eat the apples that grow wild. You know something? They’re this big, and they’re tart. They’re not sweet, like Red Delicious apples. We manufactured those. That’s a genetic modification.

Do you realize silk cannot be produced in the wild? The silkworm, as we cultivate it, has no wild counterpart because it would die in the wild. So there’s not even any silk anymore. So we are creating and modifying the biology of the world to serve our needs. I don’t have a problem with that, cause we’ve been doing that for tens of thousands of years. So chill out.

Here’s the video:

The evolution destroyer

proofevolution

His name is Joshua Feuerstein. Joshua must believe he’s an absolute genius because it took just three minutes for him to destroy hundreds of years of work by biological scientists.

That three minutes of assumed genius is contained in this video posted on his Facebook page.

The reality off course is that Joshua is a monumental ass. He preaches a very dangerous ideology that will wreck the future lives of potentially tens of thousands of children by tainting their education with pure unadulterated bullshit. Joshua wants science to be kept out of our classrooms. Here’s his starting point:

Evolution is not a science. Never has and never will be. Why? Because it cannot fit within the parameters and parentheses of science for one simple reason: It was never observed. That’s why it’s not science. That’s why it’s called the theory of evolution. One man’s theory.

By embracing such a fundamental misunderstanding of what a scientific theory is, its little wonder the rest of his blasé rant goes pear-shaped. A scientific theory is not something that a scientist just simply asserts. A scientific theory is “a coherent group of tested general propositions, commonly regarded as correct, that can be used as principles of explanation and prediction for a class of phenomena.” [one variation].

There’s really no point in debunking the rest of his bullshit, but it’s done fairly well here on Patheos.

If you value honesty and collecting just the facts, I advise that you steer well clear of this guy. And if your kids are going to any school that heeds the demented advice of such corrupters of the truth, get them the hell out.

The future is in science, not fairy tales.

Flying

The desire to fly is an idea handed down to us by our ancestors who… looked enviously on the birds soaring freely through space… on the infinite highway of the air. – Wilbur Wright

Aeroplane

Sitting on a plane this weekend, looking out over the port side wing during takeoff, I contemplated how often I had flown, but had never given much thought about mankind’s ability to fly. I had always taken it for granted that aeroplanes are there to take you from just about anywhere to anywhere else.

When we reached cruising altitude, I convinced myself that the aeroplane just has to be the greatest invention in the world, ever.

Up to this point I like many other people thought that the Internet or World Wide Web was mankind’s greatest invention, together with electronic communication and the computer. But there’s nothing quite like being face to face with someone, or witnessing a marvellous vista or object in person… on the other side of the world.

Flight has liberated us from the tedium of land and sea travel and saved a lot of valuable time in the process. It’s mostly convenient, if not a little expensive. But can a lifetime experience, or the ability to be practically anywhere at will, be measured against cost? And you can get alcohol on most flights.

Airports however are a necessary evil. I hate every corner of them, except the corner with a bar. Until such time as our brilliant scientists and engineers figure out how to make flying cars an everyday reality, I suppose we will have to live with airports.

Bright White Dot Spotting

Just got back inside after gazing earnestly into the night sky. Nada! Slightly overcast…

According to this timetable I should have seen a very bright white dot moving through the sky at approximately 7:36 PM… for about three minutes. Apparently it was supposed to look something like this:

So the question is why would I want to fritter away three (maybe ten in total if you factor in the logistics) minutes of my life looking at a bright white dot?

Well for starters, that bright white dot happens to be the International Space Station (ISS) which is the brightest white man-made dot in the sky. Secondly, I think that it would be kinda cool to watch something whizzing by at a speed of around 27 724 kilometers per hour. The fastest thing I’ve ever seen is a Top Fuel Dragster which didn’t even get to 400 kilometers per hour (although they do go much faster).

ISSTimetable

Anyway, I’m not going to bore you with all the details about the ISS and why it’s so awesome – it’s everywhere on the Internet, and in person in a patch of sky near you. Just wanted to let you know that this is my timetable for the next few days, and if I still don’t spot that dot, I understand that the ISS is expected to be rotating the Earth until 2020…

Ham’s Ark

Saying “what the fark” would be kind off late as the Ark Encounters project is not really news, being punted some time ago already by Answers in Genesis’s Ken Ham.

Not surprisingly, the whole ludicrous idea has been the subject of much mirth since inception, but recent reports suggest that it will finally get off the ground because of a sudden flood of cash that has materialised, probably through the foolishness generosity of credulous supporters.

HamArk

In the last week meme’s such as the one above have been doing the rounds on social media. So how is spending money on this project any different from spending money on say the space programme? It’s a valid question since space programme funding could equally be argued to be spent more productively on feeding poor and hungry people.

Well it is different and the difference is captured poignantly here by Gwen Pearson of Wired, the online publication:

This is an attraction that exists to promote a religious message. It’s not about animals at all. The welfare of the animals and their biology is less important than their ability to reinforce a religious myth.

This project will not enhance or better the current or future lives of human beings in any meaningful way as the scientific discoveries made on the space programme will. In fact, Ark Encounters not only will diminish the lives of people by keeping them chained to the outlandish ideology of Creationism, from the article it is apparent that live animals, should they be used, will be subjected to much distress.

Like the Creation Museum, another one of Ham’s obscene projects, this one will most probably become a reality. Reason alone seems unlikely to dissuade these perverters of science from going ahead. Perhaps nothing short of a biblical deluge in Kentucky will.

The “open mind” conundrum

bible wheel

“Do not be so open-minded that your brains fall out.”

Variations of this quote have been attributed to a number of different people such as Richard Feynman, G.K. Chesterton, Richard Dawkins and Bertrand Russell. However, having recently debated a literalist Christian on this blog, I have realised that it sounds rather crude.

My detractor claimed that I don’t have an open mind, which is why I will never understand, let alone accept the assertions in the bible. In hasty retort I quoted the line that precedes this post.

So as I’m currently re-reading Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World – Science As A Candle In The Dark, I was reminded of that encounter in a chapter titled The Marriage of Skepticism and Wonder, which I think perfectly settles this conundrum.

As I’ve tried to stress, at the heart of science is an essential balance between two seemingly contradictory attitudes – an openness to new ideas, no matter how bizarre or counterintuitive, and the most ruthlessly skeptical scrutiny of all ideas, old and new. This is how deep truths are winnowed from deep nonsense. The collective enterprise of creative thinking and skeptical thinking, working together, keeps the field on track. Those two seemingly contradictory attitudes are, though, in some tension.

There, now everything’s clear as daylight. Thanks Carl.

A More Perfect Heaven – How Copernicus Revolutionised The Cosmos, by Dava Sobel

sobelI’ve been meaning to review A More Perfect Heaven for more than a month, and yesterday would have been the ideal opportunity on the 541st anniversary of Copernicus’ birth. Alas, one day later will have to do.

Nicolaus Copernicus needs no introduction. If he does…Jeez man, where the hell have you been?

A More Perfect Heaven is a book in three parts, and relates how Copernicus, a Catholic cleric came to turn on its head the common notion at the time, that the Sun revolved round the Earth. The first and third parts are set against the backdrop of political and religious upheaval in Europe and is thus purely historical. Interestingly, Copernicus grew up and lived during the times of the Teutonic Order and was a contemporary of Martin Luther who led the breakaway from the Catholic Church. Sobel used many primary sources of knowledge, including accredited letters written by Copernicus himself, to paint her historical picture of his life and death.

Perhaps because of the social, religious and political climate at the time, it would seem that Copernicus was reluctant to publish his many decades of observational work on the heavenly bodies, and only did so after collaborating with and being prodded by Georg Joachim Rheticus, a German mathematician.

The middle part is quite intriguing as I’ve not come across this device in a book before. Sobel conjures up a two-act play in which she imagines a collaboration and dialogue mainly between Copernicus and Rheticus, which may have eventually convinced the former to publish his book, On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, which forever changed humankind’s understanding of the universe.

Whether it is part of folklore or fact, the play closes out with a sickly Copernicus receiving a published copy of his book in his deathbed, and promptly died.

The third part of the book provides the historical context in which the book was eventually published, largely due to the efforts of Rheticus, and its reception in Europe by the religious fraternity and the scientific community. In this third part we are also introduced to other famous scientists such Galileo Galilei who were persecuted by the church authorities for supporting and following Copernicus’ discoveries.

I received this book as a Christmas present last year and it was quite an easy and quick read; it is untechnical and you don’t need to know much or anything about science to follow it. If you enjoy history or science or both, this book is perfect.

2014 = 205

Darwin Day

No, 2014 does not equal to 205. It’s just that this year and specifically this day, is the 205th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin.

The 12th of February is celebrated in mostly scientific and humanist circles as Darwin Day. Why humanist? Well that’s a long story; ask any fundamentalist Creationist. Don’t know any? Good for you.

Amazingly since the publication of his seminal work On the Origins of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life in 1859, Charles Darwin has been both vilified and praised, and continues to be the subject of misinformation and abject lies. Fortunately modern science is slowly tearing apart the veil of ignorance and mischief that has plagued the Theory of Evolution originally postulated by Darwin and refined by others.

You will find a brief history of the origins of Darwin Day here.

darwin day

Darwin Award

And on a somewhat lighter note… The Darwin Awards has nothing whatsoever to do with Charles Darwin, although had he be still been alive, I’m pretty certain he would appreciate the humour.

The Darwin Awards were dreamed up by people on USENET groups, a precursor to modern Internet Newsgroups or Forums. The idea was to award individuals who through an act of sheer stupidity eliminated themselves (usually permanently) from the human gene pool.

It’s therefore fitting that just two days prior to Darwin Day, a member of the human species (debatable really) was involved in what I would call an act of premature disintegration, boldly announced his candidacy for a Darwin Award with a bang.

If this report in an Israeli publication is true (note that I haven’t read it anywhere else), then the Iraqi suicide bomb instructor who during a training exercise blew himself and 21 of his students up, is a winner by miles. Unfortunately the 21 students, will just have to be satisfied with being a piece of history.