The myth of Men on the Moon

(Time, July 18, 1988)


Newt Gingrich reaped a ton of free publicity for his promise last week to – in the unlikely event he might be elected president of the United States – build a human settlement (colony? outpost? base?) on the Moon in eight years with substantial private investment.


Since the Kennedy administration landed men on the Moon in 1969, it seems that Republican administrations, and now a GOP-nominee-wannabe, have been preoccupied with going back. Nobody else seems too excited about it, but no matter, they persist. Same goes for this “commercial space” thing.

Look up Newt’s 1984 book, “Window of Opportunity: A Blueprint for the Future,” in which he hyped the so-called “commercial” development of space. The book was co-authored with David Drake and Marianne Gingrich. Newt was identified on the cover as chairman of the Congressional Space Caucus.

The cover illustration (courtesy of featured a space shuttle flying over the Earth, with a huge bald eagle stretching its wings around the two. Also on the cover was a quote from President Ronald Reagan (“A vision of the American dream…”).

Though, while editor of Space Business News (1983-1985), I went to a book-signing party for “Window…”, alas, I don’t have a copy of it.

In 1982 the Reagan administration issued a space policy statement (National Security Decision Directive 42) establishing that the government would promote and expand private-sector involvement and investment in space activities. In 1983, I became the editor of a new trade publication called Space Business News, devoted to reporting on the so-called commercial development of space.

In 1984 Reagan pitched a space station program to Congress, with a promised cost cap of $8 billion (really). It cost U.S. taxpayers somewhere around $100 billion to complete (not including the contributions of international partners).

In 1985 President Reagan appointed a National Commission on Space to develop a long-term plan for civilian/commercial space exploration and development, reaching far beyond the space station. (Full disclosure: I served on the staff of the commission.) In 1986, the Commission published its plan, entitled “Pioneering the Space Frontier.” It was grand and unaffordable.

In 1989 President George H.W. Bush said he would send people back to the Moon and on to Mars. His Space Exploration Initiative was, of course, unaffordable.

In 2004 President George W. Bush unveiled his “Vision for Space Exploration” – a plan to send people back to the Moon and on to Mars! It proved to be unaffordable, even more so than it was in 1989.

Now Newt wants to go back to the Moon. Others of a similar libertarian bent just can’t let go of their Moon-Mars bone. (See, for example, the wacky “Human Mission to Mars: Colonizing the Red Planet,” and its dozens of dreamy cousins.) Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, Harrison “Jack” Schmitt and other ex-Apollo astronauts have jumped all over President Obama for allegedly abandoning the Moon-Mars Thing.

Newt and his ilk are living in Apollo La-La Land. It ain’t the ‘60s. The U.S. government does not have a budget surplus, the Cold War is over, and Newt Gingrich is no Jack Kennedy.


State of the Union? Getting better


I liked President Obama’s State of the Union speech. While I don’t agree with everything he said (don’t even get me started on the offshore drilling thing), he covered all the issues people care about these days, and he made it clear that he needs Congress to get onboard with his “Blueprint for an America Built to Last.”

You can watch the speech here here. If you prefer speed-reading, you can flip through the slide-show version here here. You can read the President’s 2012 “Blueprint” here.

We – at least we middle-classers – who are privileged to live in the Washington, D.C., area are relatively protected from economic recessions and depressions. Bad times generate as much government work as good times do (maybe more…). But we all have friends and family living in less-protected places who have suffered since Republicans took the White House in 1980. I’ve watched it up close, here inside the Beltway, and heard it from beyond. The Reagan Administration gutted the regulatory and enforcement arms of agencies ranging from the Environmental Protection Agency to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the Mine Safety and Health Administration and the Securities and Exchange Commission. Even eight years of Democratic administration (Clinton, 1992-2000) was not enough time to rebuild, and President Clinton and his appointees didn’t push back hard enough against powerful interests such as the telecommunications oligopoly. From 2001 to 2008, more gutting took place, by more subtle, less public, but equally pernicious means.

I vote for getting to work on cleaning up the mess.

I wrote the President late last year to report that under his administration, American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds had helped to put my brother back to work while the Federal Emergency Management Agency had helped him to put his home back into working order after a catastrophic flood. In my book, this is what government’s supposed to for The People. Let’s keep it up.

Godzilla studies

To be honest, I’m writing this blog post as an excuse to show off a few out of a bundle of terrific pics I stumbled across while searching for something else on Google Images (where you’ll find many, many more)…

Ya gotta love Godzilla (more properly, Gojira). Godzilla R Us. S/he’s crabby, overly sensitive, vengeful, impulsive, both predicable and unpredictable, and sometimes downright motherly-protective. Godzilla is a Good/Bad Guy/Girl (who says Godzilla is a he?) who sometimes trashes Tokyo and sometimes saves it from destruction, battling with other products of human crimes against humanity – Mothra, King Gidorah (a.k.a. Gidrah the Three-Headed Monster), Gamera, et alia.

Godzilla has evolved, too, as we (hope we) have, from Cold War icon of the 1950s, a warning about the dangers of Nuclear Anything, to a post-postmodern emblem of impending environmental apocalypse.

And, in keeping with everything else in recent decades, Godzilla has gone global as well. See, for example, In Godzilla’s Footsteps: Japanese Pop Culture and the Global Stage, a compendium of scholarly essays about Godzilla in culture (William Tsutsui and Michiko Ito, eds., New York: Palgrave, 2006).

In the Irish Journal of Gothic and Horror Studies, Rafael Montes writes about Japanese and Cuban Godzillas: “Directed by Honda Ishiro, [the original, Japanese] Gojira enacts a narrative of geopolitical disturbance based on the event which took place less than a decade earlier in the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki…. The diegetic awakening of Godzilla, brought about by American nuclear testing at the Bikini Atoll after the conclusion of the war, served to illustrate the continuation of militaristic threat for the island of Japan. Moved by the continued presence of and potential for nuclear radiation, especially after the March 1954 nuclear encounter between the United States and the crew of the Daigo Fukuryumaru (Lucky Dragon No. 5), a tuna fishing vessel navigating too close to American nuclear testing sites, Honda created a film to underscore the themes of, in the words of Sayuri Guthrie-Shimizu [see In Godzilla’s Footsteps], ‘nuclear annihilation, environmental degradation, and the apocalyptic potential of modern science run amuck’…. Jorge Molina’s invocation of Godzilla, in his 2000 short film, Yo Soy Godzilla, occurs in a Cuba where, to the director, social, economic, and political monstrosities are readily apparent…. Molina appropriates archetypal images of global horror (vampires, slashers, werewolves, monsters) in order to explore his philosophical and political ideology under the repression of a totalitarian regime. Dolman 2000, the collection of short films in which Yo Soy Godzilla appears, uses the horrific in order to impart to the audience the horror that is living in modern-day Cuba outside of the dictates of the regime.” Read it yourself: “Yo Soy Godzilla! – the possibilities and futilities of Cuban horror.”

Last month, Open University’s Alan Valdez gave a seminar at the University of Nottingham on the topic “Godzilla meets Fukushima: Science fiction and vernacular sense making regarding nuclear disasters in Japan, US and UK,” explaining how “atomic monsters” (or kaiju) in science fiction movies serve as “metaphors of processes and socio-technical complexes too complicated and too difficult to visualize otherwise.”

If you are not so interested as I am in cultural critique and more inclined to “hard” science, you might be interested in learning about Godzilla’s anatomy and biology. See “The science of Godzilla, 2010,” a Tetrapod Zoology blog post at Scientific American’s web site.

Turning from science to cinema again, I must recommend one of my favorite cartoons, “Bambi Meets Godzilla,” by Marv Newland (1969). You can watch it on YouTube. I recall seeing, but cannot locate online, “Bambi’s Revenge.” According to Paghat the Rat Girl – who reviews “horror films & Japanese cinema & Asian films generally” at a web site called Weird Wild Realm – “an even shorter, even more primitive sequel to [Bambi Meets Godzilla], Bambi’s Revenge (1978) [is] rumored to have been created by Frank Wetzel while he was living in a truck.”

Finally, I have to mention sightings of Godzilla, and Bambi, in the world of psychiatry. “In a now classic 1982 article” in the American Journal of Psychiatry, M.B. Parloff described “psychotherapy research evidence and reimbursements decision[s]” as a “Bambi meets Godzilla” scenario (Am J Psychiatry 139(6):718-727). According to Richard M. Glass, M.D., reporting in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Parloffconcluded that although research evidence in psychotherapy outcome at that time was ‘extensive and positive,’ it was not responsive” to policymakers’ questions about what kinds of psychotherapy are most effective and for what sorts of problems.   Glass’s 2008 article is entitled  “Psychodynamic Psychotherapy and Research Evidence: Bambi Survives Godzilla?”

Just FYI, Glass concludes that since 1982, “there has been a substantial increase in evidence for the efficacy of specific forms of psycho-therapy for specific psychiatric disorders.”

That’s all for today!




I [heart] Physics Today

Physics is a subject that escapes me more often than not, sad to say. For no good reason, I was not required to study it in high school or colleague, so I didn’t (for no good reason).

Luckily, over the past 30 years I’ve been able to learn about physics from leading experts in the field, at scientific conferences and symposia and in the scientific and popular media. Yet I’m always running to keep up.

That‘s why, once a month, when I see my new issue of Physics Today in my pile of daily mail, my heart goes pitter patter.

I LOVE Physics Today.  Really. Even though much of the content flies over my head (at supersonic speed – like the articles about “binary black hole mergers” and “dynamic similarity, the dimensionless science”). Why? Because the content that I can actually absorb is almost always fascinating….

In the January issue I learned about “Slow slip: a new kind of earthquake.” The authors, professors of earth and space science at the University of Washington, explain what goes on in “the intermediate realm of intermittent slipping and rumbling” between “the shallow region of sudden, infrequent earthquakes and the deeper home [of] continuous viscous motion.” (Ooh, I want to go there….) Thanks to a sidebar in this article, I now understand the respective actions of subduction zones, mid-ocean ridges, and transform boundaries. Talk about a “living planet”!

Also in this issue, physicist David Mermin reviews a book by fellow physicist Philip W. Anderson, More and Different: Notes from a Thoughtful Curmudgeon. Here are a couple of quotes from Anderson that Mermin says give the book its “special charm”:

“When we are all done, it will turn out that there is no exotic form of ‘dark matter,’ merely a comedy of errors in a field where it is practically de rigeur to underestimate one’s limits of error.” (Hah, I knew it….)

“Consciousness” – one of my favorites subjects! – is “one of the major deep problems…which may take most of the 21st century to solve.” (If ever, I say…) “The greatest puzzle of all [is] the emergence of consciousness.” Yep.

And there’s more. In today’s news at Physics, I read about how “diamonds travel to Earth’s surface on fizz” – that is, “frothing kimberlite lava.” Look it up.

In the November issue of the magazine is a fascinating review of what we now know about Saturn’s moon, “Watery Enceladus.” Also in that issue is an intriguing article about subtle gender-based biases embedded in undergraduate physics textbooks – one in an ongoing stream of articles in the magazine about how to improve physics education.

The history articles in the magazine are always worth reading. If you don’t have time to read Isaacson’s biography of Einstein, look up a couple of articles about him in Physics Today instead – guaranteed interesting!

Physics Today is published by the American Institute of Physics. Thanks, AIP!

Planets, planets everywhere – but life’s another matter

Today my emailbox yielded several announcements about extrasolar planets, all announced this week at the American Astronomical Society’s annual meeting – an event that scientists save up news for, as AAS has a well-oiled PR machine in place, and a large media following, to get the word out on new discoveries.

Findings of “real-life ‘Tatooine’ planets with two suns”*, a Mars-sized and ostensibly rocky planet, and “more planets than stars” in our Milky Way galaxy are today’s news. According to the Space Telescope Science Institute, “The Milky Way contains at least 100 billion planets.”

So of course we’re bound to find life on another planet soon. It’s inevitable, right?

And we can safely assume that where life has evolved, there will be intelligent life, yes?

Nope, and nope.

The most interesting insight I’ve extracted from the last decade of extrasolar planet searching is that there’s no such thing as a typical planet or planetary system. These days our own solar system, once thought “average,” looks about as typical as a two-headed cow: proved possible but not proved common.

At the same time, the last decade of research on boundary conditions for life (as we know it) has revealed that scientists don’t yet fully understand the boundary conditions for life on Earth, let alone ET life. They keep finding life where they believe life couldn’t be. And while astrobiologists are working on ways to identify life that is not like Earth life, they can’t yet say they’re ready to know it if they see it.

Extrasolar planet detection is one thing. Obviously astronomers have figured out some good ways to do it. And while this field of research has been under way for  more than two decades, the launch of the Kepler planet-detecting spacecraft in 2009 turbocharged the endeavor, to put it mildly.

Understanding extrasolar planetary habitability is something different, and this field of research is not so far along in its development as planet detection is. And while planet detection is hard, planetary habitability detection is really hard.

As to ET life, the scientific search for evidence of it in our own solar system focuses solely on the possibility of past or present microbial life. It’s a big enough leap, though not unreasonable, to assume that if life began in our solar system it might begin in another planetary system as well. To assume that if life has begun elsewhere, it likely has evolved to a level of complexity that has produced intelligence, as we understand it (which is, in my humble opinion, not very well), is – well, it’s an assumption that I would characterize as a somewhat educated guess, at best.

Of course we should keep looking – for planets, habitability, and life. Our conception of ourselves and our place in the universe has already changed – I think for the better – as a result of these (relatively young) scientific endeavors. I only ask that we keep our expectations tuned to “reasonable” (and remember that the so-called “Drake equation is not an equation”).


* Keep in mind, though, that while the fictional Tatooine of “Star Wars” was an inhabited rocky planet, these two new planets are low-density gas giants reported to be close to but not within the assumed habitable zones of their star system.)

2011 in review

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2011 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 1,500 times in 2011. If it were a cable car, it would take about 25 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.