Detoxing Snow White @NASA Hyperbaric Chambers

I bet you never asked what Snow White has to do with NASA.  I never asked this before either, but it all made sense when I came across the story of Nikkie, a teenager who spent an entire month in a hyperbaric chamber.  Possibly, just like Snow White.


Source: NASA Neutral Buoyancy Lab

Nikkie was rushed to a hospital after she was found in a coma due to carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning.  She was put in the coffin-like device to undergo hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT), in which pressure of oxygen is increased significantly.  The high concentrations of oxygen can reduce the size of gas bubbles (CO) in the blood that block blood and oxygen flow to tissues – in this case, her brain. This also helps repair the damage caused.  This process took about a month, spent between life and death. Afterwards she woke up and faced another 5-6 months of rehabilitation.



And Snow White?  Before Disney came along, the best known version of Snow White was collected by the Grimm brothers in 1812. But the tale was well known before, however, and appeared from Ireland to Asia to Central Africa. What seems to be the earliest known version appeared in an Italian collection in the 1630’s. In that version there was no glass coffin. The young beautiful girl in the story is enslaved by her uncle’s cruel wife, and is later saved and married… But over the years, dozens of versions appeared in which Snow White escapes to the company of dwarves (or robbers, or miners), is poisoned, and is placed in the glass coffin.

The science of hyperbaric treatment was invented in parallel to the development of that story. That’s right, nothing to do with NASA. We’re talking about the 17th century, over 300 years before NASA was established. In the 1630’s Richard Boyle discovered Boyle’s law, describing the connection between temperature, pressure, and the volume of gas. Edmond Halley (who predicted the return of the comet named after him) discovered the relationship between barometric pressure and height above sea level, and built a diving bell. In 1662, Henshaw built his Domicilium, the first sealed chamber with valves to control the flow of air. This only increased/decreased air pressure, not oxygen.

1920s hyperbaric chamber

1920s hyperbaric chamber

In the 1830’s hyperbaric chambers became fashionable for medical treatment in France.  In 1860 the first one in the Americas was built in Canada. In the 1930’s it was developed to treat for the first time decompression sickness (DCI), which is a frequent problem for divers.  It’s basically the same problem as the CO poisoning- gas bubbles (Nitrogen) form in the blood stream and block it when divers return to the surface too quickly from a deep dive, as a result of the changes in atmospheric pressure. In the 1960’s doctors found that anaerobic infections were inhibited by hyperbaric therapy.  Thereafter hyperbaric chambers were built in many hospitals in the US and abroad to treat a variety of infections and injuries.

Hyperbaric Chamber

It seems that the most logical explanation for Snow’s condition and experience in the coffin is that she was in a coma, and getting detoxed in a similar hyperbaric chamber.  The common folk who weaved ‘folk stories’ didn’t comprehend the science being developed, and wrote whatever they witnessed with their own interpretation – that she was in ‘suspended animation’, and that she woke up after the piece of poison apple dislodged from her throat.

300 years later, both hyperbaric treatment and the suspended animation theory are topics for extensive space-age research. More about suspended animation in a future article. Meanwhile, there’s more to say about hyperbaric chambers.

hyperbaric chamber antares

Hyperbaric chamber on the spaceship Antares – sci-fi drama Defying Gravity

The biggest benefit and the most common use for them is still treating DCI in divers, but in the early 2000’s NASA invested extensively in research and development of technologies for portable hyperbaric chambers.  The plan was to be able to treat astronauts for DCI, which can occur in astronauts as they undergo pressure changes returning from spacewalks, and for high altitude sickness (AMS). Later, an almost exclusive license was granted in 2009 to a CA based company to use these technologies commercially.

Unfortunately sometimes the private sector is irresponsible. When companies tried to build such solutions for home use, and they were operated without know-how, sparks caused explosions that killed patients.

This doesn’t stop people from finding other uses for this technology.  While there’s no scientific research to prove this works, hyperbaric treatment has been promoted as a treatment for autism, which many parents believe and try, for their autistic kids.

Most ridiculous about this is Hollywood.  Michael Jackson was rumored to have used HBOT to stay young.  Credible doctors agree that “If anything, oxygen accelerates aging.”  Oxygen encourages the formation of free radicals that can cause cell damage over time.  But the LA scene, which is very much about looks, is flooded with spas offering anti-aging treatment in hyperbaric chambers.

This is what folks in LA do to stay young:

In my opinion, the most exciting part of NASA’s research is the hydrostatic hyperbaric chamber (HHC), conceived as a safe, affordable means of making HBOT available in the developing world.  Using Oxygen is expensive and too dangerous to implement in the developing world using standard equipment. HHC is different in that the majority of its volume is filled with water which is pressurized by oxygen being supplied in the portion of the chamber containing the patient’s head. This greatly reduces the amount of oxygen required, making the system more safe. It could possibly cure Buruli Ulcer, an infection that afflicts children in Africa.

NASA g-force centrifuge

NASA g-force centrifuge

The exciting part is that this results from research into the application of water-filled vessels to increase tolerance of acceleration forces.  Which might be the future way to travel to the stars.  Today’s fighter pilots and NASA astronauts go through training in a g-force centrifuge, to make sure they can withstand acceleration without passing out. They also wear g-pressure suits to help keep the blood in their head. Still they can withstand only a few g for only a few seconds. If reclining, “it’s possible for trained astronauts to tolerate forces in excess of 10g for a few minutes” (article by The Register).

The Forever War

Space travel in acceleration tanks.

But cargo only payloads can withstand 30g or more during launch.  In the future, humans might be able to withstand greater forces if immersed in water. See this scientific research paper.  Such travel was vividly described in Joe Haldeman’s 1974 classic, multiple award winning  sci-fi novel The Forever War.

In the future all hands will get in their water tanks, as Capt. Picard says: “Engage!”

Posted in Human Experience, Space Exploration | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Do You Have to be a Kid to Enjoy ‘Wreck-it Ralph’?

Sorry, this one is not about space… it’s about a movie.  An hour before I saw the movie an adult said the movie is ‘ok’, and he gave it 3 out of 5 stars.  So we asked some kids and they said it was awesome.  Does this mean you have to be a kid to enjoy it?

Sugar Rush Race Maybe you need to be a kid at heart.  Disney did it again, the magic touch that never fails.  This movie rocks!  It’s about an arcade game villain who wants to be a hero, aided by an unexpected computer glitch. The music, the plot, the visuals, the blasting fun.  Not a dull moment.   I don’t get that guy that gave it 3 out of 5.

The best part of it was the historical references to classic video games, retro style, without loosing the attention of the younger crowds, retelling the history of gaming culture. We were barely able to keep up with them. Many of them appear at the video game villain meeting Ralph attends, and others appear throughout. For all the video game lovers, here’s some of the guest appearances:

Bowser from Super Mario Bros (credit:

Bowser  - Super Mario Bros  Clyde Pacman

Clyde  – the ghost Pac-Man (

Cammy from Street Fighter –

Street Fighter Cammy

Also caught a glimpse of ‘graffiti’ stating that “Aerith lives”, referencing final Fantasy VII – credit ;

Aerith - Final Fantasy

and the ‘first person shooter’ style Heros Duty Battlefield used in a fictional game: Hero’s Duty, ‘invented’ for the movie. This reminded me a bit of ‘Halo’. Especially liked the fierce female commander…

Notice how the complexity of the visual arts, progress with the move forward in time to the more advanced video games.  This celebrates the astonishing quality presented in the later games, as opposed to the spastic moves of the early ones.

I found several articles discussing the extensive video game references. A nice article on ArsTechnica, even Wikipedia. To my surprise, they completely ignore the science fiction references.  Or are they coincidental, did Disney not mean them?

First, the bugs. This is almost a retell of the science fiction movies Alien / Aliens /Alien Resurrection and the prequel Prometheus.

Heros Duty bugs

Aliens Eggs: Ripley carries Newt

Ripley carries Newt through the alien egg nest.  Credit:

The merge of one of the characters – Turbo – with one of the bugs, the fearful scenes with the mass number of alien eggs, these are all details straight out of these movies.

Even the sugar rush race – picture at the top of this post – was a cling-to-your-seat reminder for the race scenes in Star Wars.


Star Wars race scene. Credit:

The Alien movies have a ‘looming doom’ feel to them at the end, and Star Wars has parts almost equally dark. Thankfully, Wreck-it Ralph is not so.  For the adults,  the ‘Techie’ among us, it also has an unexpected tip of advice : even computer glitches might be useful. This is what we might call a ‘happy accident’. They might earn a right to exist…

Posted in Aliens, Human Experience, Sci Fi | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Space. Who Says It’s a Good Idea?

There is yet to be found a story about the future that does not assume human presence outside our home planet, without some catastrophe to prevent it.  If we are confined to Earth, writers wrap it in a reality where aliens have invaded, computer or robots took over the world, a natural disaster has occurred of a history changing magnitude, or we have destroyed our own future via warfare –some weapon of mass destruction: nuclear, bio-chemical, or a biological agent that changes us all to vampires or zombies…  Otherwise, the option to leave is a given.  It is not a question of ‘if’, it’s a question of ‘when’, ‘how soon’, ‘how’.

Many people ask ‘why do it’, because leaving Earth is the most difficult undertaking in our history, and the time, money, and natural resources to be expended to accomplish it outweigh any project ever conceived.  They are asking that question because we are not desperate enough to leave.  The reasons to make the attempt are not yet clear to everyone. It is not yet perceived as imperative.

If looking at pros and cons, here’s an obvious ‘con’ I haven’t mentioned in past posts:  the huge investment required, in terms of Earth’s natural resources, especially Fuel:

  • An average new car (let’s forget about the electric ones at the moment) spends about 2-3 gallons of fuel per hour.
  • A single engine aircraft uses about 10 gallons of aviation-grade fuel per hour.
  • Fuel consumption for a fighter jet in normal flight is 4,000 lb or 500 gallons per hour. If using afterburner for thrust it burns 7-10 times as much, so could reach 5000 gallons per hour.
  • A Boeing 747 uses approximately 1 gallon of fuel per second. That’s 3,600 gallons per hour [so over the course of a 10-hour flight, it might burn 36,000 gallons].
  • The Falcon 9 rocket that has delivered a spacecraft to the International Space Station twice, has 2 stages: the first stage uses almost 25,000 gallons of kerosene [and 39,000 gallons of liquid oxygen], while the second stage uses 4,600 gallons of kerosene [and 7,300 gallons of liquid oxygen].  So the total for a trip is almost 30,000 gallons of kerosene.
  • The retired Space Shuttles: they don’t use gasoline. Each of the two solid rocket boosters on the Shuttles carried 1.1 million pounds of solid propellant for the first two minutes of powered flight. [Additionally, the Shuttles’ large external tank was loaded with more than 500,000 gallons of super-cold liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen].

Of course, this doesn’t stop us from flying jet aircraft around the world every second of every day.  You could say that anything we do is not good for the environment. Our mere existence on Earth affects it badly like a disease, a virus, just like Agent Smith said, in The Matrix.  I’d say his solution for it (wiping us out) is a bit extreme… Long live Neo.


[Sources: and]

So.  We’ll have to keep on researching, experimenting, and looking for alternatives: nuclear, biological, electrical, solar, and maybe some new means will be identified in the future. Harvesting resources outside Earth is only a partial solution.  This will be one of the biggest challenges when we try to sustain our extra-terrestrial activity.  It’s probably part of why Mars One is advocating a one-way trip.

Science fiction writers don’t provide enough answers to the question: “where will all the money and resources come from?” They just assume it will happen, and are in favor of it. In some cases they expect it to be every day business.  Such is the case with the quirky, compassionate, semi sci-fi – semi not, wonderful book “Shine, Shine, Shine” by Lydia Netzer. It’s about a a genius engineer on a NASA mission to the moon, to program robots for a new colony, his wife on Earth who wants to be normal while she’s anything but, and life in-between. On the other hand, here are some pessimistic thoughts from Rocket Science News, who is all for a human mission to Mars, but worries it will take over 100 years to do it: bootprints-on-mars.

I’ll be adding here quotes from around the Web, and random listings of those who support exploring space, and think it’s a good idea; and I’ll keep looking for that answer.  In the meantime, you can enjoy the writing of one writer who is now perceived as Earth’s resident expert on extra-terrestrial settlement, Kim Stanley Robinson, who wrote the 1990’s Mars Trilogy, and a very recently published vision of the near future: 2312.  [Another excellent review for the same book, plus a great write-up about this author at]. In addition, has published a very interesting 2 part interview with him: Part 1: Terraforming the Solar System, and Part 2: The Future in 2312.

Posted in Lets Go to Mars, Space Exploration | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

On Starships and Nail Polish


Source: //


“I wonder how complicated it would be to put on nail polish while traveling on a starship,” I said thoughtfully, “and while there might be time to solve that problem, how do they do it on the International Space Station?”

“They don’t!” said my friend, frowning.

“You know, I don’t get you.  You don’t wear ‘dragon nails’, you hate shopping [author’s note: it’s true. I will only go to the mall at gun-point], you don’t have lunch with girlfriends, you don’t cook, you splashed with the guys in the mud [author’s 2nd note: that’s not accurate. I just fell in the mud a couple times, mountain biking], you only go for sci-fi and action movies, and sci-fi and popular science books, and can’t stand romantic comedies or ‘chick flicks’ [3rd note: not true. I did like Kate & Leopold. Oh, wait, that movie has time-travel…], and you never make any situation about being female.  You’re always up to something, and you always make us feel like you’re ‘one of the guys’. So what’s the deal with the nail polish?  You can’t switch sides like that.  Whose side are you on?  If you want to be ‘one of the guys’, you can’t be occupied with nail polish!”

“I’m not one of the guys!” I said, “I’m not one of the gals.  I’m just one.  And I like nail polish!   Whatever.  People like you are ruining the space program.”

“What are you talking about?  What do I have to do with the space program?” he said, with genuine bewilderment.

This is what I wanted to say in response, just took me some time to put it together:

Not just ‘The’ space program. Any space program.  Any program.  Every field needs balance. As long as people believe in such stereotypes though, such as above described, then whatever field, territory, or occupation that has traditionally been dominated by men, will stay that way, and vice versa. In some industries there’s no urgency for change. Yes, women advocates point out how bad the inequality is, in many, many areas.  There was a recent article based on this study, about how despite recent rise of a few women to fame in the TV writing and producing business, the undeniably vast majority of producers, writers, and executives are men.  Women advocate complain about women’s salaries, about the fact that there are not enough women in positions of power in companies, and in government, and so on.  But there is no sense of urgency.  People are just complaining, waiting for things to change, and talking about it.  Maybe thinking that talking will affect change. Sometimes it does.

European Gender Summit

EGS 2012. Source:

There are signs that things are changing, slowly.  The ‘Cosmic Log’ posted an article about women in science, and a list of programs aimed at “raising the visibility of women scientists …might help draw more girls into research and science education.” Did you know that there was a European Gender Summit? And there are several US organizations initiating or sponsoring events and festivals to encourage girls to choose science.  There’s a general movement to encourage girls in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics), and many resources dedicated by both private foundations and government authorities.

Such programs are not enough.  Women will choose what they want to choose.  The point is, though, we need a global attitude change.  I’ve met men who truly believe that women can achieve anything they put their minds to.  It seems they are a minority, and even most women share the majority opinion, that they can’t.

Writing about this brings back some relevant memories.  A fellow cadet in military training asking me with wonder, if I wouldn’t feel safer if a man was taking over what I was doing;  A commanding officer asking me how I got such a high grade, and whether I had a special relationship with my superior;  Yep, that was fun.

Things have definitely changed since then, but too slowly.  We need some serious attitude change. Both genders should avoid making science and space seem less attractive for girls. Parents should avoid making it seem like a ‘guys only’ thing.  Parents, teachers, mentors, should avoid making it seem like it is easier for guys to excel in these fields.  These are challenging fields, and they are challenging for everyone.  It is not true that men are born to become pilots, astronauts, astronomers, and rockets scientists, and women are not; and it is not true that women who would go into these fields, would not be feminine enough to want to put on nail polish…

The Twitter account associated with this blog is following some science bloggers, astronomers, physicists, and astronauts, and I’m happy to report that interestingly many, many are women! I also watched some of them on TED Talks, presenting brilliantly.  But I faced recently the sad truth. I’ve met several women with advanced degrees in sciences that are not working in their fields, for whatever reasons, it doesn’t matter.  This served to remind me that lot of the blame goes to us. Sometimes the problem is not that we don’t believe we can, we just don’t want to.  We simply just don’t want to.

And sometimes this is how we bring up our girls. A couple of weeks ago it was “Airport Day” at the small Palo Alto airport in northern CA. A guy approached me and asked some questions. Finally he pointed at his 2 teenage girls and said: “They want to learn how to fly, they want a pilot’s license, but their mom said No.”

So what? Well, look at the numbers in space.  How many men are or have been to space as compared to women?  The numbers are unequal in the extreme.  There is urgency here.  This ratio urgently needs to change.  It is imperative, in fact, that everyone who is involved in space exploration should look for ways to encourage more women to join.  What I’m basically trying to say to them is: “If you don’t, you die.”

That is my message to NASA, ESA, Mars One Project, Mars Drive, The Mars Society, SpaceX, the 100 Year Star Ship advisory board, Orbital Sciences Corp, Sierra Nevada Corp, and United Launch Alliance. If you don’t find a way to even the numbers to 50:50, you die.  What good will it do, to have capacity to send humans to Mars and beyond, when the length of time defined for such a mission is very long, or forever, and the men outnumber the women 10:1?  What do you think will happen in the long term?  The settlements will die out.  Fewer and fewer people will want to go, and these enterprises will die.  This adventure has no future if half of humanity doesn’t take part in it with a fair and equal share.

So yeah, and while you guys figure out how to motivate that other half, we need to figure out at what temperature should nail polish be kept on Mars, since if frozen you can’t apply it;  And we do need to figure out how to apply it in zero gravity.  Wouldn’t want to smear my fellow astronaut’s nose instead.

Image    Image

Posted in Human Experience, Space Exploration, Women | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Libya is Why

US Consulate Benghazi 9.11.2012

US Consulate Benghazi, Libya 9.11.2012
Source: CNN

People have asked me times and again why this interest in anything beyond the clouds. This week I’ve been reminded of one of the reasons. Hate. Reflected On Sept.11 (!) in the brutal murder of the American ambassador to Libya, and 3 of his colleagues, over an idiotic YouTube video.  The Obama administration says this was part of a pre-planned terrorist operation that just took advantage of the protests against the anti-Islam film. For my point here, it doesn’t really matter.

Where there are humans, there is drama.  The more humans, the more drama.  Drama is good, the spice of life. But then there are places where there is just hate. It might be fueled by social injustice, poverty, hunger, and ignorance.



John Lennon dared to blame religion and nationalism 41 years ago (well, and capitalism…).  And of course then that type of hate was targeted at him.  Hate does tend to flourish where there is religion.  But not all religious people hate.  At the heart of every one of the 3 major religions is love for man kind – the children of god, not hate.  The problem is religious fundamentalism that knows no boundaries.  And so hate lurks.  It might be expressed in racism, sexism, discrimination, and oppression; exploiting kids, neglecting elders, and punishing women for anything under the sun.  And it’s there, all the time.

There are places where the dark ages are not over.  And the rest of us are staring at what the haters are doing with disbelief, and a sense of horror and lost hope.  Our human instinct is to retaliate, punish, and destroy.  Then we are reminded by some brave souls, that yes, there is still a lot of room for improvement, and yes, we can’t stop working at it.

It would seem there are only 2 ways to fight hate:

  1. Through education of the next generation;
  2. Through economic changes – to fix whatever causes so much envy, anger, and grief.

This has been taking decades, in-fact it’s been taking centuries. Baby steps, patience, determination, and never giving up are key; Good-will and innovation are tools; But no doubt, it will take centuries more.

Fall of Berlin Wall

Fall of Berlin wall Nov 1989. Source:

Sometimes you just want a break, and there are almost no more sane places to escape to anymore.  So you look up, and you realize that there is a vastness around us, that would take extreme measures to conquer. What better way to unite Americans and Russians, than to build together a Space Station?  This was done not even a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall and Russian communism in 1989.


ISS collaboration started Jan 1998. Source:

Something beyond us can make us realize how much we need each other.  Fighting for survival in extreme environments may unite people with their past sworn enemies.  Not fighting for it in a place where they were born into the poverty and misery, but a place they choose to go to.  Maybe Osama Bin Laden would have been busy doing something other than plan the deaths of thousands of people, if he were trained as an astronaut, and walked on the Moon with Neil.

Education-> Collaboration-> Innovation-> Achievement-> Peace-> Freedom.


Source: Northway-Financial on

Posted in Human Experience, Lets Go to the Moon, Space Exploration | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Reflections on a Moonwalker’s Passing; or “I’m OK To Go!”


Neil Armstrong on the moon next to the Lunar Module Eagle
Credit: Reuters/Edwin Aldrin-NASA/Handout

Friday July 20th was the anniversary of the first moon-landing (43rd). A month later, last Saturday August 25th 2012, the first Moonwalker Neil Armstrong died. So many pictures. So many memories left behind, to all of us wondering where the promised future has gone. The future where walking on Luna did not end in December 1972, but rather continued, and was succeeded by visiting other planets and moons. A wonderful post about that at John Scalzi’s “Whatever” blog. See also this post on Time’s Life, the magazine that followed his entire career.

When I was 9 years old the teacher told the class to write a journal, and in it to specify what we want to be when we grow up. At the time, an entire generation, Generation X, was inspired by the accomplishments of the astronauts, NASA’s space program, and the continued space-shuttle missions. That inspiration was delivered and fueled by TV and radio programs, books, magazines. They all led us to believe that the promised future was possible. In my case the situation was worse: I opened a Bazooka Joe bubble-gum one day, which was always wrapped with a piece of paper containing a comic strip and a ‘fortune’ section. My ‘fortune’ said that before my 21stbirthday I will get to go to the moon!

Bazooka-joe comic

Looking back, what a cruel lie to tell a kid… In any case, I believed it. I truly believed for several years, that traveling to the moon will become trivial like traveling over the ocean, and you won’t have to be a trained astronaut to get there. But to be on the safe side, I was willing to accept that I’d have a better chance of this happening if I was an astronaut. So. I wrote that I want to be a pilot or an astronaut.

There were quite a few other kids that wrote the same. I have no idea how many of us became pilots (a few of us did, which isn’t a trivial matter either). I’m certain though, that no one realized the dream to become an astronaut, and none of us got to go to the moon, not before the age of 21, and not since. If they asked us why we’d want to go to the moon, we’d probably give the same answer that the first Everest climber gave, when asked why he wants to climb Mount Everest: “Because it’s there”. But we never got a chance to do it and we didn’t know how to create it. We were disillusioned. We became sleepwalkers. We grew up.

I’ve been reading reactions to Neil Armstrong’s death, which include heated debates about space exploration in general. I’ve seen some ugly objections for religious reasons – as if the writers know first hand that god would view visiting the moon as a sin. Other objections could be summarized as: “Why spend vast resources on exploring the Moon and Mars, when we have so many unsolved problems here on Earth?” A minority of believers kept on answering these objections with conviction. It seems now, however, that there is an incredible wave of renewed interest in human exploration of the solar system. Here’s an answer put together not too long ago, at ‘Riding with Robots‘.  The sleepers are awaking. And they are saying: we are grateful for what NASA’s robotic missions have done for us, and now we want to go, in person.

The fictional Dr. Ellie Arroway in the movie Contact (based on the real Jill Tarter, ‘Queen of SETI’, mentioned in this older post) is asked: “They still want an American to go, Dr.  Wanna take a ride?” When the time comes, her only answer is the repeated “I’m OK to go!”

We should now be all saying: ‘I’m OK to go’.


Above: scenes from the movie ‘Contact’.

Posted in Human Experience, Lets Go to the Moon, Space Exploration | Tagged | 1 Comment

More on Cyborgs

So back on the topic of cyborgs (previous discussion here).  Such Carbon-based life forms as we are, we are so fragile. There are so many things that can kill or damage us. Certainly we cannot bear the harsh realities of leaving our planet, without complete reliance on devices of our making that are never fail-proof.  Protecting an astronaut mechanically and enhancing him electronically might be the only way to guarantee survival. In fact, the term ‘Cyborg’ was first used in 1960 as the proposed way to approach space exploration, when it was becoming a reality.  It was – and probably still is – the next step in human evolution.


So while today’s space related companies and start-ups explore and design the capsules that will protect us on the way, the space suits that we will have to wear, and the habitats or artificial structures in which we will have to live when leaving Earth, the long term future holds these options: Terra-forming (changing the environment), going mechanical (cyborg, changing our body by mechanical integration), or gene manipulation (changing our body biologically, seeding other worlds with genetically modified humans who can survive in the alien environment).  All 3 options are common and discussed widely in Sci-Fi.

We might have other motives to ‘go mechanical’. We are so high maintenance.  Think about how much time and effort is spent every day, on sleep, eating and food preparation, making clothes and building shelter, self grooming and taking showers, even exercising due to worrying about our weight and/or health.  90% of such worries go away when you are a cyborg.  Yes, they need some maintenance, but not that much. Don’t you sometimes consider it might be very cool to become one?

Neil Harbisson Source:

But ‘coolness’ and being tired of your daily routines might not be enough of a motive as of yet. A much more compelling motive would be a physical impairment.  So while this is not yet applied for the purpose of space travel, extensive medical research has already enabled several individuals to overcome disability and impairment and become real modern-day cyborgs, with brain-computer interfaces controlling limbs, sight, and sound, with hearing or retinal implants, artificial hearts, and more. This doesn’t even count biological parts grown artificially, such as veins or skin.

The future is approaching fast.  In fact, the Cyborg DB site that’s planning to become the ‘largest cyborg database’, claims all of us are already cyborgs, it’s just a matter of determining what kind.  And finally, a new Foundation was established in Barcelona, the Cyborg Foundation – “International organization to help humans become cyborgs.” [at this time looks like they are still working on their website]. This foundation was started by Neil Harbisson – the first person  to wear an eyeborg, which allows him to hear color; featured on a TedTalk in June 2012:

And now a few words about known fictitious cyborgs:


  • Man Plus (1976 by Frederik Pohl) – An excellent example is in the brilliantly written novel.  It’s the story of an astronaut who was modified, so he can go to and survive on Mars.  The extensive operations on him were initiated to save his life, after being fatally injured. But he becomes so alien, a true Martian, he turns his back on his ex-fellow humans, and can’t relate to them anymore.  This is science fiction at its best, examining future technology, and then describing how it might affect and change us, in a completely plausible way. It can happen. It can absolutely happen exactly as described.
  • Steve Austin – The 6 Million Dollar Man (TV 1974-1978) – is really also a cyborg. Replacing parts of a human being with artificial components that make him better, stronger, faster – what else would you call it?
  • Robocop (movie 1987) – sort of the same idea as Man Plus. A police officer is fatally wounded, and then goes through extensive surgeries that turn him into a walking weapon.  What’s added to this story that is reused later, is that some control is built into him so that he loses his memories and free will.
  • Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the Star-Trek Next Generation (TV 1987-1994) – was turned into a cyborg by the Borg.  Luckily that change was only temporary… But the Borg themselves are a hive of cyborgs.
  • Lieutenant Barclay (of the same Star-Trek Next Generation) – due to an action by an alien probe, his intelligence surges and he’s able to integrate his mind into the ship’s computer. This qualifies him as a cyborg, because he becomes human intelligence controlling mechanical parts.

Cylon - CapricaWikipedia is correct, that you could look at any mechanical enhancement to the human body (like a knee replacement or pace-maker), and say that it’s cybernetic, but I think when we say Cyborg we refer to a more extreme change, that affects the human psychologically. However, I disagree with the definition of Cyborg that includes any entity that has a biological and mechanical combination.  If the intelligence is not biological, it’s not a cyborg. So the Terminator (movie 1984), for example, doesn’t qualify. The Terminator is a robot that looks human.  The jury is still out about the Cylons (featured in BattleStar Galactica, TV 1978, remake 2004-2009, and Caprica, TV 2010 Photo credit: – I have to think about that one a bit more.

In any case, here’s an article explaining how Cylons are plausible. Oops… it doesn’t. I think the author of the article misunderstood what the robotics engineer was explaining…

Posted in Cyborgs, Human Experience, Sci Fi | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments


If you belong to the species Homo Sapiens Sapiens, then you will find at least 2 things on the following list, with which you are fascinated.


  1. The sun setting into the sea.
  2. Your birthday and life-time. What the world was like before you were born, and how it changed since, in your own life-time.
  3. Archeology – past. You’d feel some excitement walking around the ruins of Pompei.
  4. Human evolution – deep past. For example, finding the 3.2 million year old Lucy.
  5. The universe. What it is, where it came from, how it started, how it will end.
  6. The future. What cool gadgets we’ll use, where (what planet) will we live, what kind of aliens we will meet.
  7. Art. A classical piece of music, a painting, a statue.
  8. Math.
  9. Sense of humor.  Wit.
  10. Race cars.
  11. Fighter jets.
  12. Space craft.
  13. Explosives and weapons.
  14. A love story.
  15. God. You might believe a god exists. You might believe (especially if you lived 2000-4000 years ago) that multiple gods exist.

The question is, what’s the evolutionary advantage to being able to appreciate these things?

There must be an advantage, since animals don’t share this with us. I have a few ideas about this, but I prefer to leave the question open.  It feels more complete this way.  Answers are sometimes just a distraction.

Feel free to answer, though.  Sometimes a distraction is much needed.

Posted in Human Experience | Tagged | 2 Comments

Un-Artificial Intelligence, or: ‘The Ship Who Sang’

There are beautiful women that will still keep that status 30 years from now too, when they are old and wrinkled, because of the ‘Helva effect’.  One I can think of is Erin Burnett (CNN OutFront). In fact, Erin represents what I always thought Helva would be like, if Helva had a face: intelligent, inquisitive, energetic, independent, caring, beautiful.  Another one is Anne, who writes about numbers – check this out.  But who is Helva? Helva is a female cyborg portrayed in the 1969 Novel ‘The Ship Who Sang’ (originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1961). The term ‘cyborg’ (cybernetic organism) usually refers to a human who has been enhanced with mechanical parts.  Therefore it has human intelligence but it has also technology on its side to deal with human physical limitations.  Helva does not have a face, but she is still beautiful.  She doesn’t age as fast as we do, but if she did, she’d still be beautiful.  The theme of the story is that being beautiful loses its physical meaning in Helva’s world.

In a future when the talent and potential of severely crippled babies don’t have to die, such creatures have a very minimal physical existence that is trapped in a metal box with minimal life-support, and a mental existence that serves humanity (Well, they have to serve, since they owe so much to those who saved and trained them).  They become brains for cities, plants, etc, and most notably spaceships.  Or rather, ‘brainships’.  Helva is a brainship.

The Ship Who Sang

Corgi paperback, 1972

I read a translated version of this story sometime in the late 1980’s and was fascinated with the ideas.  First, that physical attributes will one day become meaningless, because people will be able to alter their appearance any way they want, so what difference does it make?  This idea is not new and not foreign to us at all; chemistry between people is very, very often independent of their appearance.  Nevertheless, even people who made choices based on intellect, talent, sense of humor, etc., are not immune to the influence of someone really good-looking.  This influence is burned into our genes, our racial memory – if such a thing exists – we usually can’t escape it. But this story changes that, and takes it to the extreme. Physical attributes will be a moot point, especially for the brainships. They’ll be attracted to each other based on the strength of the aura of intelligence they posses.  This aura is visible to the brainships, and increases with IQ.  Helva’s burns like the sun. What a concept.

Second, no matter how advanced AI (Artificial Intelligence) becomes in the future, it will still be preferable for a human brain to run pretty much everything, contrary to many sci-fi predictions. This was not a main theme in the story, but a side-effect of it.  In any event, this idea is also very much debated in non-fictional, scientific articles. Classic Sci-fi is very hopeful and optimistic, because the scientific community in the 1970’s was, about how far AI’s can progress, in the relatively near future. It isn’t so these days. We now appreciate it will take much, much longer, before we can count on C-3PO and R2D2 to save the galaxy.

Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach bookSurprisingly, it would seem that the main reason for this ‘stall’ in this field is that the conventional scientific methods and algorithms are failing to meet minimum success standards.  A trend emerges, described in a recent textbook “Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach” (2010).  The trend is called ‘shallow programming’.  The gist of it is that you can get better, more accurate answers from an AI program, if it uses algorithms that are more superficial, that make generalized, simpler assumptions.  Google’s ‘Feeling Lucky’ might be such an example.  You can find more about this in this article by Brian Hayes who says: “Perhaps we should not be bragging about how smart our machines have become; rather, we should marvel at how much those machines accomplish without any genuine intelligence.”

Bottom line is, we let machines perform such tasks that they are good at, out-sourcing to them the ‘dirty work’.  They do not yet constitute a threat to human intelligence.  Even if they (IBM’s Watson) did manage to beat the best human minds on Jeopardy (after 4 years of development).

So maybe this is why so many Sci-fi writers saw the future in Cyborgs.  More about cyborgs in a separate post.  For now I’m content to feel superior to AIs, even if they can beat me in Chess.  And that’s one thing we share with Helva.

If you are intelligent, you are beautiful.

Woman Cyborg

Source: Freedom’s Phoenix

Posted in A.I., Cyborgs, Sci Fi, Space Exploration | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Greetings From Planet Earth

This story ends with a song.  The song is the alternative dance track “Symphonies“.  Released Dec. 2009, by Dan Black, made it as iTunes “Single of the Week” in 2010.  I only heard it recently in a remix featuring Kid Cudi.  I was captivated by the background music.  Not sure if it’s instrumental or vocals, but I recognized it instantly, because it’s been ‘sampled’ from somewhere else.  No idea if this ‘sampling’ is legal or not.  It used to be mainly a mechanism to create long dance tracks, but now it seems a main-stream thing to do.   A significant number of popular songs seem to be ‘sampling’ pieces from older music, mainly from the ’80, and I guess I resent them for not giving credit where it’s due [the worst offender IMO would be Lady Gaga’s music that seems to be featuring elements from Madonna’s music in every successful song].

Dan, however, is not hiding where the music came from.  The music video for “Symphonies” has elements from the movie.  Yes, the unique sound was created by the composer Jack Nitzche for the 1984 movie ‘Starman’ (same year when SETI was founded!)  Jeff Bridges and Karen Allen, so young and handsome/beautiful almost 30 years ago, play the main characters – the star man and the human who meets him, helps him, and falls in love with him.  This movie met moderate success, and Oscar and other award nominations.  Unfortunately for the studio, to make it they turned down another script that did much, much better.  E.T. was the other movie.  I’m having a hard time finding people who would recognize the Starman soundtrack used in “Symphonies(would you recognize it?), but who doesn’t know the phrase “E.T. phone home”?


My focus here is actually the movie, though, not the sound track. The movie Starman starts with images and sounds from the very real Voyager II spacecraft and its famous ‘Golden Record’ – a 12-inch gold-plated copper disk, a phonograph record that contains sounds and images from and about life on Earth.  Only 2 were made, placed inside the Voyager II and I spacecraft that were launched into space in Aug. and Sep. 1977 respectively, and as of this year, 2012, are leaving the region of influence of the sun.

spacex cheese secret payloadPioneers 10 and 11, which were launched in 1972 and 1973 and were the first to leave, carried small metal plaques with basic information.  So this golden record was not an after-thought, nor was it meant to be funny, as was a certain wheel of cheese…  [Photo credit: Chris Thompson/SpaceX via] A committee headed by Carl Sagan decided on the content of the record.  It was to serve both as a time capsule for future humans (who might forget where they came from, as predicted by Asimov’s Foundation series, and many others), and as an invitation for intelligent aliens to visit.

The data on the disks is analog, not digital, because to play a digital record (a CD) you need complex electronics, and you need to comply with the standard used to create it, while playing analog data is just mechanic.  Simple, image-based instructions were included to explain how to play it.  The record has sounds of Earth’s animals such as birds and whales, and greetings in 55 of Earth’s languages, including Akkadian – the language used 5000-6000 years ago in the ancient empires of Mesopotamia (today’s Iraq), where writing was born.  The greetings are preceded by the recorded voice of the Secretary General of the United Nations at the time, Kurt Waldheim.  There was also a message from US President Carter. Will ANYONE off-planet, EVER, find and listen to this recording?

In the movie, someone did. They intercept Voyager II (that was sent first), find the record, decipher it, and respond to the invitation…

The Voyagers have been on the way for 35 years.  They have completed the original mission to explore Jupiter and Saturn after 12 years in 1989, but it’s been decided to continue and extend their mission for as long as possible, because they are still working, and there is so much more to learn!  Voyager II managed to later flyby the outer gas giants Uranus and Neptune, while Voyager I speeds faster and out.  Now they are exploring the edge of the Sun’s domain.  How far can your imagination go?  That’s how far they will travel.  As far as humans are concerned they will travel forever, transmitting and communicating back to Earth for as long as they have electrical power, and then will continue silently.  Mission Control predicts they will come within a few light years of another star in about 40,000 years.  Low chances of meeting aliens, but Sagan and his team put the effort in anyway.  Sagan’s words introducing a CD version of the record: “A billion years from now, when everything on Earth we’ve ever made has crumbled into dust, when the continents have changed beyond recognition and our species is unimaginably altered or extinct, the Voyager record will speak for us.”

Posted in Aliens, Space Exploration | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Feels Like Mars

You’re standing barefoot on the sand and it’s almost uncomfortably warm.  It’s grainy, not fine as sand you would find on a beach, and it massages your feet.  It is all around you, orange-yellow in color, but it’s turning gray and getting colder because the hot sun is setting behind you.  You notice how quiet it is. You don’t perceive any animals at the moment, and no vegetation.  It is very dry.  Everywhere the eye can see there’s just this hot sand.  In the distance you can see rock formations, hills, mountains. As the sun is setting, its last rays hit those mountains and explode in color: not only brown and beige, but also all reds you could possibly imagine: maroon, mahogany, burgundy, red, magenta, and fiery orange.  You look up and you see the sky above those mountains turning to an incredible, impossible, deep purple, the like you have never seen before.

This place is ancient, with a vast past to tell of, and close to no one to listen.  This is an actual memory of a visit to a wondrous place, the Sinai Desert, located in the Middle East, Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.  But except maybe for the color of the sky, I think this is what Mars feels like, except the heat.


How long will it take for humans to get to Mars?

The question has been asked since the 1950’s, and there have been dozens of attempts to answer, in the form of detailed studies and proposals, written by scientists working for multiple governments, universities, and private organizations.   There are many countries interested in the subject, but there were mainly US proposals including multiple by NASA, and multiple European (ESA) and Russian. The proposals address issues such as the logistics and route to get there and back, logistics for landing, number of people, length of stay, supplies and habitat, health and survival.

The first one published in 1952 proposed 10 spacecraft carrying 70 people each(!), and surface landing vehicles.  Since then the proposals varied greatly.  Some planned a direct visit, and 2-way trip.  Of those some proposed the payload to include all supplies, others suggested propellants for the return trip should be manufactured on location from the Martian atmosphere, to reduce cost.  A 1-way trip was proposed in 1998, later to be repeated and advocated by people such as Buzz Aldrin, the ‘2nd man on the moon’.  Are there any volunteers?

Recent US policy is very positive.  George W. Bush endorsed manned space exploration in 2004, followed by hints from NASA of plans to launch to Mars from the moon.  Current president Obama and the US Congress approved in 2010 a manned mission to Mars by 2030’s.

In 2000, Russians proposed an orbital mission to Mars, using a nuclear reactor to power an electric rocket engine.  [We should do that right after the electric jet, proposed to ‘Tony Stark’ in Iron Man 2)].   Alternatively, chemical propulsion was proposed by NASA in 2009.

Mission to Mars

Mission to Mars photo

A 1991 international/French proposal suggested the spacecraft to have nuclear power and artificial gravity provided by rotation.  This is a known model for a space station. The 2000 science fiction movie Mission to Mars (starring some of my very favorite actors!) featured such a vessel.  That idea was likely borrowed from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Other private initiatives:

1998, The Mars Society– an international space advocacy non-profit organization, promoting human exploration and settlement of Mars. Supported by science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson and filmmaker James Cameron.

2008, MarsDrive – a non-profit organization that envisions “a spacefaring civilization”, is working on designs for permanent settlement of Mars titled ‘Mars for Less’.

2012, Mars One, a private Dutch project to settle Mars as a 1-way trip, is proposing to settle in multiple stages by 2023, using components from suppliers such as SpaceX, and financing it by making it a reality show.  The audience will get to pick the astronauts…

2012, Populate Mars T-shirteX – founded to “revolutionize space transportation and … make it possible for people to live on other planets”, is proposing a Mars landing as a 2018 NASA study mission to search for life, and long-term plans for settlement.  The CEO Elon Musk was seen wearing the ‘Available to Help Populate Mars’ T-shirt, sold online at

So what’s stopping us?

Aside from the enormous logistics and cost, and aside from health and survival issues that can all potentially be resolved, there is one problem for which we don’t yet have an answer, and I hope is considered very carefully by all public and private parties.  We have not yet found life on Mars, but if it does exist, even as microorganisms, it can be devastated by human presence, or it can be transported to Earth and cause devastation here, against which our civilization and possibly all other life on Earth will be defenseless.  This explains some of the proposals to explore Mars remotely from its moons or from orbit.

What does SF have to say about Mars?  Stay tuned for future posts.

Posted in Lets Go to Mars, Space Exploration | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Feels Like Solaris

Feels Like Solaris

This photo was taken at 8:30 pm in Northern CA.   It didn’t feel like CA, though, it felt like Solaris.   One look at the sky and I was cast onto another world, that looked exactly as I had imagined long ago:  sad, eerie, mysterious, sentient.  A fictional remote world almost entirely covered by an ocean that is studied by scientists captivated by strange phenomenon it displays; They perform experiments on the ocean, and are later to find that the ocean is reciprocating by performing psychological experiments on them.  Each one of the individual humans on the research station hovering the planet is confronted by his or her own private nightmare, including the main character, a psychologist who is haunted by guilt over his wife’s suicide, and now faces her impossibly real, living, breathing manifestation.

The book, Solaris, published in 1961, was written by a Polish SF and philosophy writer, Stanisław Lem.  I found a much-later translation in a local library and was fascinated by the idea.  I read it expecting resolution, solutions, answers;  A far away action-packed adventure with a happy end.  Such was most science fiction by western writers of that era. But Lem considered western writers too shallow.  Instead the book focused on the question, and thus in effect provided the author’s opinion:  total failure.  Humans are completely inadequate in their futile attempt to understand the truly alien, and will never succeed in it.  We come across as narrow-minded, aggressive, paranoid, limited.  We don’t understand intelligence if it is too foreign, and we never will.


The book was made into a film three times, and I had been ignorant of the first two, but the last one greatly surprised me.  I simply didn’t think it was Hollywood material (2002, produced by James Cameron).  I was greatly surprised that George Clooney was cast as the main character, because it was the first time I saw him play a serious, troubled character, but he in-fact was very compelling.  The movie changed the focus of the story from the alien world, to the relationship of Clooney’s character with his dead wife, and thus became more of a psychological drama, where the futuristic nature of it is of lesser importance.  The movie is also slightly more optimistic as to how the story ends.  It is still very sad, thought provoking, painful.

Lem was very interested in the philosophical implications of future technologies and wrote about it.  In 2005, (just the year before he died) Lem “expressed his disappointment with the genre of science fiction and his general pessimism regarding technical progress. He viewed the human body as unsuitable for space travel, held that information technology drowns people in a glut of low-quality information, and considered truly intelligent robots as both undesirable and impossible to construct.” (quoted by wikipedia from a German publication).

I actually agree with him to some extent about the very last part, and I will write about that in a future post, but I do hope that he was wrong about everything else.

Posted in Sci Fi | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Non Original Thoughts on Mars and Vampires

“There is no original thought“, said my brilliant friend, “and even that notion is not an original thought”, he continued with a sigh.  He expects a lot of himself, for obvious reasons, so he was very frustrated.  Every idea that he had, had already been thought of. Every search phrase he tried had already been searched, and appeared in search suggestions.  The only seemingly original thought that came out of that day was an idea for a domain name:  “”.  This was sometime around year 2000, so it’s been 12 years.  I checked:  “” is still an original thought.  No one claimed that domain in 12 years.  I’m wondering if it’s possible that no one ever will, who hasn’t read this post.

Thoughts on having original thoughts keep bugging people.  If you search the Internet you’ll find a multitude of discussions for and against the possibility of having an original thought.  The main argument against the existence of this possibility is that it’s not possible to think about something that is completely non-existent.  Do you get what this means?  It means that Vampires, for example, really do exist.  Which is taking things a little to the extreme.


The truth, as always, is somewhere in the middle.  It is possible, as many researchers think, that vampire legends stem from real people with natural disorders, such as sensitivity to light and insomnia.  So the concept is not completely made up.  Unfortunately it means that horrific acts by psychopaths in detective shows, are also based on some reality of what people are capable of doing, and not completely made up from thin air.  That’s a sad thought.

So if vampire stories are not a complete figment of someone’s incredible imagination, do I agree that there is no original thought? The reality is that the world keeps changing, faster and faster, so how is that possible if there are no original thoughts?

I was reminded of this after watching a TV episode I stumbled upon – I really try not to spend too much time on watching this stuff, but once in a while I slip.  It’s about a detective who was framed and put in prison, but was cleared and released after 12 years.  (Yes, the number 12 again, not original, is it?).  He’s having a hard time getting used to year 2012 gadgets.  Electronic books, cars that take verbal orders on who to call and what music to play, and phones that are used for pretty much anything: music, videos, picture albums, cameras, talking maps, surfing the Internet, e-mail, video games, voice recording, controlling other gadgets, ah, and yes, texting and calling people.  Seems the only thing they can’t do these days is replace toilette paper…  (But maybe they will replace toilette paper by the year 2032…) So I’m forced to admit, the world did change a lot in just 12 years.  There have been some original thoughts.

But here’s something interesting: the thought that there is nothing new is so old, it dates back (as assumed traditionally) to King Solomon the wise, some 3000 years ago.  Imagine the ancient king, sitting in the golden city Jerusalem, and complaining “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun”, as he’s quoted in book of Ecclesiastes (Kohelet).  He was probably old and tired, incredibly insightful and right for his own time, grossly wrong as proven in years to have come.

All the above brings me to what I really wanted to talk about:  an incredible story I read as a kid, taking place on Mars, titled “A Rose for Ecclesiastes”.  It was included in a collection of best sci-fi short stories, edited by Robert Silverberg.

It is hard to find in modern sci-fi the quality, and yes, the original thought, found in classic sci-fi.  What is classic sci-fi?  I’d define it as sci-fi written during the period of 1940’s – end of 1970’s, so spanning 40 years. In the 1940’s, very little was known about our neighboring planet, Mars.  Stories told at that time about Mars, were mostly fantasy.  The 1950’s were called ‘the Golden Age of sci-fi’, when serious authors were expected to follow logic and science.  This approach was significantly relaxed in the 1960’s.  At that time it was already known that Mars is barren, with probably no life and definitely no civilization.  But this story written in 1963 completely ignores that fact, for the purpose of telling a great tale.  It’s a tale of a great civilization that is dying, thinking that there is ‘nothing new under the sun’ – no more ‘original thought’, and a human – a vain poetry genius – quoting Ecclesiastes and the ancient king, in an attempt to prevent what’s coming.

When trying to track down the exact name of the story and time it was written, I was pleasantly surprised by something I entirely forgot:  this story was written by one of my all time favorite sci-fi writers, in my (not so humble) opinion the most imaginative, creative, diverse, and original of them all, Roger Zelazny.

The story is full of meaning, packed and gripping.  Can you imagine more powerful imagery than this:  “Blurred Mars hung like a swollen belly above me, until it dissolved, brimmed over, and streamed down my face.”

This was in fact Zelazny’s first important publication.  He only ‘arrived at the scene’ in 1962, but immediately “irreverently splashed the tired old canvas of science fiction with new colors … and etched new ideas into its dried paint with the sharp tip of his brush.” – A quote from commentary by Carl B. Yoke at the end of the story’s full text.

I was too young, and didn’t get all the meanings in this story at the time I first read it.  Carl explains that Zelazny believed that death is an important component of growth.  Therefore the death of the Martian’s old ways, and of the human’s vanity, are necessary before each can transform.  Things and ideas have to die before any growth and renewal can occur.

Didn’t Steve Jobs believe the same thing? Steve Jobs

Posted in Sci Fi | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Jill, Carl, Stephen, and the Aliens

An Alien Hunter

With all the space-news coverage of the Falcon 9/Dragon launch for the last 2 weeks, almost missed the news about the retirement of astronomer Jill Tarter, “Queen of SETI” – as named by Alan Boyle in his Cosmic Log.  She is retiring from managing the institution, but will continue to work to get financial support for it.  So.  How do you measure the passion of a person for their work – is it enough to look at how much time they dedicated to it – 35 years?  Probably not, but in this case an exception can be made. 35 years to promote one of the more controversial charitable organizations ever.  Headlines try to be catchy, with SETI it always came down to the ridiculous sounding ‘Search for Aliens’.  Should we Search for Aliens?


As it turns out, enough people found SETI not so ridiculous. The 2 most popular scientists of our times, astronomer Carl Sagan and theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking believe(d) wholeheartedly in the existence of extraterrestrial life. The difference is, Sagan promoted the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI), while Hawking objected to it. His most famous quote about this is: “If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans.”  To this, Jill’s response is: “While Sir Stephen Hawking warned that alien life might try to conquer or colonize Earth, I respectfully disagree. If aliens were able to visit Earth that would mean they would have technological capabilities sophisticated enough not to need slaves, food, or other planets.  If aliens were to come here it would be simply to explore.”


It seems to me we could delay the discussion about how to handle the aliens, until we actually find some.  The SETI institute was formed on Nov 20th, 1984, for both educational and research purposes, searching for signs of life in the form of artificial signals from space that will indicate an intelligent source. It is based in the heart of Silicon Valley, in Mountain view, northern CA.  But we should recall that such SETI activity started over 20 years earlier. It started in 1960 by astronomer Frank Drake, who used a radio telescope for such a search, and organized the first SETI conference. He came up with an equation to evaluate the probabilities of alien life arising elsewhere in our universe – the “Drake equation”, addressing the 1950 Fermi paradox “Where is everybody?”, and in the 1970’s got NASA’s support.  So it’s been not 27 years, but over 50 years of searching, and so far – nothing.  Both Sagan and Hawking explained that mathematically, the possibility that there is life, even intelligent life, outside of Earth, is more likely than the possibility that there isn’t, and we are all alone in the vastness of the universe. Yet the search has been unsuccessful so far. Nevertheless, as the dreamers we are, we are allowed to dream.


Luckily, Sagan was not only on the board of trustees of SETI, he was also a science fiction author.  He provided us with an excellent version to dream about, in the form of the book ‘Contact’, and the later movie based upon it, detailing what happens one fine day (or actually night…) when an incoming signal is identified as artificial…  I saw the movie before I read the book, and was a bit surprised at a specific difference throughout the story, but I will not spoil it for you, if you haven’t seen it, all I will say is that the difference doesn’t make the movie lacking, it is maybe even better.  I highly recommend this movie even though it’s 15 years old, and many might consider that way too old – it isn’t.  The book is even older (1985), so was written when SETI was just at its beginning, but it too withstands the test of time.  The fact that I learned just now, about Jill Tarter being the inspiration for the main character, the smart, dedicated, strong willed Dr. Arroway, makes total sense.

Wow signal

In fact, I always thought this book was inspired by a real life event – the ‘Wow’ signal – a curious artificial looking spike in incoming signals received around midnight on 8.15.1977, that was believed to be of extra terrestrial source.  Photo credit: an article from Houston Astronomical Society, explaining what was so extraordinary about that signal.  This article also talks about Rare Earth – a more recent theory about why we haven’t found aliens yet – or rather, why they may not exist.

The Rare Earth theory is not entirely in contrast to Stephen Hawking’s famous words: “In such a vast place as the cosmos, we only need to look at ourselves for proof that impossible and extraordinary things can and do happen.”

And a bit of news: Sagan passed away in 1996, but Hawking is well and is coming to town.  He’ll be giving a lecture in Cupertino, CA, not that far from SETI, on Tuesday, June 19th  2012.  It is a coincidence that during the same week, SETI is hosting SETIcon, a conference to salute science, imagination (meaning sci-fi), and Tarter June 22 – 24, 2012 ?

I wonder if Hawking will be there.

Here a video about the Wow Signal from his ‘Into the Universe’ show.

Posted in Aliens | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 /Dragon Launch

1:55 am (4:55 EDT) has come and gone, and I’m still holding my breath.  I’ve been holding it all day Friday, actually, as I’m sure everyone at SpaceX has been doing, afraid to exhale. While I’m writing these words, I’m tuned in to a live webcast on, listening to the status reports, and waiting.

What are we waiting for? If you haven’t been watching – we’re waiting for the first launch of a private rocket propelling a private module into space, to be hooked up with the International Space Station (ISS).  This is the first attempt to take on NASA’s challenge, aiming to hand over traffic to and from ISS to commercial enterprises.

The Dish


This is, though, a much lonelier experience, than witnessed on July 20th, 1969.  Back then, the entire population of the world, who owned a TV at the time (well, not that many, but still millions of people) tuned in. If you want to get the feel for the world’s excitement about the Apollo 11 launch to the moon 43 years ago, you should watch the great, funny movie ‘The Dish‘. You’ll get a feel for how history was made, from the point of view of those who were in charge of broadcasting that event.

Apollo 11 Moon landing

NASA’s Apollo 11 lunar module LM-5 Eagle landing, 20th July 1969
Computer artwork source:

There were many missions to space afterwards, and obviously there’s no real comparison here.  ISS is much closer than the moon, and there are no people risking their lives in the capsule launch tonight (night time for me – for the folks in Florida it really is tomorrow morning).  So for most people this is not big news. But it is still a significant event, and I, for one, want to watch it. In real-time.

So I don’t care that even though I mentioned this to several people today, no one expressed significant interest in watching this.  Alone at night, I wait to see a private enterprise shoot for the stars.

They have just announced that the window of opportunity is closed, and the launch will have to be attempted again in 3 days.  I’m exhaling now, and we’ll just have to do this again on Tuesday.


Update:  Tuesday  May 22, 2012   12:44 am PDT

Congratulations, SpaceX!  Awesome liftoff.

spacex dragon launch

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, Space Launch Complex-40
Credit: NASA/Rick Wetherington, Tim Powers, Tim Terry

Hugs: launch controllers in Cape Canaveral, Florida
Credit: SpaceX/NASA


Update:  Friday  May 25, 2012   9:02 am PDT

Like ISS astronaut Don Pettit’s words:  “Houston, Station, it looks like we’ve got us a dragon by the tail.”   And like Musk using the same words: “Just awesome.”  Following great videos and pictures of the Dragon capsule captured by ISS and hooked up to its Harmony module.  See pics on one of my favorite sites:  Cosmic Log on MSNBC, or NASA’s dedicated page.

Dragon arriving at ISS

Dragon arriving at ISS, where robotic arm is ready to capture it.
Credit: NASA via Reuters

Posted in Space Exploration | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment