science and morality

I’ve been getting a lot of my subject matter from Ryan lately, it seems…

Well, in any case, he put a link on Twitter to Sam Harris’ TED talk about science and morality, and how science could feed into morality. It’s well worth looking at and thinking about a little.

Morality has to do with distinguishing “right” from “wrong,” and Harris has a very good point that scientific methodology could be applied to help make that distinction. However, while I listened to his talk, a very important point came to mind. Let me set this up with the statement that many concepts or measures in this universe don’t come out to binary extremes. (Quantum states of spin-1/2 particles, for instance, are an exception.) In most cases, it’s not a question of just being on one side or the other; it’s a question of how far towards one side or the other your measurement comes out. I think the same is true of morality: how right is one thing compared to another? How wrong are the alternatives?

In answering such questions with scientific processes – not an idea I disagree with, in principle – we would likely end up at some kind of optimization problem. Given all the scientific data about the possible reactions and effects of a particular decision, how can we make the most “right” decision? That’s a pretty straightforward problem to approach scientifically. However, we must be careful about how we define “most!”

As an example, if you drive you have probably had the experience of getting stuck at a stoplight somewhere, getting frustrated, and saying to your passenger or yourself, “Wow, these lights are stupid. I’d love to meet the guy who designed them, they could be a lot better than they are.”

The operative word there is “better,” and the question is, how do you tell which stoplight timings are better than others? Probably, the guy who designed them actually chose the best timings. But what he considered “the best” is maybe not what you consider “the best.” Maybe he maximized the traffic flow on the main street instead of the cross street. Maybe he minimized the average number of red lights cars encounter along a certain route. Maybe he found the timing that gave the least amount of wait time at certain intersections, while also giving the highest possible rate of cars through the intersection, during rush hour on average Thursday mornings. Which one of these definitions of “best” is best? And why is it so? There is an assumption underlying the process here, and it can have a dramatic effect on the results.

I think we have to keep that point in mind while considering Harris’ points. We have a lot of data on actions and consequences. We can use scientific processes such as optimization to try and synthesize that data into a decision about what is right and what is wrong. But we have to bear in mind the assumptions that underlie that process, be up front about them, and be willing to entertain other possibilities.

Scott Brown has failed his constituents

Depending who you ask, freshman Senator Scott Brown got himself elected on a platform of populist rage against health care reform, a reaction of populist frustration with the health care reform process on Capitol Hill, or a flood of insurance-company money. In those two cases that involve Bay Stater constituents, Sen. Brown styles himself as a faithful representative of his people. In all three cases, he is an elected representative of Massachusetts to the national government. He has constituents. And he styles himself as a leader in Washington.

However, Sen. Brown has made it very difficult for his constituents to contact him. His web site, which despite being up for a month still says “temporary” on the front page, lists no email address for him, and some Boston Globe readers have in the past written letters to the editor on how hard it is to contact his office by other means. Now that health care reform is safely passed his vote – and the Democrats are not likely to bring the issue up again – I suspect that his Senate email address will magically pop into existence in short order.

Sen. Brown has certainly made his priorities in Washington very clear. One of the first things he did was get campaigning for Sen. John McCain’s reelection. And he spent some time with Republican leaders getting cushy committee appointments. And he went to extra effort to look immediately like a leader in Congress. But for his constituents in Massachusetts, no email address. (Message to American voters: “I’m a Washington outsider!” is campaign code for “I want to be a Washington insider!“)

It took me, oh, about a week to code up my own personal web site from scratch. That’s me, one person, working in my off hours. I’m guessing Sen. Brown hired someone to make his Senate web site, so there’s no reason it should still say “temporary.”

I worked for the federal government over the summer, and it took them one day to give me a working email address. (Pretty funny IT training, too: “When you get your email, please don’t go emailing all your friends and relatives because it says your name @nasa.gov.”) Does he really not have an address for voters to write to him yet?

It’s the Internet age, Senator Brown, and you have constituents. Time to give up the campaign truck and get on the ball.

just a couple things to share

First, Ryan has posted an excerpt of a speech by Charlie Bolden addressing common misconceptions about the new NASA budget. The speech confirms that (1) the goal of the US space program is to get people to Mars, (2) NASA will be pushing the technological envelope to do that, (3) the human presence in LEO will be going full-throttle all that time, and (4) Constellation was going to fail at all those things. I’m happy.

Second, the Big Picture has a great series of photos from the 2010 Vancouver Paralympics. It’s a fantastic collection of photos, and I wonder why those events aren’t televised. Many of them look even more exciting than some of the analogous Olympic events. Best wishes to those athletes!

re: Questions on NASA’s Future

This *almost* made me register for Twitter, just to respond. But I am still resisting the “service that nobody knew they wanted!” I hope a pingback goes through…if not, I bet I can rely on a retweet from @aerognome. ūüėČ

Here are my answers:

1) Should Constellation be saved?

No; at least, not without a lot of major changes. CxP is drastically underfunded, horribly over budget, way behind schedule, and myopically limited in technology and innovation. It wasn’t going to get us to the Moon before 2030 and wasn’t even going to get us to ISS before 2018. I’d very much like to have Mike Griffin’s Constellation fetters come off.

2) Should Shuttle be extended to close the gap?

No. Not only is that infeasible (there are no more STS external fuel tanks left, and we cannot make more) and uneconomical (due to high launch and recovery costs), but the Shuttle is thirty years old. It was never designed to fly for this long and should have been replaced in the early 90’s. In what other industry do people go around with 30-year-old vehicles and devices, still saying that they are the cutting edge? In what other industry is the 30-year-old vehicle the cutting edge? This is your own damn fault, Congress. Where’d the X33 go when we had the chance?!

3) Should NASA perform exploration missions while developing new R&D technologies that will get us to Mars?

Yes, and I don’t think this point is at issue. The problem is that the Obama administration chose to release their NASA budget without a corresponding space policy speech – it’s not that exploration missions have been cancelled, it’s that we don’t have any information on exploration targets and goal dates. I suspect that Obama’s rumored speech in April will remedy this. At least Charlie Bolden thinks we’re going to Mars!

It is important for me to say that there is a corresponding question, “should NASA develop new technologies while performing exploration missions?” The answer to this question is also “yes,” and critically, it was “no” under Constellation.

4) Is a heavy-lift vehicle required to leave LEO?

Let me instead answer a more general question: “Are new technologies or vehicles required to leave LEO?”

To that, I say yes. Either that means we need an economical heavy-lift capability, or tech development related to in-orbit deploying and assembling of large structures from small components. A detailed trade study should show which of those options to pick.

5) Why is inspiration important to the future of NASA?

Our nation is increasingly facing challenges that must be approached by scientific or engineering methods, and so it is generally in our national best interest to get students studying STEM fields. One way to keep them interested in science and technology is to make sure that there are really high-profile science and engineering project being done on a national level – the kinds of projects that happen at NASA. Even if those who pursue STEM fields don’t work for NASA itself, they may tackle related problems that have national repercussions, from more efficient solar cells to better medical technologies to indefinitely preservable foods.

And of course, NASA needs a pool of motivated, educated, capable recruits in order to pull off such projects. So NASA itself has a vested interest in inspiring students to remain interested in STEM fields during and after their educations.

revenge of space combat physics

My blog had been trucking along with a reliable readership of perhaps a dozen people, when, suddenly, after a slightly stream-of-consciousness post about the physics of space combat, Gizmodo asked to reprint the material from my blog. It was never my intention to get so much attention – but apparently that article turned into the most-commented content on Gizmodo that week! I got lots of questions and comments and emails after that and noticed lots more pingbacks on my blog entries afterward.

I couldn’t help but think, “Wow, if only my research activities would generate this sort of interest! I’m trying to build tractor beams and wrote up my experiences from Vomit Comet flights. How is that not cool enough?!” At least I got to abuse my 15 seconds of Internet fame to plug NASA a bunch!

Well, just a couple weeks ago, Karl Haro von Mogel from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, contacted me to interview me for his radio show, “The Inoculated Mind,” which airs on the student radio station in Madison. This was my first on-air interview, and I had a lot of fun with Karl! You can listen to a podcast of the show on his web site. It sounds from the beginning of his show that Karl and I would get along nicely, and then a little before halfway through he plays the interview. If I sound excited, it’s for good reason!

Many thanks to Karl for having me on his show, and for chatting with me about my research as well as the sci-fi stuff! (Oh, what the heck, my research is practically about science fiction, too!) And great use of Battlestar Galactica music and lead-in with the science of Avatar’s unobtainium!

And, of course, a link to the short story Karl brought up: High Orbit. Enjoy!

Just as a freebie, after the jump I am going to list several common questions and comments I got after Gizmodo picked up my initial blog, and respond to them a little bit. I am falling for exactly the issue that Phil Plait identified in his comment on my post – this could go on ad infinitum! So I’m done with this post now, but if you want even more about space battle physics, click here: Continue reading revenge of space combat physics

Fixed an error in an LRO image

Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy posted a few days ago about caved-in lava tubes on the Moon. This isn’t really new news, but it’s still pretty darned cool news. He posted some images of the cave. However, I found a major, glaring error in the LROC image data.

I fixed it.

Lava cave - fixed!

Seriously, though…those sites are perfect premade Moon base locations. Imagine a team of astronauts putting an inflatable dome over the hole in the roof,¬†belaying down there, putting inflatable endcaps a few tens of meters down the lava tube in each direction, spraying expandable foam sealant into all the crevasses, and using some ISRU atmosphere generators to pump the tube full of oxygen.