Jeff Spevak, Writer

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Category: Science Page 1 of 10

The weekend, at our best, and at our worst

This weekend was us at our best.

At Abilene Bar & Lounge, Watkins & the Rapiers played a happy-hour gig on the deck behind the bar. In the sunshine, as we watched little bubbles floating past the band; it had helpfully supplied those bottles that your kids dip a loop into and blow through. Except, it was adults doing this.

Then, over to The Little Café, where The Jane Mutiny was playing. Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” still resonates after all these years.

Then, back over to Abilene, where local heroes The Hi-Risers reunited for a set that had the entire bar bobbing and weaving and howling. As the band closed with a mostly a cappella version of “Who Wrote the Book of Love?” more people came in through the door. The exciting R&B rockers St. Paul & the Broken Bones had finished their show for a few thousand people at Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial Park at Manhattan Square.

That’s just a sampler of what people were hearing Friday night in Rochester.

Maybe you heard about what happened Saturday night in New York City. Blackout. How did people respond? Audiences at Carnegie Hall and shows all across the city – “Hadestown,” “Waitress: A New Musical” and others – spilled out into the sidewalks. As did the actors and musicians, who created impromptu shows right there.

And on the other side of the country, in Los Angeles, Paul McCartney wrapped up his latest tour by bringing out an old pal, Ringo Starr, to help out on “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and “Helter Skelter.” Just another magical moment.

No social media needed. No DVD, no Blu-Ray, no download needed. No cable television news, and the professional shouters. Just people, and live music.

Other amazing stuff happened over the weekend. We’re now into a week-long celebration of the 50th anniversary of humans landing on the moon.

Music, uniting us. Exploring the universe, together. Yes, this is us at our best.

What else were we seeing over the weekend?

Hundreds of people gathering downtown in Washington Square Park on Friday night for the nationwide “Lights for Liberty” vigil, protesting how we’re locking kids in cages. Separating families. Immigrants packed so tightly in cages that they can’t lie down, and after 40 days of this are locked up in a stench so powerful that government workers at the detention center – we can argue that these are concentration camps – wear face masks. Rounding up people who are here – illegally if you want to call it that – because they are fleeing terror in their home countries, and sending them back to poverty and crime.

On top of this we have a president tweeting that members of Congress who were born in a foreign country – and are now American citizens – should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” Trump was tweeting this appalling filth on Saturday when he wasn’t busy tweeting commercials for his golf resorts in Scotland and Ireland.

Our government as a divider.

This is us at our worst. What happened? Where did we go wrong?

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Science is the death of mythology

Today’s big news: A black hole.

That smoke and burnt matter floating around me is: My mind, officially blown.

This morning, an international collaboration of scientists presented the image that it spent two years pursuing. Using a global  arrangement of eight telescopes – they call it the Event Horizon Telescope – the scientists captured an image of a black hole. It is a golden halo around, predictably, a black hole.

A black hole. The Moby-Dick of the universe. The Holy Grail of science fiction, at last unveiled. A world where gravity is so powerful that nothing, not even light, can escape.

“We have seen what we thought was unseeable,” Shep Doeleman, the director of the EHT, said at this morning’s big reveal.

Science did this. Science is what advances the human race.

There was a time when our understanding of the stars and planets was not what we knew, but what we believed. Mythologies. Science is the death of mythologies.

Perhaps you are of the age when you learned in school that there were nine plants in our solar system. Since then, astronomers have identified 3,504 exoplanets – those are planets like Earth, not gas balls like Jupiter – with 53 thought to be potentially habitable.

In the search for the universe’s life-supporting potential, NASA will be sending robots to a comet and Saturn’s moon, Titan, which seems to have a sub-surface ocean. A rover will go to Mars, searching for evidence that life might have once been there.

Maybe we’re just hopeful. The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence program, commonly called SETI, is an array of radio receivers searching for cosmic radio transmissions; what does a stray sports broadcast from Ursa Major sound like? Of course, our government sees a darker storyline: In 2007, the U.S. Defense Department created a secret agency, the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program, whose mission was to evaluate Is Something Out There. And, is It armed?

Recently, astronomers released more conclusions drawn from the data sent back to us from Saturn by the Cassini space probe, a collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. Among their conclusions is the rings of Saturn will begin to disintegrate, the millions of rocks and tiny satellite moons that make up the most beautiful sight in the cosmos sent to their death by the gravitational pull of the planet. Mark your calendar, that’s expected to happen in about 300 million years.

The pace of discovery is astounding. Last week we heard from yet another international team of scientists. Ever notice that scientists have no trouble getting along? They have been mapping the cosmos, and announced that they have found a new rock, a chunk of nickel and iron and other metals. It is what is left of a planet that had orbited a sun that looked much like our own sun. And that sun, what was once a full-fledged sun, ran out of fuel, exploded into a red giant that destroyed the planet, and perhaps others, before collapsing into a white dwarf sun. Now the remains of those two celestial bodies are locked in a death dance so intense that the fractured planet fragment completes an orbit of the cooling dwarf sun in just two hours.

A year on that rock lasts for just two hours. Puts dog years to shame, doesn’t it?

This rock, not incidentally, is 410 light years from Earth. I find it mind blowing that science can tell us such things.

The good news, I guess, is that this rock even survived the apocalyptic explosion of its sun. It gives scientists hope that, when our own sun explodes in 5 or 6 billion years, there might be something left of planet Earth. Our religions, literature, art, architecture, inventions, climate-change deniers, politicians and wars will be gone and forgotten. Our self-destructive mythologies which hold us back – mythologies of race, gender, wealth and fear – will finally be erased. But now there is hope that a chunk of cold rock might remain. And perhaps some civilization that has yet to evolve from tidal-pool protozoa will spot this rock, zipping around its own dwarf star, and ask: “What the hell was that?”

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Trump shows us his space junk

Hey kids! Vote for your favorite Space Force logo and win a prize! Prizes like a chance – slim, but still a chance – for you and your family’s survival in the event of an intergalactic showdown between the Good Guys and the Bad Guys!

“Space is a warfighting domain, just like the land, air, and sea,” President Donald Trump said last March in a speech at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, Calif. “We may even have a Space Force … because we’re doing a tremendous amount of work in space. I said: ‘Maybe we need a new force. We’ll call it the Space Force.’ And I was not really serious. And then I said: ‘What a great idea! Maybe we’ll have to do that.’”

And that’s how momentous decisions are made. “I was not really serious… What a great idea!” Yet Trump’s announcement this week that he is ordering the creation a new arm of the American military to fight our future space wars has been roundly ridiculed, and deservedly so. Ridiculed not only by late-night TV comedians, but by military experts, including generals with serious scowls on their faces. That’s quite a range of mockery.

Vice President Mike Pence chimed in to defend our defense, calling for America to dominate outer space. Dominate! “Now the time has come to write the next great chapter in the history of our armed forces,” he said, “to prepare for the next battlefield where America’s best and bravest will be called to deter and defeat a new generation of threats to our people and to our nation.”

We must protect our satellites, Pence said, from Russian and Chinese aggression. And I assume this means our military architects must hit the drafting boards to design menacing-looking space ships to defend our GPS signals and the colonies that we will establish as we venture to far-flung planets whose gravity is so powerful that carbon molecules falling through their atmospheres are squeezed into rains of diamonds. If there are riches to be mined, America must have them.

Impressionable children, the ones who will have to deal with the consequences of these actions, can be won over early with the ideas of cool-looking Space Force uniforms. And the emails from the Trump For President in 2020 campaign office calling for a vote on your favorite of six Space Force logos.

But most of us are not impressionable children. Our Darth Vader leadership needs to understand that the cosmos is not just the 21st-century version of Columbus sailing to the West Indians and writing in his journals that Europeans have to keep coming back, because there are plenty of native people there to be enslaved. There is accepted international space law. The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 outlaws nuclear weapons and prevents any country from claiming ownership of the moon or any planet, reserving them for peaceful purposes. It has been signed by 107 countries, including the U.S. and Russia. Another 23, including China, agreed to the treaty after the closing of the signing period.

Of course, the world has taken note of the Trump administration’s disregard for any signed treaty it decides was a “bad deal.” So maybe The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 has been rendered irrelevant by Presidential Whim. “What a great idea!”

Despite the combative attitudes of the United States and Russia, our scientists and their scientists are already working together on the International Space Station. While Putin and Trump are exerting their malevolence on the planet, science and cooler heads are at work high overhead.

Robert Heinlein’s future was Starship Troopers. We don’t want that. We need to be working in the other direction. All of this outer-space ambition is coming from an administration that can’t get things done closer to home, like putting hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico back together, or getting clean water to the people of Flint, Michigan.

The Space Force won’t happen. Trump can’t just sign an executive order to make it happen; the last time a new arm of the military was created was 1947 and the U.S. Air Force. That was done by Congress, not President Truman. And who pays for it? In searching the internet, I stumbled on this comforting and amusing logic in a Pentagon in-house journal, Defense AT&L Magazine, a piece written by Air Force Lt. Col. Dan Ward:

In the Star Wars universe, robots are self-aware, every ship has its own gravity, Jedi Knights use the Force, tiny green Muppets are formidable warriors and a piece of junk like the Millennium Falcon can make the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs. But even the florid imagination of George Lucas could not envision a project like the Death Star coming in on time, on budget.

It is craziness – a Space Force, building a wall between the United States and Mexico – designed as distraction. Whether he’s targeting immigrants, Democrats, the media, the FBI, the CIA or his own cabinet, Trump is running out of Bad Guys to distract us from what’s going on: The most corrupt U.S. presidential administration, a gang of grifters, is going down. Because when this is all done, it’ll be worse than Watergate.

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