Sunday, October 4, 2009

A one-way ticket to Mars? You first!

Physicist Lawrence M. Krauss recently suggested, in The New York Times, that one way to cut the costs of a manned mission to Mars was to make it a one-way trip for the astronauts. After all, Krauss reasons, the original American colonists didn't expect to return to England. Krauss claims that, heartless as his proposal may sound (really, you think?), informal polls among scientists encountered in his travels show that the majority would be happy to go to Mars with no thought of return.

Which only goes to show how extraordinarily intelligent people sometimes seem to lack the sense to come in out of the rain. Krauss is at least properly skeptical of claims that human space exploration is justified by humans being able to conduct scientific experiments better than robots, which is probably not true. His reasoning is that we need to establish ongoing human life on Mars in case something catastrophic happens to our native planet. Considering the almost insane challenges of the Martian environment for human life, Krauss's purposes would be nearly as well served by a proposal to colonize the submerged parts of the continental shelves of Earth's various land masses.

No one should doubt the invaluable additions to knowledge of properly conducted scientific research on Mars. Its age is similar to that of Earth, and it is the most earth-like planet in our Solar System, though the two planets' respective outcomes have been radically different. Whether liquid water exists far beneath its surface and, even more intriguing, whether biological life exists in some primitive form on Mars are important issues for understanding our own planet's history.

But not the issue here. No human could survive unaided on Mars's surface for 10 seconds. Because its atmosphere is of a thinness to be found at altitudes 19 times that of Denver, liquids boil and evaporate very quickly; a human's blood would boil inside him in seconds. Mars's temperatures are generally worse than those on Antarctica, while its thin atmosphere leaves the surface more vulnerable to the Sun's radiation than the hottest parts of the Sahara. Its atmosphere is 95% carbon dioxide, and it is plagued by storms of red dust lasting months at a time and capable of raising dust clouds 25 miles high.

No, the original American colonists did not expect to return to England, but they did expect to hunt, fish, and farm. Mars is not a candidate for any of those things. Indeed, the very need to protect astronauts from the radiation they are likely to encounter simply getting to Mars in the first place (the shortest possible trip would take 7–8 months) might make their transport craft too heavy to make the trip at all! Krauss acknowledges the issue, supposing a crop of astronauts arriving on Mars with their life expectancies radically cut short by radiation exposure. A promising start for establishing human life on the red planet!

Of course we have, or can develop, the technology to create habitable environments on Mars, perhaps beneath the surface. Let's suppose that, to prepare for such an eventuality, NASA constructs an artificial habitat somewhere on Earth and confines a group of male and female scientists there for some months. There is no TV, radio, or internet, and no real-time communication with the rest of humanity, only data links twice a day, as has been the case with the Mars Rover. One can't go outside without heavy protective equipment, and one may not be able to go outside for months at a time, because of the fierce dust storms, raging at speeds of hundreds of kilometers per hour. Oxygen and water must be manufactured, and attempts must be made to begin cultivating edible plants inside. No health care is available except for what can be provided right there. And these conditions will never change because of the very nature of the environment itself.

I suspect the eventual human result would include murder, insanity, sexual slavery, and rationing of food, water, oxygen, and medical care by some dominant personality and his clique to enforce his will on the rest of the group.

But supposing that didn't happen—that humans somehow learned to adapt and coexist in a civilized way completely inside an artificial environment, forever—Mars has two remaining disadvantages. Since it has so little atmosphere, it is much more vulnerable to meteor strikes than Earth, whose atmosphere burns up many of the debris from space that would otherwise wreak havoc here. Finally, Mars is a great deal smaller than Earth, so its likely future as a human outpost must be quite limited.

And lest we forget, in the light of what we know of evolution, the isolation of two previously compatible groups from the same species generally results in each group eventually developing characteristics so different that they can no longer mate and reproduce with members of the other group. The facts of biology tell us that unless we dispatched additional colonies to Mars at regular intervals to add to its human population, there would eventually come a time when the two groups would be of no further use to each other for propagating common descendants.

We are still too haunted by the ghost of Star Trek, which showed humans boldly going, not only to places where man had never been before, but where he simply can't go, unless we discover usable shortcuts through space-time. Mars, the one planet in our Solar System where humans might have even a remote chance of establishing an outpost, has the disadvantages described above. The closest possibility of another Earth-like planet lies in the vicinity of Alpha Centauri, 4.37 light-years from Earth. Light travels 5.8 trillion miles in a single year; at our current 18,000-mile-per-hour speed of space travel, it would take 37,200 years to travel the extent of a single light-year. Which reminds me of a joke by Johnny Carson. "The space shuttle is under warranty...120,000 miles or ten seconds." I think the late lamented king of late-night television had more common sense about this issue than our physicist friend Krauss. In the dawning age of robotics, there is no more reason to send humans to Mars or any other inhospitable environment than there is to station some hapless soul 11,000 miles above the Earth's surface on a GPS satellite to make sure motorists here below can continue to find their way.

© Michael Huggins, 2009. All rights reserved.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The buck...well, bounces around a great deal

Anita Tedaldi, military wife and parent of five daughters, who has made a name for herself blogging about motherhood, gave up her adopted 18-month-old son when she realized she just didn't feel all that close to him. She told her story to Lisa Belkin of The New York Times, who also appeared with her when Tedaldi was interviewed on The Today Show. Apparently encouraged by her exposure to the world of journalism to be even-handed, Tedaldi gently informed her audience that the failure to bond "really went both ways." Well I'm all for holding kids accountable, certainly.

There is the awkward matter of Tedaldi having outspokenly criticized another adoptive couple, in print, for doing pretty much the same thing just last year, but, as Lincoln once observed, "The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present." Meanwhile, the U.S. Military, who owns the web site on which Tedaldi's earlier article appeared, is obligingly treating the matter about like they did the death of Pat Tillman; the text is no longer there.

I read a couple of years ago the troubling story of a single mom in England who adopted an African girl about the same age as the mom's biological 7-year-old daughter. If her account is to be believed, she did everything she could to welcome the adopted child and blend her into the family, to no avail. Eventually, the adopted girl's hostility, not only toward the mother, but even more so against her adoptive sister, reached a point at which the mother feared for her biological daughter's safety. With tremendous reluctance and chagrin, she made the decision to give up the adopted child. Perhaps there was nothing else she could do.

I certainly don't wish for little "Baby D," as Tedaldi refers to her adopted son, to grow up in a house where his closest caregiver is continually judging his bonding skills and finding them wanting; he deserves better, and I hope he is placed in an emotionally healthy home. I could even respect Tedaldi if, chastened by her experience, she took time off from blogging about motherhood for a period of reflection. But we must be realistic; book deals and appearances on Oprah wait for no one. Who knows but that one day the little tyke may pen his own book about "Mommy T" and the strange mismatch between her blogging skills and her nurturing abilities.

This week's other poster child for forgiving one's own mistakes and blowing off the stodgy critics is Roman Polanski, on whose behalf over 100 luminaries of the entertainment world have signed a petition demanding his immediate release from custody, following his recent arrest in Switzerland. These include Woody Allen, whose nude photos of his adopted stepdaughter broke up his long-time partnership with Mia Farrow, and the noted moral philosopher Harvey Weinstein, who can see more clearly than most of us that Polanski was sufficiently punished for his "so-called crime" with a 30-year inability to attend Hollywood parties.

As is well known, Polanski accepted an unchaperoned visit from aspiring 13-year-old model Samantha Gailey at the home of Jack Nicholson (never mind!) in 1977, photographed her nude, plied her with champagne and quaaludes, and then sexually assaulted her, ignoring her repeated protests and requests to leave.

No one but Hollywood libertines are in serious doubt as to the hideous nature of Polanski's actions that night. Yes, I know future Chief Justice John Marshall started courting his future wife when she was 14 and Marshall was 26, but that was in a day when Marshall would have been shot by her outraged father had he so much as kissed her and not followed through shortly after with a trip to the church to make good. And it may be that 15-year-old Nastassia Kinski acted with perfectly free choice upon beginning a sexual liaison with Polanski; frankly, if I had a maniac like Klaus Kinski for a father, I too might find even Polanski's company a desirable alternative.

Polanski's actions with Gailey, in any case, were completely beyond the pale, and he was rightly convicted. The moral issue is clear. What is tangled is the legal issue, an entanglement caused by the egregious misconduct of the late judge Laurence Rittenband, who first approved, and then gave every indication of intending to renege on, a plea bargain supported by the victim's own family. Rittenband seems to have done this, moreover, on the advice of a District Attorney who wasn't even involved in the case, itself an instance of judicial misbehavior. In desperation, Polanski fled the court's jurisdiction and then went abroad, which was another crime added to the one for which he had already been convicted.

If Polanski's celebrity status should not win him special treatment, neither should it have made him the special victim of a judge's personal pique, in violation not only of judicial ethics but of an agreement that the victim and her family had acknowledged was in her best interests. The larger legal issue is whether, having reached a court-approved plea bargain, a defendant for any crime, at any level of wealth or social prominence, should have to wonder if the court will honor its own agreement or decide, on a whim, to suddenly "get tough."

Polanski is apparently an unrepentant reprobate, and one could wish to see him humiliated and abused as his victim was that night all those years ago. But the law should serve justice, not become an instrument of popular revenge. If they wanted his hide, the court should have rejected the plea bargain and insisted on imposing the maximum sentence to begin with. If a foolish, publicity-hungry judge can do this to a celebrity, what might he do to any of us? Polanski's original sentence was for time previously served; to this, a reasonable penalty of additional time should be added for having fled legal jurisdiction.

© Michael Huggins, 2009. All rights reserved.

A bit different from "Jingle Bells"

I've been listening to one of my favorite pieces from Bach's Christmas Oratorio: Schlafe, Mein Liebster ("Sleep, my dearest," imagined as a melody sung by the shepherds to the Christ Child). What if they played this in department stores? The lengthy and sustained development of the theme, so demanding on the baroque soloist, might just about equal the length of one's wait to be checked out by a sales clerk, and meanwhile, beguiled by the peaceful and contemplative mood induced by the music, you might forget to buy anything at all!

I think Macy's set a record of sorts about 3 years ago by starting to play Christmas music around September 10th. Of course, denouncing commercialism at Christmas is a favorite trope the world over, but I was startled to learn, a few years ago, that Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer was created by a man whose wife was dying of cancer at the time and who sought to divert their small daughter. Jack May, a copywriter for Montgomery Ward department stores, was asked to write a jingle as a promotional gimmick and came up with Rudolph. His only hesitation was that the image of a red nose was popularly associated with drunkenness, but he had an artist friend sketch a deer with a shiny nose, which sold his employers on the idea. Eight years after the song's successful release, he persuaded the store to assign the royalties to him, so that he could discharge the medical bills left over from his wife's death.

© Michael Huggins, 2009. All rights reserved.