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Notes & Queries 12/14/11

I normally scan through various news items for the Notes & Queries posts, but in this case I’ve been trying to catch up on my reading. In particular, I’ve been looking at books that could be useful in inspiring young people to get interested in astronomy and engineering. Here’s a look at three titles that more or less fit that bill. The budding rocket scientist will love the revised Zubrin, particularly with its infectious and expansive sense of what’s possible, but younger students may find their minds tweaked by the two other selections, both of which I’d recommend for a high-school audience. We never know what can launch a career, but scientists are always reminding me of particular books they read when they were kids that made all the difference.

Back to the Red Planet

Toward the end of Robert Zubrin’s The Case for Mars (revised edition, 2011), the author looks at three possible models for getting humans to the Red Planet. It’s a significant section because Zubrin recognizes the political and economic realities of our time, and knows that to make something audacious happen in space will require either a commitment from government of the kind we haven’t seen in decades or a substantial infusion of interest from the commercial sector.

Zubrin’s ‘JFK Model’ is what you would expect, a call upon America to rise to the challenge of interplanetary flight. It would involve the nation embarking on what he thinks would be a $30 billion program that would create jobs and spin off technologies while reinvigorating the exploratory spirit. The rival ‘Sagan Model’ would be an explicitly international effort drawing upon collaboration from all space-faring nations, with the potential benefit of easing global tensions in pursuit of a common goal. Finally, the ‘Gingrich Model’ draws on Zubrin’s conversations with the former Speaker of the House, which resulted in Zubrin’s working out a Mars prize that would be funded by government but would result in intense commercial competition for a privately-built mission. All three are out of vogue given the economic realities, but the case for each is interesting, and the right approach could wind up saving quite a bit of money.

For Zubrin is able to get the numbers down even lower than the surprising $30 billion he discusses for the JFK model by using the private sector’s various economies. He’s a persistent critic of government waste with a career in aerospace that has taught him how it happens:

…the major aerospace companies contract with the government to do a job on a ‘cost plus’ basis, which means that whatever it costs them to do the job, they charge the government a certain percentage more, usually 8 to 12 percent. Therefore, the more it costs the major aerospace companies to do a job for the government, the more money they make. For this reason their staffs are top heavy with layer after layer of useless, high-priced ‘matrix managers’ (who manage nothing), ‘marketeers’ (who do no marketing), and ‘planners’ (whose plans are never used) and whose sole apparent function is to add to company overhead. Of course, since the government needs proof that the expenses claimed by the aerospace companies are actually being incurred, vast numbers of accounting personnel are also employed, to keep track of how many labor hours are spent on each and every separate contract. To give you an idea of how bad it is, at Lockheed Martin’s main plant in Denver, where I used to work, and where the Titan and Atlas launch vehicles are produced, only a small minority of all personnel actually work in the factory. The fact that Lockheed Martin is cost competitive with the other large aerospace companies indicates that the rest of them are operating with similar overhead burdens as well.

A new kind of aerospace industry based on minimum-cost production methods — this is what you get by posting multi-billion dollar prizes of fixed amount for breakthrough space accomplishments — is one way to make a Mars mission more tenable than the $450 billion colossus once estimated to pay for President Bush’s 1989 Mars initiative. The logistical nightmare created by multiple launches, on-orbit assembly and propellant-hauling to the Red Planet seemed to define our prospects until Zubrin started attacking those numbers with refreshing new concepts. He also supplies a philosophical case for making them happen.

The Case for Mars was a bracing read when it appeared and its revised version has the same combination of exuberance and inventive zeal that resulted in Mars Direct, a plan that uses technology we have today to land fuel factories on Mars that would supply later manned missions with what they need to get back to Earth. Those of us with an interstellar bent will appreciate Zubrin’s tireless work in favor of a human future off-planet. Whether you’re coming to The Case for Mars for the first time or read it when it first appeared, the new version is worth your time. Travel light, live off the land, make it happen now — that’s the spirit invoked here, which is why Sagan once wrote “Bob Zubrin really, nearly alone, changed our thinking on this issue.”

Reaching the Budding Scientist

The Japanese form of comic art known as manga seems a surprising way to teach tough concepts, and I was more than skeptical when I first took a look at The Manga Guide to Relativity and The Manga Guide to the Universe (No Starch Press, 2011). But these are cleverly designed books, co-published with the technical publishing house Ohmsha in Tokyo and part of a Manga Guide series devoted to technical and scientific subjects. Each guide is written by a specialist in its field and illustrated by a professional manga artist. I started thumbing through the Manga Guide to Relativity and found myself drawn into a storyline that fed into the deeper content.

I’m thinking these guides would be a good way to reach young people with an approachable story that leads to some meaty physics. In the relativity book, a student is challenged to pick up the basics of special and general relativity over the course of a summer and works his way through these with an attractive young teacher who teases and prods him into understanding. The book alternates between manga and written text and manages to work through everything from time dilation to the twin paradox, examining why length contracts and mass increases at relativistic speeds and how mass affects spacetime, with results we can measure. I won’t say that the concepts here are taught painlessly — Einstein puts plenty of demands upon anyone’s imagination — but they’re creatively presented and made exciting.

The Manga Guide to the Universe is a thicker volume that takes three high school girls through a course in basic astronomy and astrophysics, with the aid of a kindly professor and the context of a play they are trying to present. The alternating manga and text cover theories of the universe’s origin and the discoveries that helped us understand its scale, working up to the cosmological microwave background and the mysteries of dark matter and dark energy. There’s enough meaty concepts here to challenge a young student and perhaps fill his or her head with ideas that might lead to a career. The Manga Guides aren’t textbooks in the classic sense, but you could consider them enticements, keys that might unlock much tougher texts down the road.

A TV Universe Now in Print

If I were trying to inspire young people with the beauties of astrophysics, I’d also make sure to show them Brian Cox’s Wonders of the Universe (HarperDesign, 2011). This is a superb coffee-table book with the kind of gorgeous photography I associate with large, glossy science books, but it’s also a well-written and thoughtful presentation of current thinking on the cosmos. Cox (University of Manchester) is a particle physicist who has brought his teaching skills to the fore in a television show of the same name. A keyboardist in the UK pop band D:Ream in the 1990s, he brings a certain brio to the task that never undercuts the clarity of his exposition.

I also see him compared to Carl Sagan, which seems relatively apt given that both were gifted popularizers who could make difficult concepts accessible. For the book and TV series, Cox was able to travel to exotic locations around the globe to make his points, going to the Valley of the Kings, for example, to talk about celestial alignments and ancient concepts of the heavens, or to the Bagmati River in Nepal, where he sees the funeral pyres that line its banks and discusses the Hindu beliefs about the recycling of the elements, a line of thought that will lead him on to examine the death of stars and the explosive birth of new elements.

The photographs and diagrams truly carry this book, but Cox gets across the wonder of what he does for a living, as he does here in a bit once again reminiscent of Sagan (in Pale Blue Dot):

Our story is the story of the Universe. Every piece of every one and every thing you love, of every thing you hate, of every thing you hold precious, was assembled in the first few minutes of the life of the Universe, and transformed in the hearts of stars or created in their fiery deaths. When you die those pieces will be returned to the Universe in the endless cycle of death and rebirth. What a wonderful thing to be a part of that universe – and what a story. What a majestic story!

All of this in large print on the side of a double-page spread showing an artist’s conception of a supernova that blazes out in fantastic wraiths of color. This kind of thing makes for good TV and it’s solidly expressed in the text, which offers a crash course on our latest discoveries in the cosmos even as it sketches in the historical contributions that have gotten us to our current understanding. I would aim this book at the student who has already decided he or she is interested in the heavens and wants to learn more. Reading through Cox’s description of entropy — as he walks the sands of the Namibian desert and uses the ruined structures of old settlements to explain it — connects theory with the palpable world in ways that can reach young minds.

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  • ad December 14, 2011, 16:05

    “A new kind of aerospace industry based on minimum-cost production methods — this is what you get by posting multi-billion dollar prizes of fixed amount for breakthrough space accomplishments”

    Worked with John Harrison: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Harrison

    And I seem to recall that Bartolomeu Dias was paid per mile of coast discovered: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bartolomeu_Dias

  • Aleksandar December 14, 2011, 16:34

    Paul, it seems to me that it would be tough to motivate youngsters to go into the science / tech for a career, when they can see a practical demonstration every day that exactly those professions are under-valued and under paid. Look no further than the example given in the text about factory overhead. The real workers work and see that they’re paid less than accounting. That must kill enthusiasm fast.

    And, it seems (to me at least) that over-simplifying things can be detrimental too. When I was growing up, it was partly the lack of animations and glossy books that forced me to activate my brain and visualize things for myself. If everything is handed out… I don’t know how helpful that can be. We risk adopting the media hype and culture in science along with its popularization. On a different note, superb visualizations have a way of imprinting in our mind, which can be detrimental if we want to actually innovate. What if that superb movie clip is wrong, but subconsciously we find it so appealing that we hesitate in critically examining the assumptions it makes?

  • Paul Gilster December 14, 2011, 16:45

    I share your concerns, Aleksandar, but wonder about the best way to cultivate young kids in early high school and get them energized about these subjects. Over-simplifying does worry me and I confess I don’t know the answer here, though perhaps some young people are more amenable to particular kinds of presentations than others. These are thorny issues and I wish I could see a clear way to excite a new generation in the challenges of deep space. In the meantime, I keep looking for possibilities.

  • Aleksandar December 14, 2011, 18:00

    I would say the way to go is with another Apollo – style grand project and using the spinoffs from it. But, tell it like it is, without too much embellishing (adapted to younger minds) and plenty of hands-on exercises.

  • A. A. Jackson December 14, 2011, 21:58

    It is still a mystery to how I became a physicist. No one on my paternal side or maternal side were scientists. None of my three kids had it rub off on them, tho my oldest son did go into the computer Games industry and is a manager now, my daughter is a manager of a Web Page development for a company, my youngest son, who became an avid science fiction reader went into international relations. I did not push science on them but did expose them to as much of it as I could , and they are literate in it.
    I can remember crossing some threshold when I was 12 and von Braun and Chesley Bonestell poleaxed me with the Colliers series… when I ran out of that , by luck I discovered Robert Heinlein. Heinlein’s so called ‘juvies’ are things of wonder still….. they contained the masters touch of a born story teller and I soon realized most all the science in those novels was the real thing, and as a reader you lived in it.
    That led me to reading all the SF I could get my hands on.
    Turned out I had an ability with algebra , even tho I am not a math wiz, I was good enough to gain all the way to a PhD in physics with it.

    Let me mention some books that influenced me that I don’t hear a lot about.
    For some reason I picked up a book by Guy Murchie Music of the Spheres (1961) , when I was about 22, that I found a magical transport. Murchie was a journalist and a self taught expositor of science. This book and Song of the Sky (1954) and The Seven Mysteries of Life (1978) are magical and beautifully poetic riffs on atmospheric physics, astronomy and biology. He was one of the most lyrical science writers I have ever found.

    Loren Eiseley is better known, again I don’t know how I discovered him early in my university days. I don’t know another professional anthropologist who wrote language with such a much elegance and beauty as him. Any of his books are a delight , but a must read is The Star Thrower (1978).

    For those who have never discovered him I recommend Jean Henri Fabre, a Frenchman of many professions, but mainly as an entomologist. He has a vast set of writings about insects. His beautifully written passages about all kinds of insects will make you almost go out on the street to grab someone by the collar and say “here! look at these words!”

  • Istvan December 15, 2011, 2:10

    Ultimately, I think that we enthusiasts have to go to great lengths to engender a sense in our culture that space of necessity must be the future of humanity. It is presently far too easy for that message to be lost in all the humanitarian needs or political demands of other “special interest groups”. Education is a key to that – an insufficient proportion of citizens, even of our modern, technological societies, is adequately educated in science such that the arguments as to why space is important are actually clear and unequivocal to them.

    As long as that is the case, the message will be drowned out. Thus, I think the problem is long-term, and twofold. Not only do we need to convey that space is fascinating, exciting, and important, but we have to support that with a backbone of scientific, mathematical, and technical literacy which unfortunately will take generations to instill in our societies. Science, math, and tech are all still seen as specialties, and as a result, we still have very large numbers of people who consult astrologers, cheerfully play the lottery, and can’t troubleshoot their own computer hardware.

    Perhaps foolishly, I’ve deliberately made the problem of inspiring kids to be interested in math, science, and space in particular into a professional problem for myself. I’m a space enthusiast, but also a professional game developer. I recently decided that one way to channel my tremendous personal frustrations about poor science education and a lack of public interest in space exploration is to found a small company specifically to make scientifically literate games that focus on space. Requiring some semblance of scientific literacy in one’s products goes against the grain of the profitable games industry, to be sure, but I’m hoping a niche can be established for a small company to sustain itself.

    Just as the Star Trek and Star Wars entertainment franchises each had the power to inspire generations of kids to think optimistically about space and the underlying science (I was one myself), I think that games, being a powerful and widespread medium popular with the current generation, can similarly be harnessed, not just by my start-up, but also by others with a similar agenda.

    My little candle isn’t very bright, being a very recent start-up, but I realized I was spending a great deal of my time cursing at the darkness.

  • ljk December 15, 2011, 18:07

    I just saw this relevant item on PBS earlier this week:

    http://www.journeyoftheuniverse.org/

  • Rob Henry December 15, 2011, 23:34

    Istvan, I agree with the thrust of all you say, yet I have powerful reasons for quibble.

    To spend excessive amounts on the lottery is indeed wrong, but to those who reason it sensible to sustain the minimal possible costs while still engaging in the lottery have, from our perspective (ie those who have “Centauri dreams”), got it right. Let me explain.

    Some think that we must be able to demonstrate immediate benefit to any cost. Others include the potential of the far future, and to do so we must be capable as a species of dreaming grand thoughts. A minimal joint investment of a group of friends in a single lottery ticket gives them the chance to dream, and so to delight in such contingency plans that have a value to such people in as of itself.

    These are exactly the group we must reach.