Aliens on Mars Again – Yawn

Aliens on MarsThere is another aliens on Mars story making the rounds and I wanted to examine it very quickly. I’ve spoken about this sort of nonsense before but there are two instructive things about this article that caught my attention.

This story is in the Examiner and therefore is pretty easily dismissed, as that sort of news outlet often posts silliness. What I find interesting about this story is that the headline talks about “hard evidence” and the person who wrote the story has a financial stake in people believing in aliens. Both of these things are big red flags when reading a story and I thought, because they are so obvious here, that I’d talk about a little practice you can use when reading or watching the new.

Many news stories from more reputable sources than the Examiner also violate these rules and getting used to spotting things of this nature will keep you from falling prey to the deception.

When a story uses a term like “hard evidence” or any other absolute sort of declaration; be aware. The world is generally a rather gray and muddled place. Political ideologies are not all good or all bad. Just like your crazy Uncle Lou and your sweet Aunt Mary are not all good or all bad. Whenever I read an article that declares absolutes when talking about debatable topics my nonsense radar immediately goes up. Often when I read a story like this from a source better than the Examiner such caution has served me well. When I note something of this nature I immediately start to look for corroborating stories in other places. Often this leads me to find out the original story is filled with misinformation.

When I got to the byline of the story I found the name Michael E. Salla, Ph.D. and it took me only a single search to learn that he has published a number of books and has an entirely made-up philosophy about “exopolitics”. It deals with the idea that world governments are secretly managing the presence of aliens, a vast conspiracy as it were. He has a school, a website (built completely with tables and in desperate need of a WordPress migration), and clearly has a financial stake in people believing in aliens.

This is a huge red flag. When someone writing or reporting on a story has a financial stake in the message being delivered it is highly likely that the message itself is corrupted and probably filled with deceitful information.

That’s the lesson. When you read or watch a story on the news take a few moments to think about the terms being used and the people delivering the story. Look more deeply into the matter, particularly if the ideas are ones with which you are sympathetic.

At some point we have to stop blaming “the media” for “fooling” people and take personally responsibility for allowing ourselves to be fooled. If you are convinced that all Liberals are being fooled by CNN or all Conservatives are being fooled by FOX then it is likely you are the one being foolish.

Tom Liberman
Sword and Sorcery fantasy with a Libertarian Ideology
Current Release: The Broken Throne
Next Release: The Black Sphere

A Glint of Light Equals Aliens … Why?

Mars speck of lightThere’s a news story making the rounds which I’ve been ignoring because I didn’t think I had anything interesting to add to the conversation. I’ve changed my mind.

About a week ago Curiosity took a picture on Mars in which there is a glint of light on the horizon. A picture taken a day later from the same position did not show the glint. There are a number of explanations as to what caused the glint but I’m not going to talk about the rational explanations. Nor am I going to spend much time talking about the theories that it represents aliens living underground on Mars who somehow caused the anomaly.

I want to talk about why anyone would think that a speck of a light in a picture taken on Mars might be evidence of alien life. Not whether or not the light is or isn’t such evidence, but why anyone would think that it was such proof.

Mars is a barren world with barely any atmosphere. We’ve landed any number of vessels on the planet itself and spaceships with high-resolution cameras are constantly orbiting Mars taking pictures. We first sent a robotic ship by Mars in 1965.

Earth bound telescopes have been trained on Mars since 1672 and have only gotten sharper in resolution and more available to amateurs. Radiation bombards the planet relentlessly. Water is likely present but only deep below the surface. There are no signs of a civilization on the surface, no signs of animals or plants, no chemical signatures indicating living creatures.

So why, why would anyone think that a glint of light in one picture is anything other than sunlight bouncing off a shiny rock? Or an illusion of photography? Anyone who has taken a picture with a camera on earth knows that light is a tricky fellow.

When you go to the store and a somethings inexplicably falls off a shelf nearby do you assume that it was Bigfoot lurking in the next aisle using telekinetic powers to alert you of an upcoming Supervolcanic eruption? Or do you shrug your shoulders and assume that something was perched precariously and a small vibration sent it to the ground?

What is the psychological makeup of someone who immediately leaps to the most unlikely explanation? What are they thinking? Are they thinking at all?

That’s my question. I don’t know that I have a good answer. I know that my mind always looks for the most logical explanation to any event and a thriving community of intelligent creatures living beneath the surface of Mars and pointing their flashy lights at the rover would never, ever, have crossed my mind when I saw that picture.

That being said, I think this sort of thinking is not unusual. Everyday I read about or actually experience someone who believes absolutely unlikely things in lieu of a very reasonable explanation.

I’m of the opinion that people largely believe what they want to believe over factual evidence. If a person wants there to be Martians then that person is going to grasp at every ridiculous explanation to believe Martians exist.

I ask you an important question: What would the world be like if people only believed what the evidenced suggested and threw out their preconceived notions?

It’s a world I dream about. It’s a world that I believe can exist. I’m certain people are capable of thinking rationally all the time. Of making decisions based on factual evidence.

I see a world like this in our future. When disease is eradicated, energy is abundant and cheap, the population static with food for all. Automated machines doing the work people don’t want to do. Free people living eternal lives dedicated to achievement.

The novels I write are about a Sword and Sorcery fantasy world but there are characters in that world seeking the same thing I’m seeking in this one. There are those that thwart them. You should read my books and maybe you’ll see that same world I see in my mind’s eye. That endless Utopia where humans stand astride the galaxy always striving to be better, ever better.

Do you want to live in that world?

Tom Liberman
Sword and Sorcery fantasy with a Libertarian Ideology
Current Release: The Broken Throne
Next Release: The Black Sphere


SLS Boeing Rocket – On Budget Ahead of Schedule

Space Launch SystemThere was a small story in the space section of the science category of NBC News the other day and it caught my attention. I thought about it and then came back to write this post and had to search long and hard before finding it again, it was buried deep. This generally means it didn’t garner much interest in the news community. Well, I noticed.

SLS stands for Space Launch System and it is a large rocket that will likely be used for the manned mission to Mars and other programs that will require a big launch vehicle. Ahead of schedule and on budget. I’ll repeat, ahead of schedule and on budget. How did this happen? Let’s find out!

Before I start I’m going to have to give a small disclaimer. Boeing has a major presence here in St. Louis and some of my best friends work as engineers there. I’m proud of Boeing and my friends although I don’t think any of them work on this project.

The story starts back in January of 2004 when President Bush announced the Vision for Space Exploration. Part of this plan was something called Project Constellation which included the Orion Mars Mission. President Bush vaguely outlined a series of lofty goals for the programs in question. Plans were started, studies were made, money was spent, lots of money. Eventually it was largely cancelled after limited progress was made because of the vague goals and reliance on unsolved technical and design challenges. The plans largely called for technology that someone hoped that someone else would figure out.

This is important. I’m not saying President Bush was wrong to dream big. Dreaming big is a good thing. However, it is vitally important to understand that you don’t achieve your dreams by dreaming more. You achieve your dreams by making a practical analysis of the obstacles and coming up with real solutions. The Bush administration failed this test badly. I think this is symptomatic of possibly the largest problem we face in the United States. Somewhere along the line the lesson has become Dream Big and don’t worry about the small stuff. Well, the small stuff is what makes the boom. Dreams won’t come true if you don’t make a realistic analysis of the steps necessary to achieve them.

I’m reminded of the likely apocryphal story of the World War II era German engineers sent to the Eastern Front to quiz the tank commanders on what they wanted in a tank. In the story a commander takes the engineers out back and shows them a Russian T-34, ‘that’, he says.  The engineers scoff saying they can do much better. While almost certainly not a true story the moral applies. We too often ask for a weapon system that relies on technology that does not yet exist. This leads to huge delays, cost overruns, and out-right cancellations. Look up the F-35 and VH-71 Kestrel as examples.

All right, enough of failure. Why is the SLS doing so well? Here’s why. It was designed using existing technology with upgrade “block” versions that will be able to lift increasingly heavy loads. This is important. They decided to start with something they knew could be done and, as progress was made, scale it up for larger payloads. No dreams there. Existing technology and know-how. A realistic plan. Goals analyzed and obstacles understood. Too many projects are built on dreams and that’s a problem. I see it everywhere and I’d bet that many of my readers out there have a story or two to tell about some great idea that consumed time, money, and effort but failed because people didn’t make a practical plan.

Now, there are critics of SLS because it uses Space Shuttle technology and for several other reasons as well. There is a long way to go before we see if the SLS delivers on its promise or not.

The reality is that right now the project is ahead of schedule and on budget. That’s a good thing. Hooray Boeing!

Tom Liberman
Sword and Sorcery with a Libertarian Twist
Current Release: The Sword of Water (buy it, read it, write a review!)
Next Release: The Spear of the Hunt

Space Exploration Man versus Robots

Space ExplorationOne of the major debates about space exploration is the idea of putting people in space versus the idea of focusing on robotic exploration. It’s an argument that brings out a lot of nerd rage and I aim to take it head-on today. I’m bracing for some backlash!

I’ll tell you my position up front and avoid any suspense. I’m not a proponent of manned exploration. I think money is better spent on robotic exploration.

Now let’s take a critical look at both types of exploration and their advantages and disadvantages. Oh, and for the politically correct crowd, when I reference manned versus unmanned I’m talking about people, men and women.

Manned Exploration

The biggest advantage of sending people into space involves their ability to react to an unknown situation in a way that a computer cannot, at least cannot yet. The argument runs that if something were to go wrong that people would be able to fix it on-the-fly as it were. My rational against this idea is that at the speed events are happening humans largely cannot react fast enough, the space shuttle disasters being examples of this. The counter-argument is Apollo 13 where men were able to find a solution to a problem and fix it. My argument against that would be that there never would have been a problem if men weren’t aboard Apollo 13 in the first place. The systems involved to transport people are more complex than those used to transport machines. Oxygen catches on fire. Robots don’t need oxygen.

The second big reason you hear to promote manned missions is that if we as a race are to eventually colonize the moon and Mars we must learn how to live in a deep-space environment. This is a reasonable argument but I think there is plenty of time to test those complications out after we send in the robots to explore and prepare the way for manned missions.

Unmanned Exploration

The advantages here are many. The cost of sending robots into space is far less than sending people. The complexity of sending robots is far less than for sending people. One of the major obstacles for sending people into space is that they must have food and water. The biggest job the shuttles to the Space Station have is sending up food and taking back waste. Believe it or not, human waste is a major problem in space.

Another huge advantage of sending robots is their durability. Rovers on the moon and Mars can operate for years in the open. While it is true men would be able to drive the rover far more quickly from place to place, they are heavily restricted by radiation concerns. Shielding is a major issue for a journey to Mars or an extended stay on the moon. Men must stay in shelters a great deal of the time and prolonged exposure to radiation is a major problem for which there are not really good solutions as of yet.

To my mind the entire International Space Station idea has been a terrible waste of time and resources for the United States and the world. It is locked in low earth orbit. The total cost of the ISS is calculated at $150 billion dollars which includes shuttle flights and components provided by other nations. For that $150 billion we’ve gotten exactly what? We’ve learned about how deep space affects the human body, something we don’t need to know if we only send robotic missions. I’m not sure what else we’ve learned? It’s a long article with many links and I’m sure a proponents of Manned Missions can fill me in!

Meanwhile our robotic exploration continues to provide actionable information about planetary bodies, meteors, the sun, and other useful things that will help us eventually exploit the solar system.

I’m not completely opposed to manned exploration, I just think our resources return much more value when spent on robotic exploration. Curiosity cost about $2.5 billion although operational costs will continue (at a far cheaper rate than the ISS) to rise. Opportunity continues to provide useful information eight years after it landed and the twin rovers (Spirit conked out) total cost to date is about $1 billion.

The manned moon missions, while certainly romantic, brought us back a bunch of rocks of little value. If we put people on Mars or establish a station on the moon what is our goal? Just to do it? That’s noble but I’m all about practical when it comes to spending my tax dollars. I’m a huge proponent of space exploration and I’d keep my support if manned missions to Mars continue apace, I’d just rather see all that money spent on robotic exploration. Robotic science is in its infancy and the ability of these tools to explore space, deep-sea, underground environments far exceeds those of men.

Don’t hesitate to tell me I’m an idiot in the comments!

Tom Liberman

Life on Mars – Curiosity and Religious Spirituality

Curiosity RoverFor my fellow science and space geeks; on the evening of August 5/6 a special event occurs as NASA’s newest rover, Curiosity, attempts to land safely on Mars. It is an extremely heavy rover and the landing is going to be complex. Watch this video and you will be spellbound!

What I want to talk about today is not the astonishing engineering involved nor the budgetary crisis that is affecting NASA at the moment. Both fodder for future blogs but the topic for today is the spiritual effect of finding microbial life on Mars.

There is a lot of speculation in the atheist community, the scientific community, and the religious community on the spiritual impact of such a discovery. In particular this affects biblical literalists. This becomes an issue when dealing with the story of creation. Essentially, there is no mention of god creating life anywhere except on Earth.

Man is given dominion over earth and all its beasts but nothing is mentioned of dominion over Mars and its animals.

I don’t really see this as an issue for those of a faith-based thinking mentality. It will come as no surprise to me that they simply reinterpret the bible to accommodate for new scientific discoveries. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time.

That is one of the beauties of Faith Based Thinking, its incredible flexibility. It really doesn’t matter what anyone says, what the facts are, it is completely up to the believer to determine what they want to believe. It stands in stark contrast to Critical Thinking.

One good example of this, at least as far as the topic at-hand is concerned, is the planet Mars itself. It is nearby to earth (relatively speaking) and has been the subject of speculation since ancient times. Prior to 1965 there was a great deal of thought, both private and scientific, that Mars was home to life. This was based on the changing colors of the surface, the so-called canals, and in no small part to speculative fiction. In 1965 Mariner 4 visited the red planet and dispelled all these illusions. That is science, look at the evidence at hand and make a reasoned hypothesis. When the evidence changes then move on to new theories.

Faith based thinkers threatened Galileo with torture for his support of Copernicanism and the theory of heliocentrism. But, when indisputable facts arose they were able to nimbly change their biblical interpretations. I think we are all generally critical thinkers. When it comes to certain religious ideas people are extremely reluctant and even violently opposed to facts that might oppose those theories.

Therefore, I’m of the opinion that finding life on Mars will not be a threat to those of Judeo/Christian/Islamic beliefs. I’d like to here from my religious readers, if there are any, about what effect the discovery of life would have on their beliefs. Particularly from Evangelicals or others who support biblical infallibility.

Meanwhile, I won’t be staying up until one in the morning to watch people “watching” the landing. I’ll wait until morning and hope for the best!

What effect do you think finding life on Mars would have on religious beliefs?

Tom Liberman
Sword and Sorcery fantasy with a Libertarian Twist
New Release: The Hammer of Fire