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Archive for the ‘Science & Technology’ Category


I’ve added a new page to this site, a version of a Toastmaster’s speech I will be giving in a few weeks. I’ve added a few speeches as pages, just because they are longer pieces, not really appropriate as posts.

The speech, my ninth with Toastmasters, concerns nuclear power, and is based on a fascinating film screened at Durham’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival this year.  The film, a documentary by noted director Robert Stone, makes a persuasive case that we need to embrace nuclear power.  When I saw this film at Full Frame, the audience reaction in the Q&A session afterwards was quite interesting, and I think the filmed changed some minds.  Maybe it will change your mind.

You can check out the trailer for this film, courtesy of YouTube.  Or check out my speech about it, which doesn’t include a video!

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Image of Major Matt Mason toy

Photo of the Mattel’s classic Major Matt Mason toy, courtesy of
Keith Royson’s site.

When I was a kid in the sixties, Mattel™ introduced a new action toy to take advantage of interest in the Apollo missions to the space, and eventual landing on the moon.  Major Matt Mason was an astronaut action figure, who lived and worked on the moon.  I spent many a Saturday afternoon playing with Major Mason, sending him off on daring space journeys.  Being an astronaut was cool, and as far as I was concerned at seven years old, space was the place!  Someday we’d all be traveling, if not living, there.  Of course, I never would have made it past the entrance physical to become an astronaut,

But I’ve held on to my fascination with space, living out my fantasy from the safety of my living room armchair.  In the last few years I’ve read a few books on space travel.  My conclusion:  Astronauts went to the moon, so you don’t have to.   I suppose there’s nothing wrong with a filthy-rich bastard like Richard Branson or Larry Ellison blowing money going into space; as for me, if I were that wealthy, I could find better, safer ways to spend my money.

My Major Matt Mason toy is long gone, his space-suit sheathed arm, abused from too much twisting, fractured, thus revealing the bendable wire that was his skeleton.  Of course, had he been a real astronaut, a tear in his suit would have meant almost certain death, and, since I had lost his helmet, he was a goner long before the space suit accident.  But a torn space suit is just one of many ways to die in space; it is amazing our space services have had as few accidents as they have had.  Trust me, space travel is just not worth it.  Maybe you can afford to travel to space, but wouldn’t you prefer to just buy a fancy boat like Paul Allen instead?

But if you need further convincing, here are  some great space books to add to that stack by your bedside:

  • Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach.  Hilarious examination of all the pitfalls and perils of getting ready for, and going into, outer space.  Her description of drinking her own recycled urine is enough to convince you that being an astronaut is just not that much fun.
  • Out of Orbit: The Incredible True Story of Three Astronauts Who Were Hundreds of Miles Above Earth When They Lost Their Ride Home by Chris Jones.  After the space shuttle Columbia  disintegrated in a fiery descent, spreading debris across Texas and Louisiana, three astronauts remained in orbit in the International Space Station, with no way to return to Earth.  This is the story of their rescue.
  • Apollo 13 by Jeffrey Kluger and James Lovell.  Formerly published under the title Lost Moon, this is the book that inspired the fantastic Ron Howard movie Apollo 13.  James Lovell tells a first-hand account of the failed Apollo mission to the moon, and the heroic engineering improvisation that made the astronauts safe return to Earth possible.  The gruesome possibility of the Apollo 13 craft becoming a macabre permanent satellite of the Earth haunts me.
  • Rocket Men: The Epic Story of the First Men on the Moon by Craig Nelson.  The story of Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin’s Apollo 11 moon landing, arguably the zenith of American space travel successes.  Yet, while the story is a heroic victory for American ingenuity, it could easily have been a disaster.  Were you aware that Armstrong almost ran out of fuel trying to find a safe place to land the lunar lander?  Had he been unable to find a safe spot, Apollo 11 would be remembered as a tragedy, not the iconic moment in American post-war history that we know it as today.

Read on…

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The PRRC perspective sketch design of Pasig Ri...

A vision of the City of the Future. Image via Wikipedia

On the way back from my daughter’s YMCA basketball practice, from the back of her car she said “Can I watch the video of my basketball on your phone now?” It struck me that when I was her age, or even when I was 5 times her age, a question like that was pure science fiction. A video, meaning a full-motion recording of an event, available to view less than 5 minutes after the event, on a phone, a mobile phone with more computing power than any of the Apollo astronauts had at their disposal. We live in an amazing time.

My wife an I just purchased iPhone 4s phones for Christmas, moving our family into the twenty-first century phones technology. My old phone, a pay-as-you-go Virgin mobile cheap phone made by Kyocera, was perfectly adequate for most of my cell phone needs. But the iPhone isn’t really about its functionality as a phone. My wife has noted that the iPhone is a better camera than her camera. I have a good camera, but the fun iPhone-ography tools available, like Hipstamatic and Lo-Mob, make it a really fun way to take pictures. Plus, I always forget to bring my camera along, but not my phone. There is so much more to an iPhone, it is truly something out of vintage Heinlein, or Clarke. Read on…

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Sharon Christa McAuliffe received a preview of...

Christa McAuliffe in Space; Image via Wikipedia

Twenty-five years ago today, I was student teaching at Santa Cruz High in Santa Cruz, California.  Across the nation, schoolchildren sat glued to television sets in their classrooms, prepared for a short break from the usual curriculum, to watch Christa McAuliffe fly past the stratosphere. I was teaching algebra and, as I recall, there was an audible roar in the halls when students, watching the liftoff live, gasped in horror.  As my class was starting, the campus was abuzz.   Christa McAuliffe was NASA’s first choice to fly as part of the Teacher in Space Project, a program encouraged by Ronald Reagan to inspire kids to study science.

As students filed into my class, they had just seen the shuttle explode, and were literally in shock.  The administration closed the school for the day and sent everyone home.  Kids were in tears, and I was somewhat in shock.

I don’t know that my students learned anything from me, on that day or any other, while I was a student teacher; I mainly learned that I probably should not become a teacher.  But looking back on it, I wonder what lessons there were for students that day?  Since then I’ve become a fan of Henry Petroski‘s writing, and believe in his idea that failure inspires invention.  What did those kids learn from the Challenger explosion?  Did they learn something about human fallibility?  Did they learn how important testing was?  Did they learn something about risk?  I was too young to teach the students those lessons then, but I hope that some of them have, upon reflection, learned something from that sad day.

How about you?  Where were you when the Challenger exploded, and how did it affect you?  I’d love to learn where you were twenty-five years ago today.

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Riding on Air


A friend posted a cool link about compressed air cars, developed by Frenchman Guy Negre.  A simple, ingenious, revolutionary idea.  Basically, those toy cars and boats we had as kids powered by balloons work on the same principle, but here is an innovator that never let go of that simple, childish idea.  Fantastique!

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Sun in a Bottle cover image

Sun in a Bottle cover image

When I was young, I enjoyed reading articles about atomic fusion power and the world of tomorrow in National Geographic, Popular Science, and other gee-whiz magazines popular with middle school geeks.  This was before Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, when nuclear power was still sort of cool, the wave of the future.

In these techno-topian visions, nuclear fusion would one day give the world unlimited power for pennies per kilowatt.  Scientists would harness the power of the sun here on Earth, giving us practically free energy.  We’d have flying cars, with mini-nuclear power plants, and space travel for Everyman was just around the corner.

Fusion power always seemed so promising.  The mythical attraction of fusion was closely tied to our American ideals and ambitions.  Capturing the power of the sun surely was within reach of the most powerful, wealthiest, God-loving country on Earth.  The manifest destiny of the nuclear age was fusion, our divinely inspired right to free power, untouched, and untouchable, by foreign  hands.

But  decades later and with billions of public monies spent,  nuclear fusion remains perpetually on the drawing board.  In their optimism, the true believers who convinced  Congress and the public to pour money into the fusion quest underestimated the scope and difficulty of  harnessing fusion for peaceful  means.  Charles Seife’s Sun In a Bottle: The Strange History of Fusion and the Science of Wishful Thinking. (isbn: 0670020338)  follows the story of the quest for fusion power, from the bombing of Hiroshima, to the 1989 cold fusion debacle.

(more…)

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