March for Science on Earth Day to Resist Trump’s War on Facts

ENVIRONMENT
Drastic cuts to science-based agencies like the EPA are galvanizing scientists worldwide.

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) workers and supporters protest job cuts during rally in Chicago, Illinois, March 2, 2017.
Photo Credit: John Gress Media Inc/Shutterstock

Science isn’t everything. But it is crucial to governing, decision-making, protecting human health and the environment and resolving questions and challenges around our existence.

Those determined to advance industrial interests over all else often attack science. We’ve seen it in Canada, with a decade of cuts to research funding and scientific programs, muzzling of government scientists and rejection of evidence regarding issues such as climate change.

We’re seeing worse in the United States. The new administration is proposing drastic cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency, National Institutes of Health, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NASA and others. Information about climate change and environmental protection is being scrubbed from government websites, and scientists are being muzzled. Meanwhile, the government is increasing spending on military and nuclear weapons programs.

There’s nothing wrong with challenging research, developing competing hypotheses and looking for flaws in studies. That’s how science works. But rejecting, eliminating, covering up or attacking evidence that might call into question government or industry priorities — evidence that might show how those priorities could lead to widespread harm — is unconscionable. It’s galling to me because I traded a scientific career for full-time communication work because good scientific information helps people make the best decisions to take us into the future.

Many scientists prefer to work quietly, letting their research speak for itself. But recent attacks are galvanizing scientists and supporters throughout the U.S. and elsewhere. The March for Science on Earth Day, April 22, has been building steam for months. The main march will take place in Washington, D.C., but more than 425 marches are planned around the world. That kicks off a week of action, culminating in the People’s Climate March on April 29, also focused on Washington but with satellite marches throughout the world.

The March for Science website says organizers are “advocating for evidence-based policymaking, science education, research funding, and inclusive and accessible science.”

The group’s 850,000-member Facebook page is inspiring, with “advocates, science educators, scientists, and concerned citizens” sharing personal testimonials about their reasons for marching and why science is important to them, along with ideas for posters and slogans, questions about the march, articles about science and exposés of climate disinformation sent to schools and science teachers by the anti-science Heartland Institute.

March participants are a wide-ranging group, from a neuroscientist who is marching “for the thousands of people suffering from spinal cord injury” to sci-fi fans who are marching “Because you can’t have science fiction without science!” to a scientist marching to honour “the many, many women and young girls interested or involved in science” to those marching “because we know climate change is real.”

Celebrating and advocating for science is a good way to mark Earth Day. I’ll be in Ottawa, where a march is also taking place. David Suzuki Foundation senior editor Ian Hanington and I will launch our new book, Just Cool It!, at an Ottawa Writers Festival event that also features Nishnaabeg musician, scholar and writer Leanne Betasamosake Simpson.

Climate change is one area where anti-science rhetoric and actions at the highest levels of society are endangering human health and survival. Our book is a comprehensive look at the history and implications of climate science, the barriers to confronting the crisis and the many solutions required to resolve it.

It’s discouraging to witness the current attacks on science, and the ever-increasing consequences of climate change, diminishing ocean health and other human-caused problems, but seeing so many people standing up for science and humanity is reason for optimism. Of all the many solutions to global warming and other environmental problems, none is as powerful as people getting together to demand change.

Every day should be Earth Day, but it’s good to have a special day to remind us of the importance of protecting the air, water, soil and biodiversity that we all depend on for health and survival. Politicians are supposed to work for the long-term well-being of people who elect them, not to advance the often short-sighted agendas of those who pay large sums of money to get their way regardless of the consequences. Standing together to make ourselves heard is one of the best ways to ensure they fulfill their responsibilities.

This article was originally published by the David Suzuki Foundation.

A Last Chance for Resistance

Posted on Mar 19, 2017

By Chris Hedges

  President Trump exits Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base on Sunday, following a weekend trip to Florida. (Jose Luis Magana / AP)

The crawl toward despotism within a failed democracy is always incremental. No regime planning to utterly extinguish civil liberties advertises its intentions in advance. It pays lip service to liberty and justice while obliterating the institutions and laws that make them possible. Its opponents, including those within the establishment, make sporadic attempts to resist, but week by week, month by month, the despot and his reactionary allies methodically consolidate power. Those inside the machinery of government and the courts who assert the rule of law are purged. Critics, including the press, are attacked, ridiculed and silenced. The state is reconfigured until the edifice of tyranny is unassailable.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn in “The Gulag Archipelago” noted that the consolidation of Soviet tyranny “was stretched out over many years because it was of primary importance that it be stealthy and unnoticed.” He called the process “a grandiose silent game of solitaire, whose rules were totally incomprehensible to its contemporaries, and whose outlines we can appreciate only now.”

Czeslaw Milosz in “The Captive Mind” also chronicles the incremental expansion of tyranny, noting that it steadily progresses until intellectuals are not only forced to repeat the regime’s self-praising slogans but to advance its absurdist dogmas. Few ever see the tyranny coming. Those who do and speak out are treated by the authorities, and often the wider society, as alarmists or traitors.

The current administration’s budget proposes to give the war industry, the domestic policing agencies, the fossil fuel industry, Wall Street, billionaires and the national security and surveillance agencies more than they could have imagined possible before the election. These forces, as in all fascist states, will be the pillars of the Trump regime. They will tolerate Donald Trump’s idiocy, ineptitude and unbridled narcissism in exchange for increased profits and power. Despots are often buffoons. Appealing to their vanity and ego is an effective form of manipulation. Skilled sycophants can play despots like musical instruments for personal advancement.

Trump, like all despots, has no real ideology. His crusade against Wall Street, including Goldman Sachs, and the billionaire class during the presidential election campaign vanished the moment he took office. He has appointed five former Goldman Sachs employees to high posts in his administration. His budget will bleed the poor, the working class and the middle class and swell the bank accounts of the oligarchs. He is calling for abolishing the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the National Endowment for the Arts and the cutting of programs that provide legal service to low-income people and grants to libraries and museums. If Trump’s budget is approved by Congress, there will not even be a pretense of civil society. Trump and his family will profit from his presidency. Corporations will profit from his presidency. Wall Street will profit from his presidency. And the people will be made to pay.

Despots demand absolute loyalty. This is why they place family members in the inner circles. The Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, whose vanity rivaled that of Trump, and Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein filled their governments with their children, siblings, nephews, nieces and in-laws and rounded out their inner courts with racists, opportunists and thugs of the kind that now populate the White House.

“President Trump’s point man on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations is a longtime Trump Organization lawyer with no government or diplomatic experience,” reads the opening paragraph of a New York Times article headlined “Prerequisite for Key White House Posts: Loyalty, Not Experience.” “His liaison to African-American leaders is a former reality-TV villain with a penchant for résumé inflation. And his Oval Office gatekeeper is a bullet-headed former New York City cop best known for smacking a protester on the head.”

Despots distrust diplomats. Diplomats, often multilingual and conversant with other cultures and societies, deal in nuances and ambiguities that are beyond the grasp of the despot. Diplomats understand that other nations have legitimate national interests that inevitably clash with the interests of one’s own country. They do not embrace force as the primary language of communication. They are trained to carry out negotiations, even with the enemy, and engage in compromise. Despots, however, live in a binary universe of their own creation. They rapidly dismantle the diplomatic corps when they take power for the same reason they attack intellectuals and artists.

Trump’s proposed cut of nearly 29 percent to the State Department’s budget, potentially eliminating thousands of jobs, is part of the shift away from diplomacy to an exclusive reliance on violence or the threat of violence. The militarization of the diplomatic corps, with the Central Intelligence Agency and military intelligence operatives often taking over embassies, especially in conflict zones, began long before Trump took office. But Trump will deal the coup de grâce to the diplomatic corps. Despots replace diplomats with sycophants with no diplomatic experience, such as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who promise to impose the despot’s will on the rest of the world.

The dismantling of a diplomatic corps has dangerous consequences. It leaves a country blind and prone to wars and conflicts that could be avoided. Leon Trotsky called Josef Stalin’s foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, who negotiated the disastrous 1939 Nazi-Soviet nonaggression pact that left the Soviet Union unprepared for German invasion, “mediocrity personified.” The other signatory of the pact, Joachim von Ribbentrop, was a former champagne salesman. Ribbentrop, as Molotov did with Stalin, parroted back to Adolf Hitler the leader’s conspiratorial worldview. Ribbentrop, again like Molotov with Stalin, knew that Hitler always favored the most extreme option. Molotov and Ribbentrop unfailingly advocated radical and violent solutions to any problem, endearing themselves to their bosses as men of unflinching resolve. This is what makes Steve Bannon so appealing to Trump—he will always call for Armageddon.

There are three institutions tasked in a functioning democracy with protecting the truth and keeping national discourse rooted in verifiable fact—the courts, the press and universities. Despots must control these three to prevent them from exposing their lies and restricting their power. Trump has not only attacked the courts but has also begun purges of the judiciary with his mass firing of U.S. attorneys. The Trump White House plans to fill 124 judgeships—including 19 vacancies on federal appeals courts—with corporatist lawyers such as Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch who are endorsed by the reactionary Federalist Society. By the time Trump’s four-year term is up, Federalist Society judges could be in as many as half of the country’s appellate seats.

Trump has continued to attempt to discredit the press. During his rally in Nashville, Tenn., on Wednesday, he told the crowd, “Some of the fake news said I don’t think Donald Trump wants to build the wall. Can you imagine if I said we’re not going to build a wall? Fake news. Fake, fake news. Fake news, folks. A lot of fake.” He went on to say in an apparent reference to the reporters covering the rally, “They’re bad people.”

The attacks on universities, which will be accelerated, are on display in the budget proposal. The Department of Health and Human Services, the National Science Foundation, NASA, the Department of Education, the Commerce Department, the National Institutes of Health, the Energy Department and the Department of Veterans Affairs all give grants and research money to universities. Colorado State University, for example, gets about 70 percent, or $232 million, of its research budget from federal sources. In February, Trump suggested he might attempt to cut federal funding for universities such as UC Berkeley. His comment was made after a riot at the California school forced the cancellation of a speech there by the far-right ideologue Milo Yiannopoulos, who has called Trump “Daddy.” A university will of course be able to get corporate funding for research if it casts doubt on the importance of climate change or does research that can be used to swell corporate profits or promote other business interests. Scientific study into our ecocide and the dangers from chemicals, toxins and pollutants released by corporations into the atmosphere will be thwarted. And the withering of humanities programs, already suffering in many universities, will worsen.

It will be increasingly difficult to carry out mass protests and civil disobedience. Repression will become steadily more overt and severe. Dissent will be equated with terrorism. We must use the space before it is shut. This is a race against time. The forces of despotism seek to keep us complacent and pacified with the false hope that mechanisms within the system will moderate Trump or remove him through impeachment, or that the looming tyranny will never be actualized. There is an emotional incapacity among any population being herded toward despotism or war to grasp what is happening. The victims cannot believe that the descent into barbarity is real, that the relative security and sanity of the past are about to be obliterated. They fail to see that once rights become privileges, once any segment of a society is excluded from the law, rights can instantly be revoked for everyone.

There is a hierarchy to oppression. It begins with the most vulnerable—undocumented workers, Muslims, poor people of color. It works upward. It is a long row of candles that one by one are extinguished. If we wait to resist, as the poet C.P. Cavafy wrote, the “dark line gets longer” and “the snuffed-out candles proliferate.”

http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/a_last_chance_for_resistance_20170319

The wonders of Pluto revealed

NASA’s latest findings are a sight to behold

New Horizons fly-by captures dwarf planet’s haunting beauty and offers new clues of a possible sub-surface ocean

The wonders of Pluto revealed: NASA's latest findings are a sight to behold
This article was originally published by Scientific American.

Scientific AmericanLast July, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft flew by Pluto, the last unvisited world of the classical solar system. As the largest known member of the Kuiper belt, Pluto is also the gateway to a new frontier, a scarcely studied collection of primordial icy bodies far from the sun that constitutes the “third zone” of the solar system after the realms of the inner rocky planets and the outer gas giants.

Like most first glimpses of new frontiers, Pluto held so many surprises for New Horizons that the past eight months have seen a steady stream of discoveries coming from the mission, as the spacecraft’s small radio transmitter beams its gathered data back home. The biggest surprises have been Pluto’s surface and atmosphere, which are restlessly active and diverse despite average temperatures of only tens of degrees above absolute zero. Some scientists expected New Horizons would find Pluto to be little more than an inert, sunlight-starved orb. Instead, the spacecraft encountered a world where nitrogen glaciers flow down into plains of frozen methane from towering mountains of water ice. Sunless half-frozen oceans lurk deep beneath the surface, and multiple moons tumble overhead through hydrocarbon-hazed red skies that tinge to blue at sunrise and sunset.

But beyond celebrating the visceral thrill of the Pluto flyby itself, or the intellectual frisson of gazing on full-color close-ups of a place so alien and faraway, most of these discoveries from New Horizons have so far found a muted public reception. The story has simply been that we went to Pluto, and witnessed wonders. What those wonders actually mean—for our understanding of Pluto, for planetary evolution, and for the broad history of the solar system—is something that the mission scientists themselves are still working out. They summarize their latest thoughts in this week’s edition of the journal Science, with a quintet of papers that constitute the synthesis of our current understanding of Pluto.

Here are the three big-picture takeaways from our emerging portrait of this strange, frozen world:

1. PLUTO IS YOUNG AT HEART

New Horizons was only able to closely study one hemisphere of Pluto as it whizzed by, revealing a sprawling heart-shaped plain of mixed nitrogen, carbon monoxide and methane ices ringed by mountains and heavily cratered terrain. Dubbed Sputnik Planum, the 1,000-kilometer-wide western lobe of the heart looks almost bubbly, like a churning pot of creamy oatmeal or frothy foam on a pint of Guinness beer.

An 80-kilometer strip of Pluto’s surface, stretching from the crater-free northwest shoreline of Sputnik Planum on the right, through blocky mountains of water ice, into rugged, pitted icy plains on the left.
Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

Sputnik Planum has no craters, and is likely less than 10 million years old, probably formed from fresh snow and glaciers sliding down from nearby rugged highlands. Its bubbles are convection cells driven by heat rising through the thick ice from deep below. A small “mountain range” at Sputnik Planum’s northwestern edge is in fact blocks of water ice that seem to be bobbing in the higher-density ices like cubes in a glass. These blocks are perhaps crust fractured and overturned by some tectonic upheaval. To the south, New Horizons scientists have spied what seem to be two young cryovolcanoes, Wright Mons and Piccard Mons, relatively unblemished kilometers-high mounds surrounding central pits at least as deep.

Taken together, these features show that more than four billion years after its formation, Pluto still somehow retains enough internal heat to maintain an active geology and, here and there, a very youthful surface replenished by cryovolcanism and the seasonal sublimation and deposition of volatile ices. Deep within the world, Pluto’s heat could be sufficient to sustain an ocean of ammonia-rich water beneath a thick roof of water-ice bedrock. Long linear striations upon parts of Pluto’s surface hint that any subsurface ocean may be slowly freezing, deforming the ground and releasing additional latent heat as it turns to ice.

2. MOST OF ITS SURFACE IS STILL ANCIENT AND REALLY WEIRD

Sputnik Planum’s smooth-featured youth is exceptional. Most of the rest of Pluto’s exterior is far more craggy and ancient, altered extensively across hundreds of millions or billions of years. Varying mixtures and combinations of nitrogen, water, carbon monoxide and methane that make up Pluto’s crust create different varieties of ice and terrain, similar to how rocks on earth can form cliffs of soft chalk or mountains of hard granite. These varying substrates can then be textured with pits, grooves and channels produced by subliming ice, eroding glaciers and precipitating frost—effects driven by Pluto’s weather, which fluctuates in decades-long seasons.

Centered on Sputnik Planum, this partial geological map of Pluto reveals the diversity of terrain seen by NASA’s New Horizons mission during its flyby.
Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

The results are usually bizarre, and difficult to decipher. Northeast of Sputnik Planum, past stretches of pitted plains, the surface is wrinkled with closely spaced ridges that rise sharp and knife-like half a kilometer into the air. This “bladed terrain” may be vestiges of an old, once-buried layer of highly durable material exhumed and weathered by some combination of scouring ice, swirling winds and glaring sunlight. Or it may be newer, formed from airborne methane frost glazing rigid crests of water ice. What is clear is that Pluto’s landscape cannot be understood without also closely studying its weather—its atmosphere.

An intricate series of sharp, steep ice ridges form the distinctive “bladed terrain” of a region called Tartarus Dorsa, northeast of Sputnik Planum.
Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

New Horizons has revealed Pluto’s tenuous atmosphere of gaseous nitrogen and methane to be colder and more compact than previously thought, and layered with hazes of soot-like hydrocarbon particles produced by ultraviolet light and cosmic rays. The particles are reddish, but at sunrise and sunset when sunlight passes through the thickest hazes, they scatter the light to give Pluto’s sky a blue tint. The particles are also sticky, and grow like snowflakes over tens of thousands of years, until at last they become heavy enough to fall, accumulating as crimson sludge in the world’s most ancient terrains.

Silhouetted against the sun, Pluto’s atmosphere appears blue. The azure color comes from sunlight scattered by layers of soot-like hydrocarbon particles.
Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

The most primordial part of Pluto’s surface may be a hemisphere-spanning splash of red called Cthulhu Regio, a region so thoroughly pulverized by craters it is thought to be some four billion years old. Curiously, it is directly adjacent to the western edge of what could be Pluto’s youngest landform, the fresh, cream-colored ices of Sputnik Planum. Even Sputnik Planum, it turns out, has surprisingly ancient roots: Its youthful ice fills a deep basin that may be the oldest, largest impact crater still in existence on Pluto.

A close-up of the transition between the fresh, light-colored ice of Sputnik Planum and the dark, heavily cratered and ancient terrain of Cthulhu Regio.
Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

3. PLUTO’S MOONS ARE CHIPS OFF THE OLD BLOCK

Besides Cthulhu Regio, Pluto’s most notable other old, reddish, impact-generated feature isn’t actually on the dwarf planet at all—it’s Pluto’s largest moon, Charon. Long thought the product of a cataclysmic impact of the same sort that made Earth’s moon, Charon’s violent origins have been all but confirmed by New Horizons. Most of Charon’s surface is actually grayish bright water ice, with craters indicating it is more than four billion years old—a strong hint it coalesced from shattered and ejected pieces of Pluto’s water-ice crust. Its connection to Pluto hasn’t been completely severed, though: Mordor Macula, a cap of dark red hydrocarbons at its north pole, is likely produced by ultraviolet light reacting with wisps of upper atmosphere that drift away from Pluto’s gravity and freeze onto Charon, building up like layers of red varnish over billions of years.

Much like Pluto, Charon also seems to have a subsurface ocean—or at least it used to. New Horizons discovered a deep gash snaking across some 1,800 kilometers of the moon’s surface—a furrow four times longer than the Grand Canyon on a moon roughly the size of Texas. The gash seems to be from a time when Charon’s inner ocean froze, bulging as it turned to ice and rupturing the moon’s crust from within.

A high-resolution image of Pluto’s moon Charon, revealing the reddish region called Mordor Macula at its north pole and a moon-girdling gash that hints at a now-frozen subsurface ocean.
Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

In addition to Charon, Pluto has four much smaller moons: Styx, Nix, Kerberos and Hydra. New Horizons has found them to be much brighter and smaller than most researchers expected. They all are spinning rapidly, and have extreme axial tilts so off-kilter to those of Pluto and Charon that they are not easily explained. These smaller moons were probably also produced by the great Charon-forming impact. Like Charon, they seem to possess crater-battered surfaces of four-billion-year-old water ice, and they are oblong rather than spherical, as if they are all less moons and more barely-held-together piles of coalesced rubble. At least one of them, Kerberos, is shaped like a dumbbell, signaling its formation from two smaller bodies merging after the cataclysmic impact.

One of New Horizons’ final images of the “encounter hemisphere” of Pluto, snapped by the departing spacecraft as the frozen world rolled into twilight.
Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

What’s next for all these weird worlds of staggering geological richness? We’ll find out soon. Fully half the data New Horizons took remains onboard, still awaiting transmission. Meanwhile, the spacecraft is continuing its mission, cruising toward a rendezvous with a smaller, more distant Kuiper belt object in 2019. The best may be yet to come.

 

http://www.salon.com/2016/03/20/the_wonders_of_pluto_partner/?source=newsletter

The Martian: A modern Robinson Crusoe

By David Walsh
7 October 2015

Directed by Ridley Scott, written by Drew Goddard, based on the novel by Andy Weir

Veteran director Ridley Scott’s science fiction film The Martian is based on the 2011 novel by American author Andy Weir. In the movie’s opening scene the crew of the Ares III manned mission to Mars is forced to abandon their plans and leave the planet when a severe, hurricane-like sandstorm descends on them. Unavoidably left behind is crew member Mark Watney (Matt Damon), presumed to be dead after being struck by communications equipment and separated from the others during the storm.

Matt Damon in The Martian

Watney, in fact, survives the disaster and is able to treat his injuries. He finds the living and working quarters the crew had set up (“the Hab”) intact and has enough food for several hundred Martian days, or sols (each sol is some 24 hours, 40 minutes). However, he is alone on the desolate planet, tens of millions of kilometers from home. Watney has no means of communicating with Earth, because of the destruction of the communication gear in the tempest, and the next manned mission is not scheduled for another four years. How can he survive that long and how can he travel to the location of that mission’s landing, some 3,200 kilometers away?

A botanist (and a mechanical engineer, at least in the Weir novel), Watney sets about solving his various problems. He grows potatoes inside the habitat’s artificial environment and begins to modify his only vehicle, a rover, to make possible much longer trips.

Meanwhile, on Earth, satellite photos of Mars make clear to NASA engineers in Houston, Texas that Watney is alive and moving around. NASA director Terry Sanders (Jeff Daniels) orders his staff not to inform the surviving members of the Ares mission, now on board the Hermes spacecraft heading home, that Watney is alive, for fear of distracting them. Watney cleverly locates and digs up the Pathfinder probe, inactive since 1997 and uses it to begin communicating with NASA.

NASA officials and engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California debate various plans for rescuing the stranded astronaut. They agree to send a probe to Mars to resupply Watney so he can last another several years on the planet. In their efforts to speed up the process, however, they take shortcuts that result in disaster. Watney experiences his own disaster on Mars, which wipes out his potato crop.

Kristen Wiig and Chiwetel Ejiofor

Now what? The Chinese space program then enters the picture, as does a young, brilliant astrodynamicist. The Ares III crew itself has a life-and-death decision to make …

Although The Martian grows tedious from time to time in the course of its two hours and 20 minutes, its central motif—the massive effort, which is eventually followed by masses of people all over the globe, to save one man—is a humane and intriguing one. A large number of people cooperate, and not in pursuit of money or celebrity, to save a single life.

In his novel, Weir writes: “If a hiker gets lost in the mountains, people will coordinate a search. If a train crashes, people will line up to give blood. If an earthquake levels a city, people all over the world will send emergency supplies. This is so fundamentally human that it’s found in every culture without exception.”

It is moving when the film reaches its denouement and Watney’s fate, along with the fate of the rest of the Ares III crew, is decided. One certainly feels for his situation and emphatically hopes for his safe return.

As opposed to Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón), with its quasi-religious imagery, andInterstellar (Christopher Nolan), with its murky dystopianism, The Martian(aside from one brief flirtation with a crucifix) aspires to be an eminently practical film, with its paean to “Yankee ingenuity” and stick-to-itiveness. Having decided that “I am not going to die on this planet,” Watney sets out his various tasks and performs them, one by one.

Jessica Chastain

The scientific-technical challenges and solutions are interesting, occasionally fascinating: Watney’s agricultural experiments, his discovery of a method to create water, his transformation of his rover vehicle, his retrieval of the Pathfinder probe and his re-establishing of communication with Earth, NASA’s various rescue plans, the final effort to intercept him in space. (The decision to paint the Chinese space program and officials in a positive light, given current US government policies, has to be considered almost an act of bravery.)

Unfortunately, when the film goes beyond the limits of depicting those practical tasks, it falters badly. One of the considerable difficulties The Martian faces is its literary-intellectual source. Weir, the son of an accelerator physicist and an electrical engineer, is a capable organizer-summarizer of materials and problems, and apparently knows his science (according to various publications), but he is not an artistically gifted writer.

Much of the novel consists of descriptions of various physical and chemical processes and Watney’s interventions in those processes, a sort of “How-to” manual for surviving in an enormously hostile environment, interspersed with essentially puerile monologues (Watney’s) or dialogue. The labored “jokiness” is particularly grating.

A few examples:

“Problem is (follow me closely here, the science is pretty complicated), if I cut a hole in the Hab, the air won’t stay inside anymore.”

“I tested the brackets by hitting them with rocks. This kind of sophistication is what we interplanetary scientists are known for.”

“But in the end, if everything goes to plan, I’ll have 92 square meters of crop-able soil. Hell yeah I’m a botanist! Fear my botany powers!”

“Back on Earth, universities and governments are willing to pay millions to get their hands on Mars rocks. I’m using them as ballast.”

This sort of wittiness, which is genuinely amusing one-tenth of the time, goes on ad infinitum. Along with references to disco music, Star Wars, Iron Man,The Dukes of Hazzard and Three’s Company. Reading the novel is too much like spending a number of hours with a precocious and especially self-approving undergraduate science student who aspires to be a stand-up comic.

It is hard to believe that any human being could go through the terrifying and life-altering experiences Weir describes and remain so unrelentingly shallow. The various astronauts and cosmonauts to date may not have always been the most articulate or cultured individuals, but one has the impression that they responded with considerable seriousness to the immensity of space and the significance of their own activities.

Jeff Daniels

Why the heavy-handed humor in the original novel? Perhaps Weir felt that only through such an approach could he “make the medicine go down,” i.e., render palatable to the public a complex story about the science of space travel and space survival. If that is the case, then he underestimated his audience.

Perhaps more to the point, the contrast between the remarkable scientific achievements, on the one hand, and the unserious depiction of the human interactions, on the other, speaks to an American malaise at present: technological abundance combined with a terrible cultural and intellectual deficiency.

Although Scott and screenwriter Drew Goddard, to their credit, have dropped a good deal of the juvenilia and their work has a generally more sober tone than the novel, a portion of the book’s flippancy makes its way into the film too (including at certain critical moments!). Fortunately for the filmmakers, Matt Damon is appealing enough to render some of the silliness unobjectionable.

The screenplay, unhappily, has retained the general flatness of the scenes on Earth, or added its own. Scott has a number of talented performers at his disposal, who struggle to make something of the oddly colorless and often drama-less dialogue and sequences, including Daniels as the NASA chief, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Sean Bean as NASA mission directors and Kristen Wiig as the agency’s spokesperson. Wiig has almost nothing to do, except occasionally shoot a quizzical or bemused glance at one character or another, in a seeming reference to the comic films she is normally in, but which has nothing to do with The Martian.

In two small parts, Mackenzie Davis (as a satellite planner in NASA’s Mission Control Center) and Donald Glover (as the NASA astrodynamicist) are least touched by the “canned,” bureaucratic character of the NASA-JPL scenes.

Scott has now been making feature films long enough, since the late 1970s, that he is referred to in some quarters as a great director. Such a characterization confuses artistic greatness with canniness and box office success. Scott’s films are essentially products of the Hollywood blockbuster era that began in 1975, albeit seasoned with a somewhat “outsider” (British), quasi-artistic sensibility. Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma & Louise, Gladiator, Hannibal, American Gangster and The Counselor are distinguished by their “dark” and “edgy” visual flair, and often excessive brutality, but not by any important thematic confrontation with contemporary life.

In any event, Scott’s new film portrays a manned mission to Mars some time in the not too distant future. Science fiction indeed! No critic or anyone involved in the production has referred to the fact that the US shut down its manned space effort in 2011 for an indefinite period of time, thanks in large part to budget cuts, an event, as the WSWS noted at the time, of “considerable historical significance.”

Shortly after coming to office, the Obama administration cancelled a project that envisioned a return to the Moon by 2020, followed by a Mars mission using the Moon as a jumping-off point. The WSWS commented that the administration “proposed a manned mission to the asteroid belt by 2025, followed by a Mars flight, but pushed out so far into the future that it amounted to the tacit abandonment of any serious effort at manned space flight.”

The Christian Science Monitor, in July 2014, asked: “Will the US ever have [a] manned space program again?” The article noted that with its Space Launch System, a rocket system designed for launches into deep space, “NASA hopes to take a giant leap into deep space, but the US Government Accountability Office says that the space agency may not have enough money. According to a GAO estimate released Wednesday, NASA may be $400 million short to complete the project.” Billions and billions for the destruction of peoples and societies around the world, but not hundreds of millions for the exploration of space.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/10/07/mart-o07.html

Bad Apple: 5 Ways the Computer Giant is Plundering America

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No amount of clever branding can hide these harsh truths.

An emotional response to any criticism of the Apple Corporation might be anticipated from the users of the company’s powerful, practical, popular, and entertaining devices. Accolades to the company and a healthy profit are certainly well-deserved. But much-despised should be the theft from taxpayers and the exploitation of workers and customers, all cloaked within the image of an organization that seems to work magic on our behalf.

1. Apple Took Years of Public Research, Integrated the Results, and Packaged it As Their Own

Apple’s stock market value of over $700 billion is about twice the value of any other company. It is generally regarded as innovative, trendy, and sensitive to the needs of phone and computer users all around the world. Many of us have become addicted to the beautifully designed iPhone. But the design goes back to the time before Apple existed.

Steve Jobs once admitted: “We have always been shameless about stealing great ideas.” And reaping most of the benefits. As economist William Lazonick put it, “The iPhone didn’t just magically appear out of the Apple campus in Cupertino. Whenever a company produces a technology product, it benefits from an accumulation of knowledge created by huge numbers of people outside the company, many of whom have worked in government-funded projects over the previous decades.”

In her revealing book, The Entrepreneurial StateMariana Mazzucato explains that “Apple concentrates its ingenuity not on developing new technologies and components, but on integrating them into an innovative architecture.” She goes on to describe 12 major technologies that have their roots in government research, including memory and hard disks, displays, cellular technology, GPS, and all the Internet protocols. Much of it came from the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, NASA, the Air Force, and other U.S. agencies. The biggest expense in the iPhone is the touchscreen, which was developed at the CERN laboratories in Europe.

The “stealing of ideas” has not been accompanied by a reciprocal contribution to research. Apple spends much less than Microsoft and Google on R&D as a percentage of revenue.

It gets worse. Apple effectively takes all the credit for much of our public R&D by invoking the 1980 Bayh-Dole Act, which allowed publicly-funded work to be patented by companies. In 2011, for the first time, Apple spent more on patent purchases and lawsuits than on R&D. And worst of all, patents can make it extremely difficult for other researchers to continue work on the ideas behind newly developed products.

2. Even After Taking Our Research, Apple Does Everything in its Power to Avoid Taxes

In 2013 Apple CEO Tim Cook proclaimed, “We pay all the taxes we owe – every single dollar.” Delusion teams with denial. When questioned about the “Double Irish” scheme that allowed Apple’s Irish subsidiary to pay ZERO taxes from 2009 to 2012, Apple executive Tony King said he had “no idea” what the questioner was talking about.

Apple recently announced that its overseas, untaxed cash hoard, currently about $157 billion, is expected to reach $200 billion by 2017. But rather than pay taxes, Apple, along with other tech companies, has been part of a “fierce attack” on plans to crack down on tax avoidance, lobbying instead for a repatriation tax holiday to allow the billions of overseas dollars to come home at a greatly reduced tax rate.

3. Overcharging Customers 

The manufacturing cost of a 16 GB iPhone 6 is about $200, and with marketing it comes to about $288. But without an expensive phone contract with Verizon, AT&T, or one of the other wireless carriers, the cost to the customer is at least $650.

4. Underpaying and Mistreating Employees 

In response to criticisms of Apple, Rand Paul advised us to “apologize to Apple and compliment them for the job creation they’re doing.” The company claims to have “created or supported” over a million jobs in the United States. But in reality it has 66,000 employees in the U.S., about half of them retail store workers.

Apple has an efficient way of undermining workers, earning nearly $600,000 profit per employee while paying their full-time retail “specialists” less than $30,000 per year. Thus each store worker gets about $1 for every $20 in profits that he or she helps to generate. As for higher-level employees, Apple is alleged to have conspired with Google and other Silicon Valley each firms to hold down the salaries of engineers and analysts.

Regarding laborers at notorious Chinese factories like Foxconn, Apple CEO Tim Cook said in 2012: “We care about every worker in our worldwide supply chain.” The sentiment went deeper three years later in 2015, when Apple VP Jeff Williams assured us that “We care deeply about every worker in Apple’s global supply chain.” But investigations have revealed little change, with a continuation of low wages, forced overtime, safety hazards, employee abuse, increased production quotas, and manipulation of student interns. Before the launch of the iPhone 6 in late 2014, workers put in 15 hours a day for 10 weeks without a day off.

5. Apple Has Figured Out How to Spend Most of its Untaxed Money on Itself 

Much of Apple’s ‘offshore’ money is reportedly held in the U.S., in the form of U.S government securities, earning interest from U.S. taxpayers. When the company needs cash, it simply borrows the money at a near-zero interest rate, often using that cash to pay off shareholders with stock buybacks, which use potential research and development money to pump up the stock prices for shareholders.

After spending $90 billion on stock buybacks last year, Apple has now proudly announced a 2015 “share repurchase authorization” of $140 billion, almost the entire amount of its currently hoarded cash. Buybacks benefit company executives and investors. Beyond that, Apple’s ever-growing $.7 trillion stock market value is spread among relatively few Americans. The richest 10% own 91 percentof U.S. stocks.

Apple’s View 

The tax-avoiding, research-appropriating, cost-escalating, wage-minimizing, self-enriching Apple Corporation has, according to CEO Tim Cook, a very strong moral compass.

Paul Buchheit teaches economic inequality at DePaul University. He is the founder and developer of the Web sites UsAgainstGreed.org,PayUpNow.org and RappingHistory.org, and the editor and main author of “American Wars: Illusions and Realities” (Clarity Press). He can be reached atpaul@UsAgainstGreed.org.

http://www.alternet.org/bad-apple-5-ways-computer-giant-plunder-america?akid=13111.265072.ZtiMvx&rd=1&src=newsletter1036499&t=7

New discoveries show that Mars may have once been habitable

By Bryan Dyne
28 March 2015

A recent study using data from NASA’s Curiosity rover and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences present data showing the presence of nitrates on Mars. This molecule, composed of one nitrogen and three oxygen atoms, may indicate that there was once a nitrogen cycle on ancient Mars, one of the necessary mechanisms on a planet to sustain terrestrial-like life.

The Mars rover Curiosity. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

The research was undertaken with an international team led by Jennifer Stern using Curiosity’s Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument suite. In earlier studies of Martian soils and rocks at Gale crater, nitrogen was detected in both scooped and drilled sediment samples. However, it was not clear whether the nitrogen detected was from the surrounding atmosphere, indicating molecular nitrogen, or from the rocks themselves, indicating nitrates. Using SAM and subtracting out the known sources of nitrogen within the instrument, Stern’s team was able to show that there were still up to 1100 parts per million (ppm) of nitrogen remaining, depending on the sample analyzed. From this, Stern’s team concluded that the nitrogen originated from the sediments and thus from nitrates.

Whether nitrogen is found in the atmosphere or in other forms plays an important role in biochemistry on Earth. While the majority of terrestrial nitrogen is in the atmosphere, making up 78 percent of the air we breath, it is in the inert form of molecular hydrogen (N2). To incorporate nitrogen into more complex molecules—such as nucleobases, amino acids, DNA, RNA and proteins—it must be in more accessible forms. The nitrate molecule (NO3) is one of the most prevalent and useful molecules seen on Earth for this purpose.

As such, the strong evidence of nitrates in a variety of different rocks and sediments on the Martian surface implies that, at a very early point in the planet’s history, there could have been large amounts of biologically useful nitrogen on the Red Planet.

Stern’s research complements a report released three weeks ago in Sciencewhich provides strong support for the existence of an ocean of liquid water on the surface of Mars during the planet’s early life. The ocean is estimated to have held more water than Earth’s Arctic Ocean. That is enough water to cover the entire surface of Mars in liquid 137 meters deep. More likely, the ocean covered almost half Mars’ northern hemisphere and reached depths greater than 1.6 kilometers.

This is much larger than previous estimates of a primordial Martian ocean, meaning that the planet’s surface could have been wetter for much longer than estimated, perhaps 900 million years. Combined with a thicker, warmer atmosphere, volcanism on the surface and the presence of nitrates, this likely led to rich reservoirs containing the diverse chemical elements needed for life.

Artist conception of the primitive ocean the NASA suspects once existed on Mars

This second discovery was made by a team led Geronimo Villanueva, working with the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in Chile, and the W.M. Keck Observatory and NASA Infrared Telescope Facility in Hawaii. Using detailed maps of the Martian atmosphere, the scientists were able to distinguish the chemical signatures of two slightly different isotopes of water. The first is the familiar H2O. The second is the more exotic form HDO, in which one hydrogen atom is replaced by one its more massive forms, deuterium.

By taking the ratio of H2O and HDO in Mars’ atmosphere and comparing it to those values found in water trapped in a 4.5 billion-year-old Martian meteorite, Villanueva’s team was able to measure the atmospheric change in the intervening time span and determine how much water escaped to space. The forthcoming MAVEN probe will take similar measurements.

These maps were made over the course of three Martian years, amounting to six years on Earth. Beyond showing that Mars once housed a massive ocean, the research also revealed seasonal changes and local weather patterns across what was previously thought to be a mostly homogenous desert climate.

Mars’ polar ice caps were also studied, using the same H2O and HDO ratio, as they are suspected to contain a more direct record of water on Mars from 3.7 billion years ago to the present. The researchers found that Mars once had at least 6.5 times the amount of water currently contained in the ice caps, meaning a volume of water on ancient Mars of at least 20 million cubic kilometers. This is in general agreement with the atmospheric study.

Both the nitrogen amounts and water levels now thought to have existed on ancient Mars lead to the question: Where did this all go? Mars today is a barren world with an atmosphere that is 96 percent carbon dioxide and less than 1 percent as thick as Earth’s. There is no liquid water on its surface and one has to dig before finding any indication of biologically useable material.

It is suspected that Mars lost its atmosphere to space. The results gathered by the Curiosity rover as a whole are in agreement with in situ atmospheric measurements made by the Viking landers from 1976 to 1982, when this idea first gained traction. The three main mechanisms for losing atmosphere include interactions between the atmosphere and the solar wind, a massive impact by an asteroid or other body, and/or the atmosphere escaping as a result of thermal motion and the planet’s relatively low gravity. It is not clear which of these mechanisms (if any) is primary.

The loss of the ocean is somewhat more mysterious. Neither the solar wind nor low Martian gravity can account for the loss of liquid water. As the planet cooled and the water froze, one way for the ocean to have disappeared is for the frozen water to sublime into water vapor in the atmosphere and then into space. A more interesting hypothesis is that the ocean didn’t go anywhere at all, but was covered up by sediment and dirt as it froze. If so, this would mean that a great deal of water ice is under the northern lowlands of Mars, the Vastitas Borealis basin. It is unknown how far down a probe would need to drill in order to test this idea.

A further question is posed: What is the possibility that life developed on early Mars?

While a great deal more research needs to be done on this subject, these two results are further evidence that at the very least, the conditions once existed on Mars for a life cycle to begin.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/03/28/mars-m28.html

Deadly SpaceShipTwo crash follows explosion of unmanned Antares rocket

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By Bryan Dyne
1 November 2014

The suborbital spacecraft VSS Enterprise, a SpaceShipTwo-class rocket, crashed in the Mojave Desert in the US during a test flight Friday, resulting in the death of one crew member and the injury of another.

Earlier this week, an unmanned Antares rocket from the Orbital Sciences Corporation exploded only a few seconds into its flight. Early reports suggest that the first stage of the launch vehicle failed, prompting the range safety officer to initiate an emergency depressurization of the rocket’s fuel tanks, which caused the explosion.

The two space disasters in the span of one week highlight the growing prominence of private companies in space missions.

The SpaceShipTwo is owned by Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, and the test flight was being conducted by Virgin Galactic’s partner, Scaled Composites. This was the spacecraft’s first manned flight since January.

There has been no official comment by Virgin Galactic or Scaled Composites on the cause of the crash. Virgin Galactic has so far only said that the craft “suffered a serious anomaly resulting in the loss of the vehicle.” Eyewitness reports indicate that the vessel exploded just after its engine fired when it was dropped from its mother ship, White Knight Two.

There is speculation that the cause of the explosion was the engine, which was using a new plastic-based fuel that had up to this point only been tested on the ground.

The pilot killed in the SpaceShipTwo crash is the fourth fatality from the SpaceShipTwo program. Three others were killed in a 2007 explosion of an unattached rocket engine using the old rubber-based fuel. An investigation found that the three were standing too close to the rocket motor, in violation of safety regulations.

SpaceShipTwo vehicles, first revealed to the public in 2009, were designed to be the first space tourism vessels. After being carried to a launch altitude of 15 kilometers, it uses a booster to ascend to 110 kilometers. This is 10 kilometers above the Kármán line, which is the formal definition of space. It stays at that altitude for only a few minutes, during which time the passengers would experience free fall and view the surface of Earth against the black of space. There are currently more than 700 individuals who have deposited the requisite $200,000-250,000 to reserve a seat on a Virgin Galactic flight.

The Antares rocket, in contrast, was being operated by a company contracted by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), a US government agency that relies heavily on private corporations. The rocket that exploded was on a mission to resupply the International Space Station.

The first-stage rockets used by Antares are refurbished Soviet NK-33 engines. Each one is a 40-year-old piece of equipment that was sold for $1.1 million each to Aerojet, a company that works alongside Orbital Sciences to launch the rockets.

Being cheap is the only reason the NK-33 rockets are used. While innovative at the time, they are now far behind modern technology. There is also only a limited supply of the rockets in existence, meaning that unless Orbital can overcome the legal hurdles of using the old Soviet designs to make new rockets, the Antares family has a limited number of launches.

Furthermore, not only do Antares rockets require old Soviet hardware, Orbital currently uses Russian and Ukrainian labor to maintain and refurbish the rockets. Since the company does not have the expertise needed and would rather not use the more expensive workers from NASA, large sections of the first-stage work of the Antares are contracted out to the Ukrainian Yuzhnoye Design Bureau.

Orbital Sciences is not the only private company to use Russian-built rockets to power their machines. The Atlas V of the United Launch Alliance uses a single RD-180 engine as its first-stage engine. Significantly, one of the main uses of the Atlas family of rockets is to put US military satellites into orbit. In response to rising tensions between the US and Russia over the US-backed coup in Ukraine, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin declared in May that, “Russia will ban the United States from using Russian-made rocket engines for military launches.”

While the causes of the two disasters this week are still under investigation, both involve private companies operating on the basis of the profit motive, with a consequent interest in cutting costs.

While NASA has always relied heavily on contractors, and in particular military contractors, the increasing privatization of spaceflight accelerated in the 1990s and particularly in the 2000s. It has been continued under the Obama administration, which cancelled the Constellation program and shut down the shuttle program. Any manned missions launched by NASA will be asteroid missions, which are slated to begin in 2025 at the earliest. Manned flights to Mars have been sequestered indefinitely.

Not only has privatization led to cost cutting, but the basic purpose of space flight has shifted from scientific endeavors to space tourism and similar operations. To date, no fundamentally new technologies have been developed by Virgin Galactic. The “hybrid” motor’s primary advantage is cheapness, and it has yet to be reliably and regularly operated.

Moreover, the vehicle only ever reaches 13 percent of the velocity required to get to orbit, and thus is not developing a technology that is applicable to actually staying in space. Given that such altitudes were reached in an earlier period by figures such as Auguste Piccard and Joseph Kittinger, who did tests for cosmic rays and high-altitude parachutes respectively, there is no new science being done. Given the high price tag for rides, moreover, the “space” plane is only accessible to the very wealthy.

Other companies such as Boeing and SpaceX are also looking into private manned spaceflight, but their programs are less developed than Virgin Galactic.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2014/11/01/rock-n01.html