Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Robots and Humans across the Solar System

Over at Wired Science, there is a post with the fairly dramatic title Humans vs. Robots: Who Should Dominate Space Exploration  Now I enjoy Wired's articles despite their somewhat inflammatory titles. While this article has some interesting information, I dislike the false dichotomy between the two sides. Especially since the tech heavy readership (if the comments are anything to go by-and I know it isn't the best representation) do not understand geological field work in the slightest. The problem with robots are simply that they aren't people, they can have automatic functions and carry out experiments on other worlds, but they can't make snap decisions based on years of expertise.  In short, robots are tools, but there has to be people working those tools for them to be useful.

One of the main problems for robots is the delay between the robot detecting something, sending that to Earth, Earth receiving it, deciding what to do, then sending the instructions to the robot, the robot performing that operation, sending the results back to the Earth, and then the researchers ensuring that the robot did what it was supposed to do and then analyzing the data. As it can take several minutes for radio waves to travel from Mars to Earth, the delay eats up a lot of time; in addition, the rover teams always have to consider if the robot can accomplish its goals. Can the robot make it up the hill? Is the sand too loose for it to drive through? Are the systems operating efficiently? These questions eat up time, and if you read about the MER rovers you'll see stories about the rovers spinning their wheels for several meters worth of travel, but being stuck in the sand and not moving. These are problems humans can identify and fix quickly, without the need of caretakers back on Earth.

The article brings up a comparison of Apollo 17 (the only moon trip which NASA decided that a geologist might be useful) and the MER rovers, now I love the little guys; however, it took them eight years to cover the ground that the astronauts covered in three days, and at the end of the robot's leash were human experts. I don't mean to come down on the side of Team Human (though I guess I'd have to in a robot uprising) because the robots are an invaluable tool and extremely important for our understanding and future exploration of the solar system.

There is truth in the old saying "look before you leap" and that is where robots come in, we don't know exactly what is out there, thus rather than sending humans into the unknown without a clue as to what they are landing in, we send robots to scout the trail ahead. I believe the first Mars colonists will be extremely grateful for the information gained by the different rovers and probes that went before them, that information will be invaluable for telling us the dangers facing the first human explorers, and is vitally important. In addition, NASA has been experimenting with different robotic systems to help humans in outer space, Robonaut is already aboard the ISS working with astronauts, and the engineers at NASA have also developed similar 'centaur' systems which may be useful on other planets.

Although, I'm not sure that these robots can ever replace human explorers in the long run, as even compared to a burdensome space suit they are not as natural for an astronaut to use to collect samples or to operate heavy instruments like drills. While robots will most likely be a vital part of human exploration, they will most likely work along side humans, helping planetary geologists gather data and perform experiments. 

Especially if we expect to find life on Mars, we will have to rely on human explorers. Robert Zubrin, the president of the Mars Society, once commented that if you dropped a fleet of robotic explorers into Dinosaur National Monument in Colorado they wouldn't be able to find a single fossil, and most paleontologists I've talked to tend to agree with this as well. It will take meticulous human exploration, not weighed down by extensive lag times to conduct a thorough geologic investigation of the Moon and Mars. Robots will always be useful and at the forefront of planetary exploration. However, it will take the boots of trained geologists (of which there has been only been one) on the other terrestrial objects in the solar system before we can develop a clear pictures of the geologic processes throughout the Solar System.

Edit: Sorry but I realized yesterday that I had something I needed to add

Yesterday I watched the TAM9 Future in Space panel discussion, and as usual (I've seen it several times) really enjoyed it; however, one thing really bugged me. When they talked about human or robotic exploration of the planets, there was fairly diverse opinions, but they all agreed to some extent that the point of human exploration was to keep the public interested and that in the near future robots could do it better than humans. I won't comment on the feasibility of autonomous robotic telescopes in astronomy as I am not all that knowledgeable in that field. I would ask, though, that if they feel the need to comment on planetary exploration they would return the consideration and ask a planetary geologist. The problem is that the panel had two astrophysicists (three if you include Phil Plait but he didn't talk much), a cosmologist, and a mechanical engineer, but no geologists or planetary scientists.

It is not like there wasn't any highly qualified scientists with experience with public speaking or outreach that they could have contacted. In fact, Dr. Jim Bell is the president of the Planetary Society (thus he works with Bill Nye) and is on the same facility as Dr. Lawrence Krauss, so it seems like somebody could have gotten a hold of him for this. In addition, the Planetary Society's great blogger Emily Lakdawalla has her degree in geology, there is also Dr. Bell's student, Dr. Ryan Anderson, who blogs at Martian Chronicles at the AGU blog network and the MER Principle Investigator and author Dr. Steven Squyres. I don't see how none of these people were tapped for this panel. They all would have provided a different point of view than those present, and I would think that they could have provided some interesting insight into future planetary exploration.

As any immediate future in Space will involve landing on rocky bodies which planetary scientists are already studying, it again is strange that any panel discussion on this wouldn't include somebody with a background in both space science and geologic field work. I hope that any other organizations that decide to hold similar panels will include planetary scientists or geologists as astronomers usually don't do field work.

However, if you have not seen the video please do so, it is highly entertaining and very informational.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Political "Science" versus Geology

I was once a political science major, and while it wasn't a huge waste of my time, I wouldn't exactly describe it as a positive experience. For one thing I quickly grew tired of, as a fellow science major put it, "classes where my opinion counts more than facts" secondly I quickly fell in love with geology after my first class, and changed from another directionless college student, to a dedicated geology student because it is simply more fun.

Well recently I came across a post at Cosmic Variance about this New York Times editorial. If you have seen either, the editorial basically said that poly sci researchers should not bother themselves with testing their hypothesis as unsubstantiated assertions work just as well. Well as you can expect every scientist who saw that article was understandably upset about it, and my main problem goes right back to the reason I dropped that major, Political Science isn't a science no matter how much they tell themselves otherwise. At best it should be called Political Studies, as you do study political systems but because you can't come up with any universal theories or even agreement within the discipline about important phenomena, like why do voters vote the way they do.

However, I can be somewhat sympathetic, as when political studies researches look at the success that physics has had in the past centuries it can seem daunting to try to replicate that work. It would be hard for just about any field to have analogous successes to Newtonian Mechanics or General Relativity, but it is important to remember the work it took to get there, and that the physicists' work hasn't finished. Although I would assert that political science (if it followed the scientific method in any sense or fashion) would resemble Geology more than anything.

You might wonder why I would say that. Well first off I don't mean to disparage geology at all by comparing it to political science; however, if political scientists acted like scientists, their research would probably be very similar to geology. First off the whole idea that the present is the key to the past would be a necessary part to this hypothetical political science as it is to geology. Presumably political scientists would have to look through much of history and retrace events that led to important political events, then they would have to hypothesize a cause for this change, find evidence to support their assertion WHILE PAYING SPECIAL ATTENTION TO EVIDENCE THAT CHALLENGES OR DISPROVES THEIR HYPOTHESIS. That was in all-caps because that is where political studies abandons all pretext of following the scientific method, and when they do provide evidence they cherry pick it, ignoring inconvenient facts. I know that it is human nature to do so, which is why political studies needs true peer reviewed journals if they want a legitimate claim to the "science" part of the field.

Political Scientists will say that the systems they study are too complicated to follow the scientific method, thus they should be exempt. However, geology is incredibly more complicated, it covers almost 4.5 billion years of Earth history, looking at evidence which has been changed into new and hard to read forms or in some case destroyed and now requires inference from analogous areas elsewhere in the world. Geologists try to understand how mountains formed, the history of life, and they retrace the movement of continents backwards in time; in addition, I would bet that nearly every geologist has seen a geologic cross-section that resembles a Jackson Pollack painting more than any stratigraphic layers deposited under Steno's laws; however, dedicated work by many real scientists can eventually clarify these confusing maps and turn them into coherent stories.

In the end, though if those involved in political studies want to be considered scientists they would have to start applying statistical methods and probably create mathematical and computer models to try and explain their research areas. In addition, they will have to learn to look at all of their previously hypothesis with a skeptical eye and evaluate them based off of the evidence not whether or not they align with their personal beliefs. This would require a tremendous amount of work to so completely change the discipline, and I doubt that those involved would be willing to do so. This is a shame as they could presumably discover some fascinating aspects of human nature, but until it does so I will refuse to call it a science.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Accretionary Wedge 44: My Most Important Teacher

Metageologist over at the All-geo blog network has put out calls for posts about most important teachers, which really wasn't something I had to think much about. I easily could identify that person.

My sophomore year of high school I decided to participate in Science Olympiad, I wasn't sure what I would do, but I knew I liked science so I went out. Well at the first meeting I committed a great heresy; when my friend asked me to team up with her to try out for the Rocks and Minerals competition, I told her no, that it would be too boring. However, she called in an old favor or something like that, and twisted my arm into trying out for the team.

I barely knew anything about rocks and next to nothing about minerals, so when I met up with the team mentor I had no idea what to expect, but I was quickly proved wrong in my initial assumptions. The mentor, Coach Ford, was a science teacher I had never met, but I had only been on campus for a few weeks so it wasn't suprising. He was fairly tall, a little lanky, grey and wrinkled, but with a kind and wiley smile. He spoke extremely softly, and if the room wasn't silent you could easily miss almost every word he said. We started in on minerals, which was interesting, especially the crystalline geometries, though I had some trouble grasping them at first.

I wouldn't say I was that interested in the subject until he opened up a textbook and went over the rock cycle.  I believe we might have gone over it once before, but after having a grasp on the basics of geology, I was blown away by the implications of the cycle. The idea that all material on the Earth had been recycled was amazing and I sat at home dumbstruck that night. Then he started talking about igneous rocks, and showed us the basic identification chart and I was sold hook, line, and sinker.

If that's all he had done it probably wouldn't have been enough to become my most important teacher; however, you have to understand the trouble he had to go through to reach me. First off, I was a high school athlete, so instead of meeting after class we had to meet after wrestling practice (either at 7:00 or 8:00 pm) and then he would go over geology (as well as other competitions such as astronomy, ecology, oceanography, etc.) for up to two or three hours, thus he came back to work at all hours of the night just to teach us subjects; not because it was his job, but just because he wanted to.

Then during my junior and senior years, I took his classes and he still liked me afterwards, which is in of itself somewhat impressive. I wasn't a good student, I got good grades, but I didn't pay attention, I had a tendency to nap in classes, and was given to flights of fancy. School had never been challenging and I was bored, but he didn't get frustrated; instead he inspired me. We learned about a numerous miraculous phenomena, he took us on field trips, and he made us teach each other. Other classes were fun and other classes were useful, but the two classes I took (Environmental Science and Astronomy, Meteorology, Geology) were the most useful and the most interesting.

The best part of his classes was that he pushed scientific literacy; he honestly believed that our lives would be improved by a greater understanding of the natural world. Those of his students who took advantage of his teachings were greatly improved by this philosophy, although most probably didn't do so as we lived in a very religiously conservative area, and I would say this made his work even more impressive as he reached out his hand to students who slapped it away.

Suffice it to say that I would not be in this amazing field if it was not for Coach Ford, to the extent that whenever I receive a great opportunity (like a NASA internship) I e-mail him and thank him for inspiring me so much.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

New Mexico Geology: Where Rocks Grow out of the Ground

I had this mostly written back in January, but then I got distracted and forgot about it. I will do my best to finish the New Mexico Geology series. Sorry for the delay

Almost a year ago I participated in a community service project called Eastern In Action, which is basically a beautification project for the town, and if you had ever seen a town in Southeast New Mexico you would think that would be sorely needed. Unfortunately, there is no oversight process so anybody can ask for help, so instead of being sent to help the elderly, disabled, or disenfranchised who needed the help, my group was sent to help a well off farmer in his fields. Now besides doing 'charity' work for a man who could afford to pay for that service, I was most annoyed at the fact that the problems in his fields were his own fault.

Why you might ask? Well you have to understand that the area I live in has a classic arid soil referred to as caliche soil. Caliche is easily identifiable due to the layer of calcite at varying layers within the soil. So what does this have to do with the greedy farmer? I'm getting to that; calcite dissolves in water so on the rare occasion that we do get rain, the mineral goes into solution, and then in the more common high heat, the water evaporates and as it does it pulls the calcite towards the surface. So when the farmer was watering his fields he was speeding up the caliche forming process, pulling up the calcite very quickly and creating numerous evaporite rocks in his fields. Thus we toiled in his fields for several hours in order to rid the field of the rocks he created.

Moral of the story? Mostly that trying to grow water intensive crops in an arid (well semi-arid, but it feels like a desert) environment is not a good idea. However, if you feel like doing so learn from the cultures who have been successful in that goal. One such group are the Mormons in Utah.  When they built their society in Utah the only water they had access to was from the Great Salt Lake, so in order to water their crops without salting the land and rendering it useless they saturated the soil pushing the salt deeper into the ground away from the plant roots. However, when there is very little water to go around this doesn't work, and since we rely on fossil aquifers this solution is unworkable and would kill the area..

However, here are a few photographs of a cut into the soil, with the caliche soil is brilliantly displayed.

The white rocks are evaporite calcite minerals

This is right above the main layer, with a hammer for scale

Here is the main layer with a hammer in it
 So this is probably the most interesting geology near the college, but there is one more thing. The area is a very slight valley and this is because it was once a large meandering river. The water dried up after the last ice age when the Pecos River was formed; this River is much faster and thus moved up through what is now New Mexico and pirated the ancient streams that once flowed off of the Rio Grande Rift.

After the river was cut off, some of its water was stored in the sands it once carried forming a perched aquifer (an aquifer sitting on top of an impermeable layer) so when settlers first came to Portales they had ample water and like all humans they quickly depleted them. In fact there used to be year long lakes in Portales where the ground dropped beneath the water table, something most of the students at the university would find quite surprising. Well I exaggerate, there is still one aquifer that hasn't been depleted, but the geniuses out here put a dairy on top of it because there is no way that the dairy could pollute the aquifer with E.coli.

Luckily we do have the Ogallala Aquifer to fall back on

Right there, where the star is, you know where it is losing water instead of recharging. Hey, can I come live with one of you? I don't think there is going to be much water here anymore.