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Friday, March 22, 2013

Where Is Everybody?

Modern astronomy is finding new planets at an astounding rate - several hundreds in the past decade.  It's becoming clear that solar systems are commonplace, at least in this galaxy.  Most stars that can have planets, do have planets.  Our ability to find these extra-solar planets is still limited, we can't identify small, rocky planets orbiting at the right distance to support our type of life.  But in our own solar system, 3 of the 8 planets (omitting dwarf planets like Pluto and Ceres) orbit in the habitable zone - Venus, Earth, and Mars.  That's roughly 1 in 4 of an admittedly small sample size.

Venus may have had life, but it has a runaway greenhouse atmosphere of carbon dioxide and nitric acid, with surface temperatures hot enough to melt lead.  Some have proposed to inject blue-green algae into the air, which would metabolize the CO2 into oxygen and water, dropping the temperature and making it rain for the first time.  After some period of time, Venus might become habitable for us.

Mars is too small to keep it's atmosphere, which has mostly all escaped into space.  All that remains is a thin, sparse covering of carbon dioxide, but water once ran freely on the surface, and may still be there, frozen at the poles and under the Martian soil.  Mars may have hosted life at one time, but not intelligent life - there are no canals, and no ruined cities.

Earth is the Goldilocks planet - neither too hot, not too cold.  Once it too was covered in a reducing atmosphere, but anaerobic life evolved, and turned the sky oxygen-blue, while comets deposited oceans of water.  Oxygen breathing life evolved, became multicellular and eventually what passes for intelligent (the US Congress not withstanding).  What is the likelihood this is unique?

Intelligence itself doesn't appear to be unique - chimps, dolphins and elephants seem to have at least some self-awareness, and creatures such as octopi, crows and apes can use tools and solve puzzles.  Our sample of one suggests that life eventually gives way to intelligent tool users.  So far it looks like planets are common, and life may be too.

So if the universe is full of planets teeming with intelligent tool users - where are they?  The Sun (Sol) is a very common type of G class yellow dwarf, a third generation star that has shone for 5 billion years.  The universe is about 13 billion years old - while it took some time to make the heavier elements we need, such as iron, silicon and carbon, there has been plenty on time for civilizations to arise before ours.  If star travel is possible, why have they not been here?  Why are they not here now?  We certainly will be out among the stars as soon as we get the technology down - that's our way.

The fundamental problem is that the Universe is too old, and too big.  Our galazy, the Milky Way, is one of hundreds of billions or even trillions of galaxies, and holds around 200 billion stars - that's 30 stars for every man, woman and child alive today.  In this galaxy alone.  Anything that can happen, has happened - somewhere.  If star-travelling species can exist, they do exist.  And if they do exist, why did they not colonize our solar system already?

There are a few possibilities, none of them very pleasant:

  1. Life, and especially tool using intelligent life is actually very rare.  Maybe we are unique - or civilizations are so spread out as to almost never make contact with each other.  What evidence we have so far is rather against this.
  2. Technology is a fatal disease - all civilizations that develop it die, from pollution, nuclear holocaust, or self made pathogens.  None make it as far as communication with other civilizations, or to star travel.
  3. Star travel isn't possible, and the planet-bound civilizations either don't communicate with each other, or they don't use radio.  Perhaps we are too young to have developed sub-space based communications which are instantaneous and efficient, and they are watching our TV signals and shaking their heads (or whatever they shake) over our youthful stupidity.  And poor production values.
  4. Everyone is hunkered down, or dead.  Advanced machine civilizations silently cruise the interstellar starways, and when they capture the radio signals from an ignorant and wasteful emerging biological infestation, they send out the clean up crew.
There is one other possibility - we are the first ones, a unique creation.  Perhaps created by God, perhaps by ourselves we are creating the universe as we go.  I wrote about this a few years ago http://dbcooper-theblog.blogspot.com/2009/05/changing-past.html.  Perhaps the universe is collapsing out of the probability  foam as we go about our daily lives, never noticing what we are doing to the quantum universe around us.

“You are gods; you are all children of The Highest!" - The Bible, Psalm 82 vs 6.

At least that one's hopeful......

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Passing It Along - A Different "It"

Recently I've had some extra time on my hands, thanks to the general economy, and market conditions in my industry - network equipment for wireless mobile operators.  The North American giants of 10 years ago (Nortel, Motorola and Lucent) are all gone - swallowed by European companies like Ericsson and Alcatel, or replaced by Asian competitors like Samsung and Huawei.  My career has been focused on the delivery to market of products, but increasingly those products come from offshore.  So while I'm optimistic, it's taking a while to find a new job.

So I've been playing with Family Tree Maker, a piece of genealogy software that aggregates public records online, and allows you to use other people's research to build your family tree is no time.  And this is what I found.

My side come from a long time of farm workers in Yorkshire, and further back, Lincolnshire, England.  My Father's line for 5 or 6 generations is all local to that area, on the Yorkshire coast near Scarborough.  My Mother's line goes back through a great grandfather to the South of England, London and Sussex.  Both lines peter out eventually.

My Wife's side is much more interesting:

Line 1 - The Harts.  On December 27 1657, Edward Hart, along with 3 others signed a document sent to Peter Stuyvesant, the last Dutch Governor of New Netherland (now New York), protesting the lack of religious freedom.  For this, they were jailed until they repented.  Edward Hart was eventually released due to illness, and the document became known as the Flushing Remonstrance, the first declaration of religious freedom in the New World.  Edward Hart's descendants moved to New Jersey, where his great grandson, John Hart, became one of the New Jersey colony's representatives to the Continental Congress, and signed the Declaration of Independence on July 4th, 1776.

His daughter Deborah married Joseph Ott in 1786, their daughter Sarah married Matthias Servis, and eventually the Servis's married into the Conovers, a Dutch immigrant family (originally spelled Van Kouwenhoven). Sally's Mother's side are Conovers, plus Mennings, a line originally traced back to Transylvannia, in what is now Romania.

Line 2 - The Norsemen.  In 911, a Viking nobleman of Danish or Norwegian origin called Rollo Rognvaldsson (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rollo) besieged Paris, and on 20 July 911 he lost the Battle of Chartres to the Duke of Burgundy.  Rollo then pledged allegiance to the King of France, became a Christian and changed his name to Robert.  In return, King Charles made him Duke of Normandy, which Robert proceeded to pacify and unify under his control.  Until Robert, Normandy was only nominally under the French King's control, after years of Viking invasions, so the King gave him a title, and a task.

Robert I was the first of six powerful Dukes of Normandy, the sixth being William, who is known to history as William The Conqueror, the first Norman King of England.  Robert and his sons and daughters married into the noble families of France and the Holy Roman Empire, merging their Norse bloodline with the descendants of Charlemargne (Charles The Great) and Clovis I (the founder of the Merovingian Dynasty).

 The 5th Duke of Normandy, Robert II Curthose, sired a bastard son, Gilbert FitzRobert (in those days, a bastard was given their father's name, with the prefix "Fitz" in front. Thus "FitzRobert" means the child on Robert, and FitzRoy means "son of the King" (Roi)).  FitzRobert's chldren eventually come to England with their Uncle, William the Conqueror, and became Lords and Ladies of the English Norman court.  After a few hundred years, and after descent through the De Somery line of Welsh Norman Lords, and later the Huddingtons, one Joan Huddington married Sir Roger Wyntour.  Her 4th great grandson, John Winter, emigrated to the American colonies, dying in Charles MD in 1715.    The Winters married into the Emplfields, and later the Palmers (originally Balmer, from Germany), moving to Pennsylvania along the way.  Finally the Palmers married into an Irish line called the Wachobs, ending when a Wacob married my wife's Grandfather on her Father's side.  So from that side she has English, Viking and French royalty, plus descent from the greatest Holy Roman Emperor, Charlemagne.  I also found 3 saints, two more revolutionary war solidiers and a lot of "Fitz-somethings" along the way.

So while my side is pulling itself up from our British farm peasant roots, her side is a long descent from the top of the heap.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Passing It Along

I flew almost every day this week. It's spring break in Texas, and my kids have been home.  My oldest daughter, Thing 1,  is a senior and for a class project she chose "learning to fly".  For many people, that would have been ambitious, but her case, since her dad is an instructor and aircraft owner, it was the "choice of least resistance".  Her boyfriend by way of comparison (a Nation Honor Society Finalist and holder of multiple offers from colleges for "free-rides"), is learning to play the school song on every instrument in the band, and mashing the recording together so that he is playing the whole thing - solo.

I felt that my Bonanza was a bit much for a beginner, so I borrowed a friend's Sundowner for the occasion.  Normally, if I'm teaching a student to get ready for a sport pilot or private pilot license, I'll spend more time in the air doing basic maneuvering, stalls, ground reference and gliding before moving to the airport pattern, but in this case her goal is to be able to fly a complete pattern including the landing in a short time.  I think this is a good thing - when I fly with my family I would like for there to be someone else on board who could get the thing on the ground, in at least a survivable crash-landing.  Thing 1 might fit the bill.

So we started with climbs and descents, level turns, moderately steep turns and simple stall recovery.  Next we moved to an airport and started doing pattern work.  After nearly 1 week, she can now do the full power take off, crosswind climb (with a bit erratic speed control, but within private limits), come back to downwind power (2,000 rpm) and turn onto a 1,000 foot AGL downwind holding 80 kts,  set up for landing (GUMPS, electric fuel pump on, lower flaps, set approach power at 1,700 rpm), do the base leg and turn onto final approach adding more flaps and controlling the descent with pitch and power.  I still have to get on the controls at about 100 feet to help with the flare and touchdown.

My friend's Sundowner is hangared in an awkward spot, and since I want Thing 1 eventually to be able to land my Bonanza, I switched her to the Bonanza on Thursday, but as it does everything 10 to 20 knots faster, and has more to remember - she was overwhelmed.  We're going back to the Sundowner.  But now the weather is changing, the winds are no longer light and aligned with the runway.  They are strong and gusty with a significant cross-wind component.  We'll take it up again next week after school.