Friday, June 29, 2007

Space Pioneers Wanted

A curious item from Agence France-Presse, June 19, 2007: the European Space Agency is asking for six volunteers to live in a cramped spacecraft simulator for 17 months to gather information about the psychological stresses of flight to Mars. The volunteers will be sealed in, eat space rations, and communicate with the rest of the human race only by radio.

Perks? All the Internet you want, I’m sure. Upload songs to your iPod, OK. You‘ll also have the exhilarating knowledge that you are furthering humanity’s Destiny in Space and plenty of time to study for a Master’s in astronautics. Drawbacks: No fresh food. No printed books. Harmonica practice may or may not be tolerated by shipmates. Severe limitations on art materials and field sports. No trees, grass, sun, sky, or soil. No walks in the fields of summer—no walks anywhere. No new faces. Just you and five other dedicated Euro-Russian souls sharing 550 cubic meters of space, the equivalent of a 20-by-20 foot room carved up into cubicles.

Certain realisms will be lacking, casting doubt (I would argue) on the relevance of the psychological data gathered: unlike a real space mission, you can opt out whenever you like and all emergencies will be imaginary. Nothing life-threatening can happen, unless the Russian Institute of Biomedical Problems, where you’ll be canned, suddenly burns down. On the other hand, since you won’t actually be flying to Mars, you’ll lack the sustaining sense of heroic self-importance that real astronauts would presumably enjoy.

According to Viktor Baranov, a Russian scientist with the project, “the problem is that it is very difficult to find healthy people for this kind of experiment.”

I’ll bet.

Trapped on Earth . . . . . . . . free in space!

What about sex? It depends. As of June, 2007, male applicants for the experiment were outnumbering females almost ten to one. Apparently America isn’t the only place where it’s harder to find women than men who are gung-ho about human
spaceflight. Why?

Maybe men are more socialized from childhood to perceive themselves as empowered or personally extended by machines. (About 80% of pickup-truck buyers are
men.) In any case, it is a fact that millions of people, most of them men, would rather not live on Earth at all. They believe that our only hope for survival and spiritual well-being is for as many of us as possible to go live on Mars, or elsewhere in space, instead.

Putting aside questions about cost and feasibility in favor of questions about fundamental wisdom, I can’t help but think of Body Integrity Identity Disorder (BIID), whose sufferers are passionately convinced that they cannot be happy until a healthy limb, usually a leg, has been amputated. The belief that leaving Earth for a mechanized habitat in space would produce not only personal happiness but global weal, as space-colonization advocates allege, is curiously reminiscent of BIID: an ultimately pathological urge to sever what is integral, to substitute a void for a living connection, to replace the organic with the prosthetic. In the Space-Ho! mindset, as in BIID, radical self-curtailment is perceived not as an option, luxury, or tool but as an existential necessity. Most BIID sufferers, incidentally, are men.

Sunday, June 10, 2007


Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journey
by Michael Collins
Ballantine Books, 1975

Michael Collins, command module pilot for Apollo 11, produces better results than most professional nonfiction scribblers and does it without using a ghost writer. He’s likable, snarky, and honest; surely this is the best-written of all the astronaut books. Particularly relevant, over 30 years after the book’s appearance — especially since President Bush announced his Vision for Space Exploration in 2004 — is his take on whether we should have sent anyone to the Moon at all.

Gemini 10 crew, July 18, 1966:
John Young, Michael Collins (at right).


Collins favors the Vitamin F theory: frontiers make societies healthy, we need one, space is it. He is a more articulate exponent of this view than, say, Robert Zubrin (de facto leader of today’s Mars-colonization movement), and never radiates Zubrin’s over-the-top messianism, but his talking points are much the same: Columbus, the old West, the expansive essence of humanness. Speaking of the American frontier, he writes: “Some people were never content to huddle in protective little clumps along the East Coast, but pushed westward as boldly as circumstances permitted. When horizontal exploration met its limits, it was time to try the vertical, and thus has it been since, ever higher and faster.”

It’s not surprising that an astronaut sees space travel as the cutting edge of human history. With cosmologists it’s cosmology, with evolutionary biologists it's evolutionary biology, with computer scientists it's artificial intelligence, with postmodern culture scholars it’s postmodernism. Would morticians nominate embalming, sanitary engineers garbage-collecting? Perhaps not: some professions discourage self-importance by their very nature.

Despite what Collins says, the people back East weren’t “huddling” in 1850. They were living the usual various, vivid, ridiculous, heroic, dastardly range of lives that people have always lived. A few, like Henry Thoreau, were exploring a completely different kind of frontier while the Indian-killers and land-stealers were pushing so boldly westward—a frontier that anyone could tackle, even without (especially without) a Conestoga wagon or a Saturn V booster under their butt. Even in old, gray, frontierless Europe, life was not exactly empty of interest: while we were busy conquering Florida and Kansas, the British bourgeoisie were busy inventing the novel.

No. It won’t do, because it’s not historically true: there is no inherent virtue in frontiers. When our intake of Vitamin F was at its height we were spoiling the land, reaming the Indians, raping Africa, staggering pell-mell toward the Civil War. And regardless of whether our frontier days were a period of moral and democratic glory, which they weren’t, their mass migrations and resettlements bear at most a weak analogical resemblance to the “ever higher and faster” records set by aerospace technology over the last half-century — the propulsion of a few unusual people like Collins via ever more expensive, destructive, and wasteful machines to ever more titillating altitudes until, after Apollo, the inevitable undignified slippage back down the impossibly steep curve of exponential difficulty. (A round trip to the Moon takes a week; a round trip to Mars would take two years.) Space travel can never be an option for large numbers of people: that is as technically impossible as giving everyone on Earth a mansion the size of Manhattan. “Now we have the capability to leave the planet,” Collins writes, “and I think we should give careful consideration to taking that option”—but what you mean we, Kimosabe? No “we” that I, or anyone I know, belongs to. Ditto for about 6.5 billion other folks.

Collins falls into an interesting self-contradiction on the question of Vitamin F. First he expresses head-shaking bafflement at the possibility, articulated after Apollo 11 by Harvard University biochemist Dr. George Wald, that young people might “see in this an exercise of the old and well-entrenched, an exercise in great wealth and power, heavy with military and political overtones. I am afraid that they will feel a little more trapped; a little more disillusioned, a little more desperate.” Collins comments: “I am shocked to think that what we have done causes anyone to feel ‘disillusioned’, much less ‘desperate’ . . . [This] defeats me completely. I hope it’s not a widespread attitude; I simply cannot believe that it is” (458).

He should have tried harder. Is it really impossible to imagine that young people might be depressed by the claim, feverishly trumpeted and celebrated across our society from TV to headlines to ticker-tape parades, that humanity’s finest, freshest hope is a place few of us will ever see? Is it odd to be discouraged by the thought that the greatest triumphs of the human spirit will henceforth depend on hierarchic federal bureaucracies, humungous corporations, and throwaway high-tech marvels the size of skyscrapers? What’s my place on the great new frontier? Drive my little commute, pay my little taxes, cheer my little cheer as the picked handful blasts skyward? That youthful sense of entrapment that Collins finds so inexplicable is the frontier spirit he thinks he believes in. It’s the frontier spirit fighting for its life against the space mystique’s implication that most of us can have nothing to do with the future except to be left behind by it — after helping pay for it.

Self-contradiction appears a few pages later, when Collins contemplates the Apollo 11 astronauts’ own post-coital letdown. He views Buzz Aldrin’s severe depression after Apollo — Aldrin was the second man to walk on the Moon—as caused by lifelong parental pressure and the lack of anything big to follow the Moon trip: “Suddenly it is over: Buzz the pilot fish has been thrown clear of the shark Apollo and is swimming around, desperately looking for another streamlined creature of speed and danger to attach himself to. There aren’t any, Buzz . . .” (470). As for himself: “I share with [Buzz] a mild melancholy about future possibilities, for it seems to me that the list of exciting things to do here on earth has diminished greatly in the wake of the lunar landings. I just can’t get excited about things the way I could before Apollo 11; I seem gripped by an earthly ennui which I don’t relish, but which I seem powerless to prevent” (471).

Strange that Collins cannot see Aldrin's depression and his own ennui, his own sense of diminished earthly possibility, as illuminating the unease of others. The stimulant properties of human space “exploration” — which I put in quotes because astronauts can only fly to places that have already been mapped in detail by remote control — are inevitably temporary. Human space flights are not ground-gaining leaps but gravity-defying stunts, and it is the nature of stunts to end and, if repeated, to pall. It is no mystery that the later Apollo missions were yawned at by the same millions who went nuts over the first one. The dialectic of pleasure decrees the inevitable rise and fall of all flowery, showy joys that cannot take root in everyday life.

Nor let’s forget the money. Collins answers the claim that “it is immoral to support exploration while our cities rot” by arguing that exploration “cannot be examined on an either/or basis, that our national economic and budgetary process prevents the simple transfer of funds from one project to another, that without a space program our cities would still rot” (473–4). But “simple transfer” is a straw man. Resource competition is real, even if “simple transfer” isn't. Federal money spent in one place adds to the pressure against spending money in all other places. NASA’s human-spaceflight budget and (far worse) the military budget have indeed helped rot our cities, not to mention our farmlands and our wildernesses. They have narrowed our choices and dimmed our prospects and starved real space exploration, the robotic kind (e.g., Voyager). But, alas, it would take an honesty even more extraordinary than Collins’s—and he is honest, and I like him, and I am deeply fascinated by the program in which he participated—to acknowledge that the effort that shot him around the Moon and put his name in the history books was paid for by cheating the hopes and needs of others.

Surprisingly, Collins advances the silly chestnut that seeing Earth from above would make people less nationalistic: “I really believe that if the political leaders of the world could see their planet from a distance of, let’s say, 100,000 miles, their outlook could be fundamentally changed. That all-important border would be invisible, that noisy argument suddenly silence.” Exactly what H.G. Wells and others said in the early days of airplanes, which have brought us mostly strategic bombing, New Zealand raspberries in January, and highly polluting, spiritually dead globetrotting for the middle-class masses. (Yeah, I’ve done it too.) Collins buys the no-borders-from-above myth because he buys the core fallacy of the space movement — the notion that spiritual realities are shaped by physical situations. Go West, young man, to be a better young man. Fly higher, young woman, to be a better young woman. Blast high enough to see all men as ants and you will understand that all men are brothers. But it has never worked that way, and it never will.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

SAT Scores

It’s SAT season. For the last week or so, all across this mighty land, millions of high-school kids who took the SATs in May have been getting their scores online. A young friend just e-mailed to tell me that she got 760 in critical reading, 640 in math, and 680 in writing.

What do these numbers mean? Well, arguably, a lot. Most college admissions offices still look at them and get very yippy and excited when they see a combined score in the top percentile or two. On the other hand, arguably, not much.

First, let’s be clear that the private nonprofits who administer the SATs, PSATs, and GREs, namely the College Board and its drooling hunchbacked assistant, the Educational Testing Service, were not appointed by God. They’re just people in offices who make this stuff up. Nor should we be fooled by the word “nonprofit” into thinking that they’re doing it for our own good: “nonprofit” is not a synonym for “volunteer.” Careers, paychecks, publications, and reputations are all on the line. Testing, even nonprofit testing, is a business, not a charity.

Second—let the joyous news be spread—it’s not a science, either. SATs don’t measure anything, any
thing. Your “scholastic aptitude”—the original words behind the “SA” in SAT, which were officially dropped in 1994, leaving the acronym to float free—is not a fixed thing in your head, like an electrical charge or a bullet from an old war wound. It’s a construct, a fiction. An SAT score’s value, like that of a $20 bill, exists only because people have agreed to agree that it exists. And how are they persuaded to do that? Well, one little trick that is played to make the SATs look more objective, scientific, and reality-based is hidden in plain slight. All the scores end in zero.

Ever notice? You can’t get 761 or 653, only 760 or 650 or some other multiple of 10. That zero could be deleted right across the board and all SAT scores would still convey just as much information, or as little. Therefore, all SAT scores are inflated by a factor of at least 10. It’s worse, actually, because the section scale doesn’t go from 0 to 800 but from 200 to 800. That means there are really only 61 possible scores for each separate section of the SAT: i.e., 200, 210, 220, and so on, on up to 800. Dividing 800 (apparent resolution) by 61 (actual resolution), we find that all SAT scores are actually inflated by a factor of about 13.

In hard-science land, they would say that the SAT score displays
spurious resolution. (Trust me, I’m an engineer. Heh heh.) If a hard-science person announced that they had measured some quantity on a scale of 800, they would be implying in no uncertain terms that they could measure differences or changes of one part in 800. If they could only measure differences or changes to one part in 61, they would use a coarser scale—one that doesn’t pretend to record many more than 61 distinctions. Tacking zeros onto one’s numbers to make them sound bigger, more important, and higher-resolution is pseudoscience. It’s bad.

But by all means, take the SATs or GREs or whatnot if you must. I did. We all have to jump through some hoops to earn our sardines from the trainers. Just remember that you are not your score on the ACT, SAT, GRE, IQ, LSAT, or any other obnoxious bite of alphabet soup. Nobody is.

I’ve always felt that a bad attitude—on test day, not during the prep phase—is a good ally. Try thinking rebellious thoughts, feeling terroristic feelings, as you pencil in the little ovals or click on the screen choices. When I sat down in the early 1990s to face the computerized GREs (Graduate Record Exams, like the SATs only meaner), I was positively pressurized with hatred and loathing. The verbal portion threw me question after question, even multiple-choice
vocabulary questions for Chrissake (what do they prove?), getting steadily harder and harder, definitions and analogies and antonyms. Some little block of code was looking for my limit, trying to “adapt” (as the GRE brochure put it) to my supposed level of ability. Finally the test came up with the word scission. I’ve never seen scission in print before or since, but, having used scissors since kindergarten, I was able to guess its meaning correctly (“a cutting, dividing, or splitting; separation”). Choice (c). Take that, you stinking machine!

And then something, apparently, snapped. Not in me—in the stinking machine. The remaining questions were all absurdly easy, and I cruised through them bathed in a sense of cold, bitter triumph. John Henry beats steam hammer, and I didn’t have to die for it.

Take-home message: Tests are designed to classify and control us, not benefit us. And no matter how many numbers they spew, they are not science.