Friday, June 22, 2007

Hello. My name is lma, and I am a nerd...

I am such a nerd.

I sat watching tv coverage of the landing of the space shuttle today down at Edwards with tears just streaming down my face. Part of it was because it was so beautiful. The sky was so clear and blue. The desert was lovely - I love the desert anyway, but it seemed particularly beautiful today. And despite the well-publicized shortcomings of the shuttle and its program, and the way that some people describe the vehicle as a flying brick, it seemed so graceful to me as it glided in there, the landing gear slipping out at the perfect moment and then the vehicle touching down almost delicately.

Another part of it was just the idea that just a little while before it had been in space, orbiting the earth, free of gravity. That thought just always floors me. Almost no one, it seems, even thinks about the fact that there are people living up there on the space station on an ongoing basis and have been for years. I look up there every once in awhile, especially into a starry night sky, and think about how cool that is. And this will really up my nerd quotient - I don’t ever look at the moon that I don’t sigh and think, “People have been there.” I was raised following the space program and I still think the idea of traveling and living in space is cool and romantic. I am such an admirer of the folks involved with the Space Ship One project and its follow-ons. They are actively engaged in seeing that more people get to go up there, even if only for a little while. Yeah, it’ll be pricey, but not anywhere near the millions that the so-called “space tourists” are paying now to go.

Part of the reason for my tears was that I was a little upset that the shuttle had approached Edwards from the south, so that Southern California got to hear the sonic boom. If it had approached from the north, we would have gotten to hear it.

Yeah, I know. Weird. But I love sonic booms. We used to get to hear them all the time. Probably had to do with the fact that I grew up in Southern California, close to places like Edwards where they tested supersonic aircraft. That was back in the days before sonic booms were deemed to be “environmentally unfriendly” and planes were banned from flying about the speed of sound over land. Okay. I’ll concede that there probably is some harm from the booms if there are too many of them. Still, I found it really sad, some years ago, when I had to explain to some college students what a sonic boom is.

That was one of the times that one of the shuttles did approach Edwards from the north and we did get to hear the boom. I knew - since I actually pay attention to what is going on in the world from time to time - that the shuttle was going to land at Edwards that day, that it was going to come over the Valley, and about what time it was scheduled to land. I was listening for the boom. I happened to be standing outside a classroom, waiting for another class to get out so that I could go in for my next class. There were quite a few others waiting as well. The boom came - the double boom that is the signature of a vehicle traveling faster than the speed of sound - just about when I figured it would. It made me smile, likely a goofy smile, but that’s okay.

I noticed, however, that some of the people around me looked alarmed, and I think someone said something like, “What the hell was that?”

I volunteered that it was a sonic boom.

“A what?”

They didn’t know? I sighed, then I explained that it was a sonic boom, that the shuttle was landing down at Edwards right about then, and that the sound was the shuttle passing over us on its way down there. I’m pretty sure that some of them didn’t believe me. I was just disappointed that there are whole generations out there in what is purported to be the most technologically advanced culture in history, who don’t even know what a sonic boom is, much less what it sounds like.

Ah, well. I’m not just a nerd. I’m an old nerd.

Monday, June 04, 2007

A good book, a comfortable chair, and a cool beverage...goodness, I'm easy to please

I've been reading.

Well, that isn't anything new, I guess. I've had a book in my hand pretty much constantly since I was three years old. But recently I haven't been really taking the time to read as much as I customarily do, and I've missed it. So, I finally decided that I'm going to take the time to read, try to catch up to my self-imposed schedule of one book a week, and read some fun stuff as well as things that are "good for me". I don't know if I'll manage to catch up to the schedule...I'm something like four books behind at the moment. But I'm going to give it a good try.

I've especially made good, the past couple of weeks, on the promise to read something fun. Of the three books I've finished in the past two weeks, two of them have been from one of my favorite writers, Kage Baker. The first, The Machine's Child, is the latest in her series of science fiction novels about The Company - for my money the best science fiction series in years. It tackles two of my favorite sf subgenres, time travel and immortality. I recommend the whole series highly.

The other "fun" book - which I just finished reading this evening - is also by Ms. Baker, a collection of shorter fiction. All the stories in Gods and Pawns also take place in the "Company" universe but don't necessarily require a knowledge of the series of novels, and might not be the worst way to be introduced to the series and to Ms. Baker's writing.

The third book was more serious, an exploration of the evolution of religion from a biological anthropologist. Barbara J. King's Evolving God, is an interesting look at how religion might have become a virtual universal among human cultures. Of course, Ms. King doesn't necessarily define religion in terms that Western monotheists would immediately recognize, but gives it a much wider application that includes various forms of spirituality that don't even necessarily involve belief in a God or gods. And, since her speciality is primate behavior, she begins by looking at what sorts of clues the behavior of chimpanzees might give us about how religious behavior took hold. There are four precursors of religious behavior, according to Ms. King: empathy, meaning-making, rule-following, and imagination. She insists that she sees all of these components in chimpanzee behavior. Ms. King concludes that religion evolved as a response to the primate need to feel they belong to a group of some sort. This sort of belongingness, she says, is a universal need. It is not, however, innate or genetic. It has more to do with intimacy, and begins with the first moments after birth when a child bonds with its mother.

After beginning with chimpanzees and other apes, Ms. King examines the evidence left behind by various primates in and near modern humans' ancestry and finds some interesting indications that symbolic behavior of the type that indicates some sort of religious or spiritual practices go back at least 200,000 years...interestingly enough, about the same time that anatomically modern humans are believed to have first appeared in Africa. There are hints of some sort of symbolic thinking going back much farther than that...she mentions the 3 million year old Makapansgat cobble, for example...but the nature of the evidence is such that there can only be speculation as to what particular very ancient artifacts such as this manuport might really mean.

Evolving God is an interesting book. I'm not sure that I see the logic of everything that Ms. King proposes, but she makes some very good points and supports them admirably with evidence rather than mere speculation. As an interesting sort of final word, she takes on those who see religion as hardwired into the genes as well as both the current crop of militant atheists...Dawkins, Dennett, et al...and and militant anti-Darwinsts. None of them withstand her scrutiny very well.