Archive for February, 2021

Perseverance

Saturday, February 20th, 2021

Is it socially acceptable for a grown man to shed tears when a rover successfully lands on Mars? Reasonable or not, that is what happened. Since that historic landing, I’ve been probing my own mind to try to understand why I cried. I came up with a few ideas.

First of all, the past 4 years have been very hard on me. I am trained as a scientist, and believe that the scientific method is the best way we have of discovering the truth. And if that belief is a 5 on a scale of 1 to 10, then I would give a 9+ to the notion that if one is armed with the truth, one has a much better shot at success in life. For the last 4 years, that whole system seemed upside down. It seemed that anyone with a catchy opinion could post it on social media, and that opinion could compete successfully with the facts brought forth by competent scientists.

Of the last 4 years though, the final one just about did me in. Epidemiologists have long understood how Corona Viruses spread, and how best we can slow and eventually stop the spread in a low-tech way. A simple face mask and social distancing can and does slow virus transmission almost to a stop. For some reason, though, reasonable people saw these two simple solutions as weakness and a threat to their freedom, and as a result many refused to be careful. The result has been the United States, with some of the greatest minds in the world, and unparalleled resources, has had very high transmission and death rates, and a lingering pandemic. It seems the best we can hope for is a quick rollout of vaccine to grant immunity to sufficient numbers of people that the virus’ transmission rate will drop low enough that it will become scarce enough for us to return to normal.

Knowing all this, I’ve felt that a consistent message from our elected leaders could have made a large difference in our transmission and death rates. Unfortunately, the message was, what appeared to me, the opposite of rational. This method of thinking and action is so counterintuitive to me that I constructed a shell to keep out the constant barrage of bad news. I kept a peephole in that shell, hoping for some good news through the avalanche of bad, but even that peephole started to close off.

Then we had the inauguration of a president that believes in science. We had confirmation of people to advise him that are competent in their fields, rather than unconditionally loyal to their boss. The peephole started cracking open.

The Mars rover Perseverance has been planned and under construction for some years. Her launch had to happen during the pandemic, because the alignment of our two planets was favorable for the trip during that time. Had it not been able to launch then, a long delay would have ensued before another window opened. Somehow, with so many things shut down, the launch happened 7 months ago, culminating in a recent successful landing on Mars. The rover package entered the Mars atmosphere at more than 20,000 miles per hour. It’s heat shield endured severe punishment as the little craft sank toward the planet. As it was streaking across the sky, tiny rockets were orienting the craft towards a safe place to land, all the while going slower and slower. At the correct moment, a huge parachute opened which further slowed the decent. Then the chute was cut free and a sky crane fired its rockets and lowered the rover to the surface of Mars on tethers. Once on the ground, the tethers were severed, and the sky crane flew away so as to not damage the rover. Oh yes, since it takes a radio signal several minutes to reach Earth from Mars, and then several more minutes back to Mars from Earth, the system had to do all this autonomously.

When the touchdown happened and word of the success reached JPL, the room erupted in cheers (albeit masked cheers). That was when my shell cracked open and the tears started to flow. Just look what we can do when we trust experts. When we work together. Imagine what we could do?

Missed a Minus Sign

Sunday, February 14th, 2021

I started as a student at Michigan Tech in 1976, finished being a student in 1982, went to work for them in 1984, and retired 22 years later. That was a lot of time spent around campus. Mid-winter MTU has a unique tradition: Winter Carnival. Some weeks before the event, student groups are given a theme, and they plan and execute ice sculptures, some small and some epic. I never participated in the making of an ice sculpture, and rarely walked around to see them, unless I happened to be on my way somewhere across campus. But one ice sculpture still sticks in my mind after all these years.

There were two categories of sculptures; the ones I described above, and the “one nighters,” where the participants couldn’t start their sculptures until a certain time in the afternoon the day before winter carnival officially started, and had to be done the next morning. The one I remember best was a one nighter.

There were only 3 objects in this sculpture. One a pharaoh on his throne, one an engineer prostrate before the pharaoh, and one a pyramid. The pyramid caught your eye first, because it had its point in the ground. The pyramid was upside down. The caption on the piece had the engineer say, “Forgive me oh pharaoh, I missed a minus sign.”

This great memory came flooding back the other morning. I still try to walk twice each day, which is a habit I’ve held onto since our dog Franco died in September of 2019. Our dogs loved and deserved their morning and late afternoon walks, and I benefited from them too. The main difference now is there is no dog, just me.

I typically just throw on my Muck Boots ™, Carhartt ™ jacket, hat and mittens, and do my morning mile in my pajama bottoms. This works well for me for much of the winter, but I’ve found if the temperature is much below the 20s F, that my thighs get cold enough that they start stinging. Those pajama bottoms just don’t hold in much heat. So before I suit up for my morning walk in the winter, I check the temperature.

In the old days, this was done by looking at a glass tube filled with mercury. Our modern thermometer is a digital one with a transmitter outside that feeds the temperature in to the device. When the temperature is in the single digits below zero, the minus sign is large and obvious; right next to the digit. But when the temperature gets into the double digits below zero, the minus sign changes to a less obvious part of the screen.

So once I had the wood stove fires going the other morning, I looked over at the screen to see the temperature. It was 12. I concluded it was cold enough for me to break out the Sorels, Canada Goose Jacket, but not cold enough for long underwear and wool pants. Pajama bottoms were good enough for me! Head, hands, and torso were all adequately warm on the walk, but the pajama pants were surely not working as well as they should have. I should have been fine at 12 degrees, unless of course, like the poor engineer in the ice sculpture, I missed a minus sign.