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Exo-Planets 2

In this recent article in the Scientific American, we learn that astronomers have discovered 629 planets outside the solar system.  NASA’s Kepler mission has discovered over 100 in an area of the Northern Hemisphere covering only 1% of the sky. Ten of these exo-planets are terrestrial, that is they are small planets with solid surfaces. I know of at least one of these that appears to have a triple-point temperature range: water can exist as ice, liquid and vapor. This is amazing and sobering news when one considers that we have only just begun our search for such planets and that we are as yet only searching in our own neighborhood.

Our own solar system is ripe for settlement and development. The moon and Mars are the two most likely candidates. The moon because of its proximity and Mars because it has an atmosphere and water. Once methods of interplanetary travel are established, the asteroids and the large moons of the outer solar system will be the next likely candidates. Eventually a space faring culture will develop off the Earth, a culture that sees the cosmos as its habitat. This culture will inevitably look to the stars and to b the many exo-planets as the next logical goals for settlement. Multi-generational missions to settle these new planets would not be inconceivable to people raised in such a culture.

We may eventually develop a means to break the light barrier, the cosmic speed limit postulated by Albert Einstein that nothing can move faster than the speed of light, the way we broke the sound barrier in the 1940’s. If so, these exo-planets will become stepping stones for us to further explore the universe as well a places for us to found settlements. In any case, the discovery of these exo-planets is akin in importance to the discovery that our own solar system planets were more than just points of light in the sky.






J. Edgar

Directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, this biography of J. Edgar Hoover, the Director of the FBI for 48 years is the most interesting I have seen. Eastwood manages to hit the seam between the Hoover haters and the Hoover lovers, leaving neither camp pleased, which is a good thing. Set in the 1960’s the last decade of his tenure at the FBI, Hoover tells the story of his life to biographer. Eastwood uses this device to lead into a series of flashbacks that are artfully transitioned from the contemporary action. Several film critics have charged that the flashbacks are confusing, but I suspect they simply don’t know the history of the period. They aren’t confusing, are very stylish and shed light on the character of this enigmatic historical figure.

Eastwood wisely avoids wading into the swamp of whether Hoover’s lifelong friendship with his assistant, Clyde Tolson, had a sexual element, sticking pretty closely to the facts available and letting the viewers come to their own conclusions. This is also his approach to questions about Hoover’s use of bugs and wiretaps to get information on prominent politicians who might have sought to do him harm. He served at the pleasure of ten Presidents and kept files on all of them, lest any entertain a notion to fire him. When you consider that all of the Directors since Hoover have been either presidential lapdogs or they were fired, Hoover’s methods of maintaining the independence of his agency seem more justified.

Eastwood does take a bit of an editorial slant with regard to Hoover’s conviction that Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference were subversive. The way it is shaped in the story makes it clear that Eastwood believes Hoover’s idea was wrong headed. While it is true that there were some old line communists associated with SCLC, they didn’t control the civil rights movement and MLK had to take his allies where he could find them. Hoover’s critics dwell on his pursuit of communists as though it was gratuitous. Yet KGB records released after the end of the Cold War revealed that many in CPUSA actually were acting either directly or indirectly as agents of the USSR. The FBI also infiltrated the German American Bund in the years leading up to World War II, so it was never a strictly right-left thing with Hoover.

Probably Hoover’s biggest single blind-spot in office was not recognizing the full extent of organized crime. He tended to see criminals in terms of the flamboyant bank robbers of the thirties rather than members of larger organizations, so the FBI investigations into this aspect of the underworld were haphazard. I think the fact that the secret presidential files were destroyed after his death commends him well. He only used them to maintain his independence from the politicians, not to cause harm or settle scores.  Eastwood makes a point of emphasizing this fact in the film. All that being said, it is utterly impossible for someone to wield that much power for that long without it having a corrupting effect on him. In his case, I suspect it was a tendency to shade history to suit him and to see his view as the only possible view. But he was certainly not alone in that foible.

Overall, this is a pretty good movie. It is well acted by DiCaprio as Hoover and has a fine supporting cast. Clint Eastwood brings his usual classy and understated style to the film, refraining from preaching. If you watch this film, you won’t have wasted your time.

The Eisenhower Doctrine


I feel it is time for us to extricate ourselves from these overseas commitments and advanced troop dispositions in Europe, Asia and the Middle East. I am totally sick of spending mountains of money and spilling barrels of blood just to stabilize world oil prices. If the price goes up, then let it. Ingenuity will then find ways to power our economy with something besides oil.

We need to bolster our strategic defenses and dump the new start treaty which was a very bad deal. We traded 700 real deployed US weapons for 700 non-existent (except on paper) Russian weapons. I’m all for reducing the number of weapons, but we needed to get something for what we gave up and we didn’t. It’s time to re-institute the old Eisenhower Doctrine of massive retaliation. No president should ever even hint that he is reluctant to use nuclear weapons. Ike faced down the Chinese twice, once to end the Korean War, and once to deter the invasion of Quemoy and Matsu, by keeping a poker face and letting others suggest that he might use nukes. We won’t need a three ocean Navy and a two simultaneous conflict Army to do this because we simply won’t be doing any of that anymore. The cost savings will be significant and help reduce the budget deficit and the import/export deficit.

Lame Duck on November 7th

Lame Duck

Usually the term lame duck applies to a President during the two month period after the election through the day he leaves office. Since he is on his way out, he has very little power and is thus a lame duck. Unfortunately, President Obama became a lame duck the day after he won the election. Several factors have placed him in this situation. Typically, Presidents are re-elected by larger margins than they received when first elected. It was true of Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Reagan, and Clinton. Bush 43 only increased his margin slightly and accomplished virtually none of his agenda during his second term. This President was re-elected with 7 million fewer votes than he received in 2008, despite there being nearly 5 million more eligible voters.  Second, during the second half of his first term, he repeatedly complained that he couldn’t work with the divided Congress, yet the Congress he faces next year is nearly identical to the one he faced then. Indeed, most of the Republican members were either elected or re-elected by running against the President as much as against their actual opponents. Our own new congressman, Andy Barr, won his election by tying his opponent to the President. What this means is that these members of the House are under no electoral pressure to give the President the tax increases he wants. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Finally, he has boxed himself into a position from which he will likely have to retreat. By insisting during the campaign and in remarks after his victory that he won’t accept any budget that doesn’t raise taxes, he has put himself in exactly the same weak negotiating position he has been in for the last two years and the outcome will almost certainly be exactly the same. Since his re-election was marginal, he can’t really go over Congress’s head to the people, as Reagan, Clinton and others have done. The bully pulpit only works if you are popular. This lack of leadership is what I most feared by his re-election and it now looks like we are facing several more years of inaction on a fiscal crisis that grows more critical with each passing day.

The Iron Lady

The Iron Lady

The Iron Lady

This movie is a semi-biographical, semi-historical account of the life of Margaret Thatcher, the first woman to be elected Prime Minister of Great Britain and the longest serving Prime Minister of the 20th century. I qualify the biography and history appellations because as an account of her life, it is far too truncated to be considered a biography and as a history, in order to keep the story consistent with the underlying theme which I will touch on later, it is a little too flexible with the chronology and details of actual events. Those things being said: this is a great movie and well worth an investment of two hours of your time.

The story opens in 2008, with Margaret as an elderly widow whose faculties are compromised and who is trying to work up the courage to dispose of her late husband Dennis’s things. While she sorts through his belongings, an imaginary Dennis periodically appears, makes comments and converses with her. The story of her life in politics is told through a series of flashbacks framed in the context of these imaginary conversations. Thatcher’s political life is presented in a relatively honest and neutral way, which is surprising since as a Conservative, she is still considered “controversial” by many British intellectuals. During the course of the story, which changes from the past to the present numerous times, she realizes that until she gets rid of Dennis’s things, he will continue to haunt her.

Merle Streep as Margaret Thatcher is brilliant. I recently re-watched The Bridges of Madison County and marveled then at her amazing range and ability to create a complex character. She does an equally marvelous job in this film, winning several well deserved awards for her performance. Streep is equally masterful at playing the enfeebled, elder Thatcher as well as the vital and powerful Prime Minister.

The underlying theme of this story is an old Hollywood mainstay: through great struggle and personal sacrifice, the hero rises from humble beginnings to the pinnacle of success, then grows arrogant and falls from grace, essentially doing himself in. Of course, the reality was much more complex and more interesting, but possibly only to history buffs. In the end, the old boys club that constitutes Britain’s power elite in all three major parties decided that Margaret, who was never really one of them, had outlived her usefulness and dumped her.

The normalcy of the situation, an elderly widow trying to readjust her life after the death of a lifetime spouse, juxtaposed with the phenomenal political history of Margaret Thatcher told in the flashbacks, makes this story interesting and compelling. Abi Morgan did a great job of making what could have been a tedious political narrative into a very affecting human story in which the politics is a secondary feature.

Although released by the Weinstein Company, this is essentially a British production and with the exception of Streep, has an all British cast. Jim Broadbent plays the elderly Dennis Thatcher, while Harry Lloyd plays the younger Dennis. Alexandra Roach plays the young Margaret. All do a great job as do the rest of the supporting cast. This is an altogether fine film and gets five stars from me.

Veteran’s Day

VETERAN’S DAY This is a the day each year when we honor those who served in the many wars this nation has fought. When I was young, many people still called this day Armistice Day, the day that ended World War I. On the 11th hour of the 11 day of the 11th month that great conflict ended and in 1919 President Wilson declared Armistice Day to be a national holiday. It wasn’t officially named Veteran’s Day until 1954, when Dwight Eisenhower signed it into law, allowing that the holiday would now honor all veterans. So to all of you veterans, even though the holiday won’t “officially” be celebrated until tomorrow, thank you for your service to our country.

An Olive Oil Tour of France

This book by Alice Alech probably answers every question you ever had about olive oil, and more. While the focus of the book is on the olive oil industry in France, much of the information Ms. Alech provides regarding its chemical composition, health benefits and her cooking recipes would apply to olive oil in general.

First the author discusses the history of the production of olive oil from classical times to the present. She then discusses the climate and soil of the various areas in the Provence region of Southern France as well as Corsica, where the olive trees are grown. Next she provides information regarding how the varieties or cultivars of olives vary from one part of the region to another. Her study of the agricultural side of the process and how it is affected by climate and soil conditions is quite thorough and exhaustive.

The author describes in detail the developments in the processing methods of olive oil through the ages. She visits and interviews growers who use various methods including some who stick to the traditional techniques that date to the day of the Romans as well as others who use the most modern techniques. She seems to favor the more traditional, less industrial model, herself.

She details the economic models that are characteristic of the region. These range from large proprietary farms where the olives are grown, processed and the oil bottled all in place, to small growers who take their olives to a cooperative for processing.

An entire chapter is devoted to the health benefits of olive oil specifically and of the Mediterranean diet in general. The anti-oxidant features of olive oil as well as its ability to reduce cholesterol are discussed thoroughly; and the final quarter of the book is devoted Mediterranean recipes that utilize olive oil in their preparation.

As a general reference work on the subject this book would serve well, but it is more complex and interesting than just that. The many interviews with growers and processors give a human texture to a book that is heavy with technical data. I found this a very interesting read and to an aficionado of olive oil and organic food, it will be a treasure trove. I highly recommend this book to those looking to learn more about this fascinating subject.

The Standard Model and the Big Bang


I am old enough to remember when the the Big Bang was not the accepted model of the universe. In the 1950’s there were two major theories: George Gamow’s Big Bang Universe and Fred Hoyle’s Steady State Universe. After evidence of the residual noise of the Big Bang discovered by Penzias and Wilson in 1964 appeared to confirm a single creation event, the Steady State Universe fell into disrepute. In the Big Bang Universe, everything that exists was created in the first few seconds of its 13.7 billion year history. On the other hand, the Steady State Universe is eternal. It has always existed and will always exist. As it expands, new matter is continuously created to keep the Universe in balance and in a “steady state.”

The Big Bang theory has much physical evidence to support it. The outward motion of the the galaxies seems to suggest an expanding universe, which would logically follow if everything originated at a single point. The idea that the four elemental forces, the strong nuclear force, the weak nuclear force, the electromagnetic force and the gravitational force were all created at the very beginning and thus were essential in defining the rules of the new universe fits nicely with some of the evidence produced by studies of subatomic particles (see previous blog). The Big Bang also has a psychological and social appeal: it is consistent with most of the creation myths posited by the religions of the world, and it is psychologically consistent with our own life cycle: birth, life, decay and eventual death. These appeals make it attractive to scientists, whether they choose to admit it or not, and probably explains their resistance to accepting data that seems to suggest flaws in the theory.

The measured rate of expansion of the universe, sometimes known as the Hubble constant, has been shown to be inconsistent with the estimated amount of matter and energy in the universe. Therefore, the proponents of the Big Bang have postulated that there is a large amount of matter and energy, known as dark matter, that exists, but is undetectable other than by inference from the prevailing theory. This explanation bears a close resemblance to those put forth by pre-Copernican scientists to explain retrograde motion and other measurements being made that seemed to suggest that an Earth centered, Ptolomeic universe was a flawed model. They postulated that the planets moved around the Earth and then also moved in mini-orbits called epicycles. Of course, within a few years this elaborate explanation came unraveled and a new version of the solar system emerged, along with a new way of looking at creation. Similarly, if the Big Bang was brand new and being suggested as a model with dark matter and energy built into that proposed model, I am certain it would be dismissed as ridiculous and overly elaborate. But because it is the conventional wisdom that the prevailing theory is the true model of creation and scientists are psychologically comfortable with this model, the postulated undetectable matter and energy is accepted.

Because the actors in history are people and people do not change, while scientific discoveries and fads may come and go, history cycles on repeating the same patterns. The Big Bang is getting long in the tooth as scientific theories go in the modern era and I suspect it will be coming unraveled soon. What replaces it will be interesting to see. Possibly some modified version of Hoyle’s eternal and infinite universe will re-emerge to explain the seemingly contradictory observations.


The Standard Model

When my grandfather was a young man, atoms were the basic building blocks of matter. In fact, the very term was derived from the Greek word atomos, which means indivisible. By the time I was a young man, that basic unit of matter had been divided into protons, neutrons and electrons, which were then believed to be the basic units of matter. Since then, new discoveries revealed that those three once basic units are in fact made up of several sub-particles generically classified as Fermions (named after the nuclear physicist Enrico Fermi) and shown in the attached chart. For some time, these particles, or units of matter, were thought to be the basic ones of which all larger particles are composed. Recently, however, new evidence has surfaced that “imply that they (the particles shown in the chart) are instead built of still smaller components.” *

The quoted article highlights, albeit unintentionally, an underlying problem we face as we strive to understand the universe, both on the micro and macro level. It seems that no matter what we discover, the more we know, the less we know. Each layer of knowledge that we peel off the onion of the universe simply reveals another layer beneath it. And paradoxically, that layer always seems larger and more complex than the one that covered it. So the amount to be known keeps growing, while our ability to comprehend this new information remains the same. The problem is much the same in the macro universe of stars and galaxies, but I will discuss that in future post.

Some years ago I saw a presentation by Arthur C. Clarke, the scientist and science fiction writer, on the subject of fractals. Fractals are mathematical expressions that create identical or similar patterns that repeat no matter how closely viewed. You have no doubt seen visual representations of fractals on the web and in some modern art. These would just be neat parlor tricks of interest only to mathematicians except for one salient fact as pointed out by Clarke: while the mathematically generated fractals are infinite, they have many finite analogies in the natural world. River networks, blood vessels, DNA molecules, crystals, snowflakes, and broccoli are just a few examples of finite fractal patterns. But if finite fractal patterns clearly exist in nature, and infinite patterns exist in math, what prohibits infinite patterns in nature?

Infinity is not a term embraced by many scientists except mathematicians. Physicists and other practical investigators into the micro-world want no part of infinity. Hence the notion that there may be an infinite number of ever smaller sub-particles, similar to fractals, or at least so many as to be effectively infinite, is an unacceptable concept.  In their minds, there must be a final particle or set of particles. I believe the reasons for this conviction are psychological rather scientific. After all, everything in our normal lives is finite and these are the experiences that condition our assumptions and beliefs. We are born, we live and we die. As individuals, our part of the life cycle is finite, and this fact carries over into how we look at the natural world.  Scientists are human and are not immune to the bias toward finiteness that is hard wired into all of us. In addition, the notion if infinity has religious connotations attached to it that many scientists find repellant and associate with superstition.

However, being neither a scientist or a theologian, as a science fiction writer I am free to speculate. It is quite possible that we will never find that “god particle,” the most basic of the basic, the building block of matter and therefore the universe.  Instead, we may be faced with an ever more complex micro-world that truly is a world without end.

*The quote and the chart were taken from an article entitled “The Inner Life of Quarks,” in this month’s (November, 2012) issue of Scientific American by Don Lincoln, a senior physicist at Fermilab.

Artificial Gravity


One of the methods of developing artificial gravity in a ship traveling on interplanetary journeys lasting many months is to apply spin to the ship.  Studies have shown a practical limit of this method to be that a rotational rate in excess of two rpm (revolutions per minute) will cause dizziness in the passengers. To counter this problem, several engineers have proposed dividing the ship into two parts: a crew section and a service module. A long cable would run between the two parts and they would rotate around a common axis. Using this method, if one were to limit the rotation to say 1 one and a half rpm, the longer the cable, the greater the sensation of gravity, the shorter the cable, the lesser the sensation of gravity.

To calculate how long the tether must be to generate a simulated gravity of one sixth G at one and one half rpm, you need only apply a relatively simple formula:


R = G / ((pi * rpm)/30)2


R is the radius of the circle described by the crew compartment expressed in meters and G is the desired rate of acceleration expressed as meters per second. After doing the math you arrive at a figure of 66.7 meters. That would be the approximate distance from the axis to the crew/cargo section. Since the axis of rotation is located at the center of gravity of the system, the service module would be either closer or farther from the center depending on whether it is heavier or lighter than the crew quarters.

Note: A portion of this explanation is taken from my forthcoming story: Ribbon to the Sky.